Blog Archive

Blog Archive – 2018

Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?

June 22, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Harvey Weinstein isn’t in jail; neither is actor Kevin Spacey, chef Mario Batali, TV host Matt Lauer, nor New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman. Although some might like to see them behind bars. Even convicted felon Bill Cosby is free until he’s sentenced in September.

     (Being out of jail does not of course imply any of those accused are innocent. Their temporary respite could be related to the degree of their misconduct, the status of investigations underway, or the efforts of highly paid attorneys.)

     As the extent of widespread abuse of women came to light, I too could not help but recoil with anger. Then, sobering and remembering an unvoiced childhood experience, I signed #MeToo.

     When Tariq Ramadan’s name was added to the growing list of “MeToo” culprits, my response was distress similar to sorrow I felt learning about other ‘outed’ misogynists whose work I had admired.

     There’s a further worrying dimension to Ramadan’s alleged sexual misconduct, namely, his disrepute would be a blow to Muslims’ already uphill struggle to articulate the meanings and experiences of Islam to the public, a universal community needing to hear an eminently qualified and soft-intellectual voice in the debate, such as Ramadan’s was. (Never enthusiastic about Ramadan, I viewed him as an apologist at times. I also found his critiques of institutional Islamophobia and biased media too mild—maybe that’s the academic in him. So Ramadan may have been imperfect at many levels. But his calm style and his erudition are as needed as that of the regrettably few articulate Muslim leaders we have, including the irrepressible and savvy activist Linda Sarsour.

     The urgency with which Ramadan’s case be reexamined came to my attention four months ago in Alain Gabon’s lengthy account of the charges against Ramadan and the history of assaults on him by French leaders. I learned that Ramadan was in preventative detention in a Paris prison, held in solitary, denied medical treatment and contact with his wife (a French citizen; Ramadan himself is Swiss, of Egyptian-Arab origin).    

     Ramadan, without legal indictment or trial, was summarily jailed soon after the allegations surfaced. According to reports, he voluntarily traveled to Paris to answer the charges, only to find himself immediately detained, placed in solitary confinement without medication for a serious neurological illness. He remains imprisoned, subjected to unusually harsh conditions during these past six months.

     Tariq Ramadan is not only an Oxford University professor and highly respected author. He is a regular media commentator on Islam and Muslim affairs. Most who know his work were shocked learning he was accused by two French women of a serious sexual offence—rape. He’s one of a three Muslim leaders who faced accusations of sexual misconduct; of the other two—both Americans, and both exposed before 2017—one was eventually convicted, the second banished by the community, according to a US publication which then uses these cases to explore ‘personality worship’ in Islam! What about personality worship in America?)

      The American press ceased following Ramadan’s case after accusations surfaced. And the American Muslim community has been shamefully absent on the issue. Shameful because there is reason to believe Ramadan’s treatment is unjust (if not illegal), and because those organizations claim a human rights agenda. Although Ramadan was a featured guest at Islamic and other religion-related conferences, and his books are popular, the American Muslim community of mosques and Islamic organizations have remained silent since his arrest.

     Details of the case are well known, as documented in several lengthy articles, including that cited above. They report that there’s clear evidence that one enamored accuser had harassed and stalked him for years. Of the other’s charge, he maintains he was not in the city of the alleged assault. This accuser is said to be an associate of a well known French feminist with a long record of anti-Islamic behavior.

     These arguments do not posit that Tariq Ramadan is innocent. What concerns people familiar with Ramadan’s work in France are: first, a long history of attacks against him as a Muslim spokesperson by (mainly Socialist) political headers who include former President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Valls. Ramadan’s current case seems further prejudiced by its transfer to the office of Paris prosecutor Francois Molins who is concerned with cases of Islamic terrorism. Second, defenders question why Ramadan has been singled out for imprisonment when French film director Luc Besson and state ministers Darmanin and Hulot, all included in the list of accused rapists in the wake of #MeToo, have not been jailed. Thirdly, there’s outrage over the severe conditions of Ramadan’s detention.

     When more is learned about Ramadan’s prison conditions, and the credibility of his accusers is challenged, arguments in his defense are garnering attention, mainly in Europe; and a campaign on his behalf is now underway. Besides the worldwide appeal, and more than 151,000 signatories (to date) on the www.change.org petition, hundreds of scholars have recently signed a due process plea.

     This month, New Trend, the online newsletter, published by Jamaat Al-Muslimeen (06/10/18, #1762) called for inquires into Ramadan’s status. There, The Muslim Association of Britain publicly expressed its shock “to see that even the most basic rules of justice being flagrantly ignored by the French authorities”.

     For the present, a French court agreed that Tariq Ramadan’s wife may now visit him. Let’s see what further appeals produce.

[ Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned? ]

The Interminable Palestinian Uprising

June 06, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Naila and the Uprising” is a new film about Palestine—an old story with a new edition. An almost exclusively women’s production “Naila” effectively employs evocative animation alongside compelling personal testimonials of Palestinian resistance 30 years ago.

The “Great March of Return” which the world just experienced-- immobilized and shamed by the silence of political leaders-- will doubtless be the focus of some future documentary. Naila’s story, which begins with her resistance efforts and imprisonment in the early 1980s, is nevertheless timely.

Why? Because every record of Palestinian civil resistance is linked to today’s, to the next, and to the last-- reaching back to the 1967 war. It was then that Israel imposed more severe restrictions on Palestinian life, when Israeli authorities explicitly announced their determination to suppress Palestinian aspirations of any kind, by any means, and to continue to expropriate their homes and lands.

Daily, in one form or another-- by one death each day or 60, by one smashed home, one detention or one prison sentence, one deported dissident, one miscarried baby, one interrogation, or one handicapped body, one uprooted olive tree, one ravaged field, one expropriated farm, or one more check point, one dispossessed family, by another law restricting residence in Jerusalem, or another barrier set along an ancient road—Israel hammers at Palestinian existence. Then, every day, or each month, or after a year, Palestinian resistance re-emerges.

“Naila and the Uprising” returns to the 1980s to reveal the early stages of what has become an inexorable reassertion by Palestinians of their history and their legal and moral claims. The primary voice within this film, Naila Ayesh, speaks to Majd, her now grown son, taking him and viewers to 1950, before his birth,

Majd’s mother was 8 years old, at school, when she heard that her home had been demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Now 60, Naila recalls her departure for Bulgaria to study 10 years later. There she met Jamal Zakout, the man she would marry, and with whom she would return to Gaza and engage together in their lifelong resistance to occupation.

Her story reminds us of now forgotten Zionist tactics, in this case, the exiling of dissidents. Zakout was one of many Palestinians expelled from Gaza. Moreover, we witness (with live footage from the event) how, when Naila and her son sought to visit Zakout (in Egypt), Israeli authorities allowed them to do so only if they remained away for two years. The history of heartless strategies employed by Israel is a long one.

