The road to hell is paved with pious intentions

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By Khaled Diab

The ban on eating and drinking in public in some Muslim countries is wrong. Piety cannot and must not be imposed by law.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Ramadan is a unique month. It is time of stark contrasts. Fasting and austerity during the day. Feasting and revelry once the sun goes down. It is paradoxically characterised both by enhanced spirituality, as many faithful withdraw from the world to worship and spiritually cleanse themselves, and greater materialism, as the average family’s consumption sky-rockets.

The holy month is marked by greater forgiveness and charity, but also heightened levels of impatience and anger, especially in the form of the “fasting furious” during rush hour. One unedifying aspect of Ramadan is when piety stops becoming a personal quest and becomes a question of public interest and even legislation.

This was recently illustrated in Morocco, where five people were arrested for eating and drinking in public, which is prohibited in the kingdom by law and carries a sentence of up to six months in prison.

Of course, Morocco is not alone. A number of Arab and Muslim countries have similar regulations in place, especially in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has gone a step further and threatened to deport any non-Muslims found eating and drinking in public.

Even in countries that do not ban eating and drinking, overzealous individual officers can sometimes take the law into their own hands.

Although it was once unheard of in my native Egypt, where there is a vibrant parallel non-fasting culture, recent years have seen a number of incidents in which Egyptians were detained by police for breaking the fast in public. Controversy surrounding the alleged arrest of 25 people prompted Egypt’s interior ministry to reiterate that eating in public is legal during Ramadan.

And it is important that it stays this way. In fact, Egypt needs to go further, and lift the ridiculous ban it has on alcohol sales during Ramadan.

Some pious people will object. I’ve debated this issue with numerous conservatives. Some argue that it is about not putting temptation in the way of the faster. But, surely, a Muslim who can’t handle fasting around others who are eating doesn’t possess the spiritual stamina to fast.

Besides, the Moroccan arrests took place in a beach resort, which implies that the fasting locals could endure tourists in beachwear sipping cocktails on the beach, but thirsty locals are suddenly intolerable.

Another justification is that in a Muslim country people must respect Islamic values and rituals. “These people were arrested for not showing Ramadan the respect it deserves,” one interlocutor argued.

Well, those chanting “This is a Muslim country” should not mind at all that China is forcing Muslims to eat in public this year – after all, Ramadan conflicts with the country’s ostensibly communist ideology. Of course, this is an enormous violation of the rights of Chinese Muslims – but so is forcing people not to eat in public.

This highlights how this kind of coercive imposition of ideology is not just an Islamic ailment. In Israel, for example, it has surprised me how the country must go into forced lockdown on Yom Kippur and, every Shabbat, public transport comes to a grinding halt and traffic is banned from ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods.

Moreover, showing respect is a personal choice, not a legislative issue. Coercion results in the kind of “respect” people show to thugs and bullies. Respect is a two-way street. Just as liberals like me don’t force pious Muslims to drink alcohol, why do the pious believe it is their right to compel us to fast, or at least to pretend to do so in public?

Such pressure for citizens to exhibit public piety is counterproductive, as it promotes a spirit of hypocrisy – something which has undermined numerous Arab and Muslim societies. Do what you want in private but lie in public, is the implicit, underlying message.

More fundamentally, such coercion is a violation of the principle of religious freedom. And even if you exempt non-Muslims from this, this raises the problematic issue of dividing between citizens, which can raise tensions and fuel sectarianism. In addition, such exemptions still infringe on the rights of non-practicing Muslims not to practise their religion.

Beyond this, the road to hell is paved with pious intentions. If this logic works in Ramadan, why stop there? Shouldn’t the pious then have the right to impose their values on the rest of us all year round?

And this is happening before our eyes. Despite its reputation for tolerance, Morocco is becoming increasingly draconian. A telling example of this are the two women currently standing trial for “public indecency” for wearing miniskirts, who face the prospect of spending two years behind bars.

Luckily, tolerant Moroccans have not taken this lying down, and have come up with creative ways to protest, including a campaign to bare legs in solidarity and more than 27,000 have signed a petition telling the minister of justice that “wearing a skirt is not a crime”.

Such initiatives are not a campaign to spread “debauchery” and “immorality”, but seek to protect the freedom of everyone, even the pious. What the self-righteous pious don’t realise is that there are always those who are more pious and radical.

By showing intolerance towards those less pious than them, they open the door to the more extreme doing the same to them. Today, they fashion a self-righteous moral case against the length of a skirt. Tomorrow, others might persecute them for wearing the wrong length of beard or a “revealing” type of hijab.

The only way to guarantee that others tolerate you is to tolerate others, without exception.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 17 July 2015.

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Omar Sharif: Actor without borders

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By Khaled Diab

The late Omar Sharif was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West.


Friday 24 July 2015

In a world where the most famous Arabs in the West tend to be infamous, Omar Sharif was like a breath of fresh air. For a young Egyptian growing up in London, he was a welcome and flamboyant distraction from the popular stereotypes of the Arab: oil sheikh, fanatic or terrorist.

Although he was more famous for playing bridge than for acting when I was growing up, the aura of his legendary silver screen persona from the 1960s still mesmerised people. Buoyed by his off-screen playboy lifestyle, easy charm, dashing good looks and disarming honesty, Sharif remained a household name, no matter how many mediocre films he made for a quick buck to pay off his gambling debts.

Sharif-LawrenceSharif’s big international break was in the universally acclaimed epic Lawrence of Arabia. Casting him as a traditional Arab tribal leader was a bizarre choice. Omar Sharif grew up among the upper crust of cosmopolitan Alexandria and Cairo, where his modern upbringing was probably more “western” than that of many Westerners.

He attended Victoria College, a British school, where he rose to become the head boy and a prefect. The late Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said also went to the same school, where he lived in terror of the older boy’s “entrenched authoritarianism” and in admiration of his acting talent on the school stage.

Meanwhile, Sharif Ali, the character Omar Sharif portrayed, was a fictional and generic amalgamation of the Arab sheikhs TE Lawrence aided during the Arab revolt, who made what is widely regarded as the most spectacular cinematic entrance in history.

Despite the romantic and exotic orientalism of Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif’s great strength was that he did not allow himself to get typecast as a celluloid Arab – whether the “noble” desert Bedouin or the more common Hollywood staple, the “reel bad” Arab villain.

