Monday, September 29, 2008

reem kelani's 'ramadan nights' concert

Palestinian singer Reem Kelani opens the Ramadan Nights season of concerts in London

The Ramadan Nights concert given at the London venue LSO St Luke’s by the Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani and her band on Thursday night was in effect a tribute to two great Arab artists who happen to share a surname: the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923), and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died on August 9.

The concert was the opening event of the Barbican Centre’s fourth annual Ramadan Nights season of concerts by outstanding Muslim singers and musicians from Britain and abroad. Kelani is a long-time resident of the capital, and tickets to her concert had sold out well in advance.

The event began in stunning style with Kelani singing unaccompanied her arrangement of Sayyid Darwish’s “Birth of the Chosen Prophet”. Her pure voice, subtly ornamented, took wing with this devotional song and soared in the spacious yet intimate hall of the 18th century former church designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Then came the rousing traditional Palestinian wedding song “Hawwilouna”, from the coastal city of Akka. The audience joined with gusto in the syncopated clapping by Kelani and the musicians. There was laughter when Kelani observed that the song “tells the family of the groom if you treat our daughter nicely in marriage we’ll make you ruler of all the Arab tribes, but if you don’t you’ll be cleaning after our animals and sheep.”

Kelani dedicated the concert to Mahmoud Darwish, and among the songs she performed was her setting of his 1967 poem “Mawwaal – Variations on Loss”. The opening lines read: “I lost a beautiful dream / I lost the lilies’ sting / My night has been long / stretched over the garden walls / But I have not lost the way.”

The song began with drummer Patrick Illingworth setting a somber beat before the Anglo-Bengali pianist Zoe Rahman came in with a captivating hymn-like succession of chords. Saxophone playing by Ian East and by Zoe’s brother Idris Rahman gave the Mawwaal a soulful sound. Kelani’s powerfully moving rendering of the song was concluded by a skilful tabla solo from the Iranian percussionist Fariborz Kiani.

“Mawwaal – Variations on Loss” and several other numbers performed during the concert came from Kelani’s 2006 debut CD “Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora”. She is now working on her second CD, devoted to the music of Sayyid Darwish [pictured], “considered to be the godfather of contemporary Arab music.”

Half the 12 songs performed during the concert were Kelani’s arrangements of compositions by Sayyid Darwish to lyrics by various authors. Kelani described Darwish as a “working class hero” who wrote anthems for professions such as water sellers, sailors, fortune tellers and builders.

She said: “He was a tortured soul and I relate a lot to his suffering. He was torn between his faith and his music, and [this is] something that many practicing Muslim artists, especially if they are women, go through. So Darwish’s suffering was very much collective, and he remained with that turmoil most of his life, and the third dimension that came out of that suffering was his beautiful music.”
“The Porters’ Anthem”, with lyrics by Badi’ Khairi (1893-1966), says “buckle up your belt and carry the heavy load because as an Egyptian you’re proud enough to work hard instead of stretching your hand asking for money.” It includes the porters’ cries of “hina hina” that Darwish used to hear in the markets of Alexandria.

Kelani’s performances always include the unexpected, even for those who know her music well, and one surprise in this concert was her first-ever public performance on the tanbour lyre. She accompanied herself as she sang a Sayyid Darwish song about Nubians, which she has entitled “Ode to the Downtrodden

Kelani was born in the northern English city of Manchester, to a medical doctor father from the village of Ya’bad near Jenin and a mother from Nazareth, and grew up in Kuwait. It was in Kuwait that she first heard Sudanese music and got to know the music of the famous Nubian Sudanese singer, songwriter and tanbour player Mohammed Wardi.

The concert was the occasion for Kelani’s first public airing of “Ode to the Downtrodden” (originally entitled “Ashinger Damolina”), and it went down well with the audience. It had a distinctly African feel, particularly through her playing of the tanboura. Kelani gave the audience an idea of the stereotyped way in which Nubians have tended to be viewed in Egypt. She worked with a Nubian linguistics professor visiting Britain to try to ensure that her translations of Nubian words were correct and that she was not treading on sensitivities. She dedicated the song to the Nubian villages that were submerged as a result of the building of the Aswan dam.

Kelani performed several songs from the Palestinian repertoire for which she is best known. The lyrics of the traditional “Galilean Lullaby” were collected by the Palestinian poet Tawfiq Zayyad. Kelani has composed her own music to the lyrics, which begin: “Our loved ones have left home, / Gone away without saying goodbye”.

She learned a song she calls “A Baker’s Dozen” from a group of women in the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. She found the song had a 13-beat cycle, and when she was recording “Sprinting Gazelle” her production engineer Steve Lowe, who is from Bolton in northern England, suggested the title “A Baker’s Dozen”. The original Arabic title is “Habl el-Ghiwa” or “The Pull of Seduction”.

The striking introduction to “A Baker’s Dozen” was played on the double bass by Pete Billington with Arabic inflections that gave an effect almost like that of an oud. Kelani said the song expresses both the tragedy and love of life, and she got the audience to come in with cries of “Awf!” at appropriate moments. The effect of Kelani’s vocal improvisations interwoven with the excellent tight playing of her band was very jazzy, and yet at the same time utterly Arab.

