Thursday, November 13, 2014

Watch the fires burning in Kobani

Out of the 36 Chinese stratagems for ruse and tactics in warfare, there is one that I always particularly liked: watch the fires burning across the river.

The meaning of the stratagem is easy to decipher: when there are multiple combatants, let others fight one another until they are exhausted, then march in with a fresh force to win the final battle.

These days, the fires are burning in Kobani, a Kurdish city in Syria. Kobani, besieged by the hordes of the Islamic State (IS), is in danger of falling into the hands of the Jihadi fighters any day.

Kobani is a town in Syria right at the border with Turkey. The government of Turkish president Erdogan was therefore harshly criticized for not doing more to help the Kurdish defenders to ward off the charging fighters of the IS.

While Kobani is not the strategic place some commentators in Western media want it to be, it has become the symbol of the fight against the reign and the terror of the Islamic State. If we cannot beat them in Kobani, where can we?

But does everybody want to knock out the Islamic State, at least just now? There is a serious doubt. Rather it seems that the Islamic State is being instrumentalized by various powers inside and outside of the Middle East to do the job that these powers are not capable or willing to do themselves. IS is the useful tool in the hands of apprentices of sorcery.

This is not to say that the Islamic State doesn’t have a dynamic of its own. When we look at the narrative of the IS, Ceylan Özbudak, a political analyst based in Istanbul says, we see it basically built on two pillars: fabricated hadith of the orthodox Islamic texts and widespread grievances.

Grievances that were particularly felt among the Sunni population of Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki had established an authoritarian regime himself, supported by Iran and favoring the Shia share of the Iraqi people.

The Sunni tribes of Iraq might not especially like the ideology and the brutality of the IS fighters. But when they helped to get rid of al-Maliki, this was just fine. Also in the Anbar province of Iraq, the Chinese stratagems had been studied.

the fires are burning: in Kobani

However, the instrumentalization of the IS goes further. Saudi Arabia and Qatar first financed them and now use them. With Riyadh and Doha remaining silent, IS fights and kills the Shia wherever they meet them. If IS should also be strong enough to tackle and topple Bashar al-Assad, this would be even better.

It very much looks like Turkey exploits the Islamic State as well. Have them fight the Kurds, in particular the PKK, Turkey’s nemesis, and their Syrian brothers, the PYD, which both are now actively engaged in Kobani, so Turkey can spare its own efforts.

As with many others, Bashar al-Assad also fell out of favor with Erdogan. Sending an IS force, acting out of a hard won stronghold in Kobani, after Assad seems like an interesting scenario. And then have the two battle it out for the control of the Syrian heartland.

In uninformed Western media the Kurds are often depicted as a homogenous entity. They are not. The Kurdistan doesn’t exist. The Kurds are a very fractured people, splattered across several states, speaking different languages and pursuing diverse interests.

Who in Kurdistan is fighting the Islamic State? It depends on whom in Kurdistan the IS is attacking. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, may fear the IS and will fight it wherever he can and must. But he fears the PKK, the political and military representatives of Turkish Kurdistan, even more. So when IS fights the PKK in Kobani, Barzani is not too eager to come to their rescue.

Let’s talk about the Western powers, finally. Of course nobody in Washington, Paris or London likes the Islamic State. These countries, together with Canada and the rest of the European countries, are also very much concerned about their citizens joining IS in Syria and Iraq and later returning to their home countries to commit terrorist attacks like the one in Ottawa last week.

However many of these countries also share common interests with the Islamic State. Removing Assad is on everybody’s wish list. The 5+1 among these countries were not too unhappy when IS taught al-Maliki and the Iranians a lesson. Any leverage to get Teheran to an easier yes in the nuclear negotiations is a good leverage.

While the Marxist-Leninists of the PKK are certainly applauded for bravely resisting the IS in Kobani, they cannot hope to have many friends within the administration of any United States’ president.

