Podcast: Egypt’s cartoon villains and heroes

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By Khaled Diab

The battle between Egyptian revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces is being played out in caricature.

The famous satirical cartoonist, the late Mostafa Hussein, lost his sense of humour to implore Sisi to run for the presidency in October 2013.

The famous satirical cartoonist, the late Mustafa Hussein, lost his sense of humour to implore Sisi to run for the presidency in October 2013.

Thursday 18 February 2016

It’s an arresting image – both figuratively and literally. A caricature of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has the Egyptian president’s hands pressed over his tightly shut eyes. An anxious frown is knitted deep into the dictator’s brow and his mouth is downturned as if the weight of the country hangs off it.

Entitled ‘Shy president’, the caption reads: “I don’t like being drawn.”

The cartoon was the brainchild of the outspoken pro-revolutionary cartoonist Mohamed Qindeel, who goes by the nom de plume Andeel.

Andeel’s caricature was a graphical protest at the arrest of fellow cartoonist Islam Gawish. “When I read the news about Islam I started drawing Sisi’s face before I even knew what I’d have him say,” Andeel says. “The fact that they wanted people to think they are not allowed to draw Sisi was enough to make me sure that I have to draw him.”

Gawish’s cartoons, which tend to be simple, child-like ink drawings, have become a runaway success with Egypt’s young. One memorable Gawish cartoon mocks the duplicity of the regime’s rhetoric compared with its reality. It features a balding stickman who represents Sisi or his regime.

“You need someone who will embrace you. Come here,” the authority figure urges a group of long-faced youth. The punchline arrives in the final panel in which the youngsters are still in Sisi’s embrace but are now standing inside a cage, with him on the outside.

Many, including Andeel, are convinced that cartoons like this were the reason behind Gawish’s temporary detention, as Egypt slowly reverts to the bad old days when mocking the president was a red line.

Following massive uproar, Gawish was released. However, his short-lived detention may have already served its intended purpose. “[Gawish] is young and mostly active on the internet. He doesn’t belong to the old-school intellectuals,” explains Andeel. “So making people believe he is targeted is supposed to make people realize that the authorities are as present online… as they are in the physical world.”

And with over 1.7 million followers on his Facebook page alone, Gawish is a big fish to net.

Egypt is in the grips of a major crackdown on dissent, with thousands of activists, artists and journalists languishing behind bars or fleeing into self-imposed exile. One prominent example of this is Ramy Essam, whose daring, mischievous lyrics transformed him into the unofficial “singer of the revolution”. He is now living in relative obscurity in Sweden.

Those left behind live in constant anxiety or fear that the arbitrary net of Egypt’s resurgent autocracy could nab them next.  “I’m thinking about the possibility of going to jail for the first time in my life,” admits Andeel.

But arrest and intimidation aren’t the only weapons in the regime’s arsenal. There is also the subtle and not-so-subtle art of counterrevolution.

There has been a concerted campaign to erase the revolution’s artistic legacy, including the literal whitewashing of Egypt’s flourishing revolutionary street art.

There has also been a clear, if piecemeal, effort to co-opt artists, including actors, singers and writers. Many of them have quite literally been singing his praises, in a revival of low-quality, cloying patriotic odes to the president and to Egypt which I and many others had hoped the revolution had relegated to the dustbin of history.

Cartoonists, too, in the state-owned media and some pro-regime outlets have played their part in this effort. “These cartoons tend to mirror official policies, whether that be the president’s speeches, government slogans, or campaigns,” observes Jonathan Guyer of the Institute of Current World Affairs who specialises in Egyptian political cartoons.

Sisi’s official anointment as president and the inauguration of the much-hyped extension of the Suez Canal were particularly active periods for counterrevolutionary artists.

Sisi the sailorIn contrast to the unflattering portraits of Sisi by Andeel or by the renowned graffiti artist Ganzeer – who depicted the president with a television head on which was the face of a cartoon bunny, the portrayals of many pro-regime artists couldn’t be more ingratiating – the portrayals of many pro-regime artists couldn’t be more ingratiating.

