Craig Eisele on …..

April 20, 2012

Gulf Of Mexico Fisheries See Serious Decline 2 Years After BP Oil Disaster

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mr. Craig @ 2:16 pm

Nearly two years after BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen and scientists say things are getting worse.

New Orleans, LA – Hundreds of thousands of people living along the US Gulf Coast have hung their economic lives on lawsuits against BP.

Fishermen, in particular, are seeing their way of life threatened with extinction – both from lack of an adequate legal settlement and collapsing fisheries.

One of these people, Greg Perez, an oyster fisherman in the village of Yscloskey, Louisiana, has seen a 75 per cent decrease in the amount of oysters he has been able to catch.

“Since the spill, business has been bad,” he said. “Sales and productivity are down, our state oyster grounds are gone, and we are investing personal money to rebuild oyster reefs, but so far it’s not working.”

Perez, like so many Gulf Coast commercial fisherman, has been fishing all his life. He said those who fish for crab and shrimp are “in trouble too”, and he is suing BP for property damage for destroying his oyster reefs, as well as for his business’ loss of income.

People like Perez make it possible for Louisiana to provide 40 per cent of all the seafood caught in the continental US.

But Louisiana’s seafood industry, valued at about $2.3bn, is now fighting for its life.

‘The shrimp are all dead’

Perez is not alone.

“They said they’d make things right and they never did,” said Nicholas Harris, a fourth-generation oyster fisherman in eastern Louisiana. “Business has been s****y, and BP kept low-balling us with how much money they said they’d give us for compensation, so we got our attorneys involved.”

Harris, like Perez, is suing the oil giant for property damage and loss of income.

His family has a 4,000-acre private lease for oysters, but it was destroyed when the State of Louisiana diverted fresh water from the Mississippi River in a failed attempt to flush BP’s oil from the oyster fishing grounds in his area.

The situation in Mississippi for shrimpers is nearly as grim.

“I was at a BP coastal restoration meeting yesterday and they tried to tell us they searched 6,000 square miles of the seafloor and found no oil, thanks to Mother Nature,” Tuan Dang, a shrimper, told Al Jazeera while standing on a dock full of shrimp boats that would normally be out shrimping this time of year.

Mississippi shrimper Tuan Dang is not catching enough shrimp to turn a profit – just one of many in the Gulf Coast seafood industry affected by the BP disaster [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]

Dang’s fishing experience has been bleak.

“Normally I can get 8,000 pounds of brown shrimp in four days,” he explained. “But this year, I only get 800 pounds in a week. There are hardly any shrimp out there.”

When he tried to catch white shrimp, he said he “caught almost nothing”.

He is suing BP for loss of income, but does not have much hope, despite recent news of an initial settlement worth more than $7bn. “We’d love to see them clean this up so we can get our lives back, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

Shrimp boat captain Song Vu is hoping that he will catch more shrimp next season, because the last times he fished he caught very few [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]

Song Vu, a shrimp boat captain for 20 years, has not tried to shrimp for weeks, and is simply hoping that there will be shrimp to catch next season.

His experience during his last shrimping attempts left him depressed.

“The shrimp are all dead,” he told Al Jazeera. “Everything is dead.”

BP has ‘taken its toll’

Henry Poynot, the owner of Big Fisherman Seafood in New Orleans, has been selling seafood for 28 years.

Al Jazeera asked him how his business was doing.

“2010 was the worst year we’ve had in 15 years,” he said. “Then 2011 was worse than 2010. Some of this was the economy, but most of it is due to BP. BP has taken its toll.”

Seafood vendor Henry Poynot says people are buying less seafood than ever, a situation he blames on the BP oil disaster [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]

Given that 20 per cent of the total US seafood production comes from the Gulf Coast – where the major commercial fishing ports bring in over 1.2 billion pounds of fresh seafood annually – this is not good news.

Poynot said that many people, even some of his employees, continue to be afraid to eat seafood from the Gulf, for fear of contamination by BP’s oil and dispersants.

“It’s hard to believe the impact of the spill,” Poynot added. “I have heard that some folks are still catching tar balls in their crab traps.”

Apparently, the fact that the State of Louisiana received $18m from BP for the Louisiana Seafood Safety Plan to test seafood, water and soil from across the coast is not helping to assuage fears.

Keith Ladner, a third-generation seafood processor in Bay St Louis, Mississippi, has it even worse.

“I’m worried about the entire seafood industry of the Gulf being on the way out,” Ladner told Al Jazeera in Biloxi, Mississippi. “We have taken constant hits like Katrina, the economy, and now BP. I’m now unsure how many of us will come back from this.”

Ladner reiterated what Al Jazeera has been hearing from fishermen, seafood processors and distributors all along the coast – that there has been a two-thirds drop in brown shrimp production, and white shrimp season was basically non-existent.

“The only brown and white shrimp we see now are from Texas or western Louisiana, where the oil didn’t impact directly,” he said. “And for oysters, Mississippi’s oyster reefs have been closed since the spill started. I have not purchased one single sack of oysters since the spill, and I won’t eat any from this area.”

Ladner was in the process of rebuilding his business after Hurricane Katrina completely devastated it, and was set to reopen new facilities on May 1, 2010.

BP’s oil disaster began on April 20, 2010.

“I’ve had no way to generate income because of the spill, and I’ve been shut down to this day,” he explained. “I’m waiting for the fisheries to come back, and I cannot reopen until, or unless, they do.”