If we just could manage the Islamic State like a puppet on a string, I hear them say in Washington. Faustian approaches have been tried before. If we just could support the Kurdish fighters in Kobani a little - just as much as it is needed to silence our critics from the humanitarian camp.

And if we could air strike the IS fighters outside Kobani just a little - so they will be bogged down, slowed down, but not completely stopped. Then the fire in Kobani will continue burning and the Chinese stratagem would be executed in an almost unprecedented beauty. 

striking the IS fighters just a little: in Kobani

Because the American strategy for the Middle East is fixed, as George Friedman layed out in a recent analysis for Stratfor. „Allow powers in the region to compete and balance against each other.“ Friedman explained. „When that fails, intervene with as little force and risks as possible. For example, the conflict between Iran and Iraq canceled out two rising powers until the war ended. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened the overturn the balance of power in the region. The result was Desert Storm.“

The Islamic State is not a given course of history but the consequence and the result of many flawed policies in the Middle East. No one wants IS to be really strong. But many like them to be strong just a little.

Who’s with whom, who is against whom, openly, tacitly: Kobani shows the real realities of the Middle East. This is a region with no pity. There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

It’s obvious that the Islamic State’s project is inherently doomed to fail. Not least because controlling and administering large swaths of land is not a core competence of a terrorist group.

But maybe the strategists in Riyadh and Washington have placed their bets without taking the devil into account. The main fighters of IS are survivors of a combat Darwinism that began in Iraq in 2003. They are hard to kill. And maybe they will be survivors once more, not getting exhausted and die as the strategy wants them to become.

And perhaps in the end the Islamic State will be gaining an unplanned momentum and the fire will burn those who have been watching it burn for too long. It will still be day in Washington and Paris. It may get darker in Ankara and Riyadh. But it will mean good night in Damascus, Bagdad and Mosul.

This post was originally published by Your Middle East online Media, here.



Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Funkytown Beirut: The Middle East needs a Pop Art break!

I recently published two articles describing the work, art and ideas of Lebanon's pop art designer Rana Salam. 

Article one was published by Your Middle East, here. And article two was published by Voix magazine, here.

So here's the Your Middle East version:

When I leave my Lebanese apartment last summer to attend Rana Salam’s pop art workshop in Beirut, I feel the anxieties that Western Europeans in Lebanon often suffer from: will I be on time? Will I find the location in difficult to navigate Beirut? Will I find a parking spot? Will I have enough fuel for the trip?

When I finally enter Rana’s design studio in Achrafieh, my stress is immediately relieved. I step into a world of objects, colors and shapes, and in the middle of it is Rana Salam, the literal embodiment of her world: energetic, colorful and open to welcome anything and anybody in her realm.

Rana Salam is Beirut’s best known graphic designer. After having lived abroad for quite some time, studying at the Royal College of Art in London, she moved back to Lebanon in 2010. 

Rana became famous for working with popular Arab icons and Islamic patterns. Her style is unique. She adds new colors, combines the objects with other elements and applies her designs - pop art that is - to stools, makeup boxes, aprons and restaurants in need of a rebranding. 

„In my workshop“, Rana begins her program, „I will reveal all my secrets.“ „Designing is like cooking“, she goes on, „you start with the ingredients.“

Actually, Rana’s secrets start with something each of us can do: looking. „You have to see the beauty in things“, she declares. Rana is always on the lookout for beautiful things, and according to her definition, there are many. She discovers and buys objects almost by the hundreds, for instant use or to be used sometimes later.

don't think too much; play!: Rana Salam

Rana’s favorite word is funky. Everything is funky, anything has the ability to be funky. Rana wants to create funky objects. „How do you achieve this?“, she is asked. „It’s observation followed by application“, Rana explains the designing process and then reveals another of her secrets: „don’t think too much; play!“

And playing I truly try, as much as my natural competences allow it. I browse through the numerous magazines lying around on the tables and on the floor to find one funky object that I can complement with another funky object from another magazine to develop my own style of pop art. 

