Egypt’s other Tahrirs

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tahrir may have been pacified for now, but the revolution is still playing out in Egypt’s economic and social squares.

Sana Seif

Friday 5 February 2016

In January 2011, Egypt captivated the entire world but, above all else, Egyptians surprised and mesmerised themselves.

If revolution means, as the word implies, sending the established order and accepted norms into a spin, then what occurred in those heady winter days in 2011 was a revolution with a capital “R”.

Only the tyranny of death would manage to oust the ageing tyrant, many believed. Instead, millions of Egyptians taking to the streets gave Hosni Mubarak his marching orders.

Egyptians are docile and apathetic, was the received wisdom. But they shock off the chains of apparent lethargy to rise up, en masse, against the despotism of the dictator, the junta and the theocrats.

Egyptians need, nay desire, the iron fist of a strongman. Although a surprising number of people lamented the downfall of Mubarak, the majority were jubilant and partied like there was a tomorrow when the news of his demise broke.

In addition, the crowds’ sustained and uncompromising demands for bread, freedom and social justice put paid to the lie that Egyptians do not desire nor understand democracy, even if some are reluctant or passionate supporters of military or Islamist dictatorship.

Today, it is hard to believe that those momentous events occurred just five years ago. Like a 21st-century Alice, Egyptians seem to have fallen into a wormhole in which time, space and history have been warped and speeded up.

In just five years, Egypt has gone through more changes in leadership than over the preceding six decades. The country has hurtled through revolution, counterrevolution, and anti-revolution, and its people have ridden the emotional rollercoaster that has taken them from the heights of elation to the depths of deflation.

Though everything promised to change, nothing seems to have changed. This sad reality was poignantly summed up by the solitary courageous protester, Sanaa Seif, who marched defiantly through the indiffrent traffic on Tahrir Square with a short bearing the slogan: “It’s still the January revolution“.

This has led to a sense of despondency and despair, with many signing off on the revolution’s death certificate or, worse, claiming that it was never born in the first place.

But is this disillusionment justified?

It is true that the existing order has proven remarkably adept at clinging on to power. First, the regime sacrificed its head to save its body. Then the military attempted to rule directly and co-opt the revolutionaries. Failing this, it hid behind the democratic façade provided by a pliant Muslim Brotherhood. When Mohamed Morsi got too big for his shoes, he was unceremoniously evicted and the apparent loyalist he appointed to run the armed forces, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, became Egypt’s newly minted military dictator.

The counterrevolution has been so apparently successful that it seems to have brought Egypt full circle back to square one. However, appearances are deceptive.

The incremental and unprecedented use of force and coercion, not to mention efforts to frighten the population into submission, are signs of weakness, not of strength. It betrays just how desperate the regime has become after everything has failed to keep a rebellious population in check.

And even though Egypt’s jails are overflowing with prisoners of conscience, not to mention all the dead, other activists, critical journalists and outspoken citizens take their place, some many times over.

Ahmed Gamal Zyada is just one “typical” example of this courage in the face of adversity. A journalist who previously spent 500 days in prison, he was recently stabbed and left for dead in what his family allege was a political assassination attempt.

“I’m not going to lie, pretend that I’m a hero and say I don’t feel fear,” Zyada said in an interview after his release from prison. “I am afraid, but I’m not going to be silent.”

But it is not just revolutionaries who feel fear. Despite being the one with the guns, the soldiers, the police and the prison cells, the al-Sisi regime is the one that is acting terrified, especially so in the run-up to 25 January.

This panicked fear has been amply demonstrated by what has been described as “the toughest security crackdown in Egypt’s history” which has included a spate of arrests, and the random, arbitrary searching of thousands of downtown apartments.

The underlying reason for this fear are clear: while Egyptians have changed, their leaders have not, and they live in a delusion that the old ways can be restored through violence. “A profound gulf now exists between a ruling class intent on governing as if nothing has changed and large swathes of a democratic citizenry for whom something fundamental has altered,” writes Jack Shenker, who covered the revolution for the Guardian, in The Egyptians, a new book which will be released soon.

In addition to the ferocity of the counterrevolution, the trouble with the revolution was that the euphoria it aroused raised too many high expectations. Problems that have accumulated over the six decades since the army took over power take time to unravel. The brutality of the modern Egyptian state over the past two centuries cannot be blunted immediately. The damage done by foreign control and meddling that has been Egypt’s lot for more than two millennia cannot be repaired in an instant.

When the revolution first erupted, I argued that a political revolution will fail without an accompanying social (r)evolution, to dethrone the million “mini-Mubaraks”, weed out endemic corruption, promote equality and egalitarianism, create a meritocracy and more.

While the political revolution has stalled, the social and cultural one is in full swing. It has been spearheaded by workers demanding their rights, women struggling for equality, and the growing assertiveness of previously discreet minorities, such as atheists. Young people have perhaps been the greatest agitators for change and have given their elders lessons in courage, determination and grit – schools have even become breeding grounds for rebels.

Even if Tahrir has been pacified for now, Egypt’s thousand of mini “Tahrirs” have not. This is reflected in the paradox that, despite or perhaps because of the escalating use of state violence, the number of daily protests under Sisi is almost triple what they were under Morsi and five times higher than the turbulent final years of Mubarak’s rule.

Although Egyptians did not heed the call of the shrunken ranks of activist to take to the streets once again on 25 January, it does not mean they won’t ever again. Egyptians have discovered their latent ability to move immobile mountains and broken the fear barrier.

When they do eventually rise again, a deep social revolution may enable them to unleash their creativity to the maximum – perhaps even reinventing democracy to suit their needs.

“I am deeply convinced that the future is ours and that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of this tyrannical state,” believes Khaled Fahmy, a history professor who has been chronicling the revolution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 23 January 2016.

 

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Lesbos: “No matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Despite the massive efforts of volunteer lifeguards, refugees are losing their lives in the Mediterranean. Europe must act… and out of compassion.

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives. Photo: ©Elio Germani

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

 

Thursday 28 January 2016

Still shivering with the cold even in the golden foil they’d been wrapped in, two young Afghan girls were having a lively chat. Their mother was gazing out to the sea, mostly back towards Turkey, which they had departed two hours earlier on a grey dinghy.

Some 20km from the shores of Lesbos, the grey rubber boat’s engine had given out. The boat started rapidly filling up with water, but fortunately the passengers were spotted by the staffof the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms. All of its members are experienced lifeguards, veterans of Catalonian and Basque beaches. Almost routinely, they set out and made sure the three rubber boats reached the small port in the picturesque village of Skala Skaminies, where at least 20 lifeguards from all over the world are currently stationed.

“It is cold, but I’m very relieved. We were getting desperate, but now we’re finally safe. I am so grateful to the people who came to rescue us,” smiled a black-garbed elderly lady from Douma, one of the quarters in Damascus hit hardest by the war. Madam S has lost both her sons to the conflict. On her long journey to Lesbos, she was accompanied by her grandchildren and the widow of her eldest son. They had seen and experienced it all. They were visibly exhausted and not up to a long conversation.

“We just want to get safe. We’re hoping Europe will take us in,” shrugged the younger of the two boys while fiddling with a pile of fake life-jackets. Most of these deadly fakes, it should be noted, had actually been made by Syrian children in garage factories all along the Turkish coast. Right now, the Syrian children are the ones who can provide the dirt-cheapest labour to be found.

Proactively saving lives

"The worst part is when you have to decide who you're going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.” Photo: ©Elio Germani

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On Lesbos, countless NGOs and volunteers are toiling without pause to contain the tidal wave of human tragedy. But no matter how hard they try, it is never enough. The migrants and refugees keep dying on a massive scale.

