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What Storm Stella Can Teach Us About War

April 01, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It’s been more than a week but they are still out there-- machines and people --pushing it, chopping it, lifting it-- moving it, somehow, out of the way, out of our routine pathways. Under attack by salt, sand and sunrays, the mountains of snow slowly retreat. Although early April forecasts warn this may not be the end. We groan at the thought.

People will be talking about Storm Stella for a decade. I had never seen so many plows— lumbering monsters, lights flashing, orange twelve-foot-wide metal wings lunging through the whiteness; plows with sand and salt sprayers follow the heavier machines.   Narrower roads are tackled by ATVs, shovels and buckets newly fixed to their bumpers. Snow blowers of all sizes are ferried by truck to inaccessible homes and office buildings.

As we dig ourselves out, we are uncertain if another day of snow is due. Do we have enough food? What if electricity fails?

Following the dig out, neighbors exchange memories of the last blizzard in upstate New York. Gregg says it was 2003; others claim 1996 was the worst in memory.

I don’t remember the winter of ’96. Where was I?

Now I recall: in Iraq documenting the staggering impact of the United Nations sanctions (a U.S. initiated and policed blockade) against the country. (An action which Washington forced the UN to endorse.)

By 1996 the blockade on Iraq had been in effect for almost six years. By 1996 its people no longer waited for the isolation and shortages and illnesses and deprivations and heart attacks to end. By 1996 they ceased expecting any change in the United Nations position or fair treatment from waves of rude inspection teams. So many agencies were making millions (funds allocated by the U.S. from Iraq’s frozen bank accounts) from monitors and conferences, reviews and reports about the crippled nation’s poverty, sanctions compliance, and human rights accounting, there was no incentive to end the embargo.

The assaulted, besieged population adjusted, if adjust is the right word for survival. If anyone can adjust to personal losses and war, deprivations, indignities and manifold injuries. “Whatever we suffer today, we know only that tomorrow will be worse”, she noted. I don’t remember her name, but I know her voice—low and angry, lips pressed together. She was no more than 20. Her words slap against my brain cells, again and again, twenty years later.

                Along with millions of other Iraqis she waited day after day, year after year. (And they still wait.)

Even though the embargo ended after 13 years and elections were held, many millions perished or moved abroad. Except for planning how to get whatever crumbs one may manage to suck out of the government, the only thing to look forward to is escape. A quarter century of uncertainty-- under dictatorship, under occupation, under democratically elected governments--persists.

Feeling the (temporary) assault and isolation created by Storm Stella’s engulfing New York last month, it occurred to me: Suppose it doesn't stop? Suppose another one hits before we have cleared this away; suppose all available plows are diverted to the city and we are forgotten? Suppose this goes on, the snow accumulating day after day, until May, and then suppose a week of rain follows? Suppose the melt-off and the downpour trigger floods, and roads are washed out? I didn’t feel panic; but for the first time, I really imagined what the accumulation of year after year after year of war could create.

I’d been in war zones. In Iraq observing crumbling infrastructure, closed hospitals, abandoned clinics, no flights, no medicines, no milk powder, heading for summer, I was nevertheless able to escape every time slipping in June away to avoid the searing heat. I had moved through Occupied Palestine, hearing tanks rumbling through a neighborhood, witnessing curfews and endless check points, school cancellations, shops shuttered, playgrounds locked. Since 2011, I’ve followed Syria’s trauma, with families and houses isolated from one another, declining services each month, utility cuts, shortages, one hardship piled on anther, no one to call for help.

Spring is suspended indefinitely in all these places. For all these inhabitants, all these souls.

A dystopian winter image set off by barely three days of interruption in my routine created by Storm Stella, brings me closer than anything else I had experienced to what millions are living inside those endless wars where the cruelness of winter storms goes on and on and on.  END

[ What Storm Stella Can Teach Us About War ]

The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?

March 23, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The tall good looking New Yorker, about 25, stands out in the crowd around me. His black curly hair shines, his head raised expectantly, his smile so unlike the sleepy people around us peering anxiously into their handheld devices.

I’ll learn before my trip ends that this warm faced lad’s name is Dijon.

Our fleeting association begins there on the platform waiting for the uptown #6 train. Initially his smile attracts me; then my gaze rises beyond his face to a shimmering red and silver flag; it’s actually a balloon waving above us, and somehow I know this belongs to Dijon. Seeing “Happy Anniversary” scrolled clearly on the shimmering surface, I think ‘Nice. He’s returning from an office party celebrating his marriage’. That explains his smile too.