There is Sisi the conscientious, earnest labourer straining under the burden of carrying the country on his shoulders. There is also Sisi the skipper of the good ship Egypt, navigating it through narrow, perhaps even dire, straits, while trusting, smiling, stupefyingly grateful, flag-waving Egyptians stand behind him.

One common motif is to depict Egypt as a woman, “Um el-Dunya” (Mother of the World), with Sisi as her son, guide and defender – an image, Andeel believes, is “psychologically reflective of tyranny”.

These staid, formulaic cartoons lack, in the words of Guyer, “the artistic nuance or linguistic wordplays of some of the more rabble-rousing and creative illustrators for independent media outlets”. Andeel maintains that the desire for freedom means that rebel art “will revolve around fresh ideas” and be free of monotony and repetition.

Watani habibiThat’s not to say that pro-regime art always lakes creativity or artistic merit. The propaganda songs of the Nasser years are still popular today. But that was a time in which artists seemed, despite their misgivings, to believe in the national project. They wanted optimistically to help construct a nation, not keep one from imploding.

Those supporting and praising Sisi aren’t all hired pens, some genuinely believe his rhetoric and project, while others fear the alternatives to his rule.

This public sentiment could be gleaned in the “Sisi-mania” which gripped Egypt in 2013 and 2014. Citizens spontaneously produced and consumed Sisi paraphernalia, from chocolates to perfume, in a surreal show of leader love, even lust, in the form of Sisi lingerie.

With such a public mood and mainstream media hysteria, some fear that the window for subversive caricature and radical art in Egypt has shut. But Sisi’s heavy-handed repression and failure to turn Egypt around has replaced the mania with apathy in somen and bubbling restiveness in others.

Many who had offered their conditional love are withdrawing it. An example of this Guyer points to is Amro Selim, who was one of the first cartoonists to lampoon Hosni Mubarak in caricature, in the former dictator’s final years. Angered and fearful of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Selim was a supporter of Sisi’s violent power grab.

But Selim has gradually grown more critical. In one scathing cartoon, he has Sisi sitting on the head of a troubled journalist, like some sort of fat genie, watching carefully what the embattled hack is writing.

Abu NadaraMoreover, biting satire has been an Egyptian staple for decades, if not centuries, even if its mainstream form was forced to focus on social issues during oppressive periods.

When Egyptian rulers oppress, the satirical press doesn’t go away it just goes underground. This is reflected in Egypt’s first satirical magazine, Travels of the Man in the Blue Glasses, which was first published in 1877.

After it was banned in Egypt, its founder, Yaqub Sanu, began to publish it in Paris and thousands of smuggled copies continued to enjoy a massive underground following back home.

With social media and the internet’s intrinsic subversiveness and the endless possibilities they opens up for artists, the underground scene has grown exponentially since the days of Sanu.

And what sizzles and simmers underground is bound to, when the moment is right, bubble up to the surface again, turning counterrevolution back into revolution.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This report was first broadcast on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on  13 February 2016.

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Reimagining Palestine: Inserting the human dimension

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By Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Monday 3 March 2014

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

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

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

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

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 25 February 2014.

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News of revolution (part III): Televising the life and death of an Egyptian president

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By Osama Diab

Anwar Sadat was the first Egyptian leader to exploit television’s propaganda power – and even his assassination was unwittingly televised.

Saturday 3 November 2012

In 1970, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser died and with him the  dream of uniting the Arab world from the “ocean to the gulf” under his leadership. However, despite the humiliating defeat of 1967, Nasser died as a popular, yet wounded, leader and his extremely emotional funeral – which was attended by at least five million in Cairo alone, not to mention all the mourners who poured on to the streets of cities across the Arab world – was one of the largest in history.

Initially regarded as a weak leader and an interim figurehead until Nasser’s “true successor” emerged, Anwar Sadat was quick to try to establish himself as the undoubted leader of Egypt by carrying out a self-described “corrective revolution” which involved pursuing and purging what he called “marakiz al-qowa”  (“centres of power”) who were believed to be pro-Soviet and loyal to Nasserist ideology.

