Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Nearing the End of a Long American Film

The American president began his last year in office with a visit to a region left more unstable by his administrations short-sighted policies. Unfortunately his sabre-rattling wasn’t limited to the Alartha sword dance he tried his hand at in Bahrain.

While the White House has billed the trip as an effort to reassure his Arab allies in the Gulf that the US will protect them from Iran, it seems the GCC, while it does have concerns about growing Iranian power, prefers constructive dialogue to an exchange of bellicose rhetoric and grandstanding - as in the battle of the videos over the incident in the Strait of Hormuz. As the Saudi foreign minister said at a press conference “I am talking about Saudi Arabia’s point of view. This is not the time for any provocation in the region”.

"Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous" was Bush’s mantra throughout the trip, and he seemed unfazed by the fact that IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei was in Tehran to negotiate on outstanding nuclear issues, or by his own intelligence agencies recent report that said Iran no longer had a nuclear weapons program.

As the Saudi Gazette put it, “If this is the Bush definition of diplomacy, he needs to pick up a dictionary”. Editorials in leading newspapers also lambasted Bush’s much vaunted peace plan, which consigns UN resolutions to the dustbin of history, denying refugees their right of return, and declaring Israel’s West Bank settlements, illegal under international law, “facts on the ground” which must be accommodated by the occupied Palestinians . The “viable state” turns out to be a network of Bantustans with no territorial integrity, with the Palestinians deprived of their best land and water resources.

The other ‘carrot’ to the people of the region was a revival of the short-lived ‘freedom agenda’ in his keynote speech in Abu Dhabi. The speech was in part a repeat of the 2003 state of the union address in the build up to the war on Iraq, substituting Iran as state sponsor of terror on the path to acquiring nukes.

Reeling off a list of democratic elections in the region, he mentioned the Iraqi and Lebanese elections, but skipped the Palestinian election of a Hamas government in favour of the earlier election of Abu Mazen. To Arabs watching the speech live, the glaring omissions was proof, if any were needed, that this wasn’t about universal ideals, but about a Bush principle: with us or against us? Again, the idea that you negotiate not with your allies, but with people who disagree with you, seems an alien concept.

But as this administration is on its way out, perhaps some appreciation is in order. Will the next one provide as much material to satirist?

‘Bush bashing’ has become a spectator sport in some quarters, and the urge to lampoon has even reached Arab video clips, whose Arab spin-offs have reached levels of inanity undreamt of in MTV’s philosophy – as exemplified by the craze for cheesy children’s songs by pop-singers.

You’d think nothing could be more apolitical, but one of Nancy Ajram’s contributions to the genre, “Shater, Shater” (Good Boy, Good Boy) proved to have hidden potential. When the US Secretary of State visited to the region, on a tour as empty of substance on key grievances as Bush’s, the song was adapted to suit the occasion.

Some creative editing replaced the pop-star playing teacher with a digitized version of Ms. Rice. And her pupils? The heads of various Arab states depicted as uniformed pint sized schoolboys. Not very subtle, and the lyrics weren’t either:

Teacher: What do we call the boy who listens to his parents?
Chorus: Good boy, good boy
Teacher: What about the boy who does well at school and doesn’t annoy his teachers?
Chorus: We will love him and always call him a good boy

It’s obviously a simplification of US-Arab relations, but one that struck a cord, as the resulting remix spread like wildfire on the internet.

Bush himself appears in “Ahlan, Ezayak” or ‘Hi, how are you?’ in which a Tunisian-Kuwaiti singer, Shams, reworks an Egyptian song about the breakup of a relationship (with lines like “I’m not your relative, or your darling, I’m someone whose sick and tired of your deeds…buy your safety by getting away from me”). Her version stars the American President as the rejected suitor.

The video features an elderly Rambo spraying bullets everywhere, US soldiers being chased through the desert by an incensed woman wielding a slipper, oil fields and cowboy hats, and the words Guantanamo, Democracy and Liberty appearing as props at various stages.

Having berated Bush for his behavior in front of the international media and squared off with Condi in the boxing ring, the singer climbs up steps in the shape of a graph in the middle of oil rigs, pushes Bush off his perch at the top, and then visits a fortune teller to find out who her destined partner will be. Gazing into the crystal ball, she sees herself in a frothy Western wedding dress walking off into the sunset with Handhala, a cartoon charater who was the signature figure of assasinated Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali.

As Mamoun Asfour said, he encapsulated his creator’s philosophy, the figure of a ten-year old boy with his back to the viewer, whom the Palestinian cartoonist described as “neither beautiful, spoilt, nor even well-fed. He is barefoot like many children in refugee camps...However, those who came to know… [him] adopted him because he is affectionate, honest, outspoken…his hands behind his back are a symbol of rejection of all the present negative tides in our region."

The marriage of pop singer Shams and Handhalah at the end of the video clip is thus a concise and powerful way to indicate a rejection of Americas foreign policy.

“Ahlan, Ezayak” generated a lot of controversy, one contention being that it was empty of any real content, a dumbed-down commercialised version of ‘resistance art’. And it is – a one-off ‘political’ video-clip whose success was down to a desire to vent at being made to live through “a long American film” as Ziad Rabani’s musical puts its.

As Bush’s trip competed for air-time with the frenzied coverage of the early stages of the US elections, one can only hope that the next American film will be less bloody.

Bush in Dubai

Goat brains on the buffet in Dubai
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates
by Mark Silva

They served goat brains on the buffet in the hold for pool reporters here today, but I cannot directly report what it tastes like -- read on for a review.

.....As we were led in we saw Bush arriving from an interior door to the courtyard, where he was greeted by six young girls - they must have been under nine, because at nine they must go under cover and these girls were not covered but rather wearing bright gowns - half of them in fuchsia and half of them in turquoise.

