My piece on Obama, for New York Times online
Thursday, June 4, 2009, 20:12
A short, and quick reaction to Barack Obama's speech in Cairo today. (The title is the choice of the New York Times.)
For Syria, a Disappointing Speech
The chorus of self-congratulatory and mutually satisfied remarks is already growing loud across the Atlantic, but the essence of Barack Obama’s promised truth-telling speech has been less than historic and rather selective.
Even if we were able to contain “the Muslim world” into specific cultural, social or geographical parameters, it is unlikely that President Obama’s intended audience was swept off its feet. Charismatic and eloquent on his own merit, and certainly in comparison to his predecessor, President Obama has yet to veer very far from the policy path taken by the Bush administration.
Granted, President Obama had a delicate task in trying to satisfy contrasting audiences: friendly regimes, including his hosts, were reassured that democracy would not be imposed, but the masses were given small consolations with reminders on human rights. Presidents of superpowers, however, should not expect praise for stating the obvious, for recounting historical anecdotes or for paying respect to the world’s big religions; Islam’s tremendous contributions to Western thought and development are not a matter of opinion, and quotations from its holy book, the Quran, are unimpressive.
Unfortunately, the double standards of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, have remained at the crux of official rhetoric. Many will have heard a patronizing address, with an American president preaching, again, about what they must do and about the facts they must accept. The reference to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for example, would have resonated more strongly had President Obama dared to speak of Israel’s extensive nuclear arsenal. Remorse about Iraq, instead of dubious claims of achievement there, would have earned him some credibility.
In the Arab world, there was much hope that the carte blanche the Bush administration had given Israel would be withdrawn. While President Obama does speak of the generic suffering of Palestinians, he does it without committing to anything not already approved by his predecessor and merely reiterated his demand that Palestinians alone (and not Israel) renounce violence. He speaks of a Palestinian state, but not of U.N. resolutions defining its basic formation, nor of the central issue of Palestinian refugees and their right of return, granted by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In effect, the only real problem Barack Obama seems to have with Israel is that of “continued settlements” and not actual occupation or disposession. Even the Arab Peace Initiative was deemed insufficient, and he admonished Arabs for their “self-defeating focus on the past” without offering a comprehensive solution.
It is especially from Damascus that disappointment will be felt by those who expected differently. The long-awaited outreach to Syria would have been a perfect component of the speech, and a lucid demonstration of the U.S. president’s promised change. As a key party in the Arab-Israeli conflict, its Golan still occupied by Israel, the half a million Palestinian refugees and two million Iraqi refugees crowded within its borders, Syria surely should have been part of President Obama’s new beginning.
It’s a pity Barack Obama didn’t truly make a historical break with past American foreign policy while the entire Arab and Muslim world was listening, and willing to reciprocate.
Rime Allaf is a Syrian writer, an international consultant and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. She has her own blog.
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Think tanks, blogs and social networks
Friday, May 29, 2009, 03:15There has been mounting dissent, by email and in person, about my relative silence on the blog after so many years of active writing, and I even get complaints about only posting articles and not real blog entries! Tough crowd. In my defense, apart from the delights of mothering a very active toddler and the other things that make days fly, I have also been busy on other forums: if you roam on Facebook or chat on Twitter, for instance, your posting propensity tends to decrease after a while. I didn’t want to succumb to the multiple posting tools, but I may just do that – and then my gems on the evil Facebook would be readable even in banned places. Now that I like.
Speaking of bans, one of the paragraphs in the following article did not meet the approval of the censors in Syria, even though it merely mentions a reality which itself has been ridiculed in numerous televised comedies, from Maraya to Spotlight. Feel free to check the link to compare, it’s not really worth it.
The point I was trying to make is an important one, and I’ve been making it privately for years. There should be more Syrians in reputable think tanks, and they should be encouraged to speak independently, because toeing the line actually does Syria no favors. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have found myself facing not Israelis, but Arabs attacking anything having to do with Syria. It is often my regional peers (well, from Lebanon mostly, and from Egypt as well) who expend the most energy on the subject, trying to explain that the only problems in the region are Syria and Iran. It sometimes shocks me to discover they have come prepared, using some of my articles as ammunition against me, turning statements about a given Syrian situation into "proofs" of my seemingly misguided opinions.
They simply cannot fathom the novel idea that someone in a prestigious think tank (like me) who is an ardent critic of regimes in the region (like me) and a supporter of numerous civil society positions (like me) and a passionate defender of the Palestinian cause (like me) can also calmly argue about the position of a state like Syria, its interests, its rights, and its concerns. Imagine that.
Thinking inside the tank: Syria should join the club
Rime Allaf - May 2009
“Peut-on désirer sans souffrir?” was not a mere lament about the possibility (or not) of desiring without suffering, but an important illustration of the phenomenal tradition of logic, or perfecting the art of thinking, in France.
Every year, for that most distinguishable of French institutions, the Baccalaureate, thousands of students start their set of written exams with a good dose of philosophy, a compulsory subject for all branches. For four hours, choosing one of three questions, they attempt to respond in the manner they hope will merit a high passing grade – not by giving a correct answer, but by presenting correct reasoning and logical argumentation.
The selection of questions is announced on televised news and published on front pages, provoking nationwide debates over the next days and reinforcing the strength of France’s Cartesian tradition. Last year, choices included the questions “Does art transform our conscience of reality?” for scientific students, “Is it easier to know another than to know oneself?” for economic and social studies students, “Can one love a work of art without understanding it?” for technology students and, for literary students, “Is a scientific knowledge of the living possible?” Regardless of their opinion on the various matters, or even of the degree of their interest, many students easily write dissertations of more than 10 pages, explaining their thought process and why they arrived at a particular answer.
I think, therefore I am
Years of studying how to think have armed these students with tools supposed to take them through their academic, professional, social and personal life. Having learned how to think independently, exposed to a multitude of sources and given the opportunity to make educated arguments, they become better able to detect, diagnose and deal with issues facing them. They also become better communicators.
What the French take for granted, however, remains the realm of the unknown for most of their peers elsewhere, especially in our region. Following an educational regimen that favours memorising over understanding, that rewards conformity over initiative and that penalises independent thinking and deviations from the straight path, they will never be as well-equipped to think about situations or to solve problems.
This is exacerbated by an even worse phenomenon: the exaggerated praise of superiors, or of would-be superiors, and the practice of simply saying what they think (often rightly) the latter want to hear. With so much time and effort spent on preparing to say what others want to hear, there is hardly any time or desire left for thinking and acting on these thoughts. This is bad enough when considering the personal dimension of this sorry habit, but it takes the magnitude of a plague when taken on the social and national level.
Filling the tanks
Actions speak louder than words, goes the proverbial saying, but the word, and the thought behind it, have been receiving prime-time attention in recent years. Never since Plato’s Academy – thought to have been the world’s first think tank – has there been such interest in the institutions that gladly label themselves as such. Flourishing over the world, with preponderance in Europe and the United States, they cover the spectrum of political positions from left to right, with varying degrees of independence and varying degrees of influence over coveted circles.
Whether they were thinkers in the time of Plato and Aristotle, trying to influence the workings of society and therefore of the state’s politicians, or whether they are actual political activists driving for tangible change, they and their think tanks aim to make a difference. To this end, they follow, analyse, write about and discuss the ideas and events they want, through publications, meetings, conferences, lectures and media coverage.
Respected institutions have no fast track to respectability, and influential fellows no quick way to influence; positions of authority come with patience and ideologues have spent much time, effort and money over the past decades to seep through the mainstream political arena and overtake their opponents’ argumentation. It’s not necessarily a labour of love, but it is labour and it is necessary. It’s uncertain, however, that the Arab world has understood this.
Arabs in search of influence
On the bright side, many Arab countries have joined the think tank club, managing to spread some papers, market some conferences and present some researchers. On a less bright side, most of these tanks are mere spokespersons for the people or for the entities sponsoring them and paying their salaries. This would be problematic enough in a domestic context, but it becomes much more serious on a worldwide scale if credibility is tainted by association to various authorities or institutions. In order to make a difference where it matters, the Arab world has a lot of work to do.
Firstly, there is a distance that it is nearly impossible to bridge while established institutions spread a general anti-Arab (and pro-Israeli) rhetoric. This is especially difficult in the aftermath of 9/11, where the Arab-Islamic world has been thrown into a contrived civilisation clash. Secondly, there are too few Arabs in the think tanks strong enough to make a difference. For the time being, even with the scarcity of think tanks in the region, there are more think tanks in the Arab world than there are Arabs in the think tank world.
Syria’s particular case is worthy of study, and of improvement. While a number of Arab countries have managed to produce research centres, think tanks and various other societies and centres, Syria remains practically invisible on the think tank map. More importantly, while neighbours are found abundantly in institutions around the world, the number of Syrians there could be counted on one hand – with fingers to spare.
As a fellow in one of the world’s most reputed think tanks, I have often met peers from Arab countries, but rarely from my own. In fact, it has been easy for a discourse antagonistic to Syria to spread in think tank circles, with papers and meetings expanding on a general Neocon/pro-Israeli approach, disregarding the big picture of Syria’s regional interests.
Such a limited presence is not conducive to much influence and it calls for decisive action by Damascus to promote various nationals who could also compete in the world. There are times when differences of opinion on internal affairs are best left aside in order to confront a bigger problem coming from outside; consequently, various Syrian thinkers, academics, intellectuals, researchers and other national assets should be getting greater exposure on the think tank circuit, joining the outnumbered Syrians there and offering a considered, cogent and coherent perspective.
Don’t think of an elephant
In his seminal pamphlet on the power of framing (fantastically titled Don’t Think of an Elephant) and numerous writings on cognitive linguistics and metaphors, George Lakoff has explained how conservatives in the US worked for decades on spreading their ideas, having framed the debate with careful language, and even invested in building the infrastructure (the think tanks) and filling it with people picked from graduate schools. With time, funds and consistency, they reached the pinnacle of political influence as their opponents struggled to gain traction with more liberal agendas.
This is the kind of serious discipline needed for a country like Syria, which needs a long-term approach to alter fundamental opposition to its interests, and which needs to accept and embrace the voices already doing this independently. Added to changes in educational practices, instilling a French-style thinking process in new generations, there is no reason why Syrians themselves cannot frame the debate, or at least be trained to ignore the elephant while convincingly arguing their case. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Rime Allaf is an international consultant and an Associate Fellow at London's Chatham House. She blogs at www.rimeallaf.com/mosaics/index.php
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Get off the beaten tracks and back into the matchbox
Friday, May 15, 2009, 14:45
Our Nakba, 61 today.
Everyone's been talking about tracks: Syrian track, Palestinian track, which track first, track this, track that. Suddenly, we're supposed to be hopeful about Obama's plan, which he will apparently bestow on us in a few weeks from Cairo, and which Abdullah of Jordan has begun marketing. 57 state solution? 57 minus one, of course.
Obama's alleged plan is a disaster. The only solution is to Get off the beaten tracks and back into the matchbox. That's the UN, and that's where the only international community that counts has repeatedly supported the Palestinian cause.
Get off the beaten tracks and back into the matchbox
By Rime Allaf
Only a few decades ago, it would have been relatively simple to explain the Arab-Israel conflict to the most uninformed visitor: Arab land had been invaded, occupied and even annexed by Israel (the latter claiming ever more loudly to be acting in self-defense with every act of aggression), even though UN resolutions clearly defined the legal parameters of the admissible and set the date of June 4, 1967 as the starting point of redemption. It was obvious that land had to be returned in exchange for peace, an idea put to practice in the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel.
Today, it is difficult to know where to begin explaining how things went wrong and why the alliances of yesteryear have morphed into the strangest partnerships of "moderate" Arab states (notwithstanding extremist clerics laying down the law) opposing "radical" ones (that happen to remain vocally anti-Israel) supporting different Palestinian parties. The equation of land for peace, as inadequate as it may have been for implying a concession from Israel, has given way to peace for peace, with a growing list of prerequisites and guarantees demanded from Israel's victims who now wait on separate tracks.
Before Israel and its allies started linking all regional events to Iran, they had marketed their obsession with Iraq, making it the lowest common denominator in these equations. Working up from the war of 1991 (the liberation of Kuwait), the men who would be kings planned the steady process meant to provoke a clean break for securing the realm, a model presented to the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, during his time in office in 1996.
Today, with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the attempted isolation of Syria and two destructive wars unleashed by the Israeli war machine on Lebanon and Gaza, it seems that securing the realm has been the one on track, at the expense of all the peace tracks that were supposed to be explored, mostly at Israel's convenience. Having nearly reached the declared destination on the Syrian track in 2000, Israel quickly retraced its steps and jumped with wild abandon onto the Palestinian track, navigating the perilous stages of due "painful concessions" through emergency exits, thoughtfully provided in the American roadmap bestowed after a vision by Bush.
Years of a peace process with no due process have taken their toll on the most wretched of victims, standing by the tracks and watching the stationary peace train gathering dust. The very fact that the word track has become an integral part of "peace talk" should alert us to the absurdity of the situation. It doesn't take an expert to realize that the concept of tracks is at odds with that of a comprehensive peace settlement; nor does it take an expert to conclude that the partition of interlocutors into more manageable teams--in the true spirit of divide and conquer--speaks volumes about intentions.
Israel has spent the last decades, alas mostly successfully, dividing Arabs. In its defiance of every legal and moral restriction imposed by man or God, Israel enforced separate tracks to foil a comprehensive peace agreement, lest it be cornered into actually ceding Arab land it acquired unlawfully, into accepting Palestinians' right of return and compensation that it has negated despite every universal declaration or binding resolution, and into recognizing Jerusalem's position as Palestinian also.
There is nothing Israel has disdained more than international agreements, or, even worse, reconciliation proposals. In 2002, in response to the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by all Arab League members during their summit in Beirut, Israel unleashed its fiercest assault yet on Palestinians in the West Bank, killing hundreds, destroying millions worth of infrastructure and brazenly putting the Palestinian president under a siege from which he would only emerge on his deathbed. Having delivered the Oslo accords, Yasser Arafat had outlived his usefulness and Israel needed a constant enemy.
This is why one should only feel suspicion and alarm at the sudden re-emergence of a comprehensive peace plan about which Israel seems receptive, regardless of the official declarations of a government that refuses to recognize Palestine's right to exist, or of the racist aspirations of a foreign minister wined and dined in Europe's capitals.