It sounds like an easy thing to do. But don’t be deceived by the casual look that Rana’s designs often have. It takes hard work and the eye of a master to make designs look as easy and funky as Rana does.

„Since nothing is non-political in the Middle East“, I ask Rana when I have time to chat with her, „what is the political message behind your work?“ „I want to change the perception of the Middle East through the power of design“, she replies, getting very serious. And indeed! The contrast between the bearded, dark guys of the Islamic State and the vivid Arab pop art of Rana Salam couldn’t be starker. 

Rana’s workshop is aptly called ‚cut and paste‘. But instead of going back to my cutting and pasting, which seems to be something my workshop companions are much more skilled for, I keep interviewing Rana. She runs her workshop on a rather long leash.

revealing all her secrets

„Do you see yourself as an artist or as a designer? Is there a difference?“

„I am a designer“, Rana tells me, „but many people like to label me as an artist. I love design as it is a great form of visual communication in which I can apply my ideas on any surface. Art is very personal and sometimes it does not need to say anything.“

„What is the relationship between design and business?“, I keep asking. „Is the art of design appropriately used when it is simply helping to sell banal consumer goods like clothes from H&M and lipsticks from Bassam Fattouh?“

Rana’s answer is well considered. „Design is great when it is being used well for a commercial purpose“, she says. „If a designer is good at branding, when she or he knows how to manipulate or serve a specific market, they will surely make money for their clients.“

And then Rana talks again about the difference between art and design. „Art is far more limiting when we speak of commercial use“, she explains. „Design is a great form of ‚art‘ that becomes accessible to all.“

With my last question, I am out to test Rana’s quick-wittedness. „How do you react when people say that your designs are brilliant, but boy, $60 for a set of Um Kulthum coasters, that’s pricey?“

Rana’s answer comes with a laughter, as quick and witty as I had expected it: „I tell them to piss off!“

„Of course not“, Rana rapidly softens her statement, „I’m just kidding“. „You see“, she says, „people will pay that $60 when a customer values what I do. A coaster is a coaster is a coaster. It’s the idea that people buy. Not the coaster.“

In the meantime, Rana’s workshop has come to an end. Everybody is finishing their first attempts at Lebanese pop art, Rana Salam style. The workshop hasn’t changed my view of the Middle East - I already knew that the region is much more diverse than what is reported in the news - but hopefully Rana’s products and designs will do this trick for the general public in the years to come.

Just when I am about to leave Rana’s studio, I spot „Funkytown“, the Lipps, Inc. disco record from 1979, placed on a shelf left of the entrance door. I take a closer look. How fitting is this? Just how funky is this!

Lipps, Inc.: FUNKYTOWN!

and here's the Voix magazine version. Can you tell the difference?

Andy Warhol, in an interview with Art News in 1963: Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. Brecht wanted to do it through communism. I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody.

Art News: Is that what Pop Art is all about?

Andy Warhol: Yes. It’s liking things.

When I leave my Lebanese apartment last summer to attend Rana Salam’s pop art workshop in Beirut, I feel the anxieties that Western Europeans in Lebanon often suffer from: will I be on time? Will I find the location in difficult to navigate Beirut? Will I find a parking spot?

As soon as I enter Rana’s design studio in Achrafieh, my stress is relieved. I step into a world of objects, colors and shapes, and in the middle of it is Rana Salam, the literal embodiment of her world: energetic, colorful and open to welcome anything and anybody in her realm.

Rana Salam is Beirut’s best known graphic designer. After having studied at the Royal College of Art in London, she lived abroad for many years before moving back to Lebanon in 2010. 

Rana became famous for working with popular Arab icons and Islamic motives. Her style is unique. She adds new colors, combines the objects with other elements and applies her designs - pop art that is - to coffee tables, makeup boxes, aprons and restaurants in need of a rebranding. 