In his 1960s heyday, Sharif played a Spanish priest, a Yugoslav patriot fighting the Nazis and even Genghis Khan, which was panned by one critic as being “no closer to history than Omar Sharif is to being a Mongolian”. Sharif has even played a German. “Can you believe an Egyptian playing a German? Hitler turns in his grave at this,” Sharif once joked in an interview.

But the most famous non-Arab he portrayed has to be the dreamy and exceedingly romantic Russian Doctor Zhivago.

A polyglot who spoke five languages but didn’t have a mother tongue, Omar Sharif was not just a cinematic icon. With his ability to glide between cultures, he was also a symbol of an easy-going multiculturalism. He was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West, that the cultural divergence within them is greater than that between them.

Sharif, the first Egyptian and Arab to conquer Hollywood, not only challenged western clichés, he also undermined stereotypes in Egypt and the Arab world, and stood as a symbol of a vanishing cosmopolitan era of greater mobility and tolerance.

Born Michel Chalhoub, he was not just the son of Egypt but also of the Levant. His Lebanon-born father was a well-to-do Greek Catholic merchant who settled in Alexandria, while his mother was of Syrian-Lebanese extraction.

Sharif-HamamaUpon embarking on his film career, Chalhoub changed his name to Omar Sharif, partly because his father was ashamed of his career choice and partly to give himself an easier name for Egyptian audiences to recall. He soon ostensibly adopted the religion to match his new name when he fell in love with Egyptian silver screen legend Faten Hamama on the set of his first film, the classic Sira’ Fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley), and converted to marry her.

And like Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif’s first film in Egypt – the Arab Hollywood – was a mega-hit, though his casting in it also diverged from his real-life circumstances. In Struggle in the Valley, Sharif plays the son of a farmer caught in a passionate love affair symbolising the class struggle. In reality, Sharif grew up in a bourgeois household frequented by King Farouq, who played cards with his mother.

But Omar Sharif never became involved in overtly political art nor activism. Perhaps as a function of his complex and varied background, upbringing and career, he never sought to be a symbol for or representative of anyone.

He was a lover of the good life who was prone to overindulgence, especially when it came to his many affairs and to gambling. The side effect of this was that he lost many of the dearest things in his life, including his marriage to Hamama, and  led a rootless existence for long years living out of hotel rooms around the world. “I’ve been forced to live like a Bedouin,” he once said.

Sharif was also unapologetic about his multiple cultural influences and lifestyle choices, and never tried to fit into a particular cultural template. He didn’t seek assimilation in the West nor did he strive for a return to Arab authenticity when he came back to Egypt. “I am very western in culture and very eastern in temperament,” he once described.

This uncompromising individualism sometimes landed him in hot water, such as when he became romantically involved with Jewish-American superstar Barbra Streisand, known for her staunch support of Israel. Sharif’s response to allegations of treachery levelled against him in the Arab press was disarmingly simple and straightforward: “Neither in my professional nor in my private life do I ask a girl her nationality or her religion before I kiss her.”

Cinematically, Sharif’s silver years were better than the dry middle decades of his career, though, in his self-effacing honesty, he did not believe that age brought with it wisdom. He produced a number of Western and Arab films of worth, including The 13th Warrior, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, al-Aragouz (The Puppet Show), and al-Muwatin Masri (The Citizen is Egyptian).

It is a shame that he will no longer produce films of such calibre. But given his hit-and-miss career and his uneven acting abilities, it will not be Omar Sharif the artist that the world will miss the most.

It will be Omar Sharif, the person. In these times of growing polarisation, hardening cultural identities, the mindless quest for “authenticity” and fake civilisational clashes, we desperately need an Omar Sharif to glide effortlessly and elegantly through the allegedly impassable cultural barriers which supposedly separate us.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 July 2015.

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Egyptian Jews, love triangles and conspiracy theories

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By Khaled Diab

Despite outlandish conspiracy theories, a Ramadan TV drama about Egypt’s lost Jewish community is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism.

Haret al-yahoud

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Love triangles, unrequited love and the torment of separation are staples of Egyptian soap operas. This is especially the case during Ramadan, when fasting and piety dominate during daylight hours and feasting and revelry kick off once the sun goes down.

But one Ramadan drama stands out for a love story with an unusual twist. Leila and Ali are the classic boy and girl next door who have been madly in love since childhood, with Ibtihal their jealous neighbour, representing the obtuse angle of this triangle. So far so ordinary.

However, Leila is an Egyptian Jew and Ali is an Egyptian officer deployed to the Palestine front during the 1948 war. To complicate matters further, her brother is one of the few Egyptian Jews who has gone to Palestine to help the Israeli effort.

The Leila-Ali affair makes up one of the central storylines of Haret el-Yahoud, which is set in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter, the controversial historical drama that is currently airing in Egypt and across the Arab world.

I have watched the first few episodes of this slick production and have generally been impressed by the quality of the acting and the period mood it evokes of 1940s “belle epoque” Cairo.

Most of all, I am pleased that a largely forgotten and distorted period of Egypt’s recent history, that of the demise of the country’s once-vibrant, 80,000-strong Jewish community, has been made accessible to a broader public – and in a humane and sympathetic light.

Though many Egyptians have welcomed the series, it has also provoked inevitable anger and allegations of “whitewashing history” in some quarters, especially among those who seem convinced that Jews, Israelis and Zionists are the same thing.

One example of this is Ahmed Metwali, described as a professor of history at Cairo University, who claimed that Jews in Egypt isolated themselves socially and worked exclusively in trade and business.

Obviously, the good professor’s grasp of his own country’s history is shaky at best, or ideology has blinded him to reality. Though a small community, Egypt’s Jews were prominent in every walk of life, including culture and politics – and many were ordinary, working class folk.

In fact, it might surprise the learned professor to learn that Jews played a central role in awakening Egypt’s modern national consciousness. A good example of this was Yaqub Sannu. Though almost totally forgotten today, in the 19th century, Sannu established one of the country’s first anti-imperialist and anti-royalist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses. He was also possibly the creator of the quintessential Ibn el-Balad (Son of the Country) character who stood for native virtue and the anti-imperial and class struggle.

Jews in Egypt felt so apparently comfortable that they not only made films, but some made films about Jews. At a time when German Jewish filmmakers were fleeing Hitler, Togo Mizrahi, one of the founding fathers of Egyptian cinema, made numerous films which had Jewish protagonists and main characters  – something that was rare if unheard of in 1930s Hollywood.

Even more unbelievably, Metwali claims that there were no love affairs between Muslims and Jews.