On 15 May 1971, Sadat announced that more than a 100 “centres of power” had been charged with plotting a coup to overthrow him. Continuing this trend of overturning Soviet influence, Sadat took a landmark decision in 1972  to expel the Soviet military advisors from Egypt. After fighting the October War against Israel in 1973, Sadat continued his aggressive reforms by opening up Egypt’s state-run command economy to private enterprise and engaging in peace negotiations with Israel which started in earnest with his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and culminated with the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Throughout the 1970s, Egypt gradually shifted its orientation from the East to the West — the former rivals of Egypt during the Nasser era — and broke off relations with Nasser’s Soviet allies. This new policy direction was accompanied by a relative openness in the political climate and the incorporation of the principles of liberal democracy in Egypt’s official discourse.  The aggressive liberalisation of the economy and remarkable change in foreign policy required a new type of national narrative, especially when the Arab world decided to isolate Egypt after Sadat extended the hand of peace to Israel, the Arab world’s then-official enemy.

Mahmoud Shalabieh, the Jordanian media scholar, argues that, although radio was utilised by Sadat in the same way it was by Nasser, to publicise his policies and persuade the nation their merits, Sadat possessed a powerful new media weapon: television. Shalabieh argues that television influenced the way Sadat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin behaved during the peace talks. “By knowing that the whole world was watching, they seem to have been self-conscious about the long-lasting effect they were creating by engaging in these peace talks,” Shalabieh argues.

However, television, even more so than the press, was under Sadat’s total control. The 1970s could be described as the decade of television and the press, while Nasser’s favourite medium, radio, experienced a relative decline. As it became more affordable and its reach spread to every corner of the country, television replaced radio as the main tool for propaganda. In a way, TV also suited Sadat’s extroverted personality and his love of basking in the spotlight.

Sadat focused more on Egyptian affairs as opposed to Arab issues, and asserted that Egypt was his first responsibility. According to Shalabieh, he adopted “Egyptian patriotism” as the major value of Egypt’s foreign policy, a far cry from Nasser’s assertion that Egypt’s main responsibility and focus was to the Arab world. This brand of nationalism, often referred to as “Pharaonism”, was not new at the time, but had reached its peak during Egypt’s liberal era, after its official independence in 1921 and up until 1952.

Sadat was very aware of the power of television as a medium to express his fury against Egypt’s suspension from the Arab league. In a televised speech before the parliament in the last days before his assassination, Sadat sent a clear Egypto-centric message to Egypt’s one-time Arab “brothers”: “We are the origin of the Arabs. Hagar, the wife of Abraham, is the mother of Ismael, the ancestor of the Arabs. Hagar is Egyptian. So if there is someone out there who wants to belong, they should belong to Egypt, not Egypt to them. There is no point in these debates about whether we belong to the Pharaohs or not. Our blood is Arab and we are the origin of the Arabs and they belong to us.”

Adeed Dawisha, an Iraqi scholar who wrote extensively on Arab nationalism, explained: “Given the inherent strength of this feeling of ‘Egyptianism’, it was hardly surprising that Abdel-Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, would use it in order to escape the overbearing legacy of his towering predecessor.” He explains that Sadat began by changing Nasser’s name for Egypt, the United Arab Republic, to the Arab Republic of Egypt, “where ‘Arab’ is only the adjective and ‘Egypt’ is the noun.”

“Simultaneously, Sadat embarked on a policy of cultural reorientation toward Egypt. This was evident in subtle changes in school curricula, highlighting Egypt’s long history, cultural prominence, and unique personality. The government-controlled media similarly spotlighted Egypt’s prestige and status in international affairs. By the end of the 1970s, Egyptian nationalism had won the day in Egypt,” observes Dawisha.

The press also played an important part in shaping this era and in telling us its story. As Sadat wished to give his liberal reforms a democratic and pluralistic sheen, a partisan press was allowed to form, and was partly tolerated, as an outcome of the Political Parties Law of 1977. Sadat initially allowed three parties to form representing the left, the centre and the right. The first partisan newspaper to be launched was al-Ahrar, which belonged to what Sadat decided to be Egypt’s rightwing party.

In addition, the tolerated-but-banned Muslim Brotherhood was allowed in 1976 to publish a monthly magazine al-Da’wa (The Call to Islam). The Brotherhood’s publication was very critical of Arab nationalism, communism and secularism, and this, some believe, served the goal of a Sadatist state that was more troubled by Nasserism and left-wing ideologies than with pan-Islamism.

