The Viking Allah

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By Khaled Diab

A mysterious ring in a dead Viking woman’s tomb shows how Northern Europeans came into contact with Muslims and Islam before even becoming Christian.

Viking Allah

Tuesday 7 April 2015

A ring with a cryptic inscription in a foreign tongue turns up in the ancient burial site of an enigmatic woman.

It is the kind of mystery that would have excited the imagination of JRR Tolkien. But this enigma does not unfold in Middle Earth but in the middle ages. The ring in question was unearthed in Sweden and intriguingly contained the Arabic inscription “For/To Allah”.

Recent scientific investigation revealed that what was assumed to be a precious stone containing the inscription was actually coloured glass. But the long-deceased owner wasn’t ripped off, as glass, though pretty common in the Middle East, was a rare and valuable material in Scandinavia at the time.

But how exactly did an Islamic ring end up on the finger of a Viking woman? Short of discovering time travel, we will never know for certain. Several theories have been put forward. One is that it was acquired in trade. In light of the pristine condition of the ring, the researchers behind the lates study posit the intriguing possibility that the ring’s owner may have been a Muslim herself or had travelled to Muslim lands.

With all the fears and fear-mongering about the “Islamisation of Europe”, including in Sweden, it seems outlandish that a native Norsewoman who lived over a millennium ago would be so comfortable with Islam that she would wear a ring with the Arabic word for God engraved on it, and this at a time when Christianity had barely penetrated the lands of Odin, Thor and Freya.

But it is not as bizarre as it may sound. Even though we unfairly tend to associate the Vikings today with raping, pillaging and burning, there were Nordic tribes who headed eastward, not as conquerors but as merchants (and sometimes mercenaries and slave traders). The euro may draw people to Europe today, but the mighty dirham pulled Europeans towards the Middle East a millennium ago.

Although a significant number of their descendants today complain about immigrants, these early Norse-people migrated east, drawn by the opulent riches and high tech of the Middle East, then the centre of global trade.

On their voyages, they encountered Arabs – to much mutual curiosity and dismay. Since Scandinavians were not great writers at the time, the picture we have is rather one-sided, as it is based on the prolific output of contemporary Arab chroniclers, who wrote to satisfy a large and popular market for travel writing.

Interestingly, Arab writers left us with a much more sympathetic and nuanced picture of the Vikings and their ways than Europeans did. In fact, modern scholars are drawing heavily on these ancient Arab accounts to fill in the holes in our knowledge of the Norse tribes. So, in addition to “threatening” Europe’s cultural heritage, it seems Muslims have also helped to preserve it.

One of the most detailed and fascinating accounts was penned by Ahmad ibn Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas in the fictional Thirteenth Warrior), who was a tenth-century traveller and diplomat for the Abbasid Caliphate, which bears almost no resemblance to ISIS’s modern-day caliph-hate.

Although his writing tends to exhibit some of the cultural superiority and condescension we tend to associate with certain brands of Orientalism today – such as lumping together a complex tapestry of tribes and peoples into a single homogenous “other” – he also expresses sympathy and a willingness to understand these “Rus”, as he called them.

Like later stereotypes of the “Noble Savage”, Ibn Fadlan waxes lyrical, confessing: “I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs – they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish.” Another Muslim traveller, the Persian Ibn Rustah, praised them for their heroicness and loyalty.

Interestingly, Ibn Fadlan witnessed many exhibitions of fornication and drunken behaviour, and yet, despite being an Islamic scholar, or Faqih, failed to pass, in a display of admirable academic neutrality, any moral judgement on what he described.

This may seem odd, given how puritanical Islamic scholars tend to be today. But when considering how freely alcohol flowed in the Abbasid caliphate, the odes to wine penned by Arab poets and the fact that medieval Islamic scholars often authored sex manuals, including one with the beautifully sensual title of The Perfumed Garden.

While Ibn Fadlan barely batted an eyelid at the intoxication around him, he was totally grossed out by the Vikings’ notions of hygiene. Probably perfumed and dressed in fine silks, from a dandy culture where daily bathing was a norm and ritual washing took place five times a day, his disgust is palpable. “They are the filthiest of all God’s creatures,” he declaimed. “They do not clean themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity (i.e., after coitus) and do not wash their hands after food.”

There are also moments of mutual culture shock. Ibn Fadlan is taken aback by the raping and human sacrifice of a female slave in the ship burning funeral of a chieftain, which must have seemed barbaric to his Abrahamic sensibilities. The Vikings were also aghast by Islamic burial practices. “You Arabs are a foolish lot,” one remarked, “you purposely take those who are dearest to you and whom you hold in highest esteem and throw them under the earth, where they are eaten by the earth, by vermin and by worms.”

Some of the Vikings Ibn Fadlan encountered had converted to Islam, but many others were too attached to their native religions or held back because they would miss pork too much.

Given the fact she was buried and not burned, the mysterious Viking woman with the ring may have been one of these converts returned home, or a Norsewoman who had come into contact with Muslims during a voyage east.

This just goes to show that Islam has deeper roots in Europe, even its remoter corners, than most Europeans appreciate.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 2 April 2015.

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The Syrian Kurd who went blind because he’d seen too much

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By Boštjan Videmšek

From the man literally blinded by horrors to the girl whose dream is to read books,  we meet the Syrian Kurds fleeing the ISIS onslaught on Kobani.

A Kurdish boy in a mosque in Suruc. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

A Kurdish boy in a mosque in Suruc. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 7 October 2014

During the day, the hill on the Turkish-Syrian border had been as desolately sandy as its surroundings. The night’s downpour had turned it into a pile of muddy goo. As I approached the border fence, a crowd of Kurdish men was observing the battle between the Kurdish defenders of Kobani and the Islamic State (ISIS) fighters. The Islamic State militia units were attacking backed by heavy artillery. The Kurds were responding with automatic-rifle fire and an occasional home-made rocket.

