Monthly Archives: April 2012

When Words Fail, Read Literature

This week, my own words fail me. How does one begin to speak of Gaza? Does one begin with the tragedy that exists? Does one speak of the war? The children? The political climate? The aid? The Rafah crossing? The prison on the sea?

How does one begin to write about Gaza?

This week my own words fail me, so I turn to the words of another – from 1956.

What I share with you is in my mind an essay before its time that exhibits a most profound foresight on the tragedy that is today: Gaza.

Letter from Gaza is a letter from a Palestinian who returns to his wreck of a neighborhood in Gaza where his mother, sister-in-law and four children remain. That is all that remains. He is writing to his friend who awaits him in Sacramento.

The story is written by Ghassan Kanafani, a write who, as described by Hisham Matar “work marks one of the most significant developments in modern Arab prose fiction.” It is only fitting to necessitate an understanding of the man behind the pen – his story, rather before reading the story he puts forth. A Palestinian born in Akka (present day Acre) in 1936 from which he and his family were forced to flee to Lebanon in 1948. Kanafani wrote 20 volumes of short stories, novels, essays, a study on Zionist literature and a study on Palestinian literature under occupation. Kanafani died at the young age of 36. In 1967, Kanafani joined the PFLP (Popular Front of Liberation of Palestine) – a political movement built on Marxist philosophy. 16 years after Letter from Gaza, Kanafani along with his niece, Lamis Najem, was assassinated by the Mossad in a car bomb explosion.

When academic works, human rights organization reports, news articles, criticism, accounts of war and seemingly “neutral” displays of factual information all collectively fail to express a tragedy, in this case: Gaza – we turn to literature to ease the hardship. Woe to us spectators.

Later, when you are done, I invite you to yet another dose of literary opium to ease the pain –  Shahadat’s Contemporary Literature in Translation Series which features works in translation by six poets and writers from Gaza.

Letter from Gaza by Ghassan Kanafani

Dear Mustafa,

I have now received your letter, in which you tell me that you’ve done everything necessary to enable me to stay with you in Sacramento. I’ve also received news that I have been accepted in the department of Civil Engineering in the University of California. I must thank you for everything, my friend. But it’ll strike you as rather odd when I proclaim this news to you — and make no doubt about it, I feel no hesitation at all, in fact I am pretty well positive that I have never seen things so clearly as I do now. No, my friend, I have changed my mind. I won’t follow you to “the land where there is greenery, water and lovely faces” as you wrote. No, I’ll stay here, and I won’t ever leave.

I am really upset that our lives won’t continue to follow the same course, Mustafa. For I can almost hear you reminding me of our vow to go on together, and of the way we used to shout: “We’ll get rich!” But there’s nothing I can do, my friend. Yes, I still remember the day when I stood in the hall of Cairo airport, pressing your hand and staring at the frenzied motor. At that moment everything was rotating in time with the ear-splitting motor, and you stood in front of me, your round face silent.

Your face hadn’t changed from the way it used to be when you were growing up in the Shajiya quarter of Gaza, apart from those slight wrinkes. We grew up together, understanding each other completely and we promised to go on together till the end. But…
“There’s a quarter of an hour left before the plane takes off. Don’t look into space like that. Listen! You’ll go to Kuwait next year, and you’ll save enough from your salary to uproot you from Gaza and transplant you to California. We started off together and we must carry on. . .”

At that moment I was watching your rapidly moving lips. That was always your manner of speaking, without commas or full stops. But in an obscure way I felt that you were not completely happy with your flight. You couldn’t give three good reasons for it. I too suffered from this wrench, but the clearest thought was: why don’t we abandon this Gaza and flee? Why don’t we? Your situation had begun to improve, however. The ministry of Education in Kuwait had given you a contract though it hadn’t given me one. In the trough of misery where I existed you sent me small sums of money. You wanted me to consider them as loans. because you feared that I would feel slighted. You knew my family circumstances in and out; you knew that my meagre salary in the UNRWA schools was inadequate to support my mother, my brother’s widow and her four children.

