Friday, September 28, 2007

Simon Shaheen's Musical Magic

Several nights ago I attended a Simon Shaheen concert, part of a local World Music concert series organized by my University's school of music. I first heard him play to a small audience at this same venue some fifteen years ago. It was at a time when his star was just starting to rise. He impressed me then with his virtuosity and his skill as he effortlessly switched from playing oud to violin . The next time I saw him was at a Beiteddine Festival in Lebanon about three years ago. He was part of an odd three act show that also included the Egyptian shaabi music star Hakim, interesting for about one song, and the incomparable Khaled, the king of Rai. I loved Khaled's powerful voice but Shaheen's beautifully crafted instrumentals evoked deep emotions in me, simultaneously joyous and melancholic.

Simon Shaheen is a Palestinian, born in the village of Tarshiha in Galilee. He learned oud at the tender age of five at the hands of his father, himself an accomplished musician. He left to the United States in 1980 for graduate studies in music and has stayed on since then. When he became an American passport he was allowed to travel and perform in Arab countries. He now runs a yearly musical retreat for talented Palestinian children on the West Bank.

Shaheen had established himself as a master of classical Arabic music by the 1990s. It was his 2002 CD, Blue Flame, however, that really exhibits his true genius. In it, he manages to blend several musical styles to produce lush, joyful and totally original instrumentals. Musical fusion doesn't always work well as it often feels contrived and artificial. There is nothing artificial about Shaheen's compositions. He blends different musical styles seamlessly. Yet despite the strong Jazz and Caribbean elements in his compositions, they never loose their essentially Middle Eastern sound and feel. Nothing warms my heart more that Blue Flame blasting on my car stereo as it conjures up Mediterranean sunshine and deep blue skies on the coldest and greyest days.

During this last concernt, along with some favorites from his last CD, Shaheen and his Qantara band played some new unrecorded compositions. One was titled "Iraq" that he dedicated to the people of Iraq and the other titled "The Wall" in reference to Israel's apartheid wall. Both were sad and moving compositions.

Simon Shaheen makes me proud and his music makes me happy. Here are few samples from his last CD.

Monday, September 24, 2007

More on Air Strike: Nuclear, Chemical or ...Neither

I do not pretend to know what the Israeli airs trike's target was, but it always seemed odd to me that the Syrian regime, already in the cross hairs of the United States, would be so reckless as to take on North Korean nuclear material at this very instant. The Syrian regime might as well have drawn a giant bulls eye on its forehead and waited for the inevitable. The story below makes more sense. But is this just a case of Israel degrading its neighbor's military capabilities to insure its continued superiority or is there more to come? What is the U.S. administration and its Israeli proxy concocting exactly?

Israeli air strike did not hit nuclear facility, intelligence officials say 09/24/2007 RAW STORY