           

The widespread deportation and imprisonment of Palestinian men at that time resulted in drawing Palestinian women more actively into the struggle, a point around which this film turns. “Naila and the Uprising” includes testimonials by colleagues of Naila, young women, their babies on their backs who began to march in protest. Their actions in turn led to the formation of women’s committees which helped launch a successful boycott of Israeli goods. (Today that kind of boycott is less possible since Israel’s grip on Palestinian economy is far more impenetrable.)

That 1988 boycott and the pervasive engagement of women in the resistance, the film argues, was a major factor in creating a sustained uprising-- what became known as the Intifada. (One could interpret last month’s Great March of Return resulting in 123 murdered  and over 13,000 wounded—as the latest expression of Intifada. There are bound to be more.

Completed in 2017, “Naila and The Uprising” is showing in theaters in Europe, Canada and USA with an upcoming presentation with the director Julia Bacha, on June 16 in New York

 

 

[ The Interminable Palestinian Uprising ]

Arab Women Authors Narrate More Than Women’s Experience

May 26, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A flood of women’s memoirs seem to have landed in the literary marketplace, along with quasi memoirs for children. Not only confessionals and more discoveries about our gender and its vicissitudes, but revelations of rebellious girls of past generations, ("Brazen: Rebel Ladies" who Rocked the World and the best-selling "Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls") chronicling the modest origins of today’s heroines and celebrities-- political, academic and artistic. Our herstories seem inexhaustible.

                Memoir is the primary genre through which we learn about women. This, with a caveat, is especially true of ‘Third World’ women, where Muslim women are among the most ‘trendy’ and thereby sought after today-- especially if we are ‘victims’. (More of that later.)

                Among Third World writers, we include those in the Diaspora, for example Arab American women --Suheir Hammad, Susan Muaddi Darraj, Evelyn Shakir, and Ghada Kanafani, to name just a few-- now penning an extraordinary number of personal accounts, many of them non-fiction. This, in contrast to Arab and Muslim men (e.g. well known novelists like Abdelrahman Munif, Rabih Alameddine, Rawi Hage, Mohsin Hamid, and Haroon Moghul) most of whom seem to forgo memoir for fiction.

                Before being diverted by an abundance of autobiographies and semi-fictional accounts of refugees from Syria and other war zones, I opened two new memoirs by my Arab American colleagues. One is Looking Both Ways (Cune Press, 2017), a collection of essays about ‘being Arab in America’ by poet and short story author Pauline Kaldas. The other is attorney Alia Malek’s account of the ‘trying to be Arab’ –a phrase I apply with some empathy-- in her family’s homeland, Syria, an endeavor launched just the year before and then observed during the uprising and war there. With her special interest in civil rights and author of a fine collection of biographies of Arabs in the US (A Country Called Amreeka, 2009), Malek went to Syria nine years ago ostensibly to restore her family apartment in Damascus, then, between unexplained excursions to Egypt, stayed long enough to record the earliest months of what became a terribly destructive and relentless conflict. Malek’s new book is The Home That Was My Country: A Memoir of Syria (Nation Books, 2017). It carries eerie echoes of House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and A Lost Middle East, by prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid who died on assignment soon after resorting his ancestral home in South Lebanon.

                Differences between Kaldas’ collection and Malek’s war chronicle are sharp. Looking Both Ways takes us on a mostly agreeable journey through Kaldas’ childhood move from Egypt to the USA, graduate studies in literature, her family and college life, and a revisit to her homeland during its post-Mubarak transformation in 2013. Kaldas’ inviting style will make any reader, but especially Americans, feel kinship with her. This, while her carefully crafted chronicle of encounters living in America exposes the often unspoken and nuanced tensions of ‘being Arab’ here. Kaldas infuses her perspective with both humor and a benign philosophy.

                Malek’s recounting of her family’s tales is, in contrast, sadly absent of any intimacy. Her chronicle is instead shrouded by an almost inherited bitterness towards the country, an acrimony one sometimes finds among the earlier generation of Syrian immigrants, even middle class families like Malek’s who were voluntary émigrés. Even before the uprising in Syria and despite a decision to write her home-story around a colorful maternal grandmother, she’s unable to convey any warmth in the memories gathered from her circle of relatives and their neighbors she interviews. Malek’s bleak interpretation of Syria is understandable. Having set out to deepen her personal and cultural identity in a house and a homeland largely unknown to her, Malek chose an inopportune moment to do so. Any view of the many fine qualities and achievements of modern Syria is obscured when the country is fracturing terribly and beginning to unravel. Her account of the uprising and the ensuing crackdown and chaos, although unarguable, is absent of any appreciation of what the country had accomplished over the past quarter century. The book will serve as another indictment of the government.

                There is simply nothing redeeming coming out of Syria, whether journalistic chronicles like Malek’s, or Burning Country, or a number of new  children’s books, e.g. Escape from Aleppo, My Beautiful Birds, Refugee, The Land of Permanent Goodbyes, all but one authored by women.

                Notwithstanding the differences between the locales and the styles of Kaldas and Malek, their writings illustrate the extensive possibilities that lie in memoir. First, memoirs augment the many critical journalistic and political analyses in our (sorrowful) Arab history. Second, they are the voices of women for which there seems to be both literary scope and an infinite market.  

                Which brings me to the abundance of women authoring Third World memoirs. Why are so few of our men penning personal chronicles? Why the public fascination with our women?

                Reviewing over four decades of literature on this part of the world, it seems evident:—it’s the appeal of ‘the victim’. In addition to the inexhaustible stories of hardships by and about Arab and Muslim women, with Palestinian narratives the most pronounced and in a category or their own, we now have Yazidi women of Iraq, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State, The Girl Who Beat Isis, and most recently, The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail.. Arab women’s painful lives are matched by many others, ranging from Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography to a new memoir coauthored by Celemtine Wamariya, a Rwandan woman (The Girl Who Smiles Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After).

                One could posit that narrators of these testimonies are in fact heroines because they survived and overcame adversity. This argument could be valid if they accompany a wide range of stories. However these narratives are often the only personal accounts from those countries and cultures accessible to us. Only when a crisis erupts is a journalist sent there; the suffering witnessed is part of the news, and part of the exoticism.

                Others maintain that women’s lives are overshadowed by men in those cultures, so herstories are eclipsed. (But this is a universally recognized feature of every society; male bias is inherent in western world- authored accounts of those cultures too.)

                Could the preoccupation with women’s memoirs be an outcome of the western feminist movement of the 1970s where women of European origin, caught up in an inchoate pride of self-discovery, rushed across the globe and into their (own) inner cities, not to find parallel revolutions or third world women to model themselves on but mainly to document how others were still confined and in need of liberation? Anthropologists and journalists enthusiastically documented myriad manifestations of female oppression, abuse, inequality, patriarchy and misogyny practiced elsewhere (including among non-whites in their own culture).

                These celebrated-- yes, celebrated-- sad stories may continue to be published because of a public thirst for victims. Or they may dwindle while Americans and Europeans now turn the lens inward and chronicle a neglected violent, patriarchal, misogynist culture newly exposed in our own unliberated households, board rooms, universities and offices.