In a second address inside a Muslim world he seems eager to convince, but to which he has not yet delivered a coherent message, President Obama is to announce a new Middle East initiative, one even worse than all its predecessors. From Cairo, Obama will peddle a peace proposal offering Israel normalization with the Arab and Muslim worlds (an idea that the Jordanian king has dutifully marketed as the 57-state solution, whose alternative is war, presumably by Israel, in the next 18 months), but more importantly a normalization that would not depend on negotiations on the Palestinian issue. In other words, as Palestinians continue to despair, alone, and as Gaza struggles under an Israeli blockade, Israel would be offered a ticket for a smooth ride with current foes.
This would be a disaster for the Palestinian cause, which has continued to decline with each peace agreement Israel has deigned accept. Sixty-one years after the catastrophe of Palestinian dispossession, it beggars belief that the world's only superpower still needs to cajole the country in breach of the most United Nations resolutions and in contravention of every law on weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, it beggars belief that the UN itself daren't even publish a full report about Israel's attacks on its own sites and personnel, let alone on the civilians it is supposed to feed, shelter and protect. If there is one place that should have retained credibility, and that should be regarded as the most honest of brokers, it is the United Nations.
Until now, discussions hovered between two main tracks: the Palestinian and the Syrian. With Obama's entrance into the peace game, for it seems to be nothing but a game to Israel and its friends, these tracks will merely give way to one superhighway, and one miserable side road that Israel will be free to continue ignoring, thereby pushing dispossessed Palestinians into a point of no return. Bringing the added injustice of total desertion of the Palestinian cause, the Obama doctrine seems destined to failure.
The Arab-Israel conflict will not be solved in the Oval Office, but in the matchbox, under the protection of the real international community, the General Assembly. For now, however, despite the guiding principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some states at the UN remain more equal than others.- Published 14/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, London.
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When Avi met Mili
Thursday, May 14, 2009, 17:50Aren't they adorable together? You have to wonder why they're being so shy about it.
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They have hasbara, we have maskhara
Thursday, April 23, 2009, 02:30They have hasbara, of varying quality, and we have maskhara, in more than one way, including (but not limited to):
Egypt invites Lieberman to visit, despite threats boycott threats
Jumblatt seeks to appease Christians After 'Insulting' and 'Unintentional' Remarks on Maronites
A million Arab journalists
The list is long and can be updated on a daily basis, especially with certain official "news" agencies and holier-than-thou ministries. I couldn't be bothered to go beyond the million Arab journalists, but please do not feel restrained in ridiculing Saudi media yourself (as long as you also ridicule media in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, etc.).
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Born Palestinian, deported from Egypt
Tuesday, April 14, 2009, 23:14Having followed her plight, towards its last stages, and read Laila El-Haddad's "I was born Palestinian" post, this is what I wanted to say:
As a mother who was pained to read about your children’s situation, as an Arab who never imagined such disgraceful conduct could be possible in “oum el dounia” until the Egyptian regime’s behavior during Israel’s savagery in Gaza, as a compatriot in spirit who was never subjected to such shameful treatment, as a human being distraught by your experience and by the silence of the free world paying lip service to human rights, I express my solidarity with Palestine and Palestinians, and my admiration at your dignified behaviour.
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Look who's talking in the Arab world
Monday, April 13, 2009, 00:50Here's my monthly column in Syria Today, where I criticize pretty much every media left and right for not having the upper hand on credibility or professionalism. I didn't even bother getting into the details of Syrian media, not even with my legendary subtlety which ruffles absolutely no feathers on any official or responsible in any way, no siree. I thought Syrian media already underlined itself quite efficiently and needed no additional highlighting at all, as evidenced by the marvellous official and diplomatic communication, online and off, on offer to the world today.
Anyway, it seems that when I criticize the others I'm good, but when I criticize Syria I'm simply bashing, in times of crisis no less. Go figure.
Not to digress, but has anyone tried the link http://www.sana.org/ lately? To which it had been changed from sana.sy ages ago, and which bookmarked with the letters BBC? Where today's main headline (on the old URL) actually (and, as luck would have it, rightly) says that Bouteflika re-elected himself? Just saying.
Look who's talking in the Arab world
By Rime Allaf
It is often in times of severe crisis, or of war, that the vast gulf separating media on either side of the Atlantic, and on either shore of the Mediterranean, becomes most visible, audible and practically touchable. Indeed, it becomes obvious to the degree of ridicule that the same event or incident can be presented in manners that are not only different, but opposing. Israel’s assault on Gaza, for example, was a typical case highlighting the fact that regardless of their political orientations or sympathies, Arabs and Americans were watching different wars. Such a statement would have been largely sufficient only a few years ago to summarise the main problem of us versus them: we supported one side, they the other.
In some ways, those were the good old days of the pan-Arab message, in all its simplicity and homogeneity. The stations sounded nearly identical, the newspapers carried similar variations of headlines, and the television channels could hardly bother to compete. To each his own, and ours was simply a fact of life, a droning, yawn-inducing necessary interlude to endure while waiting for the weather projection and the main movie. Little comfort came from knowing that their freedom of the press vanished when reporting Israel-related news and it took the advent of satellite television, followed by digital and virtual communication, to take things to another level.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Al Jazeera, a revolutionary medium which shook the Arab world and made the West sit up and take notice. People (and officials) either loved it or loved to hate it, but were not indifferent. Even so, many years after the birth of the mother of all Arabic news channels, serious disagreements remain about its achievements. One by one, Arab countries found fault with its journalists or took offense with its programmes, while commentators who neither watched it nor understood Arabic accused it of being inflammatory, spectacular and biased.
But what defines the parameters of the acceptable, or the ideal? And while all media are expected to apply full impartiality, objectivity and neutrality, can even a single media outlet pretend to lead by example? It takes a lot more than a declaration of ethics to qualify, and it would seem that for all its shortcomings, Al Jazeera has lessons to take from no peer.
Debunking the myths of Western media
Before satellite and the internet allowed proper evaluation and comparison, textbooks remained unchallenged in their descriptions of journalism. Western media was presented as a bastion of ethics following a stringent code of conduct, letting investigative journalism uncover the massacre of My Lai, the scandal of Watergate or the abuses in Abu Ghraib. There was supposed to be a clear cut between fact-checked news and opinion; the latter was clearly distinguished as being either the view of the media itself (editorial) or that of other commentators, opposite the editorial (op-ed). Broadcast journalism followed the same strict divisions between fact and opinion, between reporting and editorialising, and prizes such as Columbia University’s Pulitzer Prize were honours for which all strived, celebrating the sacredness of free, objective and impartial media.
If it could be found, this media would certainly be worth defending in full. In reality, most self-proclaimed fair and balanced media are deficient in more than one factor, usually revolving around the notion of freedom from bias, from censorship, or from giving a complete picture.
Unlike Al Jazeera, which can confidently support its claim that it airs a spectrum of opinions in its coverage, most other media only really have the one basic opinion and not much, if any, of the other opinion. Like the most austere official media of old, they automatically invite guest opinions which are more royal than the king, sometimes admitting opposing views by quoting them, making them sound ridiculous or dangerous, or by giving harried guests mere seconds to respond to a barrage of accusatory questions.
Giving only part of the story is bad; peddling lies, propaganda and knowingly falsifying the facts is even worse. Unfortunately, the media institutions which should have been the solid rock of reliability have proved as flimsy as common tabloids and as untrustworthy as communist era agencies.
The New York Times’ mea culpa one year after the invasion of Iraq, admitting some guilt in publishing the Bush administration’s stories without checking them, proved that not all the news was actually fit to print. Its very incomplete apology only skims the surface of the damage done by free media ‘reporting’ big lies and passing them off as facts, including the scourge of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or Israel’s self-defence in disputed rather than occupied territories.
Integrity has waned in the media we were supposed to uphold as examples, with language degenerating into convenient ambiguity at best and outright deception at worst. Israel’s hasbara is one of the oldest propaganda machines serving as a thesaurus to media accomplices who continue to demonstrate that there is no such thing as media without an agenda. The recent refusal of the BBC to broadcast the Gaza emergency charity appeal, on the preposterous claim that it would compromise its impartiality, merely confirmed its submission to powerful agenda setters, a feat already demonstrated with its disgraceful backtracking after the British government’s fury over the infamous “sexed-up Iraq dossier”.
The good, the bad and the pretty
Such shortcomings should be of no comfort to today’s Arab media, a generic term joining public and private media whose own deficiencies are legendary and hardly worth rehashing. Sadly, the ‘free’ Arab media cited as example amounts to nothing more than channels and papers belonging to competing Lebanese warlords and politicians, although a surge in various Arab networks (such as in Egypt) has added businessmen to the lucky club of agenda setters which was previously limited to governmental channels.
The fact remains that red lines are difficult to cross in the region, especially after the Arab League’s adoption of a media charter which can stifle the most resilient professionals. While Western media could eventually take risks and venture into principled independence, Arab media will never rise to the challenge under such rigid laws, even though it has made great strides in the recent past, thanks mostly to Al Jazeera which paved the way.
Many Arab channels can be considered professional and manage relative degrees of objectivity – as long as the subject does not touch red lines – and sleek, modern and technically advanced studios have multiplied across the region, manned by polished presenters and efficient reporters. But for all these good broadcasters and publishers, bad examples continue to roam the airwaves, stuck in a time warp and disinclined to even change form or content, guaranteeing job continuity to stiff newsreaders in the most rudimentary of facilities.
There is also, alas, the category of the pretty faces, the attractive designs, the cool graphics and the fashionable gear, pleasing to the eye if not the ear, and with no effort to camouflage the unbearable lightness of their being. Sadly, with varying degrees of penetration in public and private media, they make absolutely no contribution to the development of media in their respective location and are copycats of the ignorant kind.
The missing frame
Despite being regularly dismissed as impotent and uninfluential, Arabs are being courted by an impressive array of foreign media networks, eager to follow on the footsteps of Al Jazeera, and Al Arabiya to a lesser extent, and to reach the proverbial hearts and minds in the region.
After the US’s useless attempts with Al Hurra, France’s France 24, Britain’s BBC Arabic, Iran’s Al Alam, Germany’s Deutsche Welle Arabia and Russia’s Rusiya Al Youm have joined the race to conquer Arabic speakers, with negligible results. For the time being, Arabs seem settled with their local providers, but an interesting development could see more ventures into foreign lands. With the slow but steady progress of Al Jazeera English, there is clearly room and indeed urgent need for Arab perspectives to cross borders and to be communicated directly without the selective and destructive translations of MEMRI-style Zionist outlets.
Arab media has a high hill to climb and many tricks of the trade to learn. In particular, it must impose coverage of Arab affairs, in all their abundance and diversity, to be made within an Arab-designed frame, rather than the frames (including “Israel’s right to exist” and “anti-Semitism”) which enemies have successfully set as default for the last decades. Unlike the easing of the Arab media charter, this is not mission impossible.
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Shifting sands and Arab unity
Monday, March 30, 2009, 15:35Posted a bit late with the summit already under way, this was commissioned for and supposed to be published on Thursday, but only made it online on Sunday (because of AJ's backlog). The central premise remains that I think all this Saudi fuss about unity and reconciliation is really about pretending to be the Arab/Muslim leader again after its pathetic position during Israel's savagery in Gaza, and about not letting other countries which think they actually may matter take credit for anything.
I am very interested by Qatar's approach on things and by their rather impressive success in punching above their weight. I think it has been the only country in the region taking a real (and actually constructive) proactive role, rather than the reactive and contradictory positions of others. Let's hope nothing ruins Al Jazeera in the process.
Shifting sands and Arab unity
By Rime Allaf
Following reports that six heads of Arab states - including Egypt - will not attend the Arab League summit in Doha this week, it appears the proverbial saying about Arabs' agreement on disagreement, and more specifically that of their leaders, still holds.
If Arabs finally do agree on certain questions this week, however, even with the increasingly low expectations that these summits now generate, dreams of Arab unity on the major issues are unattainable under the present circumstances.
Deteriorating relations between several regional powers have been dubbed the Cold War, but with so much hot air, fiery speeches and proxy fights, it has been everything but cold. On most thorny files, two main camps faced each other, with several undecided fluttering in-between, trying not to alienate any of the countries on either side.
It is not yet clear whether the demise of the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian axis was for the better or for the worse, but its repercussions have demonstrated that Arab states are interdependent in spite of (or perhaps because of) differences of opinion. Since attempted isolation and communication freezes simply made matters worse, the new modus operandi has evolved into an admission that consultations and agreements got better results, and, in Sun-tzu terms, that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
The official mood of reconciliation follows the mini summit organized by Saudi Arabia earlier this month, ostensibly to bury the hatchet but in a puzzling manner. If Saudi Arabia and Egypt are now considered to be the “moderate front” while Syria has been paired with Qatar as the “rejectionist front,” shouldn’t the latter have been invited as well? Instead, the Saudi ruler hosted his Egyptian, Syrian and Kuwaiti peers, unable or unwilling to suppress his displeasure with the emergence of unexpected new forces in the Arab world.
Indeed, Qatar’s position has been a source of considerable irritation for Saudi Arabia, as it watches a country many times smaller play pan-Arab counsellor and broker successful pacts, such as the Doha Agreement last May between opposing Lebanese factions. Qatar’s initiative in hosting an emergency Arab summit as Israel smashed Gaza gave the most distressing testimony of regional power plays and the damage they brought on the Palestinian cause, assuming one can still speak of this cause on an Arab level. With the “moderates” boycotting the meeting and pressuring the Palestinian president to stay away, the platform was left for Khaled Mishal, political head of Hamas, to show a leading role at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas.
The Israeli war on Gaza was lived with anguish and rage in most of the Arab and the Muslim world, irrespective of the positions of the rulers. It is apparent that Saudi Arabia, with hindsight, feels the need to regain control of a role it had allowed to slip, and appear to speak in the name of a somewhat cohesive Arab world, and an Arab cause beginning with Palestine. As popular grief turned to anger while footage from Gaza filled television screens, Saudi media was eventually pushed into a more extensive coverage of the war, and a more public response. Regaining the cloak of Palestinian defense is the next logical step for the Saudis, hoping they can seal the unity deal between Fatah and Hamas which Egypt has repeatedly promised, but failed to achieve. Obviously, such a deal also needs the collaboration of Syria; while hopes of weakening its relations with Iran may also be on the distant agenda, no serious observer believes it’s feasible in the short term.
With Gaza possibly having served as a political wake-up call, especially after Hamas remained unbroken, the Riyadh meeting was set up for several purposes, one of them being to insure that Qatar could not take credit for this rapprochement, and that it be made on its own turf. Saudi Arabia also wishes to reach a collective position on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, declared dead by the Syrian president during the mini-summit in Doha. If, however, there are plans to affirm that rumors of its death have been exaggerated but that a time limit will come into effect, Saudi Arabia needs the consensus of all Arab leaders, and the Riyadh reconciliation is also a step in that way.
