Prisoners of love in Syria

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

In Syria, Amer and Raghda found liberation from political prison in love. But as refugees in Europe, their love became hostage to politics and guilts.

ASLS

Tuesday 6 October 2015

London’s British Film Institute recently hosted the preview of ‘A Syrian Love Story’ a documentary by Sean McAllister who, over a period of five years, followed Amer and Raghda as their lives became intertwined when they both found themselves in a Syrian prison.

Their love story began 15 years ago behind bars when Amer, a Palestinian refugee in Syria and an active member of the leftwing of the PLO, met Raghda, a Syrian Alawite who opposed the regime. He first saw her bloodied face after being deposited in a neighbouring cell following a severe beating. They eventually started communicating through a tiny hole they had secretly made in the wall. They fell in love and, when released, got married and started a family together. But politics never allowed them to have a conventional married life. Raghda spent most of her time in prisons while Amer was left to care for their four sons.

In 2009, while McAllister was enjoying a night out at a local bar, he came across Amer who was on the phone talking about his imprisoned wife. Up until that point, McAllister had been, in his own words, living in the journalist bubble that the Assad regime wanted to confine them within, seeing and recording what the government approved. During that first encounter, Amer told McAllister: “If you want to report about the real Syria, follow me I will show you the hidden reality that the world won’t get to see.”

A few months before the wave of revolutions hit the Arab world, McAllister’s camera began to follow Amer and his four sons – at the time, Raghda was a political prisoner and Amer was left to care for the young children alone. Fadi, Shadi, Kaka and Bob had spent their whole lives watching either their father or mother go to prison for their political beliefs. During the filming the family had to move constantly out of fear, as Raghda was well known to the security services and her family were under constant surveillance. Bob, who was three years old when filming began, did not understand why his mother was not with them and the closest he got to her was a phone call. Kaka, the middle child, quiet, who is considerate and mature, vowed to follow his parents to prison for the sake of freedom, whereas Shadi, the eldest, seemed to be indifferent to his situation, and was even in love with a girl who is pro-Assad and against anyone who opposed his rule. The couple break up when Shadi’s girlfriend gets engaged to someone else. At the end of the documentary, we learn she died during the conflict when, soon after her wedding, a bomb struck her house.

This intimate family portrait helps the outsider to understand why people are literally dying for change in the Arab world. Once the revolution started, Amer saw it as an opportunity to free Raghda from prison and took part in the protests. But he had to change houses and moved to the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, which was besieged by the Assad regime, then brutally attacked by ISIS.

Under international pressure, the Syrian government released some political prisoners, including Raghda. However, Sean McAllister himself got arrested for filming and the political pressure on all activists intensified, especially Amer and Raghda, who were seen on the footage captured by McAllister and stored on his laptop and camera which were confiscated by Syrian intelligence.

Out of fear ,the family fled to Lebanon, where cracks in Amer and Raghda’s relationship began to surface and grow. Feeling torn and desperate to join the big change that was sweeping Syria, Raghda could no longer just stay and watch from afar and, so, she returned to Syria, leaving Amer and the children to struggle to eek out an existence. Amer informed the London audience during the Q&A session that there were days when he had to rely on local Lebanese churches for food. Being Palestinan meant that he could not get a job, his children were not accepted into local schools and, even when he applied to the UN for political asylum, he was told that without Raghda he stood no chance, as he was not Syrian.

After three months, Raghda returned and, finally, they were approved by the UN and were taken to France, where they received political asylum in the sleepy town of Albi, watching the revolution from afar, waiting for Assad to fall.

However, contrary to the idea that once you are out of the conflict zone you are somehow safe and happy, in exile, the family began to fall apart. Raghda’s mental heath suffered and she even attempted suicide. Amer started an affair after he failed to find the love that once existed in a prison cell. The irony of the documentary is that love was thriving in a prison cell but died in the country of love and freedom. The audience see their new life in France develop but the war is now between them. In finding the freedom they fought so hard for, their relationship begins to fall apart.

At the end of the 76 minutes documentary, the audience witnessed how the once pro-revolutionary Kaka question the benefit that the call for change brought to Syria, while Bob, who is eight now, declares he is ‘French’ and no longer remembers his previous life in Syria. In fact, when McAllister asedk Bob about his house in Tartous, Syria, he had no collection of a place they once loved and called home – he even confused it with Tripoli in Lebanon.

A Syrian Love Story is a documentary that McAllister regards as “the most special film I have made to date.” One that he was not even sure it would ever see the light of day, as he wasn’t commissioned or supported to make the film until quite late in the process, McAllister had one objective for making the documentary: to allow people to understand the Syrian conflict without all the political jargon. “I wanted the average Hull factory worker to see the revolution without all the politics…just as a simple story of ordinary human beings,” McAllister informed the audience, who gave him and Amer’s family a standing ovation for a simple but thought-provoking tale of a family’s journey of hope, dreams and despair: for the revolution, their homeland and each other.

 

A SYRIAN LOVE STORY by Sean McAllister

Twitter: @SyrianLoveStory #ASyrianLoveStory

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ASyrianLoveStoryFilm

Website: www.asyrianlovestory.com

TECHNICAL DETAILS

Duration: 76 mins

Production country: United Kingdom

Languages: English, Arabic, French

Subtitles: English

Production year: 2015

HD, Colour

IN CINEMAS ACROSS THE UK  AND ON VOD FROM 18TH SEPTEMBER

 

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Young and futureless in Iraq under ISIS

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Mosul’s youth are desperate, disillusioned and terrified because “ISIS will never let us have a future, we could die any second.” 

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Now we have reached the concluding part of this series about life under the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), though, in reality, the end is far from near for the people of Mosul. While writing these articles over the past few months, I held on to a dim hope – perhaps an unrealistic one – that things would change and a great transformation would take place, with the people of Mosul, backed up by the Iraqi army, regaining control of our beloved city.

No such thing is likely to happen soon, for reasons beyond my understanding but one thing is clear: what ISIS has built over the years cannot be combated and reversed in a matter of months. They have existed and operated within Iraq, in one form or another, for at least eight or nine years, first under the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Back then, they had already begun slowly to grow and expand, terrorising people to build an atmosphere of distrust and animosity, taking ransoms to finance their group and recruiting the marginalised and vulnerable into their activities, building a solid foundation for what would eventually become known to the world as ISIS. This was later strengthened when they took hold of Mosul in June 2014, where they tightened their grip by destroying and smuggling the city’ cultural heritage, tearing up its diverse and rich ethnic tapestry, introducing a new and distorted law and order – basically remapping and recreating a city that had existed for centuries.

To ensure the continuity of their power, ISIS targeted the vulnerable youth of Mosul – after all, this is the future generation of the city and the real threat to their dominance. When ISIS invaded Mosul, it was a week or so before the end-of-year exams for universities, colleges and secondary schools. All of these came to a halt, leaving the future of many of the city’s young in tatters. The enormous uncertainty of the situation made any decisions, especially those with life-shaping implications, extremely difficult.

I interviewed three young people, who all asked that their real identities not be revealed out of concern for their safety. I asked them what life has been like since ISIS took over Mosul last summer.

The youngest is 14 year-old “Muhammad” (not his real name). Prior to ISIS’s arrival, he had attended a prestigious school for top pupil. His outstanding performance that year had, impressively, exempted him from sitting the finals. Muhammad’s ambition was to become a doctor and travel the world. But these dreams were soon dashed when ISIS took over and the education system took one of its worse batterings in Iraq’s modern history. They began by dissolving all the university faculties, with the exception of the medical and maths departments because they regard anything else as un-Islamic and the “evil teachings of the Godless West”.  Muhammad, who has a real talent for learning new languages and a deep passion for exploring the outside world, suddenly lost everything he once loved and cherished. Like many of his generation, Muhammad has never known a peaceful or prosperous Iraq. He was born during economic sanctions and witnessed nothing but American-led wars, sectarian conflict and almost daily suicide bombings by terrorist groups. The only real hope for Muhammad was education – a path that could eventually take him out of Iraq.

