Tuesday, April 29, 2008

3ala 3ayna libnen?

Some more reliable reporting from the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/29/world/middleeast/29mideast.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&ref=world&pagewanted=print):

A Palestinian mother and her four young children were killed in northern Gaza on Monday during an Israeli operation against militants there, and a dispute quickly arose over exactly how they had died.

Mind you, the mother and 4 children were killed “during a raid”, but not by anyone or anything in particular. They just happened to be killed, and passively at that. Who killed them? Apparently, it is disputed who was shooting missiles into Gaza during an Israeli “operation” (didn’t the occupation end? Isn’t this now an “invasion”?), and so because no one can agree about who was at fault for Israeli rockets killing Gazan civilians in their home, their death just becomes some mysterious fluke.

Language is incredibly powerful, and Western & Israeli media’s avoidance of terms that seem to fault Israel in anyway for any of their own actions in the Occupied Territories is dangerous because it begins to convince people that Israel is doing nothing wrong without them even realizing. Later in that same article, though, Ehud Barak seems to take this to the next level, not even pretending to try and change the facts:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak blamed Hamas. “We see Hamas as responsible for everything that happens there, for all injuries,” he said while on a tour of an Israeli weapons factory, Israeli radio reported.

They’re just responsible, it doesn’t even matter for what, they did it, too. Then this: “Militants have tried to infiltrate the border crossing into Israel five times in recent weeks.” They have tried to infiltrate the border? So then what are the Israelis doing on the Gazan side of the border, just going for a picnic? Or are they lost? I don’t understand, why are the Israelis not “infiltrating” the Gazan border?

This, only a few weeks after the Deputy Defence Minister of Israel told the entire Palestinian nation (for this is what “Palestinians” means, right?) that they risked inviting a Holocaust upon themselves if they not stop the rocket attacks. It is shocking how an Israeli official could make a reference to the Holocaust when discussing the Palestinians, when they Israelis can barely fathom the idea that they might actually by “killing” people, much less “murdering” them. (I understand that he used the word “Shoah”, which means a disaster or calamity, but from every source I’ve found, “shoah”, and particularly “ha-shoah”, is a reference almost exclusively to the Holocaust in the Hebrew language.)

The intensification in the last few months of the fighting in Gaza, and the subsequent lack of press it has received, has been shocking, if to a large extent because many news outlets say that the Intifada ended years ago. It seems that we have entered a period of prolonged warfare against the Palestinians with no aim or goal, and no defender of the Palestinian cause that can actually achieve anything. Though I do not remember pre-Second Intifada Palestine, it seems that the years of non-Intifada were relatively peaceful save for a few incidents here and there, and were nothing like the sustained conflict that exists today. Every day there are reports of a Palestinian dead here, one dead there, and I fear it will continue like this for much, much longer…

“A commenter called Noga of the Contentious Centrist blog explains the many many ways in which the word "shoah" is used in Israel: “Shoah means disaster. And it usually comes with its own special verb: "Le-hamit shoah", to bring upon someone or something a disaster. Hebrew speakers use it to describe a nuclear disaster (shoah garinit), among other usages. The Holocaust, when brought up to by Hebrew speakers is always, always, always referred to as "Ha-Shoah", THE Shoah, to differentiate from any other shoah.
Thank goodness Noga has cleared that one up. Israel intends to nuke Gaza, not gas its population. Phew!”


I see little hope for the future: for Iran, for Palestine, for Lebanon, for Egypt, for anyone. The Arab leaders have become comfortable while their people suffer, and the only leader to yell about the situation, Ahmedinejad, is doing so at cost to his own people. Turkey is begging at the doors of people who consider her dirt, trying as hard as possible to flee her neighbors to the south, while everyone who can afford to, and even those who can’t, head to Dubai to blow their money on overpriced alcohol and Ukrainian prostitutes. In Iran, 15% of the population has been on drugs recently at any given time, while 20% of Egyptians cannot afford bread anymore.

There was a blog I used to check sometimes, called “3ala ayna, Libnen?” The leaders of the Middle East need to start asking themselves the same question.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Two anecdotes:

First: I was in professor Lamy’s office the other day discussing research that I would like to do over summer while in Egypt & Iran, and at some point, after some (half-) kidding remark I made regarding Iran’s political situation, he remarked, “ah, so you’re a Persian nationalist, aren’t you?”

Second: A friend of mine called me because she was writing a paper for a discussion she was having in an international relations course that centered on contemporary Western relations with Iran, and she wanted me to explain, briefly before her class started in 20 minutes, the history of modern Iran (and particularly the nuclear program’s place in it). I began talking, explaining why Iranians had reason to xenophobic and why they had justly displaced the Shah and then attacked the embassy when Carter allowed him into Washington D.C. for medical treatment, and began getting worked up as I talked (as always). At some point, while speaking at length about Iran’s right to nuclear energy, I reached something more meaningful- “I don’t want to defend Ahmedinejad, and I have no reason to. You see everything I say right now, it sounds like I love this man for standing up for Iran. But he has done nothing for Iran except exacerbate our economic problems, and we have no reason to stand behind him! But this is the sad part! Just as Saddam learned in 1980- when confronted with outside enemies, the entire nation will stand up against them, even if we have bigger things to worry about. I was not born an Iranian nationalist, and I have no reason to be one! What has the Iranian state ever done for me? The United States, more than any other party, has made me an Iranian nationalist!”