Ladner’s business, which transported Gulf seafood to 15 states, remains closed. Ladner has filed a lawsuit against BP for loss of income. He remains wary about his future.

“Looking at the scene now, should I invest what I need to invest to get back to where I was before, if these fisheries don’t come back?” he asks. “We’re dead in the water until the fishermen go back to work. The whole economy will feel it.”

‘Worst crisis I’ve seen’

Fishermen and scientists continue to deal with the aftermath of BP’s disaster.

Louisiana’s oyster harvest in 2010 was the lowest in 44 years, due to BP’s oil disaster. Scott Gordon, Mississippi’s director of the Shellfish Bureau of the Office of Marine Fisheries, said in the summer of 2010, “I fully expect to have 100 per cent mortalities of the oysters in the western Mississippi Sound”. His predictions have come true [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]

“We are in the worst crisis I’ve ever seen,” Brad Robin, a sixth-generation fisherman and seafood proprietor, told Al Jazeera last September, while out on a boat surveying the crippled oyster population where he fishes. “The [oyster] industry might do 35 per cent this year, if we’re very lucky.”

Dr Ed Cake, a biological oceanographer and a marine and oyster biologist, and Tom Soniat, a University of New Orleans oyster biologist, invited Al Jazeera to accompany them, Robin, and Robin’s son to check for recovering oyster populations.

The marsh area outside of Yscloskey, Louisiana was severely affected by massive fresh-water diversions from the Mississippi River. The choice to divert river water was made to flush the marsh in order to prevent oil from washing in, but the fresh water has killed all the oysters, and Cake believes dispersed oil came in anyway.

Further complicating things, Cake has pinpointed at least two invasive species that do not bode well for a recovery of Louisiana’s oysters.

“We are finding sponges growing on our oysters,” Cake told Al Jazeera. “They encrust the oyster shell and that prevents new spat [baby oysters] from attaching to grow new oysters. We don’t know why this is happening, but we think it came in response to the fresh water and oil. This is the first time we’ve seen it.”

The sponge is chalinula loosanoffi, and is native to Ireland, the Netherlands, and the upper East Coast of the US.

Cake has also found a worm, poydora aggregata, native to Maine, which attaches itself to oysters and fouls their shells.

“I’m worried these sponges and worms could wreak havoc on the industry,” Cake said.

Louisiana’s oyster harvest in 2010 was cut in half, to a 44-year low, due to BP’s oil disaster. Scott Gordon, Mississippi’s director of the Shellfish Bureau of the Office of Marine Fisheries, said in the summer of 2010, “I fully expect to have 100 per cent mortalities of the oysters in the western Mississippi Sound”.

His predictions have come true.

Professor Soniat explained that the oyster industry is afflicted with “multiple impacts”.

“First the oil spill took away their fishing season,” he said of the fishing ban put in place after the BP disaster. “Second, the fresh-water diversion took away the oysters; and third, the programme of having oystermen harvest shells from their leases to try to re-seed other areas killed the oyster reefs.”

Cake recently told Al Jazeera that many of the Gulf fisheries “have already collapsed” and the only question is “if or when they’ll come back”.

“If it takes too long for them to come back, the fishing industry won’t survive,” he added.

Given that after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska in 1989, herring have still not come back enough to be a viable fishing resource, this does not bode well for the Gulf seafood industry, whose fisheries are – according to scientists like Cake and Soniat – still in the initial phase of collapse.

Using “HIP HOP” as a Foreign Policy Tool

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mr. Craig @ 1:13 pm

Leveraging hip hop in US foreign policy

Diplomats and officials use the music of the oppressed to connect with disaffected Muslim youth.

The US government wants to improve its tarnished image abroad by sending out ‘hip hop envoys’ [GALLO/GETTY]

In April 2010, the US State Department sent a rap group named Chen Lo and The Liberation Family to perform in Damascus, Syria.

Following Chen Lo’s performance, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was asked by CBS News about US diplomacy’s recent embrace of hip hop. “Hip hop is America,” she said, noting that rap and other musical forms could help “rebuild the image” of the United States. “You know it may be a little bit hopeful, because I can’t point to a change in Syrian policy because Chen Lo and the Liberation Family showed up. But I think we have to use every tool at our disposal.” 

The State Department began using hiphop as a tool in the mid-2000s, when, in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the resurgence of the Taliban, Karen Hughes, then undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, launched an initiative called Rhythm Road. The programme was modelled on the jazz diplomacy initiative of the Cold War era, except that in the “War on Terror”, hip hop would play the central role of countering “poor perceptions” of the US. 

In 2005, the State Department began sending “hip hop envoys” – rappers, dancers, DJs – to perform and speak in different parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The tours have since covered the broad arc of the Muslim world, with performances taking place in Senegal and Ivory Coast, across North Africa, the Levant and Middle East, and extending to Mongolia, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The artists stage performances and hold workshops; those hip hop ambassadors who are Muslims talk to local media about being Muslim in the US. The tours aim not only to exhibit the integration of American Muslims, but also, according to planners, to promote democracy and foster dissent.

“You have to bet at the end of the day, people will choose freedom over tyranny if they’re given a choice,” Clinton observed of the State Department’s hip hop programme in Syria – stating that cultural diplomacy is a complex game of “multidimensional chess”.

“Hip hop can be a chess piece?” asked the interviewer. “Absolutely!” responded the secretary of state.