Has the history professor really not heard of perhaps the most famous on- and off-screen couple in Egyptian cinematic history, Leila Murad, who was once everyone’s favourite silver screen beauty with the golden vocal chords, and the debonair Anwar Wagdi? Out of love, Murad converted from Judaism to Islam to marry Wagdi (three times), who ruined their relationship by insisting on owning her entire career.

The character of Leila is done up in such a way as to pay tribute to her legendary namesake, while Ali, with his Clark Gable moustache, bears more than a passing resemblance to Wagdi.

Some critics have gone even further and taste the ingredients of a conspiracy by the al-Sisi regime to appease Israel and engineer a rapprochement by “narrowing the psychological gap between the two peoples”, according to Hossam Aql of the al-Badeel al-Hadari party.

But again, this strikes me as a case of conflating Jews with Israel. While the series portrays Egyptian Jews in a sympathetic light, the only Israeli I have seen so far was a two-dimensional sadist army officer who tortures Ali.

For Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it is Haret al-Yahoud’s less-than-flattering portrayal of their founding father, Hassan el-Banna, that seems to have provoked the greatest fury. “al-Sisi’s TV serials are a misrepresentation in favour of the Jews,” Anas Hassan, a prominent activist and the founder of Rassd, a pro-Brotherhood grassroots news site, wrote on his Facebook page, eliciting more than 2,000 likes. “al-Sisi is a complete Zionising project.”

The flimsy evidence for this is that the Israeli media has praised al-Sisi repeatedly. But if that is an indicator of being a “Zionist stooge”, then the Brotherhood’s very own Mohamed Morsi deserves that accolade just as much, given the acclaim he got in Israel and the love letter he sent to former Israeli president Shimon Peres.

In other posts, Hassan accused al-Sisi of being an “apostate” who was “raised by Jews”. Since al-Sisi’s rise to power, many Muslim Brotherhood supporters and activists have subscribed to outlandish ­– and frankly anti-Semitic – conspiracy theories about the Egyptian leaders ancestry, alleging that he is a Jew.

The damning case against him? According to a popular YouTube video, al-Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter. “Only Jews resided in the Jewish quarter,” the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area, despite its name, was always a mixed one.

Though not all Muslim Brothers entertain such feverish fantasies, this kind of hate-filled, intolerant, sectarian discourse does little to counteract the image of el-Banna and his men, who set off a deadly campaign of bombings against Jewish targets in 1948 just because they shared the same religion as the enemy, presented in Haret el-Yahoud as violent fanatics.

To my mind, there is no pro-Israel conspiracy behind Haret el-Yahoud, but perhaps an alliance of convenience and some co-option. Many artists in Egypt feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist intolerance in general, and this has, sadly, made many staunch or hesitant supporters of the ruthless military regime.

The series’ uncritical veneration of the army is a case in point. Even though al-Sisi hadn’t yet been born at the time of the 1948 war, the makers’ decision to set this drama in al-Sisi’s old neighbourhood and to make the main star a handsome, principled and sensitive army officer to whom women are instinctively drawn is a powerful subliminal message to audiences. Of course, any resemblance to real or living presidents may be entirely coincidental and unintentional.

For audiences and programme makers alike, the main draw to Haret al-Yahoud, in these tumultuous times, is nostalgia. Many look back wistfully to an Egypt that was once perched on top of the Arab and developing world. It was the wealthiest and most advanced Arab country, and a place where modernity and progress seemed to be on an unstoppable onward march.

In a contemporary Egypt where intolerance towards Christians, not to mention anyone who is different, many Egyptians feel that their country seriously lost its way in the second half of the 20th century, when it was supposed to have been liberated.

Haret al-Yahoud is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism. By coming to terms with the injustice it committed against its Jewish minority, Egypt may be able to save its soul.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 June 2015.

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Living in a selfie-centred world

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By Khaled Diab

The selfie fad has reached epidemic proportions, but we don’t live in more narcissistic times. Selfie-absorption is as old as civilisation itself.

Has modern technology made us more selfie-obsessed or have we always lived in a selfie-centred world?

Do we live in a more selfie-centred world than before?

Monday 23 March 2015

It was a miracle of selfie-preservation. A 14-year-old British schoolboy on a skiing holiday in Austria improbably survived, with only a few bruises and scratches, a 500-metre drop after slipping while shooting a selfie.

And if his phone survived the fall too, the teenager may just have snapped himself the kind of digital self-portrait that will make him the awe of his Facebook friends, and could even go viral.

But it is not just young people who are doing it. During a recent holiday in Thailand, I was overwhelmed by the profusion of selfie sticks. While giant representations of Buddha meditated peaceably in the background in a state of selfless Nirvana, the tourists in the foreground gave full expression to their selfie-ish impulses.

Egypt's President Sisi smiles as volunteers take a "selfie" with him during the closing session of Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm el-SheikhBeyond the clicker-happy tourist, a cursory glance shows that selfies have become one of the greatest fads around, with celebrities and even politicians embracing them, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who recently found it an opportunity for national selfie-actualisation.

A group selfie at last year’s Oscar ceremony became the most re-tweeted image of all time – a picture that apparently spoke a billion dollars. And with the fuss about selfies at this year’s ceremony, it won’t be too long before we start hearing about a “best selfie” category being introduced at the Academy Awards.

The selfie tsunami has also swept Arab and Muslim countries. The young and savvy Indonesian Muslim convert-turned-popular-guru Felix Siauw caused widespread offence when he declared selfies to be haram because, echoing some of the seven cardinal sins, he maintained that they were expressions of pride and ostentation. This led outraged Indonesian social media users to post selfies of themselves under the hashtag #Selfie4Siauw.

Even Islam’s holiest sanctuaries have not been immune, which has set off alarm bells in conservative quarters. Selfie fever reached such a pitch among pilgrims to Mecca and Medina that it provoked the ire of some Saudi religious scholars.

Cat jihad selfieRadical, ultra-conservative Muslims go even further and liken the idle pursuit of selfies to idol-worship. For example, during their reign of terror in Afghanistan, the Taliban banned television, video and photography, which prompted one journalist to describe it as a “country without faces”.

As a sign of the changing times (or perhaps the end-times for millennialists), today’s crop of foreign jihadists does not seem to have got this memo, or perhaps they believe that the “greater jihad” is the jihad of the selfie.

Many combatants have posted selfies of themselves on social media bearing arms, training, swimming, as well as surreally endorsing consumer products, including Nutella, not to mention a sideline in images of “mewjahideen” kittens.