„In my workshop“, Rana begins her program, „I will reveal all my secrets.“ „Designing is like cooking“, she goes on, „you start with the ingredients.“

you have to see the beauty in things: Rana Salam

Actually, Rana’s secrets start with something each of us can do: looking. Rana is always on the lookout for beautiful things, and according to her definition, there are many. She discovers and buys objects almost by the hundreds, for instant use or to be used sometimes later.

„You have to see the beauty in things.“

Rana’s favorite word is funky. Everything is funky, anything has the ability to be funky. Rana aims to create funky objects and uses the simplicity of Islamic patterns as the basic ingredient.

„How do you achieve the funkiness?“, she is asked. „It’s observation followed by application“, Rana explains the designing process and then reveals another of her secrets: „don’t think too much; play!“

And playing I truly try, as much as my natural skills allow it. I browse through the numerous magazines lying around on the tables and on the floor to find one funky object that I can complement with another funky object from another magazine to develop my own style of pop art. 

It sounds like an easy thing to do. But don’t be deceived by the casual look that Rana’s designs often have. It takes hard work and the eye of a master to make designs look as easy and funky as Rana does.

With her creations Rana taps into the collective subconscious of the Arab nation. It often starts with Egypt - her films, her actors and actresses, Um Kulthum and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nostalgia sells. It’s emotional. However, a designer must be careful how he or she arabizes an object without milking the Islamic art, Rana says.

„Since nothing is non-political in the Middle East“, I ask Rana when she and I have time to chat, „what is the political message behind your work?“ „I want to change the perception of the Middle East through the power of design“, she replies, getting very serious. And indeed! The contrast between the bearded, dark guys of the Islamic State and the vivid Arab pop art of Rana Salam couldn’t be starker. 

Rana’s book from 2008, „the secret life of Syrian lingerie“, catches my eye. I start turning the pages. Now here’s a secret and something to look at! I had no idea that the world’s most outrageous and exuberant women’s underwear was sold in Damascus’ souks.

Does Asma al-Assad also sport this risqué lingerie, I wonder, even during the times of a civil war? Or precisely because? Then my thoughts return to Beirut: how funky would an iPhone cover designed after Syrian bras and panties be?

tapping into the collective subconscious of the Arab nation: Rana Salam

Rana runs her workshop on a rather long leash. „Do you see yourself as an artist or as a designer? Is there a difference?“, I continue the interview.

„I am a designer“, Rana tells me, „but many people like to label me as an artist. I love design as it is a great form of visual communication in which I can apply my ideas on any surface. Art is very personal and sometimes it does not need to say anything.“

Still, I have some doubts. „Is the art of design appropriately used when it is simply helping to sell banal consumer goods like clothes from H&M and lipsticks from Bassam Fattouh?“

Rana’s answer is well considered. „Design is great when it is being used well for a commercial purpose“, she says. And then she talks again about the difference between art and design. „Art is far more limiting when we speak of commercial use“, she explains. „Design is a great form of ‚art‘ that becomes accessible to all.“

With my last question, I am out to test Rana’s quick-wittedness. „How do you react when people say that your designs are brilliant, but boy, $60 for a set of Um Kulthum coasters, that’s pricey?“

Rana’s answer comes with a laughter, as quick and witty as I had expected it: „I tell them to piss off!“

„Of course not“, Rana rapidly softens her statement, „I’m just kidding“. „You see“, she says, „people will pay that $60 when a customer values what I do. A coaster is a coaster is a coaster. It’s the idea that people buy. Not the coaster.“

In the meantime, Rana’s workshop has come to an end. Everybody is finishing their first attempts at Lebanese pop art, Rana Salam style.

The workshop hasn’t changed my view of the Middle East. It didn’t need to. Except for the Syrian lingerie, I already knew that the region is much more diverse than what is reported in the news. But hopefully Rana’s products and designs will do this trick for the general public in the years to come. The Middle East desperately needs a pop art break.



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 www.tarekyamani.com/store 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.

WHAT I HATE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT IS GOING ON IN SYRIA IS THAT YOU HAVE TO TAKE A SIDE. BUT I HATE BOTH SIDES!

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