For months after ISIS’s entry into Mosul, Muhammad stayed home, no going out, no school, no electricity for almost 18 hours a day, no water, no phone and, most recently, the internet was cut off. “What life have I got now? There is no escape… [ISIS] will never let us have a future, we could die any second, it is just a matter of time until there will be no city called Mosul and all its people will either be dead or displaced.” The young whizz went on to remind me that the “world will not end because of dead Iraqi people… but could be a solution to this long nightmare”.

It is heart-breaking to hear a teenager speak in such a defeated, crest-broken adult tone, but is it any surprise? These young people have not seen a single sign of hope for a country that has been embroiled in numerous conflicts and destructive wars since before they were born.

Despite the unwelcome changes made to the education system, Muhammad had no choice but to return to his school when ISIS issued a warning to all the city’s students that they would face serious consequences for absenteeism. Muhammad’s family considered leaving Mosul but they realised that, sooner or later, they would have to return when their money ran out. Moreover, people in Mosul are very family-orientated, so leaving your extended kin behind is not an option many are willing to entertain, even, or especially, under such dire circumstances. In addition, as I’ve noted before, many people who escaped regretted their decision as they experienced difficulties and discrimination for being from Mosul, with some labelled ISIS supporters or accused of being a burden. Moreover, those who left lost their homes which were overtaken by the jihadist group, which issued a law making it legal to confiscate abandoned houses.

Back at school, Muhammad discovered that he no longer had female teachers, and received no language, art or history classes. Instead, pupils receive instruction in ISIS’s doctrine and creed. It is a chilling thought that these children are being taught the draconian ideology of ISIS, sugar-coated under the guise of being “Islamic”. Eventually, some children are bound to believe and follow what they are being taught. Due to a shortage of teachers, some subjects, though approved by ISIS, are not being taught. For example, Muhammad does not have maths classes, as his previous teacher left for Baghdad out of fear for his safety and replacements are hard to come by.

The nightmare continues for Muhammad, who is not even sure whether this academic year will be recognised by Iraq’s education ministry. Students who stayed in the city may have to repeat the academic year or travel to other government-controlled cities to sit the exams, which carries many risks.

Muhammad’s brother, Zaid (also not his real name), is six years older than him, a third-year medical student at the University of Mosul, who was just starting his exams when ISIS descended on the city, demolishing any hopes of completing the academic year. Later on, the Iraqi government announced plans for university students to take their exams either in Baghdad, Kirkuk or in the Kurdish-controlled areas. Students who could afford the travel costs and were willing to take the risks involved opted for Kirkuk because it was the nearest city to Mosul and officially an Iraqi government-run city – which is less trouble that entering Kurdish areas where the government there has imposed strict regulations on Iraqi Arabs entering their territories.

Zaid travelled to sit his exams with his two cousins: one is a medical student, while the other is studying dentistry. Once they completed their exams, they arranged their return to Mosul with a trusted taxi driver. But before they reached their destination, they were stopped by ISIS fighters who wanted to know where the boys had been and the reason for their travels. One of the three fighters who spoke in a Mosulawi accent ordered the boys to get out of the taxi and strip off for a lashing. The taxi driver, scared of receiving a similar punishment, claimed he knew nothing about them and was merely driving the car. The three youths were speechless with fear and were shocked as to how a fellow Mouslawi could be so brutal and so zealous as to punish them for the crime of visiting an “infidel” state. Another fighter, who may have been from Libya judging by his accent, stopped the Mouslawi  from carrying out the lashing by joking that: “I may need a dentist or a doctor one day so I will let you go.”

This did not please his colleague who seemed eager to punish fellow Iraqis. The boys breathed a sigh of relief and eventually arrived home. When the result came out and they had all passed, Zaid did not let the harrowing experience deter him from going back to Kirkuk and enrolling at the local university that had reserved places for students in all the affected areas. Getting there was not easy but Zaid is a bright student who could not just give up, so he pretended to be a labourer and seized the chance. Thankfully, Zaid passed safely and is now into his second semester there. However, he had to leave his parents and only brother behind and since communications with Mosul were cut off on 30 December 2014, he has not spoken to them. His cousins, Nassar and Ali, stayed behind in Mosul and decided to attend the ISIS-run university of Mosul. They had figured that they would, at least, be with their co-students and taught by the same faculty. But they had not realised that ISIS would be monitoring the university closely. The female students were allowed to attend lectures but were obliged to cover themselves from head to toe and sit apart from the male students.

Nassar narrated one incident which occurred in front of him: one ISIS fighter yelled at a girl for not being “fully clothed”. She could not tolerate the pressure anymore and threw her veil at them, shouting, “Damn you all. What do you want from us?”

This did not go down well and the ISIS men commanded the teaching staff to contact her father and ask him to come. Everyone knew what that meant: the father would be punished for his daughter’s outburst. The situation was resolved when the faculty and staff persuaded the ISIS fighters to suffice themselves with an apology from the girl. Since that day, the young woman in question has not returned. Female students have generally opted to forego the harassment and humiliation by staying home.

Circumstances for female students are much worse than for their male colleagues. Girls who were studying subjects which were abolished by ISIS had two choices: to travel to other cities like the male students or to stay at home. It is much harder and less acceptable for a girl to travel alone without her family, especially in the current dangerous climate. Women who were studying engineering – a faculty that was deemed as “heretical” and dissolved – were given the option to transfer and study medicine instead. Many took this opportunity. A lecturer at the medical faculty informed me that: “These girls have no knowledge or grasp of the subject and are just avoiding being trapped at home by studying something that is alien to them.”

During a recent Friday sermon, ISIS ordered all the men of the city between 14 and 50 to be ready for the “big fight” or risk being executed. Nassar and his brother Ali were told by their parents to flee. The journey to Kirkuk, which normally takes three hours or less, consumed a massive 16 hours as the boys sought out alternative routes. They are now reunited with their cousin Zaid, but the nightmare is far from over. Arabs are facing discrimination in Kirkuk at the hands of Kurdish forces.

“There is a strange feeling in a city that once upon a time you thought you knew like part of your body,” admits Zaid, reflecting on life under ISIS in Mosul, as his voice began to crack. “It is hard to trust people and even harder to just walk down your own street.” He went on to tell me how, once, he was driving his mother to work when he was intercepted by ISIS members. “For a minute there, I thought how does this guy know my name. Then I recognised him, he was in my year at university, very studious and smart but I don’t know what happened. How they convinced him to turn against his own city, I just don’t know.”

Nassar took over from his cousin and offered his own analysis. “Life in Mosul is hell on earth,” he described. “You have to follow strict rules or face lethal consequences. That’s why so many youths chose to be the ones with power rather than the oppressed.”

He described the day the Iraqi national football team reached the semi-finals of the Asian cup and were facing Iran, a game which the whole country was excited about. Nassar was watching the match with his friends at a local café when ISIS members came and ordered them to leave and warned them against watching such things. Football, snooker, ping-pong, cards, backgammon, chess and volleyball are just some of the sports and leisure activities that have been banned, as have smoking and music. Nassar, frustrated, went up to the head of the hisbah (ISIS patrol) and asked him why ban sports, to which he received the reply: “We want to build an Islamic state that can combat the world and we need our youth to spend their time studying and thinking, not wasting their time.” Nassar informed me of another youth who was driving his car and listening to music when he was stopped, ordered to leave his car, had his CD player destroyed and his car confiscated. No one knew the young man’s precise fate.

Both Nassar and Zaid concluded the interview with a reminder of what the youth of Mosul are living. “Imagine no electricity for the whole day so you can’t watch TV, listen to music, play computer games… no proper education, no youth clubs, no activities, nothing – an empty life,” said Nassar. “There’s also no water and if you go to the river to get some ISIS will force you to pay a tax.”