“We’re all trying to the best of our abilities,” a thickly bearded man named Joaquim Acedo told me as we stood out in the cold winter sun. “Most mornings, we are already at sea by six when the first boats start coming in. Our first and only objective is to save lives. As for politics, it is not something I care to think about. I’ve got no time for that.”

But Acedo added an important afterthought. “Reaching Lesbos from Turkey by regular ferry costs €10 and is absolutely safe. Getting here by rubber boat costs €1,200 and can easily cost you your life.”

Acedo is the co-ordinator of the hi-tech Spanish rescue team. Proactiva Open Arms has certainly risen to the occasion.  “There’s quite a lot of us: Sea-Watch, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Portuguese coast guard, the Greek coast guard, Frontex, the American,” the tired young man explained. “We’re co-ordinating our efforts as best we can and pushing our limits every day. But we really can use all the help we can get. Especially now, with the weather improving and more and more people pouring in every day.”

This was Joaquim Acedo’s second tour on Lesbos since Proactiva joined the action in September. Each team normally serves for 15 days, then its members go home utterly exhausted. All of them are participating on a purely voluntary basis, which means that the ones with regular jobs have to use up their vacation in order to be allowed to save lives.

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown,” Acedo added somberly. »Sometimes there are 40 people in the water, all of them screaming for their lives. And no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”

No compassion without direct action

Last year alone, almost 450,000 people entered the EU through Lesbos – almost half of everyone who reached the Greek Islands through Turkey. Lesbos, one needs to keep in mind, is an island with some 90,000 residents and an exceptionally weak humanitarian infrastructure. Despite all that, it is now the EU’s key entry point for migrants and refugees.

As things stand, there is almost no EU presence on the island, if we discount Frontex, the EU agency for securing the union’s external borders. In the months to come, the Frontex personnel’s jurisdiction is sure to widen considerably. The EU’s main “strategic” answer to the humanitarian tragedy is to strengthen its outer border, especially the border with Turkey. A part of this “solution” was the recent deal with the Turkish authorities to take on most of the responsibility for the incoming migrants and refugees. The sum handed over to Ankara by the European Union was €3 billion.

Last year, around 350 people drowned on the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece – enough of them so that a new location for a graveyard had to be found in Mytilini since there was no more room in the old one. This year, 70 souls have already been lost to the journey. This particular crime against humanity is only getting worse.

On the day I visited their venerable operation, the Spanish lifeguards saved more than 50 lives – lives that the European political elites and European public opinion increasingly perceive as a threat to their Christian way of life.

“But how can this be? Such a view is absolutely unacceptable to a Christian,” exclaimed Father Christophoris, an Orthodox priest who I sat down with in a smoke-filled café in the nearby mountain village of Sikaminia. Almost 14 years ago, Kristoforis himself had made the long journey here all the way from California. This is why he now considers helping the migrants and the refugees to be the focus of his life’s mission as a priest.

“The refugees have been coming here to Lesbos for 15 years now,” he explained to me over a steaming cup of coffee. “First from Afghanistan, then from Iraq, and now from Syria. Our duty is to help them as much as we can. All of us could be in their place but for the grace of God. This is our chance to choose between being good and being evil – it is as simple and straightforward as that. There is nothing more Christian than helping out a fellow human being. It is a sacred duty of each and every one of us. And it is also at the core of this great humanistic culture the EU is founded on, at least in principle.”

This remarkable blond-haired holy man is now at the heart of refugee relief co-ordination on the northern part of the island. The last time there was such an influx of desperate souls in these parts was in 1921 and 1922, when many Greeks were on the run from Turkey. They, too, had been very much a burden to the locals.

“There is no compassion without direct action,” father Christophoris informed me with a wistful smile. “And that is why the contribution of all the volunteers and the locals here has been priceless. They have come here from Greece and from all around the world, and they replaced the state. They clearly demonstrated precisely what needs to be done. They have done what was humanly possible to preserve the face of civilisation.”

The warmth of a cold reception

Cold in Moria. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Cold in Moria.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Most of the people at the Moria refugee camp were shivering, some of them uncontrollably. On this day, the entire heart of the Mediterranean was wretchedly cold. The nearby mountain peaks had recently been whitened with snow, making the refugees’ journey even more ardous.

Wrapped in swathes of golden foil and blueish blankets, the refugees were very grateful for each cup of hot tea handed out by the volunteers. The children kept clinging to each other as the women wrapped themselves tight in their shawls and headscarfs. The men were seeking out what information they could get on how to continue with their journey. Most of them were disheartened to find out that, owing to a shipworkers strike, all the ferries to Piraeus had been cancelled. For a while, all they could do was stare at their cellphones while trying to come up with a plan B.

I was approached by a man named Said, hailing from the greater Aleppo region. “We’re so cold,” he told me. “How much longer will we have to stay here? Is it true that Germany has already closed its borders to the refugees?”

Said had reached Lesbos early that morning, accompanied by his wife, six sons and three daughters. The eleven of them formed a close huddle. Freezing half to death, most of them did not much feel like talking. They’d had to wait nine days to cross from Turkey to Greece. They borrowed most of the money they needed to reach Europe from their relatives. They have no idea how they will be able to repay them.

“We are running for our lives. We were hoping to remain in Syria, but it was not possible. Things get worse there every day. I had to protect my children,” Said explained his predicament. Unlike many of his fellow refugees aiming for Germany or Sweden, this hollow-cheeked man with an understandably distracted look in his eyes didn’t really care where his flight would deliver him. “All we want is to be safe. We simply want to find a place where we will not be bombed every day.”

Closing the borders

“I spent a great deal of this summer connected to the internet and watching footage of our people being warmly greeted in Germany,” Farouk confided. “And so I eventually decided to set out myself. I knew that if I remained in Syria, I would almost certainly be murdered. I don’t have any powerful friends on either side. I’ve also been against the war from the beginning. But I couldn’t leave my parents, could I? They were the ones who suggested I should join one of the refugee groups headed for Turkey.”

I was talking to Farouk under a metal awning in Mytilini, where he and some comrades had sought shelter from the icy rain. The men were sifting through their options. They had no money to sleep in a hotel, and the combination of the rain, the cold and their utter exhaustion was preventing them from walking back the 15km to the refugee camp.

After a while, a few stray dogs entered our grimy resting place. The Syrian youths twitched in something quite akin to panic, so the freezing animals took flight and retreated under a nearby staircase.

The distance between the comfort zone and the bottom of the food chain is so often a matter of geographical and temporal coincidence.

Farouk proved exceptionally well-informed about every aspect of the so-called Balkan refugee route. On leaving home, he knew that his chances of securing a new life in Europe were much slimmer than they would have been a few months ago. But staying put would have meant a much graver risk. The fact that Farouk hailed from Syria certainly increases his chances of breaking through to where he wants to go. But the chances of him actually being granted asylum are slim to none.

The European (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies are degenerating by the hour. Within EU territory, several hundred thousand refugees have been waiting for months to enter the job market. Even Germany, having set an example by opening its doors wide open, eventually decided to reach for the handbrake.

In many ways, it is little wonder. The Merkel administration is facing ever-more bitter opposition from within the ranks of its own party. The German open-door policy is irrevocably over. As a consequence, the Balkan refugee route is closing down.

Last Tuesday, the Austrian authorities decided only 37,500 people would be allowed to apply for asylum this year. The regime at the Austrian-Slovenian border, where for the past three months the Schengen arrangements have become but a wistful memory, is sure to get even stricter than it is today.

