Green in the City

It has been eight years since I spent the summer in Cairo and this is my first visit back. There has been a lot that has changed here, uprising not withstanding (see Jadaliyya on Egypt’s recent past, especially herehere, and here). Given that I am merely a visitor here, and a foreigner at that, it is not my place to write about the political scene in Egypt. Others (linked to above) are doing that better than I can.

Instead I have been doing my part to help the Egyptian economy, which has suffered from less tourist traffic since the uprising. The number of craft shops seems to have doubled or tripled since 2004. And the kinds of crafts being sold in the city or in the souq seems to have changed, too. Either that or I am merely noticing different types of objects. I am especially in love with the Berber embroidery and drafts from Siwa, which I would get on the bus and visit (there are some amazing ecolodges there) if it were not so hot outside. And because it is Ramadan there are additional craft fairs around the city at night, such as the one I went to a couple of weeks ago at Darb 1718.

The other thing that has been most striking to me over the past couple of weeks is al-Azhar Park. The park is built in the heart of a poor community in old, Islamic Cairo not far from Khan Khalili market. Although the arial shot above makes it seem like the park is an oasis in a midst of a concrete jungle, much of Cairo is actually pretty Green. If you drive along the Nile, for example, it is incredibly lush. Spending the last couple of years in Beirut, and Amman before that, I had forgotten how much I miss green spaces. There are very few public parks in Beirut for picnicking or for children to swing or play football. Although Ba’albek does have quite a lovely park where you can do those things.

At the entrance of al-Azhar Park you see a beautiful fountain, which children play in. The park does have an entrance fee (the equivalent of about $1), but if you are one of the families who live in the area you get in for about $.25. As a result, it the grass is filled with families having picnic iftar dinners while children run around on the playground. There is also a year-round souq and a Ramadan outdoor souq with beautiful crafts for sale.

 

It is refreshing to see such a wide, open space in the center of an urban metropolis. The weather is cooler there, the people seem happy, and the energy is amazing. I walked around the perimeter of the park last weekend right around iftar began (this hour of the day is not ideal for photography, but the images should give readers a small slice of what it looks like).

The park is also filled with beautiful landscaping, gardens (plant names are identified in Arabic and English on placards). There are restaurants and cafes and an amphitheater hosting terrific music.

My first weekend here I saw Oumeima el Khalil (photograph above) and last weekend I went to Dina el Wadidi’s concert. Wadidi sings in a band that fuses the incredible sounds of the accordion, violin, piano, and tabla (also bass and electric guitar, which unfortunately drown out the other beautiful sounds). One of the many people sitting around me filming the concert on their cell phones posted one of the songs on Youtube:

As I enjoyed the park I wondered about its construction. I thought about the people in Beirut who are working for greening the city. Every time I look at the enormous port I imagine how beautiful it would be as a green park with football fields, playgrounds for children, and areas for families to picnic. But, of course, this is Solidere territory (the best article on the history and context of how Solidere ruined downtown Beirut see Saree Makdisi’s articles here and here). The contrast between the once public space, albeit not green, of downtown Beirut and the public space of al-Azhar Park is striking in many ways (although similar kinds of encroachments on downtown Cairo were part of Mubarak’s re-imagining of the city). Whereas Solidere wants to keep poor people out, al-Azhar at least appears to be working to make all families able to access its space. Poor people may not be able to afford to buy crafts or eat at the restaurants, but for under $1 they can picnic and their children have a place to run around and play.

If only it were that simple.  I did a little research to see how this park was created. A foreign corporation, the Aga Khan Trust, financed the construction of this park. I was told by an Egyptian friend that the fees that one pays when entering go to that corporation for about thirty years before Egyptians may retain control over their own park (reminds me of the Suez Canal and the British). The microfinance division of Aga Khan collaborates with USAID on a number of projects, including one in Aswan, Egypt (they also have a numer of projects in Afghanistan and elsewhere in collaboration with USAID). It is unclear what role USAID has had in the building of al-Azhar Park. But there are some indications that they played a role. One document says, for example, that through the American Research Center, that USAID funded a part of a project in the park, but it doesn’t specify what. Another article suggests that USAID, along with the Ford Foundation, helped to fund part of the municipal underground water beneath the park.

Of course all this transpired under the Mubarak regime. Indeed, Suzanne Mubarak was apparently quite the champion of the park. It’s not yet clear to me how much of the park has been funded with USAID. But even a dime from that entity spells danger. But I am not at all surprised. This is what USAID does best: it appears to be a lovely gift from the Americans to the Egyptians (or the Haitians or the Palestinians), but in reality it is a mechanism of domination and control. This is why ALBA nations recently pledged to kick out USAID from their countries in a bold anti-imperialist move.

Egypt has been controlled by USAID since Sadat’s treacherous signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979, which gave Egyptians back the Sinai Peninsula (though not military control over it) and sold out the Palestinians. In exchange for this agreement, Egyptian people began to receive funds and imports from the United States. But it is not so simple.

Jason Hickel explains how this works in the most important sector, the agricultural sector:

To push along the process of neoliberal reform, USAid has given $200 million each year to the Egyptian government in handouts to encourage “continuing reduction in tariffs” and the privatisation of 314 government-owned companies. Furthermore, USAid devotes some 25 per cent of its budget to a special Commodity Import Programme designed to help Egypt buy American-made goods and reinforce bilateral trade.