                Just as suffering ‘Third World’ women’s chronicles present a misguided means of building solidarity and documenting a more evenhanded history, the same may apply to refugee children’s stories. A recent review of several children’s books portrays young war-victims with some sympathy. Yet, it should be remembered that these stories are often the only means through which American and European children learn about Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, and other distant lands; those tales of suffering become a prism through which they may eternally view ‘others’.               

                I cannot advocate that we not pen memoirs, only that we recognize how market and political forces exclude some stories and champion others. Without women’s memoirs so much of social and political history would remain altogether hidden.  

[ Arab Women Authors Narrate More Than Women’s Experience ]

Swing Status, Be Gone

May 18, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

During the last nationwide election, the one before that, and the preceding one as well, I was led to believe my vote really doesn't count. Why? Because I don't live in what our political parties define as a “swing state”, or a swing district, or a swing county. Our media focuses on races and on voters in far away Iowa, Ohio, Florida, or Pennsylvania. OK; voting patterns there may be inconsistent and unpredictable. But what about the ‘predictable’ rest of us?

            As far as I understand a swing district is one whose loyalty to a party is not guaranteed. Thus, attention and funds from the two major parties’, trailed by media, is directed there in order to ‘swing’ undecided votes towards their candidate. Duly highlighted by all the networks and even our own local media, we’re informed that a viable and genuine race is underway… over there. We can rest assured our democracy is a fair contest and that our election system works… somewhere.

            As for the majority of political races in the nation? One concludes there’s no real contest; results are taken for granted whether by gerrymandered arrangement s or by discriminatory policies that thwart registration. Then, there are voters-- a lot of them-- who simply don’t vote. The status quo is undisturbed.

            Maybe this process of designating one neighborhood as politically more vital than another explains why voter turnout across the USA is low, why so many citizens feel there’s no point casting their ballots. We feel excluded.

            Viewing a political race as in-the-bag can be perilous, as demonstrated by Clinton’s 2016 campaign after it ignored Michigan and Wisconsin contests. In contrast, Republicans targeted voters in those states; with or without Russian interference or data provided by Cambridge Analytica, Republicans swung voters there away from their traditional alliances.

            Attribution of districts as swing or solid is more than a misguided strategy; it’s discriminatory. It may also contribute to the cynicism and disinterest we find among American voters today.

            When I lived in New York City, any Democratic candidate on the ballot was viewed as a shoo-in. I and left-leaning associates never felt excited about an election; we rarely discussed one candidate’s merits over another, except perhaps for the mayoral seat. Now I understand how Republicans may have felt.

            Moving into a less Democratic constituency in Upstate New York, I’m the one feeling disempowered today. You suggest I might evade this binary system by seeking out a third party candidate. Yet there too my vote feels meaningless. (Small parties often don’t run a candidate and instead endorse a contestant representing a major party.)

            In NY’s Congressional District 19, currently represented by John Faso, we’re following a vigorous pre-primary campaign. Seven candidates want to represent Democrats to challenge the incumbent congressman in November’s election. Thus far, local press seems non-committal, but articles elsewhere are highlighting CD 19’s Democratic contestants, generating a rumor that this congressional seat will be hotly contested. True or not, the rumor is beguiling; my very own district could move into the swing column!

            “It’s still early in the game,” as politicians and sports commentators say; “Anything can happen”. We still have 6 weeks until the June 26 Democratic primary here.

            But the mere suggestion of our significance can have a positive effect. Who doesn't want to feel significant? Forget about CNN and Fox reporters arriving in our farms and hamlets to interview us. If a contest appears evenhanded, our interest grows, and maybe, maybe, we voters can feel that we really count. 

            Then comes the question: Why wait for outside rumors about the value of our vote? Why wait for a tarnished Democratic Party which blundered in 2016 pursuing so-called ‘minority’ votes and ‘urban-educated’ citizens to the exclusion of others?

            Across the nation, there have been some upsets as vacant seats are announced, and where new faces are emerging to fight in their party primaries. The message I’m getting is that every seat, every election, counts.

            Whatever the source of these rumors, I say: grab hold, chase after whomever candidate represents some principle, however personal or vague, which you identify with, whether through their personality, their statements, or their party affiliation. Candidates are usually women and men driven by the ideals of public service, of the possibility of change, and by the energy of fellow citizens. Know them, push them, challenge them.

            And advise them. Because these newcomers often really don’t know basic facts about us or how to address our local issues. Then lobby your neighbors thought to be on the other side. Try it.  

[ Swing Status, Be Gone ]

Iraq’s Sacred Assemblies Part 2

April 30, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            Classrooms are not normally perceived as a backdrop for cultural exchange, a setting vital to preserving tradition. If they are not, what is an assembly of fourteen twenty-year olds doing, Iraqi in this case, engaged in analytical discourse in their college seminar room? They could be aspiring filmmakers, young writers critiquing a novel, journalism interns reporting on an assignment, or medical students in an anatomy class. The latter example is not anomalous. Consider where medical education fits into civilization, how it identifies both intelligence and compassion, and how essential medical research and healthcare are to a society’s well being.

            What I am leading up to is justifying my inclusion of a dialogue I witnessed at Kerbala University Medical College within my account of the survival of Iraq’s culture and intellectual standards. My earlier essay on Sacred Assemblies describes two gatherings:-- a Baghdad tea shop where writers congregate every Friday, and the audience of an evening concert at the Iraq National Theater.

            Classroom dialogues among medical students are, along with those encounters, public affairs too. They point up the essence of cultural development. Culture cannot survive in private, behind walls, in fear and in private. Studying may be solitary, but learning needs exchange and open debate. (It is astonishing and a testament to Iraqi resilience and love of learning, that given the oppressive atmosphere of Saddam Hussein’s rule, any cultural spirit existed in Iraq those years. But some did.) And now, following years of destruction, plunder, turmoil, and emigration in the wake of the U.S. invasion, many citizens who remain are moving forward, however haltingly and painfully.

             In January, I decided to return to the city of Kerbala to meet colleagues at Al-Hussein General Hospital, a place I reported on during the 13- yearlong blockade. Iraq’s once highly acclaimed medical system was among the most debilitated by that embargo followed by the 2003 U.S. invasion, the military occupation, sectarian strife and the ISIS threat.

            Today, I am gratified to find not only a much expanded hospital, but a new medical college. Founded only in 2004, Kerbala University’s Medical College has established itself as a leading facility in the country, graduating 800 doctors since it opened, with another 162 expecting to graduate this year.   

            When the college’s Dean Zubeydi and Professor Al-Naffi invite me to visit their classrooms to observe seminars underway, I accept without much expectation. ‘What can I learn watching a class in session?’, I think. Without interrupting the discussion underway, we take our seats behind a circle of 14 white-coated second year students. I can easily follow the discussion since it’s in English. (Medical education in Iraq has for many decades been conducted in English). But it is not the content that moves me, not the informality of the exchanges, not the predominance of women doing the talking, not even what the dean points out is the application of integrated teaching methods here. It is an ambiance, an atmosphere of devotion, determination and self respect. It is intangible, yet undeniable. It is more than remembering agony and pain, more than overcoming countless obstacles to reestablish and nourish this dialogue. (This is why I refer to these gatherings as ‘sacred assemblies’.)

