Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I forgot about my dreams: a Palestinian refugee in Syria tells her story

While the world’s attention is focused on Iraq again, with the Islamic State being the commonly agreed evil to be destroyed, the civil war in Syria is far from being over. The fight is in its fourth year and has entered a stalemate type of situation where none of the waring factions can win or lose. 

In many conflicts in the Middle East, Palestinian refugees suffer particularly from conflicts forced upon them. In Syria they risk being crushed between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the many groups opposing him or battling each other. 

How does one live under these circumstances? How does one survive? I was able to conduct an interview with Wardeh, a Palestinian student who lives with her family near Damascus. Here is what she told me.

Voix magazine: who are you?

Wardeh: I am 22 years old and I study journalism at Damascus University. I wanted to study „media“ since I was 14 and I had plans for a career in radio or TV.

In 2009, the Damascus University established a new college, the media faculty, and I signed up for their program. The faculty had a fully equipped building; however the building was soon taken over by a national TV channel, leaving the students with no tools. Therefore we didn’t have any practical training at all. Many lessons were also cancelled because of a national holiday or a supporting march for the regime.

What are your interests in life?

I love reading long novels, they help me to get distracted from reality. Nowadays I don’t read a lot, and if I do it’s mostly borrowed books or pdf files. We left our home in July of 2012 because of the war. Back home, we had a great selection of books, but we had to leave everything behind. It’s hard to find a good book now.

I love to try out everything. I took music classes, then I started to study Spanish, I completed six courses. However when the crisis began, the Instituto Cervantes closed and I had to stop studying. 

There is a shelter nearby where I live, with IDPs (internally displaced people). I go there every now and then to give English classes, for the kids, for the teenagers and even for the men. 

Where do you live?

Until 2012 I lived near Yarmouk. The Palestinian refugee camp was only a seven minutes walk away from my house. Everything I did, everybody I knew was inside the camp. You would find everything that you needed at Yarmouk, from the needle to the fridge. People from all over Damascus came to Yarmouk to do their shopping. Yarmouk was full of life. In hindsight, Yarmouk was like heaven then.

What happened?

One day in July of 2012 my dad told us that we had to leave our house tomorrow and move to Yarmouk. He didn’t say why, but then we realized that everybody in our building already had left, except us. 

I spent all night walking around the house, looking at every corner of it. I never thought that this would be my last hours in this house. I felt so much hate inside me and I didn’t even know what to pack. I expected that after a couple of days we will find out that nothing had happened and that we will return.

My dad picked us up at 3pm, we only carried a few bags and we went to my grandfather’s house inside Yarmouk. Two hours later a military operation started in our neighborhood.

one day, some day, nothing will remain the same: Yarmouk Camp

How was life in Yarmouk in 2012?

I only lived in Yarmouk for five months. After that we had to leave and we moved out of the camp again. During the five months, Yarmouk had its own share of bad times; there were many mortar shellings and many lives were lost.

Many people were staying inside the camp all day long. They were afraid to go out. I left the camp almost every day to go to university. It was my way of escaping. It was very emotional to see Yarmouk in so much pain and nobody could do anything against it.

Why did you leave Yarmouk after five months?

On December 15, 2012, I posted on my Facebook site, „one day, some day, nothing will remain the same“. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I posted it. It is really strange, because what happened the next day changed everything and nothing remained to same.

On December 16, the situation in Yarmouk got worse. Suddenly, without any previous warning, the Syrian regime started to strike Yarmouk from the air. They hit a street near the UNRWA school and a mosque was also hit. 

The reason for this was the Free Syrian Army that had entered the camp. They said that they would only stay for a few days, all they needed was a passage to Damascus. The few days became 18 months and they are still here!

But your family was able to leave Yarmouk, right?

We left on December 19, 2012, after three days of air strikes and fighting. We left by running under bullets. 

When I left my house for the first time, I wished that my bag was as big as my house so I could carry everything with me. The second time, when we had to leave Yarmouk, all things had lost their values and I didn’t feel like I wanted to carry anything with me.

During the three days that we stayed in Yarmouk under the bombs, my mother gave us „the talk“. She said that we had to be ready for everything. Whatever happens, we should keep going, even if one of us gets hurt. It’s okay to leave this person behind and keep going.

That talk… that talk gave me that feeling in my throat… and now I am feeling it again… I cried alone and cursed the Free Syrian Army and the regime for making innocent people going through all this hell.

How do you live now? 

After Yarmouk, we rented a house in a good, peaceful area. The house was in a very bad condition, so luckily after three months we were able to move to a better house.

Everybody here survives day by day, we spend less time thinking about the coming days and the future. I stopped watching the news on Syria long time ago. We are living the news, right? When something happens you will hear it from the people around you or you will see it on Facebook.

How do the Palestinians deal with the civil war in Syria?

They deal with it according to what happens in their area. Not all the Palestinians live in Yarmouk camp. Many people believed that they would be safe for ever as we also believed when living in Yarmouk. But many people have fled now, to a safer city or a safer area, or even abroad when they had the chance.

From day one, my dad was very clear with us. Don’t let anybody know what you really think, he said, don’t trust anybody, and pray to God to protect Syria.