In the weeks and months to come, the Germans will start returning thousands of people to Austria, while the Austrians are bound to start funneling them off to the small barricaded country of Slovenia. At the same time, the Macedonian authorities have temporarily closed their Greek border at Gevgelija. As early as last autumn, the Macedonians at the border with Greece had begun to turn back the refugees who were not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

According to our information, there is a rather substantial chance of them soon sealing the border entirely. The way things stand, the most likely scenario is that the brunt of the burden will once again fall on the economically ransacked Greece. Brussels, which recently sold its share of responsibility for the refugees to increasingly unstable Turkey, is about to re-sacrifice Greece at the altair of its own short-sighted interests.

From here to the final rise of the neo-Nazi movements like the Golden Dawn is but a short step. The anti-refugee sentiment has become the European state of mind. This is true both at the level of the increasingly xenophobic public opinion and at the level of the political elites, which have finally been freed from wearing the masks of political correctness. This not only pertains to the former communist parts of Europe, but also to countries like Switzerland and Denmark, where on arrival the refugees are now stripped of a part of their assets.

“We will never go back”

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Last Friday night, several thousand people were waiting in the icy wind at the Mytilini port to get a ferry to Pireaus and Kavala. Due to a long shipworker strike, some 3,800 refugees were stranded on the island. Around 65% of them were women and children.

All over the port, the refugees were seeking relief from the savage cold. Very few of them were appropriately dressed for such arctic conditions. Some of them were forced to wait out in the cold for five hours or more. Almost none of them felt like talking. The only thing they were interested in was the hour when the two ferries were scheduled to leave.

Three Afghan youths had managed to set fire to a garbage heap and were now standing beside it to keep warm. They had been on the road for 30 days. “We will never go back. All three of us have borrowed money to get here. We first have to work hard to pay it back – only then can we start taking care of ourselves and our families. I want to work in the computing industry,” said 19-year-old Reza from Kabul.

The half a dozen Greek policemen in charge ordered the great mass of freezing refugees to form three long columns. The two enormous ships were not set to leave for another two hours.

By the time the refugees were finally allowed to board, most of them were so tired and cold they were unable to feel any joy. It was as if they were all too aware of what awaited them on the remainder of their Balkan journey.

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Sexual harassment, Islam and the politicisation of women’s bodies

 
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By Khaled Diab

Sexual harassment in Cologne and elsewhere is not about Islam. It is about the patriarchy and the politicisation of women’s bodies.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon in its latest issue featuring the drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, in which it suggests that, had he lived, the boy would have morphed into a man-ape and become an “ass groper”. This was a crude reference to the shocking spate of robberies and mass sexual assaults of women in Cologne on new year’s eve, which has further fuelled anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment across Europe.

Defenders of the cartoon claim it is a parody that “mirrors racist public discourse” and a “damning indictment of our anti-refugee sentiment.”

As someone who is no stranger to satire and who was outraged by the slaying of Charlie Hebdo staff by Islamist terrorists, I feel these defences give the satirical French magazine too much credit. Even if we were to give it the benefit of the doubt, racists and bigots are likely to take the cartoon – which echoes traditional depictions of blacks as oversexed monkeys – at face value, and use it to confirm their prejudices.

Rather than challenging the growing anti-refugee sentiment, I feel Charlie Hebdo is pandering to it. Social media in Germany and across Europe has been awash with a tidal wave of hate speech against migrants since the Cologne mob attacks, as epitomised by the grotesquely racist “rapeugees” hashtag and the call on Facebook for a “manhunt of foreigners”, which has already claimed casualties.

That is not to say that I do not feel outraged by what happened in Cologne on new year’s eve. So far, nearly 350 women have reported being sexually assaulted by roaming mobs of drunken men, many of whom were described as looking Arab or North African.

The scale and mob nature of these attacks reminds me of Tahrir square, where groups of men would erect a “circle of hell” around female protesters and sexually assault them.

Although a large number of these savage attacks were likely opportunistic, exploiting the confusion of big crowds and the vulnerability of women inside them, others were politically motivated.

Victims accounts and circumstantial evidence suggest that many were likely carried out by the regime’s paid thugs or undercover police to intimidate female protesters, by the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamists, who have a track record of inciting against female protesters, incensed by women acting as equals and demanding equality.

The reactions to these crimes have more often than not also been politicised, with Egyptian society’s most reactionary forces, from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to capitalise on these tragedies by blaming their political opponents for them.

A similar dynamic has been at play in Germany. The apparently orchestrated nature of the sexual assaults in Cologne suggests that they may have been politically motivated, though for what end or by whom is a mystery.

As if the sexual abuse of the women in Cologne was not enough, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups and politicians have been falling over themselves to politicize their plight.

This political profiteering was on blatant display during a rally organised by the anti-Islam Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident).

“This is Deutschland, not Afghanistan,” opined Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the extremist English Defence League and founder of the European Defence League. “Islam is the cancer and Pegida is the cure.”

What exactly sexual assault and sexual harassment have to do with Islam – or at least any more so than other religions – is unclear. Syrian refugees, for one, do not seem to have read the memo. A group of them produced a flyer addressed to the German public, in which they declaimed: “Our cultural values were trampled by these crimes. Those values include respect for women and men [and] respect for bodily integrity.”

On new year’s eve, one American woman in Cologne was rescued from a mob attempting to assault her by a group of Syrian refugees who set up a protective cordon around her and helped her locate her boyfriend. “The good people, nobody speaks about them,” one of the young woman’s rescuers lamented.

If Islam really were to blame for the Cologne assaults, then you’d expect there to be a clear pattern of sexual harassment across the Arab and Muslim world. But anecdotal evidence suggests that no such pattern exists.

An unscientific survey I conducted of female friends and acquaintances confirmed Egypt and Pakistan as among the worst in the Muslim world, and India topped the non-Muslim league. Meanwhile, the Levant, including Syria before the civil war, was seen as pretty mellow. “I feel a lot more comfortable around 11pm in Manger Square… than I do walking in Cairo during broad daylight,” one friend confessed.

In Egypt, the sexual harassment epidemic is partly a backlash against the gender revolution taking place, in which women are becoming more assertive and unapologetic in their demands for equality, as well as years of denial and the breakdown in law and order.

Interestingly, women living in some Gulf states, such as the UAE and Bahrain, report that the harassment there is minimal. Given their conservative reputation, this would appear to be an anomaly.

However, this conservatism may be part of the reason why their streets are relatively free of sexual harassment. There, the traditional concept of a woman’s “honour” being intertwined with that of her family is still robust. So, rather than gender equality, it is the idea that a woman is some man’s sister, daughter or even mother that holds other men back.

Although less common, this attitude is not unfamiliar in the West. This was demonstrated at the Pegida rally. Not only were the majority of the protesters there men, Tommy Robinson reminded his audience that: “It is the duty of every man to protect their women.”

“When exactly those people who otherwise spend the year telling women that they should button up their blouses suddenly start promoting women’s rights, then it is instrumentalized racism,” wrote Sascha Lobo in Der Spiegel.

Much as we would like to believe that we, in the West, live in some kind of post-patriarchal society of equals, misogyny remains, persistently and infuriatingly, alive and well. And despite all the gender legislation and education, sexual harassment in public is a reality that millions of women on both sides of the Atlantic must live with.

“The place where I have been most harassed is France by non-Arab men,” one well-travelled friend admitted. Another said that harassment was less frequent in Europe than in the Middle East but when it occurred it was “more aggressive or very rude… Harassers have pretty often seemed drunk or high.”

What limited research has been conducted reveals that street harassment is a challenge of global proportions. One study in the United States found that a whopping 87% of American women had been sexually harassed, with half reporting “extreme” harassment. A Europe-wide survey found that one in three women had experienced physical or sexual abuse, with one in 20 reporting they had been raped.