The magazine’s cover, which is often indicative of what a publication stands for, had headlines such as “The Qur’an is above the constitution”, “Islam between the slumber of its followers and the attacks of its enemies”, “Where will the encroachment of communism lead?”. These topics were more or less the main themes of the magazine until it was shut down in 1981.

The Sadat-Brotherhood alliance began to sour after the peace treaty and when his regime began to obstruct the student movement which was openly backed by the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood did not escape the massive crackdown on dissent and arrests Sadat ordered before his assassination as his popularity in a desperate bid to salvage his plummeting popularity and his increasingly shaky grip on rule.

Although Sadat utilised different forms of media to propagate the country’s new, supposedly open political line, the insecurity he felt towards the end of his rule led him to abandon his promise of pluralism and greater freedoms. Many writers, politicians and journalists who opposed him were imprisoned and more restrictive measures were imposed on the media.

Despite this, the relative openness of the political climate compared with the Nasser era, meant that the Sadatist discourse received some competition from other non-official nationalist narratives, such as the struggling pan-Arabism and the emerging pan-Islamism. However, Sadat believed that these attempts were only operating in a margin of freedom he himself and so posed no threat to his rule.

In this, as hindsight reveals, Sadat was clearly wrong, as demonstrated by his assassination during the 8th celebration of the October War, in 1981, at the hands of Islamic militant groups who succeeded in infiltrating the military. Interestingly, Sadat was not only the first Egyptian leader to exploit the power of TV, but he became the only Egyptian leader whose death was televised.

But Sadat’s assassination failed to kill off his policies. Although some areas, especially in Upper Egypt, fell under the temporary control of militant Islamic groups after his death, the attempt to overthrow Sadat did not succeed in establishing a new Islamist order. Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak can now be seen in retrospect, especially in his early years, as having maintained and extended Sadat’s policies and official nationalist discourse, despite his success in bringing Egypt back into the Arab fold and his decision to release most of his predecessor’s political prisoners.

Egypt’s alliance with the West, peace with Israel, the façade of democratisation masking his dictatorial regime and the emphasis on Egyptian nationalism remained intact throughout most of Mubarak’s 30-year-long rule, which eventually brought about an unprecedented level of corruption, nepotism and inequality, at least in Egypt’s republican era.

This is the third part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part I focused on the role of the nascent print media in shaping Egyptian nationalism and national identity in the 19th century. Part II dealt with Nasser’s use of radio to propagate his pan-Arabist ideology.

Part IV will deal with satellite television, the internet and the explosion of independent media, as well as how Egypt’s new rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood, despite decades of opposition, are largely continuing the Sadat-Mubarak line.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter

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Mobile revolution in the Middle East

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By Christian Nielsen

“You won’t fool the children of the revolution.” Especially not if they’re Twittering away on their mobile phones.

Friday 18 March 2011

What started as a mobile-mediated youth movement has evolved into revolution and probably even war. The revolutionary wave hitting the Middle East and North Africa comes as no huge surprise to some scholars who predicted that the power of new media and instant communications would catch out unwary dictators and undemocratic governments everywhere.

In an article entitled ‘The blog versus big brother: new and old information technology and political repression (1980-2006)’, which recently appeared in the International Journal of Human Rights, the authors suggest that new technology features prominently in the current wave of globalisation which appears to be manifesting in widespread discontent, particularly among tech-savvy youth.

The authors, Indra de Soysa, director of globalisation research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and his colleague Lucia Liste Muoz, suggest that reliable information and free communication are something of a lifeline for fledgling opposition movements.

The authors note: “Sceptics of globalisation suggest that the new technology will hamstring governments from acting in the interests of ordinary people and for furthering communitarian values, leading to demobilisation of reform movements and empowering powerful capitalistic elites.”

Yet others, the authors continue, suggest that new technologies empower people at the expense of states, paving the way “for diversity of opinions and constraining the repressive tendencies of states and bureaucracies”.