by Larisa Alexandrovna

Israel did not strike a nuclear weapons facility in Syria on Sept. 6, instead striking a cache of North Korean missiles, current and former intelligence officials say. American intelligence sources familiar with key events leading up to the Israeli air raid tell RAW STORY that what the Syrians actually had were North Korean No-Dong missiles, possibly located at a site in either the city of Musalmiya in the northern part of Syria or further south around the city of Hama. While reports have alleged the US provided intelligence to Israel or that Israel shared their intelligence with the US, sources interviewed for this article believe that neither is accurate. By most accounts of intelligence officials, both former and current, Israel and the US both were well aware of the activities of North Korea and Syria and their attempts to chemically weaponize the No-Dong missile (above right). It therefore remains unclear why an intricate story involving evidence of a Syrian nuclear weapons program and/or enriched uranium was put out to press organizations. The North Korean missiles -- described as "legacy" by one source and "older generation" by another -- were not nuclear arms. Vincent Cannistraro, Director of Intelligence Programs for the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan and Chief of Operations at the Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorism Center under President George H. W. Bush, said Sunday that what the Israelis hit was "absolutely not a nuclear weapons facility." "Syria has a small nuclear research facility and has had it for several years," Cannistraro said. "It is not capable of enriching uranium to weapons capability levels. Some Israelis speculated that the Syrians had succeeded in doing just that, but according to the US intelligence experts that is simply not true." But "Syria has a chemical weapons capability and has been trying to chemically weaponize war heads on their existing stocks of North Korean originated missiles," Cannistraro added. Israeli government and embassy officials are not commenting on the incident. According to intelligence sources familiar with the events leading up to the raid, an explosion on July 20 at a Syrian facility near the city of Halab, in the Northern part of Syria, caused Israel's retaliatory strike on Sept. 6. They could not say what caused the delayed reaction. Chemical warhead exploded at site North Korean scientists working with Syrian military and intelligence officials attempted to load a chemical warhead onto one of the North Korean missiles, likely the No-dong 1 model, according to intelligence current and former intelligence officers interviewed for this article. The result was an explosion that killed a few of those present and, according to some official reports of the blast, as many as 50 civilians. The SANA news agency described the blast at the time as "not the result of sabotage," but an explosion resulting from "the combustion of sensitive, highly explosive material caused by extremely high temperatures." The No-Dong 1 missile is a redesigned SCUD-C, which the Syrians are alleged to have acquired in the mid-1990s according to some estimations, while others say perhaps as late as 2000. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the No-Dong has a potential range/payload capacity of 1,000-1,300 km/700-1,000 kg. Cannistraro believes that these missiles were No-Dong, but did not specify which class. Others, however, named the No-Dong 1 model or described the missile in such a way as to indicate what could only be the No-Dong 1 model. The chemical explosion is believed to have included a Sarin nerve agent and made the area around the blast dangerous even after the fire from the explosion had been extinguished. This would make reconnaissance of the area difficult for foreign intelligence officers attempting to collect samples and data after the blast. The United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention treaty of 1993 outlawed the stockpiling of Sarin, but neither Syria nor North Korea are signatories to the treaty. Some believe that the Office of the Vice President is continuing to battle any attempts at diplomacy made by the US State Department in an effort to ensure no alternative but a military solution to destabilize and strike Iran, using Syria's alleged nuclear weapons program and close relations with Iran as a possible pretext. A Sept. 16 piece in the London Sunday Times alleged the attack proved Israel could penetrate Iran's air defenses. "By its actions, Israel showed it is not interested in waiting for diplomacy to work where nuclear weapons are at stake," reporter Uzi Mahnaimi wrote. "The Israelis proved they could penetrate the Syrian air defence [sic] system, which is stronger than the one protecting Iranian nuclear sites."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Crimes of Dishonor

Few things repulse and shock me more than stories of "honor" killing. As correctly noted in the article below, many of us would rather not think about it since it is a source of shame and embarassment. But ignoring it is tantamount to endorsing it.

The NYT Magazine article below recounts the details of Zahra's tragic death and its repercussions in Syria. I hope the title subheading, that Syrians are rethinking this tradition, is correct. It is high time. Sometimes it takes a single person standing up and breaking the taboo of silence before many more follow suite. Fawaz, Zahra's husband and his family were such people; they have stood up, against tremendous societal and tribal pressures, to say that this abhorent practice, cannot under any circumstance be acceptable.

Dishonorable Affair
'How the murder of Zahra al-Azzo, a 16-year-old rape victim, has led Syrians to rethink the widespread acceptance of honor killing.
NYT Magazine, September 23, 2007

The struggle, if there was any, would have been very brief. Fawaz later recalled that his wife, Zahra, was sleeping soundly on her side and curled slightly against the pillow when he rose at dawn and readied himself for work at his construction job on the outskirts of Damascus. It was a rainy Sunday morning in January and very cold; as he left, Fawaz turned back one last time to tuck the blanket more snugly around his 16-year-old wife. Zahra slept on without stirring, and her husband locked the door of their tiny apartment carefully behind him.