An abandoned Turkish military post on the border with Syria. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

An abandoned Turkish military post on the border with Syria. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Some soldiers of the Turkish army were also observing the action taking place on the Syrian side of the border. They were mostly doing it from the safety of their armoured vehicles ‒ which seemed like a good idea, since there weren’t all that many of them around. Their mood was one of wary apathy. As the battle grew in scope and ferocity, one could see some hundred Kurdish refugees lined up along the barbed wire separating the two countries. It was heartwrenchingly obvious they were hoping the Turks might still let them in. As things stood, they were caught in the crossfire.

Yet another haunting image from this desperate struggle, yet another reminder of the savagery of Syria’s civil war. As I watched, the whole bloody mess seemed so wretchedly complex that any solution granting safety to the civilian population seemed all but foredoomed.

A brief respite

Along with fourteen relatives, Omar Issa, 67, reached Turkey about a week ago. His pitiful expedition, hailing from the border-town of Karacha, has pitched a tent on an open field crossed by a muddy creek.

The tent provides a modicum of protection for no less than 18 families. Less than a kilometre to the west, a vicious firefight between the Kurds and the ISIS militiamen was raging on. Ignoring the explosions, the children were merrily frolicking around the creek. The women were catching up on the laundry, while the older men – pretty much everyone who could fight remained back in Syria – were sitting on plastic chairs, smoking and drinking tea. There seemed to be no end to the political debates.

“As soon as the Islamic State was formed in Syria, I knew that sooner or later they would be coming for us, the Kurds!” Omar told me. “To them, we are worth less than animals. We had to run, you understand? They’d already taken over all the neighbouring villages. Can you imagine our horror? So we packed what we could and drove here, to the border.”

“Then it took them two whole days to let us pass, the Turks,” he recalls. “Yes, we do feel safe here. But the housing situation is horrible, just horrible. It’s cold and it’s wet, and the winter is approaching fast – all of us can feel it.”

I spent quite a long time speaking with this traditionally dressed Kurdish elder, who only a few weeks ago used to grow olives and tend his flock. During our conversation, Omar revealed that two of his sons had stayed home to fight. He expressed great concern that the city of Kobani was about to fall. In his opinion, it would mean a great disaster for the Kurds and many others beside. “Under Bashar al Assad’s regime, we were safe, but we had no freedom,” he mused softly. “It was very very hard for us. And now… Well, now we are free men, but we are trembling for our lives.”

The consensus among the refugees seemed to be that they were entirely dependent on the help of their relatives on the Turkish side of the border. “They have helped us a great deal, and we are very grateful to them,” said one of those who had taken flight across the border. “But it is obvious we will not be able to hold out for much longer. We left everything behind. We are now left entirely at the mercy of the international community. There is, of course, no lack of promises; but we are now desperate for some actual assistance.”

Kurdish refugees. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Kurdish refugees. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

The majority of the Kurds that did manage to cross the border took refuge in nearby Suruc. With every day, the situation there grew more volatile. The people in the streets were visibly exhausted, some were openly raging at the sheer monstrous inhumanity of their predicament. Only a few kilometres away, their loved ones were being massacred, and they were powerless to help. Yet some also admitted it was little wonder Turkey had decided to close the border. After all, over the last fortnight the population of the filthy, down-trodden town of Suruc has more than doubled.

No-one really knew the exact number of the inflowing Kurdish refugees. All available housing was bulging at the seams, and many of the refugees were left with no recourse but to sleep in parks and darkened underpasses. Quite a number of them have pitched improvised tents in the surrounding fields. All of them were left entirely to their own devices and whatever help the locals were able to supply. At the time of my arrival, precious little actual humanitarian relief had managed to reach Suruc, a town that was visibly tottering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

“The ISIS men were sure to kidnap us and sell us into slavery”

Naima Khalil, 19, introduced herself to me as a Syrian Kurd from Kobani. In the chaos that had become her existence there by the Syrian-Turkish border, she longed for the safety and stability provided by her school and a small collection of books she had to leave behind.

Accompanied by her mother, father, brother and five sisters, she fled eight days ago. The ISIS militiamen have been tightening their grip on this thoroughly besieged city, until Naima’s father decided they could no longer run the risk of staying put. The father was all too aware what happened to many others who failed to flee the Sunni extremist elsewhere.

“Our father was afraid for us, women,” Naima explained with a diffident shrug. “The ISIS men were sure to kidnap us and sell us into slavery. It’s what happened to so many girls in Syria and Iraq. So what could we do? We gathered what we could and ran for our lives. You know, there’s been no electricity or running water in Kobani for a while now. We suffered there for three years. We had to dig our own well. But we knew that in the surrounding villages, things were even worse.”

This swarthy nineteen-year-old, Naima, was talking to me in commendably fluent English. Back in Syria, she and her family have managed to survive three years of constant war. It wasn’t always the case, but in Kobani, the Kurds had opted to join the Syrian revolution. During the first months of the insurgency against the Assad regime, a few peaceful demonstrations took place in Kobani. The government forces arrested a number of people, but for some reason they didn’t bring their heel down as brutally as they did in Homs or Da’ara. The summer of 2012 saw a “tactical” retreat of Assad’s forces from the Kurdish territories. The Kurds wasted little time in forming their own local authorities and setting up their own dedicated, if rather tiny, army. They declared an autonomous Kurdish zone and decided to name it Rojave.

For Naima, this meant the end of her schooling. It also meant an end to her hope of going on to study medicine – something she’d dreamt about throughout her entire childhood. The road to Aleppo, where the university is situated and where she was meant to take her entrance exams, became “impassable”. In reality, this means the road became one of the focal points for the clashes between the various insurgent groups, the government forces, the Kurds and the burgeoning ISIS.

