Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Letter from Adra Prison

(reposted from Fares)

From the Prisoners of Conscience in Damascus Central Prison Al Adra
April 29th, 2007

We are prisoners of conscience and opinion in Damascus Central Prison, lawyer Anwar Al Bunni, writer Michel Kilo, Dr. Kamal Labwani, activists Mahmoud Issa, and Faek Al Mir, and Professor Aref Dalila who could not be reached as he spends his sixth year in solitary confinement. After the sentencing of lawyer Anwar Al Bunni on 24 April 2007, we would like to say thank you and greet our families, friends, and all the people, groups, committees, organizations, associations, parties and political assemblies of Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians in Syria and the Arab world. We thank and greet the official representatives, countries, media and websites that support us by protesting our trials and arrests, and denying the accusations against our colleague Anwar Al Bunni.

We would like to send our heartfelt greetings and thanks to all of you and hope that your noble and brave attitude will not stop only with denying these accusations and supporting our cause. Our case as prisoners of conscience is part of the continuing crisis of basic freedoms and human rights in Syria that began with the Emergency Law 44 years ago. This crisis reached its height in the 1980s and again today by an increase in tyranny, arrests and the suppression of fundamental freedoms.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have paid a horrible price, some with their lives, others with the loss of years and youth from inhumane prison conditions and cruel torture. Still more have suffered by being forced to escape the tyranny or enter into voluntary exile, another difficult experience. Other Syrians stayed, throwing salt on their wounds and binding their tongues to save themselves pain. Those that couldn’t live with their tongues tied faced a future in prison, homeless and alone. For the few people that climbed to the top of the tyranny and darkened Syrian society, they have contributed to the corruption, theft and poverty that have strangled the necks of the people.

The denial of fundamental human rights in Syria is the main case that we work for and your support for prisoners of conscience is part of this fight. Fighting for the release of these prisoners is a duty, not only to decrease their suffering and their families’ pain, but also to encourage others by knowing they are not alone. We must give society hope, making sure its doors and streets are not closed. With the power of hope it is possible to fight the crisis of freedom and human rights in Syria in a peaceful way.

Terrorism is the enemy of mankind and civilization itself. It flourishes in societies that lack freedom and close doors to peaceful expression, leaving violence as a way of expressing oneself. Inside these societies suffering from poverty, where they find no well being on earth they will turn to the heavens and the answers that it may provide them. The lack of basic freedoms and human rights coupled with poverty are two faces of the same coin in the Third World. Syria is at the forefront of totalitarian countries, ruled from an isolated point of view with its citizens either idle passengers or doomed to be labeled traitors.

The lack of freedom, means of expression, political participation and accountability leads to the growth of corruption, despotism, looting of public funds, rampant poverty and the collapse of moral values. The real fight against terrorism must not only be about combating extremist ideas. These ideas have existed throughout history, though they will always remain on the periphery, isolated and shunned, unless they find fertile soil to take root and grow. If they are allowed to develop in the soil of society, they will spread like toxic plants, poisoning communities and innocent people.

Addressing the root causes of terrorism requires opening up pathways to free expression and the peaceful exchange of ideas. By giving people unfettered freedom we can blunt the sword of injustice, oppression and domination to grant full political participation, a hand in future decision-making, accountability, the preservation of equality and a life of dignity. This would make the world a safer place and improve international security.

Syrians have paid a high price for their rights and freedom and we hope to be the last group forced to pay this price to help the great Syrian people. To do this we need more than your solidarity and denunciations. We need constant and tireless efforts to compel Syrian authorities to respect human rights, international law and the treaties and agreements it has signed which demand freedom of expression and opinion. The release of political prisoners is a necessary first step, including the abolition of the State Emergency Law and other such laws like Decree 49 signed in 1980 or the Hasakah Accountability Decree of 1962. Syria must abolish the State Security Court, compensate those that have suffered, create an independent judiciary, end torture and hold perpetrators responsible. They must stop political arrests and ensure the freedom of the press, allowing political participation and the formation of parties, organizations and civil society.

They must stop the looting of public funds and policies of impoverishment and domination. However, these steps are just the beginning necessary to put Syria on the path to security and move towards development, progress and the protection of national unity that now suffers from division and tension. These rifts and divisions are now impossible to conceal, despite the dancing and celebrations and empty rhetoric about a healthy society that in reality is sick and suffering. As prisoners of conscience and opinion we are apprehensive about the future of our homeland, our children and our very decision to shape Syria’s future. However, we will not be deterred by threats, intimidation, and the repression of long years of imprisonment that we face to save our country and ourselves

Adra Prison. 28-4-2007

Below is the Arabic text from ME Transparent:

من معتقلي الرأي في سجن دمشق المركزي

إننا معتقلو الرأي والضمير في سجن دمشق المركزي /عدرا/، المحامي أنور البني والكاتب ميشيل كيلو والدكتور كمال اللبواني والناشطين محمود عيسى وفائق المير والبروفسور عارف دليلة الذي لم نتمكن من الاتصال به والذي يمضي سنته السادسة في زنزانة منفردة، وبعد الحكم الذي صدر على المحامي أنور البني بتاريخ 24-4-2007، فإننا نود أن نتوجه بالشكر والتحية لعائلاتنا وأهلنا وأصدقائنا وجميع الأشخاص والمجموعات والهيئات والمنظمات والجمعيات والأحزاب والتجمعات السياسية في سوريا من عرب وأكراد وآثوريين وفي البلاد العربية في مختلف أنحاء العالم والممثلين الرسميين والاعتباريين والدول ووسائل الإعلام ومواقع الانترنت وكل الذين تضاموا معنا واحتجوا على اعتقالنا ومحاكمتنا ونددوا واستنكروا الحكم الصادر بحق زميلنا المحامي أنور البني الناشط في مجال حقوق الانسان.

