PORTRAIT OF A COFFEE HOUSE: People engage in conversation, for it is there that news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom and without being fearful, since the government does not heed what the people say. {Jean Chardin, 17th Century French Traveller}

06 February 2012

A letter from Syria to the World

A very moving letter being shared via Facebook from Syria to the world:
Letter from Khaled Khalifa to his friends around of the world 
My friends, writers and journalists from all over the world, in China and Russia, I would like to inform you that my people is being subjected to a genocide. 
A week ago the forces of the Syrian regime stepped up its attacks on the rebellious cities, especially in the cities of Homs, Zabadani, the suburbs of Damascus, Rastan, Madaya, Wadi Barada, Figeh, Idlib and villages of the Zawiya mountain. In the past week, up until the moment in which I am writing these lines, more than a thousand martyrs fell, many of them children, and hundreds of homes were destroyed on top of their inhabitants. 
The world's blindness encouraged the regime's attempt to eliminate the peaceful revolution in Syria, with an unrivaled repressive force. The support of Russia, China, Iran and the silence of the world in the face of the crimes committed in broad daylight, has allowed the regime's killing of my people for the past eleven months. But in the last week, since February 2cd, the features of the massacre were made clear. The scene of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who took to the streets of their towns and villages on the night of the massacre of Khalidiya, the night of last Friday to Saturday, raising their hands in prayer and in tears, is heart breaking and puts the humanitarian tragedy of Syria in the center of the world. It is a clear expression of our feeling of orphanhood, resulting from our abandonment by the world, which is content by political and economic sanctions that do not stop murderers or restrain blood bathed tanks.  
My people who faced death with bear chests and songs is being, in these very moments, subjected to a cleansing campaign. Our rebellious cities face sieges unprecedented in the history of world revolutions, preventing medical personnel to attend to the wounded, as field hospitals are being bombed in cold blood and destroyed. The entry of relief organizations is also prevented, phone lines are cut, and food and medicine are blocked to the extent that the smuggling of blood bags or Satamol tablets into the affected areas is considered a crime worthy of imprisonment in detention camps, the details of which will shock you one day.
In its modern history, the world has not yet seen valor and courage such as those displayed by the revolutionary Syrians in all our towns and villages, as the world has not yet seen such a silence, that is now considered a complicity in the murder and extermination of my people. 
My people is the people of peace, coffee and music, that I wish you will taste one day, roses the fragrances of which I hope you will breathe one day, so that you know that the center of the world is today exposed to a genocide, and that the whole world is an accomplice to the spilling of our blood. 
I can not say more in these difficult moments, but I hope you will take action in solidarity with my people, through whatever means you deem appropriate. I know that writing stands helpless and naked in front of the Russian guns, tanks and missiles bombing cities and civilians, but I have no wish for your silence to be an accomplice of the killings as well. 
Khaled Khalifa
Damascus, Syria

29 September 2011

BBC Panorama: Syria Inside the Secret Revolution

Apologies for being MIA. Have been taking on a few projects these past few weeks and life has been a little hectic. Need to catch up with news and reading!

This BBC report is brought to you via The Revolting Syrian:

27 July 2011

In the Name of Nationalism: Thoughts on the Oslo Bomber

My blood boiled as I watched the shifting media coverage in lieu of the Oslo Bombing late last week. Every major news network had their own 'expert' and every right-wing crank was crying 'jihad' until it was discovered the 'jihadist' was a white Norwegian right-wing extremist. I haven't yet seen any apologies for misguided speculation or assumptions. In fact, it was rather annoying how quickly the framing of the story changed once it was discovered the 'terrorist' was a white guy. And we should call Anders Behring Breivik out for exactly what he is - a terrorist - a man who acted with full intent on a political agenda he believed to be right at the expense of the lives of others he thought he was sacrificing for his twisted utopian vision.

But, no, saith the 'News Gods': we need criminal psychologists to examine him, his lawyer even insists he's clinically insane, mentally ill, etc. etc. Soon they will seek to lighten the culpability with some sob story about his youth because being a 'white guy' of course he's not a terrorist! He is an exceptional case. However, no one brings out psychologists to examine Osama bin Laden as an equally deluded exceptional head case or considers the trials and travails of his childhood. No, Bin Laden is a terrorist linked to a bigger religio-ideological war against the West, therefore, the implicit assumption the media frames is that 'terrorism' is endemic to Islam.