There is no getting around the fact that the situation is mercilessly complex. The sudden rise of the ISIS’s fierce, hate-crazed militiamen can be defined as the illegitimate offspring of decades of American foreign policies, Saudi funding and the Turkish fear of the Kurds getting organised. The Islamic State fighters first decisively destroyed the Syrian insurgency against the Assad regime, then they crossed the Iraqi border to establish what they call a “caliphate”. After that, they wasted little time to get on with their business of rooting out all dissent to their militant creed. After the Yaezidis, the Kurds were next in line. Over the course of the last two weeks, over a hundred Kurdish villages were taken by the militiamen. Some 130,000 Kurds were forced to flee to Turkey via the nearby border, which was proving increasingly porous. With every passing day, the chaos only intensified.

Naima Khalil is just one of the countless innocent souls caught up in the lunacy. “I am angry and I am sad,” she admitted. “The Turkish children here are set on frightening me by telling me the Islamists are coming here to murder me, while the grown men want only to humiliate me. Most days, I can barely gather the courage to step out of the house where we live along with three other families.”

And how did Naima manage to find this accommodation? “Oh, one of my father’s acquaintances sort of lent it to us for 10 days. The bad news is that the day after tomorrow we have to leave, and then we’ll be left to the streets. We simply don’t know what to do. There’s no money left. My parents spent what little we had on getting us out of there alive. Perhaps… Perhaps we’ll be forced to go to Istanbul. To live on the streets. I’ll start looking for work as soon as we get there.”

“There is nothing I want more than to go back to school, but I guess that’s not going to happen, huh,” she added, before breaking down into heavy sobs. Then Naima summoned what courage and optimism she had left and asked me if I had a book in English. “Anything, anything at all,” she pleaded. As far back as she could remember, all she really wanted to do was read. “My father, he wants me to grab any chance at education life gives me. Even when I was not able to go to school, I studied all the time ‒ I studied at home, where else?” she described. “I read everything I could get my hands on. I don’t want to be like most of my friends: their parents married them off to make sure they were safe but losing them their freedom in the bargain. I simply couldn’t do that. Not for all the safety in the world. After all, my mother Najaf has always been a fierce advocate of women’s rights.”

This last bit allowed Naima to regain some measure of composure and even pride. As we talked, we stood amid a vast crowd of Kurdish refugees who’d gathered here for the lentil soup. This brackish-looking concoction was being distributed by Turkish humanitarian workers from titanic aluminium vats. In this dusty, anxiety-ravaged town of Suruc, Naima told me, she felt more trapped than anywhere before. “These local men, they are staring at me, and they are staring and staring, and I am always looking away… And every day, I get more afraid of them, of what they might do to me. You know, this… This is not my world. This should not be my world.”

Mohammed Chechu: Blinded by tragedy. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Mohammed Chechu: Blinded by tragedy. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Mohammed Chechu, a Kurdish refugee from a village near Kobani, lost his sight some 18 months ago. He claims it was because he had seen too much horror. Along with his family, he left Syria for the border town of 12 twelve days ago. His village – just like all the other Kurdish villages in the region – was taken over by the Islamic State.

“Since I can’t see, I hardly ever left the house. One day, I heard shouting in the streets. People were very frightened. They were telling each other that in the neighbouring villages, the Islamists were slitting throats and rounding up the women to sell them into slavery,” he recounted. “My greatest fear was that my blindness would make me a burden for everyone. I was determined to stay in the house, come what may, but my family convinced me to help them gather a few things and flee. We had to leave behind everything we worked for so hard. Our house, our car, our animals, our life.”

I spoke to Mohammed inside a mosque, where at least 300 Kurdish refugees have been crammed together for the past fortnight. He told me that it took his family two whole days to make the trip. They spent a night at the Turkish border, then the Turkish soldiers decided to let them pass.

Many of Mohammed’s relatives stayed back in Kobani: cousins, nephews, even many of his friends who have never before as much as lifted a walking stick in anger, let alone a Kalashnikov rifle. But they knew enough to know their fate was entirely in their own hands. No help has yet been given to them, and they have learned to expect none. The coalition was mostly bombing oil refineries – its priorities couldn’t be more clear. Meanwhile, the Kurds were perishing by the thousands, and hardly for the first time. Given the long brutal history of this proud, self-reliant people, it is no wonder so few of its members are willing to place any trust in the international community. The vast majority claim they would much prefer to die valiantly in battle. But perhaps their greatest problem is that, at this crucial moment in history, there is precious little unity between the 25 million Kurds of the Middle East, let alone a focused political agenda. So far, none of their brothers have come to the aid of the Syrian Kurds in the Kobani province. They have their own battles to fight.

“It’s hard. The worst part is that my blindness prevents me from taking care of my family,” Mohammed went on. “Instead, they have to take care of me! I’m completely useless. Like myself, my wife also used to be a teacher in our school. But as soon as I lost my sight, she had to drop all that and devote herself fully to the needs of our family.”

Mohammed’s unseeing eyes have honed other forms of sight and insight. “For this past week, all I’ve done is sit around and listen to people talk. I also smoke a lot and think, think, think. I may be blind, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the human pain and suffering all around me. So many people are forced to sleep in the streets. We are so cold – but there is no help in sight. Winter’s coming, and things are only going to get worse. I’m afraid that there will come a point when they will simply decide to trample us into the ground… I’m very grateful to Turkey for letting us in, but now someone else should step in and help, too!«

In this most unfortunate exile, Mohammed is accompanied by three sons and a daughter. The youngest of his sons is 12 and has recently been diagnosed with a very serious type of diabetes. “No medicine is available for him here. And we also have no money for the treatment. I know he got sick because of me. And because of the war.” Throughout our conversation, Mohammed fought valiantly to keep his emotions in check, but this is where he lost control, and tears came pouring out of his dark, sightless eyes.

