Past Blog Posts
- October 20, 2017
The Iraqi government has every right to assert control over Kirkuk and its environs. (One only wonders why it waited this long. The city had never been a Kurdish center and only after it repulsed threats by ISIS three years ago, did Peshmerga replace Iraqi government forces in the area. Peshmerga has been a coddled and abetted military presence in the US-UK-Israel plan to divide Iraq. (No Kurdish force has had any legitimate presence there.) So recent references by both National Public Radio and BBC news hosts about Peshmerga fighters representing Kurdish sovereignty in Kirkuk are misleading at best.
No one yet knows what the outcome will be of Baghdad’s belated move to affirm authority in the area with its surprising military victory in and around Kirkuk earlier this month. Interested foreign parties from Turkey to Israel have remained silent, thus far. Meanwhile Kurdish spokespeople are making alarming claims in the international press about the deployment, even suggesting those Iraqi forces are ISIS-linked, also invoking the trope of Shia militants taking over their (sic) city, assertions left unchallenged by an acquiescent NPR and BBC.
Why is there so little willingness by US and British media to acknowledge the character and legal status of Kirkuk in Iraq? One hears no reference to the strategic transformation of the city and its environs by nationalist-secessionist Kurdish interests from a majority Turkmen community to a Kurdish one starting in 1991 when the US and UK helped establish an inchoate Kurdish sovereign state in northern Iraq?
The day of the Kurdish referendum in September I noted the process by which Iraqi Kurdish leaders worked to convert Kirkuk into a Kurdish city, with the intention of annexing it when the time came (last month) for their claim of independence, and ignoring the Iraqi constitutionally defined border outside Kirkuk and nearby areas.
It is mystifying why the Turkmen of Iraq, a fiercely Iraqi nationalist, significant minority, has been so invisible in international press coverage of the region. This while they embody a remarkable ideal that opposes any military action. Visiting Kirkuk on two occasions before American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, I saw the displacement of Turkmen families (begun in 1991) in progress and I’ve followed their growing fear of Kurdish dominance, all without threat of armed retaliation. Their population is not small—at least three million-- and many Turkmen are well placed in Iraq’s government. Although that proved insufficient to thwart Kurdish ambitions over Kirkuk.
Turkmen’s marginalization in their heartland has won little sympathy outside; their identity and ethnic rights are completely overshadowed by Kurdish separatists and their foreign partners and lackeys, such as Peter Galbraith. Are we to accept comments by BBC guest Nadhim Zahawi as a fair assessment (BBC World News 10.17.17)? Zahawi is a British-Kurdish millionaire, a UK member of parliament, also director of Gulf Keystone Petroleum GKP operating in Iraqi Kurdistan; he moreover chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group for Kurdistan. This in addition to his many controversial legal involvements.
The wider public, it seems, is only permitted to know that Kirkuk sits on major oil deposits. (Of course that explains it being coveted by the Kurds in alliance with the West.) But what about the longtime Turkmen character and history of the city? What about the sustained opposition by Turkmen Iraqis and the Baghdad government to surreptitious tactics by the Kurds to make it appear the city and surrounding areas is Kurdish and lies within the three Kurdish-dominated governates (Erbil—a once Turkmen-majority city for 700 years, Sulaimania and Duhok) that have enjoyed considerable autonomy since 1991. Kirkuk is no more a part of Kurdish Iraq than nearby Mosul is, and Kurdish rights to Kirkuk has never been part of the semi-autonomous understanding between Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad.[ Kirkuk, A Counterfeit Prize ]
- October 11, 2017
When I received the invitation from Magnolia Pictures to preview a forthcoming film by artist Ai Weiwei, recognizing the name of its celebrated Chinese director, I was eager to screen it. I have a scant impression of the visual extravagance of Ai’s art work, but knew nothing of his filmmaking before my research for this review. Now I learn of his copious filming explorations resulting in more than 20 video productions between 2003 and 2013, some rather lengthy, e.g. Chang’an Boulevard (10:13 hrs), or So Sorry, and mostly completed in his homeland.