The Palestinians look trapped between all fronts in the Middle East. What are your thoughts on this?

As I grew up I learned that nobody is on our side.

Palestinians never did anything wrong to be treated this way. I don’t know why these Arabic countries don’t facilitate things for us. Why can Syrians go to Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey during the war while the Palestinians haven’t access to anywhere?

The whole situation gives me pain, a lot of pain. Why do the Palestinians have to go through this all of their lives? Wherever we go we are faced with many obstacles.

Only a small example: 1 kg of sugar costs 150 Syrian pounds in Damascus. When food aid gets into Yarmouk, 1 kg of sugar is sold for 700 Syrian pounds. And once the food aid stops, shops in areas around Yarmouk will sell 1 kg of sugar for 1700 Syrian pounds!! Why this treatment? I don’t know.

What are your dreams for the future?

Future? I guess that this question should be asked in the past tense. We all had big dreams: to get the best education, the find the best job, to make money and to get married.

When the war started, when people had to leave their houses, you forgot about all of your old dreams and you lived with one dream and one plan only. My dream is to go back to my house, I am curious to see what is left.

My plan for the future is to leave Syria and go somewhere where I can get a better education, where I will have more chances and where I can live the life we deserve.

This post was first published at Voix magazine, here

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lisan al Tarab: Jazz with a Lebanese accent

I like to listen to Jazz music while I do household chores. Like ironing my shirts. And that is precisely what I did on August 6, 2014, when I first listened to Lisan al Tarab, pianist Tarek Yamani's new album. 

The conflicts in the Middle East had occupied my mind and my writing for quite some time. Not that I could have done anything to solve them. But now, I finally took an hour to iron. I finally had time to enjoy music.

Last June I met Tarek Yamani in Beirut. We sat down for two hours, eating Lebanese mezze and talking about music. Tarek is a very interesting person to have a chat with. He knows a great deal about music and he can most entertainingly speak about it. 

How do we react to ancient African rhythmical patterns, and why? What is the secret of groove? Why is black American music so unique? Being curious and an autodidact to the bone, Tarek has conceived his own theories about music and how it is happening.

Tarek Yamani was born in Beirut and started to play the piano at the age of six. Soon afterwards, his teacher left Lebanon because of the civil war; little Tarek was on his own. He went to music school and studied classical piano, but later picked up an electric guitar to grind heavy metal tunes. Only when he discovered Jazz legends John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock, Tarek went back to the piano and plunged into Jazz. He has stuck with this music ever since.

our man from Beirut: Tarek Yamani

However, Lebanon is a small country for ordinary Lebanese, and for a Jazz musician it is even smaller. Art that goes deep, that goes large, has a tough stand in Lebanon. In order to progress, Tarek had to leave Beirut, first for the Netherlands, then to New York. The Jazz apples are definitely bigger on the other side of the Atlantic.

With him, Tarek brought his Arabic musical heritage to the United States. Arabic rhythms like the Dabke or the Sama'i. Treasures from the Great Arabic Songbook called Muwashahat. And most importantly Tarab, a basic concept of the Arab musical world, meant to induce trance and ecstasy in the musicians and the audience alike, particularly in live performances.

It was in New York where it all merged: the Afro American Jazz and the Arabic music. It was in New York where Tarek refined his own brand of music, the Afro Tarab. It was in New York where Lisan al Tarab was recorded. 

On his new album, Tarek is accompanied by Petros Klampanis on bass and John Davis on drums. Both are excellent musicians and both men are Tarek's alter ego, in a way.

Petros is originally from a tiny Greek island, a Mediterranean man just like Tarek who had moved to New York for the sake of his craft. He leads his own group called Contextual and is no stranger to Steve Reich's minimal music approach. John Davis, the drummer from Jacksonville Fla., is a self-taught rhythm genius. John started his musical career playing Nirvana covers in a rock band.

The music on Lisan al Tarab is innovative and captivating from the beginning to the end. It is emotional and it is visual. Hibbi Zurni has a soft melody leading up to a powerful finish that has the listener rocking in his chair. Zahrani al Mahbub is a sort of an Arab blues, jumping right out of an old Egyptian movie starring Hind Rostom. Fi Hulal Al Afrah has a driving rhythm courtesy of John Davis, remindful of a car chase through Beirut absent the traffic jams - ending in a wedding scene straight from a Kusturica film. 

Jazz conception in classical Arabic: Lisan al Tarab

Klampanis excels on Lahn Al Shayalin, a Sayed Darwish original. His fast paced bass lines run juxtaposed to Yamani's elaborate development of the theme. When Tarek plays the piano, playing the piano sounds easy. Even in energetic passages, the light touch that is Tarek's trademark is never lost.

New Dabke, finally, is Tarek Yamani's own composition. It features a pearling piano that culminates in the true essence of Tarab, the let go. There is ecstasy, there is trance, and one would hope that this song goes on for hours, until a full transcendence of the mind is reached, until all self-control has vanished.

Lisan al Tarab is the perfect expression for what Tarek is doing. It is a play on words with Lisan al Arab, the most comprehensive dictionary of the Arabic language that Ibn Manzur had completed in 1290. 