Much has been said about the role of hip hop in the Arab revolts. French media described [fr] the Arab Spring as le printemps des rappeurs [“The spring of the rappers”]. Time Magazine named Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor (aka El General) – a rapper who was arrested by Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – as one of the “100 Most Influential People of 2011”, ranking him higher than President Barack Obama.  

Hip hop revolution

It is true that since protests began in Tunisia in December 2010, rap has provided a soundtrack to the North African revolts. As security forces rampaged in the streets, artists in Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi were writing lyrics and cobbling together protest footage, beats and rhymes, which they then uploaded to proxy servers. These impromptu songs – such as El General’s Rais Lebled – were then picked up and broadcast by Al Jazeera, and played at gatherings and solidarity marches in London, New York and Washington. 

But the role of music should not be exaggerated: Hip hop did not cause the Arab revolts any more than Twitter or Facebook did. The cross-border spread of popular movements is not a new phenomenon in the Arab world – the uprisings of 1919, which engulfed Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, occurred long before the advent of the internet, social media or rap music.

And the countries in the region with the most vibrant hip hop scenes, Morocco and Algeria, have not seen revolts. Western journalists’ focus on hip hop – like their fixation on Facebook and Twitter – seems partly because, in their eyes, a taste for hip hop among young Muslims is a sign of moderation, modernity, even “an embrace of the US”.

Interviewer: “Hip hop can be a chess piece?”Hillary Clinton: Absolutely!”

What is absent from these discussions about rap and the breakdown of Arab authoritarianism is the role that states – in the region and beyond – have played in shaping and directing local hip hop cultures. From deposed Tunisian dictator Ben Ali’s mobilisation of hip hop culture against Islamism to the embattled Syrian regime’s current support of “pro-stability rappers”, to the US government’s growing use of hip hop in public diplomacy, counter-terrorism and democracy promotion, regimes are intervening to promote some sub-styles of hip hop, in an attempt to harness the genre towards various political objectives.

The jazz tours of the Cold War saw the US government sent integrated bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman to various parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East to counter Soviet propaganda about American racial practices, and to get people in other countries to identify with “the American way of life”.

The choice of jazz was not simply due to its international appeal. As historian Penny Von Eschen writes in her pioneering book Satchmo Blows Up the World, in the 1950s, the State Department believed that African-American culture could convey “a sense of shared suffering, as well as the conviction that equality could be gained under the American political system” to people who had suffered European colonialism.

Similar thinking underpins the current “hip hop diplomacy” initiatives. The State Department planners who are calling for “the leveraging of hip hop” in US foreign policy emphasise “the importance of Islam to the roots of hip hop in America”, and the “pain” and “struggle” that the music expresses.

A Brookings report authored by the programme’s architects – titled “Mightier than the Sword: Arts and Culture in the US-Muslim World Relationship” (2008) – notes that hip hop began as “outsiders’ protest” against the US system, and now resonates among marginalised Muslim youth worldwide. From the Parisian banlieues to Palestine to Kyrgyzstan, “hip hop reflects struggle against authority” and expresses a “pain” that transcends language barriers. 

An ironic choice

Rappers whom Muslim youth relate to often disagree with US foreign policy [GALLO/GETTY]






















Moreover, note the authors, hip hop’s pioneers were inner-city Muslims who “carry on an African-American Muslim tradition of protest against authority, most powerfully represented by Malcolm X”. The report concludes by calling for a “greater exploitation of this natural connector to the Muslim world”.     

The choice of hip hop is ironic: The very music blamed for a range of social ills at home – violence, misogyny, consumerism, academic underperformance – is being deployed abroad in the hopes of making the US safer and better-liked. European states have also been disptaching their Muslim hip hop artists to perform in Muslim-majority countries. Long before the fall of the Gaddafi regime, the British Council was organising hip hop workshops in Tripoli, and sponsoring Electric Steps, “Libya’s only hip hop band”, as a way to promote political reform in that country. 

Rap is also being used in de-radicalisation and counter-terrorism initiatives. American and European terrorism experts have expressed concerns over “anti-American hip hop”, accenting the radicalising influence of this genre. Others have advocated mobilising certain sub-genres of hip hop against what they call “jihadi cool”. 

Warning that Osama bin Laden’s associate Abu Yahya al-Libi has made al-Qaeda look “cool”, one terrorism expert recommends that the US respond “with one of America’s coolest exports: hip hop”, specifically with a “subgroup” thereof.

“Muslim hip hop is Muslim poetry set to drum beats,” explains Jeffrey Halverson in an article titled Rap Is Da Bomb for Defeating Abu Yahya. “Add in the emotional parallels between the plight of African-Americans and, for example, impoverished Algerians living in ghettos outside of Paris or Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and the analogy becomes even clearer.”

But it’s unclear how “Muslim hip hop” will exert a moderating or democratising influence: Will a performance by an African-American Muslim group trigger a particular calming “effect”, pushing young Muslim men away from extremist ideas? Nor is it clear what constitutes “Muslim hip hop”: Does the fact that Busta Rhymes is a Sunni Muslim make his music “Islamic”?   

Moreover, while references to Islam in hip hop are – as these public diplomacy experts note – legion, they are not necessarily political or flattering. In December 2002, Lil Kim appeared on the cover of OneWorld magazine wearing a burqa and a bikini, saying “F*** Afghanistan”. 

