Monday, February 22, 2010

'syrian school' series on bbc tv

‘Syrian School’ TV series aims to challenge stereotypes
by Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette, 21 February 2010

The “Syrian School” series, currently being screened in weekly episodes on UK TV digital channel BBC Four, gives viewers an unprecedented insight into life among Syrian secondary schoolchildren. The five one-hour programs focus on the pupils and staff of four schools in Damascus over the course of one year.
The fly-on-the-wall approach takes the viewer into the schools, homes and streets of the Syrian capital as it follows the youngsters and tracks their lives. The teenagers come across as lively, good-humored, ambitious and independent-minded. The series, made by Lion Television, is a joint production of the Open University and the BBC and follows previous OU-BBC series on schools in Africa, India and China.
Anthropologist and filmmaker Max Baring directed and filmed the series. He says: “What excited me about working on ‘Syrian School’ was the possibility that we could un-pick some of the stereotypes that we in the West hold about the Middle East and the Islamic world in general.”
For example, while the number of Damascene girls wearing the hijab is rising, at the same time “young Syrians are eagerly exploring Western tastes and fashions, without compromising their closely-held Arab heritage.”
The series introduces viewers to an array of memorable characters. The headmistress of Zaki Al-Arsuzi Girls’ School, Amal Hassan, is a dominant presence in the first episode. She wants her pupils to see “how strong I am, and how I am proud of myself, and how I am free from inside... To face all the problems of life they have to be like this.”
The school’s pupils extend an ecstatic welcome to the elegant first lady of Syria, Asma Al-Assad, wife of President Bashar Al-Assad. She visits the school to talk to girls working on a newly-introduced innovation, which she is supporting, to prepare young Syrians for work in the private sector and to develop entrepreneurship.
The first episode is centered around two pupils starting the school year in new schools. Du’aa, a girl from a devout Muslim family, has transferred from a Sharia School to Zaki Al-Arsuzi School for her final year of studying for the Baccalaureate exams.
Du’aa, who memorized the Qur’an at 14, stresses that there is no contradiction between religion and a desire for education. “God urged us to seek knowledge and we prize knowledge a lot” she says. As a child she dreamed of space travel, and longed to be an astronaut.
Fifteen-year-old Iraqi Christian refugee Yusif Androus is beginning his first term at Jaramana Boys’ School. Some two million Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Syria provides them with, among other things, free school education.
The influx of Iraqi pupils puts a strain on Syrian schools. Jaramana School, for example, has 500 pupils, including 200 Iraqis, but was built to take only 300. Yusif is a talented footballer, and when he was in Iraq it had been planned that he would play in front of a group of Dutch talent scouts. But after his eldest brother was murdered in sectarian violence the family fled to Syria.
Yusif is still affected by the violence and bombings he witnessed as a young child in Baghdad. Even now he finds it hard to tolerate loud bangs, such as those produced by firework displays.
The program shows a playground scuffle between two of Yusif’s Iraqi friends, who are reprimanded by a school supervisor. The supervisor later says that things are difficult for children from Iraq. “After what they’ve been through we can’t expect their nerves to be normal. They are under a lot of psychological pressure.”
The first episode coincides with the month of Ramadan. It shows pupils at the end of Ramadan going to Eid prayers and excitedly buying Eid presents, visiting family and going to the funfairs that spring up in parks.
The second program focuses on pupils at Yarmouk Girls School in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp established more than 60 years ago.
The Palestinian issue is never far from the pupils’ minds; when the TV crew visits in February 2009 it is a time of particularly strong feeling, just after the Gaza war. Girls express their responses to the war via art and poetry.