Let's take this apart with the use of common sense: terrorism is a means to a political or ideological end.  It is the use of violence to make a point, to get attention, and to terrorize people into adopting your point of view. And guess what? Islam does not hold the monopoly over violence. Breivik was a terrorist in every sense of the word, equal to Bin Laden. He published a 1500 word manifesto against European multiculturalism, Western feminism, and Islam echoing romantic notions of the medieval crusades to restore Europe to it's former Christian glory. He even posted a video on Youtube prior to the attacks depicting paintings of crusader knights, deriding liberals as cultural traitors, and then calling for other far-right wing believers to join his 'crusade' with the use of violence against liberal traitors and multiculturalism.

If this doesn't echo the same fundamentalism that inspires Salafists who condone violence in re-establishing a universal Muslim ummah and calling other extremists to join in the 'jihad' then read the above paragraph again because it is the exact same logic.

So, please, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it's a duck! Breivik is a terrorist and we should all be concerned of other right-wing extremists who buy the political agenda he's selling. Fundamentalism of any sort is blinding and it is in our best interest to fight it and to challenge right-wing pundits who sell us discrimination, exclusionary politics, and inspire hatred. 

My heart goes out to the Norwegians. I pray this is not a foreshadow for Europe in the future. I hope that out of a terrorist act, people will stand in unity against justifying their politics through violence. Extremism, whether it is nationalistic or religious, must be challenged for the sake of all of us living within the same borders and stuck in this world together.  

16 July 2011

Clippings: Afghan government seeks to ban costly weddings

But it's not just that: "The law, which would also prevent women from wearing dresses 'contrary to Islamic sharia,' reminds some here of Taliban-era paternalism."

An interesting piece from The Washington Post - Afghan government seeks to ban costly weddings

This is a photo of a wedding hall in Kabul during the daytime hours. Wedding halls are everywhere here in the city and extremely popular although the Afghan government should probably be more concerned with other issues at this point in time.

11 July 2011

Story Highlights: looking to the future

I couldn't help but look at the newsstand in amusement today. We are very future looking this month. Enjoy the following highlights for this week:

The Economist - "The Future of News"

The New Yorker - "Plus: The Future of Marriage"

Time - "The Future of Fish"

06 July 2011

Zero Silence: a documentary about the free wor(l)d

Zero Silence is an amazing project in-the-making, a documentary about the political impact of the Internet and non-traditional media in the Arab World. Click on the hyperlink above for more details on the project! You can also 'Like' their Facebook page here to keep up with news on the upcoming documentary.

01 July 2011

How to prepare people's hearts and minds for war

Imagine one early morning hour, still caught up in a dream, you start hearing the rolling drums of war, at first imperceptible, almost like a rustling sound, the sound of wind rushing through leaves. When you become aware of it, the rolling of drums has turned into rhythmic beating, synchronized, repetitive, monumental, omnipresent. By the time you wake up, the gates of hell are flung open, and you are already immersed in the rhetoric that empowers you to carry out almost anything.

Dror Borstein writes that it is no longer possible to convince anyone. No news item would ever change anyone's mind. On the contrary, every fact is mobilized to enforce existing beliefs. A whole family massacred in a single attack? 'Even more reason to eliminate the Hamas, once and for all. How dare they force us to treat them this way, how dare they make us turn into monsters'. Through a rhetorical slight of the hand, the victims themselves become responsible for their plight, the executioner becomes the helpless pawn in a cynical political game, playing a role he has not chosen. Others opt for numbness, wrapping their hearts in a membrane of apathy. Sometimes traces of feelings do emerge, unfortunately, a twitch of the eyebrow, or an almost imperceptible shiver, a vague memory perhaps, when the eyes wander and strike a photograph of the dead, brother next to sister next to brother, the family's father gazing at the tragedy, helplessly. “Yes", they say, "the children died, BUT…” and after the "BUT" comes the explanation, re-framing the problem, a quick bandage to harden the resolve, to justify the means, to thicken the membrane surrounding the heart.