..."Hi girls," said Bush, arriving to their greeting, as they burst into song. Their hands were henna'd with designs and Bush remarked on their "beautiful hands." After the song, two stepped forward with baskets of flowers and said "Welcome to Dubai."

The girls who greeted Bush and the ruler of Dubai are younger than nine, for at nine they must cover their heads.

They walked to the front bench in the center facing the rugs and now 12 girls, all dressed in the hot blue and pink gowns - fuchsia and turquoise, Dana Perino assures me - started dancing on the carpet before them.

....They circled and swayed and made great flourishes to music, and the president smiled broadly, nodded his head to the rhythm and tapped his right black-shoed foot in decent timing. The dance lasted a while and Bush was beaming throughout.

"Shukran," Bush told the girls. Thank you.

The drizzle had ended by the dance's end, and then four robed men came out with hunting falcons on their arms - fabulous big birds of light brown tones with dark markings, and they approached Bush, who briefly took a bird on his arm and handed it back. "Beautiful birds," Bush said.

With this, we were led out and motorcaded to the cultural center past the famous Dubai creek, which was not active on this national holiday - declared so for the Bush visit.

Your pooler dubbed it Freedom Day.
They circled and swayed and made great flourishes to music, and the president smiled broadly, nodded his head to the rhythm and tapped his right black-shoed foot in decent timing. The dance lasted a while and Bush was beaming throughout.

Shukran," Bush told the girls. Thank you.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Covering Countries in Crisis

The international news has recently been dominated by countries in crisis, first Pakistan’s pre-election rioting following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and the by Kenya’s post-election violence following a disputed presidential poll.

Kenyans and Pakistanis face an uncertain year ahead, but the way these two stories are being reported has raised serious issues. Kenya reports often boiled down to machetes, tribal warriors and rage; and on TV this mantra was accompanied by appropriate images of angry young men confronting each other, the police, and their neighbors. This was strikingly similar to the Pakistan coverage, when video packages of violent mobs shaking their fists, burning tires, and smashing cars were used over and over again.

Without providing adequate background and explanation, a lot of reporting simply perpetuates the idea of black and brown people as inherently savage and barbaric, their modern politics tribalism and feudalism by another name. Kenyan journalist Peter Kimani paints a very different picture by detailing the alliances and rivalries among the countries politicians in the last few decades and how they lead to the current tragic outcome, without ignoring or minimizing the role tribal allegiances play.

Kenyan Pundit (one of the bloggers who have come to the fore during this crisis as sources of information) felt that the way the international media reported the current crisis “only served to reinforce what I have always felt about news that emanates from Africa, we need to really work on news for us by us, we can no longer rely on the international stations and media”, and hoped that A24, a pan-African 24 hour news channel to start broadcasting this year, would change things when it launches. After all China has International CCTV, Germany has DW-TV, there’s Russia Today and France-24 and Jazeera English so it’s high time that Africa gets its own station to with an African perspective.

In the mean time, the Kenyan blogosphere had some praise for the quality of Aljazeera English’s coverage, which can in part be ascribed to the fact that AE’s reporters (Haru Mutasa, Mohammad Adow and Andrew Sullivan) were not network stars parachuted in for the disaster.

Anchors and reporter without detailed knowledge of the country they’re reporting about tend to extrapolate, and in the case of African nation experiencing a horrific mixture of ethnic, political and criminal gang violence, this means “the specter of Rwanda” is invoked. CNN, the Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel for example used the comparison repeatedly.

In the case of Pakistan, meltdown took on a whole different dimension, with the notion of Alqaeda somehow getting hold of the bomb once the country had descended into lawlessness being bandied about frequently, especially in the American media. You’d think the Pakistanis kept the nukes in a shed.

But the real interest in the Pakistan story was of course Bhutto herself, the assassinated leader. She was “pale-skinned” (the phrase was used by The New York Times and the AP news agency, others slipped in references to her “fair complexion” as clarification for her nickname Pinkie), spoke English as her mother tongue, and had been educated in convent schools and then attended Harvard and Oxford. She was good looking, she was a Muslim woman and she said what the west wanted to hear.

How powerful her image had become is made clear by the fact that one of the Republican candidates for president, Rudy Guliani, launched a new advert to try and boost his dismal ratings, and featured Benazir Bhutto. The same man had reprimanded his fellow republican candidates for attempting to make political profit out of a tragic event. The video features a lot of scary brown people while a voice over warns of “a people perverted” “madmen” and “a nuclear power in chaos”. Then archive footage of a younger, prettier Benazir Bhutto as the voice talks of “democracy attacked”.

In a way this posthumous ‘tribute’ is appropriate, Bhutto personifying an embattled democracy in the East, exactly the image she had spent a lot of time and money creating, and consistently repeated in interviews, TV appearances, op-ed pieces. She knew that she needed the US on her side if she was ever to return to power, and like any shrewd political operator, crafted a message to achieve her goal.

But according to Richard Engels the Richard Engel, Middle East bureau chief of the American network MSNBC, “Pakistan’s Ms. Liberty” perfidiously performed a “dance of the seven veils” and should not be trusted. The phrase also turned up in a biography by the NYT company which was printed in other newspapers, though it seems that the original New York Times was induced to change the wording of its online edition after reader’s indignant comments. Benazir Bhutto was a politician not a saint, but her political wheeling and dealing can be described without resorting to a phrase that combines misogyny and orientalism.

The negotiations between her and Musharraf for a power sharing agreement were brokered by Washington and London, which are also involved in negotiations between Kibaki and Odinga, and perhaps that is the most overlooked point in the coverage of both crises: foreign intervention.