Two pupils want to become the first girl rappers in Yarmouk camp. Sixteen-year-old Shaza likes the music of American rappers Eminem, T-Bone and Akon and her love of rap is shared by Rahaf in the year above her. The girls visit the studio of Refugees of Rap, a successful local Palestinian-Syrian-Algerian rap group. The group members listen to the girls’ live performances and give them positive feedback.
Shaza and Rahaf hope to perform at the school prize giving. But this puts them on a collision course with their traditionalist Syrian headmistress Ghada Daloul who declares: “I don’t believe that rap music serves the Palestinian cause.” She is also unhappy that they went to the studio of the male rappers. The two girls’ families also turn against the idea of their becoming rappers. Rahaf confides to the camera: “Girls suffer a lot while looking on at boys enjoying a lot of freedom and going out: a lot of girls wish they were boys.”
Another Yarmouk School pupil, 18-year-old Safa’ Kiwan, is the Damascus girls’ discus champion. She is encouraged by the school sports mistress to train for the national schools championships, but she keeps her training secret from her strict father. Her paternal grandmother clandestinely accompanies her to training sessions.
A poetry writing club run by Muhannad at Zaki Al-Arsuzi School is a highlight of the third program. One club member, Ala [pictured], presents a poem inspired by a thwarted romance that began with an exchange of texts. Meanwhile at a boys’ primary school on the fringes of Damascus, two ten-year-olds compete to come top in class exams. In the following program the Syrian Junior Chess Champion travels to Beirut to take part in the Asian International Championships.

The series ends with preparations by twin sisters for the Baccalaureate exams. Farah dreams of studying English and exploring the world, inspired by her satellite TV heroine, British TV chef Nigella Lawson. Her twin sister Rahaf has more practical aspirations, hoping to study engineering.
Following its run on BBC Four, “Syrian School” is due to be shown on BBC World News in August. At the same time schools in the UK are being invited to twin with schools in the Arab world via an application form on the BBC website.

Monday, February 15, 2010

'sabra zoo': palestinian writer mischa hiller's debut novel

New Arab literary talent pens ‘Sabra Zoo’
By Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 15 Jan 2010
This month marks the publication by London-based Telegram Books of the debut novel of a striking new talent in Arab fiction, the Anglo-Palestinian writer Mischa Hiller. “Sabra Zoo” is a searing and accomplished novel that takes the reader back to the bloody events in Beirut in summer 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Hiller was born in Hull, northern England, in 1962 to a Palestinian father and English mother. He grew up in Durham, London, Beirut and Dar Es Salaam and currently lives in Cambridge, England.

The engaging first-person narrator of his novel is the 18-year-old son of a Danish mother and a father who is a PLO official. Ivan’s parents have left Beirut in the evacuation by sea of PLO forces after the two-month Israeli siege and bombardment of the city.

The novel opens three days after the evacuation. Ivan is euphoric: “The war was over and I was parent-free for the first time, with my own apartment. I couldn’t ask for more.” But his optimism is premature, and he will soon find himself caught in a perilous situation.

Ivan works as an interpreter at a Red Crescent hospital at Sabra Palestinian refugee camp, which is treating victims of the siege and bombardment. During the siege, nearly 7,000 people were killed and 30,000 wounded, more than 80 percent of them civilians from West Beirut. More than 2,000 of those seriously wounded were burnt by phosphorus bombs.

Ivan is street-wise and witty, yet vulnerable. He is constantly distracted by the attractions of women and is eager for experience. He is particularly drawn to Norwegian physiotherapist Eli, an older married woman with a son. Ivan is, to some extent, an outsider, with his mixed parentage, part-European looks and education at a school in Copenhagen. Those meeting him for the first time often ask about his Russian-sounding name.
Hiller lived in Beirut himself for 10 years on and off, leaving in winter 1982. In writing the novel “I used some of my experience briefly interpreting for foreign medics and journalists in 1982, although I want to be very clear that this is definitely a work of fiction and not my story,” he told Saudi Gazette. “My experience did provide the feel, emotion and even humor of the situation and hopefully allowed me to create a compelling point of view in Ivan – although I suspect his preoccupations are the same as teenage boys everywhere.”
Hiller delineates his characters, even minor ones, with skill, and the dialogue is expertly pitched. These qualities are apparent in Ivan’s interactions with the team of international medical volunteers. They include diminutive strong-minded Dr. Asha Patel and Scottish doctor John. The medical team members work intensively in the day and party hard at night.
One of Ivan’s closest buddies is his Lebanese driver, Samir, who had also been the driver of Ivan’s father. Samir also runs a little cafĂ©, taking pride in his “special sauce.” He may have a crude womanizing side, but he is at the same time a warm and endearing character.