The assaults in Cologne were an extreme and discomfiting public display of this reality, and singling out migrants will not resolve the problem. In addition to better policing, Europeans need to tackle the misogyny and sexism, both amongst minorities and the majority, that give men a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, breed a blame-the-victim culture and provide victims with insufficient emotional and legal support.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 20 January 2016.

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Podcast: Palestine’s poster girls

 
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By Khaled Diab

 The changing depiction of women in Palestinian political art reflects the shifting perceptions of their role and position in society.

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

Tuesday 26 January 2016

The word ‘hermit’ usually evokes images of men with overgrown beards living in a cave, up a hill or battling spiritual demons in the desert.

But in hermetically sealed, overcrowded and ultraconservative Gaza, the allure of ascetic isolation stretches to the young and artistic woman. In a territory, where the ruins outnumber the intact buildings, where many families live 10 to a room or out in the open, being able to withdraw within, into your own private shell, can feel like a luxury.

“An artist without sufficient liberty is not able to practise her art,” Nidaa Badwan tells me. “My room was the only place in Gaza where I could practise my art.”

Living under the twin confinements of the Israeli blockade and bombings, as well as Islamist rule, which saw Hamas’s morality police arrest Badwan for an outdoor performance she once gave, the young artist, 28, decided on the path of self-imposed isolation.

Hidden away inside her creative solitary confinement cell, measuring barely 10 square metres, Badwan creates art. She takes selfies that resemble classical portraits, in their rich compositions of colour and texture.

“I focused on the expressions of the body and it’s language,” Badwan explains. “I tried to create homogeneous communication and dialogue between me, my ideas, my body movement, and all of the elements and colours of the photography.”

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

The results are eye-catching. One photo, or portrait, shows Nidaa in tight black leggings doing a faux ballet move in a dimly lit studio. The same leggings feature in another image of her sitting on an improvised swing made out of an old tyre suspended between two ladders, looking defiantly, even regally, to one side, while she buttons up her shirt. Another image portrays her looking into a pocket mirror while applying rouge to her blood-red lips. Some images are of the artist-at-work variety, while others show Badwan’s dreams of different professions she’d like to do.

These and other portraits featured in Badwan’s first exhibition in 2015, ‘100 Days of Solitude, which met with critical acclaim. Nidaa explained to me that, in her work, she introduces a different, alternative image of Palestinian and Gazan women but that she wasn’t out explicitly to challenge stereotypes. “I simply expressed myself through my art,” she stresses.

Nevertheless, this private self-expression is subversive. Outside the four walls of Badwan’s studio a very different reality exists.  Strict rules dictate what a “good” Palestinian woman should look like and how they should be represented. “Society does not see women, imagine what they think,” observes Nidaa.

hijab2This was driven home to me during an encounter with a group of young female and male writers in Gaza city. Our conversation shifted to how the hijab is often misrepresented in the West as solely a tool of female subjugation. One of the young men in the group provocatively asked me my personal attitude towards the headscarf. Even my diplomatic answer, that I did not approve of it but that I respect women who don it voluntarily, elicited a storm of outrage, among the women more than the men.

Although many women who wear the hijab out of conviction see at as empowering, this is not how the Islamist patriarchy regard it. I was reminded of this sitting at the front of the distinctive green-and-white buses which serve the Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem. I was unsettled by faceless twin sisters who stood side by side on the glass panel behind the driver and stared at me eyelessly.

These poster girls for the hijab advise our “Muslim sisters” on how to wear the Islamic headdress and clothes “correctly” in order to be “decent believers”. Not only does this poster, likely produced by a committee of conservative men, presume to tell women what they should wear, it depicts them as minions without faces. Though the faceless caricature is probably supposed to illustrate piety and modesty, its underlying message is that women should be invisible, neither heard nor seen, except discreetly and demurely.

But this has not always been the case. Despite the Islamist preference for feminine coyness, defiant women have long been a staple of Palestinian political art, especially on the left.

The poster girl of that muscular defiance has to be Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, in 1969, which was heading from Rome to Athens. One iconic image captures her staring dreamily, while holding an AK-47 and wearing a ring made of a bullet and a grenade pin.

Khaled was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which like much of the Palestinian secular left, saw the empowerment of women as a crucial prerequisite for national salvation and justice.

For a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when Palestinians finally took their cause into their own hands, there was a sense, in the minds of the revolutionaries, that the sky was the limit for Palestinian women.

Nothing reflects that better than the political iconography of the time. Women were depicted as powerful warriors at the forefront of the Palestinian cause.  The graphical ground shifted.

PFLP woman rifle

Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/

Interestingly, a PFLP poster from 1968, designed by revolutionary novelist Ghassan Kanafani, features only a woman carrying a rifle, with no man in sight. A year later, another poster depicts only a horse with a woman alongside it firing a bazooka.

The subliminal message of this period seems to be that the men failed to liberate the Palestinians, so now it was the women’s turn. This was almost explicitly spelt out in a poster from 1970 which, in calling for “revolution until victory”, only featured a single woman with a rifle in different poses.

As the Palestinians shifted away from armed struggle and towards non-violent resistance, the prominence of women only grew, despite the slowly rising tide of political Islam. Posters produced during the first intifada often featured figures who were androgynous, and a few were dedicated solely to women, such as one which informs us of how Palestinian women were on the frontlines of the intifada.

“It is going to be very difficult to send these women back to the kitchen or to relegate them to the class of second-rate citizens,” Hanan Ashrawi, the prominent activist, academic and politician who made her name during that uprising.

Despite the massive gains by Islamists and conservatives, the subversive, female-centric art of the late 1960s and 1970s is making a comeback – as if to say to them, “Look, your misogyny and religiosity has also failed to liberate us.”

A new poster, produced during the current upheavals, features a drawing of a woman with her hair and face covered up. But this is not for religious reasons, as reflected in the Palestinian kefeya doing the covering. It is to conceal her identity, for she is an intifadista, as conveyed by the slingshot, Molotov cocktail, knife, rocks and rose in her satchel.

This provoked a backlash from conservatives, who posted hundreds of misogynistic comments on social media bizarrely and surreally protesting the tight clothes used in the image, and demanding that fathers and brothers should keep their womenfolk away from protests and clashes.

But Hanan Ashrawi’s political heirs, a new generation of young and determined women, are refusing to be cowed, and are determined to take on both the occupation and the patriarchy. Nidaa Badwan is doing it by carving out her own private-public artistic protest space. Other women are claiming and reclaiming public spaces.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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When Palestinian women take up arms

 
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By Khaled Diab

The shock elicited by Palestinian women taking up arms is due to local sexism and orientalist stereotyping, not historical or social reality.

A political poster from 1971. Source: www.palestineposterproject.org

A political poster from 1971.
Source: www.palestineposterproject.org

Friday 18 December 2015

Random stabbing attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians have become a defining feature of the current wave of violence and protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The overwhelming majority of these attacks were carried out by young people aged under 25.

One aspect which has triggered a great deal of confusion and shock – both among Palestinians and abroad – is that a high number of attacks were perpetrated by young women. A fifth of attackers or alleged attackers were women, according to one estimate.

But is this surprise justified?

In my view, the incredulity these attacks have evoked is due to the intersection between sexism and orientalism. It is remarkable just how much the stereotypes of the Arab and Muslim women entertained by the local patriarchy and orientalists overlap. For both, the Arab woman is passive, weak and submissive, but the reality is very different.

Pal women outside high commissionAlthough it tends not to stick enough in the collective memory, Palestinian women have been involved in their national struggle since its very inception. An old black-and-white photo from the 1920s featuring Palestinian women protesting outside the British high commissioner’s office in Jerusalem illustrates this reality eloquently.