Programmes like these have proven to be devastating for many Egyptians: they tend to undercut local manufactures, encourage foreign monopolies, concentrate wealth in the hands of political cronies and ultimately contribute to unemployment, which (depending on the measure used) has risen to 25 per cent in recent years and reaches as high as 30 per cent among the young.

Some of the most extreme neoliberal measures have been directed at Egypt’s agriculture sector. As a condition for development aid, USAid has required Egypt to shift its formidable agricultural capacity away from staple foods and toward export crops such as cotton, grapes and strawberries in order to generate foreign currency to pay off its burgeoning debt to the US.

According to Columbia University professor, Timothy Mitchell, USAid first began to facilitate this process in the 1980s through its Agricultural Mechanisation Project, which was designed to develop the productive capacity of Egyptian export agriculture by financing the purchase of American machinery.

In the end – despite USAid’s projections to the contrary – the programme did very little to help common farmers. Instead, it disproportionately benefitted the few large landholders who could afford to take out the loans, while slashing the demand for agricultural labour and causing rural wages to plummet.

To propel the transformation to export-led agriculture, USAid forced the Egyptian government to heavily tax the production of staples by local farmers and to eliminate subsidies on essential consumer goods like sugar, cooking oil and dairy products in order to make room for competition from American and other foreign companies.

To ameliorate the resulting food gap, USAid’s so-called “Food for Peace” programme provided billions of dollars of loans for Egypt to import subsidised grain from the US, which only further undercut local farmers. The result of all of this “agricultural reform” was an unprecedented spike in food prices which made livelihoods increasingly precarious and forced much of the workforce to accept degrading and dehumanising labour conditions. The widespread social frustrations that resulted from these reforms helped spark the 2011 uprising.

Similar forms of neoliberal shock therapy been applied to the public services sector. USAid has aggressively pushed for so-called “cost-recovery” mechanisms, a euphemism for transforming public healthcare and education into private, fee-based institutions. Indeed, USAid typically spends nearly half of its health and education budgets – more than $100-million per year – on privatisation measures.

This has been fantastic for multinational medical companies, as it translates into greater dependence on imported drugs and equipment. For Egyptians, however, privatisation means having to pay large sums on healthcare and education. Mitchell shows that such expenditures – as a percentage of household income – now rank at the second and third highest in the world, respectively.

To make matters worse, Mitchell also demonstrates that USAid’s cuts to public service budgets have forced the wage rates of workers in hospitals and schools below the rate of inflation, causing deep income deficits among working-class households.

These destructive, pro-corporate policies get obscured by the rhetoric that USAid deploys. According to its website, USAid claims to have helped Egypt become a “success story in economic development”, citing “improvements” in the quality of education and – amazingly – “the administration of justice” (a shocking contradiction, given that the US actively funded Mubarak’s repressive military apparatus and its widespread human rights abuses).

Egypt’s vigorous market liberalisation programme has attracted foreign investment and boosted GDP growth, but these gains have only benefited the very rich, while the country’s bottom quintiles have seen their portion of the economic pie shrink significantly over the same period.

This one aspect of American control over Egyptian society since the 1980s–in other words since Camp David–gives one a sense of why USAID is so dangerous and also provides context over the ongoing uprising in Egypt.  Additionally, and a reason why USAID is associated with the CIA in most of the global south, is because there is often a relationship between NGOs and USAID. This relationship may be predominantly financial, but it is one that can be used to foment unrest, one reason why a few months ago Egyptians also considered removing USAID.

This issue of funding and the way it is used to control people is a huge problem, especially for those who have amazing ideas that they want to make tangible. Creating a park is an amazing thing to do for a community. But whether it is a park or a farm, one has to weigh the funding of such projects with societal control by outside corporations, foundations, or governments that have an agenda. There is no easy answer to this. But there is a reason why Henry Kissinger, who negotiated Camp David for Carter, famously said, “If you control oil, you control nations. If you control food, you control people.”

on creativity in gaza

image from the BBC
image from the BBC

there is an amazing slideshow on the bbc website of palestinians building mud brick homes given the fact that cement and other basic supplies are banned from entering gaza (click this link to see the rest–the homes are beautiful). djallal malti reported on this for afp:

All of Amer Aliyan’s hopes of rebuilding his life are placed in a carefully folded sheet in his wallet, a document that for the foreseeable future in Gaza is nothing but a worthless piece of paper.

“I’m waiting for the reconstruction, but I know it will take time,” the 36-year-old says.

This is a gross understatement in the besieged and impoverished Gaza Strip where an Israeli blockade is preventing the rebuilding effort after the devastation caused by a brief but deadly war at the turn of the year.

Aliyan’s house was one of several thousand destroyed during the massive 22-day onslaught unleashed by Israel on the Islamist Hamas-run Gaza in December in response to militant rocket and mortar fire from the enclave.

Since the end of the war, the unemployed dry cleaner has lived under canvas with his wife and five children in one of 93 tents set up on the outskirts of the Beit Lahiya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

The paper secreted inside his wallet is the official attestation that his home was destroyed, and it is a document that will entitle him to funds for rebuilding once the reconstruction starts.