            From long experience, often after missteps, I learned that a moment arrives when an anthropologist or journalist has to cease her constant questioning and put aside her notebook. This is one of those times. It resembles that huddle of chatting writers at Qaisairriyeh Hanash in Al-Mutannabi Street-- unbidden assemblies imbuing each member with their past, their present and their future.

            I round off my stay in Kerbala with a revisit to Al-Hussein Mosque, Shrine of Imam Hussein. Here again I am content to watch and listen. I decide not to pray inside the magnificent mosque itself and instead to imbue the quiet, prayer-like devotion of the people around me outside. Strolling with other worshipers around the shrine, I admit I’m occasionally tempted to stop at a group dressed in Pashtu robes, or to engage with people I overhear speaking in Lebanese dialect. But I relax and allow myself to silently join the casual yet distinctly devotional mood embracing us all.

            From the time when we arrived, near sunset, until well after dark, I and my companion circumambulate the mosque, gliding along the tiles of the vast esplanade. Small clusters of families, tour groups, a couple, a man and boy alone; they each move about with no apparent agenda beyond awaiting the call for salat al-‘isha, gazing from time to time at the stunning façade of the mosque, its myriad of lights accenting the green, white and black of Qur’anic inscriptions across the walls and arcades. Some visitors relax seated on the tile floor, snacking; others converse quietly as they wander through the open space.

            As the sky darkens more worshipers arrive. I can distinguish people from South Asia, others from Sudan, still others from The Maghreb, South Africa and Nigeria; I suppose Iranian worshipers move among us too.

            Leaving this sacred assembly, these pilgrims will take with them the cultural and historical roots of their faith.

            Those moments in Kerbala are in contrast to my attendance at the final public affair of my stay. It’s the opening of an art exhibition in the capital. While art galleries in Baghdad are much reduced, the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society is a well known locale for exhibitions, and today’s opening is a lively, celebratory event so dense with visitors that the paintings are difficult to see. More than one television crew is interviewing visitors as well as exhibiting artists. Children accompanying their parents are here as well. Eventually the crowd thins when visitors move outside to the garden where they are served snacks and drinks; a three centimeter thick colored catalogue is available without charge as well.  

            Slowly, cautiously, the risk is taken to do more than exist.  END

[ Iraq’s Sacred Assemblies Part 2 ]

Iraq Then, Syria Today: A Strategy Remix

April 14, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When will you get the message? Comply, as Jordan, Egypt and others did, and we’ll protect your leaders, ensure favorable press, shore up your economy, secure energy needs, and engage your businessmen. In short: abide by our imperial diktat.

            Alternative advice to a marginal (but an ambitious) nation determined to follow an independent course might be: build a solid self-sufficient economy; lure home your best expatriate talent in IT, engineering, medical research and media. Having done this, you may survive if: if you keep your head down, if you don’t ally yourself with another strong power, if you abandon all regional ambitions, and if your people don’t try to excel? Above all, never do anything nasty “to your own people” allowing human rights specialists to declare at the appropriate moment, your “threat to humankind”.

            Whichever is the best strategy for survival, neither Syria nor Iraq found a way to avoid the wrath of the American-Israeli-British bloc. 

 

            We could make lists of ‘did’ and ‘didn’t do’, one for Syria and one for Iraq, to assess their relative compliance. In any event, they’ll both earn “F”. So they have to be starved, humiliated, desiccated and demonized. Then, when this doesn’t produce a sufficiently convincing “F-minus”, they’re bombed, and bombed again.

           It’s Syria’s turn. The only reason I can imagine how Syrians feel today—those citizens who are somehow managing to survive within its borders-- is because I was in Iraq in February 2003, in the days preceding the US invasion there. Women and men and children and soldiers and medics and teachers and diplomats and journalists—everyone-- mutely awaited the blows. Finding themselves at that threshold stunned the whole population. Why now? Why: because Iraq had begun to get back on its feet after a decade of brutal embargo and exclusion. The cost to the nation had been huge. But (by 2000) Iraq managed to lessen its diplomatic isolation; it even expected the United Nations might lift the US-imposed sanctions. Citizens commenced determinedly to rebuild. They could glimpse the end of the tunnel.

            We know what happened next. And we know how that invasion was fabricated on phony evidence to “finish the job” (an idiom common to cowboys and gangsters).

            Now to Syria fourteen years on. As recently as December 2017, ISIS was in retreat and citizens began to return to areas liberated by an exhausted but still viable Syrian army. Territories occupied by ISIS and other rebels were retaken by Syrian troops. Some inter-city roads reopened, heating oil was available, food prices seemed lower, and a few foreign groups dared to visit the capital. Gasps of hope emanating from the besieged people were palpable.

            In the case of Iraq, by 2002, it started to rebound after a decade of decline due to the embargo. The entire nation had been fractured and impoverished; bodies and nerves were battered by pollution, disease and scarcity of medicines--all precipitated by the blockade. Iraq lost millions of its young; its wheat fields had been destroyed, first untreated by pesticides, then firebombed by foreign aircraft; its diplomatic energy was exhausted, and its Kurds had secured a protected territory which forecast the nation’s possible breakup. Iraq had an army but no air force, its planes in disrepair, its pilots gone. The nation’s oil revenues, controlled from outside, were of little use in addressing its massive civilian needs.

            Starting in 1998, with astonishing fortitude, Iraq had begun to erode the blockade, extracting itself from that deadly vortex. Baghdad hosted an international trade fair. Building cranes reappeared on the city’s skyline; regional airlines began regular flights into Baghdad airport.

            Just when Iraqis felt they might actually beat back the embargo, they were confronted by another war—a blanket military assault. And no one doubted how defenseless Iraq was.  

            Worldwide, acknowledging the inevitability of an invasion on Iraq, a few million people roused themselves in protest. That day, February 15, 2003, I was in Mosul in north Iraq and I witnessed firsthand the public’s bleak mood. Those far off demonstrations, instead of offering hope, only confirmed to Iraqis the veracity of the military plan against them. (Who cares what those panicky demonstrators shout; they are 13 years’ late.) That dissent, they muttered, was disingenuous, driven only by Americans’ fears for their own fighters.

            Now, Syria. In 2010, more restrictions were added to earlier sanctions that had already marginalized Syria globally and impeded its economic development. Wikileak’s published diplomatic documents, reveal that by 2006, Washington had a stated objective to overthrow the Syrian government. The uprisings in North Africa (the so-called Arab Spring) may have provided an impetus for the burst of public dissent in Syria. After a merciless crackdown by security forces, civil unrest spread until the country devolved into a sectarian war that spread more quickly than was experienced by Iraq. Syria’s once robust and proudly self-sufficient economy began to collapse; youths and professionals left, emptying its universities and hospitals of staff and students. 

            Foreign observers surmised Syria would fall within six months, that Al-Asaad could not withstand the forces mobilized against his government. They didn’t know Syria.