I’m distracted by a growl from the mouth of the tunnel, a welcome noise to commuters at the end of their workday. Here comes the #6 train. The platform, dense with thick-coated bodies, begins to stir, preparing to press into the car the second its doors slide open. Forget about a seat; I may not even find standing room.

At 4:30 p.m., the rush of workers heading uptown to their homes—one room, maybe two, three at the most, somewhere in the Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem or the Bronx-- has begun.

I am unconcerned how Dijon, with his unwieldy balloon and the large carton cradled in his arms, manages to maneuver himself into the train as thirty other commuters lurch through that single door. Then, doors safely closed behind us, there’s that same balloon. And, here beside me, our backs squashed side by side against the door, stands its bearer, with the same quiet smile.

As this isn’t my regular route so I must check: where should I disembark? Instinctively, I look up towards the anniversary flag: “Does the #6 stop at 84th Street?” His voice is soft, reassuring: “We stop at 86th-- good for you. You know you could have taken the #5 express across the platform; you’d reach in just two stops by the five.”

Never mind; with this friendly opener I proceed with my inevitable interview, probing my travel companion’s agenda and introducing me to another New York lifestyle experience. “Your anniversary?” I inquire. “How many years?” “Oh no”, Dijon casually rejoins and, glancing at the balloon above us, explains: “I’m delivering this: Edible Arrangements. We’re a party service (I’ll Google it later) Nodding to the package in his arms now, he explains this service for family celebrations; “They get the balloon and our fruit package -- chunks of fresh pineapple, melon, apple, stuff like that-- arranged on sticks all poking out of a big orange. It’s really pretty, done up like a bouquet.”

And do you sing as you present this gift? “No, no”, and pausing, adds “But I could sing”.

It occurs to me that Dijon may in fact be a talented vocalist-- a singer, an actor, a performer of some kind. He’s probably one of the tens of thousands of gifted young people drawn to the city in search of gigs on stage, hunting for an agent, waiting to be discovered. Yes, that explains his bearing. I miss that cue, and instead ask about his ‘edible’ services; it’s a lifestyle service, the pampering of well-to-dos and trend-obsessed young people who socialize with indulgences, like hand delivered balloons and fruit baskets. “For say $50?”, I guess. “Hmm”, replies Dijon; “Well, $50 and up.”

I think: what could he earn for one delivery (remembering he has to travel by subway)? Maybe $10. I can’t ask him directly,  so I follow up with “And tips? Do your happy anniversaries tip well?” Another “Hmmm” from Dijon. “No tips: not usually.”

(No point inquiring about health insurance or workman’s compensation.)

                These delivery gigs employ battalions of young and energetic do-anything-to-live-in-New Yorkers. Would-be actors, comedians and musicians traditionally wait tables and serve drinks in the city’s many bars. More and more, these jobs are augmented by these delivery services which employ jobless graduates and anyone else willing to serve those who can pay, however indulging and frivolous the service. What’s offered are sometimes routine and tedious (house-cleaning, dog walking), at other times exotic and terribly fashionable (you can’t imagine).

Subway advertisements abound with invitations to do something special for yourself, or a loved one—all by phone apps, and like Uber-- delivered personally by a young man or woman at your door. Handy.com, delivery.com, taskrabbit, upwork.com blueapron.com, redbucket.com, deliveroo.com are just a few examples of what’s available. 

It’s the gig economy; on one hand it’s emerging from excessive joblessness, a serious condition finally receiving attention from workers rights advocates.  On the other hand it’s created by people with abundant disposable incomes. Based on both desperation and trendyness, servitude is a growth industry in American cities. Ediblearrangements.com and bueapron.com are New York chic.

The fashion crowd—i.e. those with monthly salaries, health insurance, social security savings and a company pension fund--- chat in the bar or at office break about these trendy services, similar, one imagines, to how white ladies chatted about their domestic ‘help’.

The Sunday Lifestyle section of your newspaper features the merits of blueapron.com fashion. Meanwhile less noticed reviews expose the inbuilt exploitation and the hardships lived by these young workers.  

Doubtless some of the tens of thousands of wishful, handsome jobless graduates, having glimpsed inside those wealthy apartments to whom they delivered massages and fruit bouquets, gather after hours to invent their own startup service. Maybe they themselves can launch the next trend. 

No one is thinking about workers rights. In fact a new adjunct trend is umbrella recruitment companies. They locate, vet and sign up individuals who they then farm out for hour and day jobs. In the UK this service extends to school teachers—all to save someone else money.   END

 

[ The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On? ]

Letter to My Friend in Damascus

March 13, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I am afraid to ask you you’re feelings about the recently announced American invasion into your country. In our talks these past months, we’ve spoken only about hardships: the increasing scarcity of electricity, water and food shortages, an absence of home heating fuel. This in the capital, Damascus, where people can still go to school and to work, where some local buses can navigate through the mud and debris, where drivers can sometimes find petrol for their cars.