But that is unlikely to begin any time soon, and until it does the thousands of Gazans who like Aliyan lost their homes in the war will just have to fend for themselves.

Reconstruction is a non-event not because there is a lack of demand. Some 4,100 houses was destroyed during the war, as were 48 government buildings, 31 police stations and 20 mosques, among others.

Nor is it for lack of money — in coffers worldwide sit a whopping 4.5 billion dollars that donors pledged to the Palestinians in March, most of it towards reconstruction in Gaza.

The rebuilding is not able to get under way because of the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza in June 2007 when Hamas, a group pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state, seized the enclave in a deadly takeover.

The billions of dollars in pledges remain where they are because the international community refuses to release the money directly to Hamas, branded as a terror organisation by Israel and much of the West.

The blockade, under which only essential humanitarian goods are allowed into the territory sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, means building materials stay on the outside, as Israel says they can also be used to make rockets.

In a bid to get around these restrictions, Gazans have dug dozens of tunnels under the border with Egypt that are used to bring in supplies, including construction materials such as cement, paint and wood.

The resulting trade is brisk, but limited and dangerous. The hastily dug tunnels often collapse, burying smugglers alive. The Israeli military still targets them in occasional bombing raids.

Because of the blockade the price of building materials has skyrocketed. A bag of cement now costs 220 shekels (56 dollars, 40 euros) compared with 20 shekels previously.

But the cement is of low quality, according to Hadj Salim who operates one of the tunnels, and it cannot be used to mix construction-grade concrete.

Other vital materials such as the steel rods used to reinforce concrete in buildings are too long to fit through the tunnels, Salim says.

With construction at a standstill, the newly homeless residents of the Gaza Strip where the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid have had to make do.

The fortunate have found temporary housing. Some stay with relatives in what is already one of the most densely populated places on earth. But people with nowhere else to go are living in tents.

“Those who can go with families, the others stay here. There’s one 12-member family living in a store room and they’re paying for that,” says Khaled Abu Ali, who is in charge of administrative affairs at the tent camp.

Others have turned to innovative measures.

Jihad al-Shaer, 36, was living with his wife and five kids in his parents’ Rafah home when he got the idea to build a house from clay bricks in December, before the war that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

“The idea came from houses I’d seen in Bangladesh and Pakistan,” he says.

He finished their 80-square-metre (860-square-foot) house in February — after the war — and today proudly shows off the results.

“It’s cool in the summer, warm in the winter and only cost me 3,000 dollars,” he says.

The one-storey structure that seems to grow out of its sandy surroundings was happily blessed a few weeks ago with the birth of Shaer’s first son after four daughters.

His idea caught on quickly in tiny Gaza, and in early May the territory’s Hamas rulers announced they would offer the option of building houses out of clay for those who want it.

After weeks of searching, Aliyan has finally found temporary living quarters for the months — or what some fear may become years — until Israel lifts its blockade and reconstruction is finally able to begin in dusty Gaza.

He, his wife and their children have managed to rent a small space at the back of a bakery, next to the oven.

there are other palestinians who are creating art from the ruins of the savaging of gaza as adham khalil writes on his blog:

Life will not stop, I will challenge the Israeli occupation and rise up despite of the hurts, said : Shireen Shamia, 26 years old, a Palestinian art teacher. Shireen lives in Jabalia Camp in northern of Gaza Strip. She has lost Two of her brothers . Israeli Occupation army shelled her house around ten o’clock in the morning on 19 January 2009 by F16 warplanes where she lives with 20 of her family.

Before the war, she sent a letter to the ministry of culture asked to make exhibition for the olive tree, she would like to use the destroyed olive tree in order to change it from a rubble to a beautiful masterpieces.

What a pity, Israeli warplanes pilot has killed her dreams when targeted her house and damaged her art masterpieces and paintings .
How much strong is Shireen, despite all of sad situation she lives, the dream has become as a challenge. She has taken a decision to go on and make an exhibition on the rubble of her house titled “we will rise up despite of the hurts”.

She presents this an exhibition to her two martyr brothers Zaher and Mohamed, all Palestinian martyrs, Palestinian prisoners, her family and relatives, Palestinian people live under siege and to whom support her in his artistic life .

On her brochure , I find her desired words, Shireen said : we will rise up despite of the hurts, the difficulties, the destruction, and the siege. The land embraces the olive tree for long time till destiny set them apart, their screaming penetrated my ears to the extent that my heart aches me. But I never give up and I didn’t stand the arms folded.

Therefore, I put the olive tree among my tools to start a dialogue in between, they decide to scratch the wood of the sad olive tree to turn it into an artistic masterpieces and immortal one. This true would witness the coward Israeli attack and to express the civilization and heritage of Palestinian and the strong well of patience and struggling people .

Shireen participated in many of exhibitions , one of them was titled The Sand of Palestine, she wanted through that to change the fragile sand into a rigid material in order to express the patience and the strong desire of continuity.