Saudi Arabia and Syria still see Lebanon from very different perspectives, and the appointment of a Syrian ambassador to Beirut this week should be seen as a public gesture of goodwill or cooperation, even though both Damascus and Riyadh know that this will change next to nothing in dealings with Lebanon. With elections scheduled for June, there is a declared wish to keep things as civil and orderly as possible.
The Saudi king seems keen on keeping the big files under control, and under a general consensus, especially as the region adjusts to a new American administration and a forthcoming Israeli government whose agenda leaves little to the imagination regarding its plans for Palestinians. Without influence on all Palestinian parties, Saudi Arabia cannot pretend to play a leading role, a situation not suited for its credentials as Arab and Muslim power.
It is important to try to interpret Saudi (and Egyptian) behavior outside the narrow parameters of relations with Iran, on which the vast majority of media have been focusing even in their analysis of the Palestinian problem. Iraq, of course, remains the biggest problem to hit the area since the dispossession of Palestine, and its impact on neighboring countries has yet to be properly felt. Talk of the limited American withdrawal has done little to improve even the political situation; the US and the UK had hoped recent municipal elections would bring a secular group to share the power, but they have merely confirmed the force of religious (and Iran-friendly) parties
While the Bush administration simplistically blamed all the violence, chaos and discord on Syria and Iran, the Saudis know full well that it has been impossible to control the outpouring of anger, and the increase of radicalization, within their own borders. Iraq is nowhere near a peaceful epilogue, no matter what is being said (or rather not said) on most mainstream media. On the contrary, having added fuel to the fire with sectarian discourse in its own media for some time (relating to Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and beyond), the “moderates” are now facing the inevitable backlash.
With explosive situations in Palestine and Iraq, unresolved issues in Lebanon, uncertain futures in the political leaderships of countries preparing for a change, a hint of worsening conflict in nearby Afghanistan, and a global recession hitting the financial stability of even successful oil states, Saudi Arabia has a lot of catching up to do if it is to regain a perception of leadership, and the power to influence multiple regional parties, even when counting for the damage that can’t be undone, and for the personal animosity that has developed between certain leaders.
The fact remains that new alignments will undoubtedly continue to change the shape of regional politics, and that the days of the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian axis are definitely over. Qatar’s apparition as a power broker, benefitting from a multitude of good connections regionally and internationally, is not going to be an easy act to follow, even assuming that it were about to relinquish its post. Just like Turkey, which has emerged on the scene extending a hand of partnership in its own neighborhood while simultaneously cultivating its ties outside the Arab world (including with Iran), Qatar has found itself on a political pedestal, using its ties wisely and truly developing a new vision for the region after setting the pace in the media sphere. No matter how little real progress happens in the upcoming Arab summit, and with the expected vague statements assuring unity, it seems that this vision is here to stay.
Rime Allaf is an international consultant and an Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House. She blogs at www.rimeallaf.com/mosaics/index.php.
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Syria first needs positioning, then branding
Tuesday, March 24, 2009, 02:09I think most people enjoy a specific part of their profession, or their expertise, to a greater degree than the remaining aspects of the discipline in question. In my case, it's positioning, a marketing communications concept which fascinates and engages me to incredible points, and which I find myself applying frequently in various projects.
Nation branding (or place branding) is a logical and hugely beneficial endeavour when done well, because it inevitably centers the communication and the messages emanating from very different quarters in the nation being branded. However, there are countless examples of sloppy branding and marketing which have barely made a difference in the country's image. Contrasted to the impact of campaigns of exceptional quality for certain countries (such as Spain's immaculate "Passion for Life"), and for certain cities (including my beloved Vienna's "Vienna Waits for You"), third rate marketing, including branding, will never be better than no marketing at all.
In my opinion, Syria is not ready for nation branding, not only because it first needs to work hard to get to a "neutral" position from which branding can begin, but also because I dread to think of the qualifications of the branders and communicators who will be designing the campaign, the slogan, or the brand. God help us if they stick with the ubiquitous "road to Damascus" or "cradle of civilization" lines without bothering to undo years of negative imaging. Hence the need for re-positioning before branding, hoping it results in an image more evocative than ruins. All covered in my monthly column for Syria Today.
Syria on their minds: the re-positioning battle
In a world where nation branding has become the order of the day for most governments, Syria has a lot of catching up to do and faces challenges on several dimensions. It would normally be reassuring to hear the terms “marketing”, “public relations” and “image” being mentioned hesitantly in official Syrian circles, but there is a real danger that this sudden awakening may result in a sloppy and simplistic campaign of no strategic depth, supported by non-expert contributors with no background in these disciplines. This would be a sure recipe for spectacular failure at the most sensitive of times, when Syria needs to attain an image commensurate to its reflection and ambition.
Communication, as an umbrella of all these marketing branches, is too serious a matter to leave to amateurs. It’s a subject about which I have been preaching for years, in the hope that Syria, and Syrians, would recognise its impact in the age of technology driven information. Alas, the understanding of marketing has come to include every retail or communication activity under the sun, while people with dubious degrees of qualification claim professional positions in that field. A cursory glance at numerous ads in the private sector would reveal that Syria is full of marketeers, in the modern sense of the word, working in a business environment that utilises the full scope of the principles of marketing communications. In reality, the discipline is still in its infancy, and it needs to be developed to allow Syria a competitive chance with even the simplest of product ranges, let alone the intangible business of image.
On a national level, in the public domain, marketing communication is even more of a sensitive issue, as it puts Syria at a disadvantage in contrast to opponents (and even allies) whose discourse, spin and self-marketing is more sophisticated, reaching more influential parties and the all-important opinion makers. Of all of Syria’s shortcomings in this domain, the following are the most significant, and have been the most detrimental to its perception in the world.
First, positive connotations with Syria, if at all known, are mostly historical or socio-cultural, and therefore rather irrelevant to an improvement of its current image and perception. This includes allusions to the country’s richness in historical relics, the language of Christ still being spoken in Syria, Syrian hospitality and cuisine, and similar nice notions of little import on the overall perception.
Second, negative connotations are mostly political, having managed to grab headlines and become spontaneously associated with Syria over time. This includes the usual accusations of radicalism, rejectionism, support for terrorism and even pan-Arabism (currently considered confrontational by some sources), and a long list of complaints constantly re-edited by American and Israeli scribes.
Third, a lethargic ‘laissez-faire’ attitude in all media communication matters has allowed Syria’s critics and enemies to spin freely and to paint the country in the worst possible light. Being secure in the self-knowledge that our critics are lying or giving half-truths does not safeguard us from the sting of their active discrediting of all things Syrian.
Fourth, a sporadic and mediocre approach to public diplomacy by various Syrian institutions, inside and outside the country, has possibly done more harm than good, considering that it was the only outlet communicating a Syrian position. This includes exaggerated and outdated communication efforts (in style and in content) by official media and by some embassies which neglected even the most basic of tools, such as the official website.
Fifth, actual infrastructure supporting Syria’s tourism, exports, and foreign direct investment (FDI) are severely lacking, a fact that is not a secret to those considering any of these activities, or to those advising against them. For all our claims that we are ready to welcome more tourists, to export more goods, and to provide FDI opportunities, there is much to improve before that can be done.
With such examples setting the parameters of the challenges awaiting Syria, which has remained impassive for too long, it is clear that action is urgently required if only to keep up with a majority of countries attempting to refine their own image, and embarking on nation branding in a crowded planet.
Positioning before branding
The urgency facing Syria’s communication needs is itself dangerous, as it opens the door to careless haste when the contrary is needed. Indeed, it will take serious deliberations and strategic planning to go through the necessary process: before we get to nation branding, we need to undo the damage done by years of detrimental coverage and self-exposure. Syria must first and foremost undertake an expert exercise of positioning, or re-positioning.
There are problems with this approach. For one, branding is much easier, and technically more adapted to a situation where time is of the essence, and where a relatively quicker branding exercise may yield results sooner, assuming it is done professionally. One can only imagine how tempting it must be for Syrian marketing enthusiasts to mould a nation brand, rework the slogan and start advertising it through various channels; at this stage of its 'product life', however, it is inadvisable to brand before damage control is undertaken.
Indeed, the comfortable clichés, repeated ad nauseam over the years, must be slowly reworked and not simply pasted as slogans over the same old photos. This has been the modus operandi until today, and it doesn’t work. Syria’s multifaceted identity has been lost in a sea of tired slogans and needs redefining: cradle of civilisation, land of diversity, conversion on the road to Damascus, oldest capital in the world and beating heart of Arabism are all still applicable, but they mean nothing to recipients of negative propaganda, or to seekers of less grandiose thrills. Syria needs to stop trying to be everything to everybody and to overextend the range it presents; instead, it must focus on more tactile perceptions and credible associations.
Nation branding is hard enough in a saturated world where most governments have now set up task forces to construct their brand, making differentiation challenging. It becomes much more difficult when branding does not begin on a clean, neutral plate, but rather on a mostly negative footing. This is why positioning is the first exercise needed for Syria, to attempt correcting its image independently, and in comparison to countries considered similar in their culture and history, but without the drag factor that years of negative publicity have created. It will be a long process.
Whereas branding concerns itself with the attributes of the product (or object, service, nation, etc.) as presented, positioning is truly a battle for a place inside the mind of the consumer, the critic or the future supporter. With positioning, one can aim to manipulate perceptions, in the mind of the recipient, through various means, vis-à-vis several reference points. For example, what makes Syria “radical” in the mind of given respondents who find some of its neighbours “moderate”? What makes it “closed” while others are “open”? Or what makes it “rigid” while others are “flexible”? These questions may have an obvious answer to those who already know Syria, but the picture is not so clear for the uninitiated, or the indoctrinated.
Syria needs to choose its message and its messengers carefully as it manoeuvres into a new global positioning; simplicity, subtlety and sincerity are essential. The battle for the mind must be fought on many fronts, and it entails a change of attitude on Syria’s part: we must become proactive in addition to reactive, convincing in addition to self-assured, enticing in addition to picturesque.
A positioning endeavour would be the first serious public diplomacy, international media or communication campaign undertaken by Syria. Many of the required steps may sound like basic textbook tasks, but it would be a grave mistake to underestimate their sensitivity. As we begin to tackle the challenges ahead, it is imperative that we take it one step at a time, perhaps beginning by setting up a Syria Image Management Unit (SIMU), a Syria Positioning Taskforce (SPOT) or simply Syria Marcom Support (SMS). Whatever the acronym, it needs to have the means and the freedom to research, to debate, and to create, and to allow the respective professionalism and dedication of the team members to be committed to an ideal: Syria, the country, as it deserves to be seen.
Rime Allaf is an international consultant and an Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House. She blogs at www.rimeallaf.com/mosaics/index.php.
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Syria and Turkey: A burgeoning courtship
Sunday, March 8, 2009, 01:35From this week's Bitterlemons International. May I add that the more I see some things in my own country, the more I see the need for some Ataturk-style impositions. Not very democratic, but these are desperate times!
Syria and Turkey: A burgeoning courtship
Arab nationalism and Alexandretta notwithstanding, a Turkish-Syrian affair is currently in full bloom, joining the proverbial hearts and minds across the border, letting bygones be bygones and picking up from where things were last left. This is a courtship in which people and regime are in full agreement, in contrast to certain marriages of convenience with other partners found less palatable by many Syrians. For all the noted rise in religiosity in Syria, as in other mainly Muslim countries, the easygoing Turkish balance of "secular Islamism" sits much better than the Iranian clerics' sternness.
There's a lot to like about Turkey that Syrians hadn't noticed for a long time, centuries of Ottoman occupation having dampened the appetite for most things Turkish. But Turkey has become a new example to follow, showing it can be modern, secular, developed, simultaneously western and eastern in its socio-political outlook and still hold on to oriental and Islamic values found endearing. In fact, even the television soap operas of both countries will confirm that customs on either side are still incredibly similar, increasing mutual approbation.
Of course, most of these factors were there a decade ago, but in very different circumstances. Years of political animosity had reached boiling point over the presence in Syria of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. With Turkish troops poised to take action in 1998, Syria finally relented and arranged for Ocalan's speedy departure from its territory. The hostility didn't vanish immediately, however, with one of the biggest issues remaining the dams built on the Turkish side of the Euphrates, squeezing Syria into an even tighter--and dryer--spot as water became scarcer. Under successive Turkish governments, the alliance with Israel had continued to consolidate, driving Syria into a more dangerous isolation.
It's hard to believe that the outlook was this bleak just a few years ago. But things did improve, even before the arrival of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer had already made a point of taking a new approach with Syria, and the two countries found themselves increasingly joined by their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which the Turkish parliament refused to facilitate by denying the US military the use of its territory for any related action.
In Turkey, just as in Syria, there had been a strong popular rejection of American policies in the region and Iraq was but one case. In 2006, the antiwar Turkish movie "Valley of the Wolves" broke attendance records, even in the Turkish community in Germany. And in 2009, there was no question that popular sentiment strongly supported the position of the Turkish government in relation to Israel. For Erdogan, there was nothing to prove to a supportive populace.
Yet, the commotion following the famous Davos panel would have us believe that Erdogan's "emotional outburst" was merely a product of his "renowned temper" and a calculated maneuver for upcoming election campaigns in order to win more Islamist votes. Such ridiculous and condescending attitudes conveniently avoided the real issue of the Israeli president's own disrespectful behavior, his raised voice and his outright lies about Gaza. It was most telling that while Erdogan matched his actions with his words by walking out, the secretaries general of the Arab League and the United Nations, both wronged repeatedly by Israel, were practically nailed to their seats, unable to make a move or state a case.
These distinctions are not missed in the countries south and east of Turkey, as it continues to extend a hand to friendly neighbors in direct proportion to the determined rejection of an eventual Turkish adhesion to the European Union. For Syria, this is a win-win situation: there can be great benefits to having the first direct border with the EU should Turkey eventually make it there, but the status quo is just as attractive as Turkey continues to consolidate its position as an important regional player and an unavoidable Islamic leader.
The more Israel has demonstrated its violent treatment of Palestinians, the more Turkey has found that its denunciations were eagerly accepted at home and in the neighborhood. Erdogan had a great deal of influence on these developments, but to give him the entire credit would be unfair to the people of Turkey in their quest to be closer to their neighbors and more involved in their affairs. Erdogan will certainly continue to be instrumental, alongside a political environment that encourages such positions.
In turn, this is a position that the Syrians are finding increasingly attractive, both in their friend's policy and in their own. It is easier to face the critics when not alone, and similarly easy to make friends when accompanied. It would have been impossible to imagine, even just a few years ago, that Turkey would be the active matchmaker between Syria and Israel; today it seems that no other partner will do.- Published 5/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.