Both Kenya and Pakistan were divided and ruled by the British, both became US allies against the Soviets, which meant periods of American backed dictatorship, and both are involved in the current ‘war on terror’, which has proved a divisive issue in both countries. The Pakistani army is pitted against its own people in an unpopular war in the Northern provinces, while Kenyan opposition leader Odinga is being characterized as the ‘Shariah candidate’ by his opponents, and described as a closet Muslim.

While there is no case for blaming the current unrest on the West, it does seem strange that most talking heads and op-ed writers prefer horrified glee over the natives displaying the atavistic urges to analysis of the 20th century history of the countries in question.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Makkah in the Media

Over two and a half million pilgrims made the hajj this year, but millions more were able to "live the haj", to adopt the LBC channel’s slogan for its special coverage of one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, by following it on the radio, TV and Internet.

The fact that LBC, a Lebanese entertainment channel, devoted a considerable share of its daily broadcast to covering the most significant event in the Muslim calendar shows to what extent Makkah becomes a media mecca, in the English sense of the word, during the hajj season.

One of the oldest and most successful programs began with radio and expanded into television: a live broadcast coordinated between Arab radio stations on the day of Arafa, the most important rite of the hajj. By the time the reporters from all twenty-two radio stations have had their say its sunset in Makkah, signalling the approach of Eid ul Adha next day. Tuning in has become part of the celebrations for many, and even the dedicated channels covering every aspect of the pilgrimage live have not displaced it.

There is the occasional reporter woefully inadequate to the task - it’s not difficult to introduce some quality control, the Libyans for example always do a great job, as they are always from the Quran Radio station. The format - short segments on the same topic strung together - mean repetition is inevitable, and the phrase “and now I pass the mike to my colleague from the…station” only has so many variations.

For Alarabiya, the Dubai based Saudi funded alternative to Aljazeera, finding new topics seems to have become an obsession, with a piece on camels decorated, or a report on the changing fortunes of Polaroid photographers who used to do a brisk trade before camera phones became the rule rather than the exception.

Aljazeera itself, the first pan-Arab 24 hour news channel, has been banned from covering the hajj for the last five years, but was allowed to return this year. It’s reporting focused on ‘giving a podium to those without one/voice’- and quite literally too, for example giving a group of pilgrims who could not afford to do their hajj officially, a chance to voice their complaints, instead of simply demonising them for taking an illegal route that exacerbates the Saudi governments logistical challenge, as has become routine on other channels.

Aljazeera Talk, the group site run by young bloggers and supported by the channel, also had special coverage under the slogan “Aljazeera talk goes on Hajj this year” with its citizen-journalists becoming pilgrim-journalists, writing about everything from hajj guides to fashions in headgear among pilgrims. Riz Khan, who began the fashion for western media coverage of the hajj almost a decade ago on CNN, was one of the first journalists to join Aljazeera English, which like the rest of the networks, was unable to send reporters to Makkah last year. However this, its second hajj, was covered by two reporters, Hashem Ahelbarra and Sami Zeidan, and in ihram no less.

Of course this year most western media have been preoccupied with the Iranian president, CNN anchors for example kept bombarding the reporter with questions as to Ahmadinajad’s whereabouts, so she had to preface everything she said with “we haven’t actually caught a glimpse of him”.

The attitude to hajj in much western reporting is encapsulated in the headline of a much reprinted AFP piece, “Hajj Intimidating for Secular Reporter”, and what actually gets covered is summed up with admirable brevity in this line from the Sky News online article “more than two million pilgrims have braved flies and scorching heat in the Hajj this week”.

The article actually dealt with an interesting subject though, the latest addition to the Islam Online island in Second Life, a virtual world which a ‘population’ of over 10 million. IOL has recreated Alharam AlMakki, Mina, and Arafa in 3D graphics, allowing Second Lifers’ to go on a virtual Hajj, which the IOL team sees as a “powerful educational tool for people embarking on the soul-searching journey in the real world”, as well as an experience open to non-Muslims curious about what the Hajj involves.

published in the Tripoli Post

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Shakespeare in Arabia

Although Arabs generally see the theatre as a recent import from Europe, different forms of performing arts, such as shadow plays, Sufi and Shia miracle plays, and the oral performances of poetry reciters and storytellers, have a long history in the region. Acting troupes also entertained aristocrats in their palaces, travelling merchants in khans, and competed with other street performers for the attention of shoppers and passers-by in the maidan.

While such traditions seem comparable to the earlier forms of European dramatic art from which the theatre evolved, a few play scripts have recently been discovered, suggesting an Arab theatrical tradition comparable to the Chinese or Indian for example.

However, as with music, Arabs made no real attempt to preserve a fixed record. In the case of music this was because improvisation was seen as essential, which might also be the case for drama. But, while both music and performance arts survive in the folkloric tradition, the native theatrical heritage does not have an equivalent to the ‘high’ status form of classical Arab music. Historical records provide the life story of the legendary Zeriab, who brought the music of Baghdad and Damascus to the Andalusian court; but no mention is made of playwrights, which indicates that dramatic performance were seen as mere amusement.

The Arab world only began to consider drama as ‘art’ after the introduction of works by European playwrights, of whom Shakespeare was the foremost, the ‘canon of canons’, as Khalid Amine puts it.

Amine goes on to argue that the “making of the Shakespeare myth” in the Arab world was not spontaneous, but “was induced through the implantation of a whole apparatus of translation and theatrical reproduction” following an unequal colonial encounter.

After independence, Amine says, “Shakespeare becomes a paradigmatic icon of the 'Western Other' or the Other's dramatic medium”, so that artistic engagement with his work by the postcolonial dramatist “amounts to a dialogue with the West and the Western dramatic tradition”.