“Listen carefully. Write to me every day… every hour… every minute! The plane’s just leaving. Farewell! Or rather, till we meet again!”
Your cold lips brushed my cheek, you turned your face away from me towards the plane, and when you looked at me again I could see your tears.

Later the Ministry of Education in Kuwait gave me a contract. There’s no need to repeat to you how my life there went in detail. I always wrote to you about everything. My life there had a gluey, vacuous quality as though I were a small oyster, lost in oppressive loneliness, slowly struggling with a future as dark as the beginning of the night, caught in a rotten routine, a spewed-out combat with time. Everything was hot and sticky. There was a slipperiness to my whole life, it was all a hankering for the end of the month.
In the middle of the year, that year, the Jews bombarded the central district of Sabha and attacked Gaza, our Gaza, with bombs and flame-throwers. That event might have made some change in my routine, but there was nothing for me to take much notice of; I was going to leave. this Gaza behind me and go to California where I would live for myself, my own self which had suffered so long. I hated Gaza and its inhabitants. Everything in the amputated town reminded me of failed pictures painted in grey by a sick man. Yes, I would send my mother and my brother’s widow and her children a meagre sum to help them to live, but I would liberate myself from this last tie too, there in green California, far from the reek of defeat which for seven years had filled my nostrils. The sympathy which bound me to my brother’s children, their mother and mine would never be enough to justify my tragedy in taking this perpendicular dive. It mustn’t drag me any further down than it already had. I must flee!

You know these feelings, Mustafa, because you’ve really experienced them. What is this ill-defined tie we had with Gaza which blunted our enthusiasm for flight? Why didn’t we analyse the matter in such away as to give it a clear meaning? Why didn’t we leave this defeat with its wounds behind us and move on to a brighter future which would give us deeper consolation? Why? We didn’t exactly know.

When I went on holiday in June and assembled all my possessions, longing for the sweet departure, the start towards those little things which give life a nice, bright meaning, I found Gaza just as I had known it, closed like the introverted lining of a rusted snail-shell thrown up by the waves on the sticky, sandy shore by the slaughter-house. This Gaza was more cramped than the mind of a sleeper in the throes of a fearful nightmare, with its narrow streets which had their bulging balconies…this Gaza! But what are the obscure causes that draw a man to his family, his house, his memories, as a spring draws a small flock of mountain goats? I don’t know. All I know is that I went to my mother in our house that morning. When I arrived my late brother’s wife met me there and asked me,weeping, if I would do as her wounded daughter, Nadia, in Gaza hospital wished and visit her that evening. Do you know Nadia, my brother’s beautiful thirteen-year-old daughter?
That evening I bought a pound of apples and set out for the hospital to visit Nadia. I knew that there was something about it that my mother and my sister-in-law were hiding from me, something which their tongues could not utter, something strange which I could not put my finger on. I loved Nadia from habit, the same habit that made me love all that generation which had been so brought up on defeat and displacement that it had come to think that a happy life was a kind of social deviation.

What happened at that moment? I don’t know. I entered the white room very calm. Ill children have something of saintliness, and how much more so if the child is ill as result of cruel, painful wounds. Nadia was lying on her bed, her back propped up on a big pillow over which her hair was spread like a thick pelt. There was profound silence in her wide eyes and a tear always shining in the depths of her black pupils. Her face was calm and still but eloquent as the face of a tortured prophet might be. Nadia was still a child, but she seemed more than a child, much more, and older than a child, much older.

I’ve no idea whether I was the one who said it, or whether it was someone else behind me. But she raised her eyes to me and I felt them dissolve me like a piece of sugar that had fallen into a hot cup of tea. ‘
Together with her slight smile I heard her voice. “Uncle! Have you just come from Kuwait?”
Her voice broke in her throat, and she raised herself with the help of her hands and stretched out her neck towards me. I patted her back and sat down near her.
“Nadia! I’ve brought you presents from Kuwait, lots of presents. I’ll wait till you can leave your bed, completely well and healed, and you’ll come to my house and I’ll give them to you. I’ve bought you the red trousers you wrote and asked me for. Yes, I’ve bought them.”
It was a lie, born of the tense situation, but as I uttered it I felt that I was speaking the truth for the first time. Nadia trembled as though she had an electric shock and lowered her head in a terrible silence. I felt her tears wetting the back of my hand.