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Obama is sending mixed signals to Syria
Thursday, March 5, 2009, 01:18The New York Times' online opinion forum asked me to contribute (with others like Andrew Tabler) a short op-ed under the big umbrella of "talking to Syria," following Hillary Clinton's announcement that two envoys would soon be sent to Damascus.
Sending Mixed Signals
One of the strangest cases to argue, and the easiest problem to solve, is that of United States-Syria relations. Despite highs and lows since Syria’s inclusion on a list of states “sponsoring terror” since 1979, there had been unbroken official communication until the Bush administration’s cold shoulder — well before the invasion of Iraq and the assassination of Rafik Hariri.
Today, it’s difficult to calibrate the needed level of optimism, or the belief that the change heralded in Washington will seep across the Syrian border. Even with the erratic actions of the Bush administration, Syria knew where it stood for most of the last eight years; with President Obama, it’s not so clear.
Secretary of State Clinton’s handshake with her Syrian counterpart in Egypt is not groundbreaking diplomacy; in fact, a similar handshake (generating similar rumors of a thaw) joined Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem with her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, nearly two years ago. The Annapolis conference of November 2007 could have indicated a warming of U.S.-Syrian ties, but things degenerated when the Americans bombed what it claimed was a training camp for al Qaeda in Syria in October 2008.
Envoys going to Damascus aren’t a sign of hope either. Had President Obama wanted constructive dialogue, he could have chosen people with less baggage than a person instrumental in the drafting of the Syria Accountability Act, or a previous ambassador whose tenure in Lebanon can be used, even by allies, to demonstrate the perils of blatant undiplomatic interference. With messengers like Daniel Shapiro and Jeffrey Feltman, President Obama seems to be warning the Syrians that he is more willing to play by George W. Bush’s rules than to turn over a new page.
Syria would be ill-advised to consider a mere return to the status quo in 2005, and the appointment of an ambassador to Damascus, as progress. Dialogue and ambassadors should not be the end in themselves, but a way for both Washington and Damascus to build bridges. While Syria is correct to stick to its cards, it should become a better promoter of its own interests and positions. After its popular stance during Israel’s war on Gaza, it needs to explain how it can rekindle negotiations aiming at a peace treaty, and act as mediator with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, when both Israel and the United States are demanding the latter be shunned by Damascus. Perhaps it has not been made clear enough that unless peace is comprehensive, it is not peace.
Syria’s relations with the United States precede the ups and downs of peace negotiations with Israel, and they should not be contingent on the latter. No matter how close Washington remains with Tel Aviv, President Obama should separate the two; after all, the United States is very close to Saudi Arabia, a country that has always claimed it would be the last to float an Israeli flag on its soil. Likewise, Syria’s relations with Iran can’t possibly be the deal breaker, even if the policy of isolating Iran were ever to be proven effective, or beneficial.
Syria, under any regime, should be the most obvious point of contact in the region for any American government meaning business, and it beggars belief that Washington would want to alienate a party that has the keys to unlock several closed doors in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, to mention a few.
Rime Allaf is an international consultant and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. She has her own blog.
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We Will Not Go Down; How a Song Stood Up to Israel
Monday, February 23, 2009, 01:55My personal account below merely skims the surface of a few intense weeks; published in February, it was actually written just over two weeks after the creation and posting online of the song “We will not go down". A huge thank you to all the people, especially fellow bloggers, who helped spread the song and the message, turning it into a phenomenon in record time.
YouTube flagged the video when it hit 1 million, but it still refuses to go down. May it continue to spread the world over, becoming an eternal song of hope for the Palestinians, and a chant for the determination of their supporters.
We Will Not Go Down; How a Song Stood Up to Israel
A personal account by Rime Allaf
On the twelfth night of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, as I settled down to my distressing nightly ritual of news watching, frantic writing and weeping, I received an email which would turn someone’s life around, giving some people a small ray of light when they needed to know they were not alone, and sending a message across the globe like no mass campaign could have hoped to achieve.
It was 10 pm in London; six hours later, a small team had taken the first of many steps which would take our collective grief, anger and frustration to a new platform in the fight against Israel; a song of hope for the Palestinians in Gaza debuted on YouTube, and we were going to make sure that it resonated around the world. In a matter of days, ‘We will not go down’ was chanted in demonstrations around the world, its lyrics were printed on signs, and hundreds of thousands of people watched the clip and downloaded the song. There had never been such a rallying cry for the Palestinian cause, and it all began on a mild January night, half a world away in a studio by a California beach.
It started with a song
Michael Heart saw little of the massacre in Gaza, ignored by US media. Through the internet, especially through links emailed daily by his sister, he got increasingly touched by the magnitude of the catastrophe. On day 10 of the attack, he picked up his guitar and started strumming while looking at the horrible casualties; before he knew it, he was writing a song about it and had finished in a couple of hours.
The next day, not yet knowing what he would do with it, he recorded it in his studio, playing all the instruments, singing the vocals and producing it himself, as usual. By the following morning, he gathered some photos and created a clip, carefully mixed to match images and lyrics. It was mostly an emotional outlet, but realising it could spread awareness about the cause, he emailed it to immediate family in London, Vienna and Damascus, asking for feedback.
London responded first. In tears, I called my brother (known professionally by his artistic name, Michael Heart, but remaining Annas to family and friends) practically shouting: "this must go online now, Annas!"
Michael Heart (courtesy of www.michaelheart.com)
Technicalities of activism
Michael Heart’s support team (MH/T amongst ourselves) came together as naturally as the song; we acted as a management task force, bringing needed respective expertises our family happened to have. My husband Samawal, the best computer scientist we could want, converted it into a simpler YouTube format, fixing glitches which threw photos out of sync with the soundtrack. He also posted another file online circumventing YouTube blockage in some places.
As dawn came, we launched on YouTube and on Michael Heart's website. I posted it on my blog as The Gaza Anthem, quoting the chorus which thousands would later chant around the world. Over the next days, I spread it virally in several languages, posting it on specific blogs, websites, media and social networking forums like Facebook and Twitter.
In Vienna, MH/T was handling another important objective: donations to the Palestinian people in Gaza. Through his professional contacts in UN agencies around the world (also spreading the campaign through hundreds of friends), my brother Salim investigated possibilities for selling the song and donating proceeds. After we realized legal and technical issues were overly complicated, Michael decided to give it for free while asking everyone to make a donation to UNRWA (especially as PayPal didn’t even acknowledge the existence of Syria, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories from where many wanted it).
MH/T hit the ground running, working in shifts to control logistics, and even to monitor comments on YouTube as they swelled into the thousands. This was not going to be a platform for pro-Israelis to spew their gleeful propaganda and play the victim, nor were extremist positions on any religion tolerated.
Portrait of the artist as a messenger
We all knew it would be a success and worked tirelessly for it; still, we were astounded by responses to ‘We will not go down’. Within hours, viewings on YouTube were shooting up and feedback was pouring in. Daily messages to Michael Heart quickly rose to hundreds, and he struggled to read as many as possible and to respond when needed, a task which took over his life for the next two weeks.
Human suffering had been the trigger that inspired the song, not politics, and he said all he needed to say in the song. For him, it was not about resistance in a political sense, but resistance in a human sense, and thousands of people understood this and thanked him precisely for having given Palestinians a face and a voice in a universal message, and a universal language.
Many people were amazed that an American had done what Arabs hadn’t (not noticing his bio mentioned his Syrian heritage), praising his courage in the face of the Israeli machine. Palestinians and Arabs the world over related similar sentiments of sadness, anger and despair, many telling personal stories of loved ones in Gaza. Some messages eventually came from Gaza itself, triggering a storm of emotions in us as we read about people dashing to the internet when electricity briefly came, to connect with the world and wonder if they were noticed; their words about the song overwhelmed us in their intensity and in their gratitude.
Countless people confessed to having cried while hearing the song, and to crying while writing the email; we cried too, wishing we could reach out to every one of them. Of the thousands of messages received, many will forever stick in our minds, like that of the Gazan father whose five-year-old daughter would sing ‘We will not go down’ whenever she heard Israeli planes approaching, or of the Palestinian professor whose beautiful young son was killed by an Israeli missile as he sat helpless in the US, writing to Michael Heart to say thank you. We broke down every time, and determinedly continued to work.
Israeli response and Arab ‘moderates’’ abstention
Israel supporters were clearly taken aback by the phenomenal success of the song. Most Israeli media and blogs adopted a lame self-righteous position, wishing Michael Heart had spoken of the “rockets raining on Israel”. Some were more vicious, like the blogger promising “they would go down in the day” if the night didn’t suit. Some, in typical Israeli fashion, derided what they couldn’t achieve (“the song is bad anyway”) or boasted they would do better (“Madonna will sing our song”).
Self-styled hi-tech Israelis were no match for our Syrian-born techie, who like Apple’s Steve Jobs, we like to remind them, had a Syrian father. Mere days after the song went global, an exuberant Israeli emailed Michael Heart informing him he hacked his website, taking it down. “Nobody messes with Sam” were the only words in the email I sent in response. Indeed, it was immediately back up, backed up and moved to ultra-powerful servers capable of handling the deluge of mp3 downloads.
Israeli annoyance at this success was a pleasure to see, but the abstention of so-called moderate Arabs blaming the Israeli onslaught on “provocation” was less palatable for me, especially as images from Gaza continued to haunt our nights. My initial flurry of posts had begun with fellow Syrian bloggers and sites; some neither acknowledged nor posted the song, perhaps considering, as Israelis had done, it was “one-sided” and that not going down seemed too aggressive. Such attitudes are anathema to an activist like myself, when the entire world had been moved to action by Israel’s crimes in Gaza.
‘We will not go down’ still going up
In four days, YouTube’s counter hit 100,000. In one week, it hit a quarter of a million. At two weeks, over 700,000 had viewed the original song, and well over a million saw different clips with the song (of which over 100 were posted). 250,000 people had downloaded the mp3, and over 10,000 had responded via emails or comments. Many people wrote to confirm they had donated to UNRWA.
It was, and still is, played on radio stations and television channels in several countries, and chanted in protests and rallies all over the globe (like here in London's Trafalgar Square). Messages informed us of ringtones for mobile phones and of school children painting pictures of the artist. To his shock, Michael Heart was being called a hero and a brave heart fighting the Zionist propaganda machine.
Most significantly, ‘We will not go down’ reached people in Gaza and conveyed to some of them the world’s support of the Palestinian cause, and the determination to take action.
The way forward
We had a great “product” to spread the word about Palestinian suffering; without the beautiful and relevant song, there would have been nothing. But without the expert viral campaign, technological support and numerous tricks of the trade, the song would have remained unknown to most.
We succeeded because it was good, because we knew what to do, and because we did it in time. We succeeded in pushing a rallying cry to the forefront of the media battle, where Arab rhetoric was unnoticed (at best) or counterproductive. We succeeded where Israeli narrative failed, beating the enemy at their own game.
It started with a song, but it will not end with it: we're still working on it, but see you soon on www.wewillnotgodown.com.
Rime Allaf is an international consultant and an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House. She blogs at www.rimeallaf.com/mosaics/index.php.
I add a few related links out of many, too numerous to list (I do not link to any of the blogs which posted it, as they number in the thousands):
SongForGaza YouTube Channel (to see numerous links related to the song, including different videos, demos, etc.)
Facebook Group "We will not go down" (The first such group on Facebook, created by me, 2,400 members so far)
Facebook Michael Heart Fan Club (nearly 10,000 members)
Michael Heart interview in VIVA magazine
Rally for Gaza, Trafalgar Square, London, January 17 - "We will not go down" played full blast!
Facebook Group "In appreciation of Michael Heart's song"
Facebook Group "Shocking new video - We will not go down" (including translations of the lyrics into more than 20 languages!)
Let's sing for Gaza - student demonstration in Mainz, Germany
Facebook Group "Song of the Year - We will not go down"
MySpace Page - Michael Heart
Los Angeles musician composes song for Gaza
Requests to spread the song, in support of Palestine
"Every movement has an anthem; the revolution is happening on Facebook and YouTube" (on Arabisto)
Michael Heart interview on Jordanian radio
Do please let me know if I should add a link you find of interest.
[ 7 comments ]
Guardian on Syria, fists and peace
Wednesday, February 18, 2009, 01:24Update: I have already been emailed, skyped and facebooked with messages about this entry, and it seems I was not clear enough about why this piece was poor; it's because of Ian Black's clichés, and because he missed the importance of the peace statements, focusing on Syria's wish to engage with the Obama administration - hardly exclusive news.
The examples I give in the first part are meant to be sarcastic about Black's opinions, his style and his inuendos! I find it amazing that the Middle East editor of The Guardian needs to make allusions to unclenched fists, that he describes Syria's position in the region as "an inherited view," and that he needs to write "but" in reference to resistance. In other words, he is heavily qualifying Assad's words and putting them in a context which I find passé and needless.
My criticism about the Syrian position is about the apparent volte-face vis-à-vis Israel, not about the positions quoted as examples. I hope this now clarifies it for those who were concerned about my message. I am certainly disappointed that a better article did not come out of this interview.
End of update.
I have little desire, and little time, to comment on empty words and pointless articles, but I was astounded by this "exclusive interview in The Guardian" and can't let it pass. I don't see how this very poor piece can claim exclusivity, and I shudder at several descriptions, of which here are some examples.
"... his fists visibly unclenched ..." Geddit?
"Relaxed and thoughtful in a dark business suit, Assad seems keen to send out positive messages and to underline his view, inherited from his father Hafez, that Syria is indispensable." Syria's indispensability is a view? An inherited view? Which was underlined? (Now we know who SANA has been badly copying.)
"But Assad is quick to defend its right of resistance to Israel" Oh dear, doesn't that, like, contradict the unclenched fists above?
"Overall, his view is that violence is a symptom, not the cause of the Middle East's problems." Well imagine that.
I can't even begin to understand - nor do I wish to - the last paragraph dealing with our brave prisoners of conscience (of which Ian Black only mentioned Michel Kilo and Riad Seif, may they come out soon, safe and sound), and what Iraq or Gaza have to do with that. But even that is not new, nor exclusive, and has been heard before.
The only exclusive piece of news I see here is the president's statement that "I will be very happy to discuss peace." Excuse me? What about "an eye for an eye"? What about "the peace initiative is dead"? What about the speech in Doha? In another part of The Guardian, he is even quoted as saying "we never clenched our fist" and that "we still talked about peace even during the Israeli aggression in Gaza." That is definitely an exclusive. And I am stunned.