Ai Weiwei’s early videos are largely investigative visual documentations of injustices, tragedies, dissident profiles and autobiographical projects. A prolific artist who also identifies himself as an activist and dissident, Ai gained international attention, predictably, when in 2011 he was detained for some 81 days in his city, Beijing.
He works in multimedia, often on a grand scale. This may explain his attraction to the theme of this film, Human Flow @HumanFlowMovie @aiww, due for release October 13th in the USA. More than two hours long, taking us into fourteen refugee camps across more than ten countries from Bangladesh to Kenya to Mexico (notably, this project omits reference to Tibetan or Qinghai refugees from China), employing some 100 staff and 60 translators, Human Flow is of epic scale in more than its title.
Human Flow is essentially a human rights message—a visual statement of the unfulfilled rights – or dreams, if you will-- of refugees across the globe. His tens of thousands of subjects—representing tens of millions worldwide--are souls in transit: South Americans slipping across the Mexican border into the USA, Palestinians driven from their lands, Africans escaping from various homelands by boat across the Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern families walking into the European mainland. It’s about fences and guards, and waiting huddled families.
Most of those offering testimonials, Ai Weiwei films inside refugee camps. Stark, somewhat formal, on-camera interviews with individuals provide first hand accounts of their victimization, anxiety, and bitterness.
Little of what we witness in Human Flow will be new to anyone following international events. In recent years, with the massive exodus of people from the Middle East into Europe, the military conflicts, the controversial status of undocumented workers, the deaths of thousands crossing the Mediterranean, and subsequent debates about what host counties ought to do, even the most disinterested of us is aware of the “human tide” pressing upon our shores.
Testimonies by refugee families in the film are interspersed with statements by officials-- professionals in the refugee business: we hear from doctors inspecting camp conditions, from human rights lawyers citing UN conventions, from a diplomatic Jordanian princess, from Hanan Ashrawi, Palestine’s most articulate representative, from UNICEF’s spokesperson in Lebanon, from Israel’s B’Tselem director, from the Carnegie Middle East director, from a UNHCR spokesman in Kenya. All offer choreographed, disembodied statements about the need for more, more, more…
A short segment with the single politician in the film, Lebanon’s Walid Jumblatt, is noteworthy for its candor. About migrants, Jumblatt declares, “without memory you are nothing”; about refugee management he points to the hypocrisy of international refugee policies. In skimming over Jumblatt’s blunt assessments, Ai Weiwei missed the chance to explore more fundamental issues behind those pompous, exploding human rights’ businesses. He could have offered us a really piercing story, introducing Human Flow with Jumblatt’s provocative assertions followed by dialogue with Jumblatt about the financing of camps, the wars generating these exoduses, the pornographic use of pitiful images of victims, threaded together with the powerful visuals that Ai’s cameras capture. A lost opportunity by a man known for provocative, daring work.
As with his other projects, Ai Weiwei wants us to know he is there: on the ground with sobbing refugees, beside his camera crew at a tense frontier, his hair disheveled by sand-laden desert winds. Here is the anthropologist, there-but-not-there, allowing refugees and their surroundings speak for themselves, images superimposed with an occasional news headline or quote from a Turkish or Arab poet to augment the pictures.
Which brings us, finally, to the images. What is new to our refugee portrait are spectacular aerial shots presenting a panorama of refugee living:—we are taken high above an endless, blue sea, a boat laden with escapees slowly moving into the frame; we gaze through a wide angle photo of a camps’ columns and columns of orderly white structures; another aerial encompasses countless scattered huts amid the detritus of their impermanence; we are held beside tents haphazardly pitched at a railway station, dwarfed by an enormous, slowly moving train passing resolutely behind. This is the “flow”-- perhaps more accurately termed “stagnation”-- that impacts the viewer more forcefully than faces and statements of refugees and administrators.
Because of the director’s celebrity, a lot of people will want to see Human Flow. Still, given Ai Weiwei’s objective of using art to change perceptions, we need to ask: can this film do that?
- October 04, 2017
“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects….They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up. Diesel tractors, puttering while they stood idle; they thundered when they moved, and then settled down to a droning roar. Snub nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it… across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.