A dark atmosphere has descended upon Israel, never before have I witnessed something quite like this, the formation of a collective logic, a vocabulary and language that makes war possible. The people I truly care about have been transformed; my dear friends, my close relatives, my trusted teachers and professors. Utterly and fully transformed. The first feeling is that of estrangement, the feeling of being catapulted out of an interwoven, what appears to be a cohesive society. Something has gone horribly wrong. Did I go mad? Wasn't there a time in which we shared the same values? Weren't we deeply disturbed when we heard of the suffering of others? Weren't we always puzzled at the possibility that a people - educated, cultured, reflexive, critical, learned - could undergo such a metamorphosis that they should turn into monsters? Is this real, or just a terrible nightmare?

The disgust becomes unbearable. Clueless, I start participating in demonstrations. There we meet: women and men from mainstream and from the margins of society; Palestinians and Jews, LGBT and Anarchists, Zionists and Communists, Victims and Executioners, Hypocrites and Blue-Eyed Idealists, people who, in normal circumstances, would never have met, let alone agree on anything meaningful, suddenly united in a wish to end this bloody carnage. We walk in the middle of Tel-Aviv, along one of its main streets: Ibn-Gvirol street, named after an Andalucian Hebrew poet born in a multi-cultured Spain of the 11th century. At the time Andalucia was no doubt more tolerant than Tel-Aviv today, and I notice, as we were walking, in the middle of the street, to our right and left, on the pavements on both sides, the threatening fists and bulging eyes, pointing fingers, menacing gestures and words of rage. Eggs flying in the air. Chanting rhythmically, our procession carries on, flanked on both sides with waving flags of white and blue, huge flags like the waves of the sea, menacing, aiming to crush us. Yet the procession advanced unperturbed, in the midst of the street surrounded by a flame of blue and white: “in the midst of the sea on dry land, and the waters were walled unto them on their right hand and on their left" (Exodus 14:22).

An earlier version of this post was written after Israel's attack on Gaza in January 2009 and published in the student monthly newspaper of the University of Porto.

30 June 2011

Story Highlights: Arab Revolutions & More

This month's issue of National Geographic has published some pretty fabulous features worth sharing:

Baghdad After the Storm: a former U.S. Army sergeant returns to Baghdad to reflect on how much has changed since the 2003 invasion. Despite the continued hardships and sectarian divisions facing the city's residents development and daily life go on. A mixture of illustrative emotion, flashbacks, and photography.

Middle East Youth Rising - Young, Angry, and Wired: A brief feature with an overview of a budding tech-savvy Arab generation, political and economic dissatisfactions, and revolt. "Some 60 percent of the people in the Middle East are under 30 years old, and many of them are angry. Like young people everywhere, they have ambitions. They want, they need, they crave. They feel constrained—especially, perhaps, when they watch satellite television or surf the Internet. There they can see how the rest of the world lives. Social media (including personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and more) allow young men and women to share their frustrations in ways they couldn't in the past."

The Search for Cleopatra: She is infamous because she is illusive. A woman of a thousand faces, National Geographic follows archaelogists on a quest to uncover the real Cleopatra dissecting myth and legend from reality.

And, finally, recent clippings of interest:

Coalition of Factions From the Streets Fuels a New Opposition in Syria: NYT's Anthony Shadid reports on the swiftly changing political landscape in Syria.

'Saudi Arabia is simply a very different society from Egypt, Tunisia or Syria': Why isn't revolution occurring in Saudi Arabia? The Guardian's Jason Burke examines the social and political factors that have kept Saudi citizens from revolting.

Yanar Mohammed—Iraqi Women’s Vigilant Champion: An interview by Marcia G. Yerman of the Women's Media Center of Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), in lieu of the recent harassment and violence against women's rights protesters in Baghdad's Tahrir Square.

The Birth of 'Free Media' in Eastern Libya: a report in PDF available via Reporters Without Borders.  