50 Cent’s track “Ghetto Quran” is about dealing drugs and “snitchin'”. Foxy Brown charmed some and infuriated others with her song “Hot Spot”, saying, “MCs wanna eat me but it’s Ramadan.” 

More disturbing was the video “Hard” released in late 2009 by the diva, Rihanna, in which she appears decked out in military garb, heavily armed and straddling a tank’s gun turret in a Middle Eastern war setting. An Arabic tattoo beneath her bronze bra reads, “Freedom Through Christ”; on a wall is the Quranic verse: “We belong to God, and to Him we shall return” – recited to honour the dead, and not an uncommon wall inscription in war-torn Muslim societies. 

The point is that not all Islam-alluding hip hop resonates with Muslim youth. Those hip hop stars – Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Rakim – who are beloved among Muslim youth are appreciated because they work their Muslim identity into their art and because they forthrightly criticise US foreign policy.

At the recent BET hip hop Awards, Lupe Fiasco performed his hit “Words I Never Said”, with a Palestinian flag draped over his mic. (“Gaza Strip was getting burned; Obama didn’t say sh**,” he rapped.) But neither Lupe nor Mos are likely to be invited on a State Department tour.

For State Department officials, the hip hop initiatives in Muslim-majority states showcase the diversity and integration of post-civil rights America. The multi-hued hip hop acts sent overseas represent a post-racial or post-racist American dream, and exhibit the achievements of the civil rights movement, a uniquely American moment that others can learn from.  

But it’s unclear how persuasive this racialised imagery is. Muslims do not resent the US for its lack of diversity. Where perceptions are poor, it is because of foreign policy, as well as, increasingly, domestic policies that target Muslims. 

Perhaps the greatest irony of the State Department’s efforts to showcase the model integration of US Muslims, and to deploy the moral and symbolic capital of the civil rights movement, is that these tours – as with the jazz tours – are occurring against a backdrop of unfavourable (and racialised) media images of Quran burnings, anti-mosque rallies and anti-sharia campaigns, as one of the most alarming waves of nativism in recent US history surges northward.

US diplomacy’s embrace of hip hop as a foreign policy tool has sparked a heated debate, among artists and aficionados worldwide, over the purpose of hip hop: whether hip hop is “protest music” or “party music”; whether it is the “soundtrack to the struggle” or to American unipolarity; and what it means now that states – not just corporations – have entered the hip hop game.

Hip hop activists have long been concerned about how to protect their music from corporate power, but now that the music is being used in diplomacy and counterterrorism, the conversation is shifting.

The immensely popular “underground” British rapper Lowkey (Kareem Denis) recently articulated the question on many minds: “Hip hop at its best has exposed power, challenged power, it hasn’t served power. When the US government loves the same rappers you love, whose interests are those rappers serving?”

Hishaam Aidi is editor, with Manning Marable, of Black Routes to Islam (Palgrave Macmillan 2009), and a fellow at the Open Society Foundation in New York.  For more on race, hip hop and geo-politics, please see this longer study by Dr Aidi.

Scandal Sheds Light On Sex Business In Colombia

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mr. Craig @ 1:03 pm

Secret Service Prostitute Scandal Sheds Light On Sex Business In Colombia


The Secret Service scandal, involving a reported 20 Colombian prostitutes and members of the U.S. government agency employed to protect President Obama at the Summit of Americans in the port city of Cartagena, has shed light on the business of prostitution in Colombia.

The Secret Service became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed that a Colombian woman claimed to hotel officials and law enforcement that a Secret Service agent owed and refused to pay her the money for her services.

The 11 Secret Service agents, many of them married, brought 20 or 21 Colombian women to the beachfront Hotel Caribe, reported the Daily Mail. The 20 prostitutes supposedly involved in the Secret Service scandal were reportedly from the Pley Club, a gentleman’s club located in the low-rent district of Cartagena, Colombia, where girls dance on stage, in a shower or in “pley rooms” where fantasies become reality. Other locations are reportedly under investigation, as well, and no specific location has yet been identified. 

Anyone visiting the Hotel Caribe overnight was required to leave identification at the front desk and leave the premises of the hotel promptly at 7 a.m. However, when a woman failed to leave, the hotel staff notified the police. The woman, reportedly a dancer/prostitute from the Pley Club, told authorities that one of the Secret Service agents owed her $47 and still had not paid. This woman has been identified as Dania Suarez. 

“There was a dispute the next morning when one of the women did not leave the room,” said Rep. Peter King, R-NY, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. “Police came and she refused to leave until she was paid for her services.” The incident was then reported to the U.S. Embassy.

New reports Wednesday revealed further depravity.

“When I went upstairs I walked into a messy room. The room was littered with two whiskey bottles – and a line of white powder, I believed to be cocaine, was on top of a round glass table in the room,” a hotel employee from Hotel Caribe told The New York Post.

FOX News later reported on Wednesday that a Colombian state agency announced an investigation will be launched into the Secret Service scandal to determine if underage prostitutes were involved in the incident. The report came from the Colombian daily El Tiempo, which said that although no formal complaints have been issued about underage prostitutes, the head of Colombia’s Institute for Family Wellbeing, Maria Rosario Blanco, wants to move forward with the investigation.  

Prostitution is legal in Colombia in designated “tolerance zones,” according to the 2008 Human Rights Report published by the U.S. Department of State.However, enforcement of the restriction to these zones is difficult to maintain. Such lax prostitution laws are making Colombia a haven for sex tourism. The Human Rights Reports states that prostitution in Colombia is exacerbated by both poverty and internal displacement.