Tarek Yamani clearly acts in the tradition of Ibn Manzur. Where the elder explained and interpreted classical Arabic words, the younger has produced an audio book on reinterpreting Tarab. Differently said: this is Jazz with a Lebanese accent.

Lisan Al Tarab is available for digital download at and at most other digital stores. And it will soon be played in a theater near you. Don't miss this tale of two cultures.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media, here, and in Voix magazine, here.

Friday, August 22, 2014

a Palestinian refugee in Syria: Wardeh's story

By any crisis in the Middle East, Palestinians are hit the hardest. Whether they live under Israeli occupation in Gaza and in the West Bank or they live as refugees in camps in Lebanon or Syria: they are not welcome here nor there.

In July of 2014, Palestinian refugees in Syria suffer from a double crisis. The civil war in Syria is in its fourth year, with no end in sight. And their relatives in Gaza – uncles, aunts, cousins – are under attack from an Israeli army looking to solve the Palestinian problem once and for all.

How does one get by under these circumstances? I was able to talk to Wardeh, a 22 year old Palestinian student of journalism who lives with her family near Damascus. Wardeh was thankful for finally having the opportunity to tell the world what she had gone through. On the other hand she became very emotional at times, stopping her reporting for several minutes. Here is her story.

"Until 2012 I lived near Yarmouk, a camp for Palestinian refugees. My relatives, my friends, all the people I knew, lived in Yarmouk. People from all over Damascus used to come there to do their shopping. Everything was available in the camp. Looking back, I realize that Yarmouk was like heaven then.

In July of 2012, my dad said that we must move to Yarmouk as well. There were indications that the Syrian military was planning an operation against the neighborhood where we were living. I spent all night walking around the house, looking at every corner of it. I never thought that this would be the last night for me in the house where I had grown up.

I really felt bad. I felt so much hate deep inside of me that I didn't know what to pack. I wished that my bag was as big as my house so I could carry everything with me. Unfortunately I couldn't and I had to leave many books behind. We had a great collection back home.

Two hours after we had left, the military operation started in our street.

We only lived in Yarmouk for five months. We left Yarmouk on December 19, 2012. It was the second time that I had to leave my house. By then all things had lost its value and I felt like I didn't want to carry anything with me anymore. 

desperation row: Yarmouk refugee camp, Syria
We left Yarmouk because of the Syrian air force bombing the camp. The bombing had started on Sunday December 16, the Black Sunday as I call it, in reaction to opposition forces who had infiltrated Yarmouk. These forces, mostly from the Free Syrian Army, said that they would only stay in Yarmouk for three days. All they needed was a passage into Damascus for the ultimate battle.

Those three days became 18 months. They are still in Yarmouk! These people are not freedom fighters, they are intruders. How else do you explain the fact that dozens of inhabitants died of starvation while none of them lost his life? Just look at their pictures on Facebook. They all are fat like a drum!

During those three days between Black Sunday and the day we left, my mother gave us 'that talk'. She said that we must be ready for anything. Whatever happens, we should keep going, even if one of us gets hurt. That talk... that talk gave me that feeling in my throat – and telling this I am feeling it again. I cried alone and cursed the Free Army and the regime for making innocent people like us going through all of this hell.

I stopped watching the news about Syria a long time ago. Why should I watch it? We are living the news, right?

From day one of the conflict, my dad was very clear with us. 'We are guests in this country', he said, 'we hope for the best for the people and wish the best for the government and the country. Don't let anybody know what you really think, don't trust anybody, and pray to God to protect Syria.'

Not taking sides helped me to see clearer. When you take a side you can no longer criticize it. I can criticize them both, but not in public.


As we grow up, we Palestinians learn that nobody is on our side. Why do the Palestinians have to go through this all of their life? Wherever we go we face so many obstacles.

I have relatives in Gaza and in the West Bank. We are all one family, we feel for each other, we support each other, distance doesn't matter. I remember one day where there was an air raid in my neighborhood. My aunt in Gaza told me, if you can hear it very well it means that the jet is above you and is aiming for an area further away. You don't get such information without experiencing the same situation.

All that we can do in Syria for Gaza now is being supportive on Facebook. That's all! People change their profile pictures and share pictures of injured people. I believe that we can use the social media in better ways, we can share real stories, real news. It is important to raise awareness about what is happening in Gaza.

My future? I guess this question should be asked in the past tense. What were my dreams and my plans? When the war started and the people left their houses, you forgot all your old dreams and you started to live with one dream only and one plan. I dream of going back to my house, I am curious to see what is left of it. Are there any walls still standing?

My plan for the future is to leave Syria. My mother encourages us to travel and to build a new future. I want to live the life we deserve.”

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

My two cents on Israel, Gaza and Protective Edge

Following are two articles that have been published in Voix magazine during Israel's military operation against Gaza, Protective Edge. 

In the first article I argue that public opinion on Israel's actions in Gaza can be shaped by social media and celebrities. Consequently, public opinion can influence politicians to get tougher on Israel. However, what shall the politicians (the "international community") do when they get tougher on Israel? In the second article I make the case to impose sanctions on Israel. Israel must receive a clear message telling them to stop their madness in Gaza and start treating people in Palestine according to international laws and humanitarian standards.

