Saturday, March 15, 2008

I work for the campus UNICEF chapter (UNICEF@USC), and while I have doubts about the amount of good UNICEF can achieve in the long haul (it acts as a stopgap measure most of the time, reacting to crises in ways that rarely touch upon deeper issues) I take seriously our chapter’s mission of educating students and spreading awareness of global issues on campus seriously. Recently I gave a talk on the humanitarian crisis in Iraq along with a screening of a few episodes of Hometown Baghdad, a series by Iraqi native Fady Hadid, a student at USC’s film school.

The crisis in Iraq is one of the most underreported crises in the world, especially because of its massive size- with 5 million displaced and anywhere between 100,000 and 600,000 dead, the crisis potentially dwarfs, for example, the crisis in Darfur. And yet, reportage of Iraq tends to focus on US troop deaths, which, at 4000, are comparatively unremarkable. For me this is not only a depressing reminder of how the world press (even Middle Eastern outlets fall into this trap) devalues non-Western life but also a crucial example of how American ignorance and indifference gets it into trouble. This was a theme I tried to stress in the talk- while Americans easily ignore or forget foreign casualties, the people and the countries affected never do, and there are serious repercussions for the rest of the world. “Where are the roots of terror?”, people ask, “Why do they hate us?” I asked the audience a few times, “where do you think terrorists come from?”… “This is where they come from! When someone bulldozes your house for no reason and kills your father at a checkpoint, who do you think they will get mad at? No one?”

It is very hard for people in this country to understand the roots of terror, or to understand that just because they forget something, the rest of the world will not. Over and over, Americans repeat the same mistakes- in 1979, instead of looking to the CIA-backed coup of the popular leader Mossadeq or US support for the royal dictator for some idea of why Iranians were angry, people blamed this anger on irrationality, Islam, or Khomeini. Similarly, people seem to forget that Iranian students took over the US embassy because the US allowed the recently-deposed Shah to be allowed into that country. People generally have a motivation when they risk their lives for something, and as long as people in the West forget this, or blame irrationality, relations will be sour with the Middle East, especially because of how salient history is for people in the Middle East.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Stop Ta3ala Bas

I cannot help but be shocked everyday that goes by as the Arabs remain silent about the massacres going on in Gaza. Even understanding the dynamics and the politics that exist in the Middle East, the ability of human beings to stay silent on the killing of other human beings, even when these human beings are their brothers, is shocking to me. The Arab states have become lulled to sleep by American wealth, and the results are disastrous for the Palestinians.

Last semester for a class on Peace & Conflict Studies I wrote a research paper on Arab pop music and how it had interacted (i.e. reacted or been influenced by) with the Arab political situation. My research spanned from the 1950’s onward, and the last few pages had to do with how contemporary Arab pop has become completely alienated from the audience it addresses. It is hard for me to imagine what the average Palestinian or even Egyptian family, sitting on a rotten couch in an overcrowded refugee camp or anonymous slum thinks when they watch TV and see Haifa Wehbe singing about a naughty child she is babysitting (a child who wears Burberry outfits in her video “Wawa”) or Maria switching off between Geisha costumes and a Louis Vuitton-themed car in “Stop Ta3ala Bas”. This is probably the most disturbing aspect of Arab culture today- the complete chasm between the high culture of the Gulf and the elites of other countries and the low culture (read: the reality) of everyone else, from the Palestinians on up. (I should note, though, that even Arab pop music can claim a higher moral position than the governments of the Gulf, stemming from the recent 25-minute music video “al Dameer al 3arabi”, which probably tops by far anything the Gulf has ever done [or even thought of doing] in the way of Arab “consciousness”…)

For many Arab intellectuals today, it seems that the inertia and resulting hopelessness that was sown in the wake of the Setback of 1967 has never faded, and understandably so- their governments have been lulled to sleep by Western cash, and the people are too busy trying to scrape out a living (or, after work, too busy watching Haifa) to care about their brothers and sisters in Palestine. It is telling that the biggest demonstration in the wake of the recent massacres occurred in Nouakchott, Mauritania, a city I doubt many Arabs have even heard of before, much less could locate on a map.