نتوجه بالشكر والتحية لكل فرد منكم من كل قلوبنا ونتمنى أن لا يقف هذا الموقف النبيل والشجاع عند حدود اللحظة والمناسبة والتضامن والاستنكار فقط.

إن قضيتنا كمعتقلي رأي وضمير في سوريا هي جزء واستمرار لأزمة الحريات العامة وحقوق الانسان في سوريا بدأت مع إعلان فرض حالة الطوارئ منذ أربع وأربعين عاما قاسية وشهدت ذروة حادة في الثمانينيات وهاهي تشهد ذروة حادة أخرى بزيادة وتصاعد القمع والاعتقال ومصادرة الحريات .

لقد دفع عشرات الألوف من السوريين ثمنا غاليا طوال تلك الفترة فمنهم من قضى نحبه ودفع كل حياته ومنهم من دفع سنوات طويلة من زهرة عمره وريعان شبابه في ظروف لا إنسانية في السجون والمعتقلات وعانى التعذيب الوحشي ومنهم من هرب من البطش والقمع إلى الغربة مختارا النفي الطوعي وتجربة قسرية ومعاناة بشكل مختلف وبقية السوريين فرض عليهم الانكفاء إلى ذواتهم ووضع الملح على الجرح والمعاناة والعض على الألسنة هربا من البطش. ومن لم يستطع احتمال زمن القهر الطويل فانفلت عقال لسانه أو عقله كان مصيره السجن أو التنكيل أو التشريد، والقلة القليلة تسلقت قمة القهر والقمع والتسلط التي خيمت على المجتمع السوري فعاثت فسادا ونهبا وإفقارا وتسلطا على رقاب البلاد والعباد.

هذه هي القضية الأساسية التي ينبغي دائم العمل من أجلها. وتضامنكم مع المعتقلين هو جزء من هذا الفعل والعمل لإطلاق سراحهم هو خطوة واجبة ليس فقط من أجل تخفيف معاناة المعتقل وعائلته بل هو ضروري لتشجيع الآخرين وإحساسهم بأنهم ليسوا وحدهم في هذه المعركة ولأجل إعطاء أمل للمجتمع بأن الأبواب ليست مغلقة نهائيا والطريق ليست مسدودة نهائيا وأن هناك قوة أمل حقيقي أن تصل أزمة الحريات وحقوق الانسان في سوريا إلى حل سلمي آمن.

إن الإرهاب عدو البشرية والإنسانية والحضارة الأول، يلقى الدعم والأرض الخصبة في التجمعات التي تعاني أزمة حريات وتغلق أبواب وطرق التعبير السلمي مما يفتح الأبواب لطريق التعبير العنفية والتجمعات التي تعاني من فقر شديد حيث لا يجد الانسان ما يملكه أبدا في الأرض فيسعى تحت تأثير الأفكار المتطرفة الخاطئة إلى ملكيته في السماء وما يوعدون.

إن انعدام الحريات العامة وانتهاك حقوق الإنسان والفقر الشديد وجهان لعملة واحدة في بلدان العالم الثالث وسوريا في مقدمة هذه الدول خاصة وأنها من الدول الشمولية التي تحكمها وجهة النظر الواحدة والرأي الواحد والآخرون مارقون وخونة.

فغياب الحريات ووسائل التعبير والمشاركة السياسية والرتابة والمحاسبة يؤدي على نمو الفساد والإفساد والتسلط والإفقار ونهب الأموال العامة ويستشري الفقر وتنهار القيم الأخلاقية والإنسانية.

إن محاربة الإرهاب الحقيقية لا يجب أن يكون هدفها فقط محاربة الأفكار المتطرفة فهذه على أهميتها فإنها موجودة عبر التاريخ ولكنها معزولة ومنبوذة وليست ذات تأثير إذا لم تجد التربة الخصبة لزراعة أفكارها بل يجب أن يتوجه إلى تجفيف هذه التربة التي تتلقى هذه البذور لتحويلها إلى نباتات سامة تجتاح مساحات أوسع فأوسع من المجتمعات وتنقلب على أفكار إجرامية تطال الأبرياء والمجتمع ككل.

إن معالجة أسباب الإرهاب يتطلب فتح أبواب وطرق التعبير السلمية وتبادل الآراء وإعطاء الشعوب حريتها المسلوبة منها ورفع سيف الظلم والقهر والتسلط عنها ومنحها حق المشاركة السياسية الكاملة برسم مستقبلها وصنع القرار وصنع القرار والقرابة والمحاسبة وحفظ حقها بالمساواة والعيش الكريم. وهذه مسؤولية دولية عامة لأن الأمن أصبح في العالم أمنا واحدا.