24 June 2011

Silenced: the choice between dissidence or living a 'normal' life

Here's a thought worth reflecting on: if you had the choice to make a decent wage, live a 'normal' untroubled life in exchange for silence and lack of political expression, would you do it? Is it worth fighting for a cause if it means the end of your livelihood, the harassment and blackmail of your family members, possible detention, torture, or even your death? This is the choice many people face every day living under repressive regimes and many choose the security of a maintaining a 'normal' life to openly challenging government malpractices, abuses, and corruption.

The New York Times published two stories recently illustrative of the costs of the choices dissidents face. In one story Azeri blogger and opposition activist Emin Milli was freed from prison only to find that his entire life had been robbed from him. Those who feared government retaliation for association to Milli cut off ties with anyone remotely linked with him. "His wife’s father had been fired from his government job because of Mr. Milli’s political activities. His own father had died while he was in prison. His wife, her own future in turmoil, had asked for a divorce. Mr. Milli spent much of this spring in his apartment, free time gaping before him like a chasm." More recently, the release of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei appears to be a victory, however, the New York Times added that the artist has since "muzzled" himself. The New York Times quoted Nicholas Bequelin, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Hong Kong, as noting that the artist “has a Damocles sword hanging over his head. That means any time he opens his mouth, he puts himself in danger.”

Given the costs of challenging a repressive and corrupt government one would have to weigh when the benefits of posing a public challenge to the status quo outweighs the costs. Everyday, opposition activists, bloggers, and other dissidents in countries with limited freedoms are detained or killed with little outside support and only with a few international NGOs advocating campaigns on their behalf. Burma has a particularly nasty track record on the index of civil liberties according to Freedom House, garnering one of the worse ratings for freedom by the rights' organisation. More recently, in Syria and Bahrain, arbitrary detentions and torture of suspected opposition activists and their associates have become the norm. Yet the mass movements in the Arab world sparked in Tunisia has resulted in a change of popular consciousness whereby people realize that collectively by casting off fear they have power to cast off bad governments, revolution.

In countries where governments create an atmosphere of public fear through secret police mechanisms, arbitrary arrests and the threat of detainment or violence, individuals are careful not to challenge their governments because they don't know whether their neighbors are informants who would turn them in for dissent. On the flip side, what individuals living in such an atmosphere probably don't realize is that many of their neighbors are probably as equally dissatisfied with the current political state of affairs as they are but given that no one voices it that status quo prevails. Furthermore, repressive governments are usually quick to make examples of individual dissidents as seen in the case of Milli and Ai Wei Wei. Dissidents and opposition activists only have force if they're popularly backed, but this requires collective courage from an entire population and the willingness of individuals to put their neck on the line or an individual with such powerful charisma he or she inspires collective action. Such movements are not always successful as seen from the 2007 anti-government protests in Burma, the so-called 'Saffron Revolution' which ended with the military junta willing to talk to the opposition but unwilling to cede any power. A pyrrhic victory. More recently, Libya portrays the potentially heavy costs of challenging a dictator, all out bloody civil war.

We hail individual courage and martyrdom for a cause. In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has become an international hero for wanting to bring democracy to her country and having paid the price with nearly 15 years of house arrest until her release in 2010. The more iconic image of Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, committing an act of self-immolation in protest of the persecution of Buddhist monks in Vietnam back in the 1960s is also very telling of the sympathy popular consciousness has for those dying for an idea, a human sacrifice in the name of protest. The public reveres those who can and will sacrifice their lives and livelihood if it means saying 'No' to a system which does not acknowledge the uniqueness of human individuality and giving us a life worth living.  It is the choice of defining what type of life is worth living and what gives us meaning through the recreation of our political systems and the right to express our beliefs openly.

Not everyone is willing to take the risks. When the choice is between your life, the life of your family and friends, keeping the roof over your head and having the job which will feed your children, most of us would pick survival over challenging a repressive regime or they would challenge the status quo but only from the apparent safety of exile. The question all dissidents must ask themselves is if what they believe in is worth the costs and, if it is, whether they have the courage, tenacity, and creativity to inspire others to join them.