On January 22, just before ending an article by saying that Israel deserved nothing less than the 3 nos, I wrote the following sentence, hoping these words in Doha weren't just words: "Assad designated Israel as the terrorist state that many (Arabs and others) now openly proclaim it is and requested that all ties with Israel be broken (including the indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations), giving many hope that Syria is committing to more than lip service to the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israel conflict."
Not only were our hopes short lived, but there are serious issues here with the image and the position being projected. It can't be two drastic opposites, in such short time spans, and Syria is in serious need of real communication advisors who can explain how things work in the media, what's acceptable, and what is detrimental. There is a lot wrong with Ian Black's coverage of the Middle East, and a lot wrong with how he covered this interview, but it matters little when considering the real message coming across here: apparently, land for peace was never off the agenda.
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On our sociable spectators and solitary surfers
Tuesday, February 17, 2009, 23:54I wrote the following piece before the war on Gaza, but I haven't felt like writing or talking about anything else since then. But there are still papers and deadlines looming on other subjects, and we all have no choice but to pay some attention to the rest. Here's my commentary on what's on TV, for those interested in the subject. Since the Syria Today website is being revamped, I only include the link to my own Articles page.
Syria's sociable spectators and solitary surfers
In America, the country where most television production originated, TV has gotten a lot of bad press over the years, generating derisive vocabulary to describe the device itself (idiot box), the material it broadcasts (brain mush), and even its lethargic viewers (couch potatoes). Such scorn is certainly deserved for much programming on American television, and for copycats around the world, but remains absent from nostalgic references to shows and programmes that have defined eras and even shaped social and political agendas. Indeed, the spread of American popular culture, with all its delights and its horrors, is much indebted to an array of television programmes which entered the living rooms of households the world over and turned their stars into icons for successive generations.
Those were the golden years of the big networks on the little screen, symbolised by the phenomenal success of detergent-sponsored soap operas (many of which are still running after decades), of big-money game shows and of early morning and late-night chat sessions around sofas and ubiquitous logo-bearing mugs. While certain sitcoms and adult series have continued to break records and apparently run in a loop on every channel in the world, it has been difficult to recreate hits in the current media jungle, where various communication tools compete for the audience’s attention and loyalty in a saturated market and where cable television packages can be tailor-made to customer preferences. This challenge is becoming greater with the advent of digital television, allowing viewers to interact with their sets and to choose the time they watch their selected shows, in effect driving programming and the concept of “prime time” (and with them the essential advertising windows) to a premature grave.
Broadcasting to millions
In the Arab world, the picture is not so bleak, and it is not (for once) because the region lags behind in given areas. The habitual coverage about Arabic television in Western media has merely scratched the surface, and reporting has mostly consisted of clichés about Ramadan serials and supposedly incendiary news reporting. What has escaped critical analysis is that pan-Arab television still seems set to enjoy years of profitable glory, and that many characteristics of Arab society continue to grant it a unique position in the audiovisual world.
Seen from afar, the rooftops in most Arab cities resemble one another, showing little distinction between affluent neighbourhoods and poorer ones. With countless rusty dishes turned to the sky in a single direction, as if supplicating in unison the gods of free entertainment and information to beam non-stop broadcasts, there is little doubt that pan-Arab television has become the true opium of the masses – a conveniently inoffensive addiction which most governments are not keen to cure.
Continue reading the rest of the article ...
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At 1 million views, YouTube hits the fan!
Wednesday, February 11, 2009, 15:15Actually, YouTube hit millions of fans with its petty, and rather late, action. In only four weeks, “We will not go down” is still not going down despite attempts to make it go away and disappear from public view. Michael Heart’s Song for Gaza has continued to shoot up to a phenomenal one million views last week (only counting the original clip, and not the dozens of other clips made with the song which would add several hundreds of thousands more). 1 million in 4 weeks for a pro-Palestinian song, beating records and spreading uncontrollably? YouTube was not happy.
YouTube does not like it when people do not submit to Israel and dare act on it. They will leave you alone when it's a typical clip viewed by only few people, but they get annoyed when you escape the norm, and when you get watched and spread a lot more than, say, the Israeli army's pathetic YouTube posts boasting of its continuous murder of Palestinian people. For YouTube, there was something wrong with this picture, and not taking action was apparently not an option.
First, less than two weeks on, YouTube removed the video’s honors, which had hovered amongst the highest clips in numerous categories (top rated, top favorited, most discussed, most responded, most viewed) in numerous countries. That did not stop people from pouring in and continuing to make numbers go up. A month on, YouTube decided to stoop even lower: it flagged the video, meaning that minors could not see it anymore, and that viewers had to be signed in (and “proven” to be over 18) to watch it. YouTube invites you to "Broadcast Yourself" in full freedom of speech ... as long as you don't actually bother Israel.
Since the flagging, if you do not have the exact URL of the clip (copy from here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlfhoU66s4Y), you will not be able to find the original video, no matter how hard you look. You may come across dozens of other clips which hundreds of fans have posted with the song, but you will not find the original.
Yet, the numbers continue to go up. Tough luck YouTube, we are not giving up, or going down. Get used to it. There will be much more, very soon, to give you all a taste of the response to this phenomenal wave.
In the meantime, you can still watch the original clip and download the MP3 on Michael Heart's website (http://michaelheart.com/Song_for_Gaza.html) and of course on this very blog. For the non-YouTube version, click on the first link on the right column on this page.
We will not go down! The more people know it, the better.
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"Effacez le nom de mon grand-père à Yad Vashem"
Sunday, February 8, 2009, 02:32Pour mes lecteurs francophones, un texte boulversant, courageux, que l'on a rarement l'occasion de lire. D'ailleurs, il est déjà presque introuvable sur le site du Monde, bien qu'il ne date que du 28 janvier. Devons-nous demander pourquoi?
For those who don't speak French, I found a translation (which does no justice to the elegance of the original) on this site: Erase my grandfather's name from Yad Vashem.
Point de vue
Effacez le nom de mon grand-père à Yad Vashem, par Jean-Moïse Braitberg
LE MONDE : 28.01.09
Monsieur le Président de l'Etat d'Israël, je vous écris pour que vous interveniez auprès de qui de droit afin que l'on retire du Mémorial de Yad Vashem dédié à la mémoire des victimes juives du nazisme, le nom de mon grand-père, Moshe Brajtberg, gazé à Treblinka en 1943, ainsi que ceux des autres membres de ma famille morts en déportation dans différents camps nazis durant la seconde guerre mondiale. Je vous demande d'accéder à ma demande, monsieur le président, parce que ce qui s'est passé à Gaza, et plus généralement, le sort fait au peuple arabe de Palestine depuis soixante ans, disqualifie à mes yeux Israël comme centre de la mémoire du mal fait aux juifs, et donc à l'humanité tout entière.
Voyez-vous, depuis mon enfance, j'ai vécu dans l'entourage de survivants des camps de la mort. J'ai vu les numéros tatoués sur les bras, j'ai entendu le récit des tortures ; j'ai su les deuils impossibles et j'ai partagé leurs cauchemars.
Il fallait, m'a-t-on appris, que ces crimes plus jamais ne recommencent ; que plus jamais un homme, fort de son appartenance à une ethnie ou à une religion n'en méprise un autre, ne le bafoue dans ses droits les plus élémentaires qui sont une vie digne dans la sûreté, l'absence d'entraves, et la lumière, si lointaine soit-elle, d'un avenir de sérénité et de prospérité.
Or, monsieur le président, j'observe que malgré plusieurs dizaines de résolutions prises par la communauté internationale, malgré l'évidence criante de l'injustice faite au peuple palestinien depuis 1948, malgré les espoirs nés à Oslo et malgré la reconnaissance du droit des juifs israéliens à vivre dans la paix et la sécurité, maintes fois réaffirmés par l'Autorité palestinienne, les seules réponses apportées par les gouvernements successifs de votre pays ont été la violence, le sang versé, l'enfermement, les contrôles incessants, la colonisation, les spoliations.
Vous me direz, monsieur le président, qu'il est légitime, pour votre pays, de se défendre contre ceux qui lancent des roquettes sur Israël, ou contre les kamikazes qui emportent avec eux de nombreuses vies israéliennes innocentes. Ce à quoi je vous répondrai que mon sentiment d'humanité ne varie pas selon la citoyenneté des victimes.
Par contre, monsieur le président, vous dirigez les destinées d'un pays qui prétend, non seulement représenter les juifs dans leur ensemble, mais aussi la mémoire de ceux qui furent victimes du nazisme. C'est cela qui me concerne et m'est insupportable. En conservant au Mémorial de Yad Vashem, au coeur de l'Etat juif, le nom de mes proches, votre Etat retient prisonnière ma mémoire familiale derrière les barbelés du sionisme pour en faire l'otage d'une soi-disant autorité morale qui commet chaque jour l'abomination qu'est le déni de justice.
Alors, s'il vous plaît, retirez le nom de mon grand-père du sanctuaire dédié à la cruauté faite aux juifs afin qu'il ne justifie plus celle faite aux Palestiniens. Veuillez agréer, monsieur le président, l'assurance de ma respectueuse considération.
Jean-Moïse Braitberg est écrivain.
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From "land for peace" to "an eye for an eye"
Thursday, January 22, 2009, 13:45From this week's edition of Bitter Lemons International.
From "land for peace" to "an eye for an eye"
No sooner had Israel begun its most vicious onslaught yet before commentaries began to explain the massacre and put things into context. And though Israel surpassed its own previous savagery, few in the media rose above their usual mediocrity and instead continued to parrot the line spewed by the Israeli propaganda machine, images to the contrary notwithstanding. The more people Israel killed in Gaza, the more repugnant the justifications and lies on offer, and the more the media narrative succumbed to collective self-hypnosis.
We learned that barrages of rockets had forced Israel to defend itself after Hamas had ended the ceasefire. We read that police stations, ministries, utilities and media centers were all Hamas buildings, hiding among the civilian population. We discovered that hospitals, United Nations schools and mosques were terrorist shelters. We found that thousands of homes all over Gaza contained actual Hamas members and had to be bombed, that white phosphorous was not an illegal weapon (and that Israel was not obliged to disclose its arms of choice in the slaughter of Palestinians) and that medical reports of terrifying new weapons leading to massive organ failure and an unprecedented number of amputations (especially in children) were made by Hamas sympathizers and could not be "independently" verified.
And that was just in the Arab world. Or, to be precise, it was "moderate" Arab media, setting the tone for the sorry spectacle of competing Arab summits that, after three weeks of inaction, achieved nothing as Gaza was pulverized in front of Arab leaders' very eyes. Not only are the Palestinians cursed with an enemy like Israel, they have the misfortune of having friends like these.
These "friends" have explained that the 18-month siege of Gaza, leading to the practical starvation, strangulation and slow death of 1.5 million people, couldn't be broken until the government that Palestinians elected democratically (in Gaza and the West Bank) was forced to stop launching rockets, accept Israel and live by its diktat. Egypt, consequently, could not simply open the Rafah border to save the lives of these desperate people, so its foreign minister threatened to break the legs of any Palestinian daring to cross over and an Israeli leader was invited to menace Palestine from Cairo, home to the Arab League and the moderate club. Just do it (but this time finish the job), seemed to be the consensus in the face of the inconvenient resistance group that makes regimes look bad.
On all fronts, the war on Gaza crossed new thresholds, fully exposing the reality of Israel's criminal intentions and bringing the Arab-Israel conflict to the point of no return. Never before have so many people regressed in their attitude toward Israel or given up on peace and been willing to act on it: never forgive and never forget.
Nevertheless, a depressingly large number of Arab commentators reduced the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of their tormentors to a competition between opposing alliances in the region; instead of concentrating on the fundamental issue of the Palestinian cause, they have been analyzing the effects of the last three weeks and trying to figure out who will benefit and who will lose.
If it is admitted that Israel did not achieve its vaguely declared goals in Gaza, goes one argument, then it signifies a victory for the countries supporting Hamas. Hence, Syria (and Iran, which has been designated as an instigator by the "moderates") comes out of its isolation for the umpteenth time. Indeed, obsession with Syria remains ripe in a number of Arab countries that would apparently prefer an Israeli victory over the possibility of any sign of Syrian influence. The moderates are thus squarely blaming Hamas for provoking Israel (by refusing to accept the blockade), for not falling apart under its mighty onslaught and for giving Syria and its allies a boost. Unforgivable.
Unforgivable, also, were the repeated attempts by the new counter-axis of Syria, Qatar, Algeria and friends (including an increasingly outspoken Turkey) to call for an emergency Arab summit to discuss Israel's attack on Gaza, thereby forcing others to take a position. The moderate club stayed away from Doha, ensuring that neither the Palestinian president nor the head of the Arab League could pretend that Gaza's catastrophe merited a special meeting, as the issue could be tackled during the Kuwait economic summit. In fact, had it not been for the rage sweeping through the region and the world, where millions took to the streets demanding action against Israel, several Arab regimes would have been tempted to allow Israel more time to continue the massacre while they looked the other way. Déjà vu, in a way, but in far worse circumstances for the current victims.
Not that it matters what one axis or the other actually does or says, nor what various analysts have tried to advocate (pathetically, from "sitting on the fence" to "passive resistance" and throwing flowers to child killers). Israel is on the loose, seemingly throwing a tantrum like a bully picking on the poorest and weakest kid in the neighborhood, but actually continuing a systematic process begun decades ago: the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the beating of its original inhabitants into submission. Whether it is Islamic or secular, no Palestinian leadership will ever be acceptable to Israel until it bows to the Jewish state.
In Kuwait, Syrian President Bashar Assad invoked "an eye for an eye" and was incorrectly deemed to be waving the flag of religious duty, an ironic feat for a nominally secular regime that has repeatedly called for renewed peace talks. While the moderate club weakly hinted that its Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 wasn't on the table forever (to the relief of Israel), Assad designated Israel as the terrorist state that many (Arabs and others) now openly proclaim it is and requested that all ties with Israel be broken (including the indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations), giving many hope that Syria is committing to more than lip service to the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israel conflict.
Neither land nor peace came to Arabs as they needlessly offered successive concessions to Israel. It's time the neighborhood bully was told it can't get away with its crimes. In its present uncivilized state, until it learns to live and let live, Israel deserves nothing more than a resurrection of the three nos.- Published 22/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is associate fellow at Chatham House.
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Friday, January 16, 2009, 12:15
EDITORIAL: The government of Israel does not make US policy — or does it?
By Paul Woodward, War in Context, January 13, 2009
Many Americans cherish a vicarious pride in the power of the US presidency.