Their December 2010 article – appearing rather forebodingly just weeks before the Middle-East/North Africa winter of discontent kicked off – appears to build on a 2009 paper by the same authors under the title ‘The blog versus big brother: information and communication technologies and human rights (1980-2005)’.

“TV is especially bad for human rights,” declares de Soysa in a statement, “because the government can feed propaganda to the population.” Evidence of which can be plainly seen in Libya today, as the world media are being harassed, obstructed and, according to some reports, even abducted by pro-government henchmen. Meanwhile Colonel Muammar Gaddafi maintains his defiant – many would argue delusional (see the Chronikler’s Defiantly delusional) – stand using traditional media like TV to misinform citizens.

Last week, as the country seemed to the rest of the world to be in the grips of full-scale civil war, a Libyan army captain said on Libyan state TV that security in rebel areas is at about 95%. “There are some rats that could be lying in some alleys and inside some flats. We are capturing them one group after the other,” he said. See Gaddafi in action on Turkish TV (BBC).

Young, sceptical and not into TV

That younger generations are turning away from traditional media (or “old technology”) like television in its basic form is well documented (check out the Nielsen report ‘Young people don’t watch TV on TV’). But what we are seeing, anecdotally at least, is that they are also increasingly sceptical about the one-way, lecturing approach to traditional media like TV. This is particularly true of countries where the media is state dominated, censored, or in dictatorships like Libya, just plain mouthpieces for the corrupt state to keep its people down.

So, this is really where the new technologies, especially mobiles and social media platforms, really shake the cage of dictators and questionable democracies. The internet and mobile phones make it harder for despotic leadership to feed the whole population with the necessary propaganda to prop it up. And social media also gives people access to information which might otherwise be censored or blocked on the internet (think China).

Technology as freedom fighter

In Egypt, for example, where a Google employee mobilised so many people in such a short time, social media really showed its potential as a political tool – a force for participatory democracy in some pure form.

Indra de Soysa points to the many eyewitnesses who sent pictures from mobile phones to media organisations like al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. “The authorities can no longer get away with attacking their own people. In Burma, the authorities can still shoot a man in the street, and get away with it. But there are beginning to be fewer and fewer countries where that is still the case,” he notes.

In Africa, mobile phones are spreading rapidly which also means that Africans will be connected to the world in a completely different way than before. “The world is becoming flatter because people communicate horizontally,” he adds.

Saddam first

De Soysa puts the current wave of enthusiasm for democracy and freedom in the context of globalisation and the way communications have changed in just a decade. The youth today, he suggests, perceive themselves as citizens of the world – no longer believing that old men should dictate how they should live. De Soysa suggests Tunisia and Egypt were not freak events: the start of the latest wave of revolutionary unrest in the Middle East and North Africa began with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he believes.

“The human cost was high, and many died. But it was an important symbol that encouraged people in other repressive regimes to believe that it is possible to get rid of a dictator,” he notes.

“I would not say that George Bush should get the Peace Prize, but in retrospect this was a very important event in initiating the change that is now rolling across the Middle East.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to take Marc Bolan’s advice: “you won’t fool the children of the revolution”… not anymore that is! If Bush helped at all, it was showing younger generations how wrong the old boys with their old technology got it.


This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Bugging the culinary operating system

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By  Ray O’Reilly

Elevating food to celebrity status has turned the theory of motivation upside down. It’s time to stick one up the foodies.

14 September 2009

Celebrity chefs, uppity restaurant critics, food-fetishists… all overcooked ingredients in a grubby concoction that passes as entertainment – debased media feeding off basic human behaviour. It’s time to put a bug in the culinary operating system.

The BBC’s newest food celebrity Levi Roots takes the proverbial cake. For starters, he seems a rough and ready cook. For mains, yes he’s likable and cool, but does that mean I should entrust my stomach to him? For dessert, all this cool bravado is a little too Jaimie Oliver in dreads for my liking.

The Beeb’s blurb for the new series (and accompanying book) Caribbean Food Made Easy partly acknowledges the man’s dubious food cred: “…passionate food enthusiast Levi Roots travels around Jamaica and across the UK showing how to bring sunshine flavours to your kitchen”. Okay thanks for that.