I was left speechless, slightly ashamed of my life of luxury and saddened at how a whole generation has been stripped of the best years of their lives.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

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

Part IV: ISIS’s war on women

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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How iSlam made the West cool

 
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Those who fear Muslim influence should raise a glass to the Sultan of Style when they freshen up, don the latest fashions or enjoy dining out.

Friday 31 May 2013

Medieval Muslim ‘jamming’. Image: Yorck Project

In the wake of the Woolwich machete attack against an off-duty British army drummer, the stabbing in Paris of a French soldier and the Boston marathon attack, anti-Muslim sentiments have, as might be expected, increased in Europe and the United States.

In the UK, for example, the far-right British National Party (BNP)  which had such a disastrous showing at recent local elections that it has urged it members to “do our bit for Britain and our race” by breeding more  and English Defence League has been mobilising overtime to capitalise on the fallout.

The BNP leader Nick Griffin called ominously on supporters to “join the British resistance“, while another senior party official suggested that the men behind the London murder should be executed. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim hate crimes are running at 10 times their usual rate, according to a British government hotline.

The United States has also experienced a backlash in what Salon dubbed as the “return of the anti-Muslim bigots“. There have been hate crimes as well as suggestions for blanket spying on Muslims.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there has been growing fear of the “Islamisation” of society, while the notion that Muslims stand opposed to Western values is gaining traction. This is reflected in a new cross-border survey, which shows that majorities in a number of Western societies regard Islam as a threat.

As I’ve argued before, and despite my concerns over Islamic radicalism and extremism, Islam is not alien to Western civilisation but an integral part of it. In fact, Islam and the Muslim influence are deeply woven into the West’s social and civilisational fabric.

Readers may well have come across historical explanations of the contributions Muslims made to modern sciences, philosophy, medicine, agriculture, sociology and other areas of learning. Here, I’d like to explore how Muslims helped make the West “cool,” shaped our modern tastes and sensibilities and gave us many things we regard as quintessentially Western, such as the café.

In fact, I’d like to introduce just one man, Ziryab (Blackbird), the Sultan of Style, who, given his contribution to European chic, should have statues erected to him in Milan, Paris, London and New York. Although you may never have heard of this dandy ninth century Muslim, his genius touches the most private and intimate moments of all our lives  modern etiquette would be positively vulgar without his tasteful influence.

Born Abul Hassan Ali Ibn Nafie in modern-day Iraq in 789 AD, he joined the court of the legendary Haroun al-Rashid (also of 1,001 Arabian Nights’ fame) where he was the student of a gifted musician. But after stepping too hard on the toes of his mentor, he hot-heeled it to the rising star of Baghdad’s cultural and scientific rival, Cordoba in Andalusia.

There, he joined the court of the Umayyad Prince of Cordoba Abdel-Rahman II. Islamic Cordoba was a beautiful and manicured metropolis of imposing public buildings, although it still lacked its most famous landmark, the 10th century Great Mosque (the Mezquita, as it is known today).

It boasted about 1,000 mosques, 600 public baths, several hundred public schools and a university, not to mention the grand aqueducts in the surrounding countryside that fed the complex irrigation system introduced to the area by the Arabs.

Although he lived a few centuries before the Renaissance, Ziryab was a true ‘Renaissance man’. In addition to being a polymath with knowledge in astronomy, geography, meteorology and botany, he was also a visionary trendsetter.

As an accomplished singer and musician  he was reputed to have memorized a repertoire of more than 10,000 songs   Ziryab added a fifth string to the Arab oud, creating the lute (which is also etymologically derived from the Arabic al-oud) that would, through the Spanish, spread across Europe.

Ziryab also rearranged musical theory, setting free the metrical and rhythmical parameters, creating new ways of expression (known as mwashah, zajal and nawbah). This musical genius established the world’s first known conservatory where aspiring young musicians learnt harmony and composition and were encouraged to develop musical theory further.

But one thing above all else constitutes Ziryab’s gravest or greatest legacy, depending on your standpoint, to posterity. “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,” Oscar Wilde, that Ziryab-like Englishman, once retorted. But who, Mr. Wilde, was it that first came up with the revolutionary idea of seasonally shedding our clothes?

Ziryab’s earth-shattering innovation was to submit fashion to the cycle of the seasons. This trendsetter came up with the then outlandish idea that people should wear different styles  and not just more layers or an overcoat  in summer and in winter. He even invented in-between seasons.

This hip Muslim brought a similar orderly flare to food. When people think of haute cuisine, their minds tend to go all Français. French may be the lingua franca of food  with its entrées, appetizers, aperitifs, desserts, etc.  and the French have given us much to savour. However, the modern dining experience was forged in Arabic.

Before Ziryab came along, dining was a freestyle event, even at court. People ate savoury with sweet, fruit with meat, all in one big heap. Abundance, and not order, was the key to successful banquets. But our man revolutionized all that.

Perhaps his highly refined sensibilities were offended by what he saw as a feeding frenzy, or maybe he thought that different tastes should be relished individually. Whatever the reason, our gastronome extraordinaire set about to tame his peers’ eating habits by inventing the multi-course meal. To make the fine dining experience that much more exquisite, Ziryab also invented the drinking glass (fashioned out of glass and crystal).

And, to round off the complete fashion experience, this all-round man also found time to develop a new type of deodorant and invented an early form of toothpaste which became all the rage in Iberia, as well as a type of shampoo. In addition to introducing new hairstyles to the longhaired Cordobans, he also popularised shaving  perhaps foreseeing the bad press beards would get in the 21st century.

Next time you brush your teeth, don the latest fashions, enjoy a delicious three-course meal or raise a glass, don’t forget to toast, or at least spare a thought for, old Ziryab, that uncrowned Sultan of Style  and remember that Muslims have had a cool, and not just a chilling, influence on Western society.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 28 May 2013.

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Egypt’s rebels without a pause

 
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By Khaled Diab

The failure of Egypt’s new leaders to address the needs and aspirations of young people means the revolution will not stop until there is real change.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has set his successors a hard act to follow… he managed the remarkable feat of going from hero to zero in little more than 24 hours.

After days of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence that threatened to spill over into a full-blown war and even a wider regional conflict, Morsi bucked the expectations of doubters and succeeded in brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza, eliciting a freak chorus of praise from all sides of the trenches: from Hamas, Israel, many Egyptians and even the United States.

The acclaimed ceasefire, which avoided the death, destitution and destruction of the Gaza war of 2008/9, went into effect on Wednesday 21 November. Rather than rest on his laurels for a while and bask in the glory of Egypt’s minor diplomatic victory – which highlighted and underscored the power of diplomacy over violence – Morsi decided to seize the moment.

No sooner had the Israeli missiles and Palestinian rockets fallen silent than the Egyptian president decided to drop a massive political bombshell on the home front. A day after the ceasefire, on November 22, Morsi delivered a declaration which effectively immunises him and the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly – which then hurriedly approved Egypt’s controversial draft constitution pending a referendum – from legal challenges from the judiciary or opponents.

Although Morsi insisted his move was a temporary measure, which would last only as long as it took for the new constitution to enter into force, and was designed to “protect the revolution”, opposition figures and revolutionaries were unconvinced, describing the President’s ambitions as being that of a “new pharaoh” and the declaration as a “coup against legitimacy”.

Many in Egypt saw the timing of this move as more than just a coincidence, with some going as far as to suggest that Morsi had received a nod and a wink from visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to launch his bid to become Egypt’s new, American-backed dictator-in-chief.

We do politics differently now

Although Washington seems to look favourably on Morsi as the lesser of many evils for American regional interests, what seems the most likely is that the Egyptian president decided to reward himself for his success and prematurely cash in on his unexpected moment of popularity both within and outside Egypt by indulging in an impulsive act of flagrant opportunism – which has backfired spectacularly.

But even if the president has now, under immense popular pressure, reversed his decree, though not many of its rulings, he betrayed a seriously flawed understanding of the republic of which he has become the first democratically elected leader: the majority of Egyptians did not vote for dictatorship, and the Egypt that accepts autocracy is, like the past, a foreign country: we do politics differently now.