As an encore Kelani and her musicians performed the Sayyid Darwish “I am Egyptian”, segueing into one of his most famous songs “Zourouni!” (“Visit Me!”). At the end of the concert members of the audience were invited to partake of Ramadan dates and almonds.

The concert was an exhilarating opening to the Ramadan Nights season of four main concerts, and several smaller Freestage and Clubstage events. The other concerts feature the Azeri singer and daf player Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana, sharing the bill with the Kronos Quartet; the legendary Iranian-Kurdish Kamkar family - seven brothers and one sister –appearing on the same program as Turkish ney player Kudsi Erguner and his group; and the Mali musician Bassekou Kouyaté with his Ngoni ba group, and the Mali Tuareg group Tartit.

Susannah Tarbush

translating libya

Non-Political Stories of Love and Hardship

Hardly any Libyan literature has been translated from Arabic. Now, a former American diplomat to Libya has published a collection of Libyan short stories in English. The edition offers insights into a hitherto undiscovered literary landscape.

"Translating Libya" is published by Saqi in association with the London Middle East Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Ethan Chorin's book "Translating Libya: The Modern Libyan Short Story" defies being pigeon-holed within a particular genre. At its heart are 16 Libyan short stories newly translated by Chorin (in three cases jointly with Basem Tulti). But the book is at the same time a delightful mixture of travelogue, scholarly study, and a record of personal encounters.
Libya, after its long years of international isolation, still appears generally mysterious and little understood to outsiders. The title "Translating Libya" can be seen in two ways. One is the translation of Libyan literature, the other the "translating" of Libya itself. Through the stories and his accompanying jottings and commentaries, Chorin throws much light on different facets of Libya, past and present.
American enthusiasm
Chorin [pictured] was a member of the small team of US diplomats that went to Tripoli after US-Libyan relations were renewed in July 2004. He remained there as Commercial and Economic Attaché until 2006. When he asked his assistant in Tripoli, US-educated Basem Tulti, if he could recommend any good local authors, Tulti produced a paperback containing "The Locusts" ("Al-Jarad") by Ahmed Fagih.
Chorin loved the story, and translated it into English. Thus was born the idea of collaborating with Tulti on a project to translate a number of stories. The stories are interspersed with Chorin's vivid, often amusing, accounts of his adventures while travelling to far-flung places, or trying to track down particular writers or stories. He combed multiple sources for stories, including bookshops, newspapers, magazines, internet sites and personal contacts.

The stories are divided into three sections – eastern, southern and western Libya – corresponding roughly to the pre-independence provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. The eastern region is placed first, in deference to its "distinct role in producing Libyan writers and intellectuals."
Complex American-Libyan relations
How did Libyans react to Chorin as a US diplomat? "I found Libyans as a people – and Libyan writers and artists in particular – to be engaged, and extremely generous. I always got the sense that most Libyans felt very positive towards Americans, despite the past obvious tensions in the relationship."
Chorin reckons this is perhaps because "older Libyans generally had fond memories of interactions with Americans in the 60s and 70s, and Libya's international isolation shielded younger generations (somewhat) from the hot-button issues about which the rest of the region obsesses. This is no longer the case, and expectations are high as to what the rapprochement will produce."
The 16 stories are rendered in clear, flowing translation. Their authors range from Wahbi Bouri, born in 1916 and widely considered the "original" Libyan short story writer, through the next generation of writers such as Ahmed Fagih [pictured (R) with fellow Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni (L)] , Ramadan Abdalla Bukheit, Ali Mustapha Misrati , Sadiq Nayhoum and Kamel Maghur, to younger authors including Abdullah Ali Al-Gazal, Maryam Ahmed Salama and Najwa Ben Shetwan.
The role of female writers
Chorin notes that a considerable percentage of young Libyan writers today are women in their late twenties and early thirties, whereas in the previous two decades writers were overwhelmingly male. Some women write under male pen-names, however, as they do not feel the act of writing is yet a socially acceptable activity for women.
The stories include timeless fables such as Sadiq Nayhoum's stories "The Good-Hearted Salt Seller" and "The Sultan's Flotilla" ("Markab As-Sultan"). Others are social satires: "Special Edition" by Ali Mustapha Misrati, lampoons Arab journalism, while Lamia El-Makki's previously unpublished "Tripoli Story", set in today's consumerist society, portrays a monstrously materialistic wife.
Libyan love stories
There are several tales of thwarted love. Kamel Maghur's Tripoli story "The Old Hotel" centres on the relationship between a Muslim migrant from "the hopeless town" of Zwara and a Jewish woman. A nurse in the town of Ghadames falls in love with a Ukrainian doctor in Maryam Salama's "From Door to Door" ("Min Bab Ila Bab").
Two hauntingly poetic stories are set on the eastern Libyan coast. In Najwa Ben Shetwan's "The Spontaneous Lover" a young woman on vacation with her family in the village of Bauhareshma writes her lover a letter to be put into a bottle and tossed into the Mediterranean. "The Mute" by Abdullah Ali Al-Gazal is located in a mountainous verdant place where an abused mute girl succumbs to the call of the natural world.
While there is plenty to savour in the stories, there is also much meat in Chorin's accompanying material. The six concluding chapters cover the history of the Libyan short story; "three generations of economic shock"; migration; minorities; the Libyan psyche; and Libyan women.
Evading political realities
The stories do not directly confront the political realities of the four decades of the Qadhafi era. Chorin observes that in the "revolutionary years" from 1969 to 1986, the realist style of the 1960s was abandoned. A few committed writers with means fled the country. Those who stayed "nursed their hobbies more or less in private". Writers coped with censorship through allegory or "outright evasion". Some of the work from that time is only now seeing the light of day, more than 20 years on.
Chorin writes: "There are signs that with the recent economic and cultural opening, more people are reading, and short stories in particular." With the recent lifting of restrictions on certain forms of expression, and a new press law, "it will be interesting to see who will be among the next generation of Libyan writers and from where they will draw inspiration."
The effect of the Internet
He hopes that the trend will be towards more openness and creativity. "Most of my information now about Libya comes either directly through Libyan friends, or the Internet. Individuals like Laila Neihoum (a cousin of Sadiq Nayhoum) have done Libyan arts a tremendous service by publishing blogs describing what's going on in Libyan art and literature. Hopefully more of this sort of thing will start to appear in English." In the book Chorin mentions the effect of the Internet in encouraging writers to take some risks and self publish. "This is clearly having an effect in sharing Libyan arts with the world."