Even though the involvement of Palestinian women has largely been in the peaceful aspects of the struggle, their participation in armed resistance and other forms of political violence – including terrorism – goes back decades, from the hijackings of the 1960s and 1970s to the suicide bombers of the second Intifada.

For example, Dalal Mughrabi, who trained as a nurse, went from saving lives to taking them. At the tender age of 19, she led a “fedayeen” operation from Lebanon into Israel, leaving a devastating trail of 38 dead Israeli civilians, including 13 children.

That an “angel of mercy” can turn into an “angel of death” is shocking to the sensibilities of many. But that is only the case if you subscribe to the prevalent gender myths that women are somehow gentler and more peaceable than men because of their central biological role in creating life.

However, the reality is that vengeance, anger and violence are human traits that affect men and women alike. The fact that women commit fewer acts of violence is not, in my opinion, due to their intrinsic nature, or that men are overrun with testosterone, but because of the greater social constraints placed on women, especially in traditional societies.

Equally unconvincingly, some women believe that their gender can make them more radical than men. “Women give life […] When they are involved, they are more faithful to the revolution because they defend the lives of their children too,” said Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, who has become the icon of Palestinian armed resistance, even though she has claimed publicly that she never intended to harm, nor ever did in reality, any passengers.

Whatever role gender does or does not play in the commitment of Palestinians to their cause, the conflict is usually gender-neutral and does not distinguish between men and women.

“Living under occupation has direct impacts on the ability of people to live ‘normal’ lives,” explains Nadia Dabbaghh, a child and adolescent psychologist who has researched the psychological effects of the conflict on youth. “This can lead to a sense of frustration in both men and women.”

However, that frustration can manifest itself differently in men and women due to the differences in social expectations and their defined roles. “In my research, I found men could feel powerless and frustrated – unable to do what they felt they needed to do as men,” notes Dabbagh.

This shows how young men can also be the victims of the patriarchy, which is designed primarily to serve the “alpha dog” male. But the primary victims are women. Palestinian women live not only under the oppression of the Israeli occupation, but also the repression of a male-dominated society which insists that an entire family’s reputation hangs on the fragile thread of their hymens and safeguarding this “honour” requires imposing draconian restrictions on women.

This higher level of desperation can make the line between the political and the personal vaguer in the case of women than men. In Dabbagh’s informative and taboo-breaking study Suicide in Palestine, she found that some troubled women sought a more “honourable” path to taking their own lives.

“Rather than bring shame or dishonour to their entire family and even their community by running away or committing suicide, these women sought escape through an act that would by and large be viewed as patriotic,” she wrote.

This was illustrated by a suicidal young woman who Dabbagh interviewed named Aisha, who had been abused by her siblings and during her two marriages. During the second Intifada, Aisha tried to attack a female soldier armed with nothing but a blunt razor blade, landing her in an Israeli prison, where she unexpectedly found escape and comfort.

“At the beginning it was difficult, but I could rest. It was better than outside. I would prefer to go back,” admitted Aisha.

In addition to their political and personal motivations, Abusif regards the recent wave of female stabbings as partly being an indirect revolt against the patriarchy. “It’s a rebellion against society also. They’re fighting for gender equality,” she notes.

This is reflected in the newfound assertiveness of religious women. While more secular women have long claimed they will never be “sent back to the kitchen”, in the words of Hanan Ashrawi who rose to prominent during the first Intifada, their religious sisters have only recently been tentatively stepping out of the home.

“Palestinian women have played a central role in the ‘Jerusalem Intifada’ and they ignited its first spark, via the Murabitat at al-Aqsa,” Rajaa al-Halabi, who heads the Islamic women’s movement in Gaza, said in an interview in Arabic.

Women played a similarly central role in the first Intifada, but were marginalised and side-lined during the second. If this, indeed, proves to be a third Intifada, I hope it ends up resembling the first, in which Palestinians exploited the power of peaceful resistance to bring about revolutionary change from the moral high ground.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 9 December 2015.

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Reweaving Palestinian tradition

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Untha is a rare Jerusalem-based label which reimagines traditional Palestinian fashions for the 21st century and pays tribute to Palestinian women.

Untha

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Untha is a new and upcoming fashion collection by Natalie Tahan that is set to revive traditional Palestinian fashion. Untha in Arabic means “female”, making this particular collection a kind of tribute to all the Palestinian women who for decades have endured the heavy burden of carrying the Palestinian identity under occupation. Untha is almost a celebratory recognition of the talent, resilience, patience and perseverance of every woman that has fought and struggled to succeed and survive in or out of Palestine.

Natalie Tahhan is the fashion designer behind Untha, whose own name is used on a Jerusalem-based luxury womenswear label. The brand, she says, is the first of its kind to bring international fashion expertise to Jerusalem. The concept is to weave traditional Palestinian elements of intricate hand-sewn embroidery and print into contemporary designs, to create exclusive pieces marked by elegance and innovation.

Fashion has always been a private fascination for Tahhan. Even as a child, she filled endless sketchbooks with designs, colour, and anything that she was drawn to. After completing a degree in womenswear from the London College of Fashion, she continued to pursue her passion by collaborating and working with various design companies in the UK and the Middle East.

“I’ve always been inspired by fashion as an individual sense of expression. What we wear on a daily basis communicates our personalities, our interests and even how we feel and I find that immensely interesting,” Tahhan explains. “Coming from a background with a rich cultural history I was definitely inspired by the historical expressionism of 19th-century Palestinian embroidery, as it was a communicative language in itself.”

With the guiding hand of Al Mortaqa Women’s Organisation, and the creation of Untha, Tahhan was able to put into practice her love of art and design. “‘Untha by Natalie Tahhan’ is my latest visual brainchild, and my most significant creation to date, as it is close to home,” she notes. “Having been designed, produced and showcased in Jerusalem, it is the ultimate expression of contemporary Palestinian fashion.”

With funding from the Community Resilience and Development Programme for East Jerusalem (CRDP), Al Mortaqa Women’s Organisation was able to provide Tahhan with a platform to create her line, offering a fully equipped fashion studio and a vibrant team to work with. The end result was Untha’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection which incorporates floral elements into all of the exclusive prints and Palestinian embroidery motifs. Tahhan felt it was important to create something contemporary that celebrated and highlighted the intricate art of Palestinian embroidery and present it in a novel way.

Palestinian hand-sewn embroidery is very close to Tahhan’s heart. “I feel it is a dying art in this day and age. The practice no longer exists on a large scale in our homes and is no longer passed down from mother to child, and so I feel its important to preserve and showcase the beauty of it.” The challenge was in finding the right, skilled artisans to produce the embroidery for the collection.

Palestine, like many other countries in the region, is fighting to keep its identity and maintain national unity which is why throughout the design and production process of the collection, the team behind ‘Untha’ were very adamant on creating something in Jerusalem. The Palestinian Arab community in Jerusalem, now physically separated from the surrounding Wesst Bank by the Israeli occupation, is embattled and often overlooked. As such, there is difficulty in preserving its identity and place within Palestine. “‘Untha’ was an opportunity for us and for Jerusalem to shine through a different light than to what the international community is used to,” Tahhan notes.

Any project or initiative is bound to encounter problems but if it is in Palestine then these obstacles are likely to be doubled.  Palestinians living in the West Bank require permits to enter Jerusalem, which are often difficult to obtain. Tahhan faced some issues with trying to obtain work permits for sewing specialists to come in from the West Bank and work in her Jerusalem studio. This heavily set back the production line and caused problems. “Sometimes the simplest of things are difficult to do in the political environment we live in.  However, my work hasn’t personally affected me negatively as I am always trying to focus on the positive side of things,” she insists. Tahhan strongly believes that “our strength should lie within what we achieve, and I believe that in itself holds a sense of resilience.”