The jihadist selfie is helping to transform the Spartan and puritanical image of holy war circa 1980s mujahideen in Afghanistan to make it resemble a mix between a lads’ teen movie and an 18+ shoot’em-up video game.

Some observers believe there is a deliberate strategy behind these selfies, which are seen as being part of a drive to recruit more young foreign fighters by showing how “normal” and “cool” being an extremist jihadist is, by injecting a bit of Rambo-like glamour.

With even normally camera-shy Islamic extremists indulging in this photographic fad, it is little wonder that many view this trend as a sign of the narcissistic nature of 21st-century society.

But do we really live in a more selfie-centred world than our ancestors? I happen to think not. It is no coincidence that the modern psychological term for vanity and egotism is derived from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water (nature’s own selfie). 

I believe that this moralising is largely a manifestation of the romanticisation of bygone days when people were supposedly kinder, nobler and more selfie-less. For example, space pioneer Buzz Aldrin claimed he took “the best selfie ever” during a 1966 spacewalk.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world's first photographic selfie.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world’s first photographic selfie.

Though the word is new, the concept of the selfie is as old as photography itself. The first photographic portrait ever taken, in 1839, was a “selfie” – and required considerably more time and effort than today’s instantaneous results – while the selfie stick may be almost a century old.

Prior to the invention of photography, the world was still awash with selfies, in the form of self-portraits. Though the boom in artists painting themselves began during the Renaissance, self-portraits have an ancient pedigree. One of the oldest surviving self-portraits is a sculpture of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s chief sculptor Bak, standing beside his wife.

The traditional Islamic aversion to depicting human forms meant that self-portraits were rare, but there have been some examples. Perhaps the most ambitious was the Akbarnama (The Life of Akbar), which chronicles, with exquisite miniature paintings, the biography of the third Mughal emperor Akbar. Though Akbar did not paint these portraits himself, the book was the emperor’s idea and he commissioned the work.

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world's oldest existing selfie?

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world’s oldest existing selfie?

Arabs traditionally preferred word-based selfies, in the form of self-aggrandizing poetry. For example, in addition to his talent for writing panegyrics glorifying princes and kings, the legendary al-Mutanabi had a penchant for glorifying himself. In a poem chiding an ungrateful patron for not supporting him, the poet boasts that the blind and deaf appreciate his writing, and that his fame extends to the “steed, the night and the desert”, as well as “the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen”.

What this reveals is that modern technology has not made us more self-centred but has democratised our ability to express the more selfie-ish side of our nature, and on an unprecedented scale. What the ramifications of this are for the individual and for humanity has yet to be revealed, but once it is, be sure that someone will somehow make a selfie out of it.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 March 2015.

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ISIS’s war on women in Mosul

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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Before ISIS began targeting Iraq’s minorities and cultural heritage, it set to work veiling women in a new dark age, reversing decades of hard-won gains.

Despite ISIS' attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Despite ISIS’ attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

When I was growing up, the women of Mosul had the freedom to pursue whatever path they chose to follow. They had the right to work, study and dress as they desire. Women were empowered participants in the community. Growing up during the early 1980s in Mosul, I witnessed the freedom women had. Perhaps it was less than in the 1960s and 1970s, but certainly more than the current sorry situation. I was surrounded by female relatives who all worked after completing their university degrees. They drove cars, went out and travelled abroad alone and refused to get married, preferring the single independent lifestyle. Even at home, when I opened my eyes to the world, I saw my mother going to work everyday as a teacher. The stay-at-home woman was an alien concept to me as a child, and I assumed everyone had to go to work.

Mosul, unlike other Iraqi cities, was a blend of conservatism, tradition and modernity, a balance between the fairly modern and free Baghdad and Basra, and the strict and conservative Najaf and Karbala. Nevertheless, in all the years I spent in Mosul, I came across only one woman who wore a headscarf, one of my primary school teachers. I’m not sure whether the absence of the veil was down to Iraq’s secular rule or whether it reflected a more confident society not yet torn apart by economic sanctions, wars, occupation and sectarianism – all of which are contributing factors to the social change that began to take place in Mosul even before the ISIS invasion.

During the 1960s and 1970s, women were free to wear trousers, mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses. By the 1980s, this was beginning to change, and Mouslawi society started to be critical of such styles. Not everyone complied with the new conservative mores and some carried on wearing what they wanted but most decided not to become the talk of the town.

Just as the Islamic State (ISIS) has striven to destroy Mosul’s heritage and cultural diversity, the group has been working to devastate the position of women. Before the jihadist group began demolishing places of worship and archaeological landmarks, and before they started their campaign of ethnic cleansing, it issued new rules for women to follow, including a repressive dress code. ISIS recently imposed further restrictions on what women are allowed to wear – the new “Law” demands that women wear an almost tent-like cape which covers them from their eyes to their feet. There have even been reports of women falling and fracturing their legs as they struggle to walk in such attire.

Such codified restrictions were alien to a society where the long struggle for female emancipation scored many notable victories.  Iraq has always been at the forefront of female emancipation in the Arab world, with a wealth of famous women who have left a mark not only on Iraq’s history but on the world stage too. Figures like the writer and traveller Maria Theresa Asmar, who wrote a book in the early 19th century describing her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Armenian-Iraqi Beatrice Ohanessian was Iraq’s first concert pianist and one of the few women to become a director of the Piano Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Other prominent Iraqi women include Nazik Al-Malaika, considered by many to be one of the most influential contemporary Iraqi poets who was the first poet to use free verse in Arabic, Zaha Hadid, the renowned international architect, who is in fact originally from Mosul, and many more.

It seems ironic today that Iraq in the 1950s had the first female cabinet minister in the Arab region.  This remarkable woman, Naziha al-Dulaimi, was probably one of the most respected and recognised Iraqi women. An early pioneer of the Iraqi feminist movement and co-founder and first president of the Iraqi Women’s League, she studied medicine at the Royal College of Medicine in Baghdad and, at the age of 19, she was one of few female students at the Medical College. During her government career, al-Dulaimi was instrumental in turning the vast slums of eastern Baghdad into a massive social housing project and helped author the secular 1959 Civil Affairs Law, which was way ahead of its time in liberalising marriage and inheritance laws to the advantage of Iraqi women. She was also a prominent member of the international feminist movement and an active participant in the Iraqi and world peace movements.