            With Russian support, but drawing on its willfulness and military power, Syria surprised everyone. Although the toll on its troops has been staggering, Syrian forces recaptured land lost to its foes. It kept major roads open, and secured unfailing support from Russia, Iran and Lebanon.

            Losses to the nation are immense, the staggering civilian toll graphically recorded day after day. Although terribly crippled, the country managed to regain territory and defeat ISIS on several fronts-- successes lamented by the western press. Syria’s defeat of ISIS notwithstanding, American generals declare that they will remain in Syria “until ISIS is defeated”, then announce that additional fighters will be sent to the country. 

            After the US president muttered something about disengaging from Syria, the press challenged him to demonstrate resolve, to show real leadership, how the job was left unfinished. Saturday, the bombing began, silently applauded by Israel, and bolstered by the UK and France.   END

[ Iraq Then, Syria Today: A Strategy Remix ]

Iraqis' Diet Fifteen Years After the US Invasion

April 12, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Some Iraqis might assert that today everything is available in their country. That’s true to a degree; if you exclude self-sufficiency. And trust.

            Traveling throughout Baghdad and into the south I recognized the same models of vehicles one finds in the US, along with some Chinese-made trucks. We pick up tasty BBQ chicken from street vendors. Fresh vegetables and fruits, shoes and garments and cosmetics of all varieties and qualities are available; furniture and linens and toys for any age are plentiful, as are electronic goods. Communication by FaceBook and Whatsapp are unregulated. YouTube is heavily used.

            You have fast food bistros serving salads and french fries. Pizza is popular, and a few upscale family restaurants moored on the banks of the Tigris are well patronized. You can linger at wifi-connected coffee shops, and find bars and discos open until early morning. Fresh baked fish and roasted chicken plates can be delivered to office or home.

            To all appearances the Iraqi economy is just fine, if you observe only consumption habits.

            A simple, more accurate way to judge economic conditions is to turn from the sparkling facades of Chevrolet show rooms and decline a pizza lunch to instead stroll through a local supermarket.

            Doing so in Iraq, I am reminded what I found 20 years ago inside a Palestinian food store in Al-Bireh village nearby Ramallah. Two-liter soda bottles stacked outside the shop were not only for American teenagers visiting their grandmothers. Soda had become everyone’s preferred beverage. Those columns of orange and green bottles may add color to the street and signal modern tastes and available surplus cash. At what cost?

            Leaning closer to examine the labels, I see they’re in Hebrew. With no attempt to camouflage their origin, Israeli products are exported for Palestinian consumption. Inside the shop I note how canned and packaged foods likewise originate in Israel. Why should I be shocked therefore when I find Al-Bireh’s lebaan, yogurt, labeled in Hebrew? Lebaan, the staple of Arab breakfast enjoyed with olives, sliced cucumber and tomato, and unleavened bread, is (was!) the traditional produce of Arab herders and farmers throughout our history. Olives are the last surviving sign of Palestinian agriculture, and this industry too is in decline.

            The fate of Palestine’s olive industry is paralleled by Iraq’s date production. Iraq’s legendary 40 million date palms, provenance of California’s successful date production, once Iraq’s primary and unsurpassed export after crude oil, are wasting away today.

            Which brings us back to Iraqis’ diet and my visit a few weeks ago to a Baghdad supermarket. I pause on the residential street in Karrada’s middle class neighborhood where I stay, to slip into a food store. Here too the shop’s entrance is constrained by stacks of bottled soda. Pepsi seems the most abundant brand; others with names I do not recognize are plentiful too. Moving into the entranceway, both sides are piled with boxes and trays displaying generous supplies of chips and cookies (labeled in English and Arabic, or English only).

            Inside the store, I saunter along one isle perusing canned and bottled items. Pickled olives and mayonnaise, salad dressings, tang and apple juice, cheeses, olive oil, pasta, canned tuna and tea-- almost all of them imported. Not Israel here, but Spain, Turkey, Columbia, China, Thailand, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia supply Iraqis with most of their food. Foreign company names appear on all packaged food items I examine. Moreover, prices here (where 1,300 Iraqi dinar = one dollar) differ little from US supermarket rates. The cost of a ‘Pringles’ package or a can of tuna in Baghdad, for example, is what I pay in the U.S.

            When we turn to fresh produce, fruits and vegetables, the situation is even more alarming. Here too most produce is imported. Even oranges (in this land of orange trees). Beets and cabbage are marked ‘Iraqi’, but pomegranate, okra, eggplant, bananas, cucumber and other greens are from Jordan, Turkey and beyond. The nicest looking tomatoes (a staple in Iraqi dishes) are foreign produced.

            Why these imports when Iraq is still largely rural? Foreign produce is less expensive than that grown by Iraq’s farmers, I’m told. Why? Because they are priced to undercut Iraqi production. Why? Because import licenses are awarded to foreign suppliers. And why is this? Because ministry personnel who negotiate these contracts receive handsome kickbacks. This, at the same time, when: a) electricity supply in Iraq is so weak and unreliable that local production is impossible, and b) ministries responsible for agriculture and manufacturing don’t function in the interests of Iraqi producers. Iraq’s once thriving agricultural base is woefully neglected and derelict.

            These conditions are a direct result of government policy and a heavily corrupt bureaucracy. In the case of the bankrupt Palestinian economy, declining production and joblessness are to a large degree imposed by the occupier, Israel, implemented through a compliant Palestinian bureaucracy, oversupplied with wage earners whose disposable income supports a consumption economy and reliance on imports.

            In Iraq, the US government still wields enormous influence on Iraq’s administration. From the start of its occupation of Iraq, the U.S. has thwarted attempts to rebuild the nation’s electricity grid and build and install machinery essential to a functioning manufacturing base.

            (Significantly, some energy is available to ensure that communications function so that Iraqis can access television and their phone apps. Most homes and small businesses augment a patchy, inadequate government electrical supply with batteries and generators, imported of course.) 

            These conditions, in both Palestine and Iraq, are bald ‘disaster capitalism’. They exhibit what Naomi Klein identifies in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Her influential 2007 study was followed in 2015 by Disaster Capitalism, offering irrefutable evidence of these insidious foreign-directed processes which enrich outside powers while directing responsibility onto incompetent corrupt local governments.

            At every level, from reliance on underwear for its soldiers to pharmaceuticals to tangy beverages, Iraq’s decline into a consumer nation is unarguably the policy of outside powers. It works with a compliant merchant class of suppliers, happy to take a narrow slice while its foreign partners enjoy the prime cuts. It’s a process well know to every Iraqi.

BN Aziz recently returned from a two week visit in Iraq. Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq, based on her work in Iraq between 1989 and 2003, is published by University of Florida Press, 2007.

[ Iraqis' Diet Fifteen Years After the US Invasion ]

"Enough Is Enough" (on guns) by John Whitehead

April 02, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

While we congratulate ourselves on March 24 "March for Our Lives" across the US, consider the context of guns offered by attorney and writer John Whitehead. Below are excerpts from his article: "Enough is enough..."