Tahhan has worked widely in Europe and the Middle East, including with Adidas, the English National Ballet, the QASIMI fashion label and HauteMuse magazine. She was also a finalist of Harper’s Bazaar World of Fashion Illustration Competition in 2011, and was selected to redesign a space at Wahm Lounge in the W Hotel – Doha as part of their Cabana Nights Exhibition.

Although she has had showcased her designs in London and Dubai, Tahhan’s latest collection is the closest to her heart: “It was truly a labour of love, and being able to achieve it all here in Jerusalem meant a great deal to me.”

Tahhan is putting the finishing touches to her winter collection which is due to be showcased internationally. Keeping to her house style, the collection involves a lot of print and embroidery, but this time the focus is on different Palestinian design elements inspired by the Ottoman era.

The ambitious designer would love to see the line develop and flourish into an intentional brand, and be recognised for its quality and craftsmanship. “Hopefully, it can encourage other Arab designers to manufacture locally despite the hardships, because ultimately it is for our own benefit,” Tahhan concludes.

 

 

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Hijabs and the beautiful game

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Despite their conservative reputation, a growing number of veiled Muslim women are taking up football… and giving men a run for their money.

Kicking ball

Wednesday 9 September 2015

There is a general perception across the globe that if you are a Muslim woman who covers her hair, then you are restricted in the sports you can play – or that you are not allowed to play sports at all. While this is the case among the most conservative, many hijabbed Muslim women play sports, including professionally.

Leena Rodgers is of Syrian and British descent who resides and works in Dubai, UAE, as a social media executive during the day but in the evenings and at weekends, she laces up her boots and turns her attention to football – her hobby and passion. “As a child, I was an all-rounder at sports,” recalls Leena.

At the age of nine, Leena first encountered the beautiful game when she accompanied her mother to her younger brother’s football practice. “I felt this instinctive urge to play too,” she recounts. Leena soon discovered that football had a more powerful pull on her than any other activity, toys or games, and it rapidly became her main source of fun.

Luckily, rather than informing Leena that girls don’t play football, her mother encouraged her talent. Leena began training with a professional coach who was an injured ex-footballer  and it was he who helped develop her skills.  A few years later, Leena started to learn advanced football skills on her own and through practice games.

At first, other girls were unaware that Leena was playing football, as it was still an unfamiliar concept for girls to play such sports around where she lived. It was only when she began secondary school that Leena actually started playing in a girls’ team.

Fortunately for the upcoming generation, the situation in Dubai has changed considerably since Leena’s pioneering days. “I currently coach girls in skills that I didn’t learn until my 20s, and they are only 4-12 years of age,” observes Leena. “It makes me sad to think how many skills I could have been taught that would have enabled me to become natural at them, if I’d been able to start younger.”

From the start of her footballing career, Leena was lucky to enjoy the full support of her family, although she admits that she still gets surprised looks when she informs her extended family that she plays football. “They see a girl and they just don’t think you’re actually any good,” she explains. In reality, Leena was always as good as her siblings and better in certain positions, especially defence.

Football was traditionally a working-class sport played mainly by men. Although this has changed considerably in the West, in the Arab world the sport was almost exclusively male. Leena’s instincts and abilities prompted her to push back the boundaries and to break with tradition. “I found myself good at it, sometimes better than the boys, so it made sense to continue,” she points out. “I was also the star of the defence, so the praise I got for that kept me going. I was depended on and I felt useful.”

IMG-20150131-WA017Her passion, talent and determination led Leena to play in the Dubai Football Women’s Association amateur league. She helped her previous team, the Arabian Leopards, to become league champions before moving to her current club, Sandstorm. Leena also plays in a mixed league and takes part in tournaments, which is a new trend that started last year.

Leena has been pleased by people’s positive reaction to women’s football team. “Off the pitch, they are usually impressed and don’t expect it when I say I play football,” Leena describes. But there is a lot of pressure to perform. “You almost feel like you have to justify to them that you are good and just as good as the guys, or even better. The standard is set in their eyes as soon as they see a girl, and a veiled one at that, which makes the task of the female footballer much harder than her male counterpart, as she needs to do double the effort in order to earn the audience’s respect in a way.”

On the pitch, though, it is different story. Male footballers tend to hold back because they are afraid of hurting the female players. “Some think that they shouldn’t challenge you – somehow they do it sympathetically, and some just refuse to play with girls because they think that they are not going to get a tough game out of it,” says Leena. “Also the more annoying part is when they don’t pass to you as much because they think you are going to cost them the game.”

Ultimately, however, Leena believes that her gender and religion do not, and should not, play a role in her sport. “At the end of the day, if you play well, no one cares where you’re from or what you are wearing,” she insists, “they are greedy for your talent and contribution.”

Leena regards football as both a hobby and a way of life, and, as a coach, a profession too. She loves everything about football because “it teaches you team work, reflection, improvement, fitness, excitement, urgency, awareness of your surroundings, concentration, handling situations under pressure – almost everything.”

“It also makes me incredibly happy, so I am so committed to it,” she adds.

The dream of playing football professionally is what keeps Leena’s ambition going but she is quick to point out that “I am where I am right now because I have got a bit of everything in my life – football, photography, social media, coaching.”

Football can affect one’s personal life, especially for women. Leena recognises that time management “is going to be a big factor in my life, knowing when to say no to football (which is extremely hard). I definitely have to fight for time with my family, because I recognise how important they are in my life and they shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

Leena sees a bright future for Arab and Muslim women’s football. “I think it is definitely on the rise and inshallah there will be more professional cups, leagues and tournaments because there is such a high demand for it.”

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The ghost of conflicts past, present and future

 
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By Khaled Diab

With all the wars and conflicts raging in the Middle East, collective trauma carries very serious consequences for the region.

Thursday 3 September 2015

It is well-known that traumatic experiences leave lifelong emotional and psychological scars in their wake. Some scientists even suggest that trauma causes genetic changes in the victim. A contentious new study goes so far as to imply that these genetic mutations can be passed down from one generation to the next, making trauma hereditary.

The researchers focused on 32 Holocaust survivors and their offspring, finding evidence of the “epigenetic inheritance” of stress. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Rachel Yehuda, who led the study.

While some scientists have applauded the research, others have greeted it with scepticism. “The very idea of transmitting trauma makes little sense,” writes Frank Fureidi, a sociologist and author. “People either directly experience trauma or they don’t.”

Even if genetic change is hereditary, this is largely irrelevant, Fureidi argues, because people are far more than their genes. “Identity formation is a cultural accomplishment,” he observes.

Whether or not severe trauma is genetically transmitted is a fascinating scientific question, but an issue which affects the individuals in question. However, what seems clear is that collective trauma is transmitted culturally and profoundly affects a society’s cultural and social DNA.

Nearly seven decades on, the Holocaust still casts a long shadow over the Jewish and Israeli collective psyche and its trauma is scorched deep into Israel’s national identity – even if its memory is abused by one side for political gain and downplayed by the other due to political pain.

In the early years, the Holocaust was a cause of direct and profound trauma and grief for the survivors of the death camps and those who came into contact with them, but it was also a taboo subject enveloped in silence. As the survivors gradually die out, their place is being taken by the ghost of traumas past, i.e. memory.

This historical trauma is behind what you might call Israel’s power dysmorphia: despite possessing the most powerful army in the region, many Israelis do genuinely believe that they are the weaker party and the victims.