At the end, Shireen asks : for how long we live under siege , but she insists on that we will stay patience on this land .

palestinians in gaza are also getting creative about finding new modes of transportation and also entertainment with motorcycles as ayman mohyeldin reports on al jazeera:

on art imitating life

gaza_children_art_girl

take a look at the above illustration. it was drawn by a young girl in gaza. the image shows an israeli terrorist as the grim reaper murdering a palestinian. and there are many more such drawings where that one came from. it is not because palestinians are educated to hate israelis as some people (read: hillary clinton and her israeli terrorist colonist friends) would have you believe. it is because when you grown up knowing only imprisonment, murder, theft from one group of people that is directed at you and your people this is what you draw. you draw your reality, your experiences. one of those experiences in gaza is most certainly being orphaned as ayman mohyeldin reported on al jazeera about the fate of gaza’s orphans:

you can imagine how such experiences become inflected in one’s artistic creation and self-expression on a number of levels. and, of course, art has a therapeutic effect as well. marwa awad wrote an article in the palestine chronicle where this drawing came from about rod cox who is currently conducting art workshops with children in gaza. there is a video that shows a number of other drawings done by girls in gaza showing that such images are widespread:

art is an essential part of human life. but art–no matter what it depicts–seems to threaten israeli terrorists who choose to target palestinian educational and artistic institutions. alexander billet wrote an article this week for the socialist worker about the targeting of the gaza music school by israeli terrorist forces:

On December 23, the Gaza Music School held its first public performance at the PRCS. Four days later, it was under attack by the Israel Defense Forces. While it didn’t suffer a direct hit, the impact of the bomb across the street took out doors, windows, whole sections of wall and several instruments.

Thankfully, no children were in the building during the attack. The only person in the building was Ibrahim Annajjar, the GMS program coordinator, who sustained only minor injuries. Two days later, he returned to the building to store the remaining instruments in what he thought would be a safe place.

On January 14, the remaining building was reduced to rubble. Almost every musical instrument and resource of the fledgling Gaza Music School was wiped out in Israel’s brutal bombardment.

and although we don’t know who the culprit is at this point in time, the fire at the jenin freedom theatre earlier this week, i would not be surprised to learn that it was started by israeli terrorists as well.

never forgive, never forget

carlos latuff
carlos latuff

okay so i lied. just one more post before my weekend begins. i listened to flashpoints in the service on my way down to ramallah. and i just gotta say: i fucking love nora barrows-friedman. there is really no other media outlet like flashpoints in the united states. and not just because of what the report and how they report on palestine. because they cover stories like the murder of oscar grant. because they cover stories like the murder of brown beret annette garcia.

Today on Flashpoints: As international war crimes investigators continue to gather evidence for war crimes prosecution of Israeli officials, we present excerpts from a 3-hour special The Savaging of Gaza, A Twenty-First Century War Crime. This accounting is based on Flashpoints coverage from the beginning of the assault until this current shaky cease-fire, which included some more air attacks by Israel today.

01:00 The Savaging of Gaza: For 22 days the Israeli military savaged the Gaza Strip by land air and sea. One and a half million Palestinians, already pushed to the brink of starvation and humanitarian disaster after 18 months of an Israeli blockade and the hermetical sealing of the crossings in and out, watched in horror as the tiny Gaza Strip became a weapons lab for the latest in non-conventional weaponry.

44:00 KPFA Winter Fund Drive: Support the work of the Flashpoints team who bring you the human perspective in Palestine, Iraq, the US-Mexico border, and across the globe.

Pledge your support at 1-800-439-5732, or 510-848-5732. or pledge securely online.
Thank you for your support!

above you will also find a link to donate money to support the kind of journalism you will find nowhere else in the united states. support flashpoints and lovely, dear, amazing nora. the radio documentary linked above, which you can order (it is 3 hours long) if you pledge online at the above-link details the savagery of israeli terrorism from palestinians reporting on the ground in gaza. but also nora reminds us in this report of the fact that there is the aggressive terrorism of the american-made bombs as well as the passive terrorism of israelis banning 95 medicines from gaza like chemotherapy, kidney dialysis equipment, and anesthesia (because they want palestinians to feel pain).

you can also watch americans investigating israeli war crimes on this report from press tv:

and you can watch mike kirsch on al jazeera showing the daily difficulties palestinian fisherman in gaza have to endure:

meanwhile israeli terrorists continued their nightly invasions around the west bank last night, including in the village near my house:

Israeli forces seized five young Palestinians during raids in villages around the West Bank city of Nablus.

Palestinian local sources told Ma’an’s correspondent in Nablus that Israeli forces raided Asira Al-Qibliya, south of Nablus and detained 18-year-old Mahmoud Mohammad Hassan Shihadah.

In the village of Salim, east of the city, they detained Mohammad Abd An-Nayef Issa.

In the village of Tell,. Local sources said Israeli troops invaded at 1am, detaining three young men: Mu’awiya Mohammad Zeidan,18, Arabi Ashraf As-Seifi,19 and Issam Issa Ramadan,18.

mr. fish
mr. fish

and the israeli terrorist ethnic cleansing project continues unabated in the west bank:

About 25 Palestinian families would be forced to leave their homes and agricultural lands in the village of Khirbet Tana, located within the territory of the Beit Furik town, east of Nablus, after the Israeli high court rejected the objection made by human rights organizations on behalf of the families.