“Say something, Nadia! Don’t you want the red trousers?” She lifted her gaze to me and made as if to speak, but then she stopped, gritted her teeth and I heard her voice again, coming from faraway.
She stretched out her hand, lifted the white coverlet with her fingers and pointed to her leg, amputated from the top of the thigh.
My friend … Never shall I forget Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh. No! Nor shall I forget the grief which had moulded her face and merged into its traits for ever. I went out of the hospital in Gaza that day, my hand clutched in silent derision on the two pounds I had brought with me to give Nadia. The blazing sun filled the streets with the colour of blood. And Gaza was brand new, Mustafa! You and I never saw it like this. The stone piled up at the beginning of the Shajiya quarter where we lived had a meaning, and they seemed to have been put there for no other reason but to explain it. This Gaza in which we had lived and with whose good people we had spent seven years of defeat was something new. It seemed to me just a beginning. I don’t know why I thought it was just a beginning. I imagined that the main street that I walked along on the way back home was only the beginning of a long, long road leading to Safad. Everything in this Gaza throbbed with sadness which was not confined to weeping. It was a challenge: more than that it was something like reclamation of the amputated leg!

I went out into the streets of Gaza, streets filled with blinding sunlight. They told me that Nadia had lost her leg when she threw herself on top of her little brothers and sisters to protect them from the bombs and flames that had fastened their claws into the house. Nadia could have saved herself, she could have run away, rescued her leg. But she didn’t.
No, my friend, I won’t come to Sacramento, and I’ve no regrets. No, and nor will I finish what we began together in childhood. This obscure feeling that you had as you left Gaza, this small feeling must grow into a giant deep within you. It must expand, you must seek it in order to find yourself, here among the ugly debris of defeat.

I won’t come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life is and what existence is worth.
Come back, my friend! We are all waiting for you.

– Ghassan Kanafani, 1956
Rest in Peace

Palestinian Media: Peering Through Windows

“The right is written with my blood…

 There is a name that my mouth repeats,

Al Quds, here we are, we have come to save you.

Young soldiers have defeated the old, thrown stones

Made the enemy’s murdering army flee”

In a timely release with the second Intifada in 2000 (Al Aqsa Intifida), Lebanese pop-artist Diana Haddad put out a track and music video called Al Haq yaktubo min Dami (The Right is Written With My Blood) written by Saudi poet Suad Al Sharbatli and directed by her then-husband Emarati director and media executive Suhail Al Abdool. In solidarity with the Palestinians, Haddad cancelled a 15-city tour of the US. “This song is the least I can do for the Palestinian people in support for their cause,” said Haddad adding “if we believe that these hard times are not the times to contribute anything; then when is the right time? We cannot watch idly what we see on television and not move,” Haddad stated in an interview asking her about the reasons for the video and tour cancellation.  The video was released on many highly rated pan-Arab television channels reaching the television screens of Arab viewers in 21 countries from Mauritania to Yemen.

In an earlier example, Palestine was the subject of a popular operetta by Egyptian producer Ahmad Al Arian. The 18-minute video of The Arab Dream became one of the most popular songs following the Palestinian Intifada. Directed by Tariq Al Arian and written by Egyptian poet Medhat Al Adl and Emarati poet Saif Al Khalidi, The Arab Dream operetta brought together over 20 artists from across the Arab world including Syrian Asala Nasri, Kuwaiti Nabeel Shuail, Tunisian Lutfi Bushnaq and Sudanese Sumayyah. Like Haddad’s The Right is Written With My Blood, the video was circulated on a wide array of Pan-Arab TV channels making it one of the most widely distributed songs in the Arab world. The video, a montage of black and white footage from the Palestinian Nakba (exodus), the October war, Gamal AbdelNasser public appearances, the artists’ studio recordings and the live stage performance of the operetta, starts off with a waving Palestinian flag implicitly making the case for Arab unity as a solution for a liberated Palestine.