Ivan gradually reveals to the reader that his parents’ marriage has been crumbling since the accidental death some years earlier of his younger brother Karam in a fall from a balcony.
When Eli asks Ivan to help with a patient Youssef, a patient in his early teens whose foot has been badly damaged by an Israeli cluster bomb, Ivan is reminded of Karam who would have been of a similar age to Youssef were he still alive. Youssef is reluctant to try using crutches, and Ivan manages to get him to have a go. He becomes increasingly involved in helping Youssef back to recovery.
Ivan is leading a compartmentalized life, of which his work at the hospital is only one part. He has remained in Beirut at the request of a PLO official so as to courier forged documents and passports between PLO cadres who are living in hiding. Ivan’s Danish passport allows him to move relatively easily around the city. But there is a traitor among the comrades.
At the same time he works for an American TV company which brings him into the world of international journalists crowded into the Commodore Hotel. This adds a dimension to the novel of seeing the violence through the eyes and recordings of Bob, the American for whom Ivan translates.
Matters become increasingly precarious after the Commander of the Lebanese Forces and President-Elect Bashir Gemayel is assassinated. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invade West Beirut and their Phalangist allies conduct raids. There is tension on every corner, and hooded informers betray people at roadblocks. An atmosphere of paranoia and danger builds up.
The Palestinian refugee camps after the PLO withdrawal have been left exposed and defenseless. The violence culminates in one of the most ghastly episodes in the modern history of the Middle East: the massacre of hundreds or thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, under the noses of the IDF.
The Israeli government’s Kahan Inquiry of 1983 concluded that while the Phalangists were directly responsible for the massacre, Israeli forces were indirectly responsible. The report ultimately forced the reluctant resignation of Ariel Sharon as Defense Minister, but this was only a temporary blip in his brutal record in relation to the Palestinians.
“Sabra Zoo” is a fast-paced read with an economical style, and readily lends itself to a film treatment. Hiller wrote a film adaptation after completing the novel, while waiting for it to be sold to a publisher, “simply because I had always wanted to write a screenplay and love film as a story-telling medium.” In 2009 his screenplay won the European Independent Film Festival script competition.
Hiller says: “I did not study creative writing as such, but read a lot of screenplays to see how it was done. Since my writing style is sparse anyway, I was attracted to the idea that you can tell a story in 90 to 120 pages of double-spaced type, which is the ultimate in stripped-down writing.”
Hiller is now working on his second novel, in which “an orphaned survivor of the events of Sabra and Shatila is groomed and recruited by a mysterious PLO member to work for him secretly in Europe.” The sale of the book has yet to be finalized, but Hiller hopes that it will be published next year.

Monday, February 01, 2010

cultural cleansing in iraq

Counting the cost of cultural cleansing in Iraq
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette February 1 2010
One of the most enduring sound-bites from the April 2003 invasion of Iraq was the then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissive phrase “stuff happens.” He was responding to questions over the chaos in which ministries, museums and other institutions were ransacked, looted and burned while US troops stood by and failed to intervene. Rumsfeld suggested that the looting was a positive sign, an understandable targeting of the hated symbols of the ousted regime.
In the nearly seven years following the invasion, the culture of Iraq has continued to be ravaged. A collection of papers newly published by Pluto Press of London and New York explores the different facets of the onslaught on culture. The book has the provocative title “Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered.”
The editors of the book are Raymond W. Baker, a politics professor of both Trinity College in the USA and the American University in Cairo; Shereen T. Ismail, Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, Carleton University, Canada, and Tariq Y. Ismail, Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary, Canada.
The book is dedicated to the late Professor Issam Al-Rawi, Professor of Geology at Baghdad University and Chairman of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) who was assassinated in October 2006. Al-Rawi had founded the register of murdered academics.
The editors of “Cultural Cleansing in Iraq” write that the destruction of the Iraqi state has killed over a million civilians, displaced some four million refugees abroad and internally, and led to the targeted assassination of more than 400 academics and professionals. “All of these terrible losses are compounded by unprecedented levels of cultural devastation, attacks on national archives and monuments that represent the historical identity of the Iraqi people,” they write.
They see Iraq as a country in which the ending of the state was an objective of the occupiers. “State destruction went beyond regime change and included the dismantling of state institutions and the launching of a prolonged process of political reshaping.” They draw parallels with 1980s Central America where death squads were “a foreign policy tool.”