The Nigerian
Wole Soyinka has another take on the relationship of the Arab cultural establishment to Shakespeare. In his essay “Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist” he surveys Arab appropriations which seek to “claim him as one of their own”, and disparages Arab “translations and adaptations” of his work. However he ends by concluding that this still leads back to the immortal source, “to the gratification of celebrating dramatic poetry anew”, which reverses the earlier power dynamic that presents the English genius as the object of inept manipulation, and seems a positive spin on the process Khalid Amine describes.

Margo Hendrix argues that Soyinka’s essay anticipates two related points later raised by postcolonial theorists: recognising that importing the Shakespearian canon requires the absorption of culturally alien elements; but also the fact that the plays contain so much foreign material (settings, characters, topics, or just the odd reference –like Lady Macbeth’s “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”). The plays themselves are in a sense internationalised in their own right, as texts and not just in terms of appreciation.

Shakespeare’s fascination with the unknown and unfamiliar was a feature of the theatre during the Western ‘age of exploration’ (or exploitation for those on the receiving end); but what sets him apart is his complex treatment of ‘the other’.

Shakespeare’s play Othello, in it's exploration of paradoxes and inconsistencies, is frequently cited to as the most striking example of this complex treatment . The title character being a North African commanding Christian European forces against an invasion by the expanding (European Muslim) Ottoman Empire, and the hatred, or at best ambivalence, with which he is regarded by the Italians whom he ‘defends’, have been linked to similar paradoxes and inconsistencies in Shakespeare’s Britain.

Although ‘Turk’ and ‘Moor’ were words that inspired fear and loathing, Queen Elizabeth I had alliances with both the Ottoman Sultan and North African states against her Catholic rivals. Mark Hutchings discusses the fearful fascination with the ‘Turkish Threat’ in English plays of the time, arguing that by drawing on memories of the fall of Constantinople and “perhaps an older 'crusader' narrative”, plays provided a safe thrill for an English audience who, as opposed to most of Europe, were not in reality threatened. The Turks were essentially the Godzillas and King Kongs of Elizabethan cinema. Nabil Matar’s book Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery details extensive commercial relations and cultural exchange, including the fact that it was much more likely, and profitable, for an English adventurer to move to North Africa than North America.

Khalid Amine, in “
Moroccan Shakespeare: From Moors to Moroccans”, charts the development of a range of responses to Othello specifically and the Shakespearian canon more generally, from “celebrations of Moroccan presence in the English Consciousness”, to more radical rewritings of Shakespeare’s plays.

Such subversive strategies are present in the titles of Abdelkrim Berrchid’s two plays. Otheil Wa Alkhail Wa Al Barudu re-arabises the Othellos name, and to anyone familiar with Arab poetry echoes a line by Almutanabi, while Imri’u Alqais Fi Paris replaces Hamlet with the pre-Islamic poet who faces a similar “to be or not to be” predicament in a destructively futile revenge tragedy.

Set in the present, the play is a re-visioning of Hamlet’s “tragedy of delay and procrastination…[as] a collective tragedy rather than an individual tragedy” as Khalid Amine puts it, quoting Berrchid who says the “The new Imruù al-quays cannot be but the spirit of this new age, that is the age of homesickness, murders, and military coup d'état, and the migration of intellectuals and laborers in search for bread and dignity”

In this new age Shakespeare has not lost his potent spell, but there are conflicting ways of putting it to use. Some Arab playwrights strip Shakespeare of what Amine calls the “aura of authority” created by European dominance in order to rewrite his work in terms of their own concerns.

Sulayman Al-Bassam, the British-Kuwaiti writer and director of ‘the Hamlet Summit’ and ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’, presents his project of adapting Shakespeare’s plays to the politics of the modern Arab world in exactly the opposite way.

He insists on the “aura of authority”, or what he calls “the global
accreditation”, with which Shakespeare is invested; seeing it in positive terms as giving the Arab dramatist “not merely a mask but a bullet-proof face” with which to face the censors.

More problematic is Al-Bassam’s assertion that “A fundamental pre-modernity is at the core of both the Shakespearian world and today’s Arab world”, which sounds like something straight out of The Collected Orientalist Stereotypes. His adaptations engage with the original context in a much more complicated and productive way.

But this point is made in even broader terms by reviews of his plays, which inanely and repetitively begin by saying that Arab world’s woes cry out for Shakespearian treatment, and back it up by noting one thousand and one parallels with England emerging from the Middle Ages.

Perhaps the best commentary on such reductive simplification of a postmodern and postcolonial situation to stereotypes of towel-heads in the dark ages is the fact that ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’, part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival, was on at the same time as another Richard III adaptation - set in modern Britain.

The director of this Richard III, Michael Boyd,
sees both his and Al-Bassam’s plays as dealing with "the tendency, very difficult to resist, of pulling more power where power was in the first place, of increasing the centralization of power”, and draws his own parallels, the totalitarian behaviour of democratic governments in the context of the war on terror, citing the manipulation of information to create and use “fear as a political weapon, fear as a means of censorship, a means of mobilization, a means of justifying arrest”.
This is the same ‘war on terror’ which in ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’ is used as a pretext for tyranny and occupation, setting up an equivalence between the invading American general and the Arab Dictator. The French adviser to the Emir boasts that he “can make a mockery of the judiciary; thread an axis of evil through the eye of the press; I can turn a democracy into a tyranny and keep it all as clean and transparent as a Security Council resolution".

What the two Arab re-makers of Shakespeare, the Morrocan Berrchid and the Kuwaiti Al-Bassam, have in common is their mixing of Arab and Western forms of performance in their theatrical art.