I want to teach again.”

The last time Mohammed stepped in front of a class was two years ago, when the government forces temporarily left the Kurdish areas, which enabled the Kurds to organise their own schools. Even then, his eyesight was starting to fail. He is convinced that the stress was the main cause. He had seen so many atrocities, perpetrated both by the regime and then the various Islamic militias that started to brutalise his homelands. The viciousness kept mounting and mounting, much like the war itself. Mohammed finally went blind about a year and a half ago.

“For a while, all I could see were shadows, and then not even that,” he recalls. “It was… It was like a sort of death. But I didn’t lose hope. After a few weeks, I regained at least some of my spirit and convinced myself that there will come a day when I would see again, and then I could once more step into a classroom of happy children, all of them willing to learn.”

But one needs considerable foresight to see that distant day through the heavy fog of conflict. “You know, Syria is now seeing a generation of children who had to leave school altogether – an uneducated, traumatised generation… It is the worst thing that could have happened.” From the quiet, plaintive way he spoke, it was clear that Mohammed still hadn’t come to grips with all the horrors that recently befell him and his people. But in spite of his blindness, his deep dark eyes kept staring right at mine, and I was startled to note that at times those poor sightless eyes were still sparkling – and with, of all things, hope.

Almost the entire territory of Syria has been ravaged by war, and the roads connecting the major urban centres have been the most dangerous parts of this fallen country… Nevertheless, a few months ago, Mohammed’s wife still decided to gather the last of their savings and take her husband to a renowned neurologist in Damascus. One day, she simply started the car and set off toward the capital. At every checkpoint, they were stopped and questioned, and the surly men with machine-guns often made very explicit threats to boot. They were stopped by the government troops, the ISIS militiamen, the members of the Free Syrian Army and a number of unidentifiable ruffians, all of these warlords the new rulers of the divided state. All in all, it took them thirty-six hours to reach Damascus. They spent the night in their car, in the middle of the desert.

“My wife was able to get some sleep. I didn’t. I was much too terrified,” Mohammed said of the nerve-wracking journey. “All the time, I was listening to the various noises, wondering what each of them meant. A few times, panic almost had me by the throat. But I was also looking forward to seeing the specialist. I was really hopeful that he could help me.”

Hope remains

When they arrived, the neurologists saw Mohammed straight away. He examined his eyes very assiduously, and to the patient’s great surprise he declared there was nothing wrong with them. The problem is of a purely neurological nature, that much is now certain. According to the specialist, the blindness was caused by some elaborate glitch of the nerves in Mohammed’s brain. The patient found himself much heartened by the news, since the neurologist openly told him that there was an excellent chance of him regaining his sight if proper treatment could be secured.

“The return trip may have been just as dangerous as the drive to Damascus. But this time around, I was warm all over with a feeling not unlike happiness,” Mohammed remembered. “The very mention of the possibility that I might see again cheered me up no end. On my return, I was a different man, full of hope.” But this hope lies at some considerable distance in space, time and opportunity. “The [doctor] from Damascus told me that a certain clinic in Spain specialises in the exact form of dysfunction I was diagnosed with having! But he didn’t tell me its name or location, and in all the excitement I forgot to ask. I’m glad to say that I have a relative in Spain, who promised he would help me find this clinic… But I have no idea how I’m going to get there. I have neither the funds nor the necessary papers.”

Mohammed Chechu also sent the results of his examination to a Palestinian doctor in Jordan. He is still waiting for the reply. But these last few weeks, his eyes have regained a small semblance of their former function. He cannot exactly see anything, but he can sometimes “feel” movement in front of his eyes, he says – and now and then he finds himself sensing a shift in the quality of the light. If he places his palm directly in front of his eyes, he can sometimes convince himself that he can discern a few of its features. But if an object is placed more than 10cm away, he cannot see it at all. “All the time I hope and pray. I want to be a man again, someone who can take care of his family, my poor beloved wife and children, who had been so traumatised by this senseless war,” he expresses his yearning. “In my opinion, only someone who is able to serve others can fully appreciate the marvel of what it means to be human.”

Mohammed ends our conversation by apologising for being so “selfish”. “I do apologise for going on like this, for focusing almost entirely on my own problems. This unspeakable tragedy, well… The truth is we’re all in it together, and our pain is only growing worse. Please help us.”


Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter: @bosthi

His website is:

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Fiction: Football

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By Christian Nielsen

I ask if he is making friends… She tells me he has black skin, lifting her arm to show me in case I don’t comprehend the significance. 

Thursday 19 June 2014

“How have you been?” I ask as she takes off her headscarf and hangs it up to dry.

“Oh, you know … fine,” she answers, not looking at me.

“And how is your boy doing?”

“Yes … fine,” she says while changing shoes.

I ask if I can get her a cup of tea and she doesn’t refuse.

While the kettle boils, she sits at the kitchen table and lets out a small marsupial-sounding noise, a sigh that ends with a wet click inside the cheek.

“He wants to play football, you know … and I tell him he must finish his classes and get good grades.”

“Is he any good?” I ask, as only a man can focus on the specifics of his footballing talent.

“I don’t know. I heard of it just now. He wants to play for the student team, but I say he must not waste time or he will have to go back …” she whispers “… if it is football he wants why did I bring him here to me; he can stay in Zimbabwe?”

I ask how much time the football would take up. She says training in the week and matches on Saturday … she thinks he already plays because he is never around when she comes back from French classes.

I ask how old he is and tell her how difficult it is to hold him back; he’s an adult after all.

She tells me it is for his own good, that if he gets bad grades or fails he can’t stay in the country.

I ask if he is making friends, spending much time with people outside class. She tells me he has black skin, lifting her arm to show me in case I don’t comprehend the significance, and says it is hard.