Most Egyptians, particularly the youth who spearheaded the revolution, no longer have the stomach for a “new pharaoh”, especially after all the sacrifices they have made to win their freedom (even if it is only partial, for now), and have developed a strong appetite for greater people power.

That is why Morsi’s attempt to impersonate ousted former president Hosni Mubarak was met by widespread contempt, opposition and anger… and in that longstanding Egyptian tradition, mockery and humour, such as the teenage protesters who placed a surgical mask on a statue in Cairo of Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, presumably to protect his bronze eyes and lungs against the stinging, suffocating effects of teargas.

Since the fateful decree, millions of Egyptians have poured out on to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahalla and other towns and cities across the country to protest Morsi’s actions and the referendum, slated for Saturday 15 December, on the draft constitution which reformist Egyptians see as undemocratic and non-inclusive.

So many protesters came out to reoccupy Tahrir that one wit demanded the expansion of the world-famous square in anticipation of future missteps by the Egyptian president.

And in scenes reminiscent of Mubarak’s final days, the crowds chanted: “The people want to bring down the regime”, and vowed that they would not vacate the square until their demands were met. “Morsi has done in less than five months what it took Mubarak 30 years to achieve. With this latest move, he has messed up big time,” one young Egyptian diplomat observed. “I think his days are numbered.”

The new wave of protests has led to speculation as to whether Egypt’s stalled revolution has resumed. To me, it looks like we are entering the third phase of revolt: the first was against Mubarak, the second against the generals who replaced him, and now people are regrouping to take on Morsi and his Islamist cohorts.

Revolutionary generation

To many, the battle lines in the current standoff are between Egypt’s new Islamist rulers and the disgruntled secular opposition who had started the revolution but were apparently unable to finish it. While this Islamist-secularist division is partly true, it oversimplifies an extremely complex situation of overlapping alliances and rivalries.

Other battle lines include pro-revolution versus anti-revolution, rich-poor, women-men, democratic-autocratic, neoliberal-progressive, socialist-conservative, etc. Throughout nearly two years of upheaval and change, one of the most constant divides has been a generational one, between the more privileged older strata of society and the more marginalized youth. This is reflected in every opposition movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose younger, more liberal, pro-revolutionary members broke away from the anti-revolutionary elders last year to join their fellow revolutionaries on the streets and squares of Egypt.

As was the case in February 2011 against Mubarak and in November 2011 against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), though people of all backgrounds and ages were out on the streets, the bulk of the protesters were young. “I just want to say how brave these young kids are,” one protester, Ahmed, said upon returning from Tahrir Square. “Not even the choking tear gas was able to stop them from fighting for their freedom.”

The predominantly youthful nature of the protests is a natural by-product of Egypt’s young population – with more than half of Egyptians born after Mubarak came to power in 1981 – and the ongoing marginalisation of young people by the establishment, whether official or opposition. Although many young Egyptians have found success in all walks of life, politically they still occupy the fringes, leaving the main arena open to them the democracy of the street and the utopian possibilities raised by the egalitarian, if short lived, tent Republic of Tahrir last year.

“I believe Egypt’s political revolution is the product of Egypt’s ‘social revolution’,” says Nael Shama, an Egyptian political researcher and columnist. “This young generation is very dynamic and rebellious. They break taboos, revolt against prevailing institutions, norms and mindsets, and heavily assert their presence in public spaces, which usually puts them on a collision course with the official establishment.”

Although it is true that the Egyptian revolt started in January 2011 on the back of its sister revolution further west, events in Tunisia really only provided the spark of hope and inspiration required to trigger the chain reaction which shifted the existing movements for democratic and revolutionary change from the margins of Egyptian society right to its very heart.

During the decade preceding the revolution, calls for change were gathering pace, as reflected in the greater daring civil society and the opposition exhibited towards Mubarak and his men. In a society where criticising the president was once tantamount to political sacrilege, and like cardinal sins carried hefty consequences for the “sinner”, it was remarkable that an entire political movement existed, Kefaya (Enough), which united activists of all political stripes under the single platform of openly demanding that Mubarak step down. It even forced him, in 2005, to organise Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, even if it was hardly free and fair, and this was an early sign of radical change in the making.

Even though Kefaya’s leadership, like much of Egypt’s established opposition, was dominated by older secularists, it had a strong youth element. Moreover, young people came into their own when they pushed beyond the consensus position of the opposition – which called for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and rejected Gamal Mubarak’s suspected plans to take over power from his father – and set up a movement to agitate for more far-reaching social and economic justice. For example, the 6 April Youth Movement, which is credited with being one of the main driving forces behind the 25 January revolution, was originally established, in the spring of 2008, by young activists, most of whom were well-educated and had not been political beforehand, as an expression of solidarity with striking textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra.

Moreover, the revolution of the mind, which had been building up gradually in the years prior to the revolution and which exploded in the regime’s face in January 2011, was nowhere more apparent than among youth, who have surpassed their elders in their confidence and courage and their determination to overcome the traditional fear and deference which has paralyzed Egyptian politics and society.

When people think of politically conscious and active youth, their minds tend to wander towards universities, and despite the Mubarak regime’s studious efforts to depoliticise Egyptian student life and the many years of apathy and indifference this spawned, campuses played, as they had in the anti-colonial period, a crucial role in young people’s political formation.

But the radicalisation of youth did not stop at the university gate. Despite or perhaps because of the poor education Egyptian public schools generally provided and their reputation for creating conformity in young minds, Egypt’s state-run school system was unwittingly producing a generation of politicised youth under the regime’s radar, as groundbreaking research carried out by Hania Sobhy of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convincingly demonstrated.

And this rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given the non-curricular lessons on class, youth exclusion, corruption, arbitrary and harsh punishment and the importance of connections and nepotism pupils receive in school. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children, lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” describes Sobhy.

One boy who spoke to Sobhy demanded portentously: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed…We need all new people.” As a foretaste of what was to come, less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the entire country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike and organised sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools.

The sport of revolution

But perhaps the most surprising breeding ground for revolutionary fervour was not the education system, but sport. Around the world, football fans are rarely associated with politics, and soccer, in fact, has traditionally been regarded as a tool for channelling disaffection and discontentment into harmless club loyalty. But in a country where the government had managed to shut down all outlets for youth discontentment besides the mosque and (later) the internet, many of those who did not find Islamism appealing turned the stands of their favourite football clubs into political salons.

The Egyptian Ultras, as these politicised supporters are known, have truly put the fanatic, in the most positive sense of the word, back into fan. As someone who only has a passing interest in football and finds the petty tribalism of fan culture unappealing, the passion, commitment and courage of the Ultras during the 18 days it took topple Mubarak, and the vital role they played in holding on to Tahrir during the infamous “Battle of the Camels”, has filled me with a great deal of respect for these young idealists.

And the Ultras’ willingness to put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom has helped sustain and revive the revolution when it looked set to falter amid harsh repression. “I think the battles and clashes have kept the revolution alive, in the sense that they materialised the feeling, which persists, that there is still something to fight for (both in the pessimistic sense of ‘we’re not there yet’, and in the sense of not giving up hope),” observes Alya El Hosseiny, a 23-year-old Egyptian graduate student.

But it would be a mistake to think of the Ultras as simply urban warriors, as I discovered for myself at one of their sit-ins. The protest was well-organized and self-policed, and the participants were good-humoured despite their obvious anger at the lack of progress. They sang and danced to a whole repertoire of newly coined revolutionary songs, from the thunderingly defiant to the mockingly ironic. In one sarcastic song, they advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.” Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional.

And the longer things change without really changing, the more the aspirations for change will grow. Mubarak and the generals of the SCAF have already learnt this lesson the hard way, but the Islamists are intent on repeating the same errors: the more they try to suppress and contain Egypt’s new revolutionary spirit, the wider it spreads. In fact, the sustained campaign to put the brakes on the revolution has only widened resistance to the previously unpoliticised and the even younger.