Zahra was most likely still sleeping when her older brother, Fayyez, entered the apartment a short time later, using a stolen key and carrying a dagger. His sister lay on the carpeted floor, on the thin, foam mattress she shared with her husband, so Fayyez must have had to kneel next to Zahra as he raised the dagger and stabbed her five times in the head and back: brutal, tearing thrusts that shattered the base of her skull and nearly severed her spinal column. Leaving the door open, Fayyez walked downstairs and out to the local police station. There, he reportedly turned himself in, telling the officers on duty that he had killed his sister in order to remove the dishonor she had brought on the family by losing her virginity out of wedlock nearly 10 months earlier. (Read More)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

غمض عين، أفتح عين :Time Flies

A poem penned by my father, thirteen years ago, after he saw his grand daughter for the first time at the age of one. It is hard to believe that a week ago, she started high school and is almost as tall as I am.

حفيدتي ياسمينة

يا زهرة ألياسمين ___ يكفيك ما تحملين
على توالي ألسنين ___ من عبق طيب
يا زهرة...عاطرة___ ما زلت...بألذاكرة
في ألبسمة ألساحرة___ ولحظك ألمعجب
جدك ...لو تعلمين ___عانى شديد ألحنين
يحدوه شوق دفين___ لخدك ألأيرب
لما وصلنا ألمطار ___أحسست بعد ألديار
فكان كل ألحوار ___دمعا ...فلا تعتبي
لاغرو أن ألربيع___ أنجب زهرا بديع

يلهم فنا رفيع___ بألنغم...ألأعزب

فصار شعر غناء ___أرجوزة أو حداء
ترتيلة...و دعاء___ من قلبي...ألمتعب
قولي لبابا أنا___ لوالديك...ألمنى

Its Time for the Palestinians to Talk...To Each Other

I thought the following commentary by Hussein Ibish was excellent. He was previously the spokesman for ADC (Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee) and was a common presence in the media defending the Arab point of view very effectively after 9/11. His analysis of the defense of Hamas by the left wing at the expense of Fatah is also applicable to Hezbollah and the March 14 bloc in Lebanon. His point is that in order for us Arabs to move forward, we cannot demonize each other. We blame G.W. Bush for his simpled minded dichotomous (with us or against us) view of the world, but we are apply this same principle to each other. Moreover, a political stance based on saying "NO", like the old Jabhat el Rafed, may be emotionally satisfying and make for fiery rhetoric but it achieves nothing.

Defend the Palestinian cause against its most unreasonable supporters

By Hussein Ibish, September 14, 2007

The conflict that has developed between Fatah and Hamas poses new and unprecedented challenges for supporters of the Palestinian cause. A rational response to this crisis should focus on reformulating a viable strategy for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The only serious prospect for ending the conflict and gaining independence for the Palestinian people is a negotiated solution to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state.
To work effectively toward that aim, there is no need for supporters of Palestine to become partisans of Fatah. However, important choices need to be made and there are serious consequences to words and deeds.
In the United States a small but vocal group of left-wing commentators has reacted by defending Hamas and heaping vitriol on Fatah. However well-intentioned, their rhetoric, or more significantly what it advocates, might significantly undermine efforts to help to end the occupation. (Continued here)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

On Israel's Violation of Syrian Airspace

I have yet to hear a peep about Israel's aerial incursion into Syrian airspace from the major American media. Nothing! It apparently did not even deserve a stinking soundbite!

Imagine the response if Syrian fighters had invaded Israeli airspace and dropped a load of munitions. The U.S. military would be on high alert and the B52s would be in the air in no time fully armed for Armageddon.

International law is, apparently, a one way street. So to the rhetorical question "why do they hate us?" often asked on this side of the Atlantic, my answer is "because of your hypocrisy, stupid!"