18 May 2011

The Dangers of Revolution

Keeping track of developments in Egypt and Tunisia post-revolution is watching history unfold and wondering if it will repeat itself or utterly pull a black swan. Revolutions have an uncanny way of developing and no one can ever predict what happens after the revolution. I am immensely happy to see the people of Egypt and Tunisia overthrow the yokes of their long-ruling dictators but I'm also aware toppling a dictator was the 'easy part.' Establishing political stability in these countries as well as a stable democracy will be the biggest challenge yet. A good dose of realism is necessary in regards to the political process in lieu of a power-vacuum. Democracy will require constant vigilance and public accountability, human security and economic prosperity to truly be stable. At worse, if democracy does not prevail these countries will end up the pickings between corrupt strongmen vying for power.

Right now, Egypt and Tunisia are in transition, a slow going, fragile and tense process with Egypt due to have parliamentary elections in September and Tunisia in July. Bahrain and Syria are under dictatorial pressures and major crackdowns with little being said and done by the international community in their regard, albeit today the US imposed sanctions on Syria in response to the ongoing violence. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are playing major balancing acts trying to satisfy their own discontent groups and seeking out regional stability. Libya is in civil war and Yemen has the potential to explode into a bloodbath as Saleh keeps pressing his time-buying tactics with the GCC.

Iraq is a vision of things that could potentially happen in these other countries if revolution succeeds. US forces are officially due to pull out of Iraq at the end of this year but what they leave behind is potentially disconcerting.  Iraq's leaders are still divided as to US troop withdrawal at the end of the year. Iraq has had to contend with its own local protests and often news from Iraq has been drowned out amid everything else going on in the region as well as recent limitations placed on free media. The curbing of press freedoms in Iraq either through legal means or outright intimidation and violence is already an ill omen for the country.

One might argue Iraq is a bad case to which to compare Egypt, Tunisia, and the other Arab countries in the middle of revolts or, in Libya's case, civil war. After all, Saddam Hussein was toppled by a foreign military intervention not by a revolution. Yet with its sectarian, tribal, and ethnic divisions and its energy resources, Iraq is a good deal similar to the other countries currently amid uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring and may well foreshadow the potential political arena these countries could face after downing their current governments. In theory, Iraq has a 'democracy' in place but in practice sectarian violence is ongoing as different groups continue to vie for power over the country. Corruption is rife and institutional structures to bring about much needed stability and enhance nationwide security are still weak. Consider the recent news: a wave of assassinations across the country has been blamed on Shi'ite militias. Security forces and police are divided by factions with set loyalties and the current problem lies in having control over security across the country. As of today, no consensus exists and no stable government has been formed.

Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt emphasize the need to be wary. The transitional 'unity' government established by PM Mohammed Ghannouchi in Tunisia leaves many of Ben Ali's former allies in key posts and opposition leaders are critical and impatient with the slow pace of change. On a positive note, Ghannouchi has announced reforms for total freedom of press, the release of prisoners of conscience and corruption investigations for those who amassed wealth under Ben Ali. It's been almost 100 days since Mubarak's ouster in Egypt,  the country has been in a state of lawlessness, emergency laws haven't yet been lifted, and the population look expectantly to Mubarak's prosecution. The ruling party was dissolved in April, but Egypt remains under military rule while in transition and many Egyptians fear a counter-revolution. Tensions between Christians and Muslims led to clashes at the over the alleged conversion of a Christian woman to Islam and tensions between pro-Mubarak supporters and anti-Mubarak protesters still exist.  Furthermore, liberal or secularist Tunisians and Egyptians cast a wary eye at Islamist parties who are beginning to exercise their political participation in each respective country.

The question is will these countries be able to balance freedom of political participation while still affording religious rights, protections for minority groups and women, anti-corruption measures, and freedom of the press? Or will the political processes taking place in Tunisia and Egypt degenerate to violence, or, God forbid, another dictatorship?

In the words of Alexander Herzen, a 19th-century Russian writer: "Beware the oppressors, beware the liberators." Political transformations are always riddled with chaos, in them lie both risk and opportunity.