#FreePalestine halts Israel’s spiel

I had told myself to never write about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict again. This conflict is a hopeless case for which there is no solution. A case for which spilling any more ink is futile. However, quoting Bishop Desmond Tutu, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. Therefore, the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in the past three weeks couldn't leave me indifferent.

To this day it remains a mystery to me how an obvious case of occupation can be turned into a case of self-defense. I cannot understand how people who are revolting against occupation are seriously asked to peacefully accept being abused, maimed and killed by the occupier. What is it that a big part of Western governments and Western media don't understand? Why is Assad a bad guy and Netanyahu a good guy? They both order their military to go out and kill. Mostly civilians.

The Israeli have two strong arguments on their side and they keep repeating them like a mantra: this land Palestine was given to us by God and by the United Nations. There is no room for interpretation. Not even the Palestinians can compete with God. And the United Nations are held hostage by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Israel, through the United States, is one of them.

The United Nations are proud of their peacekeeping program. Currently the so called blue helmets are present in 16 locations worldwide, with an emphasis on Africa. Their goal is to bring peace and stability to countries and people that are in conflict. In the Israel – Palestine scenario, blue helmets seem like the self-evident choice.

In the Middle East there are three UN peacekeeping operations: UNIFIL in South Lebanon, with the basic mission of protecting Israel from attacks emanating from Lebanon. UNDOF on the Golan Heights, with the basic mission of protecting Israel from threats emanating from Syria. And then there is UNTSO, the first UN peacekeeping operation ever, established in May of 1948. Its basic mission is a joke.

UNTSO, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization – which truce?, one is immediately inclined to ask – has its headquarter in Jerusalem. The operation is supposed to bring stability to the Middle East by “monitoring ceasefires and preventing isolated incidents from escalating”, according to UNTSO's homepage. But: 66 years in operation and no one has ever heard of any success that UNTSO has achieved.

No one except Israel. For Israel, UNTSO is a success story. Because what a truce does is perpetuating the status quo. A truce in Palestine, with Israel having the upper hand, clearly benefits the occupier's position if it is not followed by concrete political actions.

Ceasefire talks, mediation efforts, peace initiatives: that's nothing but a spiel. It is the end of Israel’s occupation that must be on the table!

During the fantastic truce that UNTSO is supervising, Israel built numerous settlements and moved masses of settlers into Palestinian territory. Since 1948, the territory that Palestinians can claim as their own was reduced to less than 20% of its initial size.

 not standing idly by: Diana Magnay

Many people are now calling for the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to take action and indict Israel for what is has done to Gaza since the aerial bombings started on July 8. There is no doubt in my mind that operation “Protective Edge”, and particularly Israel's destruction of Shujai'iya, a neighborhood in eastern Gaza, qualify as war crimes. You cannot smash whole neighborhoods, streets, houses, people and children to rubble and still act in “self-defense”.

To these folks hoping to see Israel to stand trial in The Hague, I must say: sorry, it won't happen. Firstly, the ICC is meant to complement an existing national rule of law: it can exert its jurisdiction only when national courts are unwilling to investigate crimes covered by the ICC. In the past, Israeli courts have actually prosecuted war crimes allegedly committed by Israeli officials, albeit with foreseeable results.

Secondly, the ICC goes after individuals, not entire states. So the ICC can get Netanyahu then? No so fast. Because, thirdly: the ICC can only then exercise its rule when a person's state has accepted the jurisdiction of the court – which the United States, Israel and Sudan have not. These three countries have informed the UN Secretary General long ago that they no longer intend to become parties of the International Criminal Court.

The international system cannot help the Palestinians. It was designed by the strong, for the strong. Nevertheless, the tide is turning on Israel and that is because of social media and the free thinking people of the world.

Celebrities like Rihanna are tweeting in support of Palestine, using their star power to tell their many fans about Israel's crimes. It doesn't matter whether Rihanna really believes in a free Palestine. It doesn't matter if she deleted her tweet after an ensuing shitstorm. The fact that she tweeted #FreePalestine and thought it was the politically correct thing to do so is proof of a changing perception on Israel.

People power – at least in part, by signing various petitions – also brought NBC’s foreign correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin back to Gaza. Mohyeldin was pulled from Gaza by his employer for reporting too accurately about the four innocent Palestinian children killed by an Israeli missile while playing football on the beach.

Did NBC bow to moral pressure or was it a business decision, a rational calculation? Did it economically make more sense to keep Ayman Mohyeldin in Gaza instead of having viewers switch channels to get the real news about Protective Edge? We shall never know, but once economy comes into play, fairness and justice have a better chance of winning.

Therefore: go see the movies of these celebrities tweeting for Palestine, and go buy their records. Ask your TV station to report the news about the situation of the Palestinians unbiased, guided by standards of humanity applied to any other human being.

And go ask them to do it permanently, not only when Gaza is under attack. Only an informed people can well exercise its highest form of power: to elect governments that make sure that Gaza 2014 was the last time when immorality and unchecked violence prevailed in occupied Palestine.

this post was first published in Voix magazine, here.

