Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Rhythm Is Magic

One of my favorite books of all time is "The Dance of Life" by Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher who died in 2009. In "The Dance of Life", The Other Dimension of Time, Hall reveals the ways in which individuals in a culture are tied together by invisible threads of rhythm and yet isolated from each other by hidden walls of time. 

Rhythm is basic to synchrony. My favorite story in the book is called "Synchrony and Group Cohesion". The basic principle of rhythm and synchrony is illustrated by a film of children on a playground. Watching the film carefully several times, Hall could detect a very active little girl who seemed to stand out from the rest. She was all over the place. Concentrating on that girl, Hall and his students noticed that whenever she was near a cluster of children the members of that group were in sync not only with each other but with her. This girl, with her skipping and dancing and twirling, was actually orchestrating movements of the entire playground. There was something about the pattern of movement which translated into a beat - and when playing a piece of rock music together with the film, not a beat or a frame of the film was out of sync. 

I was reminded of this story when I saw the video @jchernandezjazz posted on Twitter this week. "Elpida", filmed in Grenoble France in March 2011, is a short black and white video depicting children playing on a playground, accompanied by a wonderful saxophone. (Author of both video and music is the very talented, only 16years old Marion Germa, @mariongerma on Twitter.) Are these the children Hall was writing about? Is there a girl or a little boy being the rhythmic center of the group?

rhythm is playing, rhythm is dancing

Muhammad Ali was a man with lots of rhythm is his prime days. I love the history of boxing, the one that was filmed in black and white, just as I love Jazz. Its' 40 years these days that the "Fight of the Century" took place in New York's Madison Square Garden, pitching Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier. It was an epic fight of Good versus Evil. Muhammad Ali had refused to sign up for the war in Vietnam, he went to prison for that and was stripped off his crown as heavyweight world champion. He was the good man. Opposite him was Smokin' Joe Frazier, a decent, hardworking, law abiding, church going family man, who personified patriotism and obedience. Frank Sinatra was ringside, taking picture for Life Magazine, Burt Lancaster commented for tv. It was fighting, it was rhythm, 15 rounds of skipping, dancing and twirling, of pounding and ducking, and in the end it was Frazier who prevailed. He was the winner but the public loved Ali.

rhythm is fighting

For Edward T. Hall the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others. The rhythm of a people may be the most binding of all forces that hold human beings together. Where there is dancing and where there is fighting, there is rhythm. I feel this rhythm in all its aspects, in all its combinations, when looking at and hoping for the revolutions that are happening in the Arab world as we write and as we read. The best example for this may have been, and still are!, the Egyptians gathering on Cairo's Tahrir Square day after day, night after night, united in their aspirations for a better Egypt where people are heard, where the people have a role. Rhythm is Freedom, Rhythm is Magic.

rhythm is freedom!

by the way: I know the girl Hall was referring to. She is a woman now and used to work in my office. Wherever she went there was synchrony and people felt good. She had that inner rhythm and she shared it with everybody around her.

Monday, March 7, 2011

From AQ to AJ: the Arab Base is moving to the Island

Colonel Gaddafi was ranting as usual but kept adamantly contending: What I face here, in Libya, is Al Qaeda trying to overthrow my regime. And the media, and particularly Al Jazeera, is turning and twisting the facts, pretending that this is a popular uprising against my rule. How dare they! I'm not even the president of this country.

It has been a long time that I have heard that Al Qaeda represents a threat to anybody, at least the Al Qaeda core, consisting of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and the pack still hanging out with them. Do they still exist? Or are the stories of their hiding out in the tribal areas of Pakistan a political myth that is about to fade once and forever?

And it has been another while since Osama bin Laden posted his "Letter to America" - you might call it the "Jihadi Manifesto" - on the internet. (Yes, the internet already existed in 2002.) While many of his arguments against America made some sense, his answers didn't: Killing people and promoting terrorism won't make a better world, won't lead to a sustainable pursuit of happiness for the people in the Arab world.

Was Osama's message ever heard? No it wasn't, not by a meaningful share of the population he wanted to reach out to. Al Qaeda has never established the base it aimed to be in the Arab world, but has moved out instead, more and more, out of the center of attention of the Arab mind, to an island somewhere drifting in the ideological ocean.

Al Jazeera is the Island. And it is Al Jazeera's message that is heard now, in 2011, when the world takes notice of an uprising in the Arab world. Surprisingly for the rest of the world, the uprisings are not directed at the "West" - the clash of civilization didn't happen - but against dictators and leaders of revolutions long cherished by the very same "West". 

Reporting the revolutions: Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin

Al Jazeera was for a long time, and still is, suspected to be the press office of Al Qaeda. Of course it didn't help that Tayseer Alouni, their famous reporter and bin Laden interviewer, later was convicted for carrying money for Al Qaeda and sentenced to seven years in prison. For some, like the Israeli historian Itamar Rabinovich or German journalist Elmar Thevessen, Al Jazeera has long ago stopped to be impartial but has become an instrument for a nationalistic and islamistic agenda. But how can one be impartial in a world full of injustice? And: does anybody ask Fox News to be impartial?

Some call Al Jazeera the 23rd state of the Arab League. But what is Al Jazeera really, what do they strive to be? "It's complicated", says Wadah Khanfar, their well spoken Director General. Al Jazeera aims high. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Khanfar puts it this way: "Al Jazeera is a reflection of the collective minds of the nations, cultures and civilizations that we report from and report to. Al Jazeera is the profession as the forefathers of this profession accepted it to be. We can't be part of the centers of power. We do not accept associations with centers of power, neither commercial nor political. This is a very heavy price that we are paying."

Any self-respecting journalist can't be part of the centers of power - their job is to monitor these centers. But what is the heavy price Al Jazeera is paying? Don't they make money (not enough apparently; they get funding by the government of Qatar)? Do they have to bribe somebody to keep going and feel bad about it (not the Emir of Qatar it seems; he keeps his hands off the AJ newsroom)? Unfortunately Khanfar didn't elaborate further on that. But you can't expect love when you (try to) tell an unpleasant truth. You might get called all kinds of names, as it happened with Al Jazeera: the Hebraia, founded by the CIA, the Zionists and the Mossad, reflecting the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. I believe you are doing something right when you have enemies. There is almost no Arabic country where Al Jazeera wasn't shut down at one time or another, and even Bush bombed their office in Baghdad in 2003 (and never apologized for it!).

Almost as a shock to many, the Arab revolutions have, so far, no religious motivation. The people protesting are Muslim allright, but they don't want to replace the Pharaos with a caliphate or an emirate. Isn't religion the driving force behind every move in the Arab world? Does the "West" get it all wrong? Tariq Ramadan make this point for a long time, as controversial as he might be for many. In a post on his website, he celebrates the "Fridays of Freedom", with people reuniting to preach and to resist, as "a direct marriage between Islam - the Muslim - and freedom, justice and democratic principles". (Now what is the difference between "democracy" and "democratic principles"? Tariq Ramadan has a talent for having people to keep second guessing his statements.) Looking at this run for freedom, I repeat my claim I have made before: Historically, Europeans have more in common with the Arab culture than with the American culture. If only Europe would realize and acknowledge this. 

Let's pretend for a moment that Gaddafi is right and he indeed is fighting Al Qaeda forces in Eastern Libya. The military intervention and the no-fly zone the US and NATO are deliberating now, would then protect Osama bin Laden and his loyal men. What an ironic twist of history that would be. George W. Bush is rotating in his political grave only thinking of it. Please Al Jazeera, send a reporter down there.

PS: Ayman Mohyeldin is @AymanM on Twitter - you might consider following.