Chorin is currently on leave from the State Department and working as a senior fellow of the Middle East Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. "My passion is the Middle East, and I hope to be back living in the region soon," he says. "I most certainly keep in touch with my Libyan friends – this project has helped tremendously with that – and very much hope to return to Libya."
Susannah Tarbush
© 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

'iranian photography now

Modernity grapples with tradition in the work of Iranian photographers
Susannah Tarbush

For her series of photographs ‘Qajar’, the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian dressed young women in early 20th century clothing, and photographed them holding Western objects that had been smuggled into Iran. In one portrait a woman stands with a ghetto blaster on her shoulder, in another a seated woman holds a can of Pepsi

The images exemplify the way in which Ghadirian, who turned 34 this year, explores through her photographs the paradox between the conservative role of women in Iranian society and the impact of modernity.

Her follow-up series ‘Like Every Day’ consists of a number of patterned chadors with the woman’s face in each case replaced by a household item such as an iron, a teapot, a rubber glove or a cheese grater. Ghadirian says this series was “inspired by my own experience of married life: vacuum cleaners and pots and pans found their way into my photographs.”

Since 1999 Ghadirian has exhibited widely internationally and her photographs are in several major public collections including the British Museum. She is one of 36 Iranian photographers who are celebrated in a new book, “Iranian Photography Now”. Edited by Rose Issa, a London-based curator and producer of contemporary visual arts and film from the Middle East, the book is produced by the German art book publisher Hatje Cantz in association with the Prince Claus Fund Library of the Netherlands. The 236-page volume has superb quality reproductions of photographs.

Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, writes in his preface that the multiple viewpoints of the works of the photographers are “appropriate for these fractured times – and fitting for a country where collisions between personal, social, religious, and political life can be emotive, troubling and complex.”

Some of the photographers are long-established, such as Shirin Neshat, and the film-director Abbas Kiarostami. Others are newer talents, some still in their twenties. What distinguishes them all, according to Issa, is the originality of their vision, whether documentary, artistic or conceptual. “All the images in this book challenge us to reconsider the complexities that influence life in Iran. By addressing the personal, national, and international issues affecting their country, these photographers clearly express their love for the land, its history, and people.”

Some Iranian photographers are fascinated by old photographs. Omid Salehi’s poignant ‘Legacy’ series harks back to his childhood, when his grandfather would take him to his little ironmonger’s shop in the Shiraz bazaar. Over the years the shopkeepers Salehi had got to know died, and he noticed that their sons would display framed photographs of their fathers on the walls of their shops. ‘Legacy’ shows these photographs hanging in shops specializing in items such as carpets, thread, clocks, household goods and shirts.

In Newsha Tavakolian’s series ‘Mothers of Martyrs’, individual mothers hold portraits of sons who were killed during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Every Thursday and Friday the mothers still visit their sons’ graves in the Beheshte Zahra cemetery south of Tehran.

The title of Fereydoun Ave’s series ‘Endangered Species’ refers to the Zoroastrian community. Ave delved into his family’s photographic records spanning three generations, and found that “the photos suggested an epic, family-drama soap opera.” In his composite images, he “wanted the feel of film posters of the 1940s and 19550s, with a lot of cinematic effects such as fade-ins and fade-outs.”

He was also influenced by Chinese ancestral portraits with their stylized format of piling rows of people on top of each other. The calligraphy in his memorable images comes from his grandfather’s account book. Ave, born in 1945, is currently the artistic director of the 13 Vanak Street Gallery in Tehran and of the Ave Gallery in Dubai.

Malekeh Nayiny, who has lived in Paris since 1991, also finds inspiration in family photographs. In her ‘Updating a Family Album’ images she uses computer technology to add color and fresh life to reassembled group pictures of her relatives.