The objection called for not demolishing the villagers’ houses and for preparing a structural blueprint for the village instead of taking such an unjust step in violation of human rights.

The human rights organizations confirmed that the Israeli arbitrary policy of land planning in the occupied Palestinian lands do not allow the villagers, the natives of Khirbet Tana, to obtain building permits which forces them to choose between the unauthorized construction or to remain without housing.

is it any wonder why i am so opposed to normalization? a reminder that israeli terrorists behave this way towards palestinians whether you normalize with them or not:

Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, who lost three daughters and a niece in an Israel Defense Forces strike in the Gaza Strip last month, responded Wednesday to an IDF statement confirming that it was Israeli fire that killed his daughters, thanking those responsible for investigating the incident and saying that “we all make mistakes, and we don’t repeat them.”

Abu al-Aish, a father of eight, became one of the symbols of the Gaza offensive for Israelis after he captivated TV viewers with a sobbing live report on the death of his three daughters and his niece in Israeli shelling. The 55-year-old gynecologist trained in Israeli hospitals and speaks Hebrew.

The IDF announced earlier Wednesday that an investigation into the January 16 incident confirmed that it had been Israeli fire that killed the four girls.

izzeldin may forgive. i will never forgive nor will i forget. akeed la this is not a mistake! this is 3adi behavior for israeli terrorists. and until everyone stops normalizing, builds a unified resistance they will continue their murderous project of ethnically cleansing palestinians and colonizing palestinian land. and by the way: the israeli terrorists know they are guilty. this is why they are busy destroying evidence. and then, of course, rubbing it in our faces because no one will stop them from covering up their crimes.

nida badwan
nida badwan

there are other palestinians who choose not to forgive and forget and who remind us of the devastation like artist nida badwan who is exhibiting her artwork in one of the bombed out spaces of gaza (see photo above):

Ghoulish blue figures reach skyward towards an elusive red spiral in an abstract rendering of Gaza life hung in the ruins of a cultural centre bombed and torched during the Israeli offensive.

The paintings hang in the scorched depths of the Red Crescent cultural centre in Gaza City, which was destroyed at the height of the 22-day war. They are the work of Nida Badwan, an arts student who used to volunteer there.

“I wanted to exhibit them here because the building itself speaks,” Badwan says. “It tells the story of the paintings, and it speaks louder than they do.”

and you can add another university to your list of those being occupied by students in solidarity with palestinians in gaza. where are the american students? why are they not acting? why are they so silent?

Students at the Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland have occupied the main administration building (McCance) in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and with other students who have taken similar action in Universities across Britain. The occupation followed a ‘march for Gaza’, and despite the ugly and heavy handed attempts by the University security to break up the march the students refused to leave the McCance building and have presented an agreed list of demands to the University authorities.

UPDATE: The University has called in the police. Please express your support by publicizing this widely. Also call the protesting students on: 0759 5626057 or 07989 796 280

A movement has been sweeping across Britain in protest at the the Israeli state’s massacre and the complicity of our government and university. This demonstration builds on the victories across the U.K and beyond in opposing murder in Gaza and all those who support it. The demands which are presently being delivered to the University principal are:

1) Cancel the contract with Eden Springs (an Israeli water company that is the University’s main supplier).

2) Divestment from the arms manufacturer BAE systems and invesigate alternative sources of funding for the Engineering Department.

3) Issue a statement condemning the Israeli states recent massacre of Gaza.

4) Fund and facilitate 50 scholarships for Palestinian students at Strathclyde University.

5) Solidarity with the Islamic University of Gaza: write a letter of support; twin Strathclyde with the university, and aid in its rebuilding.

6) Condemn the BBC for not showing the DEC appeal; show the appeal in lecture theatres and organise a fundraising day on campus.

7) Oppose Israeli academics who promote military research at Strathclyde University

For updates see this message board.

one final item for today–for you to take action on–one way that obama is continuing the racist policies of the bush regime is by refusing to allow those detained in guantanamo prison to come to the u.s. upon their release. there is a petition to sign, as well as background information, on why we should release some of the prisoners (though i would argue all of them should have that choice plus reparations for what they have endured) to the united states and not pawn them off to a third country:

The Uighurs are members of an intensely persecuted minority in western China and were sold to U.S. forces by bounty hunters. Most of them were cleared by the military of any offense in 2003. In September 2008, the U.S. government formally acknowledged that none of them is an enemy combatant. At present, all three branches of the government have acknowledged that the Uighurs should be released. All 17 have been exonerated by both military and habeas courts, and members of Congress have called for their release to the only place they can go: the United States.