“If you hold him back, you have no guarantees his grades will continue to be good,” I offer, “and if you let him play you don’t know for sure his studies will suffer.”

She nods silently and takes a sip of her tea.

“You have to show you trust him but set conditions … tell him he can play but it would be a trial,” I continue.

“Yes, you think so?” she reflects.

“I do. It’s going to be hard enough for him to get a job once he finishes studying, so he will need the social contacts … people from the football club can help him. An employer looks for well-balanced young people and he’ll need to show he’s a team player … not just good at school.”

She brightens up and takes another sip of her tea. The doorbell rings. I don’t feel the urge to answer it.

“Perhaps tell him you agree to the football providing his grades stay good and that it is a positive thing for his CV.”

“Football yes, I can show I trust him … Do you have sugar, Mr Melisma?”


This story is taken from Mr Melisma, please, Christian Nielsen’s debut collection of short fiction.  Also read The Box. You can order your copy from Amazon

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The box

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By Christian Nielsen

Andrew knew the first time he opened the box that it would lead to no good. But he did it anyway. He couldn’t help it.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Just a crack, he thought. But that was enough. It came straight at him like a sneeze. Wet and vapour-like in his mouth, up his nose. Like a brain-freeze but hot. No cold. No, it was hot. Nebulous. Bilious.

Was it searching? Andrew felt it, but it was someone else hopping on one foot. Pandora had come. Pandora would soon leave.

Eyes closed. A motif. Filigree. Blackened. Engraved from memory. He ran his finger along the pattern … sensed the relief.

He thought it would all be a dream. It wasn’t. Life’s never that easy. He knew that but hoped each day would prove different. He’d remember what his grandfather told him about polishing shoes.

He’d remember the brushes, one for each colour. He’d search for the shoebox in his mind. In the garage? No. Under the sink? No. Where the money was kept? No? With the unpacked books? No. Under the BBQ? Of course it was under the BBQ.

He’d remember grandfather’s house; weatherboards, metalwork on the veranda, creeping vines, chirping cicadas … He’d remember silky hair … a feint smell of tonic and 4711. He’d remember bran flakes and apple. He’d remember kind words, the look of pride … some disappointment.

Buses come and go but never his. That’s the way it is … and maybe was. His fingernails need cleaning. That much he knew. No-one notices anymore, he thought. Shoes, people notice.

Mothers turn their children to face the other way. But they always turn back and stare. Pull a face and they laugh. That’s nice.

Work disappears when you close your eyes. So Andrew thought.

It’s just steps. Open the drawer. Take paperclips. Spread under the desk. Close the office door. Pretend to be gathering them up. Lay down. Close your eyes. Dream about the box … see yourself opening it … feel the hot-cold … It’s just steps. Turn the latch. Crack the lid. Open just a smidgeon … No!

It’s just steps. Choose a rag. Smear the polish. Rub into the shoe. Wait to dry. Take the right coloured brush. One hand in a shoe … a brush in the other … smell the hair tonic …

Surely someone will find him under there …


This story is taken from Mr Melisma, please, Christian Nielsen’s debut collection of short fiction. You can order your copy from Amazon

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Reimagining Palestine: Inserting the human dimension

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By Khaled Diab

The outside world primarily see Palestinians as two-dimensional heroes or villains. A new generation of artists and writers is adding a vital third dimension, the human. 

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

Monday 3 March 2014

The Arab-Israeli conflict has cast such a long shadow over the Palestinians that it sometimes seems the outside world can only view this dynamic and diverse people through the prism of the conflict. This tension between the image of the Palestinian as freedom fighter, in one narrative, and as terrorist, in the other, distorts the far more important picture of the Palestinian as human being.

But recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of artists and writers who are challenging this superficial hero/villain dichotomy by delving deeper into the ordinary human experience, albeit under extraordinary circumstances.

In so doing, they are making the conflict the backdrop, rather than the central focus. “I have met people, many Palestinians, whom I have found quite heroic in a quotidian, no-glory kind of way,” reflects Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright. “They need to be fictionalised, as the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

And despite the temptation to communicate a “message,” Dabbagh has striven to avoid such two-dimensional flatness in her work. “I did start writing thinking [I have] a mission… but the more I wrote fiction, the more I realised that the message was dangerous,” she notes. “The characters have to live and breathe in a writer’s mind and rub off each other with love and conflict.”

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

And “love and conflict” are the themes of Dabbagh’s latest work, a BBC radio play. Although The Brick, which is set in Jerusalem, features checkpoints and permits, these provide the background scenery to a personal story of mundane routine pierced by shattering family revelations.

In Dabbagh’s well-received debut novel, Out of It, she also attempts this difficult juggling act of making the human speak louder than the sometimes deafening background drone of conflict.

Partly set in Gaza during the second intifada, the book strives to rise above the cacophony of conflict to delve into the human experience of a family of “returnees” trying to find escape, each in their own unique way – in England, in the Gulf or inside their minds.

Escapism, exile and return are, unsurprisingly, recurring themes in contemporary Palestinian literature, whether fictional or factual, as brought vividly and poetically, and sometimes humorously, to life by Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here.

But for real laughs, both tragicomic and absurdist, one should turn to architect-cum-writer Suad Amiry. Set during the second intifada in Ramallah, her debut autobiographical work blends dry, unvarnished humour with a sharp talent for storytelling.

Sharon and my Mother-in-Law hilariously juxtaposes two authoritarian figures restricting Amiry’s freedom: one a 91-year-old matriarch, the other a ruthless general-turned-politician in his 70s. “I ended up with two occupations, one inside the house, in the form of my mother in law, and another outside the house with Sharon’s army. And don’t embarrass me and ask which one was more difficult,” she joked on a long bus journey during which she reflected on life, architecture, politics and writing.