When we’re able to connect by phone, you talk about people I know: parents unable to pay for their child’s surgery, a family with no means of keeping warm in winter.

                You could easily leave to live abroad with your children. But you’re in charge of a children’s home, and you simply can’t abandon the staff—those few who remain. Before, donations were adequate and teachers sufficient. Now teachers are leaving to find work and safety abroad, following many hundreds of doctors who’ve emigrated. You spend more time searching for assistance from the few remaining families offering charity. Syrians have always been especially generous to the homeless (few though they were in the past), and to any charitable effort by any faith. How can able Syrians sustain this deeply embedded principle when they themselves are in need, dependent on their children abroad?

Do you have someone outside who supports you while you provide succor to others inside? I don’t know what sustains you, apart from your love of country, something few speak about these days, and hardly anyone outside Syria recognizes.

On international women’s day here, I broadcast some interviews from my audio archive, conversations with women in Damascus 6-7 years ago. Each spoke with such pleasure about her work, delighted too that their voices, Syrian voices, might be heard (and felt) in America. I don’t know where those patriotic souls are today. None would have chosen to leave, I know that. In 2010 their lives had been full and promising. Yours, too. And those of your office staff and everyone at the children’s center, and your youngest son, just graduated.

You and I witnessed many favorable changes under the new, young president. Tourists were arriving in large numbers. Shopping malls were lively and welcoming. Colleges were vibrant centers of learning and hope; new private universities were flourishing. “Why should our bright young people go to Lebanon or Europe to study?” you declared: “We can educate them here, providing more work for our professors, for contractors who build these colleges, and for staff who drive buses and manage college dorms and cafeterias.”

Nowadays, students who can’t find a way to leave, face military service. There are no figures about all the soldiers killed and wounded; it’s tens of thousands, for certain. Only a few families can manage to pay for their sons to avoid the draft. “We are losing all of our young people,” you sigh. That proclamation lies in the shadow of every one of our conversations.

                Five years ago, after I returned to New York from Syria, I followed news reports and forwarded you an occasional report from writers Joshua Landis, Robert Fisk or Patrick Cockburn which I thought might shed light on events; you asked me what I thought the U.S. administration was planning and what  American commentators were saying about Syria. Then we ended these exchanges. They were useless; they simply offered false hope.

In the months preceding the American election your interest and hope returned; a new U.S. administration might somehow bring the war to a close. Then however, you decided that whoever prevailed, Democrats or the Republicans, Syria could hardly expect relief, peace, a settlement:-- nothing but worsening conditions and the loss of youths, teachers and doctors.

We haven’t spoken about the new U.S. leadership. Nor did I ask you for your reaction to Israel’s bombing of Syria last month, an aggression that garnered almost no attention here. Was that attack more unsettling and ominous that earlier Israeli assaults?

I expect that Syrians can think about little except: “Can it get worse? And, “How can we find some heating fuel, more medicine, a pair of shoes?”  

On top of all this comes this major political development:-- the unconcealed arrival of American military presence on your soil. Marines and heavy armaments are moving into Syria as I write. According to U.S. generals, their troops are deployed to help Washington’s Syrian allies—not the Syrian army-- to dislodge and eradicate ISIS from Raqqa. This move comes in the wake of remarkable gains by the Syrian army backed by Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah forces.

While the U.S. troop arrival is (to the American public) optimistically presented as ISIS-motivated, you and I know that it’s likely a pretext; it’s really another step in The U.S.’s Syria ‘mission creep’. Has Washington ever limited military incursion to the announced goal? Has it left anything behind its wars on Arab soil except destruction and deprivation, chaos and animosity?

Five years ago, following initial uprisings in Syria, many there might have welcomed an American military presence. But in time, you and your compatriots understood America’s support for the cruelest, most extreme opposition (rebel) fighters; Washington’s endorsement of Saudi and Qatari plans to sow chaos in Syria was clear within a few months. As Syrians comprehended the real US agenda--to destroy and disrupt at any cost--their view changed.

So what now? This most nationalist of Arab states is still somehow intact, against all odds. All those Syrian boys martyred; those barefoot children, those empty colleges, those ghostly shopping malls wait.  

I could find no public response here to this week’s American surge in Syria, no indication that it’s a noteworthy U.S. policy change, no journalist asking for Syrians’ reactions. An unsettling silence engulfs the first hours of a new American invasion.