Generation after generation

Will live on our dream

And what we say today

We are accountable for in our lives

It may be true that the darkness of night

Will separate us for a day

But the brightness of light

Can reach the farthest of skies

This is our dream for life

A chest that embraces

All of us, all of us

In 2008, following the Iraq war, Al Dameer Al Arabi (the Arab Conscience), part two of The Arab Dream was released by the Arian duo. This time, over 30 artists, from across the Arab world joined forces, including up-and-coming young pop-artists like Nancy Ajram and Diana Karazon to perform the operetta. The forty-minute song, centered on Palestine spoke about the dire situation of the Arab world from the conflict, to the Iraq War, to sectarian tensions and political instability of Lebanon. The video, a montage of news footage cross fading between shots of the artists performing in the recording studio, showed images of war, destruction and the deteriorating political landscape of an Arab dream in shambles.

Fast-forward to 2011, another example appears on the Pan-Arab television arena, which now holds over 90% penetration of all television viewing in the Arab world. 10-year-old Esam Bashiti from Jerusalem recited Ahlam Al Tufoola (Childhood Dreams), a moving poem, written by his family member, on the popular Arabs Got Talent in its first season. Receiving an emotional ovation from the audience and the judges alike, Bashiti advanced well into the final episodes of the season beating competition from talents from across the Arab world. Aired on popular Pan-Arab channel MBC 4, Arabs Got Talent, became one of the channel’s most successful shows and is currently running in its second season.

MBC 4’s mother company, MBC Group, is a Saudi-owned media conglomerate that runs some of the most popular Pan-Arab television channels in the Arab world including the highly rated Al-Jazeera contender news channel, Al Arabiya. It’s reach, like all 500+ Pan-Arab television channels covers 22 Arab countries.

What is interesting about MBC is that ever since its inception in 1991, it has never been based in Saudi Arabia. First launched in London, beaming its then, one channel to the Arab world via satellite. Later, it moved its headquarters to Dubai in 2002. By basing its headquarters outside of Saudi Arabia, it was able to feign an independence and sovereignty from the state’s stringent regulations on content and production. This does not in any way imply that the move freed it of all constraints of Saudi regulation. This is especially witnessed in the state’s influence on its editorial interventions in the news coverage of Al Arabiya. However, the point is this: in order to function (editorially, professionally and to a large degree, technically) it has had to seek editorial asylum and go offshore.

Similarly, under different circumstances, given the constraints of PA, Hamas, infrastructure limitations as seen in the cases of Ma’an, Al Aqsa, VOP and other so-called ‘indigenous’ media institutions, “Palestinian media” has had to, in order to function, always exist everywhere and elsewhere. The limitations are different, of course, but that would be stating the obvious (political fragmentation, Israeli control of the OPT, infrastructure etc). What is common, however, is the necessity to look elsewhere, to exist elsewhere.

The notion of “Palestinian media” is not like any other media, it has had to exist against all odds: through windows.

Whether it was setup in a strictly off-shore model, as in the case of AbdelBari Atwan’s Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, Al Qabas for which Naji el Ali made his 40,000 cartoons, or through solidarity projects like the Arab Dream/Conscience, through special sections like Al Safeer’s Falasteen, or even through opportunities that presented themselves like Bashiti’s resilient assertion of innocence — the unifying thread of “Palestinian media” has always been: existence through a series of windows.

These windows come in different shapes and sizes. Some are tinted, some are transparent; others are broken. Some windows were utopian, capitalizing on the seemingly safe-space of online and digital platforms like EI and Palestine Note. Others came in the form of a state’s desire to capitalize on the cause as a means of gaining political clout through the influence of public opinion. Whether it was used to gain popularity, advance a political agenda or to carve out a space for Palestine in an increasingly populated arena, “Palestinian media” has always managed to emerge, like much else in Palestine, in the most unique of ways.

Through the windows emerges a commitment to placing “Palestine” in the hearts and minds of not only the Arab publics, but global public consciousness at large, however varied the intentions may be.