إن الشعب السوري دفع أثمان غالية للحصول على حقوقه وحرياته ونأمل أن نكون نحن آخر دفعة من هذا الثمن الغالي والكبير الذي يستحق الشعب السوري بعده أن يسترد حقوقه وحريته.

إننا نحتاج إلى أكثر من تضامنكم واستنكاركم. إننا نحتاج إلى عملكم المستمر والدؤوب لإلزام السلطات السورية باحترام حقوق الانسان والقوانين والاتفاقيات الدولية التي التزمت بها وتطبيقها فعلا وإطلاق حرية التعبير والرأي والعمل السياسي ولعل إطلاق سراح المعتقلين السياسيين هو الخطوة الأولى الضرورية لذلك.

بالإضافة إلى إلغاء حالة الطوارئ والقوانين الاستثنائية وعلى رأسها المرسوم 49 لعام 1980 ومرسوم الإحصاء الاستثنائي في محافظة الحسكة عام 1962 والمحاكم الاستثنائية وفي مقدمتها محكمة أمن الدولة والمحاكم الميدانية وإلغاء أحكامها والتعويض على المتضررين منه وإعطاء القضاء استقلاله الكامل ووقف ومنع التعذيب ومحاسبة مرتكبيه وإلغاء الاعتقال السياسي وإطلاق حرية الصحافة والإعلام والسماح بالمشاركة السياسية وتشكيل الأحزاب والمنظمات وجمعيات المجتمع المدني خارج الوصاية الرسمية ووقف نهب المال العام وسياسة الإفقار والتسلط والهيمنة.

إن هذه الخطوات تشكل فقط البداية الضرورية لوضع سوريا على سكة الأمان وبالاتجاه الصحيح للتطور والتقدم وتحمي الوحدة الوطنية التي تعاني من الشروخ والانقسامات والأزمات والاحتقانات التي تعصف بها ولم يعد ممكنا إخفائها بالأهازيج والمهرجانات والدبكات والتصاريح الجوفاء الفارغة حول صحة المجتمع الذي يعاني أمراض عدة شديدة .

إننا كمعتقلي رأي وضمير خائفون على مستقبل الوطن الذي نتمسك به وعلى مستقبل أطفالنا ومن حقنا المشاركة بصنع هذا المستقبل ولولا إبداء رأينا ولن نأل جهدا من أجل تحقيق مستقبل أفضل لهذا الوطن ولن يرهقنا التهديد والوعيد والقمع والقهر لا سنوات السجن الطويلة عن الاستمرار بما آمنا به وندرنا نفسنا له.

سجن عدرا 28-4-2007

Friday, April 27, 2007

Twentieth Anniversary of a Marriage

My wife and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary a few days ago. We took the day off from work just to spend time together, to reflect. We took a walk along the lake shore, had lunch, talked and remembered.

It was not love at first sight. Early on in medical school, I sat in the back of the class. I was, at the time, the odd man out in class. Most of my classmates knew each other from their undergraduate years at AUB while I had done my undergraduate studies in the States. She always arrived to the first class of the day five to ten minutes late looking harried and sat in the back rows. Typical Beiruti girl, I thought, late because she was still fixing her hair; looking pretty was more important than class. And pretty she was, and always well-dressed. I did not know it at the time, but she was attracted to me, the quiet stranger sitting opposite her in the back of the class. She actively tried to get my attention when we were both involved in rehearsals for the year end class play. I was, as men are wont to be, totally oblivious to her attention. The play would never take place. I still remember the last rehearsal as we huddled around the radio listening to the news of Israel's invasion; it was the summer of 1982. Our class dispersed that fateful summer and we did not reconnect until the fall. It was only then, as we hung out with mutual friends, that I finally noticed her.

There were a number of things about her that attracted me. She had unpretentious good looks but it was more her seductive femininity that first drew me in. To watch her delicate hands gesticulating gracefully in the midst of a lively conversation turned my heart into a puddle of mush. She was also a great cook and I was smitten, with her tarte aux fraises. Yes, I am afraid that the old adage about getting a man through his stomach was true for me. In my defense though, I should say that those tartes were baked with love. But there are many other intangible reasons that two people connect. When you are falling in love, you don't stand back and try to analyze it, you just follow your heart. The reasons become obvious later, sometimes years later.

Beneath her delicate exterior was an independent, strong-willed, and yet vulnerable young woman. She was open minded and sincere to the point of bluntness. She was competitive and pursued what she liked passionately. She hated injustice. I remember one day as we drove in her car turning onto a one way street only to find another car coming at us fast in the wrong direction. The driver of the other car honked and flashed his light as if to say, "get the hell out of my way!". She would have none of it. She pulled her car into the middle of the road, stopped, leaned out of the window and cussed him out -not very feminine, but very effective. Keep in mind that, at the time, such altercations in Lebanon often ended in a blaze of gunfire. Stunned, the other driver pulled to the side and let her pass. I knew then and there that there was something different about her.