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a New York-based anthropologist and writer, hosted RadioTahrir on Pacifica-WBAI in New York City for 24 years. Her 2007 book Swimming Up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq is based on her 13 years covering Iraq. Aziz’ writings and radio productions can be accessed at www.RadioTahrir.org, Syrian stories at http://podcast.radiotahrir.org/?s=syria

[ Letter to My Friend in Damascus ]

Film Review--"Speed Sisters" by director Amber Fares

February 17, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

One hardly expects a story of political struggle to feature a team of intemperate young women racing their cars around a dusty, fenced-in track. But in a Palestinian context, everything is political. Even if the new film Speed Sisters doesn't chronicle an explicit struggle, it’s a portrait of a people whose determination will remind Israelis that resistance to their occupation is not moribund.

My January review of Ghada Karmi’s memoir Return points to inexorable expressions of what it means to be Palestinian, how memories of Palestine are inexhaustible. Surely a half century of pursuits by writers, journalists, artists, lawyers, and boys-with-stones testify to the compelling Palestinian narrative, propelled by the unquenchable energy of these people and the rightness of their mission.

                Some stories are tragic, some heroic (and at the same time tragic), some little more than nostalgia, and others simply facts-on-the-ground. Some, like Return, are forlorn and, grudgingly, sadly honest.

Filmmaking too documents the unfolding, always unfolding, story of Palestine. There was The Wanted 18, Amer Shomali’s 2014 animated Palestinian film told from the viewpoint of dairy cows deemed a threat to Israeli security. Elia Suleiman’s productions (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) are augmented by Nida Sinnokrot’s documentary Palestine Blues, focusing on the destiny of a farm tractor. Mai Masri, director of nine films, continues a distinguished career with a new production, “3000 Nights”, now opening in several US cities.

Veteran filmmaker Masri is joined by a notable new generation of mainly women, among them Palestinians Annemarie Jacir (Salt of the Sea), and Cherien Dabis (Amreeka). Canadians Ruba Nadda (Cairo Time) and Nadine Labaki (Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?) are well established feature filmmakers. Among newcomers are Rola Nashef (Detroit Unleaded) and Amber Fares, director of Speed Sisters opening in New York this month. A new twist on the Palestinian experience, these ‘speed sisters’ are four feisty women and their team captain. They’re race car drivers spinning and screeching their vehicles through courses in Bethlehem, Jericho, and their hometown Ramallah. In sync with these women, the film is a fast-paced, raucous adventure that follows their pride, their energy and their drive to win.  

Fares sets her camera sometimes from within the women’s vehicles, sometimes in the middle of the dusty course as the racer spins and roars around her, sometimes in her home, sometimes among admiring male fans cheering her on from the bleachers, all this within sight of ubiquitous Israeli troops. (All spaces here are militarily occupied.)

Car racing started in Palestine in 2005 and women joined the sport hardly a year later. One can’t help admiring these women. Each snaps on her helmet and grits her teeth, jaws set firmly on victory even against competing teammates. We have the firm impression that each knows what she’s doing and knows what she wants. Director Fares interweaves raucous racing scenes into the women’s encounters with military occupation—passing through checkpoints en route to Jerusalem, sneaking a day at the beach near Tel Aviv, courting a tear gas attack when they playfully approach an Israeli patrol.

If we as viewers remove ourselves from the excitement of the chase and the energy of each racer’s personality, we might ask: where could this thrilling hobby possibly lead, for the individual women, and for Palestinian political aspirations?

On her drive to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for prayers team captain Maysoon is assaulted by young boys selling balloons. In the moments when the camera catches their stubborn exchange with Maysoon, we can feel the boldness of those boys, the same resolve that infuses these women racers. Their life is really tough, and they won’t give up.

You don’t want to mess with this crowd. 

[ Film Review--"Speed Sisters" by director Amber Fares ]

Return of The Boycott as Political Resistance

February 09, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Return of The Boycott as Political Resistance

www.counterpunch.org/2017/02/09/return-of-the-boycott-as-political-resistance  

How can the American public push back on its brash and prejudiced president while a pliant Republican party in control of the U.S. Congress seems in no mood to oppose their new leader?

Workers’ strikes may be effective in some countries. In America striking is a tool of the distant past. Workers syndicates, with the possible exception of police unions, are hardly extant in the 21st century.

Boycott is an option, but generally not a very effective political instrument where people are too attached to their pleasures and habits, whether sugary drinks, big cars, online shopping, dining or holidaying. (I admit that I myself am facing difficulty—thus far I’m managing—sustaining my boycott of SNL because of Katie Rich’s nasty remark about Trump’s young son.)