“The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man: gloved, goggled, masked he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat… …the tenant stared after it ...his wife… beside him, and the quiet children behind. And all of them stared after the tractor…”
This merciless machine might belong to Israeli militants preparing another Jewish colony-- a common scenario on Palestinian lands. The watching silent family could be the indigenous peoples of Brazil’s disappearing forests. Or farmers of Gujarat, India, relocated by the Sardar Sarovar dam. Just as First Nations’ livelihoods and wildlife habitants of Canada’s boreal forests were invaded to make way for Alberta’s massive oil extraction operation.
That opening passage some will recognize from Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel -- perhaps the most powerful portrayal of a people uprooted, forced into poverty-- internally displaced refugees. It’s a process newly identified by Canadian researcher and author Naomi Klein as “disaster capitalism”. Klein brilliantly and poignantly defines the occurrence in her 2007 The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Shock Doctrine describes in unequivocal terms how corporations and companies – I would include “non-profit” NGO institutions and human rights agencies among them--have learnt to respond with rapid-fire corporate reengineering of societies still reeling from shock to profit from a multitude of disasters:-- man-made catastrophes, wars, reckless economic policies, economic embargoes, climate-induced disasters, or other world changing crises.
Grapes of Wrath, written following droughts in the American West, recalls the removal of farmers from their homes and livelihoods across Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. Those droughts arrived in waves between 1934 and 1940, precipitating a series of bad harvests, with wind erosion aggravated by an absence of dryland farming methods. After farmers’ credit was exhausted, banks foreclosed on family properties and turned over much of that ‘dust bowl’ to agribusiness which capitalized investments with the timely rapid mechanization of farm equipment. Tens of thousands of dispossessed families become migrants, moving westward with whatever they can carry atop their old vehicle, to answer a fraudulent promise of abundant jobs in California. As they move, many perishing on the way, they are confronted by distrust and contempt. They find themselves derided as ‘Okies’ by those met along their trek —“Keep moving; we don’t want your kind here”, they are warned.
Steinbeck paints a poignant image of commercial bankers in league with those machines:
“Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics, because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said The Bank-- or the Company—needs-- wants—insists-- must have---- as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling which had ensnared them. These lasts would take no responsibility …” …”the bank--- the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die.”
Standing with the bosses, ready to enforce the corporate plan, are vigilantes and mean-spirited police wherever the migrants stop. Anyone daring to dissent is threatened with jail, blackmailed, ‘disappeared’.
The poor press silently on.
At the end of their journey, desperate surviving refugees arrive in the green orchards of California eager to regain their dignity and family cohesion only to face new company men, also finding themselves competing with other hungry job seekers for lower and lower wages. Here too they are met by bosses allied with police authorities to maximize their own gains, driving the uprooted families to greater degrees of desperation.
Are those 1930 ‘Okies’ not ancestors of our estimated 25 million refugees now wandering over our globe? Not only are today’s ‘Okies’ viewed with suspicion; their homelands are occupied by one kind of disaster capital complex or another, diverting national resources into foreign assets, fishing coves into tourist resorts, mixed farmlands into single cash crop ventures, and bankrupting their governments with US-made defense imports.
Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the earliest dramatization in English of what we now recognize as “disaster capitalism” (although nothing of that is indicated in summaries of the story https://www.arts.gov/partnerships/nea-big-read/the-grapes-of-wrath.) The epic journey of Steinbeck’s Joad family began with a climate disaster—droughts that turned vast farmlands into what became know as the dustbowl, invoked in Wood Guthrie’s 1940 collection Dust Bowl Ballads..
Some may recall, as I did, a passionate story of the Joad family, with the noble Tom Joad striving to keep hope alive; and Ma Joad, the optimistic matriarch directing her forlorn, dwindling family forward. What I remembered from the novel and the film are beautifully crafted characters with their personal hardships and disparate responses to misfortune. In the character of Tom Joad, artists have found inspiration: there was singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, himself a dustbowl refugee from Oklahoma; two generations later, Steppenwolf Theatre Company produced a stage version of Grapes of Wrath; and in his 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, Bruce Springsteen draws comparisons between the dustbowl and modern times.