“What we’ve seen [in the latest confrontations] are very young people, including children, fighting the police,” says Wael Eskandar, a Cairo-based journalist who follows the revolution closely. “Not all of them are particularly aligned with what we think is the revolution, but such a generation is learning not to accept the status quo and to revolt against injustice.”

A revolution in search of a leadership

Over the past nearly two years, so much change has taken place that there are those, in Egypt and beyond, who wonder why there are still such large-scale protests, especially amongst the young. Not only has Mubarak been removed and the army increasingly sidelined, but Egyptians got to go to the ballot box to select their first ostensibly democratically elected parliament and president.

Part of the reason is that much of the change has been superficial and has not delivered the fundamental freedom, equality and economic opportunity young Egyptians yearn for. “The youth revolts but the leadership is still ancient. The youth want change yet the leaders cannot walk away from their comfort zone,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger.

“Young Egyptians have more than once demonstrated that their aspirations are greater than the elite, that their vision is more farsighted, and that they are more willing to sacrifice for the cause,” echoes Nael Shama. “It looks as if the young live in a different time zone from the one within which the largely conventional political elite operates.”

In the eyes of many young revolutionaries, Egyptians have so far effectively substituted one set of fossilized leaders for another. The former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of the semi-autocratic Mubarak years has made way for the authoritarian-inclined Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the wannabe-dictator Mohamed Morsi – with the only key difference being that one leaned more towards secularism, while the other is inclined more towards religion – but Egypt has changed, so its new rulers do not have the same room for manoeuvre as their predecessors.

Moreover, though young Egyptians started the revolutionary juggernaut rolling and arguably suffered the greatest pain for the revolution, they have seen precious few gains to date. Not only have they been largely excluded from the official political landscape by their elders, the country’s new leadership has shown little interest in empowering the very people who brought them to power, beyond paying lip service to their courage.

To add insult to injury, Egypt’s draft constitution – which is a wonderful document if you happen to be a conservative, middle-aged, male Muslim – takes a patriarchal and paternalistic attitude not only towards women but also young people, despite its insistence that Egypt’s is a “democratic regime” based on “equal citizenship”.

Joining the political party

Part of the reason for the continued relative disenfranchisement of young people, as well as secular revolutionaries in general, is their lack of political experience in comparison with the savvy veteran Islamists. This was compounded by the divisions and rivalries within revolutionary ranks, eloquently and tragically expressed in the splintering of the April 6 Youth Movement into two rival groups.

“At the beginning, young people had a clearer vision of what they wanted, which was to topple Mubarak and the old regime, and see some change in the country,” notes Lamia Hassan, a young journalist and filmmaker based in Cairo. “But as soon as this was over and the revolution was first hijacked by the military then later by the Islamic groups, the youth started to lose their way a little bit and were less [certain] about what they had to do to keep it alive.”

The reason for this disarray is partly due to the failure of a clear leader or group of leaders to emerge to steer the revolution. While the leaderless nature of the early uprising was a key factor in its success because it made it almost impossible for the regime to shut the revolt down, this one-time asset has turned into a liability.

“Yes, it’s the revolution of youth and the Egyptian people but they do not have a leader – an agreed upon leader. But the country needs a president and a whole cabinet of revolutionary leaders,” asserts Rakha. “In the 1952 coup, the officers had a president, a cabinet, and an array of consultants ready to replace the toppled king and his entourage. The 1952 revolution was disastrous on many fronts but at least they got that part right,” she adds.

To move out of the current intergenerational impasse, young revolutionaries need to become better organised and politically savvy, not just at toppling regimes but at building a new and better state for all Egyptians. In addition, the new political elite must realise that their future and that of Egypt’s is in the hands of young people, and so they must start sharing power with and creating opportunity for the new generation.

“To be effective, and even to survive, political forces (both old and new) need to understand the youth and incorporate their ideas and visions into their political doctrines and plans of action,” concludes Shama.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This essay first appeared in the Palestine-Israel Journal on 13 December 2012 and was set to appear in its special print edition on the younger generation.

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School resumes with tough lessons for Bedouin kids

 
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By Khaled Diab

With their school slated for demolition, the children of Khan al-Ahmar wonder whether Israel believes that Bedouins do not deserve an education.

Friday 7 September 2012

Children line up for morning assembly at the threatened Khan al-Ahmar school. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In the twilight of the early morning, as the rising sun turns a nearby mountain a striking pinkish-red, Nujood emerges from the family shack ready for her first day back at school after the long summer holiday. The teenager is a member of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe which has lived in the West Bank since they were forcibly evicted from the Negev by Israel shortly after its creation in 1948.

Nujood greets us shyly as we sit with her father, Moussa, sipping sweet Bedouin tea in the family’s simple “garden”, the best the arid circumstances will allow. Despite the early hour, the 14-year-old, who is starting seventh grade, is excited about the prospect of resuming her education.

“I enjoyed the summer holiday but I prefer going to school to being on holiday because we study there and learn new things,” Nujood says in a barely audible whisper, betraying an attitude quite at odds with the mixed emotions with which I recall we greeted the new school year when I was a teenager.

We walk the short distance – past a herd of drowsy camels who follow us with bleary-eyed interest and a couple of donkeys apparently enjoying the splendour of the early morning light – to her modest school. Nujood, who is neatly turned out in a lime green striped uniform and white headscarf, tells me about her aspirations.

Shy Nujood overcomes her reserve to salute the flag. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“I want to become a teacher,” she says simply. Her reason? “I want to teach other [Bedouin] children because not everything is available here for them to learn,” she elaborates. Perhaps that explains why, despite her self-conscious bashfulness, she led the saluting of the flag during the morning assembly.

Her excitement at a new term notwithstanding, Nujood is apprehensive and worried, because her school – which she shares with around 100 other children, mostly of primary school age, from Khan al-Ahmar and other nearby Bedouin communities – may not stay open for much longer. In fact, shortly before the term began a nearby Israeli settlement unsuccessfully, for now, petitioned the Supreme Court not to allow the school to reopen, and it is only a matter of time before the Civil Administration – the IDF arm which governs the West Bank – will have to carry out the order to demolish the school.

The school, like 17 others in Area C of the West Bank, has had an Israeli demolition order against it since it was built, out of old tyres mixed with mud, with international assistance and local volunteer work, in 2009.

“When I hear they plan to demolish our school, I feel that they want to humiliate us and don’t want us to learn,” Nujood reflects sadly. “But we won’t let that happen,” she adds, though what more this embattled community can do to save this school is unclear, since the lawyer representing their case in the Israeli courts has reportedly exhausted all avenues and it is only international pressure and advocacy that seems to behind the ongoing stay of execution.

In addition, Khan al-Ahmar in its entirety and other Bedouin communities in the area are slated for demolition, and their 2,300 residents live under the constant threat of eviction.

Sandwiched between Kfar Adumim (population: 2,500) and Ma’ale Adumim (population: 39,000), the freedom of movement of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents has been severely curtailed. This is not only a harsh slap down for people who have for countless generations enjoyed the freedom to roam, but it also threatens the community’s traditional livelihood, which is based on herding. Moreover, the Bedouin complain that they can no longer reach Jerusalem, where they used to sell their livestock, nor are they allowed to work on settlements anymore.

The ostensible justification for these demolition and eviction orders is that the ramshackle collection of huts and tents that make up Khan al-Ahmar, like is the case with other Bedouin and Palestinian farming communities in Area C of the West Bank, was built “without a permit”. But acquiring such permission – according to the UN and international organisations, not to mention Israeli human rights groups – is nearly impossible.

For its part, the Israeli Civil Administration insists that it provides the Bedouin with alternative locations in which to settle, but the Bedouin say that these alternatives – such as the plan to move the 2,300 Bedouin of the Jerusalem periphery to a location near the stinking al-Abdali tip where the rubbish from the city is dumped – are not suitable and that they prefer to stay put because they do not wish to become “refugees all over again”, as numerous Bedouins in the area have told me.