This crafty bit of CV-shaping is up there with MasterChef (also BBC) presenter Greg Wallace’s bio which effectively went from a “successful vegetable grower” in the early series to “food expert and TV presenter” as a self-fulfilling prophecy in later episodes.

Elsewhere on the BBC and on other channels around the world, foul-mouthed chefs berate co-workers solely for entertainment, so-called celebrity cooks race the clock preparing trumped-up grub for daytime TV, and hopeful restaurateurs face humiliation while the world watches on.

And the press does its bit churning out reviews of these programmes, ego-soaked write-ups about eateries of any ilk, and helping to promote endless branded kitchen utensils for an audience that can no longer cook.

Is there any way to claw our way back from this culinary brink?

We have to eat, sleep, breathe and a few other things to live. These “physiological needs” control us in fairly basic ways, according to Abraham Maslow who baked up a tantalising new theory on human motivation in the 1940s, called the hierarchy or pyramid of needs – read his paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ published in the Psychological Review (50, pp370-396).

Personal growth, he posited, is possible only when basic physiological and safety needs are met first – the cake base, you could say. The need for love and to belong is the next layer of the cake, and our sense of esteem and confidence the icing. A sprinkling of characteristics – creativity, morality, problem solving, etc. – which satisfy our need for “self-actualisation” are the final decorative touches.

But what happens when you mix the basics like eating with higher-order growth needs including ego? You get a messy up-side-down cake, or a Levi Roots concoction. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to make food tasty and even pretty, but elevating food and the operating system around it to cult entertainment status is warped, especially in a world facing growing food security problems.

But I have a grass-roots idea to bug the operating system. Yes, it’s childish and probably pointless, but revolutions have started in stranger places (beds even). Invite your worst foodie friends over for dinner and cook them up a plate of really special grub. (See recipe.)


Crispy Caribbean shrimp (grub) stir-fry

Ingredients: a handful of mealworms, an onion, red chilli, oil, steamed rice, greens, tamarind paste. Preparation: Heat oil and tamarind in a hot wok and stir-fry the diced chilli and onions. Add grubs and fry until cooked (like shrimp), add greens, and a splash of chicken stock to steam just before serving with rice.

If you’re wondering if I’ve actually prepared and eaten this myself… of course I haven’t!  But if you’re up for it, let me know how it tastes.


You probably have to mask the appearance of the grubs with some garnish – say, coriander – and/or come up with a back-story along the lines that they are a Malian or Caribbean speciality.

After they’ve all complimented your culinary skills, praised the suitability of the wine, and talked about their favourite restaurant TV programmes, you can then decide whether to tell them about the grubs.

Here is also where you could brush up on some bug-eating facts to spice up the ensuing dinner conversation.

Apparently, up to 80% of the world’s population eat one form or another of the 12 000-odd edible insects – from fried crickets in Thailand and roasted termites in Ghana, to the Balinese speciality of dragonflies in coconut cream. Apart from being tasty, they are packed with vitamins and minerals.

Maslow might say spiteful cooking (and journalism) like this is no better than what it seeks to stamp out – ego-inflicted behaviour. But one item in his treatise on “self-actualisation” is the ability to accept facts. So my reply to him: “Get over it!”

A version of this article first appeared in (A)Way magazine. It is republished here with the author’s permission. © Copyright Ray O’Reilly.

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TV’s desperate Muslim romantics

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By Khaled Diab

Sexual relationships among ethnic minorities offer richer dramatic pickings than cliched stories about arranged marriage.

5 August 2009

The prevalence of Muslim characters on television is growing steadily. In fact, last week I was treated to two on a single evening and both dealt with questions of the heart, and one with the risqué subject of gay Muslims.

Holby City – that fantasy land NHS hospital where all the doctors and nurses are beautiful, and patients are not usually a virtue of the plot – took poetic licence to an extreme when one of its patients nearly died quite literally of a broken heart.

The patient in question had neglected to take his prescribed medication and his transplanted heart was in danger of conking out. His motivation eventually emerged when this young Muslim – probably a Turk or a Cypriot – confided to his sister that he didn’t want to enter into the marriage their parents had arranged for him because he was in love with an English woman.