Sanctions on Israel will stop the madness in Gaza

This madness must stop!“ UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was very clear on Sunday August 3, after the latest Israeli attack on yet another UN school in Gaza. Speaking through a spokesman, Ban went on by saying that this attack “was another violation of international law by Israel”.

On Britain's Channel 4, the spokesman of the Israeli government, Mark Regev, answered with his customary cynicism. “We didn't attack the school”, he said, “we hit an Islamic Jihad terrorist who happened to be passing by outside the school. He was a legitimate target. If there were civilian victims, Israel will look into that.”

This madness must stop! But it will not be Israel stopping it. The Israeli society is glued together by a narrative of being an eternal victim of history, callous towards the suffering of others. Israelis are addicted to living with demons. After the cloud of an Iranian nuclear attack has dissolved, it's now Hamas and its terror tunnels. The idea of Israel feeds on war.

Israel never cares about anything and anybody, except for itself. Israel never thought of sharing Palestine with the Palestinians. Occupation? Apartheid? Us? This land Palestine was given to us by God and by the United Nations in 1947, so why are these pesky Palestinians still sticking around?

If Israel won't stop the madness, who will?

The United Nations maybe? The United Nations are making life too easy when they decide on a catastrophic recipe – the UN partition plan for Palestine – and then leave the cooks all by themselves. The soup that the UN has initiated cooking is constantly boiling over without anybody turning back the heat.

The United States cannot stop the madness either. They don't want to – the administration in Washington keeps being in an AIPAC (the Israel lobby's organization) chokehold – and they can't.

Despite President Obama being an African American, the elite in Washington doesn't have a historical understanding and conscience of what mass killings, occupation and apartheid mean for the victims. The United States are a country that committed mass killings and established systems of occupation and apartheid themselves!

The native Americans, the American Indians, were all but eradicated by the advance of the white man's military power on the American continent and forced to live in reservations. The United States are a country where slavery was brutal and widespread for a long time. It was only in the 1960s when white America began to treat their fellow African American citizens as equals.

So maybe France can do something. However France is governed by François Hollande and his Socialist Party and that's a bad fix for the Palestinians. These people are brainwashed for ever by the Israeli PR machine of the 1960s and 1970s when life in a Kibutz was sold as a new form of community life at the frontier of civilization.

cancelled flights from and to Tel Aviv: a very nervous Israel

Can Hamas stop the madness? No. Hamas doesn't care for civilians. Although the siege of Gaza by Israel is outrageous and a moral bankruptcy, Hamas is not as unhappy with it as they pretend to be. The siege allows them to make tons of money with goods smuggled through the many tunnels that connect Gaza with Egypt. Were the border barriers lifted, Hamas' income would drop.

Hamas is the King of Gaza and they want to keep it that way. Hamas needs war to survive. They have nowhere else to go.

Don't bet on the Arab states to stop the madness. They never get anything right. They don't like the Palestinians. For different reasons, the project of a Palestinian state was always met with great suspicion by its Arab neighbors.

During the initial stages of the so called Arab Spring there was hope that a move towards democracy might make Arab countries more supportive of the Palestinians. This hope was in vain and may have been one of the main reasons why the Arab Spring failed.

As long as Hamas is seen as the main representative of the Palestinian struggle, the situation of non-support will endure. Many Arab governments are wary of Islamist movements and have their hands full with fighting them on their own turf.

What will stop the madness then? Sanctions on Israel will. The Israelis already got very nervous when US and European airlines stopped flying to Tel Aviv for almost 72 hours two weeks ago. It was a sign that Hamas indeed can inflict real damage on Israel, not just firing homemade rockets into the Iron Dome.

Like every other country Israel is dependent on economic trade with the rest of the world. Boycotting Israel and not buying Israeli products in the supermarket, as some individuals do, is all fine but it will not lead to a reversal of fortune for the Palestinians. Only states that employ the big trade contracts that they have with Israel can make a difference.

Israel is a heavily militarized society and that's where sanctions must start to bite. Don't deal military goods with Israel! Don't sell and don't buy.

Don't deliver weapons and ammunition to Israel when at the same time Israel's air force is bombarding UN schools in Gaza. This must be punished as a crime.

Israel's armament industry is known for its products with high technical standards. As a bonus, Israeli weapons systems come battlefield tested – tested on Palestinian civilians! This only adds to their attractiveness on the market. From now on, buying these weapons must be banned.

Sanctions don't work with authoritarian regimes who are rather strengthened than weakened by this measure. But they can work on Israel, a country that calls itself a democracy. A population faced with the reality of sanctions has the power to elect leaders who can turn around the wheel of history.

However, sanctions need the international community to enforce them. Unfortunately we are off to a bad start. “A serious Mideast peace effort starts with no more rockets fired into Israeli territory,” the concert of Western presidents keeps saying since the latest round of Gaza under attack has started. Great! The psychotherapist starts with scolding the resisting child, not the abusing father.