But we’re in a new era, aren’t we? A new ball game, where the immediate target of boycott would be very precise, a mortal, and a businessman. A perfect prey. No need to appeal to ethics or justice, when the strategy is to vote with one’s wallet against Trump family enterprises. No court decisions are needed, no mass signatures, no parades at the gates of Trump properties. Consumers can simply stop buying, and there’s plenty to strike off the shopping list, starting with Ivanka Trump’s fashion and jewelry products—carried in upscale stores like Nieman Marcus and Saks and by peoples’ retailers Walmarts and Amazon. (A boycott that overrides class distinctions). From reports of markdowns in store this week, the action, initiated by #grabyourwallet seems well underway.

But wait. Ivanka’s shoe line is the glamorous surface of this movement. Forget about quarterback Brady’s friendship with Trump, and discover an underworld of millions of possible boycotters. I’m talking about academics—an almost invisible and, dare I say, politically conservative American (liberal) population. Our scientists and academics, if sufficiently angry and if they can summon the courage to boycott, could make a tremendous impact. Unexpectedly, tens of thousands have already signed on to what’s become a tsunami wave to challenge Trump’s Muslim ban. University staff, hospital administrators, researchers and professors in all fields of scholarship and science are publicly acknowledging the millions of women and men in their labs, their lecture halls, their conferences and panels, and their classrooms who are recent or settled immigrants, visiting students, invited professors, co-authors—all foreign born, many of them Muslim-- on special visas or with green cards.

In response to President Trumps travel ban, two major academic boycotts are underway: a Canadian boycott with over 4000 signatories arose on the heels of another initiated in the UK with over 42,000 supporters. All are refusing to attend any professional conferences in the USA. To start.

Academic conferences? you inquire smugly. We need millions of plebeians in the streets to make any impact, you claim.

I give street protests their due; they’re essential in demonstrating the reach and depth of public resistance. But don’t sniff at conferences. Hotels thrive on them, yes. But so do our professors, graduate students, the entire research community, and the economy. Academic conferences are where new graduates seek employment, where scholars present research findings and authors hunt for publishers, where accolades are awarded and new leaders are identified, where alumni meet and reaffirm their college’s reputation, where professional networks are strengthened and expanded. These conferences are huge events. Take my field of anthropology for example. As a U. K. graduate we had a community of barely 300 anthropologists in the 1980s. So I was overwhelmed on my initial visit to the U.S., attending the annual AAA (American Anthropological Association) conference, to find myself among 3,300 fellow researchers. (Today that figure is double.) Besides nation-wide conferences, each profession has regional gatherings and state forums. Multiply this by all the professions, from neurology to modern Chinese literature, paleontology to copyright law, and you begin to grasp the scale of this low-keyed professional world.

Conferences are essential to academic growth, to career advancement, to intellectual competition and exchange, events eagerly anticipated year after year. Yet tens of thousands are ready to forego them in support of their ‘foreign’ colleagues. This is serious.

These scientists know how essential ‘foreigners’ are to their own successes, to rigorous intellectual dialogue, and to America’s global cultural and scientific influence. Those foreign students joining research teams win accolades and grants for their departments, many staying on permanently. Visiting professors are welcomed, feted, and often offered permanent jobs in the U.S. The high quality education and love of learning that Indians, Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Sudanese, and Syrians bring from their homelands are coveted by U.S. research laboratories, colleges and institutes.

Perusing the 2013 American National Science Foundation survey we can measure the prominence of immigrants. For example, between 2003 and 2013, of 341,000 immigrant scientists and engineers, more than half, 1,873,000, originated in Asia—Far East, Southeast and South Asia, and ‘other’-- likely West Asia/Middle East. (Compare with 632,000 from Europe, and 179,000 from South America.)

Of 21,000,000 scientists and engineers, 15.6 percent are non-native born. Over 80 percent of immigrant scholars enter computer and math sciences, increasingly important fields in our economy.

Engaging in an academic boycott is a real social, political and economic sacrifice. It’s neither common nor easy, as attested in the long, uphill of the academic boycott of Israel. Older professors recall their successful boycott of South Africa (1965-1990), part of the global Anti-Apartheid movement, 50 years ago with nostalgia, partly because of its exceptionality. So today’s boycott against Trump’s policies represents a historical breakthrough.

The lists are growing daily, the most recent being the boycott by an American NGO, a Minnesota nonprofit serving Somali-American youth.  

Over barely two weeks, public boycotts are matching a fortnight of presidential decrees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[ Return of The Boycott as Political Resistance ]


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