The idea that the President of the United States holds the most powerful office in the world, translates into a sense of immense collective power. Were these same Americans to discover that the president takes his marching orders from a petty crook who governs a country of seven million, they would be shocked, outraged and humiliated as American power was exposed as being hollow at its core. Yet how else can we interpret the play of power between Israel and the United States, if Ehud Olmert can be taken at this word?
Last week, as global leaders felt compelled to respond to a popular outcry of rage provoked by Israel’s barbaric assault of Gaza, the UN Security Council became the focal point of unavoidable pressure to act — even if its action was utterly symbolic and totally ineffectual. But what was unprecedented was that for once, the United States was prepared to stand in solidarity with other nations calling for an immediate ceasefire.
Israel’s prime minister saw the danger of an awkward precedent being set and thus made it clear that Israel would not tolerate what it seemed to regard as a diplomatic act of insubordination.
“In the night between Thursday and Friday, when the secretary of state wanted to lead the vote on a ceasefire at the Security Council, we did not want her to vote in favor,” Olmert said.
“I said ‘get me President Bush on the phone’. They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn’t care. ‘I need to talk to him now’. He got off the podium and spoke to me.
“I told him the United States could not vote in favor. It cannot vote in favor of such a resolution. He immediately called the secretary of state and told her not to vote in favor.”
As Olmert recounted this course of events while giving a speech in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, it seemed apparent that he took a certain pride in the fact that Condoleezza Rice had been “shamed” by the about-face that the US, under her leadership at the UN, was forced by Israel to take.
A State Department official felt compelled to assert that, “The government of Israel does not make US policy.”
The evidence seems to suggest otherwise.
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The Gaza Anthem
Thursday, January 8, 2009, 04:58We will not go down!
Play it loud, chant it everywhere, let them know that We will not go down!
We will not go down
In the night, without a fight
You can burn up our mosques and our homes and our schools
But our spirit will never die
We will not go down
In Gaza tonight
Please spread it, embed it when you can, and let YouTube and the entire world hear that we will not go down!
"We will not go down (Song for Gaza)" - composed and performed by my extremely talented brother, God bless him.
WE WILL NOT GO DOWN (Song for Gaza)
(Composed by Michael Heart)
A blinding flash of white light
Lit up the sky over Gaza tonight
People running for cover
Not knowing whether they’re dead or alive
They came with their tanks and their planes
With ravaging fiery flames
And nothing remains
Just a voice rising up in the smoky haze
We will not go down
In the night, without a fight
You can burn up our mosques and our homes and our schools
But our spirit will never die
We will not go down
In Gaza tonight
Women and children alike
Murdered and massacred night after night
While the so-called leaders of countries afar
Debated on who’s wrong or right
But their powerless words were in vain
And the bombs fell down like acid rain
But through the tears and the blood and the pain
You can still hear that voice through the smoky haze
We will not go down
In the night, without a fight
You can burn up our mosques and our homes and our schools
But our spirit will never die
We will not go down
In Gaza tonight
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She died of fear, at 14
Wednesday, January 7, 2009, 15:23While Israeli media is busy describing how people are getting treated for shock because of the "barrage of rockets" (repeat after me, rockets, rockets, rockets), Palestinians are dying in every way, every day.
At Age 14, She Died of Fear: Al Quds Newspaper, January 4, 2009 - In a phone conversation today, from Gaza the Latin Patriarchate Church priest, Father Manaweil Musallam, clearly shaken, said, "her name is Christine, a tenth grade student. Her father is a doctor and she lived near the YMCA in Al-Remal area [in Gaza]. She died of fear. Since the war started she felt apprehensive of the danger. She suffered from neurotic disorder and a hysteric situation just as many children are suffering. On Friday, during the shooting of F-16 missiles, she fell on the ground due to the dreadful sound. Her father tried to help, but he couldn't. Then he held her in his arms hoping to rescue her in the hospital, but she died before reaching there."
Read the rest of the article if you can bear it. This story is breaking my heart and I keep trying to read others through my tears, all those stories which the defenders of Israel's right to defend itself will barely notice about Palestinian children living in terror - true terror. But psychological damage matters little when it is Palestinian, even when this lasting damage is done to children. After all, Israel is only defending itself.
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Calling for real change
Wednesday, January 7, 2009, 00:15I herewith call:
For Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to become head of the Arab League;
For Arab leaders and their supporting cliques to be exiled in Gaza after Palestinians get back their homeland;
For the Quartet (all officials, ministers and presidents included) to spend an eternity in some refugee camp kissing Tony Blair while Israel exercises its right to defend itself;
For Barack Obama to imagine playing golf in Jabaliya as his children attend an UNWRA school while Israel "retaliates"; and
For all Israeli war criminals to skip The Hague tribunal and to go straight to hell.
Is that really too much to ask?
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Memo to Al Jazeera: STOP AIRING ISRAELI PROPAGANDA ALREADY!
Tuesday, January 6, 2009, 22:28To hell with whatever press principle Al Jazeera is trying to abide. While there is no doubt whatsoever that Al Jazeera Arabic is the only channel that gives an approximate picture of Israel’s ongoing, public massacre of Palestinians, I can no longer bear to watch the hateful, deceitful, criminal representative of the God-damned Israeli army speak in Arabic and take his time in adding insult to injury.
The SOB who appears on Al Jazeera, the spokesman of the massacring army, is beyond description; he looks, speaks and behaves like the criminal thug he is, in a menacing tone, bullying stare, condescending manner, and generally aggressive attitude. He even dares to threaten Palestinians on Al Jazeera! And the presenters actually leave him speak, sometimes letting him deny facts they have just reported and even letting him show photos. Today, one apologized for interrupting him!
Need we ask if Israeli media returns the favor and allows so much - if any - airtime to any Palestinian representative, let alone “The Khamas”?
Clearly, the Israelis are choosing their spokespeople carefully; I think they really want Arabs to hate them (which seems to be working, as luck would have it), so that they can justify stealing their lands, kicking them out and then playing the victim. Those who appear on English or other Western television (French, in particular) are smooth, soft-spoken, appearing to be nearly pained (I said nearly) by the “necessity” of having to face civilian casualties in this war that was “imposed” on peace-loving Israel. The Westerners need to be convinced and seduced, apparently, but the Arabs need to be bullied.
ENOUGH ALREADY ALJAZEERA!!! STOP GIVING A VOICE TO THESE SAVAGES!
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This brutality will never break our will to be free
Tuesday, January 6, 2009, 01:40My silence on this blog has not been paralleled on other platforms, and this includes, frankly, sessions of impotent sobbing, barely self-restrained media briefings and miscellaneous other rantings.
Since Israel began its latest, most barbaric and savage attack yet, since the bombs started falling on the prisoners of Gaza and slaughtering children in the hundreds, in the most minimal gesture of solidarity I can demonstrate, I have been wearing my Palestinian scarf on top of my coat, and I have made my own Gaza badge to wear on television interviews. (More on that soon.) Most English-language media, nearly indistinguishable from Israel, would call this defiance. (More on that as well later.)
Today, I don’t know how to react at the discovery that I have been saying, more or less to the exact word, the same thing that Khaled Mishal has just published tonight in the following article. Although he is certainly more than “a Hamas leader” (according to The Guardian), he would not have normally been a person whose views concur with mine on a number of issues. I nearly marked several sentences in bold, to indicate my particular agreement and things I have myself been saying in interviews, but practically the whole article would have ended up in bold. Israel should count this amongst its achievements - joining the secular and the religious.
Today, as always and forever more, we are all Palestinian.
This brutality will never break our will to be free
As Operation Cast Lead enters its eleventh day a Hamas leader writes
The Guardian, Tuesday 6 January 2009
For 18 months my people in Gaza have been under siege, incarcerated inside the world's biggest prison, sealed off from land, air and sea, caged and starved, denied even medication for our sick. After the slow death policy came the bombardment. In this most densely populated of places, nothing has been spared Israel's warplanes, from government buildings to homes, mosques, hospitals, schools and markets. More than 540 have been killed and thousands permanently maimed. A third are women and children. Whole families have been massacred, some while they slept.
This river of blood is being shed under lies and false pretexts. For six months we in Hamas observed the ceasefire. Israel broke it repeatedly from the start. Israel was required to open crossings to Gaza, and extend the truce to the West Bank. It proceeded to tighten its deadly siege of Gaza, repeatedly cutting electricity and water supplies. The collective punishment did not halt, but accelerated - as did the assassinations and killings. Thirty Gazans were killed by Israeli fire and hundreds of patients died as a direct effect of the siege during the so-called ceasefire. Israel enjoyed a period of calm. Our people did not.
When this broken truce neared its end, we expressed our readiness for a new comprehensive truce in return for lifting the blockade and opening all Gaza border crossings, including Rafah. Our calls fell on deaf ears. Yet still we would be willing to begin a new truce on these terms following the complete withdrawal of the invading forces from Gaza.
No rockets have ever been fired from the West Bank. But 50 died and hundreds more were injured there last year at Israel's hands, while its expansionism proceeded relentlessly. We are meant to be content with shrinking scraps of territory, a handful of cantons at Israel's mercy, enclosed by it from all sides.The truth is Israel seeks a one-sided ceasefire, observed by my people alone, in return for siege, starvation, bombardment, assassinations, incursions and colonial settlement. What Israel wants is a gratuitous ceasefire.
The logic of those who demand that we stop our resistance is absurd. They absolve the aggressor and occupier - armed with the deadliest weapons of death and destruction - of responsibility, while blaming the victim, prisoner and occupied. Our modest, home-made rockets are our cry of protest to the world. Israel and its American and European sponsors want us to be killed in silence. But die in silence we will not.
What is being visited on Gaza today was visited on Yasser Arafat before. When he refused to bow to Israel's dictates, he was imprisoned in his Ramallah headquarters, surrounded by tanks for two years. When this failed to break his resolve, he was murdered by poisoning.
Gaza enters 2009 just as it did 2008: under Israeli fire. Between January and February of last year 140 Gazans died in air strikes. And just before it embarked on its failed military assault on Lebanon in July 2006, Israel rained thousands of shells on Gaza, killing 240. From Deir Yassin in 1948 to Gaza today, the list of Israel's crimes is long. The justifications change, but the reality is the same: colonial occupation, oppression, and never-ending injustice. If this is the "free world" whose "values" Israel is defending, as its foreign minister Tzipi Livni alleges, then we want nothing to do with it.
Israel's leaders remain in the grip of confusion, unable to set clear goals for the attacks - from ousting the legitimately elected Hamas government and destroying its infrastructure, to stopping the rockets. As they fail to break Gaza's resistance the benchmark has been lowered. Now they speak of weakening Hamas and limiting the resistance. But they will achieve neither. Gaza's people are more united than ever, determined not to be terrorised into submission. Our fighters, armed with the justice of their cause, have already caused many casualties among the occupation army and will fight on to defend their land and people. Nothing can defeat our will to be free.
Once again, Washington and Europe have opted to aid and abet the jailer, occupier and aggressor, and to condemn its victims. We hoped Barack Obama would break with George Bush's disastrous legacy but his start is not encouraging. While he swiftly moved to denounce the Mumbai attacks, he remains tongue-tied after 10 days of slaughter in Gaza. But my people are not alone. Millions of freedom-loving men and women stand by its struggle for justice and liberation - witness daily protests against Israeli aggression, not only in the Arab and Islamic region, but worldwide.
Israel will no doubt wreak untold destruction, death and suffering in Gaza. But it will meet the same fate in Gaza as it did in Lebanon. We will not be broken by siege and bombardment, and will never surrender to occupation.
Khalid Mish'al is the head of the Hamas political bureau
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We are all Gaza
Sunday, December 28, 2008, 20:22
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With Washington, be careful what you wish for
Monday, December 1, 2008, 23:58This is my piece in this month's issue of Syria Today, warning against expecting too much from Barack Obama with regards to the Middle East, and to Syria.
With Washington, be careful what you wish for
This past November 4, as the longest day turned into the longest night, the world lived on Washington time and anxiously awaited the results of an election in which most people probably felt eligible to vote, so direct would its influence be on them. While the popular slogan “Anything But Bush” seems to indicate indifference about his successor, there would have been fewer global celebrations had the Republicans won the race, in spite of John McCain’s efforts to detach himself from George W. Bush.
The collective sigh of relief let out with Barack Obama’s victory was significant, and Syrians were amongst the first to celebrate the advent of an Obama administration which most feel will be more civil, more intelligent, more normal. But memories are short and political amnesia is dangerous, and there have often been too many dashed expectations from little-known elected officials. Given the history, it is difficult to believe that many Syrians had deemed the Bush-Cheney ticket preferable to that of Gore-Lieberman in 2000, simply because Lieberman happened to be Jewish and was expected to sway the president even more towards Israel. George W. Bush, on the other hand, came from proven stock, and perceptions of his father’s engagement with most of the Arab world (with the exception of Iraq, of course), not to mention his audacious – albeit brief – stand vis-à-vis Israel, augured excellent prospects for the region. Unfortunately, this analysis never developed into reality, and Bush junior turned out to be much worse than expected, to put it mildly.
While it would be far-fetched to imagine a repeat of the Bush administration’s senseless exploits, it is nonetheless imprudent for Syrians to put all their eggs into one basket again, after seven and one long years of bad luck. More than ever, a thorough reading of the situation is necessary, and an appropriate action plan must be prepared to cover all eventualities and to ensure that proper communication is restored.
Causes for optimism are certainly plentiful. With his promises of hope and change, Barack Obama has practically sold himself as the anti-Bush, and his pledges to restore America’s moral standing in the world (with the closing of Guantanamo’s Camp Delta, amongst other measures) are reassuring. While his initial priority will undoubtedly be that of the economy, he has campaigned with an exit plan for Iraq as well, and with the entire region in his sights for a comprehensive peace settlement – an ambitious goal which other presidents have attempted.
For Syria, in particular, the expectations are that Obama will restore full diplomatic relations with the appointment of a new envoy to Damascus, and that the attempted isolation will disappear from the agenda as engagement and dialogue become the basis of a new modus operandi. But are these basic actions, if indeed they do happen, sufficient to warrant optimism? Should he wish to, how much can Obama change course, and how much can he undo?
Pessimists – or realists – will find a lot of telling signs dictating caution. First, Obama’s team already includes strong advisors or officials who are not exactly eager to court Syria. Second, Obama is bound by American legislation in his relations with Syria. Third, the new president himself may embark on different priorities and not be agreeable to impediments along the way. Finally, regional developments (and Syria’s potential involvement in them) will influence the degree, and the timing, of Obama’s propensity to change.