Holding that their continued imprisonment was unlawful, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ruled in October 2008 that they should be present in his court for release into the United States with appropriate conditions. Detailed arrangements to welcome and support the seventeen men had by then been made by religious and refugee organizations. Further commitment of support has been provided by the Uighur community of well established U.S. citizens in the D.C. area.

on eviction

tomorrow is the eid al adha holiday so i have the week off from school. i left my house yesterday morning to head towards beit lahem, but i decided to spend some time in al quds so i could visit with a friend, see an art exhibit i had wanted to see, and go book shopping. when i went through huwara checkpoint i was shocked to see that in the last week a new sniper tower had been put up in the last week or so since i had been through that checkpoint. it’s always mind blowing to see how fast colonialism works.

dsc09999

when i got in the service and we started to drive away i had thought i entered the wrong service as we began driving in the wrong direction–towards the illegal settlement of beit el, which was nerve wracking a bit given that this is one of the settlement that has been organizing its residents to come down to palestinian areas and throw stones at palestinian cars. but the israeli terrorist forces (itf) closed down the main road between ramallah and nablus so and forced us to take a detour. fortunately, most of our driving turned out to be through palestinian villages so we were safe. the situation is very tense right now since the illegal israeli settlers were removed from the palestinian home they occupied. the media is calling this an “eviction,” which is technically correct, but it is a bit frustrating to hear this word, which has as its synonym expel, a word that is more in line with the sort of ethnic cleansing the israelis have been forcing upon palestinians for the past sixty years.

rana bishara's "homage to childhood"

when i went through qalandia checkpoint, outside of ramallah, on my way to al quds, i was waiting in line in the car to pass. before the checkpoint was transformed into the sort of international border crossing–far from any legal sort of border–this had quite a vibrant marketplace that you would walk through after you made it through the itf checkpoint area. most of that is gone now–the stands selling various odds and ends, the carts selling all sorts of foods (huwara is like this now a little bit, but i fear when the israelis are finished turning that into an international border crossing style checkpoint these small businesses will disappear too). but now at qalandia what you have instead are many small children who rush the cars, cleaning your car window, selling you gum, begging for money. and it’s heart breaking. yesterday the children seemed particularly desperate as they were wanting money for eid. poverty is increasing here. even yesterday in al quds i saw a child in a garbage dumpster on salah el din street, searching for objects of value that someone else had finished with or rendered useless.

rana bishara's "homage to childhood"

i had told my friends in beit lahem that i would be in al quds for the day, but i think they thought i was spending the day in ramallah. there is a big difference between the two in the sense that they were calling me all day and my phone was off. they got worried–started calling people in nablus trying to see if something went wrong. and apparently there were disturbances at huwara: settlers turned a palestinian car over and the itf closed it down about an hour or so after i made it through. but i was fine, in al quds. but they didn’t know this because one of the ways that israelis configure borders is to ban palestinian telephones from working in al quds. even though every square inch of this city belongs to palestinians, i cannot use my phone there so it was as if it was turned off. and they couldn’t reach me.

um kamel
um kamel

i went to see rana bishara’s “homage to childhood” exhibit at the french cultural centre yesterday. it was dedicated to palestinian refugee children. it was an amazing and unique exhibit. she filled a room full of white balloons, and the floor had white carpet on it. there were barbed-wire halo ornaments hanging from the ceiling. in the balloons there were various objects like seeds, black and white photographs, and palestinian national symbols. here is how bishara describes her moving installation:

“In this work,” says Bishara, “children are trapped between halos of barbed-wire circles covered with tulle cloth and balloons. The spectator has to manoeuvre between the hung barbed-wire circles and interact with the artwork by walking through the space and discovering the pictures inside the transparent balloons, or by lying down on the mattresses and watching the barbed-wire circles conquer the space – a metaphor of simultaneous protection and harm. It is a malevolent halo that purposely crowns the children, Palestinian children, and steals their childhood, even before they are born.”

um kamel's tent in sheikh jarrah
um kamel's tent in sheikh jarrah

after the exhibit my friend took me to sheikh jarrah to meet um kamel al kurd. she is the woman who was expelled from her home in sheikh jarrah one month ago so that an illegal israeli settler can occupy this house which is decidedly in east jerusalem. she has been living in a tent below the house as an act of resistance. she’s not fighting for her right to go back to this house, though. instead she is fighting for something much more radical and amazing: the right to return to her house which is in al talbyieh near the yaffa gate of the old city. she was a refugee in 1948, like her husband who was from yaffa, though he died shortly after the expulsion. yesterday they marched with a group of people from al quds and internationals to the area where her house is. she actually doesn’t know exactly where her house is, it turns out, but of course she has the papers and the original key to it. in order to keep um kamel going there are all sorts of activities every day such as painting for neighborhood children, many of whom have painted beautiful images telling the story of what happened to um kamel (as seen here). there was also a film screening last night of short films–these are open to the public and one of the ways that they encourage various neighborhood people to come to the house and sit in solidarity with um kamel and her family. yesterday they had a film by larissa sansour. i had recently seen one of her amazing films called “soup over bethlehem” and i loved it because it was about mloukhiyya, which of course reminds me of baha’a. because as baha’a famously said: “mloukhiyya is resistance because i love it.” he, like um kamel’s husband, is from yaffa. please sign the petition to let um kamel return to her original home here.

dsc00019

after i left sheikh jarrah i drove on a jewish only road (i had yellow plates on the car i rented because my friends and i had planned a trip to 1948 this week). to get to deheishe. it was particularly scary to drive on this road yesterday. it was filled with itf: in jeeps, on foot–even in the tunnels near the illegal settlement of gilo they were marching on foot. as i drove up to beit jala after the checkpoint there they were standing outside their jeeps on the hill. they were everywhere. because i was headed in the direction towards khalil. and yesterday illegal israeli settlers set fire to a palestinian home. so tensions were high. but of course who gets the brunt of that? palestinians. they are the ones who the itf clamps down on.