Zainab Bahrani [pictured] – the Edith Porada Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, New York – argues that the damage and destruction to Iraq’s heritage was not just due to poor planning and collateral damage. She asks why the occupiers chose to locate military bases at main cultural heritage sites such as Babylon, Ur and Samarra. The establishment of these bases has causes severe damage, destroying thousands of years of archaeological material. “Like human rights abuses, the destruction of a people’s cultural heritage and history has elsewhere been regarded as a war crime.”
Some contributors note that damage to Iraqi culture started well before 2003. The former director general of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq, Abbas Al-Hussainy [pictured], considers that the modern assault on Iraq’s cultural heritage began in the second half of the 19th century. At that time there were illegal exports of artifacts to Asia, Europe and America.

The country’s heritage later suffered during the Iraq-Iran war and, from 1991 onwards, under sanctions. At the same time the regime sponsored “restoration” projects for propaganda purposes. A notorious example was Saddam’s restoration of Babylon with his name inscribed on each brick, in the style of Nebuchadnezzar II. The regime’s punitive actions against the south and the destruction of the salt marshes laid waste to the cultural riches of that area. “However, these earlier assaults on Iraq’s Mesopotamian heritage pale in comparison to the wreckage inflicted by the occupation of Iraq from 2003 onward,” the editors write.
The destruction of Iraq’s collective memory is a theme running through the book. Nabil Al-Takriti of the University of Mary Washington in the USA cites the scholar Keith Watenpaugh’s use of the word “mnemocide” to mean the murder of cultural memory. The push to remake Iraq has been destructive to the country’s collective memory. As Al-Takriti puts it: “In Iraq’s case, during a period of great chaotic flux, one country under occupation lost a great deal of its connection to its past while certain occupying powers profited from that loss in a variety of ways.”
Al-Takriti surveys the huge toll looting, burning and flooding has taken on the precious collections of documents in the Iraqi National Library and Archives (INLA), the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs Central Library (Awqaf Library), the Iraqi House of Manuscripts, the Iraqi Academy of Sciences, the House of Wisdom and the Iraqi Jewish Archive.
There are disputes over the ownership of some of the surviving documents. The controversial Iraqi academic Kanan Makiya, who was a strong proponent of the invasion, removed the Baath Party Archives from the Party headquarters in 2003 and eventually took them to California. His Iraq Memory Foundation (IMF) claimed stewardship of the archives and then turned them over to the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. But the director general of INLA Saad Eskander [pictured] challenges the IMF’s right to dispose of the collection.

Eskander is also involved in a tussle between Iraq and certain Jewish claimants over the Iraqi Jewish Archive of books, manuscripts and records that was recovered by US troops from a sewage-flooded basement. The Iraqi Culture Ministry agreed that the collection should be moved to the US for preservation, but it was supposed to be returned after two years. Now Iraq is pressing for its return. Explaining why the archive should be returned, Eskander has said: “Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity...To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multiethnic.” But certain influential Jewish personalities and circles in the US object to the return to Iraq.
Philip Marfleet, Reader in Refugee Studies and Director of the Refugee Research Centre at the University of East London, warns that the scattering of Iraqi intellectuals worldwide is “making the prospect of return and reconsolidation of the country’s academic, professional and technical cadres increasingly difficult, leaving a gaping hole in its human resources. A loss of this magnitude will certainly affect the wider society for generations to come.” The Iraqi intelligentsia is in effect being evacuated; hence the presence in Iraqi refugee communities of disproportionately large numbers of academics, writers, journalists and artists.