Sex workers can be found walking around the Cartagena region, in the streets, the bars, the hotels and the private clubs, looking for ready and willing customers. The New York Times reported that these women can charge $300 or more to go out with the customers. 

Some prostitutes think that the recent Secret Service scandal will bring more customers to their city.  “Now we are world-class, with the president’s bodyguards coming to try out Colombian girls,” one freelance prostitute who works the streets of Cartagena told The NY Times. She moved from her hometown, Cali, because she preferred the “well-heeled foreign clients” in Cartagena.

However, prostitution remains a dangerous business.  

In its 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, the State Department found that Colombia is one of the Western Hemisphere’s “major source countries for women and girls trafficked abroad for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.”

Child prostitution is a serious issue in Colombia. Colombia’s Institute for Family Wellbeing reported that approximately 35,000 Colombian children are in the sex business, with an estimated 2,000 in Cartagena.

Sex workers in Colombia have even banded together against this problem, refusing to set up underage girls with potential clients, reported FOX News. These sex workers have also enlisted the help of taxi drivers, hotel employees and restaurants workers as well.

The “I am the Wall” project of Colombia was set up to combat underage prostitution. The title of the group references the colonial-era walls that surround the city of Cartagena, reported FOX News.

“Unfortunately, tourists arrive here with money and they’re allowed to do anything,” a Cartagena prostitute and participant in the project named Damaris told Agence France Presse last summer. “What I’m asking is to impose limits. When they ask for kids for sex, don’t give them information. Remember that they’re kids and that they, like your children, are worth more than any tip.”  

Despite the legality of prostitution in Colombia, solicitation of sex by Secret Service agents is considered inappropriate behavior.

This Secret Service scandal in Colombia might not be as unorthodox as it may sound. The Wall Street Journal reported about a motto amongst current and formal officials in the Secret Service known as “wheels up, rings off.”

“According to current and former officials, ‘wheels up, rings off,’ has long been a running joke among men in the agency, meaning that for some agents, wedding rings were optional after the plane took off, particularly for foreign travel assignments,” wrote The Journal’s Laura Meckler and Keith Johnson.

Secret Service agency spokesman Edwin Donovan said he had heard the term, but clarified to The Journal that it was not in “wide use.” Donovan said the phrase could have originated with other professionals who travel frequently. “The Secret Service has thousands of personnel that participate in hundreds of trips a year all around the world without incident,” he said.

Take a look at up-close photos of prostitution in Cartagena, Colombia, in the following slideshow. 

Palestinian Youth and the Healing Arts

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mr. Craig @ 12:53 pm

Youth in Gaza and Jenin break out in artistic resistance that threatens Israel’s master narrative. AND ISRAEL IS NOT PLEASED WITH THIS FOR OBVIOUS RESONS.

The Jenin Freedom Theatre lies in the heart of the Jenin Refugee Camp, and serves as an artistic outlet for Palestinian youth [Jenin Freedom Theatre]

“We have slogan here. ‘From river to the sea, everyone should be free.'”

Thus explained acting teacher Nabeel Raee as we drove through the beautiful sand-colored West Bank hills on the way from Jenin to Nablus, and then onto Ramallah, where we would part ways. 

Raee is an original member and current acting teacher at the Jenin Freedom Theatre, whose director, the well-known Palestinian-Israeli actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, was gunned down outside the theatre on April 4 by still unknown assailants. It’s hard to overstate the tragedy of Mer-Khamis’s murder, so important was his role at the avant garde of Palestinian and Israeli arts. According to most every member of the Freedom Theatre’s extended family-Palestinians, Europeans, Americans and even Israelis-Mer Khamis’s vision and experience were at the core of the Theatre’s groundbreaking use of art as an instrument not merely of resistance, but of healing and transcendence as well.

Indeed, the Freedom Theatre’s philosophy of artistic production remind us that resistance, healing and transcendence must proceed in tandem for any of them to bear fruit. This insight has made plays such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Waiting for Godot” – to name just two of the company’s recent productions – into powerful weapons against oppression that also open new spaces for imagining a different future.

Zacharia Zubaidi, another of the Theatre’s founders with Mer-Khamis, was still a leader of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades when he followed his dream into the theatre. He explains this dynamic most succinctly: Far more than can violence, art forces people to look at Palestinians differently. “It makes them see us differently and question their basic assumptions about who we, and through it, they are.”

A threat to many quarters

It might well never be known precisely why Mer-Khamis was killed; Israel’s removal of Mer-Khamis’s body along with all the forensic evidence soon after his murder has made it impossible for Palestinians to conduct a proper investigation and Israeli authorities have provided little help. Assuming it was Palestinians, several members of the troupe agreed that his art did not merely challenge local moral conventions; his attempts to build an alternative form of resistance threatened Palestinians whose power, however limited, is drawn from the kind of violence the Freedom Theatre has worked to transcend.

As one of the first generation of students reflected in explaining the violence and conservatism of Jenin today: “Occupation, checkpoints, martyrs, settlements – look what Israel has done to us.” After decades of occupation, violence and repression, being an artist in Jenin can be as dangerous as being a fighter.

Yet Mer Khamis’s death has not broken the spirit of the company, who only two months after his murder remain not just defiant, but – somehow – even joyful. Students, teachers and staff go about the daily business of teaching and taking classes, writing scripts and film treatments, and rehearsing for performances amidst threats and fear of further violence. Several female first year students have been forced to withdraw from performances, but women remain at the core of the JFT.