Meanwhile, Israel’s victims, the Palestinians, have their own historical trauma to contend with, that of the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), the Arab defeat in 1948 and the creation of the new state of Israel, not to mention the British and Ottoman imperialism which preceded it. As most Palestinians at the time were farmers, the land assumed romantic proportions. “As the women walked back with the oranges, the sound of their sobs reached us,” wrote the celebrated Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani in his classic 1958 collection of short stories, Land of the Sad Oranges. “Only then did oranges seem to me something dear.”

And as that land has shrunk, and defeat has pursued defeat, and exile begot further exile, the collective trauma has only been magnified with the years, especially in Gaza, where constant and repeated war and isolation have left most of the population shell-shocked and teetering on the edge of psychological collapse.

And like a phantom in the dark recesses, these historical and contemporary traumas are a significant psychological factor in the failure of efforts to resolve the conflict – as they are and have been elsewhere. For instance, a century after the systematic Ottoman mass killings of up to 1.5 million civilians brought the Armenian people close to extinction, the collective trauma is a defining feature of the modern Armenian identity. Moreover, Turko-Armenian relations are still poisoned by Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge, let alone apologise for, what the majority of non-Turkish historians regard as a genocide.

Sadly, in the Middle East, collective trauma is not just historical. The upheavals, wars and conflicts that have spread like wildfire over the past few years do not bode well for the future.

In Syria, like Iraq before it, the civil war has distressed the entire population and created a lost generation of children whose trauma is likely to shape their entire lives. Long-term effects include the potential of violent behaviour, hooliganism, drug abuse, depression and health problems. Severe trauma is also fertile ground for extremism because it answers the basic human need to “make sense of a very nonsensical situation”.

This nonsensical situation has even awakened dormant traumas and grievances and let the genie of Syria’s “hidden sectarianism” out of the bottle. Islamists have the trauma of Hafez al-Assad’s purge of the Muslim Brotherhood and the 1982 Hama massacre to fuel their rage.

Alawites, though the bulk of them are poor and are no great fans of the regime, have been manipulated by Bashar al-Assad, who exploits their memories of persecution in Ottoman times and the fact that Islamists consider them “infidels”, to lay down the lives of up to a third of their young men.

Trauma is also haunting Arab countries that are not experiencing civil war, but have gone through revolutions and counterrevolutions and anti-revolutions. This is the case in Egypt. “The shock and awareness of the pervasiveness of death and the cheapness of life… raises massive existential questions that not only throws the personal, but also the previously existing social order, upside down,” explains the University of Amsterdam’s Vivienne Matthies-Boon, who is studying the effects of trauma on 18-35-year-old Egyptian activists of all political stripes.

“Revenge was a big issue for all sides,” she adds ominously. “But trauma-induced revenge also leads to more trauma.”

Matthies-Boon has found that those who were best able to avoid (self-)destructive behaviour where the ones with an artistic outlet or a strong faith system. But, worryingly, Egyptians who have been through such traumatic experiences receive little support and many are, Matthies-Boon discovered, reluctant to talk about their trauma, which is an essential part of coming to terms with it.

What the long-term consequences of millions of traumatised people will be for the region is impossible to gauge. But handled inadequately, it could take generations to overcome and could also create untold intractable situations and conflicts.

We need desperately to find ways not only to treat the millions of individual cases but also to formulate effective approaches to tackle collective trauma, with its memory- and emotion-distorting outcomes.

The future Middle East should remember. But it must build a memory based on fact and reality, to ensure this sorry state doesn’t occur again, not on national, sectarian and factional myths. While forgetting is not a wise game, forgiving past pain for future gain is essential if fruitful coexistence and a modicum of trust between the region’s diverse peoples is ever to be restored.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 27 August 2015.

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Circassian beauties and the ugly face of race

 
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By Khaled Diab

The curious cases of Rachel Dolezal and the Circassian ladies show just how meaningless race is, while Dylann Roof underlines the dangers of racism.

Circassian lady

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Rachel Dolezal is not the first white American woman to sport a fake Afro. A century and a half earlier, so-called “Circassian ladies” were all the rage as circus sideshows.

The bizarre phenomenon capitalised on the craze created by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s pseudo-scientific theories of race, which traced the roots of white people to the Caucasus, and his belief that “the purest and most beautiful whites were the Circassians”.

These whiter than white circus performers were not actually Circassian and, unlike the ideal of Circassian beauty elsewhere in the West, their hair was not of a luxuriant and smooth silky texture, but was wild and curly, an effect produced through liberal shampooing with beer.

“The hair may have been an effort to suggest blackness… a nod to popular conceptions of African female sexuality,” wrote Charles King, an expert of the Caucasus at Georgetown University.

The long shadow of slavery can also be discerned in this hybrid depiction. American audiences were both intrigued and horrified, given their false association of slavery with Africans, by the fact that Circassian women were among the most sought-after concubines in the Sultan’s harem ­– hence the need to make them appear somewhat African.

“Both African slaves and Circassian slaves were subject to sexual exploitation… and this is the point of contact that played so powerfully on white Americans’ imagination,” wrote philosophy professor Gregory Fried. Beyond America’s shores, however, slavery was a multiracial institution, and slaves could sometimes even reach the highest corridors of power, as the Mamluk warriors – slaves mostly from the Caucasus – who ruled Egypt illustrate.

The curious case of Dolezal and the Circassian ladies demonstrate just how meaningless the notion of “race” is. My five-year-old son and his friend made child’s play of the self-evidence of this truth at the beach the other day.

Though both boys are half African from the actual African continent (Egypt and Somaliland), in American racial parlance, my blond son would easily pass for “white” while his silky-haired mate looks quite “Hispanic”. In short, these two multicultural polyglots, who are still blissfully oblivious to any attempts to pigeonhole their identities, would completely confuse America’s rigid racial compass.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Despite the complexity and ambiguity of people’s identities, America generally prefers clarity when it comes to African-Americans. This applies even to the highest echelons of the land. Take, as an example, Barack Obama, whom it would be most accurate to describe as “mixed race”, “transracial” or “multicultural”, but is rarely referred to as such.

This compartmentalisation does not begin to capture the nuance of his multiple identities. Obama’s absent Kenyan father only gave him his name and half his genetic make-up. In contrast, his white mother, Ann Dunham (and maternal grandparents), gave him the other half of his genes but, more vitally, his upbringing. “What is best in me, I owe to her,” Obama admitted in passing in his memoir which, nonetheless, was titled Dreams From My Father.

Despite this, Obama is almost invariably described, both by admirers and bigots, as “African-American”. Though genetically he is as “white” as he is “black”, and culturally he is more the former than the latter, Obama is, as far as I’m aware, never referred to as “white”, though this is perhaps a more valid description.

For the late Ann Dunham, who did not believe in racial difference, questions of black or white mattered not a jot. However, society did not agree, and her son was labelled black from a young age, with all the discrimination that involves.

And the inability of the most powerful man in America – who is truly “transracial” – to escape racial categorisation can help us better understand the circumstances surrounding the Rachel Dolezal case.

It is easy to understand why African-Americans are offended by Dolezal’s claim of being “transracial”. She evokes painful memories of “blackface”, and the long tradition of white Americans mocking, exploiting and appropriating black culture and identity.

Though clearly an impostor and possibly unhinged, Dolezal is not the only one pedalling untruths. After all, despite the overwhelming scientific, social and cultural evidence that race is a fantasy, Americans of all political stripes still believe, in one way or another, in this fallacy.

At the core of America’s racial identity crisis lies the legacy of slavery – both for the descendants of those who benefitted and those who suffered from its crushing weight. In this light, attempts to separate racial identities are, paradoxically, important to those trying to maintain white privilege and often to those combating it.