In Berrchid’s case, as in that of many Arab dramatists, this includes a conscious decision to incorporate native dramatic traditions, such as the Albsat tradition of improvised comedy with a political message. Al-Bassam’s Arabian-Shakespearian tragedy contains recitals from the Holy Quran and folkloric dance and music, as well as email messages, phone conversations, Aljazeera newscasts and a religious TV show.

They both create a mixed form which mirrors their content, a hybridized product of Arabia and Europe, East and West.

A Royal Swedish Christmas

Osban making in the palace

Eid, Meat and Gideed

The highlight of the four hectic days of Eid ul Adha, or the Big Feast as it’s unofficially known, is a barbeque. On the morning of the first day which mark the end of the hajj an udhia is sacrificed, and a portion of the meat given to poor neighbours or to the mosque to distribute. Then there is the marathon job of cutting up the meat, and a grill-up that can be brunch, dinner or everything in between; the latter is what it usually ends up being as friends and family drop by for eid greetings and stay to sample the food.

Supper is a casserole or stew, served with a potato and herb omelette, which is eaten wrapped up in ftat, delicious egg less pancakes. Each family has a particular ‘Eid stew’ and charges of violating sibir are invoked if anyone suggests a little variation.

So the first day, unlike many celebrations, doesn’t revolve around an elaborately prepared banquet, but osban sausages, served on couscous or rice and accompanied by msayar pickles, is the dinner for the second day. Making sausages is a time consuming, labour intensive process; and with all the chopping needed for the osban stuffing of rice, meat, liver, spring onions, parsley, coriander, dill, basil, chillis, and garlic, its lucky that Libyan women know how to turn it into festive activity with gossip, jokes and even impromptu poetry battles; an experienced Haja directing operations from behind the ed’ala paraphernalia, while supplying everyone with cups of tea at a rate which keeps the younger girls busy scurrying back and forth with trays.

But the real distinctive food of Eid ul Adha is not eaten during the Eid at all; instead it provides decorations to rival Cairos’s lights and lanterns announcing Ramadan. But unlike our half-hearted adoption of the Egyptian custom, almost every Libyan garden and balcony is festooned for days after Eid with pylon rope on which meat is hanging out to dry.

Gideed might not bear comparison with Ramadan displays in aesthetic terms, but it does have an illustrious history which rivals the Fatimid era origins of fawanees Ramadan: dried meat has been found buried with Pharaohs to sustain the mummies on their journey to the afterlife, it formed an essential part of the diet of Phoenician sailors, and the nomadic tribes inhabiting the sea of sand that is the Libyan desert also depended on this portable and virtually unspoilable protein and calorie rich food.

Every family sets aside a portion of their udhiaa sheep to make into gideed, marinating well salted strips of meat in olive oil, turmeric and red pepper. Once sundried the meat is chopped into bite-size pieces, then fried and stored in containers sealed with samn and olive oil. It’s more economical than fresh or frozen meat as the intense flavour means a little goes a long way, and it saves time too as it’s precooked, qualities that make it an essential store cupboard standby in Libyan households.

Gideed, tomato paste and water cooked for a few minutes is all that is needed for a versatile base for one pot meals: spicy soups, stews with all knds of vegetables from beans to pumpkin, and the wintertime favourite haja jarya of pasta, rice, cracked wheat or mgata noodles cooked in a rich sauce. The addition of spices, herbs, and pulses like lentils, fenugreek seeds, and chickpeas makes endless variations possible.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Eid Mubarak

كل عام وأنتم بخير وعيد سعيد على الجميع ان شاء الله

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Nabil Moussa: Artist? Craftsman?

hibo has discovered Ali Baba's cave...on the bbc site: a photo journal on a Libyan brass engraver, who bases his designs on Christie's antique price guide and hopes to expand through the internet.

Reminds me of the Art or Craft argument over Dale Chihuly's glass sculptures.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

All That Glitters

A Libyan lama: women occupying the guest’s sitting room in a friend's house, dressed up in their best and decked out in jewelry, the talkfest only interrupted by relays of trays. It couldn’t be more different from a busy stock exchange floor.

But at a lama, every topic is discussed with gusto and plenty of gesticulation, and one thing that’s sure to come up is the price of gold, down to the last decimal point; with predictions of future fluctuations taking into account everything, from the birth pangs of the new Middle East to rising demand in China, the weakening dollar and warnings of a global recession. It’s like listening to a room full of Farah Albaraqawis, only all the economic news is seen through gold-tinted glasses.

A girl is initiated into this dazzling world before she’s a month old. The most common gift for a newborn girl is jewelry, especially pendents. These are quite distinctive, there are engravings of Quranic verses, quirky ones like teapots, and charms based on pre-Islamic ‘magical’ symbols like the fish, hand, eye and the horn (which also survived in henna patterns and weaving - like carpets and silks); believed to ward off the evil eye. Within weeks, or sometimes days, of birth a girl will also have her ears pierced, and there are even miniature bracelets, so all that’s missing is a ring.

When all the relatives and friends have given their congratulations, she’ll have quite a collection with which to start a gold hoard, which steadily accumulates through presents for Eid, birthdays and good exam results. Of course some pieces will get broken, and not everyone wants to keep baby pendants for sentimental value, so there are plenty of opportunities to learn the basic rules to managing your gold fund: obviously to buy when the price falls, if you have things you want to get rid of hold onto them if possible till its back up again, or at least only sell when you’ve decided on exactly what you want instead.

More important are the endlessly drummed perquisites to a good buy - as few jewels as possible (as they’re weighed as gold when you buy but removed if you sell), to only buy 18 carat or above, and to avoid designer pieces like the plague, as they date quickly and a big percentage of the price is not in the recoverable net weight.