Citing the humanitarian concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the international community intervened in Libya in 2011 and in various other African countries before and after 2011 to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes. Are Palestinian lives less valuable than other life on the planet? The international community must stop the Israelis from pushing the Palestinians over the cliff. This madness will not stop by itself.

this post was first published in Voix magazine, here

Monday, July 28, 2014

The phony rhetoric of stability

Stability, stability, stability. Comments on the recent events in the Middle East never miss to demand stability: for Iraq, for Syria, for Lebanon and for the Arab world in general. Stability as a remedy for all the woes that have befallen the Middle East.

What do these commentators mean when they ask for “stability”? What kind of stability do they talk about and who shall benefit from it?

Here is a possible definition: stability means to live in an environment that is predictable. An environment where one doesn't have to fear to become the unexpected collateral damage of a bomb or a missile. Stability is order and security. Without them, everything else is naught.

However, these commentators, writing for Western media outlets or speaking for Western governments, usually offer a different definition of stability. For them, a stable country is a country with a strong government favorable to the United States. Ideally all elements of society are represented in this government and it has a broad popular support. But these are not absolute prerequisites.

When the Unites States invaded Iraq in 2003 and removed Saddam Hussein and his entire regime, they deliberately destroyed the order that was holding Iraq together. Stability was smashed to pieces. A stable Iraq, albeit ruled and secured by an iron fist, descended into chaos and a civil war – the ultimate instability. Ever since that fateful year of 2003, Iraq is searching for a new equilibrium.

When the last US troops quit Iraq two years ago, they left behind a stable Iraq. Or at least that is what the Americans told themselves. It was an Iraq that allowed US president Obama to fulfill a campaign promise of 2008: to get the US boys home, no matter how wobbly that stable Iraq still was.

The so called stable Iraq was governed by a new authoritarian leader, the democratically legitimized Nouri al Maliki. Maliki was a Shia. The Shia had suffered under Saddam Hussein and Maliki himself had spent more than 20 years in exile. After Saddam was hanged, it was the Shia's time, and Maliki's turn, to take over what they had been deprived of before.

Not only that the United States wanted to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, they also – in their own words – pursued the noble goal of bringing democracy to this corner of the world. And since the biggest share of Iraqi society was Shia, an election naturally yielded a Shia victory. In Iraq, democracy became the dictatorship of the majority.

The United States are home to the best schools of political science but they deliver disappointing results. While everyone in Europe knows that democracy is basically synonymous with political instability – in the sense that governments come and go and prime ministers resign and are replaced by opposition figures – analysts in the USA still seem to believe that democracy per se is the key to a stable country.

Are they dumb? Or are the playing dumb? Democracy in Europe (and in the United States) works because the political culture for democracy is there. It is based on robust institutions and a common understanding of what constitutes the nation, its people and its goals. It is an understanding that goes beyond personal interests. Democracy in Europe works because societies are not tribal and they don't have to deal with repercussions of a schism in the Islamic faith hundreds of years ago.

What are the United States doing to promote stability in the Middle East? The stability that the people in the Middle East need, the stability that is based on order and security. Actually not a lot, and they often act to the contrary. After Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the US air force together with its NATO allies bombed away Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. This gave way to the country falling into the hands of various militias, one of them killing the US ambassador in 2012.

In Syria, the USA made great efforts to undermine the regime of Bashar al-Assad – certainly not a democrat, but a stabilizer – by initially supporting the same forces that are now threatening American pal Maliki in Baghdad: radical islamists. Spin doctors in Washington are shaking their heads in despair: why don't these bearded guys stick to the agreed plan and remain in Syria? The borders in the Middle East are more porous than shown on Google maps!

stability: being safe from unexpected collateral damage 

The democracy record of the United States is just as bad. The USA support democracy when it leads to the installment of governments that operate in their favor and they vehemently oppose the democratic process when its results are adverse to American interests.

The prime example is Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has many plans for the Middle East, and a lot of money to push them through, but none of them are democratic. Iran has Hezbollah as its proxy force? Let's create ISIS as a counterbalance! And yet, despite the recent hiccups, Saudi Arabia keeps being a most important partner of the USA in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to help the royal family to crush a movement that asked for civil rights and a better inclusion of the majority Shia population. In Kuwait and in Qatar, people were condemned to long jail terms for having criticized their rulers on Twitter. In all these cases, the USA looked the other way, well aware that more democracy would mean less stability for the United States. Stability that the Americans need in order to have military bases in all of these countries, to secure energy supply lines and to check Iran on the other side of the Persian Gulf.

There is one country in the Middle East that seems to be immune against calls for democracy and stability: Lebanon. After the civil war that ended in 1990, the Lebanese have established a political system that is so inclusive, with all sects represented on all levels, that the country has become quite ungovernable. At the moment, Lebanon is once again without a president. Attempts to convene the parliament and to get it to vote on a generally accepted candidate to be the new head of state have failed in May and in June of 2014.

However, the very inability of Lebanon to be governed has nurtured a political state unseen in any other country: the resilience of the chaos. There is no single strongman like in Iraq or Libya who can be disposed and the country will subsequently slide into an abyss. This is particularly true for the Lebanon after the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Lebanon is a tightly woven rug where the the lack of one thread – the president, for that matter – won't lead to the dissolution of the entire rug.

Therefore, Lebanon is relatively stable, on a low level, and is shaking but not falling. But the chaos comes with a price: Lebanese are in perpetual expectancy of a central state to work and to provide the services that a “normal” state usually provides to its citizens.