Bahman Jalali, born in 1944, and his photographer wife Rana Javadi have since 1999 edited Iran’s first quarterly photographic journal, Aksnameh. Jalali, who teaches photography at Azad University in Tehran, collects and publishes old photographs of Iran and encourages his students to get inspired by these photographic traditions.

Sadegh Tirafkan, who works between Tehran and Toronto, superimposes image of young people on images of old Persian miniatures and contemporary pictorial carpets in his series ‘Whispers of the East’. In the series, ‘Zourkhaneh‘, he pictures young men wrestling in front of a large black and white photograph of wrestlers from the past.

The traditional gymnasium known as the zourkhaneh is also the focus of female photographer Mehraneh Atashi’s series ‘Bodyless’. “This is where religion, tradition, and virility – all qualities of the Persian hero – come together,” she observes.

Women are well represented in the book, both as photographers and as subjects. Shirana Shahbazi, who lives in Zurich, recalls that when she realized she did not want to become a photojournalist, the question remained as to whether it was possible to create photography in Iran that could escape the country’s visual clichés. “My aim was not to question existing images and replace them with a new statement, but rather to think about how images are made and interpreted.” Her series ‘Goftare Nik’ or ‘Good Words’ , which has been exhibited in several countries, captures the physical landscape and faces of modern-day Iran and their relation to tradition.
The photographer and filmmaker Mitra Tabrizian lives in London where she lectures in photography at Westminster University. Her first major UK show, ‘This is That Place’, was held over the summer at the Tate Britain Gallery. Tabrizian’s series ‘Borders’ , combining fact and fiction, focuses on Iranians in exile and their untold stories.

The cover image of “Iranian Photography Now” is a picture from the series ‘Party’ by one of the youngest photographers featured in the book, Amirali Ghasemi , who was born in Tehran in 1980. In this series, and its sister series ‘Coffeeshop Ladies’, Ghasemi whites out the faces of his young women subjects “so that the media cannot misuse or manipulate their identities”.

Iranian photographers have long made major contributions to international photojournalism. The photographer and documentary filmmaker Keveh Golestan was tragically killed in 2003 when he stepped on a landmine in northern Iraq. “Iranian Photography Now” includes some of Golestan’s nightmarish visions from the Iran-Iraq war and surreal images from his series ‘Qajar’.

Photojournalist Abbas, born in 1944, took many key photographs of the Iranian revolution in 1979-80 but has lived in Paris since then. The book includes pictures from ‘Iran Diary’, taken when he returned to Iran in 1997 for the first time in 17 years. They include images of three women in chadors riding as passengers on a motorbike driven by a young man, and of women in chadors paragliding. Chador-wearing women in training at the Women’s Police Academy appear in Javad Montazeri ‘s photographs. In one shot, they abseil down the outside of a building.

Photojournalist Abbas Kowsari’s ‘Rohian-e Noor’ or ‘The Wayfarers of Light’ pictures, taken in Khorramshahr, portray the visitors known by that name who go to the killing fields of the Iran-Iraq war every Persian New Year. There they tell stories about their dead children and scratch testimonials on abandoned tanks.

“Iranian Photography Now” is a remarkable testimony to the creativity of Iran’s photographers. One can only hope that some of the open spiritedness, sensitivity and wit of many Iranians, that is reflected by this sample of the country’s visual artists, will be allowed to express itself within the country’s political system.

Saudi Gazette
22 Sept 2008

Thursday, September 11, 2008

alaa al-aswany's 'chicago' launched in london

The Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany remembers vividly his first day in the student residency at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where he went as a post-graduate dental student in the mid-1980s. “I opened the window and saw some African-Americans looking for something to eat in the rubbish. I said to myself, I can expect such a scene in the Arab world, but in America it’s very strange. And I also said to myself, I’m having a real human experience and I must keep my eyes open and know exactly what’s going on: probably one day I will write a novel about this.”

That novel is “Chicago”, of which the English edition was published in London last week by the Harper Collins imprint Fourth Estate, in translation by Farouk Abdel Wahab. Harper will publish the book in the US next month. Whereas his first novel “The Yacoubian Building” was set within an apartment building in Cairo and the characters were all Egyptian, “Chicago” is set entirely in Chicago, among a group of expatriate Egyptians and their American colleagues at the University of Illinois Medical Centre.

Alongside its Egypt-related themes, the novel tackles some of the contradictions of American society. They include racial discrimination as suffered by Carol, the black girlfriend of a white American professor. During his student days, Al-Aswany became aware that although discrimination was not officially sanctioned, it existed in practice. The novel also reflects the suspicion that falls on young Arabs in the US in the wake of 9/11 and the collusion between US and Arab security services.

To accompany the launch, Al-Aswany has been in Britain on a tour of readings, signings, interviews and media appearances, and last Thursday was the guest at a special evening event in the Gallery of the legendary Foyle’s bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road. He was interviewed by the London-based Iraqi playwright and Imperial College scientist Hassan Abulrazzak, author of the stage and radio play “Baghdad Wedding”.

Al-Aswany acknowledged that not all readers are happy with his portrayal of America and Americans in “Chicago”. The novel has been selling well in translation in France and Italy, but “you have some right-wing writers in France for example who wrote some very good things about the novel but said ‘we don’t look to an Arab writer to tell us what is wrong with America’.”