So all in all, shopping for jewellery is defiantly not for magpies attracted to shiny things, it calls for a disciplined investor’s eye.The goal is a stash that can be worn, loaned to friends and relatives, and updated with minimal extra outlay, and which can also be turned to cash when needed. If any pieces are not used regularly 2.5 % the value is given in Zakah each year, as they are regarded as savings in Islamic law, and a percentage is owed to charity.

Wearable wealth goes back a long time, and the older designs, with coins or even gold nuggets on a chain, make their function very clear. The craftsmen who make the jewelry worn with the traditional costume still use coins for decorative purposes, but they have to ‘mint’ their own since the Ottoman lira is a collectors’s piece now - forgery in 24 carat gold.

A complete set of Libyan jewelry includes the necklace, the most important piece, which can be anything from one row to five, and comes in many designs (with names like ‘the company’ and ‘the crescents’), matching earrings, and a multitude of rings and bangles – not to mention ‘extras’ like anklets, tiaras, and gold belts.

The jewellery has become more elaborate and expensive over the past few decades, so affordable versions are produced which are beaten very thin, making them fragile, and much less attractive than the cheaper and more durable gold plated silver sets which are now becoming more acceptable, even for a dowry. A ‘fake’ set means the bride can still wear the traditional suit, but receives more modern jewellery. Although such sets can’t be exchanged as real gold can, they’re not worn more than a few times a year; and there are even jewelry rental shops opening up to cater to those who still want to keep up with the latest designs.

All of this seems to be the death knell of traditional jewelry making, buying and wearing. But actually heavy silver jewellery and lighter gold pieces were what earlier generations wore, so perhaps modern conditions are turning women back to more reasonable, if less picturesque, jewellery.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Omaima Khalil

She has an amazing voice...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Libyans, Literature….and the Internet

A decade ago everyone was buying satellite dishes, which seemed almost revolutionary, transforming the audience into channel hoppers, with the full spectrum of Arab (and sometimes European and American) perspectives available at the press of a remote control button.

Now, as internet access becomes easier and more affordable, younger Libyans are increasingly switching off the TV and logging in to the internet – ideally this would be a positive development from a passive TV viewer to an Internet surfer, with an infinitely expanding world wide web a mouse click away. But walk into a net café in any Libyan city and there are knots of teenagers crowding together around one monitor to egg on their friend ‘chatting’ to the keyboard, making the supposedly boundless possibility of the virtual world seem pure fantasy.

Of course as the cliché has it chat, like the rest of the internet or the TV for that matter, is just a tool, its how you decide to use it; like forums and social networking sites, it’s a great way to keep in touch with family and friends, and to exchange ideas with people from around the world.

Perhaps another, more creative way to the same end are blogs, websites published chronologically, regularly updated with fresh posts, usually allowing readers to add their response.

The Libyan blogosphere has grown considerably in the last few years, although a late developer compared to the Egyptian or Jordanian for example, and it’s a Libyan blog that has won the Best of the Blogs award this year.

As blogging has become a wider phenomenon, interest by traditional media has grown proportionally. DW, Germany’s answer to BBC World, has since 2004 organised an international competition, somewhat redundantly called the Best of the Blogs; with a jury award (decided by a committee of “independent journalists, media experts and blog experts”) and a user prize (for the blog with the most online votes) in each of the 15 categories.

The competition includes blogs in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Persian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish; and they can be text based blogs, videoblogs or podcasts (multimedia broadcasts which can include pictures, video and audio); and range from the personal diary to political podium, from celebrity scandal to the art appreciation.

Imtidad (, a blog and podcast by Libyan writer, Ghazi Gheblawi, won the BOBs user award for Best Arabic Weblog after receiving the most votes; despite stiff competition by blogs on everything from pop culture to business, from technology to politics.

Imtidad received 15 % of the votes, compared with 13% for the blog selected for the jury prize in the same category, Aljazeera Talk, a very impressive group blog with over 70 writers – or citizen journalists as they prefer to call themselves.

Al Jazeera, whose dominance of the Arab satellite era is undisputed, seems to want to make sure that the next generation also grow up in an ‘Aljazeera decade’; not only do they have one of the most visited Arab websites, but they’re financing Aljazeera Talk and making sure its one of the most talked about blogs by frequently inviting its contributors for interviews and debates.

By contrast Imtidad is a personal blog without such support, and with a ‘niche’ focus on culture and literature, which if we accept the stereotype of the representative Arab internet user as chat addict would not find an audience.

Imtidad is both a regular text based web journal and a podcast; both are mainly in Arabic but there are also blog posts and podcast episodes in English, as part of Gheblawi’s aim is to “bridge th[e] gap between Libyan creative writing, in its original Arabic language, and world literature, in the form of English language”; which does not mean that he focuses exclusively on Libyan or even Arab culture - his podcast recently featured a Ghanian poet, a South African novelist, an Iraqi artist and a Mexican director.

The bilingual podcast (English and Arabic versions) received 16% of the votes for best podcast, coming in third behind the Brazilian Nerdcast and the French Oh la! Radio, and beating a German blog on “Literature, trash and bad moods”.It was the latter, Die Gefühlskonserve, that received the jury prize for best podcast, which was an interesting contrast because the user prize in German went to a humorous blog by an undertaker.

This was reversed when it came to the Best Arab Blog award, with the jury consistently opting for more political Arab blogs, as fitting in a ‘middle-eastern’ context, while the voters picked Imtidad this year, and the Lebanese literary blog The Nostalgic Storyteller last year.