Back to the future
Team Obama is no maverick when it comes to foreign relations. The new vice-president is a long-time senator whose opinions on foreign affairs are easily describable as hawkish, especially as far as the Arab world is concerned. A self-proclaimed Zionist, Joe Biden’s position on the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee has given more weight to a voice advertising not only staunch support of Israel (a given for powerful politicians), but also grandiose plans to partition Iraq into three separate states. Such positions affect Syria by default, and there is every reason to believe that Biden will not be a shy vice-president biting his tongue.
Syrian antennas should also register people like Rahm Emanuel, the new Chief of Staff, whose support for Israel translated into volunteering there during the Gulf War of 1991, or Dan Shapiro, advisor to the campaign and instrumental in the drafting of the Syria Accountability Act, or others like Dennis Ross, to name but a few. Last but certainly not least, there is the presence of Hillary Clinton (set to become Secretary of State as of this writing), who brings formidable clout to the Democrat circles and beyond, and who will be taking no prisoners in her quest to achieve a “legacy” – probably in the form of a Middle East settlement, very loosely based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.
Obama is heralding change in many avenues, but his Middle East team so far is a reincarnation of the Clinton era; it’s definitely better than Bush, but it’s not as good as the Obama Administration many had come to believe would be a political “Dream Team” all fired up and ready to go fix the region’ problems. Can Barack Obama really fix it? Yes he can, will confirm his lieutenants, but on his (and on their) terms.
A realistic means to an end
While many in Syria (and throughout the Arab world) have chosen to believe that Obama means change for them, a reality check is actually needed at this point. President Obama may well send an ambassador to Damascus, but this is far from being a “victory” of sorts over the Bush administration’s pathetic diplomacy. For Syrian-American relations to get better, a mere return to the status quo in 2005 should not be considered progress. An ambassador and actual dialogue are the most preliminary of steps needed from Washington, and they should be considered as means to an end, rather than just an end in themselves.
Obama will also be bound by other restrictions: the Syria Accountability Act will not disappear with the last of the Bush remains, nor will the sanctions imposed on Syria through other legislation. In fact, sanctions have been part of US-Syrian relations since 1979, with Syria remaining on a list of states “sponsoring terror” regardless of the relative warmth or coolness of its ties with Washington. Before any real change occurs between Washington and Damascus, a long list of prerequisites will again be read and the usual demands will be made of Syria, which will have little new to offer itself. While everyone professes wanting to talk, there is little evidence that the conversations will differ much from previous ones, and the US will continue to stipulate conditions for upgrading the relation, under any administration.
President Obama will probably take his time before deciding on a new course of action with Syria. With domestic issues (especially the economy) and Iraq taking priority, with elections taking place in Israel, Lebanon and Iran in February, May and June 2009 respectively, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will be in a great rush to act with Syria -- save for the replacement of an ambassador. Unforeseen events which trigger actions, and counter-actions, do not bode well and may dampen the enthusiasm with which Obama was first greeted, especially if he decides to act tougher than would have been expected, just to prove he can do it.
The Bush administration’s “October surprise” was perhaps meant as a campaign boost for its favoured presidential candidate, or it may have been meant as a parting gift for a country it has sidelined needlessly. Regardless of the reason, the October 26 strike on Syrian soil, killing Syrian citizens, has created a new precedent and taken relations to a new low. It will take true diplomacy and a realistic understanding of each country’s interests, from both sides, to undo the harm done by eight years of erratic and mostly futile provocations.
Rime Allaf is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
Issue: December 2008
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Courting Syria: London joins the queue
Wednesday, November 26, 2008, 00:30I was not entirely impressed with Miliband's visit to Syria, nor with the infantile coverage of the trip in British media, as you can see from the article below (for (RIA Novosti). However, not covered in this piece is my equally low opinion of the Syrian response to this British overture: I don't appreciate the fact that Miliband cancelled a planned press conference with Walid Mouallem in London, not willing to take a stand on the American strike on Syria, but then still got the usual jolly reception in Damascus.
Courting Syria: London joins the queue
There was much ado about very little last week, as British media covered the visit of Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s visit to the Middle East. In particular, his trip to Syria was feted as an exploit of British diplomacy, with various journalists and analysts describing the event as a move to “bring Syria in from the cold” and to lead it back into the greener pastures of the Anglo-American sphere (also known as “the international community”).
While a few reports reluctantly acknowledged that France had actually initiated the rapprochement earlier this year, this was apparently just “breaking the ice;” in other words, we are to understand that Britain is single-handedly bringing Syria out of its isolation, so long as the latter undertakes to tackle the usual set of demands. Speaking to the BBC, Miliband summed up his diplomatic stance with great precision, stating that Syria could be “a force for stability or it can be a force for instability.”
This seemingly vague explanation is actually a fitting illustration of Britain’s current political position, especially in the Middle East, and especially during this transitional period when nobody is quite sure how the new American president will conduct foreign policy. By the time President Obama gets settled in January 2009, the region will be expecting elections in Israel (February), in Lebanon (May) and in Iran (June), in addition to the provincial elections in Iraq scheduled for end January. While this would put many big decisions on hold, politics and bilateral relations have continued to develop while Britain was a mere spectator, and this might explain its eagerness to claim its stake in the regional pie. However, for the time being, it is unclear exactly where Britain stands, as demonstrated in its equivocal and hesitant approach.
It was of course France which broke ranks with a general American and European coolness, if not total freeze, towards Syria. Following Syria’s contribution to ending the stalemate in Lebanon (leading to the Doha Agreement in May this year), President Nicolas Sarkozy invited Syrian President Bashar Assad to attend the Union for the Mediterranean Summit in Paris, and the subsequent military parade on July 14. Photos of Assad on the official tribune along the Champs-Elysées, and of the increasingly busy VIP lounge at Damascus airport, speak volumes about the definite thaw in Syria’s relations with most European countries; Britain is merely trying to catch up with the rest, and media reports claiming a leading role (or reporting planned Anglo-Syrian intelligence cooperation as if it were a British concession) have bordered on the ridiculous.
France has even brought a new element into the equation with Syria: instead of pressuring it to cut its ties with the Iranian regime, Sarkozy has suggested using the good offices of Damascus as a conduit to Tehran, with which most still have trouble dealing. For three decades, the Syrian-Iranian relationship has survived a sustained Western effort to break the alliance (through sanctions and isolation) and to shift the politics of both regimes. Neither Syria’s rapprochement with its critics, nor its on-off negotiations with Israel, have dampened the rapport, which only a radical change in either country would shift.
While Syrian-European relations continue to improve, interesting developments in the relations with Russia have caught many observers’ attention. During the so-called Russian-Georgian war last August, Syria was quick to position itself on the side of Russia and to describe the incident as a provocation from Georgia. While Syria’s particular support makes no difference to a powerful country like Russia, it nevertheless served to remind everyone of two major points: first, Russia’s involvement in the region could make a difference and is wanted, and second, attempting to isolate Syria is delivering the wrong results.
There is a definite nostalgia in the region, on the popular level if not necessarily on the official one, for a return to the days of Russian involvement in the Middle East. The events of August were viewed by many in the region as being a typical American-backed enterprise to position a puppet for more power, and the response of Russia was mostly defended by Arabs, who saw similarities with their own predicament. (Even in the blogosphere, there was much solidarity with the Russian position, and much delight with the reported conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his British counterpart, in which the latter was given a strong dressing down.)
All these developments cannot have been good news for countries trying to increase the limited influence to which they cling in the Middle East. Thus, caught between a French government which took a leading role and beat everyone to the front line, an American administration which has already pledged to rely on dialogue before other measures, and a Russian government which is being lured back into the Middle East, Britain wants to gain a foothold and to rekindle its relations with Syria, a country whose rising fortunes, and whose strategic weight, it has unwisely disregarded.
There is no doubt that Syria stands to gain from better relations with the UK, while knowing full well that Britain needs this too; simultaneously, Syria does not feel it excludes it from having stronger relations with Russia. What remains to be seen is the attitude of the new administration in the US, and how it may affect the changing political arena.
Rime Allaf is an Associate Fellow, Chatham House, London
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Social Metamorphosis in the Cradle of Civilization
Monday, November 17, 2008, 23:50In lieu of regular blogging, rendered difficult by an overcharged agenda, I am posting some of my writings, including the monthly column for Syria Today.
Social Metamorphosis in the Cradle of Civilization
Damascus' new taste for luxury has created a growing gap between the rich – who ostentatiously display their wealth – and the poor who are growing increasingly alienated.
Religious and social norms in the Arab world have never attached a stigma to wealth, and Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, even states that riches and children – in that order – are the ornaments of life. Throughout the centuries, spirituality and affluence have thus been perfectly compatible concepts in the region, alongside compassion (spontaneous or contrived) to ensure that the least privileged were not forgotten.
The phenomenal recent historical TV serials have repeatedly emphasised this issue, amongst others, stressing the charitable contributions offered by the richest to the poorest and the concern that financial inequities should not be allowed to create unanswered needs, and ultimately resentment. Whether they faithfully reflect a bygone society or are mostly the wishful thinking of its descendants, a longing for values of the past is reflected through the portrayals of Chami societies in successful television dramas. All over the Arab world, people say they yearn for the good old days when social cohesion was strong, when a neighbourhood was akin to an extended family, and when the concept of a council of elders as de facto leaders of the immediate locality was the only option desired, or even imagined.
Relative to occidental societies, there is no question that the social network remains a fundamental tenet of Arab life, but the current longing for traditional values points to the drastic change that has occurred over time, and to the recognition that social empathy has all but evaporated. Everywhere, societies have metamorphosed into the proverbial rat race as people struggle with the financial and social cost of living. Many of the factors on which the loss of social cohesion can be blamed, however, have nothing to do with the necessary evils of modern life. In Syria, the metamorphosis seems to have surpassed the economically expected, and the morally accepted.
It is understandable that a society so starved of consumerism should dabble in its excesses, unleashing wallets and loosening belts with unsurpassed enthusiasm. In such fertile virgin grounds, producers of self-styled luxury products and services were bound to find their lucrative niche, opposite that of cheap productions for the masses. But where other developing markets, by default, end up with a much larger ratio of lower end products, the Syrian capital witnessed an explosion of boutiques whose window displays lured clients with astronomically-priced garments, and whose seductive billboard advertisements adorned the streets. In spite of the segment’s immaturity and the absence of proper market research, the proliferation of these shops shows a basic understanding of local attitudes and an accurate projection about demand for luxury items.
But this new concept of luxury, in itself, has deviated from the classical understanding as personified in numerous serials and claimed as an inspiration for a better life. Whereas wealth was used for personal comfort and contentment mostly away from prying eyes, current behaviour has replaced the privacy and exclusivity attributes with ostentatious displays and arrogant attitudes. Indeed, as seen in Damascus, luxury has become a matter of expense rather than quality, of brand name rather than pleasure, and of cost rather than value. To qualify, it must be put on show to be seen by others, rather than be privately enjoyed (it is not rare, in fact, for extravagant public displays of wealth to turn into controlled spending behind closed doors).
There are other dimensions to this new Chami cult of luxury and of public extravagance: there is competition on every level and a race to outspend others, in what becomes an obscene contest to determine the biggest spender, taking the “keeping up with the neighbour” notion to new frontiers. Weddings, for example, have become a perfect litmus test, with every self-respecting nouveau riche now stretching the festivities until breakfast is served, and coming up with yet more “best” caterers, decorators or planners, just as they must always have “the best” in every other field, a best that changes regularly. Of course, the more these cost, the better it is.
These factors have all contributed to the gaping hole distancing the rich from the poor, who feel increasingly alienated. Unlike the council of elders last seen on television caring for the good of society, most people who should be community leaders today seem oblivious to the relative suffering of less fortunate peers, and to the psychological burdens being heaped on them. This can be said about other societies, to some extent, but the situation seems more extreme in a society claiming to be compassionate and cohesive.
Sadly, very wealthy Damascenes (like very wealthy people throughout the country) have begun to suffer delusions of grandeur and to consider most people surrounding them as subordinates at best. Domestic help is referred to, and treated, in the most derogatory manner (with conversations including odious phrases like “my Philippina” or “my Ethiopian,” and women of other nationalities forced to work in such humiliating circumstances), as are most blue collar workers and labourers. What could have been mere extravagance has turned into vulgar exhibitionism, with obscene amounts of money wasted and flaunted in the face of people who cannot make ends meet, with a nonchalance that would shock the most hardened of us.
It seems surreal to speak of luxury (or, in this case, decadence) while a global recession is forecast; however, there is a consensus in Damascus that Syria has been unaffected by the catastrophic downfall of financial markets, and that Syria has a “real” economy. This dangerous estimation is misleading, and it only emphasises the fact that the economy, indeed, is still in its infancy and unsuited for the era of globalisation. This, consequently, merely confirms that the country will of course be affected by the recession, and boasting otherwise is a manifestation of ignorance – as is the obnoxious approach to wealth.
Such pretentious behaviour is certainly not limited to Damascus, to Syria or to Arabs; it has become a scourge the world over. However, it is more shocking to find it spreading in a place which still brags about its convivial society structure, its history of noble values and its respect of religion. The more such behaviour becomes the norm for people who should be the bearers of society’s ethical code, the more it becomes difficult to associate such characteristics with the cradle of civilisation.
Rime Allaf is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
Issue: November 2008
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Misquote of the day
Monday, November 17, 2008, 14:30I spend a lot of time speaking to journalists, amongst others, on subjects they are writing about; some of these conversations are off the record, others aren’t, and some alternate between the two at different parts. Often, I ask that the journalist check with me before publishing when I’ve given a specifically long interview, as I (often rightly) assume he or she won’t have gotten all the information or the views correctly.
This was my agreement with Peter Beaumont of The Observer, with whom I spent quite some time on Friday explaining my perception of things, including strong disagreement, repeatedly, with his position that Britain was bringing Syria out from the cold (it didn't, France did), that Syria changed its policy (it didn't), and a number of other issues. He was supposed to check with me, and he didn’t, and I have taken it up with him and with my institute.
One would have to be quite ignorant of my views, and of anything else I have ever written and said, to imagine I could say something like “many Syrians are unhappy because Bashar Assad did not turn out to be more like King Abdullah of Jordan or President Mubarak of Egypt.”
What I said, obviously, was that the US and its allies were unhappy that he didn’t turn out to be like the leaders of Jordan or Egypt (in other words, a "moderate"); I followed that by explaining that in fact, unlike the case with other regimes in the region (all of which I find equally despicable), the Syrian regime is supported in many of its foreign positions by many Syrians.
The quote is ridiculous and self-contradictory, but as Beaumont did not even bother to check the spelling of my name (not difficult to find), I shouldn’t be surprised by the level of professionalism. I have been misquoted in the past, about more “serious” issues resulting in strange statements, but I think this one takes the lead as the most ridiculous misquote.