On paper, we were too different to have a lasting relationship. I tended to be quiet, reserved, reflective. She was lively, outgoing and told you exactly what's on her mind. I was passionate about history and politics. She hated politics and was passionate about cooking. But as our relationship solidified we became inseparable. Perhaps it was that our personalities were complementary. Our relationship was uncomplicated, organic; we never seemed to tire of each other's company. That is not to say that there was no friction, or doubt, along the way.

When five years later we got married, I didn't have to get down on my knees and ask. We each knew that we could not live without the other. Twenty years later and a continent away, much has changed in our lives and in the world around us. We now have a family with two lovely kids and challenging, difficult, careers. Some things, though, never change. My heart still melts when I see those beautiful hands get animated in a lively discussion. And every morning, she rushes out the door late to work. The reason, as I had guessed from the first day I laid eyes on her, is that her hair had to look perfect.

You can take the girl out of Beirut but you can never take Beirut out of the girl.

(Illustration: Chinese double happiness symbol of love)

Middle East: Currents of Change

For any Middle Easterner interested in the state of the region, the news we are bombarded with daily are numbingly depressing. Yet, as Rami Khouri notes in his article below, underneath the apparently unchanging rigidity of our societies, there are important and hopeful changes in the way we Middle Easterners are thinking of ourselves and our future. I have observed these changes in the increasing diversity of opinions that you can see in the various Arabic newspapers of the region. I also see this change reflected in the opinions and thoughts expressed in the various regional blogs I read. This very fact was central in my decision to start my own blog. So in the midst of the deluge of bad news, I remain hopeful that we, collectively, and without the influence of outsiders with ulterior motives, will eventually be able to move forward .

Constructive currents flow below Middle Eastern civil society
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star staff, Saturday, April 28, 2007

We are often so obsessed with the problems and conflicts that define the relationship between the Middle East and the West today that we tend to lose sight of the constructive currents that flow beneath the surface. An unusual week of consecutive conferences and seminars in Amman and Beirut brought that point home to me last week. Honest exchanges with scholars, officials and activists of integrity and insight - especially ones we disagree with - enrich our understanding of this region, its ties to the world, and the core issues that plague and challenge us.
In my rich week of exchanges with colleagues from throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America, we discussed many timely issues: Iraq and its consequences, Arab political reform prospects, the weaknesses and potential of Arab secular political parties, and indigenous agents of change and innovation within the Arab world (such as youth, businesses, women, young Islamists, and the culture and arts sector).
Such gatherings reflect an important aspect of the Arab world, Turkey and Iran - a constant, often intense, analytical probing into the nature and causes of our many shortcomings, along with serious attempts to chart a way out of our predicaments. We no longer spend a lot of time merely bemoaning the chronic cycle of violence, warfare, occupation, neocolonialism and extremism that shatters many of our countries, or romantically pleading for more justice or democratic governance. Today, we seem be in a new mindset of working together across borders, to probe deeper into fixing what is wrong, instead of only cursing the darkness.
Civil society, scholars, journalists and businesspeople from all over the world are doing what most of their governments seem unable or unwilling to: meeting regularly with an open mind - without banning or boycotting any party, free of threats and sanctions - to agree on both the problems and the solutions of our societies. The meetings I attended last week were sponsored by a range of institutions that reflect this global dynamic, including Germany's Heinrich Boll Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the American University of Beirut, the Arab Reform Initiative that comprises Arab, European and American research centers, the University of Jordan, and Canada's IDRC, among others. No clash of cultures here, only an overdose of croissants and coffee.
Iranians, Turks, many different Arabs, Americans, Canadians and assorted Europeans at these and other such gatherings painstakingly dissect our distortions and deviant behavior; but they also identify the positive forces for stability, self-confidence, creativity and real development that prevent Middle Eastern societies from total collapse. There is plenty to identify on both side of this assets-liabilities divide.
For one important trend that has emerged in recent years, and seems to dominate these days, is the tendency to recognize nuance and shun absolutism, to see the world as a range of shades rather than starkly black and white, good or evil, cowboy or Indian. This may sound slightly simplistic, but it is important to recognize in the face of aggressive attitudes - and occasional organized lobbying campaigns - by some parties in the United States, Israel, and parts of Europe and the Arab and Islamic worlds that would paint us in single colors, and reduce us to silhouette cartoon figures that deny rather than affirm our humanity and rights.
This tendency to judge others in absolute terms emerges from the discussion of any aspect of the contemporary Middle East - Iraq, Palestine, Hizbullah and Lebanon, democratic change, women's status, take your pick. The truth is, these and other facets of our region mirror two sides of the same human beings: a tendency to political and intellectual militancy and violence, alongside a heroic, often epic, commitment to reason and humanism in the face of the barbarism and pain inflicted upon them.
The increased number of conferences, study groups and quiet, private meetings that bring together Middle Easterners with colleagues from the rest of the world is a positive sign of the capacity of our societies to engage humbly and rationally and politically seek solutions to our shared tensions, instead of emotionally and militarily. In gathering after gathering that I attend in the Middle East and abroad, I sense this growing commitment, and capacity, to dialogue across cultures and ideologies - but to go beyond only dialogue, and to find realistic solutions that might one day influence our dysfunctional decision-makers.
We all meet, talk, learn and seek a rational consensus on which to build an edifice of tolerance, respect and coexistence - in those interim periods when we are not killing and defaming each other. Take your pick, for there is indeed a choice to be made, for those who care to acknowledge the real world of nuanced human beings, rather than their fantasy world of silhouette cowboys and Indians.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Syrian Elections: Make Believe Democracy