So Imidad is, as it presents itself, part of a wider trend; and Ghazi Gheblawi’s recent work (his second short story collection contains a story written collaboratively with Adel Aziz on an Arab literary website, and he shared the first chapter of his novel-in-progress on the blog with his readers) shows him to be part of a “new generation of Arab intellectuals, who are active online, enriching the Arab online cultural scene” and revitalising offline literary life as well, with new energy, new readers, and new means for creative cooperation between writers.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Best Of the Blogs

Deutsche Welle's International Weblog Awards have been anounced!...and I just found out that Imtidad, a blog and podcast by Lybian writer, Ghazi Gheblawi, was voted Best Blog in the Arabic Category!! And it came in 3rd for Best Podcast!!

DW's Jury Award for Best Arabic Weblog went to Aljazeera Talk, and Alive in Baghdad was their choice for Best Video Blog.

Last year there was some controversy over the Jordanian blog Khobbeizeh, which apparently disappeared from the voting lists because of the blogger's political opininons?!

But as the blog was put back up again with fewer votes, maybe they just discovered some voting irregularities, as happened this year.

Anyway Khobbeizeh is a great blog, so I'm adding it to my favourites...which will have grown exponentially by the time I've gone through the BOBs nominee list.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Shahrazad Goes Live

I don't always agree with Fatima Mernissi, but she does have the most fantastically bizarre and yet wondefully commensensical ideas.

In 'The Satellite, The Prince and Sheherazade', she explores "the empowerment dynamics of satellite broadcasting" and "Arab audiences' fascination with strong female hosts and war reporters". These women, who have become household names across the Arab world, fit the "Sheherazade profile, the brainy, self-confident storyteller":

Promoting strong female stars has proven to be a fantastic asset for the Saudis' most threatening TV rival. Al Jazeera is winning crowds every night through the eloquence of its news anchors, Jumana Nammour and Kaduja Bin Guna, and economics expert Farah al-Baraqaui. While state televisions and oil-funded channels traditionally limited their staff by censoring them and denying them the right to decide freely about their program content and what guests to invite, Al Jazeera'ssuccess is due precisely to the freedom its programmers and speakers enjoy, which allows them to become credible communicators. "

Channels that want to be viable are required to rely much more heavily on high-impact 'brands' and product lines. Al Jazeera demonstrated the worth of such assets when it developed a range of programs whose titles and presenters have become household names inside and outside the Arab world," explains Naomi Sakhr, the author of Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East.

The most famous reporters in the Middle East today are probably the Palestine-based Al Jazeera reporters, Shirin Abu 'Aqla and Jivara al-Badri, who are admired for their courage and professionalism. "History will remember that day when there was no one to speak up in the entire Arab nation, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, but women such as Shirin Abu 'Aqla and Jivara al Badri and Leila Aouda," comments Ali Aziz, the columnist of the avant-garde Egyptian magazine 'Critiques' (An-Nuqqad), "while male leaders and gallon-wearing generals have disappeared from our sight and hearing."

Fairuz's ya sharazade

Katia Nasser discussing her experience as a war correspondent during the 33 day war:

'Free Sami' Button

Tasnim from epiphanies has created a new button, linking to the Reporters Without Borders petition, to support Aljazeera cameraman Sami Alhaj.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Baring the Burden

Whatever might be said of his fiction, Rudyard Kipling is not the best of poets. His poem "The White Man's Burden" for example, is a hackneyed hymn to the colonialist and his civilising mission.

The motivation was to encourage America’s takeover of the Philippines, which many see as the beginning of a long list of colonial interventions by the former colony, ostensibly founded on opposition to the injustice of the old world.

Kipling’s aim leads him to depict the colonial enterprise as a philanthropic challenge; this notion is of course the usual justification, but that’s precisely the point. The poem is an articulation of the imperial imagination, and the title encapsulates this most basic of its tenets in a phrase that has been appropriated by postcolonial critics of empire (and neo-colonial ones for that matter), for uses other than the ones the poet intended.

On the face of it, the contemporary discourse depicting Africa as a “scar on the conscience of the West” might seem the opposite of Kipling’s “White man's burden”; but while it implies an acknowledgement of guilt (which is a key component driving Western aid to the continent) it is significant that the phrase is in figurative terms a variation of the white man’s burden. The colonised other is a burden which the West must lift, while Africa is a scar the West bears – both passive objects of the West’s desired self-image.

The recent attempted abduction of 103 children in Chad is an example of the manipulation required to maintain this self-image. The European ‘aid workers’ in the case lied to the locals, claiming that they would be setting up a home in the capital N’djamena, offering their children a better life and (crucially) education. According to the group anything was justified in their effort to save the children from death and abuse, but even this Machiavellian rationalization does not hold water, as they had to manufacture their Darfur orphans using bandages and iodine to fake the 'war-wounded' look, as footage shot by a journalist accompanying the ‘rescue mission’ shows.

This journalist did not go to the authorities, and only released his video after the group was arrested; his justification being that he didn’t see the children being abused! Such reasoning is revealing: he would not have considered filming a kidnapping in his hometown without interfering. His excuse is in fact a testament to the power of the simplified and distorted image of Africa projected by global and particularly Western media: there’s a definite sense that, all things considered, the children would be much better off with European foster parents, away from the Africa and its endless troubles. Their anguished relatives’, interviewed on Aljazeera, see things differently.

‘The King Kong’ syndrome is Rey Chow’s name for a form of first world consumption in which the 3rd world is mined for thrilling scenes and stories of human misery. Tragic events supply melodramatic entertainment which is more attention-grabbing and invested with more ‘significance’, because they are ‘real’. Africa, the heart of darkness, is particularly vulnerable and is almost always portrayed as the site of misery.