The courage of the JFT reminded me why artists will risk so much merely to stage a play or perform a  song.  As another student explained to me over coffee in one of the Jenin’s few nice Coffee bars: “The Theatre is a way to open a new generation and be in contact with people from all over the world, and that’s our future.”

The spring of Arab revolutions

If the openness and intellectual maturity of 20-year old actors from the Jenin refugee camp is inspiring, the resilience and audacity of their peers in Gaza borders on astonishing. Even regular viewers of Al-Jazeera would have a hard time understanding the levels of destruction Gazans have lived with for at least a decade. Returning after a several years absence, I felt like I’d stumbled into a giant archaeological dig, only above ground. Each new layer of rubble has added its sad archive to the one below it.

Yet perhaps even more than in Jenin and other West Bank cities, young people in Gaza are erupting in the kind of creative resistance that threatens not just Israel’s master narrative of the occupation, but Hamas’s violent hold on the Strip as well.

There is a saying making its way around Palestinian circles: “The Palestinian winter gave birth to the Arab spring.” For me, the first hint of that spring occurred when a new movement, “Gaza Youth Breaks Out,” put out their now (in)famous manifesto in December of 2010, right around the time the protests in Tunisia erupted. As I explained in my column devoted to GYBO, the manifesto began with a scream: “”F*** Hamas. F*** Israel. F*** Fatah. F*** UN. F*** UNWRA. F*** USA!” (the verb is spelled out, and was written originally in English because the Arabic equivalent does not have anything close to the power and anger of the English word). It ends by declaring “We do not want to hate, we do not want to feel all of these feelings, we do not want to be victims anymore.”

From Juliano to Vittorio

The GYBO manifesto was, to my mind, the first salvo in a generational war for independence that pushed its way into world consciousness with the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt. An act of extreme will by young people who have nothing left to lose, its poetic metre and naked eloquence are a work of art as powerful as the theatrical ouvre of the Jenin Freedom Theatre (not surprisingly, the manifesto is widely appreciated by JFT members).

As in Jenin, it was an outsider to Gaza, the Italian ISM activist Vittorio Arrigoni, who helped inspire the movement that became GYBO. Like Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin, Arrigoni was not native to Gaza, but his arrival in 2008 on the first Free Gaza Flotilla and fearless activism and reporting during the 2009 Gaza invasion and on behalf of local fishermen led to his adoption by innumerable Gazans as one of their own.

Most of the young activists, bloggers, musicians and artists I know found in Arrigoni both a friend and an inspiration. His mantra, “Stay human”, well summarises what can only be described as the prime directive of life for Gazans under a dehumanising siege. But like Mer-Hamis, the power of Arrigoni’s message, and his status as an outsider to the insular community of Gaza, threatened the wrong people, and so despite all that he had sacrificed to protect Gazans and share their sufferings he was murdered by extremists less than two weeks after Mer-Khamis, in circumstances that remain equally murky.

Yet also like Mer-Khamis, Arrigoni’s ideas have become even more powerful in death. As the Gazan rap group Darg put it in the song “Onadekum,” written about him, Arrigoni inspired young Gazans to “write resistance on every wall in my brain, brother”.

Even more than in Jenin, every day life is an act of resistance in Gaza, and the Strip’s burgeoning rap scene (first brought to the world’s attention in the 2008 documentary “Slingshot Hiphop” by Palestinian-American filmmaker Jackie Salloum) along with its growing community of bloggers, filmmakers and other culture producers are on the front lines of that struggle, which these days pits them against Hamas as much as Israel. “In order to get shot at by Israel, we have to get beaten up by Hamas,” explained one of the founders of GYBO, describing the seemingly ludicrous routine of having to fight Hamas cops or militiamen just to get close to the Erez checkpoint to protest the ongoing Israeli siege, where they can expect to be shot at by the IDF. Over two dozen children were shot by the IDF merely for collecting rubble near the Erez border last year.

Ahmed Rezeq, a young rapper and recently joined member of GYBO explained it this way as we sat near the sea and he worked on the lyrics for a new song: “I can’t go to the university, I have nothing except my words.” Sitting next to him, his friend and fellow rapper Mohammed Antar elaborated, “art is crucial because it leads people to the truth. It shows them how we suffer and how much we struggle; that we are human.”

With the increasing international attention being given to Gazan hiphop, suddenly rappers from the Strip are being invited to perform across Europe and beyond. But it remains very difficult to get out; even with the so-called “opening” of the Rafah crossing the majority of artists and bloggers remain trapped, “despite everything trying to create our lives”.

Indeed, the strategic maturity, never mind courage, of the GYBO community is hard to grasp fully, all the more so when you realise so many of these activists (women as much as if not more than men) who are so sophisticated and worldly, have never left the Gaza Strip.

Trapped in the world’s largest prison, they have created a boundless virtual world through their online activism, which reaches out and connects them to other youth-based movements for democracy and human rights. Scholars have yet to grasp the ways in which these virtual connections are reshaping and ultimately prying open the far more constrained physical geography they are forced to inhabit. But one factor clearly motivating their push to get out is the double unhomeliness the clearly feel living in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Gazans live, in the words of GYBO founder Osama Shomar, in a double, triple occupation, or even more – thus the multiple curses of the manifesto’s opening line. A female blogger and co-founder of GYBO explains it this way: “It feels like it’s not even our country anymore. A policeman put a gun at my head and threatened to shoot me. I couldn’t imagine, is this guy a Palestinian like me? He couldn’t be Palestinian and do this.”