The same applies for education, with the Israeli authorities insisting that alternatives to the Khan al-Ahmar and the 17 other schools exist or will be found. But locals are not convinced, saying that the closure of the school will force them to send their children to Jericho, as they used to before their modest and convenient local school was built.

Nujood remembers those days well. “My old school was hard to reach. I used to leave at dawn and come back at around 5pm,” she recounts. This left her with little time or energy to study and do homework, especially since electricity is a precious and rare commodity in Khan al-Ahmar, in contrast with the brightly lit settlements nearby. The journey was also a perilous one, with some children involved in road traffic accidents, including a number of fatalities.

The school, which is built of a mix of old tyres and mud, gives local girls a stab at an education.Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In this deeply conservative and traditional Bedouin society, the greater distance and risk would lead many parents to keep their daughters at home. In fact, though the school was ill-equipped for it, the secondary school class –constructed with flimsy chipboard and wrought iron sheets – was introduced at Khan al-Ahmar expressly to enable girls to continue their education.

But, unusually, as far as Nujood’s father is concerned, his daughter has a right to a full education, no matter the distance or cost. “Even if they demolish the school, we will carry on with Nujood’s schooling,” Moussa tells me. “I’d like Nujood to go as far in the education system as she wants.” He delivers a heart-felt plea to the Civil Administration and the Israeli public to think about how they would feel if the same were done to their children, before carrying out the death sentence on this school, which he helped build with his own hands.

The Bedouins of Khan al-Ahmar not only feel under attack by the Israeli occupation, but also have a sense that they have been abandoned to their fate by the Palestinian Authority, according to Eid Sweillam, also known as Abu Khamis, spokesman for Khan al-Ahmar.

“The occupation authorities do all they can to prevent the PA from performing its roles and responsibilities in Area C, and to restrict our ability to develop [it],” admitted Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad when I put the Bedouins’ concerns to him during a press conference he held at the school that same morning. “This does not mean that the PA has stood before the Israeli occupation with its hands tied. It has implemented hundreds of projects in what is called Area C.”

Boys page through their new school books in a makeshift classroom.Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Area C, which falls under full Israeli control, represents 60% of the surface area of the West Bank. It is currently populated by 150,000 Palestinians, mostly Bedouins and poor farmers, and more than 300,000 Israeli settlers (from around 110,000 in 1993 and only just over 1,000 in 1972).

Despite the restrictions imposed by the occupation, the Bedouin insist that the PA can do more. “The most important thing that the PA can do in Area C… is to help us find alternative livelihoods and provide us with legal support,” suggests Abu Khamis.

Failing to act will not only hurt the Bedouins of Area C, but also the Palestinian national project, insists Abu Khamis. “We are the final stone keeping a contiguous Palestinian state together,” he says. “If these Bedouin communities are uprooted… This will split the north of Palestine from the south.” It would also cut East Jerusalem off completely from its West Bank hinterland.

This Israeli-controlled sector possesses the majority of Palestinian agricultural and grazing land and is the only contiguous territory in the West Bank, which was supposed to provide, under the ‘land for peace’ formula, the bulk of the space upon which the future Palestinian state would be established. But as more and more space is swallowed up by settlements and pressure grows from settler groups for Israel to annex much of Area C, this prospect is looking increasingly dim.

To deal with this challenge, Palestinians need to borrow from Israel’s handbook of creating faits accomplis, Fayyad stressed. “We are fully intent on building facts on the ground that are consistent with the inevitability of the emergence of the fully independent sovereign state of Palestine on the territories occupied in 1967,” the Palestinian prime minister said.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 6 September 2012.

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ركوب حافلة المدرسة معاً في القدس

 
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بوجود تفاعل محدود بين الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين كيف يمكننا منع الأصوات المتطرّفة من الكلام
بلغ انعدام الثقة بين الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين درجة أن كل تصرّف تقريباً من قبل الطرف الآخر يُنظَر إليه عبر منشور الشك والريبة. خذ على سبيل المثال خط قطار القدس الخفيف. عندما يبدأ هذا القطار عمله قريباً، سوف يصل غرب المدينة اليهودي مع شرقها الفلسطيني.

ينظر العديد من الفلسطينيين، الذين ينتابهم القلق حول التوسع الاستيطاني الإسرائيلي المستمر، إلى القطار الجديد على أنه جزء من خطة إسرائيلية لإحكام القبضة على مدينة القدس بأكملها، وليس كخدمة نقل مفيدة. بالنسبة للعديد من الإسرائيليين، فإن فكرة مشاركة الفلسطينيين كركّاب هي احتمال يثير الخوف والبغضاء.

ويعود ذلك جزئياً إلى أنه بوجود اتصال شخصي محدد بين الجانبين، فإن أصوات المتطرفين هي الأعلى. ويعتبر تجنب الوصول إلى هذا الوضع النهائي من انعدام الثقة رحلة طويلة يجب أن تبدأ مبكراً بقدر الإمكان في الحياة. قد يكون إقناع الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين أن يصبحوا زملاء في ركوب الحافلة المدرسية، على سبيل المثال، واحداً من أكبر التحديات التي تواجه هؤلاء الذين يسعون لتحقيق مستقبل من التعايش المشترك.

تهدف شبكة “يداً بيد” التعليمية الثنائية اللغة إلى توفير فرصة كهذه بالضبط. تتكون الشبكة التي تأسست عام 1997 من قبل عامل اجتماعي إسرائيلي أمريكي، هو لي غوردون ومعلم فلسطيني إسرائيلي هو أمين خلف، من أربع مدارس يستطيع فيها اليهود والفلسطينيون الإسرائيليون الدراسة معاً باللغتين العربية والعبرية. وتقع أكبر المدارس، والتي تضم 500 تلميذ في مدينة القدس.

تمشّياً مع هدف المدرسة بتشجيع المساواة التامة بين العرب واليهود، لا يعرف التلاميذ أحياناً بل لا يهمهم عرقية زملائهم في المدرسة. “لا ينظر التلاميذ في المدرسة إلى بعضهم بعضاً كيهود أو عرب، بل يستخدمون معايير خاصة بهم” يشرح أيرا كيريم العامل الاجتماعي الأمريكي، ودليلي هذا اليوم. “الأمور التي تهمهم هي أمور مثل: هل هذا الشخص مادة لصديق جيد، هل هذا التلميذ جيد المعشر، هل يجيد لعبة كرة القدم؟”

“نتعلم أن نحب الناس لشخصيتهم وليس للمكان الذي يأتون منه أو لدينهم.” تقول روث، وهي تلميذة يهودية.

رغم ذلك، ورغم أفضل جهود المدرسة فإن عدم المساواة يزحف إلى المعادلة. نظرياً يجب أن يضمن توجيه المدرسة ثنائي اللغة أن يصبح جميع الطلبة على كفاءة متساوية في العبرية والعربية، تشرح إيناس ديب، المسؤولة عن البرامج التعليمية في المدرسة.

“إلا أن التلاميذ العرب بشكل عام يتكلمون العبرية بصورة أفضل مما يتكلّم التلاميذ اليهود اللغة العربية”، تقول السيدة ديب. “العبرية هي اللغة السائدة … يتكلم التلاميذ العرب العبرية خارج المدرسة، بعكس معظم التلاميذ اليهود ]الذين لا يتكلمون العربية[“.

رغم هذه الفروقات اللغوية، التي تعمل المدرسة وأهالي الطلبة على التعامل معها، يؤكد التلاميذ على الشعور العام بالمساواة والثقة. “لا توجد فروقات هنا بين التلاميذ اليهود والفلسطينيين. بعكس الوضع خارج المدرسة، نشعر هنا بالمساواة” يوافق مؤيد وجوهان، وهما مراهقان فلسطينيان يدرسان في المدرسة.

ولكن واقع المدينة المقسّمة ليس بعيداً أبداً عن بوابات المدرسة. عندما أصرّيت على سؤال التلميذين الصغيرين عما إذا كانا يتفاعلان اجتماعياً مع أصدقائهم اليهود، أجابا بالإيجاب، ولكنهما أشارا إلى أن الجيران اليهود والفلسطينيين ليسوا دائماً متسامحين ومتفهّمين.