The news media uses this ‘raw material’ in much the same way as the entertainment industry, to provide viewers with shocking spectacle. A BBC World advert promoting the channels website uses part of a news report; it is filmed from a low-flying plane which is dropping boxes (of aid presumably) over a crowd of people in what looks like a flooded area; the people dodge the falling packages and run after the plane while a reporter perched inside informs us that they are “desperate”. This segment of a report, playing on a laptop screen, is followed by the slogan “news on demand”.

It’s a marketing ploy which, had it been intentional, would have been a witty satire on news channels and their viewers, who together transform suffering into a sought-after commodity.

Virtually all the stories coming out of Africa are of conflict, disease and disaster, with Africans infantilised by being represented as perpetually pleading for nurture and nutrition. Reductive and sensationalist news coverage, coupled by the missionary language of those bent on ‘saving Africa’, combine to figure Western dominance as maternal solicitude.

This message is often taken quite literally, as exemplified by the celebrities adopting the continent as a ‘cause’, or going a step further and adopting a representative child.

‘Eye of the Child’, the organisation that (unsuccessfully) challenged the legality of Madonna’s speeded-up adoption of a Malawian boy, urged the star to consider supporting “community based approaches to care for orphans” as an alternative to efforts that “create and develop a dependency syndrome”. This phrase also perfectly describes the wider charity case approach to Africa.

In the case of the Chad orphans-that-weren’t, Dubai Cares seems to be offering to fund the sort of response ‘Eye of the Child’ advocates, by funding efforts to "trace the children's families, reunite them with their families and get them back to school" as a spokesman said. Highly commendable, but then the spokesman goes on to claim that they “don’t want to get involved in politics”, which seems disingenuous.

China is also going on something of a humanitarian spending spree to raise its profile, and to counteract negative coverage. As a global player it is deploying aid as part of its strategic jostling for superpower status, and Africa is the perfect place to do so.

So it’s no longer just a Western phenomenon, in many countries Africa and Africans are conceived as a burden to enable policies that duplicate the underlying assumptions, and some of the ambitions of the colonial project.

After all even the scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century was regarded by many Europeans as a laudable charitable endeavour – which should make the current scramble more suspect. In the late 19th and early 20th century, colonial states produced propaganda material to celebrate the occupation and exploitation of their respective colonies, in which a matronly figure represents the European nation bringing the comfort and culture of civilisation to the natives. The feminine ‘soft power’ of development aid is not a modern alternative to the masculine colonial officer lifting the white mans burden, but an attendant concept.

There are certainly differences in the ways Africa is approached, and it is undeniably true that the continent needs and deserves assistance in order to overcome the barriers to its progress; but the Chad case is a particularly extreme example that highlights the problematic aspect of calls to save the continent that history forgot.

The present enthusiasm, being based on a generalised vision of a chaotic mass of humanity in the grip of apocalyptic horrors, has obscured the many positive developments on the African continent: the growing economies, rising living standards, expanding educational opportunities and most importantly the moves toward closer coordination between its states.

This is not to suggest that Africa’s troubles are over, or are on their way to being resolved; but the unrelenting negative portrayals are both inaccurate and unconstructive. Such portrayals are a product of the one-dimensional way in which the continent and its people are perceived, and they reinforce the same stereotypes.

The consequences are clear. The charity concert Live 8 overlooked African artists in its line-up of global celebrities; and while African countries receive aid and debt relief from more developed nations, they find it impossible to get a fair trade deal.
Africans are confined to the role of recipient, rather than active participants who are changing their current reality and deciding their future.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Chad case

I'm getting a lot sick at the Europeans-in-captivity coverage of the Chad case, the focus is completely on that and I heard very little about the children until Jazeera finally gave the parents and relatives a chance to tell their story - in an interview which the English channel copied and pasted as per usual.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Economic Refugee

An Unending War, an article I stumbled across in the Tripoli Post, begins:

What ran through your mind? I mean when you read the title to this article. I'm sure you must have thought about physical gun battles

It's by 'Joseph Success', a pseudonym adopted by the writer who is "a refugee living in Libya".

His point is that the idea of third world 'economic migrants', implying a voluntary choice, is nonsensensical in view of the conditions they are escaping, that living in poverty is not like living in a war zone but worse, because there is no end in sight.

The risks taken and dangers, especially those faced by Africans, hoping to reach Europe should certainly dispel any myths of freeloaders looking for an easy ride. And its not like those Africans who actually reach -never mind breach- the fortress impenetrable are guaranteed a dignified life.

Given his self-description I'm assuming the writer is himself waiting to leave the continent, in which case he is an example of the brain drain from which the continent suffers. Africa is wasting the potential of its best hope for the future, those it has used precious resources to educate, by failing to provide them with adequate opportunities.

David McFarlane
, covering the recent conference held in Tripoli on the issue, provides some startling statistics on the high percentage of African University graduates (especially doctors) living abroad.

Some, like Kenya Airways Executive Titus Naikuni, think that Africa can utilise the brain drain to its own advantage, by turning what has been termed its subsidy of the first world ( providing a cheap educated workforce) into an export industry. Sami Zaptia of the TP however argues that their own countries need such highly qualified professionals to develop, and talks about the problems facing Libyans wanting to return.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Poet And The Journalist

I missed the beginning of Tamim Barghouti's poetry reading - performance actually- in Ramallah on Aljazeera Live, but I could see that almost half the people in the audience were pointing their phones/cameras at him, so I wasn't too worried.

Sure enough someone had uploaded the entire 'concert' on youtube - and I found out that he had been introduced by Jivara AlBudeiri! I thought I recognised her voice, but I wasn't entirely sure until I read this account of the evening from the Al'ayam newspaper.

Perfect right? The next Mahmoud Darwish introduced by the most passionate and committed journalist on Aljazeera. If only words really were more powerful than bullets.

Saturday, October 13, 2007