Al-Aswany says that in Arabic novels set in the West, the Westerners are usually secondary characters, there to “push the plot along.” But during his time in America he got to know many Americans, some of whom became closer to him than his Arab colleagues, and he felt equipped to present Americans as main, rather than merely secondary, characters. “The novel is not about Arabs, Americans, black people, white people – it’s about the human. And I think this is the vision that must be presented: we could be different in color and culture, but we all have the same human heart and the same human feelings.”

“The Yacoubian Building” was a phenomenal success in Egypt, the rest of the Arab world and abroad, and has been translated into 21 languages. “Chicago” has been selling very well in Egypt and in France (where it was published late last year by Actes Sud) and Italy, and Al-Aswany and his publishers are hoping for a similarly positive reaction in the US and Britain.

Al-Aswany said that in Egypt, “’Chicago’ which is selling double of ‘The Yacoubian Building’, sold in one year 130,000 copies.” He said this is one indication of the way in which Egypt publishing scene is changing. “There are many more publishers now and more readers of literature; there had been a terrible stereotype that Egyptians had stopped reading.”

Al-Aswany’s sales have been extraordinary. “The Yacoubian Building” has sold 250,000 copies in the Arab world since its publication in 2002. It topped the Arab bestseller lists for five years running, to be knocked into second place by “Chicago”. The film of “The Yacoubian Building”, released in 2006 had a top-notch cast and was the biggest-budget Egyptian film ever when it was made. It broke box office records in Egypt.

A major reason for these stratospheric sales figures is that the two novels have shattered political and cultural taboos. They have pushed the boundaries of what can be written about and are influencing a new generation of novelists. (Author pic: credit Mark Thiessen)
In addition, the novels are highly accessible. Al-Aswany’s writing is rooted firmly in the realist tradition, which he robustly defended at the Foyle’s event. He deplored the influence on Arabic literature of the French nouveau roman (new novel) over the past 30 years, “which pushed some colleagues to write like the French are writing... It is very easy to write a text that nobody understands.” He added: “It would not be positive that I write stories about someone who got married to a cockroach – I can write this, but it is not literature I think.”

He thinks that “the real challenge for a novelist is to be able to write a text understandable to everybody but at different levels, and that is stratified in the sense that you read the text now and understand something, you read the same text after two years and you will understand more.”

In “Chicago”, as in “The Yacoubian Building”, there is a myriad of characters whose lives and stories intersect. The novel is set around the histology department of the University of Illinois Medical Center. It first saw publication in serial form in Al-Dustour independent opposition newspaper.

The most sympathetic character is Naji, who is admitted to the department after being refused a job at Cairo University because he has been politically active. He is a poet, and tells his story in the form of first-person diary entries. He becomes deeply involved with Wendy, a Jewish girl working at the Chicago Stock Exchange, but their relationship is subjected to pressures. He strikes up a friendship with brilliant heart surgeon and Chicago old-timer Karam, who had been kept down in his career in Egypt by the anti-Coptic chairman of his general surgery department.

The main villain of the novel is Danana, a secret police agent who is president of the Egyptian Student Union in America. He spies on the other students and badly mistreats his wife, but is brought low when he is caught faking his research results. He works in tandem with General Safwat Shakir, a former torturer now posted to the Washington Embassy.

Newly arrived in Chicago is Shaymaa, a veiled, highly intelligent student on a scholarship who is still unmarried although over 30. She embarks on a relationship with fellow student Tariq, with shameful consequences for her.

Muhammad Salah, a kindly professor referred to by Egyptian students as “the mayor of Chicago”, is obsessed by the events of 30 years earlier when his love Zeinab was a political demonstrator in Cairo. The unhappy Salah, who has been visiting a psychiatrist, has separated from his American wife and feels an urgent need to show Zeinab he is not after all a coward.

His colleague Ra’fat Thabit long ago turned his back on Egypt, snootily declaring: “Having been an Egyptian at one time, I know very well how Egyptians think.” But his daughter leaves home against his will to live with her artist boyfriend and ends wretchedly as a drug addict.

Carol’s much older boyfriend John Graham is an academic and former Vietnam War protestor. Because of her color Carol cannot get a decent job and feels obliged to take a job that leads her onto highly dubious ground.

The novel builds towards a climax in which the Egyptian president (who is unnamed) is to visit the consulate in Chicago. Naji and Karam organize a petition highly critical of the Egyptian regime which it is hoped someone will be able to smuggle in and read to the president.

“Chicago” does not fully live up to the thrilling vitality of its predecessor. The somewhat melodramatic tone of some of the episodes jars at times, and the translation reads awkwardly in places. But the novel offers much both to enjoy and to be disturbed by, and gives intriguing glimpses into a world of Egyptians cast adrift.

Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette Sept 8 2008

Friday, September 05, 2008

'end of an odyssey' by ICAHD director jeff halper

images ©Sameh A Habeeb, Gaza

End of an Odyssey

Jeff Halper

September 1, 2008

Now, a few days after my release from jail in the wake of my
trip to Gaza, I'm posting a few notes to sum things up.