And what is the USA doing to bolster the stability of Lebanon? They work against it. The United States tries to impose solutions for Lebanon that benefit them and their allies but not necessarily Lebanon. They favor one political block over another. They go after Lebanese banks, thus sapping one of the few functioning pillars of the Lebanese society, and accuse them of financing terrorism and doing bank services for Hezbollah.

The USA and the UK payed shallow lip service to the security of Lebanon by saying “we stand by Lebanon” when several suicide bombers holding Saudi passports entered Lebanon from Syria last June to blow themselves up at army checkpoints and in South Beirut. If the United States and the UK really want to stand by Lebanon they must stop arming the rebels in Syria and start getting tough with the House of Saud.

However, in the very same week, Obama requested $500 Mio from Congress to train and to equip “appropriately vetted” members of the Syrian opposition. This is a clear recipe to prolong the war in Syria, not to end it. But maybe that is precisely the goal. When Western governments pompously talk about “stability in the Middle East”, the interest and the security of the people of the Middle East must be first on their mind. Or else, big talk is just phony rhetoric.

This post was first published in Your Middle East online media: here.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

Because Qatar, you must know: this is football

One week from now, the football World Cup 2014 will start in Brazil. One month of action, drama and emotions – and in the end, the home team will win. There I said it: my prediction for the world's most popular sport event.

However, although there was and is a lot of talk about Brazil 2014 – the enormous costs being in the center of it – there is even more talk about a World Cup that is scheduled to be held eight years from now: in Qatar in 2022.

Ever since Qatar on December 2, 2010 was appointed by the FIFA as host for the 2022 World Cup, the critics of this decision haven't stopped to criticize. How come that a tiny country like Qatar with no football history gets to organize the biggest football event there is? Who bribed whom, with how much? Can you actually play football in Qatar, in the desert, in the heat?

And how is a World Cup that will draw up to one million of fans from all over the world to Qatar compatible with the new dress codes – don't dress too light or too tight and respect our culture - that Qatar intends to enforce with expats living on the peninsula?

Today I say, khalas! Enough. Qatar, give back the World Cup 2022 – for your own and everybody else's sake.

Because Qatar, you must know: football attracts unpleasant people. They hang around stadiums, they even watch the games. They pretend to love football, but they don't. Instead they use the sport to further their own goals. And no, I am not talking about Sepp Blatter only here.

No problem you say, Qatar? You are used to put up with nasty people; you support the Jihadist rebels in Syria, you negotiate for the Taliban of Afghanistan and you shake hands with Washington's global power brokers? So this will be the easy part for you when you deal with the byproducts of the World Cup 2022.

Because Qatar, you must know: a football World Cup is a burden for the poor and a boon for the already rich. Street vendors in Brazil will not be allowed in or near World Cup stadiums where only FIFA-approved merchandise can be sold. The benefits will go to Coca Cola and McDonald's, not to Maria or Pedro from the block.

No problem you say, Qatar? There are no poor Qataris and it will be too hot for street vendors in Qatar anyway? Good for you again.

Because Qatar, you must know: football is prostitution. Football players will play for any team – for Borussia Dortmund one year, for Bayern Munich the next year – as long as the money is good. The same goes for officials: no money is bad money.

Prostitution on the field leads to more prostitution off field. Ahead of the World Cup, Brazil is currently worried about sex tourism and child prostitution, with an estimated 600'000 foreigners expected to descend on the country.

No problem you say, Qatar? Your streets are clean? But you are building a lot of new hotel rooms in Doha these days.

Because Qatar, you must know: football is racism. Go ask Balotelli, go ask Dani Alves. Go stand with the common fans during a match and hear them shout racist slurs from minute 1 to minute 90 at players and referees.

No problem you say, Qatar? Racism in Qatar only exists in regards to brown skinned people, people from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka? These are crickets nations anyway, not football. And the primitive guys with the little brains in the stands? The sky high ticket prices will take care of those poor creatures. 

eating a banana: football is racism 

Because Qatar, you must know: football is party. People want to dance, want to get drunk, want to show their breasts. Some even want to make it onto the lawn, bare naked, to chase Rooney or Lampard or anyone else they can get their hands on. Your laws, Qatar, aimed at preserving the culture of boredom, will be a killer for the atmosphere that is as much a part of football as goals and fouls.

No problem you say, Qatar? Come World Cup 2022, you will move your entire population out of the country – to Syria, to Geneva – to make room for the European football barbarians to invade? Well, that's a whole new approach to the cultural diversity that FIFA so eagerly contends to promote.

Because Qatar, you must know: football is homophobia. There is no openly homosexual player in any team present in Brazil 2014. It's just too dangerous for players, and the possible consequences too unpredictable, to come out of the closet. Football – and professional sports in general – is the last heterosexual bastion standing.

No problem you say, Qatar? You don't have a problem with homosexuality unless people are gay? Perfect! That masquerade will at least go on for another eight years then. Coming out before Russia 2018 (where the World Cup will be played four years from now and Putin is the Czar)? Rather not!