I hoped against all odds that, with the present Syrian elections, there would be some signs of a country moving forward; if not a full step forward then at least a half step. Hell I would happily take an eighth of as step forward. Unfortunately, the elections appear to have been more of the same, a show replete with the illusion of a democratic process, the illusion of real choice, but whose outcome was predetermined; in short, a farce. But as Abraham Lincoln once said: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." After almost thirty five years of inept Baathist rule no one is fooled. The Syrian people voted unanimously, by staying home. They stayed home not in response to opposition calls for a boycott of the elections but because the empty slogans from predictable candidates did no inspire them in an election whose outcome will be no different than any other in recent memory.

In the end, the Baath party and its National Progressive Front allies gained three seats of the 250 seat Majlis el Shaab (People's Congress) at the expense of three from the independents who are down to 80 representatives. The whole electoral process was so opaque that you couldn't even get an accurate accounting of the basic numbers. Different news reports, all quoting official sources, put the number of candidates for the 250 seat Majlis al Shaab (People's Congress) at anywhere between 900 and 2500 (or was it 10,000?). I have yet to see real numbers about the turnout of eligible voters. A report of Hassakeh suggested a turnout of 1.5% on the first day of elections. The government admitted to dismally low turnout numbers but blamed it on the opposition's call for a boycott. Additionally, there were reports of many irregularities including the addition of shadow lists of Baath-approved independent candidates and of Baath activists going door to door to force people to fill and cast their ballots.

So how can one trust an election skewed to favored those in power and whose electoral machinery is not transparent for all to see? And what does the single digit turnout tell us about the legitimacy of those elected? After seven years of empty promises for real reform, the Syrian people are losing their patience.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Nine Parts of Desire: Iraqi Women Tell their Stories

We recently saw a production of the play "Nine Parts of Desire", a powerful and moving play based on the stories of Iraqi women between the first Gulf war and into the second. The play by Heather Raffo is not to be confused with the book of the same name by Geraldine Brooks, a non-fiction examination of the life of Muslim women. Raffo, American-born to an Iraqi father and American mother, based her play on her interviews of Iraqi women between 1993 and 2003.

In the play, nine Iraqi women of various backgrounds, speak directly to the audience, as if talking to the playwright, giving us glimpses of their lives. There is the leftist exile from the 1960s living in London, the famous artist in bed (literally) with the Baathist regime and the mother who lost her children in the Amiriyya bombshelter as well as others. The collective stories weave a complex and multi layered tapestry of the life of these women, of Iraq itself. The stories touch on all aspects of life in that decade of Iraq's history, stories that continue to relevant today as the epic tragedy that Iraq is living continues with no end in sight. The playwright does not take sides but empathetically gives a voice to women whose voices are seldom heard. We hear about Saddam's legendary brutality, the Western embargo that impoverished the people and made the regime stronger, the effects of depleted uranium munitions left behind by the American military, and the devastating effects of the first into the second Gulf wars. These events form the backdrop of these women's personal stories, their longing for normalcy and for peace. They also long for freedom, not only from the violence around them but from the restrictive roles they are relegated too in their society. Raffo's nuanced portrayal of her subjects underscores a sensibility of one who clearly understands the culture. I doubt that another Western playwright, without Iraqi or Arab roots, would have succeeded in the portrayal of these women as well as Raffo did.
Perhaps the most interesting of the women is Layal, based on the famous Iraqi artist, Layla al-Attar who died in 1993 when an American tomahawk missile slammed into her house. Raffo never met Layla al-Attar as she was killed shortly before she arrived to Iraq. The playwright portrays her as a cynical survivor, one who readily exchanged sexual favors with influencial members of the regime in return for protection and advancement. She is a complex and conflicted character and the least sympathetic of the nine women. Whether this is an accurate portrayal of Layla al-Attar or not, I cannot say. I could not find much detail about her online. She was, though, by all accounts, an accomplished and important artist. The painting of the nude hugging a tree, titled "savagery" is alluded to several times in the play.
The stories of these women are absorbing and emotionally wrenching even for those not familiar with Middle Eastern culture. There was barely a dry eye in the house by the end of the play. My wife sobbed at one point as Um-Ghada (mother of tomorrow) describes losing all her children in the American bombing of the the Al-Amiriyya bombshelter. For me and my wife, many of the stories resonated with our own experience: the fear and horror of war, the feeling of longing for home and the guilt of watching from the safety of a distant continent as your home and family are threatened by violence and strife.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Lebanon: Mental Images of the Civil War

If war is Hell, civil war is an unspeakable horror. There is something about the unpredictability and randomness of a civil war that makes it all the more vile and evil. All justifications for such a conflict are quickly forgotten as violence and destruction become ends in themselves. The senseless violence escalates into a self-destructive orgy, consuming everything in its way.