It is hard to imagine how a country that has made such progress can be expected to to return the dark ages where women who do not meet ISIS’s requirements are often sold into slavery or forced to marry one of its fighters. The rest of the women who are not targeted for sexual/slave trade are segregated from men in all aspects of daily life.

Anyone who contravenes ISIS’s draconian rules faces heavy repercussions, but some locals are defiant, despite the risks. One friend witnessed a so-called “hisbah” patrol stop a woman who was with her husband because she was not wearing the “right” clothes. Within minutes, an ISIS member raised his baton to strike the woman when, in a fit of rage, the husband shouted: “In ten years of marriage, I have never lifted a finger against my wife. Do you think I will allow a fanatical foreigner to degrade and hit her?” The man my friend witnessed wrestled the baton out of the patrolman’s hand and started beating him with it.

To avoid such situations, many women have opted to stay at home and not venture outside or go to work. But not everyone can afford this luxury, especially with the soaring cost of living. Even girls as young as 11 cannot escape these draconian rules. Fearing for their daughters’ safety, many families have kept girls home from their schools and universities. One mother had no choice but to stop her 14-year-old daughter from attending school after an ISIS patrol stopped the chauffer-driven car that was taking the girl and her younger brother to their school demanding to know why the girl’s eyes were not covered. Apparently, the fact that her entire face was veiled was not enough. When the ISIS militant started to question the girl as to why she was out with “strange men”, the driver explained that the young boy was her brother, which provoked the patrol to ask who the chauffer was. By this point, the girl was so scared that she lied and said he was her uncle. The girl was so frightened that she told her mother she never wanted to leave the house again, even though she had been defying her parents to pursue her education despite the ISIS presence.

ISIS members have also prohibited female students from attending classes because their attire was considered “un-Islamic”. The only accepted attire for female students is the one-piece black burqa. And it is not just girls who are dropping out in large numbers. Boys reportedly are too.

It should be pointed out that there is significant local divergence within Mosul, in terms of rules, and how strictly or leniently they are applied, which often depends on the ISIS militants in the area. “I witnessed several women in the market areas without niqabs,” one local said. “[This] appears to be a change in strategy following a number of attacks perpetrated by disguised men in niqab.”

Iraqis, particularly women, are resilient and adaptable. Iraqi womenhad to endure years of wars without a man in the house, as often they were on the battlefield and many never came back. Women also had to improvise throughout the long years of sanctions to ensure their children and loved ones got fed. With the arrival of the US invasion, women faced a new challenge of protecting their family from foreign invaders. Similarly, despite all the atrocities and savage acts ISIS commits, people try to get on with life in Mosul. Women still go out – provided they are covered from head to toe – they drive to work (though at work they are segregated from men) visit each other and go to the shops. Beauty parlours and hair salons have been banned, and various cosmetic and hair products are no longer sold in shops, driving women to find alternatives when caring for their appearance. Despite the restrictions, three weddings took place last month, two of which were hosted by my old neighbours in Mosul. And that is the contradictory nature of the city, while some women are fleeing, others are being defiantly normal.

There have been reports of public executions of women, notably ones who were politically active. For example, two former candidates for the Iraqi parliament – Ibtisam Ali Jarjis on the Watanya list and Miran Ghazi, who was a candidate for Arab List – were sentenced to death by ISIS’s Sharia court.

According to officials from Mosul, the two candidates had repented in one of the ISIS mosques in Mosul to spare their lives, but the Islamic judge overruled their repentance and the two women were re-arrested. Isis militants also publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a leading lawyer and human rights activist, after she was seized from her home for allegedly “abandoning Islam”, whereas in actual fact her kidnapping took place after she had posted messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul. The militants then tortured al-Nuaimi for five days before killing her. Al-Nuaimi left behind a husband and three children. There are many more tales of women being publicly executed, such as the three female doctors who refused to treat ISIS militants. ISIS militants recently paraded two sisters and a man who were accused of adultery before stoning them to death.

Life under ISIS for the women of Mosul is unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history. But tough, patient and resilient as they are, these women will continue to resist.


Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future


* The author’s name is a pseudonym.


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Arabic: The language of confusion?

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By Khaled Diab

If an Arab says he’ll kill you, don’t  worry – he wants to buy you dinner. Whether Arabic dialects are a single language is politcal, not linguistic.

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Earlier this month, the United Nations celebrated Arabic Language Day which got me musing about whether that should be in the singular or take the plural form, Arabic Languages Day.

It is something of a recurring joke among Egyptians who do not speak foreign languages to quip that they speak two languages: Egyptian and Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic).

For language purists and traditionalists, the various forms of colloquial Arabic (amiya or darija) are simply bastardisations of classical Arabic and do not merit much attention.

In fact, it took decades of struggle before Arabic vernaculars became accepted as more than spoken languages. The late colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – who managed to piss off three Egyptian presidents enough to jail him – did not just shock the establishment with his irreverence, dissent and obscenity but also his insistence on employing Egyptian working class Arabic, rather than the refined poetic language of classical Arabic, in his verse.

But Negm, and other trailblazers before and since, have given amiya authenticity, respectability and, most of all, street cred. And today colloquial Arabic is used regularly on TV, social media and even in literature.

This is just as well. As any frustrated foreign learner of Arabic can tell you, speaking the classical language can make you sound like you’ve stepped out of a TV period drama about, say, Saladin, or give people the impression that you’re a newscaster – in other words, it’s just not natural.

Not only does standard Arabic not feel natural to most Arabs, the differences between it and some vernaculars is so great that schoolchildren sometimes feel they are learning a second language, though not quite a foreign language.

But when it comes to the dozens of Arabic dialects, some would surely qualify as a foreign language. If the definition of a language is that its speakers can understand each other, then Arabic often fails this test, since some of its dialects are mutually unintelligible.

The decision to classify all these dialects as being the same language is both political and historical. Arabic is at the core of modern Arab identity and so promoting the idea of common nationhood has required the glossing over of these linguistic differences. Such apparent linguistic unity also encouraged the illusion that Arab unity was natural and inevitable, which meant that pan-Arabism rested more on sloganeering than on concrete efforts to bridge the huge cultural, economic, social and political differences in the region.

In addition, Arabic remains the only generally accepted liturgical language for Islam – which used to confound me as a child when I came across Pakistani and Indian friends in London who knew the Quran by heart but didn’t comprehend a word they recited.

Speakers of dialects from the Arab Mashriq (East) cannot generally understand people from the Arab Maghreb (West). Try as I may, I have never managed to decipher Algerian, and Moroccan is a serious challenge, even after encountering many Moroccans in Belgium. While travelling around Morocco, I was amused by the fact that it was sometimes easier to communicate with locals in French than in Arabic, since many were not well-versed in standard Arabic.