This was, sadly, the truth of the matter. I read As’ad Abu Khalil’s Angry Arab blog on a daily basis, and am always reminded of the follies of nationalism (except for the Palestinians, as he always qualifies). I myself think nationalism is a base appeal to emotion that stirs people up illogically, but at the same time it is hard for me not to feel nationalistic when I see the world around me, and how Iran is treated by it. It bothers me to feel nationalistic, but nonetheless, when American leaders run around talking about bombing the land of my family, I can’t help but feel this way. I think it is the same for many other people in other countries, and sadly I recognize this as a major stumbling block towards working together- if people can only recognize their own self/national interests, no one can get anywhere. But rejecting nationalism for internationalism or cosmopolitanism (whatever those mean) seems too much like turning your back on your people to be an option.

I found once a blog called Ibn Bint Jbeil (http://ibnbintjbeil.blogspot.com/) and at some point there is a post where the writer explains that while he was actually born in Beirut, his father’s attachment to his natal village Bint Jbeil was so strong that he could not bear to have his children registered as being born in Beirut, and thus registered them officially as having been born in Bint Jbeil. The father had gone to work in Beirut, but his heart was still in his homeland, and he sent money and his kids back every so often to make sure the connection remained. This is a type of attachment that I think is beautiful, and should define contemporary nationalism.

Another article I read a bit ago in foreign policy also explored the positive side of nationalism (“Is Nationalism Good For You?” March/April 2008 http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4170&page=2), discussing how people who are more nationalistic tend to be less corrupt and contribute more to their society at large (which makes sense). If this is the type of nationalism Iran gets, I’m all for it. In this sense, Lebanon is a really interesting case study, because nationalism by those abroad sustains the economy, but the strong allegiances (not necessarily nationalism, but sectarianism disguised as such) of those domestically are really tearing things apart. I guess you can have it both ways, but only in the Middle East of course.

A tangent, but Lebanon is completely fascinating for me. It is a state whose identity was born anchored in a minority religion (Maronite Christianity as established by the French) that meant little for the majority of the country, and the wars that it has suffered through since this peaceful birth have all been connected to the failure of this state identity to link in any peaceful way to the national identity. The state of Lebanon was formed for the Maronites, but since then almost every group has tried to define national identity in some way (evidenced by the Lebanese flags you see at every demonstration, regardless of 14 or 8 March affiliation) that contradicts the other group’s interpretation of that identity. Like we discussed in the second class- two people who share one identity might see various elements of that identity as salient, like a Sunni Arab who views Islam as defining of his being Arab while a Coptic Arab might see his Copt faith as really defining of his Arab identity. Thus a Lebanese Christian might see this French connection as truly defining of what it means to be “Lebanese”, while a Lebanese Sunni might instead see the Greater Syria connection as really defining of a Lebanese (/Shami) identity.

Freshman year I wrote a paper for my PPD minor (International Urban Development) on Beirut’s urban development, and the war years and the spatial divisions they created in the city were a big part of my paper. I remember the first line of a source I read went something like: “At heart, the Lebanese conflict has never been about this reform or that reform, but instead it has been a struggle over who the Lebanese are, over what is Lebanese identity.” We see here an ugly manifestation of nationalism- attempts to redefine the nation as linked to various aspects of the individual- but at the same time, the affection that Lebanese feel for their homeland is so strong that if these conflicts were ever sorted out, the Lebanese would be unstoppable. But to this you can only say Inshallah…

The other day I was sitting with a friend who had recently been in Iran for a few months, eating khoresht-e fesenjoon (a sweet pomegranate curry), and she showed me a story she had written. The whole piece was very stream of consciousness and hard to follow, but contained unmistakable references to Persian culture without stating so (most memorably, a story about a girl cutting open an orange only to find a girl inside demanding bread and water). At one point a stranger asks the narrator,

“Where are you from?”

“Right now, no where.”

“And later?”

“I don’t know, it depends on uncultured folk.”

Monday, April 7, 2008

I do research at the Center for Public Diplomacy, and I have just started a project on Hizballah’s public diplomacy strategy. The first thing that struck me was- why is this organization called “Hizballah” in English? For that matter, why is Al-Qaeda “al-Qaeda”? It bothers me that the English translation is used for some organizations (like the IDF) but not for others. A recent article in the LATimes by Rabih Alameddine captured my frustration, as he lamented that by calling God “Allah” when speaking about Islam it is inferred that Muslims pray to some special, separate deity unrelated to the “God” of English Christianity or Judaism. By referring to Hizballah as such (and not as the “Party of God”), what does the Western media accomplish, I wonder? After a bombing in Algeria sometime ago, CNN attributed the strike to “Al Qaeda in the Maghreb”. So does that mean the organization known as “al-Qaeda” working in the Maghreb, or is that a part of “al-Qaeda” based in the Maghreb, or is that a separate organization called “The Base in the Maghreb”? By translating only certain words, the meaning is confused, and the viewer merely ends up scared of some Arabic concept or word he cannot comprehend. Compared to “7amas” or “7izb Allah”, “IDF” is downright friendly.

Besides that initial misgiving about the project’s name, the word on Hizballah has been informative, especially my research about Hizballah’s videogame diplomacy, involving the production of slick, Western-style computer games about the historic resistance against Israel. Even when discussing videogames, Western articles’ bias came through. For some reason, it is okay for Western games to target Arabs, but it is a shock when it comes the other way.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev responded by saying: ''It should come as a surprise to no one that Hezbollah teaches children that hatred and violence are positive attributes.'' (http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/08/16/hezbollah.game.reut/index.html)

Where is the Israeli anger when Activision releases a videogame involving American soldiers shooting up Arab villages (like I had the chance to play when I was younger), or the 2005 “Assault on Iran” title? Apparently, only the other side has “hatred or violence”. Fox, meanwhile, calls the game part of a trend of Islamogaming- why, is this a game about praying now? Though I suppose in Fox’s mind praying and shooting people is basically the same for Muslims, they’ll both land you a spot with virgins anyways.