First, the mission of the Free Gaza Movement to break the
Israeli siege proved a success beyond all expectations. Our reaching Gaza
and leaving has created a free and regular channel between Gaza and the
outside world. It has done so because it has forced the Israeli
government to make a clear policy declaration: that it is not occupying Gaza
and therefore will not prevent the free movement of Palestinians in and out
(at least by sea). (Israel's security concerns can easily be accommodated by
instituting a technical system of checks similar to those of other ports.)
Any attempt on the part of Israel to backtrack on this - by preventing ships
in the future from entering or leaving Gaza with goods and passengers,
including Palestinians - may be immediately interpreted as an assertion of
control, and therefore of Occupation, opening Israel to accountability for
war crimes before international law, something Israel tries to avoid at all
costs. Gone is the obfuscation that has allowed Israel to maintain its
control of the Occupied Territories without assuming any responsibility:
from now on, Israel is either an Occupying Power accountable for its actions
and policies, or Palestinians have every right to enjoy their human right of
travelling freely in and out of their country. Israel can no longer have it
both ways. Not only did our two little boats force the Israel military and
government to give way, then, they also changed fundamentally the status of
Israel's control of Gaza.

When we finally arrived in Gaza after a day and a half sail, the welcome
we received from 40,000 joyous Gazans was overwhelming and moving. People
sought me out in particular, eager it seemed to speak Hebrew with an Israeli
after years of closure. The message I received by people of all factions
during my three days there was the same: How do we ("we" in the sense of all
of us living in their country, not just Palestinians or Israelis) get out of
this mess? Where are WE going? The discourse was not even political: what is
the solution; one-state, two-state, etc etc. It was just common sense and
straightforward, based on the assumption that we will all continue living in
the same country and this stupid conflict, with its walls and siege and
violence, is bad for everybody. Don't Israelis see that? people would ask

(The answer, unfortunately, is "no." To be honest,
we Israeli Jews are the problem. The Palestinian years ago accepted our
existence in the country as a people and are willing to accept ANY solution
two states, one state, no state, whatever. It is us who want exclusivity
over the "Land of Israel" who cannot conceive of a single country, who
cannot accept the national presence of Palestinians (we talk about
"Arabs" in our country), and who have eliminated by our settlements
even the possibility of the two-state solution in which we take 80% of the

So it's sad, truly sad, that our "enemies" want peace and
co-existence (and tell me that in HEBREW) and we don't. Yeah, we Israeli
Jews want "peace," but in the meantime what we have -- almost no attacks,
a feeling of security, a "disappeared" Palestinian people, a booming
economy, tourism and ever-improving international status -- seems just fine.
If "peace" means giving up settlements, land and control, why do it? What's
wrong with the status quo? If it's not broken, don't fix it.)

When in Gaza I also managed to see old friends, especially Eyad al-Sarraj of
the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and Raji Sourani, Director of the
Palestinian Center for Human Rights, whom I visited in his office. I also
received honorary Palestinian citizenship, including a passport, which was
very meaningful to me as an Israeli Jew.

When I was in Gaza everyone in Israel -- including the media who interviewed
me - warned me to be careful, to watch out for my life. Aren't you scared?
they asked. Well, the only time I felt genuine and palpable fear during the
entire journey was when I got back to Israel. I went from Gaza through
the Erez checkpoint because I wanted to make the point that the siege is not
only by sea. On the Israeli side I was immediately arrested, charged with
violating a military order prohibiting Israelis from being in Gaza
and jailed at the Shikma prison in Ashkelon.

In my cell that night, someone recognized from the news. All night I was
physically threatened by right-wing Israelis -- and I was sure I wouldn't
make it till the morning. Ironically, there were three Palestinians in my
cell who kind of protected me, so the danger was from Israelis, not
Palestinians, in Gaza as well as in Israel. (One Palestinian from Hebron was
in jail for being illegally in Israel; I was in jail for being illegally in
Palestine.) As it stands, I'm out on bail. The state will probably press
charges in the next few weeks, and I could be jailed for two or so months. I
now am a Palestinian in every sense of the word: On Monday I received my
Palestinian citizenship, on Tuesday I was already in an Israeli jail.

Though the operation was a complete success, the siege will only be
genuinely broken if we keep up the movement in and out of Gaza. The boats
are scheduled to return in 2-4 weeks and I am now working on getting a
boat-load of Israelis.

My only frustration with what was undoubtedly a successful
operation was with the fact that Israelis just don't get it - and don't want
to get it. The implications of our being the strong party and the fact that
the Palestinians are the ones truly seeking peace are too threatening to
their hegemony and self-perceived innocence. What I encountered in perhaps a
dozen interviews - and what I read about myself and our trip written by
"journalists" who never even attempted to speak to me or the others - was a
collective image of Gaza, the Palestinians and our interminable conflict
which could only be described as fantasy. Rather than enquire about my
experiences, motives or views, my interviewers, especially on the mainstream
radio, spent their time forcing upon me their slogans and uniformed
prejudices, as if giving me a space to explain myself deal a death
blow to their tightly-held conceptions.