Today, temporarily immobilized by an accident, I’m rereading Grapes of Wrath after a 40 year hiatus. Now Steinbeck’s political message moves into the forefront. This is not the history of a climate refugee family. It is the history of capitalism in America—disaster capitalism-- with an alliance of police force and wealth, where machinery is supreme, where honest labor is not enough, and where the family is secondary--a worthy reread in modern American times. END[ ReReading "Grapes of Wrath" -- an early case of "disaster capitalism" at work ]
- September 25, 2017
At least the combative and haughty Israeli prime minister was forthright: he supports a free and independent Kurdistan. Today's vote by Iraqi Kurdish parties to secede from Iraq may well push the country into another war, a civil war. (Doubtless nothing would please Israel more.)The referendum is opposed by neighboring powers, but most significantly by the central government in Baghdad. It is a far more serious move that the well publicized October 1st Catalonian vote in Spain, also more perilous than Middle East watchers let on. Why the Iraqi referendum is receiving so little scrutiny, I don’t know.
Our revered English language “fake-news” establishment (e.g. The NYTimes and The Guardian among them) is underplaying the significance of a Kurdistan secession, also denying American and British endorsement for it. In reality the US and UK are totally with Israel in promoting and supporting north Iraq’s independence. Iran’s and Turkey’s opposition is well known; Syria would also be in that camp although no one publicly listens to Syria these days. (Remember that US troops are closely collaborating with Syrian Kurdish forces in opposition to Damascus.)
Reading the buried articles on Iraqi Kurdish national aspirations, one would gather it’s a scheme conceived after the 2003 US invasion, advanced only by Kurdish leaders. This is nonsense.
Although the British divided the large, strategic area occupied mainly by Kurdish-speaking people among Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey with their Sykes-Picot “Agreement” during World War I (part of the dissolution of the Turkish Empire), more recent plans by the imperial powers and Israel involve reconfiguring the modern Middle East into smaller and smaller pieces, starting with Iraqi Kurdistan. (Talk of Iraq’s division into three parts arose in 1991; similar scenarios are applied to Syria today.)
Public discussion of an independent Kurdistan has been ongoing since the launch of the US-led war on Iraq. Yes, Washington’s war on Iraq began not with the 2003 invasion but in 1991, with what’s called the Persian Gulf War (as if it was confined to that area). The ongoing assault included the murderous, destabilizing and destructive embargo war that continued from 1990 to 2003).
As for the Kurds, readers will recall images of tens of thousands of besieged families fleeing into the mountains ostensibly pursued by Saddam’s army. Without delay, humanitarian-motivated (sic) western powers rushed to the Kurds’ aid, using the opportunity of diversionary assaults in pursuit of Saddam and the Baathists, to essentially occupy the three Kurdish governates on behalf of that besieged minority. With Kurdish leaders’ wholehearted complicity, occupation was easily secured by a band of CIA agents, a low profile US military contingent working with an Israeli team, protected by the insipid northern “no-fly zone” (blessed, I believe, by the United Nations Security Council). The Kurdish region has remained semi-autonomous since then, sanctioned by a clause in the US-framed Iraqi constitution granting Kurds a degree of autonomy. Day by day, year by year, those three Kurdish governates have enjoyed protection, economic development, including a thriving tourist industry, freedom from any sanctions, and at liberty to sell oil from its territory directly to foreign companies; and all unquestioned thanks to its benevolent international image in human rights reports and the press.
During these 26 years, tensions between the central government and the KRG (Kurdish regional government) in Erbil have steadily heightened. Neither US occupiers nor other influential forces in Iraq have attempted to lessen the crisis. American Kurdish experts led by the intrepid former US diplomat Peter Galbraith have consistently argued for an independent Kurdistan.