But it’s not just Hamas that is a threat to the attempts by GYBO to build a new culture of resistance and unity. Equally as dangerous is the hijacking of the youth movement by various outside forces. “We’re more known, but we’re getting weaker. Suddenly everyone is throwing money at us. We didn’t take money from anyone when GYBO started but now NGO people with access to money and fancy meals are coming in, and once you get into that orbit and you have the ngo-ification of resistance, it’s game over.”

From one country to one world

Osama was lamenting how easily powerful movements can be coopted as we sat in his friend’s apartment on a warm night and he and some comrades took turns playing video games on the computer. As we sat there, another founder of GYBO, Abu Yazan, stopped by. He was supposed to be in Egypt on the way to Europe to meet with other activists but he wasn’t allowed out (he finally got out the next day after a long wait). It was 1:19 am, almost four months to the moment since I was sitting with a similar group of young activists at Tahrir Square, wondering what the future would bring when Hosni Mubarak’s departure from power was still a fantasy.

In a few minutes most of us would head for the beach, where, even at 3 in the morning, groups of young men and even families hang out barbecuing and playing soccer the way, in a normal place, people would be doing twelve hours later. As Abu Yazan and I sat down to talk the subject turned to the United States and how difficult it will be to bring peace and justice to Israel/Palestine as long as Americans remain so brainwashed and apathetic.

“Don’t worry,” he declared. “One day American kids will rebel, they will say enough, let’s have peace, let’s tear down borders and have one world.” I was shocked. These words matched, almost to the letter, what a young activist told me as we sat in a similarly large apartment above Tahrir Square at the same time of night, pondering the implications of the still inchoate Egyptian revolution. “If this can work here, it could spread to the whole world,” he told me as a group sat around talking, exhausted from another day of protests.

Thoughts like these can seem almost laughably utopian. But in places like Gaza or Jenin, where the practical and reasonable have long ago been rendered impossible, utopian dreams don’t seem so crazy.


The Mathematics of the Arab Spring

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mr. Craig @ 12:48 pm

Since ousting their leaders, Egypt and Tunisia are facing difficult choices on balancing the influences of foreign aid.

Egypt and Tunisia are now officially on the international donor community’s radar.

The World Bank and the G8 are already planning different ways to sponsor the so-called Arab Spring. Many Arabs are speaking out against a possible Euro-US “hijacking” or “containment” of the regional movement through this type of “cheque book diplomacy”.

I will argue here that this position is not intellectually robust, and that the Arab Spring demands dialogue, not political and cultural protectionism. There is a moment of confidence across the Arab geography: Arabs can hold their own.

This bodes well for recasting Arab-West relations, as it veers away from a return to hollow views of cultural and socio-political autarchy.

Simply crying “US hands off the Arab Spring” is not the answer.

From Zoelick to Cameron

The British prime minister seems to be right on track for lending support aimed at democratic reconstruction in Egypt and Tunisia.

Cameron has earmarked £110m ($180m) for development over the next four years, echoing the G8 outlook on the Arab uprisings.

How exactly the money will be distributed and whether it will be spent on projects that support the rule of law, freedom of press and pluralism is missing from Cameron’s transcript.

This new-found enthusiasm for spending generously on the Arab Spring – whether by Obama, Cameron or the “International Misery’ Fund” – echoes the World Bank’s April message in support of the Arab Spring.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick set the tone in favour of a participatory citizenry which will develop good governance – shorthand for the rhetoric of accountability, transparency and efficiency in the political economy of developing areas.

The sub-text: Funds for what?

There are opportunities, but also perils, in Western aid aimed at supporting the Arab uprisings. It depends on how you read between the lines – especially when the text articulates that aid donation is a function of realpolitik: the goal of which is to limit immigration and extremism.

The EU has recently been called upon to “humanise” its immigration laws; addressing this as an area of non-monetary aid so that Arabs are able to access opportunities that Europeans may be willing to offer.

As for fighting extremism, no-one is naive enough to believe that democracy alone will stamp out extremism. Likewise, aid aimed at fighting extremism can actually imperil institution-building and risk a return tomukhabarat [“secret police”] regimes that kill, imprison, torture and ignore the rule of law. This is a declarative objective of the Western financial charm offensive; such an attack was recently revealed by the G8 in Normandy.

A confused agenda whose facade is “democracy promotion” – and its substance “fighting terrorism and immigration” – will fail to achieve attention as a recipient or a donor. It will obfuscate, rather than clarify, the role played by Western governments in the “Arab Spring”.

The mathematics of Arab democracy

Aside from the British support pledged, there are additional billions that have had a Pavlovian effect on the Egyptian and Tunisian prime ministers, respectively, Essam Sharaf and Beji Caid el Sebsi.

The aim is “good governance” without causing basket-case economies. Sharaf is seeking to offset the immense damage to the country’s tourism industry caused by the uprising, while el Ssebsi has built a case based on refugee influx.

Both are also scrambling for a cut of the four billion in aid and loans to be contributed by the US.

Freer access to EU markets is another aim of both men. There is no shortage of EU cash, but the question is whether this will be as “charitable” as the aid that was invested into eastern and central Asian democratic transitions via the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

In any case, there is still much to be revealed about the reins attached to these packages when they finally see the light of day.