Ben Dror Yemini of the popular Ma'ariv newspaper called us a "satanic cult."
Another suggested that a prominent contributor to the Free Gaza Movement was
a Palestinian-American who had been questioned by the FBI, as if that had to
do with anything (the innuendo being we were supported, perhaps even
manipulated or worse, by "terrorists"). Others were more explicit: Wasn't it
true that we were giving Hamas a PR victory? Why was I siding with
Palestinian fishermen-gun smugglers against my own country which sought only
to protect its citizens? Some simply yelled at me, like an interviewer on
Arutz 99. And when all else failed, my interlocutors could always fall back
on good old cynicism: Peace is impossible. Jews and Arabs are different
species. You can't trust "them." Or bald assertions: They just want to
destroy us. Then there's the paternalism:
Well, I guess it's good to have a few idealists like you around...

Nowhere in the many interviews was there a genuine curiosity about what I
was doing orwhat life was like in Gaza. No one interested in a different
perspective, especially if it challenged their cherished slogans. No one
going beyond the old, tired slogans. Plenty of reference, though, to
terrorism, Qassam missiles and Palestinian snubbing our valiant efforts to
make peace; none whatsoever to occupation, house demolitions, siege, land
expropriation or settlement expansion, not to mention the killing,
imprisoning and impoverishment of their civilian population. As if
we had nothing to do with the conflict, as if we were just living our
normal, innocent lives and bad people decided to throw Qassam rockets. Above
all, no sense of our responsibility, or any willingness to accept
responsibility forthe ongoing violence and conflict. Instead just a
thoughtless, automatic appeal to an image of Gaza and "Arabs" (we don't
generally use the term "Palestinians") that is diametrically opposed to what
I've seen and experienced, a slavish repeating of mindless (and wrong)
slogans which serve only to eliminate any possibility of truly grasping the
situation. In short, a fantasy Gaza as perceived from within a bubble
carefully constructed so as to deflect any uncomfortable reality.

The greatest insight this trip has given me is understanding why Israelis
don't "get it:" a media comprised by people who should know better but who
possess little critical ability and feel more comfortable inside a box
created by self-serving politicians than in trying to do something far more
creative: understanding what in the hell is going on here.

Still, I formulated clearly my messages to my fellow Israelis, and that
constitutes the main content of my interviews and talks:

Despite what our political
leaders say, there is a political solution to the conflict and there are
partners for peace. If anything, we of the peace movement must not allow the
powers-that-be to mystify the conflict, to present it as a "clash of
civilizations." The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is political and as such it
has a political solution;

The Palestinians are not our enemies. In fact, I urge my fellow Israeli Jews
to disassociate from the dead-end politics of our failed political leaders
by declaring, in concert with Israeli and Palestinian peace-makers: We
refuse to be enemies. And

As the infinitely stronger party in the conflict and the only Occupying
Power, we Israelis must accept responsibility for our failed and oppressive
policies. Only we can end the conflict.

Let me end by expressing my appreciation to the organizers of this
initiative - Paul Larudee and Greta Berlin from the US, Hilary Smith
and Bella from the UK, Vaggelis Pissias, a Greek member of the team who
provided crucial material and political input, and Jamal al-Khoudri, an
independent member of the PLC from Gaza and head of the Popular Committee
Against the Siege and others - plus the wonderful group of participants on
the boats and the great communication team that stayed ashore. Special
appreciation goes to ICAHD's own Angela Godfrey-Goldstein who played a
crucial role in Cyprus and Jerusalem in getting the word out. Not to forget
our hosts in Gaza (whose names are on the Free Gaza website) and the tens of
thousands of Gazans who welcomed us and shared their lives with us. May our
peoples finally find the peace and justice they deserve in our common land.

(Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House
Demolitions (ICAHD). He can be reached at

Monday, September 01, 2008

eating ice-cream on gaza beach

Londonders get a taste of ice-cream from Gaza
Susannah Tarbush

Earlier this year, the artistic director of Britain’s National Youth Theatre (NYT), Paul Roseby, approached the playwright Shelley Silas to ask if she would write a play about Gaza for the NYT. The resulting work, “Eating Ice-cream on Gaza Beach”, is currently being performed at London’s Soho Theatre as part of the NYT’s ‘Worlds Apart’ season.

It was never going to be possible for a play (perhaps especially one lasting only around an hour) to explore the complex issues around the Palestine-Israel issue to the full satisfaction of all members of audiences. The play does not directly convey the full misery that the Palestinians of Gaza are enduring. One rare allusion to recent political events is news that a football match offstage has ended with “Hamas three – Fatah two.”

But the engaging script and characters, the vitality, talent and commitment of the cast (whose ages range from 17 to 23), and the flair of Anna Niland’s direction make the play a thought-provoking, enjoyable and unusual theatrical experience.

Silas did not want her play to be a piece of ‘verbatim’ theatre, based on what real people have actually said or written. Rather, she wanted to write a play of stories based on characters she created. And she stressed her right to artistic license during the writing.

Silas is a well-established British writer of plays for stage, radio and TV. Her plays include “Calcutta Kosher”: she was born in Kolkata to a family of Iraqi Jewish descent. Although her father has Israeli nationality, she has not visited Israel for 20 years and has never been to Gaza.