There is a certain level of mutual unintelligibility even between dialects in close geographical proximity. Even among mutually intelligible and relatively similar dialects, like Egyptian and Palestinian, there is plenty of room for confusion.

When I first moved here, to Jerusalem, I was surprised to discover just how different the words in Egyptian and Palestinian were for many basic items. These include bread (eish/khobez), shoes (gazma/kondara) and slippers (shebsheb/babouj). Many basic phrases also differ significantly: How are you? (ezayak/kefak?), good (kewayis/meneeh), What’s this? (Eh dah/Shoo hada?).

Many common verbs vary too: look (bos/itala’), run (igree/orkod), lift (sheel/irfa’a), hug (uhdon/a’ebot), etc. This is why I sometimes feel sorry for my son. At five, he is grappling with four languages (Arabic, Dutch, English and French), but the Arabic component must feel like more than one language to him.

Sometimes, and this is where the real fun begins, the same word exists but it can have quite a different meaning, leading to much mirth or confusion or even insult.

Palestinians have repeatedly described a person to me as “naseh”. To my Egyptian ears, this means smart, clever or even a wiseass. But here it means chubby. Some Palestinians have on occasion told me that I look “da’afan” which to my ears sounds like “weak” or “under the weather,” but to them it means “you’ve lost weight.”

Speaking of health, many Palestinians bid each other farewell by saying: “Ye’tek el-afiya” which literally means “May you be given rigour.” In Egypt, we only say that to sick people and so, in my early days here, I wondered why some people thought I was unwell.

Sometimes these dialectical differences can cause bewilderment. While “mabsout” in Egypt and some other countries means happy or in a good mood, in Iraq, it means to be “beaten up.” A friend relates an anecdote in which an ICRC worker visiting Iraqi prisoners asked them whether they were “mabsouteen” and they were utterly confused by the question.

Speaking of violence. A German friend of mine who went out to dinner with a Tunisian was told in no uncertain terms that her date would “khalas aleki.” In the Egyptian dialect she knew, it meant “finish her off.” Confused, she asked him why he wanted to kill her, to which he explained that, in Tunisia, it means that he was going to pick up the tab.

Sometimes, Arabs visiting other Arab countries can unintentionally cause insult. While in many dialects “marra” is just the normal way of referring to a woman, in Egypt, it is derogatory and verges on calling her a “slut.”

Even respectful terms like teacher (me’allem, for a man, or me’allema, for a woman) mean something different in Egypt. For Egyptians, a me’allem is the boss of a gang or a group of manual workers or craftsmen, while a me’allema is a head belly-dancer.

With all these mind-boggling variations, whether or not Arabic qualifies as a single language or many languages is really in the eyes, and ears, of the beholder.

If the idea of Arab unity is to have any kind of future, these linguistic differences, not to mention socio-economic and political ones, need to be recognised and accommodated. Arabs need not speak with a single voice, but need to find harmony among their chorus of divergent voices.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 December 2014.

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Sexual harassment and the medina

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By Mette Høyer Eriksen

In Egypt, sexual harassment is a largely urban phenomenon fuelled by a sense of male powerlessness, insecurity and unrealistic gender ideals.

Original image:

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Wednesday 5 November 2014

In Cairo, the problem of sexual harassment is so widespread that anti-harassment NGOs are now classifying the situation as an out-and-out epidemic. So serious is the issue that in June the Egyptian government stepped in and introduced a law criminalising sexual harassment – a law that to date has only had limited effect. Critics claim the new legislation does little more than treat the symptoms of a social problem – a problem which is unlikely to be solved through condemnation or by criminalisation alone.

“There’s an acute need for state intervention that tackles the challenges head on and that addresses the cultural and social dimensions of the issue. If the Egyptian state is serious about combatting harassment, it needs to acknowledge the full scale of the problem. Legislation by itself is not enough,” wrote Yasmin El-Rifae from the organisation Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment on the Middle East Institute portal.

An urban phenomenon

Whereas research has shown that women who are exposed to harassment feel less secure about walking about on their own and, to some extent actually choose to avoid public spaces, there have been few studies into the factors that motivate men to harass women.

“We know very little about the perpetrators. After all, no-one is going to put his hand up and admit that he’s done such things, let alone tell us why he did it,” explains Marwa Shalaby, a the director of the Women and Human Rights in the Middle East programme at Rice University’s Baker  Institute for Public Policy.

She adds that when it comes to determining why men commit acts of harassment neither age nor religion nor profession seem to be factors. However, evidence does show that harassment is more prevalent in the towns and cites than in rural areas.

But just what is it that drives men to accost and harass women? One person who has been trying to find an answer to this question is Shereen El Feki, who researched and wrote the book Sex and the Citadel – a factual novel about sex in the Arab world today.

An expression of impotence

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

When the so-called Arab Spring reached Egypt at the beginning of 2011, the fact that women and men could stand side by side demonstrating for the same rights was one thing that was highlighted as exceptional. During the protests, many women became the victims of violent assaults. However, during the first days of the uprising, Egypt witnessed a rare and unique coming together of the women and men who jointly took over Tahrir Square. Together, they were fighting for the same thing. In her book, El Feki argues that this sense of struggling for something meant that the men taking part in the protests felt less need to elevate themselves above the women. On the basis of her own experiences, she writes: “These events have clearly shown that when men have a sense of motivation and purpose they change the way they behave towards women.”

Shereen El Feki’s argument is backed up by Samira Aghacy, equality researcher at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. One of her areas of study has been masculinity, and she argues that the patriarchical social order prevalent in many places across the region also serves to oppress men – and this oppression is then reflected in the men’s behaviour towards women.

“Many men feel impotent, marginalised and incapable of doing something positive or contributing to the reconstruction of their country or the way it’s being run. It leaves them feeling very frustrated, and they often take their frustrations out on women,” explains Aghacy.

Patriarchy, performance and power

One of Samira Aghacy’s major studies in this area examined how Arabic literature has been portraying men since 1967. Here, she points out, it is clear that masculinity and manliness are associated with having power. Yet only a few Arab men have actually held power over the past decades, so men have also been victims of the patriarchical society. Men are oppressed in a similar way to women, but they have a different conflict because they have been brought up to be in control. They feel castrated and inadequate because they are unable to perform in the way they feel men are expected to perform.