dsc00024

when i arrived at deheishe my friends and i were trying to figure out if we should leave yesterday night or this morning. we decided that maybe it would be easier to make it through the checkpoint if we did it at night. that way the roads would have fewer people on them and maybe it would be easier to make it through. and, amazingly enough, given all that is going on, we did. we made it through the checkpoint into 1948 right behind a car with new york license plates (because so many illegal israeli settlers are really americans occupying palestinian land). we arrived in nasra at 1:30 am, though if we had been allowed to drive in a straight line from beit lahem to al quds that could have been cut down quite a bit. but my friends are here in 1948. again. refugees are returning, if only temporary. i hope that refugees like um kamel get their right to return for real. soon.

until then here is the film about mloukhiyyeh for baha’a & his creative resistance:

الشهداء

n616785226_4913675_3804

a dear friend wrote to me today to share with me a new mural they are putting up in deheishe refugee camp. these are all students who are using their own money to do so. no sponsorship from any political–or any other kind of–organization. this is a mural of the martyrs of deheishe of which there are far too many. but they must be remembered. they are looking for money to fund their paint purchases because they are all spending their own money. anyone here in palestine who wants to donate please do so before eid as i will be bringing a donation myself. i love their dedication, their commitment, their refusal to tie their work to any political group.

duality; or what it means to destroy a culture

Whenever I’m in Jordan I find myself confronted by thoughts of dual occupation. Of two wars. Of two significant refugee populations. And of the two powers most responsible for these problems: Americans and Zionist Jews (of course originally we can blame the British too). This map that appeared on Palestine Think Tank accompanied by an article by Rami Khoury, shows some of the layers of the Iraqi occupation. It would be useful to draw a similar map of those American corporations complicit in occupying, destroying, and stealing Palestinian land. The companies might look a little different, but these are corporations that should be punished through sanctions and divestment projects. I was thinking about this while I spent the afternoon with two Iraqi artists from Baghdad, one of whom smoked Marlboro cigarettes.

Marlboro aside, I met an amazing man today. It was a once in a lifetime experience. I spent all evening and night with the extraordinary artist and person, Mohamed Ghani (see photo above). Somehow my friend Wafa’a received an invitation to his studio and he took us around and showed us his amazing sculptures, drawings, sketches. He had several rooms in his studio filled with his art work, but nowhere near what his archive held before. Mohamed, who was born in 1929, and started sculpting in the 1940s had a tremendous archive of work, much of which is in museums and private homes around the world. But prior to the illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the entire third floor of the Baghdad Art Museum was devoted to his sculptures. There were 150 pieces on display there.

One might ask where his world renowned art went. At the time, in 2003, Mohamed was in Bahrain. In fact, he was watching television. He watched as American troops stormed the art museum and smash all of his pieces to pieces. Literally. All of them gone forever. Since the invasion he’s been living in Jordan, producing new art, much of it in high demand and commissioned around the world. But his mission is not really about his own artwork right now. Much of what he talked about with us was his desire to get the other artists’ works back–those that were looted by American invading forces rather than destroyed. He first tried to go to the American occupying soldiers who were “guarding” (horrible word to use for thieves, I know) the museum after its destruction. He asked the person in charge if he would help him put together some kind of fund to help him purchase the art on the black market to get it back in Iraq. Of course, he said no. Actually, he told Mohamed it is “illegal” for him to use U.S. funds to purchase items on the black market. Hmmm…. interesting: since when does the U.S. pay attention to international laws? Or its own laws? I don’t think I can remember that far back.

Of course, it’s not surprising that Mohamed wasn’t able to get the U.S. thieves to help him find the Iraqi art they looted, but he was able to pull together a group of younger, amateur Iraqi artists who put up the cash to buy back Iraqi art. They’ve been able to purchase over 100 pieces thus far and Mohamed says he’ll be able to pay these artists back. It is amazing to see this collectivity, solidarity among these artists trying to save their recent culture. So much of the reporting on looting has focused on ancient artifacts and art from Baghdad, which American occupation forces also looted and destroyed. But both are important parts of Iraqi culture and history. Chalmers Johnson has an overview article on the theft of Iraqi culture on the part of the Americans, which is worth reading. There is also an interesting website called the Baghdad Museum Project, which is an attempt to catalog and reclaim missing antiquities looted from Iraq. Interestingly, a bunch of American museum officials came to Baghdad after this looting took place. They wanted to bring Iraqi artists like Mohamed to exhibit their work and tour it around the U.S. Mohamed declined because at the time the Iraqi philharmonic had just done such a tour. In American reviews he saw how they had been manipulated by Americans who presented outlandish claims in the U.S. media about Americans bringing civilization and democracy to Iraq so that now they have an orchestra; reality check: this orchestra has existed since the 1920s. Americans had nothing to do with its formation. Americans in relation to Iraq are always only related to destruction or deception.