In America, even possessing slight African heritage is enough – culturally today, legally in the past – to qualify you as black.

For instance, when I was a kid I was intrigued by how Lisa Bonet (who is of mixed African-Jewish descent) was a “black” character in the Cosby Show, even though she was paler than I was. Her one-time husband, Lenny Kravitz, who is also of a mixed African-Jewish background, was criticised early in his career for being not black nor white enough in his music.

Though race is a myth and an artificial social construct, racism is a far-reaching and bitter reality, as illustrated by Dylann Roof  and his horrendous, unprovoked cold-blooded murder of black worshippers in Charleston. “Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them,” claimed Roof in a manifesto he wrote. “Integration has done nothing but bring whites down to [the] level of brute animals.”

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Americans find the Charleston terror attack reprehensible and a heinous crime against peaceful worshippers and innocent citizens. However, though dangerous and deadly, it is not this form of racism that has the greatest collective impact. It is the common-or-garden, mundane, institutionalised variety that condemns millions of African-Americans to dwell disproportionately behind the actual bars of prison and the figurative bars of poverty and marginalisation.

This everyday racism in the contemporary USA needs to be challenged with as much urgency and resolve as the white supremacist, “retro” variety of yesteryear’s Confederacy.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 June 2015.

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The occupational handicaps of being Palestinian

 
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By Raya al-Jadir

Living with disability is always a challenge but if you’re a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation you are doubly handicapped. 

An elderly Palestinian walks past a Hebron settlemet. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

An elderly Palestinian walks past a Hebron settlemet. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Having lived my whole life with disability in different parts of the world, I thought I knew what most of the difficulties that any disabled person would experience. But in the places I have lived, the main issue I’ve encountered were societal attitudes, which almost exclude you from living an ordinary life. But what happens when you are not just fighting social prejudice, but also confronting a military occupation?

I was born in Mosul, Iraq, and spent the first 10 years of my life living there in a society that tended to reject anyone who was different, let alone a person with disability. As a child, I never encountered any other disabled person, which made me feel quite special but also taught me to rely on my inner strength to resist isolation and marginalisation. During my time in Mosul, Iraq was at war with Iran. But being a child under the protective wings of my family, I believed that, even in a conflict, my experiences were essentially no different to those of other children. With this in mind, I naively thought that the same probably applied in Palestine, but the reality is quite different.

However, I have come to learn that being disabled in a country that has been made ‘disabled’ by occupation and repression is a tough call. “We suffer double the sufferings of the people in Palestine,” asserts Latifa , a disabled young woman from Gaza in her late 20s whom I recently met, along with Suleiman, who is 21 and suffers from cerebral palsy.

Both Latifa and Suleiman receive support from a programme run by Medical Aid For Palestinians called ‘Rehabilitating people with disability to regain their rights’. The scheme aims to improve the quality of life for disabled Palestinians, to teach them to advocate for their rights and to promote positive attitudes towards them in the community.

For disabled Palestinians in general, there is a shortage of medical and health specialists, while their environment is largely not adapted to their needs. In such a situation, people with disabilities tend to feel powerless and at fault for their predicament. This is especially the case when it comes to education. People with hearing impairment have no access to university education and the visually impaired are deprived of some university degrees.

Within the occupied Palestinian territories, there is also a clear geographical disparity between the West Bank and Gaza. “[There is] no electricity available [but] you are still expected to climb up to the 5th floor, as even generators are not always working due to fuel shortages,” describes Latifa. “I have to walk long distances also because of the shortage of fuel for cars.”

During the 2014 war, the risk and danger for people with disabilities was much higher than for the able-bodied, Latifa explains, as it is much harder for the handicapped to evacuate their homes and seek shelter or move from the top floor to the basement. As Israeli bombs don’t differentiate between the disabled and the fit, this is tragically the nearest to equality that people with disability can often expect.

Moreover, Gaza’s disabled population ballooned as a result of the war. “Imagine you find yourself in a wheelchair overnight, or lose your limbs or eyesight, and you don’t know why this happened to you or how to adapt to it – all because you are born Palestinian,” Latifa says. “Plus mental health [problems] are also on the increase due to the psychological abuse that Palestinians have to endure on a daily basis because of the Israeli occupation.”

According to MAP, over 87% of Palestinians with a disability are unemployed and one third of them will never be able to get married. Over one third of Palestinians with a disability have never been to school, whilst many do not use public transport as it is not adapted sufficiently. It is these practical barriers which make living with a disability extremely hard under occupation.

MAP’s programme trains people with disability in how to campaign for specific rights and improve public awareness of the reality that the handicapped do not need pity, but need empowerment and enhanced accessibility, so that they can lead more independent, productive and fulfilling lives.  The programme also strives to help disabled people to campaign for equal opportunities and rights.

Before becoming involved with the programme, Latifa saw herself as having a “problem” and wanted to hide from people, block out her disability and try to live without confronting it. Today, she regards disability as a collective cause rather than a personal problem. Latifa firmly believes that society needs to provide help for people with disability to integrate. Strength comes in numbers so people with disability will have more of a chance to gain their rights if they all unite.

The long years isolation Palestinians, especially in Gaza, have suffered due to the occupation has led to a widespread unawareness of the opportunities and facilities that are available for people with special needs, or even that such people have “special needs”.

The situation is compounded by social prejudices, such as sexism, which is even more pronounced for disabled women.  This was exemplified in the case of Amal, whose grandmother refused the age-old Palestinian tradition of bestowing her name on her granddaughter because she was “deformed”.

Latifa is convinced that she faces more prejudice than her able-bodied sisters.  “We are not allowed to leave the house or go outside for fear of harassment,” she points out, adding that a disabled woman is often “not even considered suitable for marriage because a disabled woman represent a ‘problem’ that is inherited through the generations, who is not able to work or carry out her duties and is not ‘the perfect’ model.”

This extra sexism affects how disabled Palestinians relate to their disability, with a clear gender difference. While Suleiman was open and direct and had no qualms about telling me that he was born with Cerebral Palsy, Latifa refused to talk about her condition, seeing the question as an invasion of her privacy, insisting that “I am Latifa; a human and not a name of a condition.”  I sensed that Latifa was still not completely comfortable with her disability.

Despite all these efforts, Palestine is still a long way away from integrating its disabled citizens. Suleiman believes that stone is easier to shift than attitudes. “It is harder to change people than alter buildings,” he believes.

Young people should be the main focus of future initiatives, suggests Suleiman, so as to shape a generation that is more enlightened in its attitudes towards disabled people and their untapped potential.  Both he and Latifa prefers job-creation schemes to help disabled people enter the market and prove that their condition is no handicap. “I don’t want to rely on handouts. I want to be able to say I contributed to making something,” he insists. “This is how we are and we have rights,” he adds, stressing that being seen as charity cases “is demeaning.”

At the end of our encounter, I asked both Suleiman and Latifa about their dreams. Suleiman, the more confident one with a rather charming character, was the first to reply, saying he wished to become a political analyst. “You need to work and believe in yourself to convince others of your ability like I am working on achieving my dream of becoming a political analyst,” he said. Latifa refused to share her aspirations believing that it was a “private matter but being disabled does not mean we have different dreams”.

“Society is diverse and diversity is helpful in society,” she proffered instead. “Essentially, we are simple human beings: we love like you, we smile like you, when we are hurt, we cry … I long to live in peace and stop being labelled as a terrorist, I long for the day that Palestinians are not stopped at checkpoints.”

Finishing on a more hopeful note, Latifa recalled how, as she entered Israel on her way to London, she saw an Israeli bus full of children: “I smiled at them [and] they smiled back for one simple reason: we have one thing in common, humanity.”

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