As if to answer her own question, Amiry adds, “Perhaps one day I may forgive you, the Israelis, for all the atrocities you have committed against us, but I shall never forgive you for having my mother-in-law stay with me for 40 days under curfew – which felt like 40 years.”

sharonAs the Israeli army locked down Ramallah in 2002, Amiry’s mother-in-law was largely oblivious to the war zone around her, retreating into the protective shield of her marmalade-making routine. “In spite of the fact that we were under curfew, with no electricity and no TV, she still wanted to lead a normal life: dress up as if we were going to a party, set the table nicely and eat on time as if there was no war around us,” the perplexed daughter-in-law recalled.

To escape the fighting and curfew on the streets, Amiry mined this rich comedic material in e-mails sent out to her niece and friends which eventually became an unexpected hit when turned into book form, and not just in Europe but also in Israel.

The surreal moments Amiry recounts include a spontaneous outdoor “party” during which all her neighbours took to their roofs to bang on pots and pans in peaceful, if noisy, defiance of the curfew, and an incident in which she posed as her pet dog’s chauffeur to get into Jerusalem because Nura, the canine, had a Jerusalem pass while her mistress did not.

As if to prove that this was no beginner’s luck, Amiry, who is not only an architectural conservationist by profession but is also dyslexic, has followed up this success with highly innovative, original works.

In Nothing To Lose But Your Life, Amiry disguises herself as a man and embarks, with a group of illegal Palestinian workers, on an improbable, funny, dangerous and self-deprecating adventure into Israel in the dead of night. For her third book, she casts off her male disguise to explore life for middle-aged Palestinian women of the “PLO generation”, intriguingly titled Menopausal Palestine.

Efforts to reimagine the Palestinians through humour do not end with literature. A group of enterprising young Palestinians and Europeans is working on a humorous television soap opera, a genre long dominated by Egypt and Syria. “It’s a way of putting Palestinians on the map,” explains Pietro Bellorini, the director of the series. He adds that the production, which revolves around the lives and antics of an East Jerusalem family, will go beyond the serious but superficial Arab preoccupation with the occupation and familiarise the region with the funny and absurd side of life in this troubled and incredibly complex city.

Speed Sisters watermarkedLike Monty Python revolutionised the way we look at the crucifixion by reminding us to “always look on the bright side of life”, humour can play a powerful role in changing people’s consciousness through laughter. “We use humour because it is a very powerful tool,” Bellorini stresses. “It is a tool that allows you to say things that wouldn’t be accepted in a serious conversation.”

Beyond television, the visual and audiovisual arts are also doing their part to challenge prevalent perceptions. One recent example of this was a photographic project titled Occupied Pleasures, which attracted significant international media attention.

“Pleasures” is not a word most people associate with occupation. But the series features pleasurably unexpected images that shatter clichés, from hijabi women doing yoga on a West Bank mountaintop, to a tête-à-tête between a young man and his sheep in his car, to Ramallah girls getting ready for a night on the town, to Gazan bodybuilders striking poses, to a girl surfer waiting for a liberating wave to ride.

Speed Sisters Trailer (in Production) from SocDoc Studios on Vimeo.

Challenging prevailing stereotypes about Palestinian women has become a regular theme in numerous works. One prominent example is the documentary-in-the-making about the Speed Sisters, Palestine’s first all-female motor racing team.

“The first time I sat behind a steering wheel, I felt in control,” one of the Speed Sisters confessed to me. “Now every time I push down on the accelerator, I feel like a bird: free and fast. I feel like I want to move towards the future and break free of all the oppression and repression.”

Omar-posterThis longing to “break free” is, as you might expect, a common theme in Palestinian filmmaking, as captured in Elia Suleiman’s bleak and beautiful black comedy Divine Intervention, on love in the time of checkpoints.

Recent years have seen a surge in creative, critically acclaimed and award-winning Palestinian films. Even Hollywood seems to have, at least partly, overcome its traditional bias toward “reel bad Arabs” and has nominated the same Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad twice for an Oscar: for Paradise Now in 2006 and this year for his thriller Omar. Both delve into the human aspect of political violence, exploring the dark and the ironic.

“If you look at any time in history when politicians have failed, it’s the artists who have come forward to try to make sense of the world,” Abu-Assad told the audience at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 25 February 2014.

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Learning tolerance

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By Barry van Driel

Islamophobia is common in western society, so the classroom is a good place to start combating it.

25 November 2010

If ever a book was overdue, Teaching against Islamophobia is it. This edited volume of very diverse contributions deals with a phenomenon that I would want to describe as the first real obsession of the 21st century:  the unease of Western societies with Islam and Muslims.  Unease is perhaps too mild a term for the mudslinging, accusations, fears and sheer paranoia that seem to have taken hold of large swathes of the public and media across North America and Europe. The vitriolic attacks on everything Muslim have been unleashed from both the right and the left side of the political spectrum.

This book represents a committed and comprehensive attempt to remind those in society who define themselves as educators that embracing issues of social justice and equity implies taking sides in the Islamophobia debate. The editors rightfully view Islamophobia through the lens of racism. In the UK, this has led to the use of the term anti-Muslim racism instead of Islamophobia.

Though the authors claim in their forward that the book is aimed at teachers, the contributions make it clear that it is intended for a much broader audience and that it has been especially written to make all of us (the non-Muslims primarily) reflect on our attitudes and misconceptions and to rethink many of our assumptions.

Living in Europe, I was pleased to see a primarily American book provide a North American perspective on the issue of Islamophobia, while also bringing in European issues in a few key places. In that sense, the book truly has an international character.

The 20 chapters in this book cover a wide range of topics, and it moves from more theoretical and socio-political discourse to a discussion of more practical issues.