Then there’s Kirkuk: Iraq’s major city in the north lies outside that semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Until 1991 Kirkuk was overwhelmingly inhabited by Iraqi Turkmen people. Kirkuk and smaller nearby cities (e.g. Tel Afar) have been Turkmen’s homeland for centuries, an area profoundly and unquestionably Iraqi in loyalty. You’d never know this from western press accounts which characterize Kirkuk simply as a center of oil deposits. I say Kirkuk was a largely Turkmen city because this has changed; since 1991 Iraqi Kurds have been steadfastly engaged driving Turkmen from their towns while repopulating them with Kurdish families. Although no mass killings of Turkmen have occurred as far as I am aware, there has been a major ethnic cleansing underway, transforming Kirkuk from a major Turkmen society into a Kurdish one. All this has been in preparation for the inclusion of Kirkuk into the anticipated autonomous Kurdistan, a process known and condoned by US, Israeli and the UK policy makers.
With the coming referendum, although the three regions (minus Kirkuk) enjoyed a marked degree of independence, despite successive Baghdad government attempts to limit this, Kirkuk now becomes the additional prize and a noted target in the coming referendum.
Baghdad opposes the referendum as strongly as Madrid rejects Catalonia’s independence vote. In recent weeks Madrid has taken startlingly firm action to thwart the regional vote. Baghdad’s position is as uncompromising; a federal court has declared the referendum illegal according to the Iraqi constitution, and Baghdad declared its readiness to use military action, at least to hold Kirkuk. Don’t believe news reports that the US and its allies oppose this referendum. Note the absence of any diplomatic effort by Washington to help reach a compromise and avoid another period of strife there.
All Iraqis must be feeling very nervous tonight.
- September 10, 2017
So you dream of leaving your class-infected, corrupt, and poor homeland oligarchy for America’s legendary freedoms? All the glamour and freedoms generated by Hollywood is irresistible, I know. Today however, in the wake of a new US administration, the ugliness which our tranquil college campuses, Hollywood creations, and Silicon Valley innovations had obscured, is exposed for all to witness. If you want an American reality check, follow civil rights attorney John Whitehead.
I really don’t like being a downer; better to avoid reality and watch gritty college football, American Idol, Mad Men, or Ellen DeGeneres. Or take up meditation or organic food. For sure.
Somewhere at the back of my consciousness I had been aware that the USA is a police state. I didn’t let it bother me though; it didn’t seem to interfere with my life agenda.
Perhaps I’m like millions of other immigrants who slide into an economy needing my talents and naivety, along with a fine education acquired elsewhere. No one needed to instruct me about surviving; it was evident: keep your head down (and uncovered), your mouth shut (about abuses you witness), work your butt off, and you may slip below the radar and pass as white. (I didn’t give the price of white privilege much thought, namely my ethnic pride and the challenge all the family faces holding to slivers of our heritage.) Notwithstanding my doctorate from U. London, my quoted academic papers and invitations to international conferences, I remained oblivious to inequities in US society. The police state seemed to operate only in sleazy corners of the underworld.
My career shift to journalism focusing on the Arab lands and my fellow Arab and Muslim peoples changed all that. Witnessing first hand the deceit and murderousness US embargo on Iraq championed by America’s free media, I matured.
I recall a NY gathering in the mid-90s, when those of us challenging US policies complained about newly threatened civil liberties. In response to our alarm, an African American colleague remarked: “Ah, now you feel it. We have been living with this police terror for more than 400 years, since our arrival as slaves here. Now it’s reaching you (non-Blacks); now you too taste it.” He had no sympathy for our anxiety.
Reality sunk in when individuals distanced themselves from me; next, I knew I was being watched; then opponents of my journalistic reports shunned me. (Forget about the professors I’d worked with; they’d slithered away long before).
Following the 9/11 attacks, the US police state ballooned and restraints lifted on how police/FBI and the courts treated ‘suspects’. In this phase the targets were Muslim residents, and Muslim visitors. From the start of this period to the present white citizens largely ignored the interrogations, jailings and deportations of Muslim residents. Even civil rights attorneys were scared to defend Muslim suspects. (There is no record of the fate of thousands of affected families; only in recent years, commendable investigative work has revealed that many terror suspects were in fact victims of government ‘sting’ operations.)