“It all comes down to the way that we’re brought up. That’s the way power relations play out across large parts of the region. Men are brought up to hold the power, so if they don’t have any power, don’t earn enough, and don’t feel that they have anything to say, then they have to demonstrate power in another way,” explains Aghacy.

In other words, there is incongruence between what is expected of men and what men actually can live up to. According to Egyptian journalist and blogger Khaled Diab, the problem of sexual harassment is also linked to the polarisation that has been taking place in many Arab societies over the past years – particularly in Egypt.

“The Egyptian revolution has meant that the underlying polarisation between progressives and conservatives has transformed from cold war to active conflict. On top of this, huge differences in income, wealth and education have also played a role,” Diab observes. “When anger and resentment begin to flourish within a society, it’s often the most vulnerable who end up paying the highest price –whether they be women, children or minorities.”

Torn between tradition and modernity

When a woman student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Law was sexually harassed by a group of men in March, the university’s rector suggested afterwards that it was her own fault because she was dressed in such ‘unusual’ clothing: tight jeans and a pink hooded top. Khaled Diab reacted by posting a photo on Twitter taken around the 1950s or 1960s at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. In the picture, a group of young women who are not wearing headscarves are being taught by an Islamic scholar. “Women used to study at Al-Azhar without covering their heads, and now Cairo University is blaming this woman’s clothing for her attack,” wrote Diab on Twitter.

“Since the end of the 1970s, conservative forces have been steadily gaining ground. But over the past year, women and progressive men have begun refusing to be intimidated, and they’ve become more self-aware and more radical. This has provoked a violent backlash from alarmed and displeased elements within the conservative camp,” explains Diab.

“Right now, Egypt finds itself in a state of limbo, torn between tradition and modernity. This means that women have lost the protection of their bodies that a patriarchical honour system affords, but they have yet to win the protection that modern equality offers,” he adds.

For Mette Toft Nielsen, MA in culture, communication and globalisation, the reason men act the way that they do is the million-dollar question. In connection with a research project for Aalborg University, Denmark, she is currently spending two years living in Cairo studying the conditions of women in Egypt. As part of her studies, she has also been looking into the issue of sexual harassment.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that providing a clear answer as to what caused sexual harassment it’s simply too ambitious. There are thousands of hypotheses and assumptions out there, but most of them are just too difficult to prove or disprove,” she explains.

Conservative gender roles

According to Mette Toft Nielsen, sexual harassment should not be seen as an expression of how men regard women. “It’s interesting because that’s how we typically look at it – that the way men regard women is grotesque. That men are misogynistic pigs and women have a real tough time of things. But I personally don’t believe that that’s actually what’s going on,” she explains.

She continues that while it is clearly women who suffer most from male dominance, the responsibility for changing things does not necessarily lie with men alone. According to Nielsen, men’s attitudes towards women stem from the fact that the men are products of a culture that is governed by very strong gender-role expectations. There are traditions and expectations – and the women are also complicit in upholding these.

“In the West, we often have a subject/object approach to things: the subject – the person who acts and takes action – is the man; the object – the person who is affected by the action and who is seen – is the woman. In this way of thinking, the man can also be seen as the one who can change the situation he finds himself in. And this is something I disagree with strongly. I believe that there are a lot of men out there who really do want to change these things,” notes Nielsen.

One widely touted explanation for sexual harassment is that the heckling and accosting are a result of the men’s sexual frustrations from living in a culture where sex is only permitted within marriage, and is therefore something many young people cannot indulge in.  But Mette Toft Nielsen does not buy this theory.

“Fist of all, many of the men in Cairo who sexually harass women certainly don’t lack sexual experience. Secondly, I’m not at all convinced that sexual harassment has anything to do with sex in the first place,” she asserts.

“I see this harassment first and foremost as an issue of power. Not power as in control – but power as in preserving something that there once was,” she explains, and points out that this is purely based on her own experience and observations and not something based on scientifically proven facts.

“Perhaps this explains why sexual harassment is much more prevalent in the towns and cities than in rural areas. In urban areas, people are witnessing change – particularly economic change. Men are witnessing many women entering the labour market, taking on well-paid jobs and being professionally accomplished,” Nielsen describes. “Many students at the universities are women, and from a career perspective they pose a real threat to the men. So I could imagine that it’s a question of changing positions and changing power relations. After all, if the man loses his role of looking after the woman what is there left for him to do?”


This article first appeared in WomenDialogue on 21 October 2014. Republished here with the author and publisher’s consent.

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An ode to Google doodles

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By Christian Nielsen

Google doodles must be the most fleeting yet highly visited exhibition on the planet honouring both the famous and the quirky.


Tuesday 24 June 2014

This year is the 255th anniversary of the British Museum. It’s not exactly a milestone year in the grand scheme of things, but clearly grand enough to be honoured with a Google doodle in January.

Any excuse for a great doodle is a good one in my book. And if I hadn’t tried the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ search option on Google I would never have learned about it.

Ever since Google first entered our computer screens – quickly followed by our lexicon and now our consciousness – I’ve been tempted but never acted out on the urge to press the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button.

Until today, I’d never given this reticence much thought. But as I warm up to a day of work and I open my explorer with the default Google screen whirring to life, only to see yet another fascinating interpretation of the World Cup 2014, I begin to wonder what creative machinery must be behind this constant output by the search giant.

Do they sit down once a year or once a month and map out a calendar of milestones and lesser, sometimes quirky, events to honour with possibly the most fleeting but highly visited exhibition on the planet? I’d like to think, yes. One day and XX millions of online denizens are treated to a lesson in history or culture or the banal. And it’s all fine by me. The more obscure the better.

I’ve also never really explored why I haven’t tried my luck on this odd little feature, which I dare say is a legacy of the first designs of Google, where the developers were not sure if people would know what they were looking for on this big bad web, let alone how to enter the search words in the simple little field they provided. So a bright spark says, “Let’s give them a sample or a demo but we can make it like a roll of the dice … to get them hooked on our tool!”

Well, if that were true, they needn’t have worried. We’re hooked. Not by the idea of ‘feeling lucky’ but by the sheer unchanging simplicity and, indeed, beauty and form of this tool. Sure, Google is much more than a simple search screen now. We’re waiting for driverless Google taxis and enjoy a whole host of other ‘Drive’ related tools through the cloud.