Admittedly, arranged marriages remain a pertinent issue for many Muslims, particularly among more conservative families and for women, whose destinies tend to be more closely controlled by their families. The number of young women, for instance, who have marriages arranged for them with extremely unsuitable boys from their families’ countries of origin is fairly high.

But parentally imposed couplings of this kind bedevil young people from many minorities. It is even common among groups with a fairly liberal reputation, such as Sikhs. “There is much less coercion in marriage than there used to be. But I think it is very socio-economically based. Village mentality families will still find girls their partners and will more or less push them into that marriage (emotionally usually),” fellow CiF contributor  Sunny Hundal told me. “More cosmopolitan families will try and find suitable partners and introduce them, but will respect a firm ‘no’ if a guy is rejected.”

A similar situation exists among Muslim communities. Despite it being true in many instances, what this hackneyed “arranged marriage” storyline overlooks is how this practice has fallen out of fashion in many parts of the Muslim world, particularly among the urban population.

In Egypt, most of the people I know chose their own spouse. Even those who employed traditional or modern matchmaking services decided to do so of their own accord. In fact, as Egyptians increasingly marry later, mainly due to financial constraints, many are flocking to the Muslim equivalent of online dating, online marriage sites and marriage offices – which are also increasingly being used as a cover for prostitution or as informal immigration services.

That doesn’t mean that everything is rosy. Parents still possess an inordinate amount of control over their children’s lives, particularly girls, and often torpedo what they see as unsuitable matches – a staple of soaps in Egypt and, I believe, other Arab and Muslim lands.

Interestingly, arranged marriages can even be subversive. Although ultra-conservatives are traditionalist at most levels, some Islamist groups are surprisingly progressive in others, and contract marriages between their members that are more egalitarian than the mainstream – with little regard to the material wealth or the class of the spouses-to-be. In fact, one surprising lure of Islamist groups is ‘romantic’ because they not only help members find spouses; they even help them set up a home.

Other fascinating angles which Holby City hinted at but failed to explore fully is that of mixed relationships and premarital sex. The Muslim patient was obviously terrified to tell his parents about his English girlfriend. This was probably for two reasons: the difficulty of admitting a premarital romantic or sexual liaison, and the fact that she is a non-Muslim.

Whether Muslims should marry non-Muslims is a prickly, vague and controversial issue. My personal take is that anything goes, and people should hitch up with whoever they love, whatever that person’s background – but then I’m secular and a-religious.

But even from the orthodox Islamic perspective, the answer is far from straightforward. In her book,  Sexual Ethics and Islam, Kecia Ali argues compellingly that marriages to non-Muslims are not only halal (or kosher, if you prefer), and were practised widely in the earlier centuries of Islam, but are equally acceptable for men and women.

However, the more common view is that it’s only acceptable, but not desirable, for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman, because Islam is passed down through the male line. Even in my more liberal circle of friends, where many Muslim men and women live with or are married to non-Muslims, many non-Muslim men have had to go through a bogus conversion.

Other religious communities are grappling with similar challenges. “I don’t think there is that much tolerance yet [for mixed marriages among Sikhs],” Sunny reflected. “Some take a grim view – my parents wouldn’t really mind… but I do think the number of mixed race relationships is increasing.”

And such cross-cultural relationships offer a goldmine of dramatic possibilities – and opportunities to challenge stereotypes – that has not been explored sufficiently, aside from the nightmare scenarios of kids caught in the middle of two warring cultures.

Better still, why can’t we have more Muslim characters without the Muslim themes? I have discovered, for instance, that Holby used to have a Muslim doctor, Prof Zubin Khan. Why can’t they reintroduce this character, or even better a hijabless woman Muslim doctor, to the hospital’s already diverse staff? When can we look forward to the first Muslim detective, say a cultured and sophisticated Inspector Mo?

Although we still have some way to go before Muslims are fully mainstreamed, British film and television are leagues ahead of their American counterparts, which still tend to depict Muslims as one-dimensional villains.

In the next exciting instalment, join me to see how British television has veered off the beaten track to a place not visited since My Beautiful Laundrette by exploring what happens when Muslim boy meets boy – but ends up marrying girl.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 3 August 2009. Read the related discussion.

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