تفعل مدرسة “يداً بيد” كما يشير اسمها، ما بوسعها لتشجيع الحوار الصادق والاحترام المتبادل بين التلاميذ والأهالي على حد سواء، يقول كيريم، “ندرّس أن سفك الدماء لن يحل النزاع أو يحقق السلام”، تضيف السيدة ديب.

ورغم أن ذلك يدعو إلى الثناء، فإن السؤال حول الفرق الذي حققه بضعة ألاف من الأطفال درسوا “يداً بيد” وغيرها من المدارس المماثلة هو سؤال مثير للمشاعر. “ليست لدينا مشاعر زائفة بأن هذه المدرسة سوف تحقق السلام بين الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين” يعترف أحد الآباء اليهود الإسرائيليين لي. “ولكن يتوجب عليك أن تفعل شيئاً، وكل شيء مهما كان صغيراً يحقق فرقاً. ويتوجب عليك أن تبدأ بنفسك”.

“توفر هذه المدرسة بصيصاً من الأمل للمستقبل، ولأجل أطفالنا، نحتاج لأن نوفر لهم كل قدر ممكن من الأمل”، أضافت صديقته الحميمة، وهي أم فلسطينية.

ولكن حتى يتسنى الإبقاء على هذا الأمل منيراً، وربما المساعدة على زيادة جذوة اشتعاله فإننا نحتاج للدعم. تعتمد “يداً بيد” في ثلث تمويلها على الأقل على التبرعات الدولية الخاصة، التي تأثرت كثيراً بالتباطؤ الاقتصادي. إذا فشلت في الحصول على المزيد من الأموال فقد تضطر للحد من نشاطاتها.

رأي كاتب هذا المقال أن “يداً بيد” لا تستحق المساعدة فحسب، ولكن هذا النوع من التعليم ثنائي اللغة يجب أن يتوفّر بشكل عالمي أكثر حتى يتسنى مساعدة الأجيال المقبلة على تعلّم العيش معاً.

 
This article was first published by the Common Ground News Service on 26 July 2011.
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Can peace be as simple as child’s play?

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Palestinian and Israeli children are victims of the conflict they have inherited. So can joint schools help them learn to live together?

Sunday 7 August 2011

Palestinian and Israeli children are born into a protracted and bitter conflict and conflict is the ‘normal’ backdrop to their childhoods, which can have serious long-term psychological and emotional repercussions.

In terms of the future, perhaps the most worrying aspect of childhood here is that animosity is almost a birthright, a jealously guarded heritage that is handed down from one generation to the next, perpetuating the hatred, distrust and fear that fuel the conflict.

One way of breaking this intergenerational cycle of hostility is through joint education, where Israeli and Palestinian children study together as peers rather than foes. This is just what the Hand in Hand network of bilingual schools seeks to do.

Set up in 1997 by an Israeli-American social worker, Lee Gordon, and a Palestinian-Israeli teacher, Amin Khalaf, the Hand in Hand network is currently made up of four schools. The largest school, with some 500 pupils, is in Jerusalem.

A few days before I went to the state-of-the-art $11-million Jerusalem campus, the Colombian pop star Shakira, who is of part-Lebanese heritage, also visited the school in her capacity as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, much to the delight of the school kids.

Lacking her talent and celebrity, the buzz of excitement and the frenzied commotion surrounding me had nothing to do with my presence but were what you’d expect from hundreds of youngsters counting down the long hours to their summertime freedom on the last day of term. The key difference was that the kids in question were speaking an organic mix of Hebrew and Arabic.

Given that Arabs and Israelis tend to believe they come from different planets, one thing that immediately strikes you is how similar all the pupils appear, and how hard it is, without language and dress as a guide, to tell them apart.

And the children themselves, especially the younger ones, often can’t tell one another apart or don’t care to. “The children at the school don’t look at each other as ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’, they use their own criteria,” explains Ira Kerem, an American-Israeli social worker who works for the charity running the schools and my guide for the day. “What they’re interested in are things like is this person good friend material, is this kid cool, how good is he at football?”

And this was confirmed to me by some of the pupils we came across in the
corridors. “There’s no difference here between the Jewish kids and the Palestinian kids. Unlike outside the school, here we feel equal,” agreed Mu’eed and Jouhan, two Palestinian teenagers studying at the school.

But the reality of the divided city remains just outside the school gates. When I probed the youngsters about whether they socialised with their Jewish friends, both answered in the affirmative, but noted that Jewish and Palestinian neighbours were not always as tolerant and understanding.

In addition, the conflict is never far away, especially at times of heightened tension. “During the Gaza war, we had some very heated arguments with our Jewish classmates, but we didn’t let it get in the way of our friendships,” describe Mu’eed.

Hand in Hand promotes honest and mutually respectful dialogue among pupils and parents alike. It also gives equal time and attention to both Israeli and Palestinian narratives and tries to strike a balance between them, perhaps in the hope of helping create a new, more inclusive history.

This contrasts strongly with the experiences of Palestinian-Israelis who grew up with the official Israeli state curriculum. “Palestine’s history was a missing link in our history lessons,” observed Hatem Mater, a father at the Jerusalem school, in a special book profiling the parents of Hand in Hand’s pupils. “I want my children to know the Palestinian story and the Israeli story. I want them to know the truth.”

Although this is commendable, how much difference can Hand in Hand and other schools like it really make in such an apparently intractable situation. Kerem explains that the schools role is not to resolve the conflict but, in a context where Palestinians and Israelis who live or work together are seen as collaborators or traitors, to show that coexistence is possible.  This motivation is similar to the one that drove the Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli families of Neve Shalom/Wahat el-Salam (Peace Oasis) to settle together for the past four decades.

“We have no illusions that this school will bring about peace between Israelis and
Palestinians,” one Israeli-Jewish father admitted to me. “But you have to do something and every little bit counts – change comes in drips. And you have to start with yourself.”

And this gradual change can be viewed in the shifting attitudes of the parents
themselves. “My association with Arab parents at the school has had a great effect on me,” writes Sigalit Ur, a Jewish mother at the school who defines herself as Orthodox, which shows that, despite stereotypes, it is not just secular, leftist Jews who are for peace and coexistence. “Once I used to take for granted that singing patriotic songs on national holidays was the right thing to do. Now I am more aware of the problematic nature of those songs.”

“This school offers a glimmer of hope for the future, and for the sake of our children, we need to provide them with every bit of hope we can,” a Palestinian mother told me.

Sadly, with Hand in Hand and other bilingual schools struggling to survive, even this glimmer risks being snuffed out. And if broader action to resolve the conflict is not taken, and if tolerance and coexistence are not taught across the board, then the enlightened voices of these youngsters may be drowned out by the overwhelming currents of hatred around them.

This article first appeared in The National on 29 July 2011.

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Riding the school bus together in Jerusalem

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bilingual Hebrew-Arabic schooling has the potential to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis. So why aren’t there more of them?

Arabic version

Thursday 28 July 2011

Pupils joyously evacuate the school for the summer. ©Photo:Khaled Diab

The mutual distrust between Israelis and Palestinians is such that almost every action by the other side is viewed through a prism of suspicion. Take the Jerusalem light railway. When it finally starts operating, it will connect the Jewish west of the city with the Palestinian east.

Many Palestinians, concerned over Israel’s ongoing settlement expansion, see the new tram not as a useful transportation service but as part of an Israeli plan to cement its grip on the whole of Jerusalem. For many Israelis, the idea of becoming fellow passengers with Palestinians is a prospect that elicits both fear and loathing.

This is partly because, with little personal contact between the two sides, the voices of extremists are the loudest. Avoiding an arrival at this terminal state of distrust is a long journey that should start as early as possible in life. Perhaps persuading Israelis and Palestinians to become fellow passengers on the school bus, so to speak, is one of the biggest challenges facing those who seek a future of coexistence.