Mohamed is such a beautiful man, with an amazing energy. It is hard to imagine he’s going to be 80 next year as he seems more like 60. He exudes a youthfulness and a playfulness that is beautiful. He talked about some of his sculptures, which are all around Baghdad. For a long time he worked to make sure each neighborhood had one of his sculptures so that children would grow up seeing art and imagining their world with art. One of the more famous ones is his piece of Sheherezad. This man’s life and art have seen so much change–most of it for the worst–in Iraq. Over dinner at my friend’s house he talked about being a young boy in school with Baghdadi Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He remembered the Mossad coming in and bombing the Jewish neighborhoods, while blaming it on Iraqis, so that the Israelis could scheme and force the Baghdadi Jews to move to the Zionist state since they couldn’t get them to do it willingly. He’s seen more wars than he would like to have seen. And throughout it all he’s sculpted.

Mohamed also talked about the Mossad agents on the ground in Iraq, assisting American occupation soldiers, teaching them their methods of occupation. I have heard this before. It is one more way that I have been thinking of the dual occupations. The same actors. The same funds. The same interests. Americans and Zionists. Both occupiers, murderers, thieves. But in the context of art they have something else in common: they both destroy–or at least seek to destroy–culture. For if you destroy someone’s culture it enables you to erase them. To say that they don’t exist as Israeli leaders have done for decades. And some still do (read: when Palestinians of Akka are called “Israeli Arabs” or “Arabs” this is one of many such ways their identity gets erased). Iraqis and Palestinians alike have used their cultural roots and cultural present to resist that erasure and to claim their present. And they do this in many ways and against many odds. Which is why I cannot understand why one might censor art, literature, culture, information, news in this region.

Okay, I can understand it on some level. Neocolonial, postcolonial, and colonial regimes alike are all anxious. Afraid of losing power. Afraid of upsetting the masses. But given the history of Israelis censoring all sorts of literary works, many of which having nothing to do with Palestine, until 1994 (and some even today) I wonder why one would want to ban books in Palestine. Or films, culture, art. Why repeat the errors of one’s master? Earlier this week in Jordan poet Islam Samhan was arrested for writing poems that engaged with the Qur’an:

The head of the Jordanian writers association, Saoud Qubeilat, told the daily al-Ghad that poetry relied on figures of speech which could sound blasphemous if read superficially.

He added that the arrest of Mr Samhan would stifle creativity and freedom of expression.

Writers and artists have sent a petition to the government calling the arrest a “retreat in the freedom of expression”, and urging an end to “oppression of freedom and intimidation practised against intellectuals”.

This is one common reason why books, films, music, art may get banned in the Arab world. Sometimes the reasons are more political as was the case with Ibrahim Nasrallah, an amazingly beautiful Palestinian Jordanian poet and novelist. A couple of years ago when I was living here in Jordan his poems were censored, albeit many years after they were first composed, approved, and published:

The charges related to his fourth collection of poetry, Nu’man Yastariddu Lawnahu (Anemone Regains Its Colour). These highly figurative poems, first published in 1984, were suddenly banned, while the poet himself faced charges of insulting the state, inciting dissension and reporting inaccurate information to future generations.

“I was facing, if convicted, three years’ imprisonment,” says Nasrallah.

The authorities raided the offices of his Lebanese publisher in the Jordanian capital, Amman, confiscating copies of the banned collection. Protests from the Jordanian Writers’ Association and the Arab Writers’ Union were soon joined by support from the press in Jordan and the rest of the Arab world, while an internet campaign mobilised support from further afield. After almost four weeks which Nasrallah remembers being “haunted by these threats”, the case was dropped on July 9 2006.

It’s hard to explain the censor’s sudden objections to a collection first approved 22 years earlier. According to Makram Khoury-Machool, a lecturer at Cambridge University, it is the poems’ treatment of events in Jordan during 1970, a period known as Black September, that became an issue. The title of the collection can be seen as referring to the blood spilled during a conflict which led to the expulsion of PLO fighters and thousands of other Palestinians who had been living in Jordan.

“As is so often the case with poetry,” he says, “there is no direct reference in the collection to Black September, which took place when Nasrallah was just 16. Indirect references in Nu’man relate to a love story between a Jordanian Christian young woman and a Palestinian Muslim fighter, and imagery of Amman, its streets and blood.”

It is in some ways obvious why Jordan might be threatened by allusions to Black September (though on some level the fear and anxiety over this more than thirty years later is a bit unbelievable…). But in the end is Jordan, Palestine, or anywhere else really solving any problems by banning or censoring material? In every country where texts are censored the underground movement for those texts becomes so much stronger. Those texts become more readily and easily available. The desire to read or view those texts becomes far more urgent. For me the relationship among banning books (one of Sarah Palin’s favorite pastimes), arresting artists or writers, and destroying art is similar because all of them participate in destroying all or part of a culture. People create cultures. Those cultures represent people. Participating in suppressing that culture or eradicating it means you are somehow complicit in destroying a people. It’s one thing for American and Israeli terrorists to do that work: we expect that of them. But it is another for Arabs to do this to Arabs, Muslims to Muslims, Palestinians to Palestinians, Jordanians to Jordanians. Do people really want to repeat the sins of their colonial oppressors and rulers? Or can the very art and culture and literature being banned, suppressed, destroyed teach us something about those repeated mistakes so that they are not made again?