Past Blog Posts
- June 06, 2018
“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
- May 26, 2018
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 ]
- May 18, 2018
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 ]
- April 30, 2018
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 ]
- April 14, 2018
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 ]
"There is one constant in my work; I always make films about individuals who will not be crushed by history, who will not define themselves as victims."
Filmmaker Yousrey Nasrallah, Egypt
- a poem.. a song..
- "I Am From"
Lisa Mohammed reads "I Am From" Flash
AbdalHayy Moore reads from 'Ramadan Sonnets' --www.danielmoorepoetry.com
- Book review
The Moor's Account
reviewed by BN Aziz.
- Tahrir Team
Lynne Stewart with our interns
- Read about Lynne Stewart with our interns in the team page.