Today, under the Trump administration, the sweep has broadened; police are more aggressively targeting undocumented workers, bold white journalists, and non-violent demonstrators. Their invasion is more penetrating thanks to enhanced (digitized) state surveillance tools. I shudder when I read attorney Whitehead’s Sept 7th “What Country Is This?” and share a few passages for you to ponder.
Whitehead writes: “Our freedoms—especially the Fourth Amendment—are being choked out by a prevailing view among government bureaucrats that they have the right to search, seize, strip, scan, shoot, spy on, probe, pat down, taser, and arrest any individual at any time and for the slightest provocation.
“Forced cavity searches, forced colonoscopies, forced blood draws, forced breath-alcohol tests, forced DNA extractions, forced eye scans, forced inclusion in biometric databases: just a few ways in which Americans are being forced to accept that we have no control over our bodies, our lives and our property, especially when it comes to interactions with the government.
“Worse, on a daily basis, Americans are being made to relinquish the most intimate details of who we are—our biological makeup, our genetic blueprints, and our biometrics (facial characteristics and structure, fingerprints, iris scans, etc.)—in order to clear the nearly insurmountable hurdle that increasingly defines life in the United States: we are now guilty until proven innocent.
“Such is life in America today that individuals are being threatened with arrest and carted off to jail for the least hint of noncompliance, homes are being raided by police under the slightest pretext, property is being seized on the slightest hint of suspicious activity, and roadside police stops have devolved into government-sanctioned exercises in humiliation and degradation with a complete disregard for privacy and human dignity.
“Consider, for example, what happened to Utah nurse Alex Wubbels after a police detective demanded to take blood from a badly injured, unconscious patient without a warrant. Wubbels refused, citing hospital policy that requires police to either have a warrant or permission from the patient in order to draw blood. The detective had neither. Irate, the detective threatened to have Wubbels arrested if she didn’t comply. Wubbels respectfully stood her ground only to be …while hospital police looked on.
“Michael Chorosky didn’t have an advocate like Wubbels … Chorosky was surrounded by police, strapped to a gurney and then had his blood forcibly drawn after refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test. “What country is this? What country is this?” cried Chorosky during the forced blood draw.
What country is this indeed?... forced blood draws are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the indignities and abuses being heaped on Americans in the so-called name of “national security.”
“Forced cavity searches, forced colonoscopies and forced roadside strip searches are also becoming par for the course in an age in which police are taught to have no respect for the citizenry’s bodily integrity whether or not a person has done anything wrong.
“David Eckert was forced to undergo an anal cavity search, three enemas, and a colonoscopy after allegedly failing to yield to a stop sign at a Wal-Mart parking lot. Cops…suspected Eckert was carrying drugs because his “posture [was] erect” and “he kept his legs together.” No drugs were found.
“During a routine traffic stop, Leila Tarantino was subjected to two roadside strip searches in plain view of passing traffic, while her two small children waited inside her car. During the second strip search, presumably in an effort to ferret out drugs, a female officer “forcibly removed” a tampon from Tarantino. No contraband or anything illegal was found.
“Thirty-eight-year-old Angel Dobbs and her 24-year-old niece, Ashley, were pulled over by a Texas state trooper on July 13, 2012, allegedly for flicking cigarette butts out of the car window. Insisting that he smelled marijuana, the trooper proceeded to interrogate… “Despite the fact that both women denied smoking or possessing any marijuana, the police officer then called in a female trooper, who carried out a roadside cavity search, sticking her fingers into the older woman’s anus and vagina, then.. on the younger woman… No marijuana was found."
These few examples from Whitehead’s review reflect common US police behavior. More frightening when we consider that this is the nation (like Israel) where many governments worldwide send their police for training.[ Looking to Leave Your Homeland? Think Again. ]
You must be the change you wish to see in the world
- a poem.. a song..
- "Grandfather's Farm" children's playsong; Arabic
- Qur'an Surat Al-Laila
from 'Approaching the Qur'an' CD, male reciter
- Book review
- Rajia Hassib's
In The Language of Miracles
reviewed by BNAziz.
- Tahrir Team
Lynne Stewart with our interns
- Read about Lynne Stewart with our interns in the team page.