 “Excerpts “…The day before (tens of) thousands of demonstrators descended on Washington DC to protest mass shootings  …, President Trump signed into law a colossal $1.3 trillion spending bill that gives the military the biggest boost in spending in more than a decade.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Here (we witness) passionate protesters raging… about the need to restrict average Americans from being able to purchase and own military-style weapons, all the while the U.S. government—the same government under Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton and beyond that --continues to act as a shill and a shield for the military industrial complex—embarks on a taxpayer-funded death march that will put even more guns into circulation…

There are now reportedly more bureaucratic (non-military) government civilians armed with high-tech, deadly weapons than U.S. Marines.

…the (US) government is arming its own civilian employees to the hilt with guns, ammunition and military-style equipment, authorizing them to make arrests, and training them in military tactics. Among the agencies being supplied with night-vision equipment, body armor, hollow-point bullets, shotguns, drones, assault rifles and LP gas cannons are the Smithsonian, U.S. Mint, Health and Human Services, IRS, FDA, Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Education Department, Energy Department, Bureau of Engraving and Printing and an assortment of public universities.

Seriously, why do IRS agents need AR-15 rifles?

Under the auspices of this military “recycling” program, which was instituted decades ago and allows local police agencies to acquire military-grade weaponry and equipment, more than $4.2 billion worth of equipment has been transferred from the Defense Department to domestic police agencies since 1990….

[ "Enough Is Enough" (on guns) by John Whitehead ]

Let Teachers Teach, and Insist Our Leaders Lead

March 26, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Will Saturday’s astounding "March for Our Lives" become the defining protest of our time? Some say it’s comparable to Vietnam War era anti-war marches. Not actually comparable, I hope. Because it took daily news of American deaths month after month to sustain those protests.

March 24th’s nationwide event was led by youngsters, Americans even younger than the 1960s’ protesters. It is certainly a stirring event to witness-- unarguably inspiring for millions like me viewing it on television. Saturday’s rally demonstrated the leadership of ‘just’ teenagers. (We generally only hear about our youths’ drug habits or sports and cell phone obsessions, their sex lives or their music and clothing trends.)

I hope the political work these new leaders have launched is sustained. I hope this movement doesn't need further killings anywhere to keep the issue alive, to activate media interest and to swell the numbers of activists. It is essential too that America’s adult responses are not technical, namely: not calling for still more security devices to sell to schools and municipalities, not commissioning more experts to invent even more bizarre safety measures.   

Whenever a massacre at a school or concert hall or other public event occurs, there’s ample television footage to demonstrate how authorities respond— police, FBI and other armed forces ‘secure’ neighborhoods and control onlookers with massive military-like tactics and equipment. (Only recently have Americans realized how much like a military occupation of our streets, local police forces had become.) Unquestioned is the  associated tactic called “lockdown”.

Following the end of deadly sieges, we witness survivors of an attack emerging from “lockdown”, moving in single file, hands above their heads, stripped of any bags or backpacks, obediently proceeding down a path past armed guards. (This presumably after they’ve been frisked to ensure they are not part of a terror group.) This scary procession is now a common procedure executed without questions about what affect these practices have on those innocents.

Every school in this nation is geared for terror. With the powerful testimonies of the March 24 speakers in D.C. last week, those who may not normally visit schools hear how children are taught lockdown drill, procedures they must practice and then follow if their school is under threat. One 17-year old at a "March for Our Lives" event in Detroit confesses: “The fire alarm at Trenton High School is scary,  …We don't know if it's an actual drill or if someone's actually inside the school, going to take your life."

As a journalist I have occasion to visit local schools. When I do, I can secure entry only if I’ve made an appointment with a staff member who knows me and is expecting me. My name is listed beforehand, and when I arrive at the (locked) school door, a security guard, usually armed, calls the staff person I’m to meet, who then comes to the reception desk to accompany me into the school. I’m given an ID which I must wear while inside and relinquish when I leave. (Every schoolchild wears his/her special ID all the time at school.) This is the same process I go through when I visit a prison!

Not to deny our youths their credit and our gratitude for their initiative today, one wonders: what took us so long? That is, what took so long for youths to dump any expectations they had of leadership by adults: —elected officials as well as community leaders, teachers and other educators, social workers, police and trauma experts, journalists and celebrities. How many deaths by gun-loving, angry, disturbed and embittered young men does it take for a sensible strategy to emerge? Maybe these youngsters stepping into the forefront marks a watershed, a turning point not only in gun reform but in American civic action.

Regarding solutions: look what some in the (political) room have been advising in response to gun violence. (We know the U.S. president’s suggestion.) Even clear-headed, mature leaders have little to offer beyond assigning more money to build more safety mechanisms into schools. (This in addition to adding more on-duty armed officers inside and around schools.) When a recent threat of violence at undistinguishable school in my own semi-rural neighborhood occurred, the director announced measures including retrofitting every door in the place. This is an educator’s all-too-common solution in an institute already patrolled by two armed guards!

From what we heard from school-age activists in their fearless and unequivocal statements these past weeks, they are not demanding more security measures in classrooms and hallways. They want their teachers to teach; they want political their leaders to enact gun reforms; they want to hold elected representatives accountable to the citizen, not to special interests.

One may be unable to expect any reduction in safety measures. While the downside of increasing them is twofold: first, our places of learning become hazardous zones. Students report how they move through their classrooms in a state of fear. The educational budgets of public schools are already inadequate. From teachers’ rallies in Virginia and Arizona, we learn that teachers’ salaries are low and getting lower, with many teachers working at a second job. Core curricula are threatened by educational budgets cuts or freezes. If more funds are allocated to military-like solutions, basic educational facilities will suffer. Second, the main beneficiaries of all those technical solutions will be security companies who provide guards and who manufacture safety devices— part of the mammoth American arms business. The security industry is equally involved in diversionary costly solutions as is the NRA.

[ Let Teachers Teach, and Insist Our Leaders Lead ]

The Path of Martyrs

March 22, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

       In the final thirty kilometers’ drive back to my home in the Catskills, along a vacant highway through hills of leafless winter trees  colorless and devoid of any sign of life, I inexplicably recall my recent journey in a distant known-but-unfamiliar land. Just a few weeks before, I’d traversed a profoundly different landscape en route from Baghdad to Kerbala city in Iraq.   

          My Kerbala host and I had quipped that the two hours plus required to reach Kerbala that day was the time I needed to drive upstate from New York city. Except that that holy city is hardly 50 miles from the Iraqi capital. Scores—no, thousands-- of military checkpoints slow every kind of movement within Iraq today.

          I first traveled to Kerbala 27 years ago, visiting the magnificent Al-Hussain shrine and the city’s general hospital, also named Al-Hussain. On every visit to Iraq during the fierce 13-year embargo (from 1990 to 2003) against the nation-- starting in April 1991 when evidence of a government attack against rebels hiding there was still in evidence-- I made my way to Al-Hussain General Hospital. On subsequent annual visits, the hospital’s medical staff uncomplainingly helped me document the crime of sanctions, the U.S. campaign deliberately decimating Iraq’s once exemplary health system (along with the entire economy and civil structure).