Football is a sport for men. And always will be. These lesbian players kicking it for the German and American female teams? Maybe they shouldn't let women play football anyway. Gay football players will have to wait for the end of their careers, or grow a beard and wear a skirt, to be what they are.

Because Qatar, you must know: no matter what, Champions League comes always first. That's where the dice is rolling. After the World Cup in Qatar, players need to leave the country and return home to start competing for their clubs again.

Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Champions League: I'm sure that there will be enough stadiums in and around Doha to play all these leagues in Qatar. But I'm afraid that playing in air conditioned arenas all the time will have Paul Pogba contract chilblains sometimes down the line.

No problem you say, Qatar? All the players can leave the country anytime? Except the ones that will have their passports confiscated under the Kafala sponsorship system, of course. Zahir Belounis was not such a good player anyway; why else would he have come to play in Qatar? Nobody missed him in the Champions League. So what's the fuss?

Because Qatar, you must know: the World Cup given away to you will change football and Qatar in more ways than people now can imagine. Are you sure that you want this? It's still possible to preserve Qatar as it is. It's still possible to give football a second chance. It's still possible to make a U-turn. And while you are busy turning, Qatar, turn Sepp Blatter and his gang over to Interpol.

This post was first published in Voix magazine, here


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Orb: bringing immortality to life

My Beirut in 2050 is a a place that gathers two kinds of human beings: the perfected ones and the brain dead ones. There is no place for a third kind. And if there is a third kind they are immediately killed.”

That Beirut is 'Orb'. Darine Hotait's 'Orb'. With her new project, Lebanese American film director and screenwriter Darine Hotait proposes a vision of Beirut in the year 2050 through a genre that is almost non-existent in the Middle East: the science fiction movie.

Darine Hotait was born in Beirut and settled in the United States at an early age. Her short films such as 'Beirut Hide and Seek', 'The Far Side of Laughter' and 'Command or Truth' have been officially selected and awarded at international film festivals. For directing the animated video of 'Ashur', promoting the musical work of her husband, jazz pianist Tarek Yamani, Darine Hotait was a finalist for the Emmy award in 2012.

  interesting and educated: Darine Hotait, director, producer, writer

Darine is also the founder of Cinephilia Productions, an independent film production house in New York. Cinephilia is in particular producing movies for a Middle Eastern audience, with an emphasis on high visual standards.

And now 'Orb'. “What is happening in 'Orb'?”, I asked Darine Hotait when I interviewed her a few days ago. “In 'Orb'” Darine told me, “a mother loses her child in an accident. However she is given the chance to bring him back to life. The only downside is that he will become immortal. The mother has a chance: she can choose to have him for her lifetime with his real body and a robotized brain, or she can let him go.”

How significant is it that your movie is set in Beirut, in Lebanon?” Darine’s answer made much sense to me. “In Lebanon”, she replied, “there is the militant, the martyr and the innocent civilian. The culture of death is strongly stressed in the experience of this society. In 'Orb', death is treated as immortality.”

Is there a political message that you want to convey with 'Orb'?”, I continued my interview. “Can you do something non-political at all when talking about Lebanon? Or do I, who hasn't grown up in the Middle East, over-analyze the setting of your film?”

Well, kind of”, Darine said, “and then again, no. The social and the political are not separable in Lebanon.” But she went on by explaining to me that the political message in 'Orb' is not really political: “The film is too human to talk about the faux art of politics that Lebanon endures.”

Darine Hotait is a very interesting, very educated person who has a clear opinion about film making. In a recent talk with the Buro 24/7 magazine, she defined the screnplay, the concept and the theme as basic ingredients for a good short film. “If you have a well-written story conceived within a great concept to get an novel message across, you got it”, she elaborated. “However, there is no specific recipe that makes a short film good.”

But let's go back to 'Orb'. “How is the Beirut of your sci-fi movie different than the Beirut of today?”, I wanted to know. For her answer, Darine reached deep into the field of technology: “in 2050, immortality is accessible through the technologies that enhance the humans' life span. In 2014, we sort of have reached a point where we can stop the appearance of aging but we cannot stop the body from dying.”

a sci-fi movie made in Lebanon: ORB

In 2050”, she went on, “artificial intelligence will have gotten to a point where humans' minds can be uploaded to systems providing them an immortal life.” This strongly reminded me of the American science fiction author Philip K. Dick who identified the question “what constitutes the authentic human being?” as one of the major themes of his work.

The interesting thing is”, and with that Darine Hotait concluded our conversation, “that Beirut 2050 is not very different from Beirut 2014. More people are looking for perfection through continuous services that are being offered. More people are becoming brain dead due to the lack of freedom of thought. Consciousness is buried under the dramatized empire of capitalism.”

Now here's the problem with making 'Orb'. Even a renowned director and producer such as Darine Hotait can't disconnect herself entirely from capital and capitalism. Darine, and more precisely her movie-to-be 'Orb', needs your donation to have the film produced.

If you want to support a great art project, here is your chance. If you are one of those people who think that nothing good ever comes out of the Middle East, here is your chance to have the contrary proven. Go here and give Darine Hotait the chance to bring 'Orb', her film about immortality, to life.

This post was first published in Voix Magazine and in Your Middle East online media.