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Gibran the Terrorist

A new Arabic language school by the name of the Gibran Academy in NYC and its principal are being savagely attacked by the right wing xenophobes. The malignant hate that is being propagated by the those opposing the school that plays on the sheer ignorance and the fear of the American public is mind boggling. This is from the same people that are behind Bush's policy to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East!!!

Counterpuch, August 30, 2007
The Right-Wing's War on the Gibran Academy
Arabic as a Terrorist Language


A good friend and former Professor of mine always began his classes on the developing world with an introduction to Islam. One of the first points driven home in the class, semester after semester, was the difference between Islam and Arabic. While the terms are obviously not synonymous (one being a religion and the other a language), this basic distinction is disregarded in recent fundamentalist efforts to demonize not only Islam, but the Arabic language itself.
I wanted to believe that we'd come far enough in this country that Muslim-Americans and non-citizens alike don't have to suffer under irrational hatred, fanaticism, and repression. But for America's small, but influential right-wing minority, this seems too much to ask.
I am referring to the racist war that has been declared on the Kahlil Gibran International Academy (in New York), and most specifically its Principal, Debbie Almontaser. The Gibran Academy is the first public institution in the U.S. committed specifically to learning the Arabic language. But the way the school has been attacked in media diatribes, one would think it was named after Osama bin Laden, rather than an uncontroversial, but well known poet. The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran is best known for his classic work, The Prophet, written over 80 years ago and translated into over 20 languages. While Gibran's works focused heavily on the corruption of Christian clergies and churches of his day, his other common themes include love, religion, life and death, and philosophy.
The Gibran Academy "controversy" comes at a time when Americans are desperately in need of shedding their parochialism of foreign cultures and languages. As the United States has become an international pariah during its occupation of Iraq, attacks on diversity can do little but strengthen American isolationism and ignorance. Americans are consistently rated in world opinion polls along with Iran and North Korea in terms of likeability, and incidents such as the Gibran protest are unlikely to improve its image. The anti-Arabic campaign is being spearheaded by notable reactionaries such as Daniel Pipes and Alicia Colon, as well as newspapers in the Big Apple including the New York Post and New York Sun.
But what, you might ask, are the specific crimes committed by Almontaser and the academy, deemed so egregious as to warrant the right-wing's wrath? Daniel Pipes lays out his case in a number of editorials written in the NY Sun in the last few months. Pipes claims as "fact" that "Islamic institutions [which Gibran Academy is not], whether schools or mosques, have a pattern of extremism and even violence." He argues that "learning Arabic in-and-of-itself promotes an Islamic outlook," as "Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage." Pipes feels that the teaching of Arabic may lead to "moral decay," since "Muslims tend to see non-Muslims learning Arabic as a step toward an eventual conversion to Islam, an expectation I encountered while studying Arabic in Cairo in the 1970s."
In another Op-Ed for the NY Sun, Alicia Colon follows up on Pipe's statements, protesting that "This proposal [for an Arabic language school] is utter madness, considering that five years after September 11, ground zero is still a hole in the ground and we're bending over backwards to appease those sympathetic to individuals who would destroy us again." The editors at the NY Post also deem the anxieties over the school as "right on target."
Pipe's and Colon's anger appear to be derived, in part, from Principal Almontaser's alleged "support for terrorism." Almontaser was demonized for initially refusing to condemn a t-shirt with the slogan "Intifada NYC," which was being sold by the group "Arab Women Active in Art and Media," which shares an office with another group that has ties to Almontaser (a rather tenuous and tendentious "connection," I know). Aside from the "crime" of having this connection with the group in question, Almontaser has also committed the second crime of explaining the meaning of the word Intifada: "it basically means 'shaking off.' That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic. I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don't believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City societyand shaking off oppression."