          The four lane highway to Kerbala, the major route into south Iraq, is divided by a wide median. Unlike the vacant fields that stretch to a horizon of palm trees to my right, the median is planted with shrubs and trees. And tributes.

           Among the few private cars heading south, I see an occasional small bus. Most vehicles are large transport trucks, and those heading toward Baghdad carry imported goods from Basrah port, or earth from excavation sites in the south.

          Although crossing through farmland, viewed from the road there’s little sign of cultivation. Perhaps this is because of the dearth of rain this season. (I would later learn Iraq’s agricultural industry is badly neglected.) Occasionally we overtake a pickup truck loaded with sheep or with vegetables. What roadside structures we pass, auto-repair stations or cafes, look unkempt and uninviting-- part of the generally colorless landscape. Now and then I notice a cluster of children in uniform and toting bookpacks, strolling towards their local school.    

          In the median in the center of the highway is a sight far more compelling and throughout this voyage my eyes refocus there. This is not because of anything alarming or troubling. It’s the stream of arresting, insistent images posted there:-- each one a different face, each a martyr of the recent wars (the costly fight against Daesh/ISIS). This silent parade constitutes a kind of running panorama of the battles for Iraq, for its sovereignty, for its honor and its history.   

          The faces are mainly of young men, most likely no more than 30 years old. Although occasionally, the portrait of an older man, probably an officer, enters this landscape.

          All the way to Kerbala, and southward to Al-Najaf https://www.britannica.com/place/Al-Najaf and beyond in all directions, Iraq’s roads and highways are adorned with the names and faces of soldiers, a placard every few hundred feet, sometimes two or more photos on a single notice.

          These martyrs’ banners are posted high, like flags, in rows-- mile after mile. Each name a story, each a family’s son, each a patriot, each a sacrifice. For me, a visitor, they evidence the history of what war and nationhood mean.  

          Today, back in the USA, I ask: Is that vista so different in its meaning and impact on Iraqi citizens from how fields of simple white plaques or crosses at French and Belgian Flanders, at Arlington National Cemetery, or the amassed names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, affect Europeans and Americans?

          Although martyrdom may be central to Shiite history, belief and culture, it is deeply embedded in other societies. In Arab culture and thought—martyrdom is expressed in our language as well as our religion. A man can be named Shaheed (pl. Shuhadah) in some countries, and street names are prefixed with Shuhadah; the portrait of a martyr has a special place in his family’s home.

          A pity that people in the dominant Christian society of the West cannot grasp the universal qualities of the martyr. Was Prophet Jesus Christ not a martyr? As for those who die in battle, sacrifice for the American homeland is visibly displayed today in the high status accorded its soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, in inglorious wars moreover. What is “Gold Star Family” but a title honoring American military martyrs?

          U.S. veterans, especially the wounded, are heaped with praise for their service and they’re given unlimited government assistance. Even radio and television features regularly tell Americans of ‘noble sacrifices’ of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those stories of hardships, trauma, and handicaps transmit a feeling of martyrdom. 

          Then come civilians martyred in the daily racist war on America’s streets, deaths that awaken calls for social change. Not co-incidentally it was a religious leader, Reverend Jesse Jackson, who recognized martyrdom in the death of a Black child gunned down for his race: “We must illuminate the darkness with the light that comes from the martyr, Jackson pleaded after the death of 14-year old Trayvon Martin.

          The paths of martyrs are endless and boundless.     

 

BN Aziz recently returned from a two week visit in Iraq. Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq, based on her work in Iraq between 1989 and 2003, is published by University of Florida Press, 2007

 

 

[ The Path of Martyrs ]

Iraq Outside History

March 11, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

"Scientists Outside History” was published in the September 1996 issue of Natural History, the popular educational journal of the American Museum of Natural History. Authored by me, “Scientists Outside History” was based on research I undertook in Iraq between 1989 and 1996. The article’s subheading: “Faced with international embargo, Iraq’s most progressive community finds itself abandoned.” 

            Reviewing my early files on Iraq, along with this article I found a readers’ correspondence (that was the pre-digital era) which Natural History’s editor had forwarded to me. Most of these letters were from outraged readers, many of them scientists or teachers, berating and excoriating me for seeing any merits in what they viewed as the ‘vicious and tyrannical Saddam regime’. (Praise Iraq’s earlier four millennia, but not the 20th century.) How dare I claim “Iraq’s scientists and doctors had enjoyed strong government backing, enabling them to pursue their international studies”? (p. 15 in the article.)

            Those indignant respondents didn’t object that international scientific and medical journals were freely available in Iraq up to 1990. Nor did they challenge my report of how that embargo went far beyond its mandate, to include cultural and medical exchange, that even by 1996 (it would continue for another six years) it ensured Iraqis no longer received international journals, that Iraqi students were barred from post graduate studies (in U.S., Canada, and perhaps elsewhere) in scientific fields such as physics, and that invitations to international conferences could not be extended to Iraqis. As I wrote at the time, this exclusion “proved as severe as any weapon of mass destruction”.

            It was the noted sculptor, Mohammed Hikmat Ghani, one of many Iraqi artists who, sponsored by his government, frequently traveled abroad to meet his peers, pointed out to me in 1991, that (as a result of that vicious embargo) “Iraq is now outside history”.

            Visiting Iraq earlier this year, fourteen years into its American-designed and supervised democracy, I found that, as much as during the embargo-- perhaps more so today--Iraq is indeed outside history. It has been plundered of both its human and historical resources.

            During my 1989 tour of the resplendent Iraq National Museum, it was Mohammed Ghani who informed me how the government had secreted away and protected the entire museum’s holdings during the eight year Iraq-Iran war. That collection was returned intact and complete following the 1988 cease fire:-- the same treasure which, overseen by U.S. occupation troops in 2003, was ransacked and pillaged. (That was during the early months of the American invasion.)

            One need not invoke ancient eras of past millennia to acknowledge Iraq’s contributions to civilization. Modern Iraq, before that embargo, was replete with industrious, well trained, talented men and women dedicated to their arts and sciences, their efforts generously encouraged and published by the government. They advanced more by personal merit than by party membership then.

            The world famous architect Zaha Hadid, one of a large community of Iraqi artists and scientists, may have settled in Europe, but the foundation of her energy and imagination can be traced to her childhood within Iraq; there was early recognition of her mathematical genius and the influence of scientists in her own family.

            Although not without difficulty, one can find many examples of outstanding 20th century treatises by Iraqi engineers (e.g. Ahmed Sousa and Aliya Sousa), medical specialists, linguists and artists produced within Iraq prior to the sanction regime. That exhaustive embargo targeted Iraq’s intelligentsia as much as its Baathist leadership. 

            You may ask: Why bring this up now? The embargo ended in 2003; Saadam is gone. Liberated from international isolation and dictatorship, Iraq’s an oil rich nation free to interact on the global stage.

            In fact Iraq is still culturally marginalized, and intellectually much weakened. Many teachers, scholars and other talent who represent the high standards of the 20th century and could bridge the three decade-long wasteland created by embargo and war, have departed. Either they have been snapped up by foreign nations who recognize their abilities and fine training. Or as refugees, they’re obliged to accept jobs that do not advance or nourish their talent and imagination.  