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The story of Houda and Mowaffak
Sunday, November 2, 2008, 23:30Houda and Mowaffak are my beloved parents, and this is their story -- or rather a part of their story -- as described by the Syrian magazine Forward. I had and still have some comments and edits about the information chosen and that left out. The last paragraphs contain some factual errors, but they are not the point of this article. My grandfather did indeed support the Palestinians from the start, but this is another story that deserves its own space.
This piece comes in a series called "Beside Great Men" and I thank editor Sami Moubayed for having thought of including my father, and Farah Sudki for having interviewed my mother and written the piece.
The Story of Houda and Mowaffak
In November 1977, just as rumors emerged about Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visiting Jerusalem, the Syrian ambassador to the UN in New York, Mowaffak Allaf, urgently cabled Damascus for instructions about the official reaction he should convey. As luck would have it, he was scheduled to be the first speaker at the General Assembly the following Monday morning.
For two days, there was no response from Damascus, and no declared position from Syrian media. At 10pm on the eve of his intervention, he looked gravely at his wife and said, "Houda, what I do tomorrow might cost me my job. Are you ready to bear the consequences with me?" She asked him what he meant, and he explained, " can only follow my convictions and my conscience, and I must strongly condemn the Jerusalem visit. Since I still have no response and with only 12 hours left, I must start preparing my speech." "Do it. I am with you,"she replied. Throughout the night, Allaf wrote and passed his wife one sheet after another, reading and commenting together on the various parts. They did not sleep that night and were wide awake when journalists began calling the next morning, asking what he would be saying later that morning. Houda told them to wait until he spoke, and accompanied her husband to the United Nations to watch him speak, as she did on special occasions. At the UN, they ran into the Egyptian ambassador, a friend, to whom Mowaffak said, “you do understand that I have to criticize Sadat.” His friend answered, “yes, and you do understand that I have no choice but to leave the hall when you do.”
The speech was cabled to the Foreign Ministry in Damascus after the session, and there was still only silence. Finally, at 4 am the next morning, the phone rang, dragging Houda and Mowaffak out of an exhausted sleep: it was the Foreign Minister who jokingly wanted to know why Allaf had not criticized him even more, and who congratulated him on his position.
These were the characteristics that Houda loved about her husband: his principles, his self-reliance and independence, and his nationalism. Never in his life had he joined a political party, nor received help through a connection as he climbed the diplomatic ranks. If he believed in something, he would do it no matter the price, and he was led by passion for his work and for his nation, and his family. The Saudi ambassador to Geneva once joked to Houda, “we are a total of 15 Arab ambassadors in Switzerland, and none of us can control Mowaffak Allaf! How in the world can you do it alone?”
The ambassador’s wife
Houda Wattar was born and raised in Damascus, the daughter of a renowned physician and a culturally and socially active mother. It was right after graduating from Laique, then the finest secular school in town, that some relatives introduced her to Mowaffak, the chargé d’affaires and first secretary of the Syrian embassy in Cyprus. She was only 17 and was excited about living the diplomatic life. "I thought that the life of a diplomat’s wife would be filled with nothing but receptions and parties. Reality was very different!” She recalls feeling unsure about herself and all the new responsibilities that suddenly faced her, especially as she found herself living without family and friends for the first time, and fondly remembers Lydia al-Aris, the wife of the Syrian ambassador who was posted to Cyprus a year after Houda’s marriage, who had a great influence on her, helping her enter the diplomatic circles and learn the rules of protocol.
The first reception Houda ever hosted was on the occasion of the Syrian National Day, a responsibility that fell on her because of the absence of the ambassador’s wife. “I was only 18,” she recalled smiling, "one of the youngest diplomat’s wives there. "She added, "I would get embarrassed with casual talk related to someone’s health. All of a sudden I had to play hostess, engage in conversation, and welcome the country’s VIP society! It’s a good thing I already had learned French in school.”
Houda had no political background but became an avid reader, developing her knowledge and her position as the wife of a polished and seasoned diplomat. As time went by, her husband would increasingly request her views on particular affairs or incidents. Houda also developed a great social life and a rich list of cultural, social and even business events. When she became an ambassador’s wife in Geneva (24 at the time, and the youngest of all ambassadors’ wives), her work continued to increase and her responsibilities became more varied. "Ambassadors represent their governments and political positions, but ambassadors’ wives represent the people, the culture, and the civilization of the country,” she explained. Even with the limited resources of the Syrian embassy, she always strived to host perfect dinner parties with the best possible mixture. “I did not want anyone to say one day that Mowaffak Allaf’s wife neglected her guests,” she said. “I did not want my house and my dining table to be of lower standing than that of the American or French ambassador.”
In 1978, Allaf left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to become deputy director general of the United Nations Office in Geneva. This move had come at the request and insistence of then-Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who admired Allaf’s personality, dedication and self-reliance, and who convinced the Syrian leadership that his move to the UN would be memorable. Indeed, when Allaf was named Director General of the UNO in Vienna, four years later under Secretary General Javier Perez De Cuellar, he also became the first Arab in the history of the UN to receive the level of Under-Secretary-General, the highest grade possible. When Waldheim became president of Austria, he conferred on Allaf the Grand Order of Merit, the highest decoration, recognizing his contributions.
He had been heading the Austro-Arab Chamber of Commerce, which he co-founded after friends from both sides showed eagerness for the idea, when the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and all subsequent events brought him back to the heart of Syrian foreign affairs. At the request of President Hafez al-Assad, Allaf was asked to head the Syrian negotiating team, which would attend the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, and the subsequent bilateral talks with Israel. This was not a request he felt eager to fulfill. During their initial meeting, President Assad told Allaf how lucky he felt to have him on their team, knowing that he was not happy about this request, and he asked him to consider himself a soldier whose arms were the negotiations. Still, Allaf asked him point-blank, “what is the minimum that Syria will accept?” The president answered, “Every bit of Syrian soil from the Golan.” Allaf said: “Thank you, you have reassured me,” to which the president replied with a smile: “I expected you to ask this, and would have been surprised if you hadn’t.”
The knight disembarks
Allaf’s beloved Cairo was the place of his first posting as a young diplomat, and it was his last in the Arab League. His sudden death, shortly after turning 69, came as a shock to all those who knew him, and was devastating to his family. As her children were scattered around the world, in Vienna, London and Los Angeles, Houda decided to return to live in Syria, 34 years after she had left it with her groom. Tormented by the loss of her husband and friend with whom she had shared everything, she began writing a book about him but stopped after 200 pages. “I realized that I faced a difficult choice: either give Mowaffak his due and write everything openly, or do him injustice by submitting to the red-lines,” she said. “That is why I retracted.”
Houda recalls his strong and loyal personality, and also his being a loving father and devoted family man, and a “very generous man””– even with the limited salary as a Syrian diplomat. He loved her company and always wanted her by his side, even to go buy a newspaper. He had a passion for philately, and also had a nice voice and would often sing Arabic. The love for music was passed to his children: his son Annas, who studied sound engineering and became a musician after having completed his Bachelor’s in Business Administration; his son Salim who works for the IAEA after studies of Hotel Management and Tourism in Switzerland; and his daughter Rime, a fellow at Chatham House in London, who became a writer and political commentator, inheriting her father’s “hardline” stance on a number of issues relating to Syria and Palestine.
Today, Houda is more involved in charitable societies in Syria, and currently sits on the board of Dar al-Saadeh, the retirement home where the name of Hayat Yafi, her mother, is written on the wall, as one of the founders. Looking back at her life with her husband, she wrapped up saying, “I advise wives not to depend completely on their husbands. I relied on him for 100% of my needs and that devastated me and affected me tremendously after his death.”
The gentleman diplomat
Mowafak Allaf was born in Damascus and spent parts of his childhood in Haifa, Palestine, where his father worked as a businessman. The British accused Allaf’s father of supporting the Palestinian resistance, and the police surrounded the family home to search for weapons. It was the young Allaf ’s first exposure to diplomacy when, using the English he had learned at school, he negotiated successfully with the British on his father’s behalf. Allaf then returned to Syria, studied law at Damascus University, and obtained a diploma in international relations in 1949. He joined the Ministry of Economy, becoming commercial attaché first to Cairo, then to Jeddah during the days of President Adib al-Shishakli (1951-1954).
In 1975, President Hafez al-Asad appointed him ambassador to the UN in New York. Allaf remained in that position until 1978 when UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim appointed him under secretary-general of the UN in Geneva, the first Arab to attain such a post. In the late 1980s, Allaf helped establish the Austro-Arab Chamber of Commerce by drafting its bylaws and infrastructure. In February 1987, Allaf was rewarded the Grand Decoration of Honor in Gold in Sash for Services to the Republic of Austria from Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. In 1989, Allaf was elected secretary-general of the Chamber of Commerce, a post he held until his death in 1996.
In 1994, Allaf became head of the Syrian delegation to the Washington peace talks with the Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin. The Israelis, annoyed by the eloquence of Allaf, a seasoned Syrian diplomat and expert in international law, complained to US President Bill Clinton, ostensibly arguing that Allaf was not politically powerful enough in Syria to make decisions on his own. Two US secretaries of state, James Baker and Warren Christopher, asked President Hafez al-Assad to replace Allaf, but President Assad curtly refused, saying that if need be, he would promote Allaf to deputy foreign minister and private advisor to President Assad himself, thereby giving Allaf the required power.
Allaf served on the diplomatic team until January 1996 when, under President Assad’s insistence that a strong Syrian should be at the Arab League, he became assistant to the secretary-general of the Arab League. Six months after his appointment, however, Mouwafak al-Allaf died suddenly on July 4, 1996.
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On existential challenges and political myopia
Wednesday, October 29, 2008, 02:45What are the vital challenges facing the region in the coming decade? That's the question asked by Bitter Lemons International this week, a question which several contributors answered in very different ways. While it's difficult to put relative values on people's needs, let alone when discussing existential issues, I find there is at least one common denominator dragging the region down: education, of the lack thereof.
Education and the pursuit of justice
There is no shortage of thorny problems needing solutions in the Middle East but few get the attention they deserve. The Arab-Israeli conflict understandably grabs most headlines, even though the attention is usually slanted and the reports are designed to generate sympathy for one side, Israel. When the interest deigns digging deeper into the condition of some of the victims, it is usually just another way to condescendingly blame the latter for bringing this unto themselves and for preferring to hate their enemy over loving their children. Sometimes, reports go as far as decrying the state of, say, human rights in the Arab world. This allows for a necessary reprimand of Arab regimes in general, but also provides another rationale for why Arabs should really concentrate on their own development and leave Israel in peace, letting bygones be bygones.
It would be foolish to claim that the Arab-Israel conflict does not, directly or indirectly, influence decisions that ultimately affect the wellbeing of people. Until it is resolved in a just and comprehensive manner, life cannot improve for the people involved in it, and no amount of spin is going to change the fact that this is the most basic of existential issues.
The problem is that this is not the only problem or the only reason why the region has the potential to get a lot worse. Politicians, academics and media pundits have gotten accustomed to generalizations, rehashing the same old story lines and following preset terminology and language. Because of this short-sightedness, they are failing to see when Israel is wrong, failing to understand how its security is best served by resolving these issues and failing to recognize that issues much more important than Israel's security will be the headaches of the future.
The region stands at the edge of an existential precipice. It has a huge young population running out of options for education, employment or economic security, often denied the most basic of infrastructure (in terms of health, sanitation, water, transport, etc.) and turning increasingly to religiosity and idleness (a dangerous combination) with nothing better to do than watch a multitude of mind-numbing or indoctrinating satellite television channels. Still, political myopia continues to point to "progress" in the area and to frame the stakes in terms of what the US is trying to peddle. This month, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed the audience of al-Arabiya television that the Bush administration had helped, among other things, to bring democracy to Iraq, sovereignty to Lebanon and women's liberation to Kuwait. Dr. Rice did not mention the appalling situation of Palestinians under siege, a condition that seems to have become a norm, or the human rights violations, to put it mildly, by several of its strongest allies (including the Saudi and Egyptian regimes).
If they could, civil society activists and advocates -- those who are not in jail -- would remind Dr. Rice that American labeling as "moderates" cannot begin to camouflage the fact that America's democratically-challenged friends differ little from their "axis of evil" enemies, and that those who really need to live side by side in peace are the ruled and the rulers in these countries. People need freedom of speech, among other basic rights, to feel they are part of a society, and that they can and must contribute to its advancement. Being able to discuss governmental actions or inaction, or to criticize a king's brother, a president's cousin or a prince's consort without being charged with near-blasphemy is a precursor to contributing to a society in need of development.
At the same time, a person's propensity for success in any given field cannot continue to be dependent on his or her "belonging" to one or more regime cronies, or on the extent of the praise he or she lavishes on the leader or his clique, mostly amounting to sickening glorification of third-rate people. As seen in numerous pan-Arab publications singing the praises of their respective backers and in national media undeserving of the name, this sycophancy merely perpetuates an archaic modus operandi that rewards submission and punishes achievement-based work ethics. That a sheikh dares to name his ruler inside the mosque, even during Ramadan or Eid prayers, practically elevating him to holy status (a shocking occurrence all over the Arab world) speaks volumes about the way the wind is blowing.
If we were to delve deeper into the mechanism behind a viable society and decide what to change, these details would be most representative of how deeply ingrained the system has become and how little attention has been paid to the deteriorating situation.
The empowerment of civil society is indeed an existential issue, but the pursuit of democracy as understood by George W. Bush is not -- neither the democracy that is peddled by American (and European) governments, nor the democracy that Arab dictators claim is not what their people want. Social equality is the existential issue of concern and it automatically demands a drastic application of justice with no exceptions. Several Arab countries already boast of judicial system reforms, all of which are moot exercises when equality remains relative; it is not the written laws that need changing, it is the way they are applied, and the prerogatives of the judges, which need to disappear.
For independent, honest judges to be able to interpret and apply justice, there needs to be a society that accepts it and abides by it and that builds its future by law. This is why the biggest existential issue is that of education, because only an educated people can safeguard and be saved by a just system, leaning on it to develop its institutions.
Indeed, the greatest of all existential issues facing the Middle East is the spread and improvement of education, in the widest sense of the word. It is from a good education that basic infrastructure is built, that a healthy living code is rooted and that a moral, social, economic and political work ethic can be adopted.
It may already be too late to save one or two generations from the decades of neglect they faced, but there is no reason why the next generation cannot begin to benefit from an education similar to those offered in developed states and a raised standard of living. Instead of complaining about increased fundamentalism and anti-Americanism, maybe the US could give young Arabs a reason to give thanks.- Published 23/10/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is associate fellow at London's Chatham House.
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