This year, with the specter of renewed civil strife lurking in the background, the April 13th anniversary of the Lebanese civil war is especially poignant. For me, having lived through, and survived, seven of fifteen years of civil war in Beirut, the April 13th anniversary brings back many memories of a personally transformative time. There are memories of friendships and love and overcoming of adversities. But there are also, seared into my memory, dark moments that have forever changed me; they have made me essentially a pacifist. In violence and war, I do not see honor, nor glory, nor patriotism, nor martyrdom, nor any other of the romantic ideals trumped up to convince men of the necessity of war. All I saw were shattered bodies, shattered lives, shattered communities and shattered innocence.

These are the mental image seared into my memory from this time:
  • The endless nights huddled in the stairwell of the apartment building where I lived.
  • My blue VW golf turned into a sieve from the shrapnel of a mortar shell.
  • The smell of blood, sweat and explosives that permeated the AUH emergency room on a bad day.
  • The stunned look of a young girl, not older than six, with a superficial shrapnel wound on her delicate cheek, as I carried her into the emergency room.
  • All the different permutations of militias that at one time or another clashed with each other.
  • The eerie quiet of a bright spring Beirut morning following a night of horrifying bombardment, when all you could hear was the chirping of birds.
  • The nausea I felt at the putrid smell of death coming from the overcrowded hospital morgue.
  • Being turned back by a Kataeb checkpoint as I tried to leave Beirut in the midst of the Israeli blitz of 1982.
  • Fearing that every parked car I walked by in Hamra was about to blow up.
  • Spending nights sleeping uncomfortably on chairs in the hospital conference rooms when it was too dangerous to leave the building.
  • The anger I felt as I peeked out the window and saw an Israeli tank advancing into the neighborhood in 1982 after the PLO evacuated the city.
  • Seeing flares go up across the city and hearing muffled gunfire as, unbeknown to me, the orgy of violence in Sabra and Shatila was taking place.
  • The feeling of rage at having to show deference to the militiamen that controlled the neighborhood, when most were nothing more than mere thugs.
  • Being stopped at the Airport by the Syrian mukhabarat because I should have been helping liberate the Golan Heights.
  • Watching the light fixtures in our classroom suddenly drop down as the shock wave of the bombed American embassy shook the room like an earthquake. Then rushing outside to see the walking wounded, stunned, covered in dust and blood, coming up the street.
  • and .... and...

It is because of these memories that images from Baghdad - and Algiers- leave a knot in the pit of my stomach. I can empathize with ordinary Baghdadis trying to live their lives in the midst of this useless, destructive mayhem. It behoves all Lebanese to remember these images of the civil war, not to point fingers of blame, but to make sure it never happens again.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Predicting the Future

Future studies reflects on how today’s changes (or the lack thereof) become tomorrow's reality. It includes attempts to analyze the sources, patterns, and causes of change and stability in order to develop foresight and to map alternative futures (Wiki).

One of the leaders in the field of Futures studies is Sohail Inayatullah. He is a big picture man, the forest from the trees type of a person, except that the forests he describes are ten, fifty or a hundred years into the future. I didn't just stumble into this rarefied world of Futures studies by accident. In fact Sohail is an old high school classmate of mine. We reconnected briefly several years ago by email. I looked up some of his work and was intrigued by what I read.

In these uncertain times, predictions about the future are always interesting reads. But there is an added interest in Sohail's writing. His is a non-Western, non-Eurocentric point of view.

For all of the twentieth century to the present, the West has dominated the World technologically, culturally and politically. Almost all non-Western countries, in charting their development look at Western models as examples to emulate because, to them, the West equals modernity. In nearly all fields of endeavor from economic development, to urban planning to running institutions and businesses, it is the standards and norms set by the West that people strive to follow. Even the intellectual elites in most non-Western countries, who are often Western educated, will -consciously or not- subsume a Western perspective. This is not meant to be a blanket indictment of all things Western. However, Western ways are sometimes are incompatible with the cultural, religious, geographic and geopolitical realities of non-Western countries and societies. Moreover, some Western ways are just simply wrong. Because of their success, the West has also largely determined the historical narrative of the twentieth century. That may change with the emergence of China and India as major economic economic and political powers.

Summary: The argument made in this article that there are generally two foundational global futures – the artificial (globalization-technologization) era and the communicative-inclusive era. The basic perspective in the first scenario is that things rise – more progress, more technology, more development, more wealth and more individuality. This is generally the view of older age cohorts and those in the center of power. The second scenario is focused on inner and social transformation, whether because of green or spiritual values or because of the wise and moral use of technology. This is the vision of those marginal to the system - youth, women, the "others" - it is idealistic, and not beholden to the values of the Market or State but firmly entrenched in the People's Sector. In contrast to the exponential curve of the first scenario, this scenario has a cyclical curve (returning to a more stable time) in some variations and a spiral curve (a return to traditional values but in far more inclusive terms) in other variations.

These two scenarios, images of the future, oscillate in the West. The West needs the latter, its alter-ego, to refresh itself. Within this over all pattern, Collapse remains the fear (technology gone wrong or overpopulation from the South either because of the exploitation of nature or over-concentration of power and wealth) that spurs the West to constantly create new futures. The image of collapse is used as a call to action, to either join the technology revolution or the consciousness revolution, than as a firm belief in the end of the world.