In chapter 1, Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg set the theoretical tone for the rest of the book. Their comment that “learning from difference means that teachers are aware of the histories and struggles of colonized groups and oppressed  peoples” signifies how the authors reject the very common approach in multicultural and intercultural education that avoids discussing historical injustices and controversial issues so as not to upset people. References to empathetic understanding, solidarity and valuing of differences help position their pedagogical approach.  Their deconstruction of the propagandistic arguments being used by, for instance, the Fordham Foundation to promote the West as enlightened and majority Muslim nations as inherently inferior and a threat.

Chistopher Stonebanks builds on this analysis by looking at the manner in which intolerant attitudes towards Muslims and Islam are promoted by popular culture and are not considered, by and large, to be prejudicial. He also discusses the controversial concept of Islamophobia. Any treatise on the topic is enriched by looking at alternative and perhaps more accurate concepts. For instance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes some 67 countries from Canada to Russia, speaks of ‘intolerance against Muslims’.

The last two chapters of Part 1 have been written by several Muslim teachers and address the misconceptions they encounter among their students regarding the core principles of Islam, the role of women, perceptions of violence, the spiritual meaning of the concept of ‘jihad’, and more.

Screen villains

Part 2 of the book looks at public, media and political discourse related to Islam. Shirley Steinberg returns to the topic of media discourse by examining 17 films where there is a significant presence of Arabs and/or Muslims. Her analysis shows that the overwhelming majority of Muslims/Arabs depicted in films – for most films the two are interchangeable categories – are viewed as barbaric, dangerous and uncivilised. They are somewhere between human and animal. White men are viewed as the heroes who will save locals and the West from these evil, stealing, cheating people. Arab and Muslim women are almost exclusively portrayed as oppressed and/or fanatical.

Steinberg also traces how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in television programmes in the United States and finds that though there a few positive depictions of Muslims, they are, by far, in the minority and becoming less common in recent years. Steinberg especially deconstructs popular television shows, such as Cable TV’s Sleeper Cell and 24. On the whole, Muslims are perceived as potential threats and especially as the ‘enemy within’.  Given their evil demeanour and the threat to the United States they do not deserve the same rights as others in society.

Jehanzab Dar looks at the demonisation of Muslims and Arabs in mainstream American comic books, which tend to be poorly developed caricatures of the ugly Arab stereotype. The author does devote some attention to several more recent positive cartoon depictions.  The series The 99 is especially mentioned as an example of how popular media (in this case comic books) can provide more accurate depictions of Muslims and Arabs.

Michael Giardina, moves away from analyses of popular culture somewhat and looks at how political individuals can be demonised through associations with Islam. He focuses on the rhetoric and imagery used to discredit US President Barack Obama by right-wing conservatives.

Nations of Islam

Part 3 shed light on “Muslims you never knew” by covering topics outside the main discourse relating to Islamophobia.

Several essays examine a topic often forgotten in the discourse about Islam and Muslims in the United States – the relationship of the African-American community to Islam. Preacher Moss, who refers to himself as an ‘undercover Muslim’, takes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at African American perspectives on Muslim identities.  The more serious essence of his treatise is that “African American Muslims are marginalized as African Americans and ignored as African American Muslims”.

Samaa Abdurraqib provides highly insightful information about the historical relationship of the African-American community in the United States to Islam. She explains, right from its inception, Islam has been present in the United States – citing that perhaps 10%-15% of slaves brought to the United States were Muslim. She goes on to explain how this dimension of black history in the United States has been ignored in education and in the media, as has the diversity among US Muslims. The author’s main point is that Islam is not a foreign religion in the United States, as frequently claimed, but that it has long-established roots.

In a chapter that is bound to lead to significant discussion and debate among educators of all stripes, Younes Mourchid examines the contested relationship between alternative sexual orientations and traditional Islamic values. Mourchid builds his chapter on interviews with 20 LGBT Muslims. The author shows how such individuals, in often complex and contradictory ways, almost always struggle with their identity formation.

Some tend to internalise homophobic attitudes, blaming themselves for causing friction in the family, for instance, while others might internalise Islamophobic attitudes, blaming Islam for rejecting this core part of their identity. The campaign to make homosexuality acceptable in Muslim communities faces many challenges and is an uphill struggle. Mourchid closes with a discussion of whether those who hold traditional religious attitudes and reject homosexuality can be labelled ‘homophobic’.  His answer might surprise some readers.

Awad Ibrahim also seeks to provoke debate by examining the role of atheists and other non-believers within Islamic societies and ends with what he calls ‘The St Petersburg Manifesto’. This Manifesto is directed at both Muslim and non-Muslim faith communities and argues for a number of freedoms to be implemented in predominantly Muslim societies, such as freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, and the separation of religion and state.

Back to school

Part 4 brings us closest to the title of the book by providing some very concrete suggestions for materials that can be used in classrooms at all levels to combat Islamophobia, while also examining these materials critically.

Carolyne Ali Khan takes a critical look at a variety of educational programmes and materials that students in US schools are exposed to. In a very insightful discussion of several organisations and programmes that claim to promote understanding and ‘tolerance’, Ali Khan shows how they do the opposite.  She critically assesses, for instance, the messages and approaches promulgated by the New York Tolerance Centre and the American Textbook Council. The author’s discussion of these and other respected sources shows to what extent anti-Muslim bias has penetrated mainstream and even ‘tolerance’ education.  She ends her chapter by presenting some ‘uncommon knowledge’ about Pakistan and Pakistanis. Khan comments that many in Pakistan “are not the lunatic fringe. They are intelligent, complex and rational; they sing, dance and read and (perhaps most shockingly) they laugh, merrily poking fun at themselves and at the world”.

Anastasia Kamanos Gamelin looks at the intersection of gender and education in Saudi Arabia, a country known for denying women a number of fundamental rights and with a very traditional view of gender roles.