            I was reminded of just how widespread the destruction of modern Iraqi civilization is today by a recent FB post from an Iraqi colleague residing abroad. Now middle aged and without economic security as a non-citizen in a nearby Arab country, following the work of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, he recalls his own research in photon physics as a young engineer. He scans world scientific developments today realizing that Iraq, 30-60 years ago, was well placed to be in the forefront of scientific discoveries, on the cusp of frontiers in medical research, physics, and archeology. In response to his posting, colleagues in his network recalled their own attenuated and derailed careers. Many of these women and men are now exiles, snapped up by foreign companies and European and American universities, engineering institutes and hospitals, all well aware of the high standard of Iraq’s education (both before and during the Baath era). Tens of thousands of these experts are forced to take up work inferior to their level of training and without institutional support for publication and international dialogue.

            When did you last see a citation of research authored by an Iraqi scientist? When have you last heard an Iraqi scientific presentation at an international conference? Their absence is indicative of their continued isolation and of their government’s cultural poverty and mismanaged resources.

            Inside Iraq today the main concern of citizens (and government) is security. The streets of Baghdad are channels cutting through walled-in lanes. There’s no civic landscape. No conferences take place here; few foreign professional colleagues visit; the government’s resources are consumed by a military budget for tanks and trucks, foreign anti-terror devices, and arming check posts.

            Just as there are no conferences and few gatherings of musicians or writers or researchers, there are no open playgrounds, no public football matches, no concerts, and little inter-city travel. Children and families are confined to their homes watching the world pass through television, youtube, and whatsapp.

            With corruption gripping all levels of government, whatever resources are available are allocated to cronies and their families; merit is an alien concept now. Even the Ministry of Health, once the pride of Iraq, is today incapable of designing and carrying out essential research to assess  the nation’s basic health needs.

            In response to the arrival of so many highly trained Iraqis in the West over the past 30 years, surely Americans and others could make an effort to visit Iraq and start a new dialogue with their peers there.  

BN Aziz’ recently returned from a two week visit in Iraq. Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq, based on her work in Iraq between 1989 and 2003, is published by University of Florida Press, 2007. 

[ Iraq Outside History ]

What A Pomegranate Means to Me; Film review: “Land of the Pomegranates”

January 01, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

                Rumman is our Arabic word for pomegranate—the fruit and the word embody an Arab essence we all recognize. In English, the word ‘pomegranate’ feels awkward. Uttering ‘rumman’ however, we taste its tingling tartness. Held for an instant, as it rolls off Arab lips, it’s released in a single, soft syllable. A parallel may be in the English word ‘fulsome’ that carries a similar memory of abundance, excess.

                ‘Rumman’ is a poetry word; it’s imbued with emotion and imagery connected not only to our food but to our literature and songs. More than a fruit, it’s a tea, an herb, a drink, a syrup, a condiment for stews and stuffings, and a sexual metaphor too.

                Throughout Palestinian neighborhoods, one sees pomegranate trees in household gardens beside old stone dwellings, those left standing after 60 years of occupation and war.

                So a film titled "Land of Pomegranates" will evoke rich images for any Arab, and for Turks, Iranians and Pakistanis too. Our sexy, luscious association of ‘rumman’ is, however, dispelled by this film’s promotional illustration. There we are presented by a pomegranate juxtaposed with a menacing black sphere: a grenade. Then the eye moves to the background—the stark grey landscape stained by the endless line of the “apartheid wall”, the 26 feet high barrier constructed by Israel during the past decade. 

                You’ve got it—conflict. Soft versus hard. Palestine versus Israel. Again. In this film we have yet another searching-for-peace ‘humanizing’ documentary that examines the ideal of dialogue between these two hostile peoples.               

                As possibilities of any political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict disappear, hastened by the U.S. president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it’s increasingly unlikely that any Israeli (or Palestinian) is able to present an evenhanded picture of the ‘situation.’

                I do not know if Hava Kohav Beller, the Hebrew-speaking director and citizen of Israel, thinks she’s presenting an unbiased picture, starting with the pomegranate which she clearly misconceives. (Was she thinking of the French ‘grenadine’ which besides the name of pomegranate syrup, refers to a grenade-tossing soldier?) Blurbs promoting this film (released in the U.S. January 5th) suggest Beller’s story is impartial: we are told, for example, how “she (shows) us that a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is the only way out of a violent and tragic stalemate”, that she “dramatically and evenhandedly portrays the seemingly intractable problem…”  and so on.

                The production is framed in the context of a formalized attempt at dialogue—a demonstrably unsuccessful exercise that becomes apparent in the course of the event. That ‘dialogue plan’ is situated in Germany— within a program called Vacation from War whose sponsor we do not know. Nor do we know if it continues today. (The use of eight-year old footage weakens the film’s message, and we might ask why those conversations were not updated by revisits with participants.)

                The film uses extensive clips from Vacation from War’s 7th year. (It began in 2002.) On their ‘vacation’, equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians, about 30 altogether, are assembled to talk to one another. The film focuses on statements from only a third of the group’s members, five Palestinians and five Israelis, all 25 to 30 years of age. We know little about the individuals, but we watch them listening and questioning each other, giving testimonies about their suffering, their rights, their disappointments, their pain, and their family histories. There is no indication in the clips from these dialogues that participants are moving anywhere but further apart.

                A creeping awareness of that futility is, for me, a sad message from within the film, a message in contrast to its claims. Another unsettling feature of these dialogues is a clear disparity in an unspoken persona of the two peoples conveyed in the film:—on the one hand, the Israeli exhibits deep confidence, righteousness and pride; unquestionably the victor, requesting nothing from his/her dialogue partner. On the other side is the aggrieved Palestinian asking for some, any, accommodation. We leave them without any hint of a solution.

                As if anyone might feel equivocal about the director’s message, those clips of dialogue (filling over half of the two-hour film) are interspersed with a further message through scenes from the ground—newsreel clips of Israeli victims of bus bombings, and extended interviews with Israeli citizens. Relaxed in their sitting rooms, the Israelis speak about family fears and accommodations, with frequent reference to the holocaust experience, and about their military victories.            

                The single extended Palestinian story is of Reham, a young Gaza mother accompanying her four-year old boy to an Israeli hospital for a heart operation where she finds acceptance, kind surgeons, and medical help otherwise unavailable.

                Besides Reham’s arrival at the hospital, our only glimpse of Palestinians is from afar--in a street screaming at soldiers to desist, rushing a wounded youth to an ambulance, challenging settlers climbing onto their house or invading their fields. Oh yes, there is one joyful wedding dance by men and youth in a Ramallah street. One wonders why the filmmaker could find no Palestinian besides Mohammad from the dialogue project to talk with.

                 A question hangs in the air: what kind of pomegranate and what land of pomegranate is this film about? And why pretend evenhandedness?

 

[ What A Pomegranate Means to Me; Film review: “Land of the Pomegranates” ]


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