We also argue that the West is by definition in crisis, indeed, crisis – the threat of collapse or a return to a slower time (an imagined past when men were men and economies were local, with chaos controllable) is how it refreshes itself. Without these two pillars, the West would have fallen to the way side and other civilizations would have reigned supreme.

In contrast to the West, the non-West follows a different pattern. The ego of the non-West has now been constructed by the West, such that as much as the non-West resists Westernization, it embraces it, becoming even more Western than the West, as, for example, Japan or Malaysia. The alter-ego, however, comes across in two ways: first as traditional, ancient indigenous knowledge, generally, focused not on the Western utopia but on the Indic and Sinic eupsychia – the cultivation and perfection of the self. Related to this concern is the self-reliant, localist, community model of development and social relations. Second, as attempts to not only limit their understandings at local levels but making new claims for the universal. This perspective is best stated by the Indian philosopher, P.R. Sarkar. His theory of agriculture as well as the worldview behind it, which he terms Microvita, offers a new vision of the future of science, society and particularly of food and agriculture. The article concludes by exploring the impact of Sarkar's theory on the future of agriculture and food. (click link above to read the rest of the article)

Here is another interesting article by Sohail Islamic Civilization in Globalization:From Islamic futures to a Post-western civilization .

Monday, April 09, 2007

On Pelosi in Syria

The current U.S. administration's refusal to talk to the Syrian government has always struck me as idiotic. How can you influence what happens in a complex region if you don't talk to a major player and potential spoiler. Talk is not the same as appeasement, but the present absolutist administration does not see it that way. In fact, it is their obstinacy that now makes Bashar look like a winner as dignitaries from various countries come knocking. By winner, mind you, I mean in the modern Arab, very low expectations sense of the word: glorious victory is declared when you lose your international pariah status.

I am not quite sure why the U.S. turned against the Syrian regime in the first place. Didn't they, after 9/11, invite the FBI over and provide them with information about all of their troublesome Islamists? Did they not oblige the U.S. by jailing and torturing Maher Arar for a year? The American administration complains about the porous Syria-Iraq border but where the Syrian regime was not supine enough, was in its refusal to cut off support for Hamas and Hizbullah. The independence of Lebanon from the hegemony of Syria also gets a mention, never mind the U.S. seemed oblivious to the sanctity of Lebanon when it was invaded by Israel last summer.

All of this makes me very skeptical of any American government's intentions towards Syria . Many who looked to the U.S. to force positive change in Syria were disappointed that Pelosi, during her visit, snubbed human rights activists by barely meeting with them. I am not sure why anyone is surprised. If there is one thing that the last six years have taught us is that the U.S. foreign policy is set to serve the myopic, short term, perceived interests of the United States, period. Once the U.S. gets what it needs from the Syrian government, any talk about human rights, freedom and democracy will cease (just look at Egypt).

The U.S.' re engagement of Syria may result in some positive changes such easing of economic sanctions and getting Syria out of Iran's sphere of influence. The bottom line, however, is that real, transformative change in Syria has to come from within: by Syrians for the good of all Syrians.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Surprising Faces of Prejudice

A couple of days ago, I met with a very senior colleague in the department where I work along with several staffers to discuss ongoing research projects. In the midst of a lively discussion, that colleague, wanting to give an example of ways to control unruly women (in the presence of three women!), half-jokingly turned to me and said: "In your country you beat them, isn't that right? yeah, Muslims beat their wives". I was shocked but not totally surprised.

These statements are not the product of a defective and ignorant mind. My colleague is a highly educated man, a world traveller who spends half of his time flying from country to country to give invited lectureships. Yet as brilliant as he is in his profession, he remains essentially a closed-minded bigot and yet he would never admit it. He is of Anglo-Saxon descent, and remains a die hard Anglophile. No other culture or ethnicity quite measures up. The farther East or South you are, the less worthy. On his scale of worthiness, Italians from Milan are passable but those swarthy Sicilians might just as well be Arabs. He is also a born-again Christian and does not miss an opportunity to proselytize. He once told a bright Indian post-doctoral fellow working in our department that she behaved like a Christian. He meant it as a compliment. She, a Hindu by birth, but from a secular family, rightly took it as an insult. She did not fit his stereotype and yet he could not accept that what he admired about her as being intrinsically Indian; it must have been the result of some Western, Christian influence.

I have always assumed that people exposed to other cultures were likely to be more open-minded and less prejudiced. It is obviously a wrong assumption as the case of my colleague demonstrates. He loves to travel and meet different people, but what he takes away from these encounters is very selective. Anything that reinforces his own preconceived notions, he took in wholeheartedly and anything that challenged the stereotype, he ignored. So, in a twisted way, the more exposed to other cultures he was, the more prejudiced he became.

My assumption was also proven wrong in other ways. As a clinician in the U.S. for the past twenty years, I have treated patients of all socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. With most patients, my own background mattered little, although with some, it was a problem. I was always surprised by the people to whom my background mattered the least. It was almost invariably the simplest of rural folks, who could not place Syria on a map if their life depended on it, with whom I developed the most trustful and mutually respectful patient-doctor relationships. With this realization my own preconceived notion, my own stereotype of the "bigot", was shattered.

Of course, in the greater context of East-West misunderstanding, this type of prejudice cuts both ways. We all know many of our brethren who go West and come back without having expanded their cultural horizons one iota.