Al Jazeera, as outlined by Zayani and Lynch, presented a very different kind of window. To some it was a panorama; to others it was a ploy. Whichever way one looks at it, whether as an assailant or a cheerleader, Al Jazeera provided a different kind of window for “Palestinian media”. Beyond the coverage of Palestine, whether it is seen as serving a greater Qatari agenda or not, the Al Jazeera phenomenon was, to a large degree, a different kind of “Palestinian media” window, insofar as its housing of what, would in a utopian idea of a functioning Palestinian media landscape, would be available in terms of talent, expertise and media-savvy professionals. What Lynch does not address is the significance of those that call the shots behind the scenes in the New Arab Public.

Off and on-air, in Arab media conglomerates the region over, through the decision making powers of Palestinian television media executives with significant power and a professional talent-base, channels like Al Jazeera were able to flourish.

Al Jazeera, launched on pan-Arab satellite from Doha in 1996, built its strong talent base off the spoils of failed London-based BBC Arab television venture (part-owned by Saudi’s Khalid Bin Faisal Al Saud). The closure of BBC Arabic, created a huge window of opportunity for the Qataris to tap into some of the most talented Arab journalism professionals based in London, many of whom were Palestinian.

By attracting talents from the BBC and elsewhere, like Waddah Khanfar who started as a Palestinian reporter covering the Afghanistan war then appointed Al Jazeera’s Managing Director quickly rising three years later to being its Director General, Al Jazeera was able to become as what was perceived by many, until recently (with its selective coverage of the Arab uprisings) an answer to the region’s prayers. “The maverick channel”, as it is called by Kraidy & Khalil in Arab Television Industries also had many other Palestinian executives at its helm including Ahmed AlSheikh, who ran its news team. On screen, talented professionals like Ghida Fakhri, Muna Ibellini, Tareq Ayyoub and Jamal Rayyan, became a different kind of window for “Palestinian media” – both visually asserting Palestine on the world media arena and editorially.

While home-grown Palestinian media organizations face the challenges of “professional qualities” (Jamal) they have long sat at the helm of the most influential media organizations in the Pan-Arab context – on and off camera. Al Jazeera is the most prominent example.

Contemporary examples, as explored by Stein & Swendenberg are also in abundance. Whether it is through hiphop music of Arab diaspora in solidarity, like Omar Offendum’s Destiny or The Narcycist’s and Low-Key’s Long Live Palestine, there are countless examples of how “Palestinian media” has transcended conventional norms when it comes to challenging media structures through windows. The digital landscape has allowed, not just for Palestinian-generated content as outlined by Khalili, but also for other manifestations of The Arab Dream phenomenon – through a “Global Palestine”, in my opinion, a great metaphor for Palestine in the global conscience.

While it doesn’t function under an umbrella called “Palestinian Media Corporation” – the strong presence of Palestinian media decision makers, editorial influence, platforms, initiatives, segments, film, websites, sections in fact collectively as Sienkiewicz put it:

“constitute potential building blocks for the Palestinian “imagined community, a possibility that would counteract the otherwise factional and fracturing nature of the nascent nation’s media.”

Night’s Watchmen of the Holy Lands

Last month during spring break, I had the opportunity to visit the Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam exhibit at the British Museum in London, UK. A collective of academics, curators and prominent figures of the highbrow global art scene, including Venetia Porter, Qaisra Khan and Karen Armstrong, author of Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, curated the extravagant exhibit. Examining the significance of the Hajj as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the exhibit follows the evolution of the journey throughout history, dating back to its pre-Islamic practices. The exhibit featured an impressive showcase of archaeological material; manuscripts, textiles, historic photographs and artworks including textiles commissioned by Sultan Selim Khan (Selim III) dated 1204 AH from the Khalili Collection, the second largest collection of textiles and objects related to Mecca and Medina after Topkapı Sarayı in Istanbul.

While the exhibit itself received many an accolade for its scope, display, educational and cultural value, one of its sponsors in particular provoked a very different debate.