She recalls that when she was asked to write the play “I really didn’t want to take sides...I wanted to give a perspective of both sides of the argument. My main issue was, how do I write a play about one of the most political areas in the world for an audience who generally don’t know what the situation is and don’t have the historical context.”

She says: “I wanted people to go away and actually think about what was happening in the Middle East. I didn’t want to put my own opinions across because, although there are of course elements of me in the play, the characters are not me.”

The play opens with the arresting sound of a muezzin’s cry (performed by the half- Iranian actor David Mumeni). A group of women dressed in colorful headscarves, tunics and trousers stamp across the stage in the style of the Palestinian national dance, the dabke. The woman at their head, Maryam (Bathsheba Piepe, centre of picture above), sings a piercingly anguished Palestinian lament.

A young British Jew Adrian (Christopher Hawes), traveling in his gap year between school and university, arrives on Gaza beach. He is befriended by affable ice-cream vendor Rami (Oliver Hawes), a Christian Palestinian. The naïve Adrian has come to Israel and Gaza to see the situation for himself. He tells Rami that his grandfather fought in Israel in 1948. “So did mine. Grandfathers fight” is Rami’s response. Adrian is surprised that Rami knows Boris Johnson is the new mayor of London. Rami tells him: “We do know what’s going on in the world. It’s the rest of the world doesn’t really know what’s going on here.” Challenged later by Palestinian activist Muz to say what side he is on, Adrian replies: “Both sides. I’m on both sides. I can see both points of view.”

The play’s scenes shift between Gaza and Israel. The change of location is signified by the turning round of the ice-cream van by members of the cast, to change it from a van into a small building.

Adrian has crossed over from Israel and an Israeli soldier at the checkpoint, Danny (David Mumeni pictured with Zakarya Daliri (L) and Andrew Kaye), has been friendly and offered him water. Danny asks him about his visit to Gaza. “You wanted to see if it’s as bad as everyone says? It’s worse. Really, it’s worse. You can’t imagine how people live.”

Danny has only with great reluctance taken up his posting to the Gaza checkpoint for the last three months of his military service. He had always vowed never to serve in occupied territory. But his feisty girlfriend Ruthie (Laura Kirman), who is only now entering the army, is thrilled to be given a gun and is eager to use it.

Before taking up his post at the checkpoint, Danny consults his brother Shai (Mark Weinman) , who tells him: ”When you make your decision, don’t just think about the people we kill, don’t just think about the hours we make them wait without food and water, sometimes for no reason at all.” Danny should “think about the fact that most of them hate us as much as we hate them”.

The dramatic focus of the play is a planned human chain to protest against the expansion of Israel’s wall in the West Bank, through olive groves belonging to Rami’s brother Zaki. Muz (Ciaran Owens), smoldering with anger, urges Rami to take part in the demonstration.” But Rami does not want to get involved. “It’s a choice I make. To do nothing. It’s a choice. My choice.”

None of the cast speaks with an Arab or Israeli accent. They speak with English accents with the exception of Muz and his sister Ameena (Parissa Barghchi below), who have broad Northern Irish accents. This is as if to accentuate the fact that Muz comes not from Gaza but from Israel, where his Palestinian family still live. His sister Ameena comes to visit him from there.

The group of women led by Maryam are eloquent in their movements, expressions and sounds, and form a counterpoint of mixed sorrow and defiance to the action of the play. The music is provided by the Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani, and comes partly from her CD “Sprinting Gazelle”. Choreographer to the production is Ahmed Masoud, a literature PhD student at Goldsmiths College, University College, who comes from Gaza and is founder of UK-based Al-Zaytouna Dabke Group.

Maryam is grieving for her son who was drowned, and constantly gazes towards the sea seeking him. There are hints of a special connection between her and Rami, and the disclosure of a secret stemming from this is a turning point in the play.

The play moves inexorably towards its tragic conclusion at the demonstration, ending with Rami being shot dead by Danny. The characters seem trapped by circumstances, doomed to play out a certain scenario. The ending, though it might have been anticipated, delivers a visceral punch.

The deep engagement of the young cast with the Palestinian-Israeli issues was clear at the post-performance discussion when they talked about the their roles and the process of preparing for the play. Anna Niland explained that during the creative development of the play, the cast met Palestinians for “an incredibly informative, passionate day”. They then had a day with Israelis, which “was again extremely important”. A third day was dedicated to researching and looking at ‘back stories’ and characters and creating two new characters, Ameena and Shai. The actors’ research into the issues is continuing.

The NYT’s administrative assistant Mervat Shallouf, who is from Gaza, was the play’s research consultant and advisor. She recalls how Gaza beach was “the only place you feel peace; you can just go out into the open and there is another world behind the sea. Every time Maryam goes there and sits there I see myself. “ But she adds that although the beach is beautiful, it is sometimes terrifying because of Israeli shelling and bombing from the sea. She would never tell her mother she was going there.

One member of the audience disagreed with Silas’s insistence on not taking sides. “It seems to me that if 20 years ago there had been a play about South Africa, and about the apartheid government, there would have been no question about which side you were on I would hope... It seems to me we can’t just say there are two sides, that it’s all very complex, it’s very contentious and so on. In the end it seems to me we have to take sides or this outrage will go on a lot longer.”

Saudi Gazette 1 September 2008