The Hand in Hand bilingual education network aims to provide just such an opportunity. Founded in 1997 by an Israeli-American social worker, Lee Gordon, and a Palestinian-Israeli teacher, Amin Khalaf, the network is currently comprised of four schools where Israeli-Jews and Palestinians can study together in both Arabic and Hebrew. The largest school, with some 500 pupils, is in Jerusalem.

In line with the school’s aim of promoting complete equality between Arabs and Jews, the children often don’t know or care about the ethnicity of their schoolmates. “The children at the school don’t look at each other as ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’, they use their own criteria,” explains Ira Kerem, an American-Israeli social worker and my guide for the day. “What they’re interested in are things like: is this person good friend material, is this kid cool, how good is he at football?”

“We learn to love people for who they are more than where they come from or what religion they believe in,” writes Ruth, a Jewish pupil, in a letter to an American supporter.

Nevertheless, despite the school’s best efforts, inequalities do creep in. In theory, the school’s bilingual approach should ensure that all the pupils become equally proficient in Hebrew and Arabic, explains Inas Deeb, who is in charge of educational programmes at the school.

“However, Arab pupils generally speak better Hebrew than Jewish pupils speak Arabic,” says Deeb. “Hebrew is the dominant language… Arab kids speak Hebrew outside the school, unlike most of the Jewish kids [who do not speak Arabic].”

Despite these linguistic disparities, which the school and parents are working to tackle, pupils confirm the general sense of equality and trust. “There’s no difference here between the Jewish kids and the Palestinian kids. Unlike outside the school, here we feel equal,” agreed Mu’eed and Jouhan, two Palestinian teenagers studying at the school.

But the reality of the divided city is never far from the school gates. When I probed the youngsters about whether they socialised with their Jewish friends, both answered in the affirmative, but noted that Jewish and Palestinian neighbours were not always as tolerant and understanding.

As its name suggests, Hand in Hand does its best to promote honest and mutually respectful dialogue among pupils and parents alike, says Kerem. “We teach that bloodletting will not resolve the conflict or bring about peace,” adds Deeb.

Although this is commendable, the question of how much difference the few thousand children who have studied at Hand in Hand and other schools like it can make is a poignant one. “We have no illusions that this school will bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” one Israeli-Jewish father admitted to me. “But you have to do something and every little bit counts. And you have to start with yourself.”

“This school offers a glimmer of hope for the future, and for the sake of our children, we need to provide them with every bit of hope we can,” his good friend, a Palestinian mother, chimed in.

But to keep this glimmer alight and perhaps help it burn more intensely requires support. Hand in Hand depends for at least a third of its funding on international private donations, which have been hit hard by the global recession. If it fails to raise more funds, it may be forced to cut back its activities.

It is the opinion of this author that not only does Hand in Hand deserve a helping hand, but that this kind of bilingual education should become more universally available in order to help the next generations to learn to live together.

This article was first published by the Common Ground News Service on 26 July 2011.

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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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Less Catholic than the pope

 
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By Khaled Diab

Catholic’ education thrives in Belgium, but the decision between principle and pragmatism is not easy when choosing a school.

20 October 2010

Putting off until tomorrow what I can do today has been an effective guiding principle in much of what I do. However, our crash course in parenthood is quickly teaching us that certain things need to be planned well in advance. When our son was little more than a twinkle on the ultrasound screen, we were advised that we needed to start finding and registering for a crèche, given the length of the waiting lists here in Ghent.

At 10 months of age, Iskander is quite literally still finding his feet, and is some two years away from ‘graduating’ his creche. Yet, after friends alerted us that registration for preschool would soon begin, and given the waiting lists at many schools in inner-city areas, we’ve been forced to start thinking about his schooling.

We are fortunate enough to live just around the corner from one of the best schools in Ghent.  Although Iskander reacted to his potential future school with cool detachment and studied indifference, it left a good impression on me. According to a formal evaluation, it has a good academic track record, encourages independent thought and creativity among its pupils, works closely with parents and organises lots of extra-curricular activities.

Although the school insists that it is not elitist and is striving to attract children from all backgrounds, its former pupils include two Nobel prize winners, a number of prominent actors, poets and writers, ministers and prime ministers, as well as the current head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge.

Despite the fact that the school seems to offer both convenience and excellence, there is one issue that troubles me: this Jesuit school identifies itself as ‘Catholic’. Of course, with the sex abuse scandals rocking the church – including cover-up allegations in Belgium – ‘Catholic’ and ‘children’ are not words many people would comfortably place in close proximity. “Almost every [Catholic] institution, every school, particularly boarding schools, at one time harboured abuse,” said Peter Adriaenssens, the head of a church commission monitoring complaints.

But this isn’t what bothers me, since the church and clergy have nothing to do with the day-to-day running of Catholic schools anymore, and their staff are paid for, screened and supervised by the state. As a non-believer and dedicated secularist, what troubles me is the idea of sending my child to a school that associates itself, no matter how loosely, with a particular faith. It’s not that I have anything against Catholics or the Christian faith, I just entertain a general scepticism towards organised religion.

Luckily, these establishments are a lot less Catholic than the pope. My wife – who went to Catholic school, just like most Belgians she knows, including quite a few Muslims – assures me that they are Catholic mostly in name only.

And what the school informed me bears this out. Young children receive only informal religious education, such as the nativity story. Older children start getting a couple of periods a week on Christianity, then, in secondary school, they start learning about other religions and ethical systems, too.

Besides, Catholic schools in Belgium regularly outperform secular state schools and, a recent study concluded, university students from Catholic schools are more likely to succeed in higher education – though not everyone agrees with the findings.

But why are Belgian Catholic schools so far ahead of their more secular alternatives?

The prevalence and dominance of the Catholic school system is an accident of Belgian history and reflects the once-dominant hold of the church on society. It is also a product of the long and bitter conflict between freethinkers and Catholics, the so-called ‘school wars’, in which liberals and socialists have traditionally supported the idea of secular, ideologically neutral schools, while the Christian Democrats and church establishment have put their collective weight behind an independent, yet state-subsidised, Catholic school network.

The highly organised nature of the Catholic establishment and the long political dominance of the Christian Democrats has created the current situation in which neutral state schools are the poor cousins of Catholic schools.

However, the increasing post-war secularisation of Belgian society and the efforts of freethinkers to take as much of the Catholic out of Catholic schools as they can, has resulted in a classic ‘Belgian compromise’ in which there is little practical ideological difference between the two streams of the Belgian state-funded schooling system, despite their labels.

And, for an egalitarian like me, I’m pleased that hardly anyone in Belgium goes to private schools and everyone, in theory, has an equal shot at entering any school, with priority going to locals and disadvantaged groups.

So, the question is, should principle or pragmatism prevail?

My wife is of the opinion that the proximity and apparent quality of the school, and the fact that all the good schools within an acceptable distance from the house are also Catholic, means that pragmatism should prevail.

Besides, religious education was part and parcel of our own schooling and it certainly did not make us religious. I still remember many of the Christian hymns we were taught during assembly when I was a child, I spent a short period in the school choir despite my poor singing skills, and my brother played one of the three wise men in the nativity. At my first secondary school, religious studies were obligatory and, at my second, I could sit through the lessons and do my own thing, while ‘Chopper’ Harris often droned on about the war, instead of teaching religion.

Even in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, many of the best modern schools were set up by European missionaries and Muslims have usually outnumbered Christians there. “The teaching was good at the time I was there, now these schools are not top of the line anymore after the new international schools,” recalls Sherif, an Egyptian friend who studied at the College de la Salle.

For Katleen – and I have to agree – the most important thing is that we find a school for Iskander where he will be happy and comfortable and one that will bring out the best in him. And if, in future, Iskander receives anything in his religious education class which we find objectionable, we can provide him with alternative visions and outlooks at home. Besides, by the time he is old enough, perhaps the school will introduced an opt-out from religion lessons.

This is the extended version of a column which appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 8 October 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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