Sponsored by HSBC Amanah (the Islamic Banking division of HSBC), the Khalili Family Trust and the King Abdulaziz Public Library, the political motivations of the latter were received with much skepticism and criticism. In her article Kneeling Towards Riyadh for Guernica, Joy Lo Dico chastises The British Museum for omissions in the curatorial practices surrounding the holy site now controlled by the Saudi monarchy, the Al Saud family, for being subservient to the oil-wealthy royals controlling the most important site for Muslims worldwide. From the siege of Mecca in 1979 by Jahayman Al Utaibi, which ended in a death toll of over 1,000 people (rebels, forces and civilians) to the fires of 1997, Lo Dico calls out the gaps in between the display panels.

“The Hajj is a very important use of soft power,” says Saudi scholar Dr Mai Yamani to Lo Dico,

“When King Fahd adopted the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, that was partly a response to the threat of the Islamic revolution and Khomeini questioning why the al Saud’s were the rulers of it of it.”

This was not the first time that Saudi control over Mecca was brought into question. In fact, the Saudi regime has been lambasted for its destruction of a long list of historical sites in Mecca and Medina, according to Salah Nasrawi of AP who wrote of the demolitions in his article Mecca’s Ancient Heritage is Under Attack, published in 2007. The demolitions include the house believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in 570 and the Dar Al Arqam, the first Islamic school where the Prophet taught and a 200-year-old Ottoman fort on a hill overlooking the Kaaba in 2002.

Recently, the construction of a massive clock tower, The Royal Mecca Tower, looming over Mecca reignited a debate surrounding the commercialization of the holy site. “It is a commercialization of the house of God,” Saudi architect Sami Anqawi told Nicolai Ouroussoff in the article New Look for Mecca: Gargantuan and Gaudy published in New York Times in 2010.

Similarly, in her article Has Hajj Lost Its Egalitarian Spirit? for The Green Prophet, Arwa Abu Rawa argues that the simplicity of the Kaaba, the key destination of the Hajj pilgrimage “has been undermined by the proliferation of luxury hotels, malls and towering skyscrapers which surround the holy site.” She states. “You can even start your day with the usual Starbucks coffee if you like or pick up a McDonalds after prayers.”

Control of Mecca by the Saudis does not stop at its architectural endeavors, the Saudi regime controls entry and exit into the Kingdom, thus restricting access to the holy site by way of documentation and bureaucracy. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter Mecca under Saudi law. Bar the limited authority of the resolutions put forth by the States of the Organization of the Islamic conferences, Muslims worldwide have little say over the fate of Mecca.

Architecture, real estate and “development” in the case of Mecca and Medina sheds light on the political nature of its practices and those who control it. If Mecca, a site, which today is primarily if not exclusively holy to one religion, poses such a challenge to regulation practices and authority, what of a holy city at the heart of not one, but three religions and historical significance?

On access to Al Aqsa, the Church of All Nations, and the Temple Mount, who has the final say?

As Makdissi asks

“How can a state claim to have one identity when such a large proportion of the people over whom it rules have another identity?”

From the shut down of Al Mughrabi Bridge to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City citing concerns over “public safety” to the restricted access to holy sites to the Christian Palestinian West Bank community during Easter, it is clear that, like Mecca, control over holy sites in Jerusalem is held by the powers that rule – be it lawfully or not.  And if the West Bank or Gaza identity cards and behind-the-wall status of Palestinian Christian and Muslim communities “complicate” the matter making it susceptible to “security” claims, what then do we call the hindrance of access to Lebanese and Syrian Christians who wish to visit the holy sites? What then is the reason I cannot visit the Al Aqsa mosque?

While the circumstances are by no means comparable, in the commercialization of Mecca, the “annexation” of Jerusalem and the demolition and renaming of Bahrain’s Lulu roundabout, there is a common ground to be found: architecture or its erasure for that matter is indeed always political. While architectural endeavors may begin on the left side of an architect’s brain they must always strip away their creative innocence in order to come to life. The politics need not be blatant. A simple inscription on the bottom right hand corner is enough to implicate any given blueprints in white and blue.