It is on these days that I am tremendously proud to be an Iranian citizen. The Iranian government has emerged as one of the few major voices in the world to actively challenge Israeli and US actions, despite the little benefit Iran gets from these denunciations. The saddest part for Iran is just this, though, how little recognition it gets for what it does. Predictably, Israel and the US condemn Iran for its condemnations, but it is the reaction of the Arab Street that is most upsetting. The Arabs should be encouraged that finally there is a country that will support the Arab people and will back up words with actions, with little expectation in return. However, historic anti-Persian and anti-Shia prejudices, constantly reinforced by elites (above all, the rabid Wahhabi clerics of KSA) continue to muddle Arab admiration for Iran with suspicion, the heartbreaking result of this historic opportunity to work together.

When I look at Iran’s actions in the region, I see two aspects- first, an attempt to create a buffer against Israel and the US, and second, a genuine desire to reach out to the Arabs being oppressed across the region. Both of these seem to be in the interest of the Arabs (though the government’s insistence of the second has made it face a lot of criticism at home). I think despairingly of the suspicion even of Arab intellectuals (especially As’ad Abu Khalil, whose opinion I otherwise respect) towards Iran based on anti-Shia prejudice, or a fear of Shia domination. However, for demographic reasons (besides in Lebanon & Bahrain), this is ludicrous, and it is impossible for Iran to combat this fear logically when it is so clearly illogical. Iran’s actions in Iraq have helped stabilize that country and its actions in Lebanon and Palestine are helping the people there survive, and as long as the Arabs refuse to accept this, there is depressingly little the Iranians can do to convince them of their good intentions.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

It is amazing how the Israeli leadership blatantly lies to the world! After reports that militants had launched Soviet-made missiles towards Ashkelon for the first time, an Israeli military leader had the audacity to say that the missiles were Iranian-made. Huh??

Also, I enjoy how the Western media goes out of its way to make American viewers feel comfortable by giving the view of middle-class Israeli people when discussing the war the Israelis are waging against Gaza, and not the view of the actual people being affected or hurt by it. When people are dying on one side of the security fence, how is it even ethical for the BBC to ask the residents of Sderot, who moved there from somewhere else, how hard it is for them for homemade rockets that rarely hit their target to land in the desert in the general region of their city? Poor people (

This article by former Ma’ariv correspondent, Yonatan Mendel, rails against this ridiculous treatment of the Palestinians by the press: For example, when a militant Palestinian group takes an Israeli hostage across the security fence (in this case a soldier) it is “kidnapping”, but when Israel does the same across the security fense (in this case, a parliamentarian) it is “arrest”. Similarly, the IDF never “murders” anyone; it merely “hits” them. How can these writers even take themselves or their reporting seriously?

This passage in particular sticks out, because it very accurately describes the type of reporting depressingly common when the situation in Gaza is discussed:

‘A Qassam fell next to a residential house, three Israelis had slight injuries, and ten others suffered from shock.’ One should not make light of these injuries: a missile hitting a house in the middle of the night could indeed cause great shock. However, one should also remember that shock is for Jews only. Palestinians are apparently a very tough people.

During the July War I was at home watching CNN when some reporters interviewed a family in the north of Israel that was clearly much affected by the rockets being launched by the Hezbollah. A pleasant woman who had moved only a few years before with her whole family from Brooklyn was describing how whenever they heard the emergency siren (much less actually saw a rocket, God forbid) the whole family would go into the house’s bomb shelter, a large, well-lit room that had electricity, an internet connection, toys for the children, a kitchen, and a bathroom, and would have to wait it out. It was terrible, she continued, having to stay there for an hour or two on some days, and the children would get very bored. After spending some more time with this intolerable woman who spoke the words just so, so as to best appeal to American sensibilities, CNN moved on to some reporter surrounded by obliterated apartment buildings talking about the general destruction behind him. Where was our Lebanese American to explain to us how she had no bomb shelter, but was instead at the IDF’s mercy, in a lilted voice laced with American colloquialisms? Where was our human face? The blatant bias was shocking and filled me with anger, since it wasn’t hard to imagine which scenes an American would react more emotionally to.

Never mind that the woman in Israel had made it clear the most pressing issue for her in this war was the boredom her children might suffer for a few minutes. It pains me to think how much the Lebanese mothers of Qana might give for a few minutes of boredom with their dead children…