But it is the search – the deep calling for knowledge now literally at our fingertips – that keeps us coming back. And in that there is a degree of excitement still. It’s not so much down to luck any more as we’ve learned how to trick the big machine into delivering pretty much what we want in the first few listed results. We do all sorts of Boolean mind tricks (I looked that up on Google!) on it and it probably reluctantly coughs up what we’re looking for with a couple of paid-for gems on top.

And yet that little ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button stays in-situ as some kind of ode – to what I’m not really certain. Maybe it’s an ode to simpler times, or an ode to the randomness of life, or to the copywriter who first thought of this funny little phrase. Maybe it’s an ode to philosophy or to modern mantras that challenge our grasp of reality. Maybe it’s a tacit ode to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness: The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets. Or maybe it’s just a case of dumb luck, a whim that stuck.

Just doodling

I don’t know – I’m not on Google’s board or anyone else’s – but I do know that today I decided to try my hand. Maybe I was bored, maybe I was overcome with wonder at the fresh doodle every day for the World Cup, or maybe because it’s a Tuesday and that’s a lucky day, if there ever was one. So, I hovered for a second and then pressed I’m Feeling Lucky. It felt good.

And you know what I got? The back-catalogue of doodles in one beautiful long list with the dates and event being immortalised by this Google feature.

I’m not sure what role luck played in this result, but I’m pretty happy with it. I scrolled down a few screens, learned about Mary Anning, a struggling English palaeontologist. I discovered the Columbian painter/sculptor Alejandro Obregón and the obscure Japanese ‘Go’ (a board game I think) champion Honinbo Shusaku. I caught up on recent national days and the European elections. And I realised my family missed Father’s Day!

But the doodle that took my eye, if not my fancy, was the anniversary of the British Museum. Every time I visit the great city of London, I try to take an hour or so to stroll through a couple of the rooms in this national treasure trove. I love that it’s still free, when very little else is these days. It reminds me of my back-packing days where anything free that involved warmth and comfort was worth seeking out.

Two decades ago I wrote a cheesy little story (I was young) in a scrappy notebook while propped in front of a figurine of Anubis in the Egyptian chamber. I’ll share it with if you ask nicely. I know the museum has some detractors and some explaining to do about how it obtained – and, well, chooses to keep – some of the treasures, but as a casual seeker of knowledge, a visitor who likes to try his luck every now and then, the British Museum is truly a worthy find. Thanks Google. You’ve made my day.


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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 power of Palestinian literature to write wrongs

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The power of Palestinian literature lies in its ability to make a word of difference, gradually shifting perceptions and, through them, reality.


Wednesday 11 June 2014

The annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which took place last week, was held in five different cities: Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus and Haifa. Into its seventh edition, this year’s PalFest, despite being run on a shoestring, attracted prominent Palestinian, Arab, European, American, Asian and African names.

PalFest has managed to skirt around the movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli military to field a diverse programme including readings, theatrical performances, music, panel discussions and workshops.

The festival’s slogan is “the power of culture over the culture of power”. This echoes the ancient adage “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which has been recycled in various forms since at least the Assyrian sage Ahiqar in the 7th century BC.

But in a world where the sword – or more accurately the gun, the missile and the jet fighter – so often silences the word, it is easy to view literature’s power to write wrongs with scepticism and, hence, regard it as a preoccupation people living under occupation can ill afford.

Even the late Mahmoud Darwish, widely regarded as Palestine’s national poet and one of the main architects of modern Palestinian consciousness, was not immune to such doubts. “I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanise,” he said in a 2002 interview. “But now I think that poetry changes only the poet.”

Despite these misgivings, the culture of power does sometimes feel insecure in the face of the power of culture.

Although Israel, alongside Lebanon, probably has the freest literary scene in the Middle East, this freedom often does not extend to the Palestinians. This was on ample display during the second edition of PalFest in 2009, when Israeli police tried to stop the Jerusalem leg of the festival from taking place, prompting the French Cultural Centre and British Council to step in to save the day.

This demonstrates that the pen can sometimes intimidate the sword.

In my view, the power of literature lies in its ability to make a word, rather than a world, of difference. It doesn’t cause dramatic, immediate change in the real world, but it can gradually shift perceptions and consciousness and, through them, reality.

Literature can and does play a number of vital roles in the context of the Palestinian struggle. For instance, whether in the form of fiction or non-fiction, it is a peaceful means of resisting Israel’s military machine, both by boosting morale and highlighting the plight of Palestinians.

Traditionally, Palestinian literature has served the function of chronicling the dispossession of the Palestinian people and of keeping their memory and identity alive. This is epitomised not only in the poetry of Darwish but also in the defining short stories and novels of Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated in 1972 in Beirut by, many suspect, the Mossad.

Literature is also, as Darwish pointed out, a vehicle for humanising the Palestinians. This is not only in the eyes of those who regard them as two-dimensional villains but also those who see them simplistically as superhuman heroes or poor victims.

A new generation of writers and other artists has taken it as their mission to highlight this ordinary human experience, albeit in extraordinary circumstances. Such run-of-the-mill Palestinians “need to be fictionalised,” in the view of Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright, because “the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

Literature can also be a conduit for self-reflection and criticism of the shortcomings of Palestinian society itself. An example of this was presented at PalFest by Palestinian-American poet Susan Abulhawa when she recited a poem from her collection My Voice Sought the Wind, in which she reflects on the equal sacrifices women must make for the cause but the unequal returns they receive:

The first time your husband hit you

It nearly knocked the country off your back

Literature is also a means of displaying solidarity. “Your very presence here signifies your support in these times of isolation,” Michael Sansour, the executive vice-president of Bethlehem University, one of the venues of the festival, told the assembled writers and journalists.

Caught between the walls imposed by the Israeli occupation and Arab reluctance to scale them, Palestinians have been incredibly isolated not only from the wider world, but even their own neighbourhood. PalFest, which is the brainchild of the acclaimed Egyptian-British author Ahdaf Soueif, was created partly to remedy this.

But literature is not just about resistance but can also pave the way to coexistence by bridging the chasm of perception and misconception between the two sides.

“[Elias] Khoury’s Bab al-Shams influenced my thinking lots, as did Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks,” observes Shuli, an Israeli acquaintance. “They further fleshed out things that I sensed but couldn’t prove with statistics and history, filled gaps.”

This bridge-building potential is well embodied in the unlikely friendship and intellectual companionship between the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic whose research brought Mahfouz into the international limelight.

But, above all, the writer can imagine a better tomorrow. “I dream of the day when,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh, “thanks to the co-operation between us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of science, blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 4 June 2014.

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