Fida Sanjakdar focuses on sex education in Australia and the view of Muslim communities regarding this always contested topic.  She notes that, in Islamic school curricula, almost no attention is devoted to sex education and this omission, in her view, represents a violation of the Islamic principles of a holistic and democratic education.

Krista Riley looks at the ways that literature, in particular young adult literature, can be used to “address themes of oppression and to promote critical reflection and social justice activism”. She does this by analyzing the book Bifocal, a fictional story about the arrests made of young Muslim men in Toronto in 2006 and the racist backlash at a high school after the arrests.

In the book’s final chapter, Melanie Stonebanks presents three potential classroom resources – illustrated picture books with Muslim main characters – that could be used as first steps to combating Islamophobia.  She concludes that, though the texts are far from perfect, they could be useful if used appropriately and with a critical eye.

This article is published with the author’s permission. © Barry van Driel. All rights reserved.

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By the book

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By Khaled Diab

Following the lead of Islamists, Egyptian Christians are trying to ban an award-winning novel because it ‘insults’ Christianity.

18 May 2010

I am no fan of fanaticism and I wish fundamentalists would just have some fun, or at the very least learn to live and let live. But, in Egypt, they have gone from being a nuisance to becoming a real threat, not only to freedom of speech and expression but also to the country’s very cultural heritage.

This was demonstrated in recent weeks when a group calling itself (without a hint of irony) Lawyers Without Shackles tried to shackle the reading choices of Egyptians by calling for a ban of a newly released version of the classic One thousand and one nights saga, with its ensemble of popular and ageless characters, including Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad. Their reason? The centuries-old collection is “obscene” and could lead people to “vice and sin”.

Luckily, Egyptian intellectuals have rallied to defend the classic tales, warning against the increasing “Bedouinisation” of Egyptian culture. This is, perhaps, the most ridiculous example of the recent trend towards, what I call, the retroactive condemnation of published works.

Not to be left out of the banning fad, Christians have also joined the fray. A group of Copts in Egypt and abroad have filed a complaint with the public prosecutor against the controversial novel Azazeel (Beelzebub) by Youssef Ziedan, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, an award backed by the Booker Prize Foundation. As insulting any of the ‘heavenly faiths’ is illegal in Egypt, Ziedan could face up to five years behind bars.

“He insulted priests and bishops and said many things with no proof or evidence from books or history,” said Mamdouh Ramzi, a Coptic lawyer involved in the action, adding that Ziedan was “not a Christian man, what does he know about the Church?”.

In his own defence, Ziedan told the Guardian: “Many Orthodox bishops and monks welcomed the novel, and some of them wrote positively of Azazeel, whether in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon.” He has previously described his novel as “not against Christianity but against violence, especially violence in the name of the sacred”.

But even if it were insulting to the Christian clergy, my natural reaction is: “So what?” Not only do we all have differing definitions of what constitutes an insult, everyone is free to express insulting views, if they so wish, and if you don’t like it, then don’t read it and, by all means, encourage others not to.

As to Ramzi’s second assertion, is he seriously suggesting that, in order to write about a faith, you need to belong to it? This is nonsense on so many levels, not least because it stifles freedom of inquiry and speech, and also because most religions do not require their followers to be knowledgeable of the history and philosophy of their faith. Besides, Ziedan is a renowned professor of philosophy and the director of the manuscript centre at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

So, what in Ziedan’s award-winning novel has specifically irked the Coptic establishment?

The events of Azazeel take place around the turbulent and troubled period of the Nestorian schism in the Orthodox church, and the book highlights, through the eyes of a fictional Egyptian monk, not only the tensions between different Christian factions, but also between the new official faith of the Roman empire and the “pagan” religions that preceded it.

The Coptic church has denounced the novel as offensive for its violent portrait of one of the church’s founding fathers, St Cyril, the so-called ‘Pillar of Faith‘. The trouble for the Coptic church is that, its reverence for Cyril of Alexandria notwithstanding, the historical evidence does strongly suggest that he was violent.

Cyril was involved in the expulsion from Alexandria of Jews and of newly declared ‘heretical’ Christian movements, such as the Novatians, not to mention the persecution of adherents of the old-world polytheistic faiths, and the murder of the Alexandrian philosopher and first notable female mathematician, Hypatia, one of my favourite Ancient Geeks.

With all this fuss about Ziedan’s novel, I wondered what Ramzi and the other Copts involved in this legal action would make of Alejandro Amenábar’s wonderfully evocative Agora – in which Rachel Weisz portrays Hypatia beautifully – and whether they’ll also be calling for its banning.

Agora, which I had the pleasure of seeing last weekend, covers the same historical period as Azazeel and dramatises the clash of ideals and ideas between Cyril and Hypatia, as well as the power struggle between by the Patriarch of Alexandria and the city’s Roman prefect.

Although Amenábar perhaps over-romanticises the rationality and tolerance of the Greek tradition and exaggerates Hypatia’s achievements, we saw clearly the parallels he was drawing between that ancient clash between rationality and dogma, as well as tolerance and intolerance, and our own times. More specifically, the Egypt he portrays is eerily familiar – what with its huge socio-economic inequalities, an elite far removed from the populace, foreign meddling from a distant great power that often makes matters worse, and religious puritans and fundamentalists taking care of the neglected and hungry populace in return for their blind obedience.

Both Azazeel and Agora are timely works of art because, by contrasting past and present tragedies, they may help us understand our times better and realise the possible consequences of our actions. Egyptian Copts are justifiably nervous about their worsening status on the back of the rising wave of Islamic fundamentalism but dialogue, not stifling freedom of expression, is the answer.

As Brian Whitaker has observed, Egyptian law and how it is interpreted is giving fanatics increasingly free rein. In order to avoid the abuse of Egyptian law by the government and religious reactionaries to shutdown debate and silence dissent, Egyptians need to band together to change Egypt’s antiquated laws and protect freedom of expression for all.

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 12 May 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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