This statement, while seemingly innocent enough, is deemed irrefutable proof of Almontaser's "gratuitous apology for suicide terrorism," in Pipe's own words, and as evidence of "warmongering," in the eyes of the NY Post editors. Normally whenever I read such fanatical claims amongst American right-wingers, I don't bother to respond. Pipes and Colon's claims may be too stupid to merit a rebuttal, but the effectiveness of such attacks is truly disturbing for anyone committed to multiculturalism and democracy. Racist rhetoric has been allowed to dominate media discourse for too long, and has often been successful in setting the terms of debate ­ as erroneous as those terms may be. Consider, for example, an August 26 report from the Chicago Tribune on the disputed school. The story claims that "at the core of the debate [over the school] is a linguistic disconnect." This may be what apologists for Pipes want the public to believe, but the claim has no bearing on reality whatsoever. For one thing, there has been no "debate" going on here, only racist bullying. American media commentary has been hijacked by pundits who have zero commitment to intellectual debate of the issues, and even less commitment to understanding the nuances that come along with learning about foreign cultures and languages. That the claims of Pipes and others could even be taken seriously by New York political leaders and media reporters is a sign of just how far our intellectual culture has deteriorated.
Consider a few of the following facts that are either ignored or twisted in the current media-political "debate" over the school.
1. While the Kahlil Gibran academy has been attacked for indirectly teaching Islam in a public institution, Gibran himself was not even Muslim, he was Christian Arab. Why the administrators of the school would have consciously chosen Gibran as an inspiration for an "Islamic school" is never explained in media debate (and why would devout Muslims enroll in a school named after a Christian poet expecting to get an Islamic education anyway?). One would hardly know about the school's non-Muslim roots, however, after reading Pipe's tirades.
2. The official language of the most populous Muslim country in the world (Indonesia) is not even an Arabic, but Bahasa Indonesia. One wouldn't know this either by reading the NY Sun or NY Post editorials. That there's nothing inherently linking Islam with Arabic is a lesson Americans should be taught as children, although it is not included in most civics discourses in this country.
3. Contrary to the claims of Colon and Pipes, Almontaser was indeed correct that the word "Intifada" means "uprising" or "shaking off." The word is not inherently tied to military attacks on civilians. I used to make this same point when I taught Middle East politics, although I would also presumably be denigrated as a terrorist sympathizer for my failure to declare war on the Arabic language.
4. The nation for which Pipes reserves most of his anger is Palestine ­ as he attacks Palestinian suicide bombers who target Israeli civilians. While predominantly Arabic speaking, Palestine retains a sizable non-Muslim minority, another inconvenient fact ignored by Pipes. Twenty-five percent of West Bank residents are Christian and Jewish speaking Arabs. Such a reality would be deemed little more than a paradox, however, by ignorant minds vilifying the Arabic language as Muslim in orientation.
Claiming that the Arabic language is inherently Muslim makes about as much sense as claiming that English is inherently Christian. But this doesn't mean that such efforts to confuse the public are ineffective. As of late August (and in light of a five month campaign by the "Stop Madrassa Coalition," of which Pipes is a part) Almontaser has been pressured to step down as Principal of the Gibran Academy. Furthermore, Pipes and other members of his coalition have vowed not to end their campaign until the academy is permanently closed. The New York Times reports that, in light of the protests, "the chancellor of schools, Joel Klein, is considering other locations for the school [currently in Brooklyn], or even postponing the opening for a year." The attacks, and many others of their kind, have also left a terrible psychic scar on many Arab-Americans forced to endure unbridled American racism. Sadly, U.S. "multiculturalism" seems to make room only those with enough political and social capital to effectively fight back against media and public prejudice and xenophobia. Even Arab-American citizens are deemed as "outsiders" or "foreigners" within such a twisted value system.
It remains to be seen whether the racist views of Pipes and his ilk are representative of the American public as a whole. How Americans react to anti-Arab/anti-Muslim political-cultural campaigns will do much in determining the status of Arab Americans in the future, and the vigor of our democracy. One thing seems clear though: as long as a loud minority of reactionaries is allowed to hijack public dialogue and debate, not much is going to change.
Anthony DiMaggio has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror" (forthcoming December 2007). He can be reached at