10 May 2011

Condoning Domestic Violence? TV, Books, & Silence - Why We All Should 'Tell Somebody'

This week Glamour magazine published the results of a national survey conducted to measure the extent of relationship violence against women. The survey concluded that 60 per cent of young women in America have been subject to some form of relationship abuse or violence. Moreover, 24 per cent have not told anyone they've been abused and 37 per cent of women who know someone in an abusive relationship never said anything to that person or law enforcement authorities about it. In lieu of these results, Glamour has kicked off a campaign called 'Tell Somebody' to raise awareness of domestic violence in America and to encourage friends to keep tabs on friends in potentially violent relationships.

Violence against women is a phenomena that transcends culture, race, and religion. If 60 per cent of women in a country that has made significant social and legal advancements on their behalf are subject to relationship violence, one can only imagine the actual statistics in countries lacking any such protections or support for women.

To make matters worse, recent publications of teen fiction are equating love to violence, not to mention certain controversial episodes of TV series based on the books that seem to highlight misogyny. Two years ago, criticisms were launched against the vampire Twilight series, noting that the protagonist Bella was engaged in an abusive romance with vampire Edward. More recently, Jezebel writer Margarett Hartmann, reported on the criticism the most recent episode of Gossip Girl garnered for equating violence as romance. Gossip Girl is another teen book series made into a TV show. In the most recent episode aired on May 2nd, a male character, Chuck, lunges a punch at his ex-girlfriend, Blair, misses and smashes the window behind her cutting her face. "Yet this isn't a story about relationship abuse," Hartmann reports, "the writers say it shows how much he loves her."

Yes, you read that right, the Executive Producer of Gossip Girl is defending the scene not as abuse but as the intensity of love. "The way we viewed it, I think it's very clear that Blair is not afraid in those moments, for herself. They have a volatile relationship, they always have, but I do not believe—or I should say we do not believe—that it is abuse when it's the two of them. Chuck does not try to hurt Blair. He punches the glass because he has rage, but he has never, and will never, hurt Blair. He knows it and she knows it, and I feel it's very important to know that she is not scared—if anything, she is scared for Chuck—and what he might do to himself, but she is never afraid of what he might do to her. Leighton and I were very clear about that." Let's backtrack for a minute and note that Chuck's character doesn't have a brilliant record. In the Season 1 pilot he attempts to rape two other female characters.

If this series is about love then love has gotten mixed up with all the wrong messages to girls and it is desensitizing them to relationship abuse and essentially 'normalizing' bad behavior as 'romantic.' To be fair, a lot of paperback adult romance novels have carried similar themes of rape and initial abuse as romantic.  However, if these shows and books are targeted to teenagers parents should engage their children in discussion drawing the line between fantasy and reality. The reality is 4 women a day die at the hands of their abusive partners in the United States, according to the 2011 Glamour survey.

Now let's consider domestic violence in countries outside the US. In 2008, NPR did a segment called Domestic Violence: A Silent Crisis in Russia. The Russian government estimates 14,000 women die at the hands of their partners each year but Russian police don't even classify abuse as a crime. Because it is culturally considered a 'private matter' no support systems exist in Russia to rehabilitate or protect women who are the victims of abusive relationships. A US Report on Human Rights Practices published in 2006 added that in Brazil domestic violence is 'widespread and underreported' although the government now appears to be taking legal steps to protect women. Spain has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Western Europe where reportedly 73 women died at the hands of their partners in 2010. Similarly, in Portugal 15,904 complaints were registered concerning domestic violence in 2009, including 16 murders, according to Amnesty International. In 2004, Saudi broadcast journalist Rania al-Baz breached the social taboo and spoke out against domestic violence in Saudi Arabia after sustaining horrific injuries perpetrated by her husband. Her audacity and courage launched public debate in the Gulf on domestic violence.

Violence against women should cease being condoned whether by TV, books, movies, the passivity of governments, and the act of silence. Tell Somebody! Women (and enlightened men) need to fight back not just in the United States but in countries around the world.


Glamour Tell Somebody: Text TELLNOW to 85944 to make a $10 donation, and the Avon Foundation will match every dollar you donate to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. In 2010, 83,027 calls went unanswered by the hotline due to lack of funding— more than 1,590 calls per week. Glamour, in partnership with Avon, is seeking to raise $200,000.