Zoellick’s cheque book is also on offer – and there are hints of billions in World Bank funds for the Arab Spring countries. More to the point, Zoellick’s rhetoric hints at creative methods that aim to fund community empowerment which would bypass the state and target the people directly through their communities instead.

Whether the shareholders in the Bretton Woods financial system – US, China, Japan, and the EU – sharpen or blunt Zoellick’s creativity remains to be seen. Money, unfortunately, is not given to further only values (note the stress on values by Obama in his speech to the British parliament), but also to further the donors’ interests.

Autonomy vs autarchy

Two fundamental principles must be understood in order to grasp the mathematics of the Arab Spring.

On the Arab side, return to autarchy is self-defeating. Pride and greatness have been returned to Arabness, and there is no longer any need to engage in autarchic brands of discourse. Autarchy has been the fundamental currency of dictators keen on secluding the Arab masses from the flow of ideas hostile to their own selfish rule. This has been done in the name of all kinds of ideologies.

This is the moment for spreading cosmopolitanism of good governance, moral protest, anti-authoritarian resistance, and social justice. This is a shared space – in which Arab narratives and struggles engage with like-minded currents transcending geography and time.

“Hands off our Arab Spring”-type narratives ignore the global voices and ethical forces who are joining in this emancipatory moment being ushered in. So to recoil via autarchic propositions goes against the spirit of this movement.

It is as if they are claiming that the Arab Spring has not recharged the batteries of self-confidence enough for Arab nations to engage the outside world with confidence, self-assertion and a greater capacity for self-representation.

Autarchy only reinforces Orientalist narratives that have misrepresented Arabs for so long through images of invisibility, inferiority, and an incapacity to speak back.

Conditionality in reverse

Similarly, no patronage from the Western powers is needed.

Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt have reclaimed – and in Libya, Syria and Yemen are in the process of reclaiming – the right to self-govern.

Hence the current moment demands a transition from the idea of conditionality imposed by the donors to a new conditionality, in reverse, imposed by the recipients of the funds. That is, good governance must be thought of as a two-way street: where there are equal obligations on the donor and the recipient.

The donor community has generally flouted its own rules of good governance by plugging authoritarian rule into the global financial system by way of handouts, grants, and funds.

These have typically had much to answer for in terms of reproduction of autocracy, corrupt regimes – the likes of which WikiLeaks has revealed Western governments’ intimate knowledge of – and the procurement of technology of oppression that prolong dictatorship; Mubarak and Ali are but two examples of this.

The injustice and irony in all of this is that debt incurred by non-representative regimes is still counted as legally binding, which shackles the oppressed citizenry to billions that are owed from morally questionable transactions organised by the very institutions that have preaching “good governance” since the early 1990s.

Democratisation: from mathematics to morality

A return to ethical basics and conditionality is necessary, and can acheived by these means:

  • Funds and grants are to be dispensed only to governments “of the people” – which means democratically elected governments, complete with a system of legitimate checks and balances. Right now, this excludes the transitional governments of Egypt and Tunisia. Both have presented cases for billions of dollars from the funds on offer by the West, however, neither is representative of the people.
  • Technical aid, materials or training for the military, police or intelligence must be in accordance with the rules of upholding democratic rule and the principles of good governance – meaning that they are subject to transparency, and with full knowledge and approval of elected parliaments and other civic bodies and institutions.
  • Aid, including that given to non-governmental organisations, must not limit the choice of recipients when it comes to choosing a developmental path. It must not be subject to the values and interests of the donors whose free market economies, in this instance, are very difficult to replicate in an Arab world – the goals of which include robust sustainable development solutions and distributive mechanisms aimed at equal opportunity, social justice, and poverty eradication.
  • The bulk of aid must be geared towards addressing “the two Ds”: i) democratic consolidation, with the root problem of youth disaffection, loss and disenfranchisement, and ii) distribution to deal with the acute problems of marginalisation – which is the root problem of youth disenfranchisement.
  • Civic-capacity building must be factored into the process of aiding Arab democracy-building. And it must include the re-training of police forces and the dismantling of the apparata of oppression one by one. Police and intelligence forces have traditionally been the enemies of the Arab populace. This must change.

Through conditionality in reverse, good governance becomes a mutually binding contract. It will ensure that Arab-Western political and economic engagement is underpinned by ethics of shared obligations and responsibility. By doing it this way, external finances will bring relief, goodwill, dialogue and friendship instead of burdening the Arab and Western worlds with fear, distrust and acrimony.

The currency of freedom

It still remains to be seen how, and even if, the masters of world finance put their money where their mouth is. In particular, for now, no dispensing of aid must proceed until elected representatives of the people – and independent civil society groups – are in a position to deliberate and reflect freely on the terms and plans of the aid to be given.

The only given in this discussion is that the organisers of Tahrir Square and Habib Bourguiba Avenue have spoken in favour of dignity and freedom, which is the currency of the Arab Spring. There is no need to fear for these masses and their epic resistance against tyranny.

It is a resource they can, if need be, also direct towards resisting financial hegemony.

What is reassuring about the new-found morality of resistance is that it rejects autarchy. It speaks the lingua franca of freedom – which transcends geography, religion, nationality and ethnicity. It uses Western technological innovations for the purpose of self-empowerment.

On both accounts, the protesters have resisted and continue to refuse living under tyranny or on disconnected islands.

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