So what happened with my colleague?

I did not confront him during that meeting but chose instead to send him an email later that day. I measured my words carefully. I started with a long tirade that I thought was too confrontational and so I whittled it down to short paragraph:

"I just wanted to let you know that I was deeply offended by the statement that you made earlier today that spousal abuse is the norm in among Muslims and in "my" country. It is akin to saying that spousal abuse in the United States, not a trivial issue, is a "Christian" problem rather than a societal problem. And for the record, my mother, a European Christian, will tell you that, as a woman, she feels much safer walking at any time of the day or night in Beirut or Damascus than she would in any Christian European or American city. "

And he responded:

"Thank you for telling me. I hope you know that I would not intentionally offend you. The recent NY Times articles on the issue have made the same point that you make. They have also noted that a sense of humor about the differences in cultures is the best hope for mutual understanding. Please accept my apologies. "

Despite his apology, I am not sure he gets it or that he is truly remorseful. It was rather a cold response for someone with whom I have worked closely and successfully for the last fifteen years. Unfortunately, he is set in his ways and I will not be able to change his outlook. At least from now on he may think twice before unleashing the humorous interludes meant to improve mutual understanding among cultures.

Hands Off Marcel Khalife!

To the Bahraini members of parliament who opposed Marcel Khalife's show, I say: get a life! Of all the multitude of serious, home grown, problems that afflict our various Middle Eastern societies, Khalife's work is treated like it is a national threat to the high moral fiber of the Bahraini people. It is time for conservative Muslim preachers to stop treating their constituents like a bunch of unthinking sheep incapable of making intelligent decisions about what they deem as morally acceptable.

Marcel Khalife in a new controversy

Freemuse, the World Forum on Music and Censorship, expresses our concern over the attack on a music, song and dance drama by world renowned composer and musician Marcel Khalife and Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad. We are deeply concerned about what the consequences of the Bahrain Parliamentary investigative committee’s findings will be and express our full support to the distinguished artists.

International conventions secure musicians, composers and writers right to create, perform and act without interference from governments or religious groups. The attack by the Bahraini parliamentarians is a violation of freedom of speech as it applies to musicians.

Freemuse has signed the petition list initiated by the Lebanese Cultural Forum in France and signed by poets, writers, artists, researchers, academics, and media representatives in the Arab world.

We hereby respectfully and kindly ask the Bahraini parliament to reverse its decision and dissolve the Investigative committee, and to reaffirm the importance and role of artists and artistic freedom in society and ensure that the Parliament does not take any action violating the UN Declaration on Human Rights.




Marcel Khalife’s and Qassim Haddad’s performance premiered in Bahrain on 1 and 2 March 2007 as part of the inauguration of the annual Spring of Culture Festival which was organized by the Bahraini Ministry of Information. The show was attacked by fundamentalist members of the Bahraini parliament as being in violation of Islamic morals and Sharia laws after an Islamic preacher, Sheikh Ali Matar, had complained in a prayer sermon that the Spring of Culture Festival features a play with scenes that “arouse [sexual] instincts” and “encourage debauchery”.
Parliament second vice-chairman Dr Salah Abdulrahman said the event included “sleazy dance moves” which were offensive to Muslims and non-Muslims.

On 13 March 2007 the Bahraini parliament voted to create an investigative committee look into the controversy. Islamists control three-quarters of the 40 seats in the parliament in Bahrain.
More information and photos of the performance on

This is not the first time Marcel Khalife has been attacked for his work. In 1999 he was accused of blasphemy for allegedly insulting religious values by being accused of using a verse from the chapter of the Holy Qu'ran in a song.
Read more on:

Joint action:
Declaration In Defense of the Spring of Culture

Responding to an initiative of the Lebanese Cultural Forum in France, Arab intellectuals comprised of poets, writers, artists, researchers, academics, and media representatives, have signed the following statement:

In Defense of a Culture of Love and Life

The face of aggression has, once again, appeared in full display of its dark-age menace, waging an anachronistic war against the “Spring of Culture” in Bahrain, and against the basic notions of love, freedom of expression, and the pathways of culture and art, represented here by Marcel Khalifé and Qassim Haddad.

This dark-age assault on the "Spring of Culture" in Bahrain is nothing but a protraction of the prosecution which Marcel Khalifé endured some years ago in Beirut, and of all the suppression and aggression to which Arab writers and intellectuals are subjected to by a number of Arab regimes.

Such obscurant, fundamentalist currents build no future or genuine culture, liberate neither land nor people, and augur no spring, and no love. Freedom alone, specifically freedom of expression, innovation and creativity in all its diversity, difference, and richness, can raise the foundation of our future, guarantee a culture of life, liberate women, and address the debilitating scourges of poverty, ignorance, disease, illiteracy, regression, corruption, power-mongering, aggression, suppression of thought, and dispossession of Arab lands.

We salute the institutions of civil society in Bahrain that stood up in defense of liberty and love. We salute the Spring of Culture in Bahrain and throughout the Arab World.

We salute Marcel Khalifé and Qassim Haddad.
Freemuse (FREEdom of MUSical Expression) is an international human rights organisation advocating freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide.