Sunday, July 29, 2007

King Nasrallah and Sheikh Ahmedhaniyassad

The iconic power of the men who currently lead fundamentalist Islamic movements in the Middle East is incredible. They are atop a system of clan-based rule over sheepish masses, in which a valiant attempt is made to capitalize on anti-Western sentiments, for good or for ill. By and large, the people who favor these leaders over more pacifist, reasonable, and moderate alternatives make such a radical political choice because of a deeply rooted tribalistic mentality that pits pan-Islamist supranational ideology against the West in all its incarnations. The Arabian tribal concept and its loyalty to the Meccan core is at the heart of this international movement, but in many ways the movement has become more of a political alliance than a religious quest. Religious justification for allegiance to the various manifestations of Iranian sphere of influence has replaced the dominance of Arab supranationalism/pan-Arabism as the region's most potent alternative to Western-style government and society.

In an age when all Middle Eastern societies believe that they are under siege from one direction or another, many countries crave a leader who functions as an omnipotent or least symbolically impregnable father of the people. As a patriarch who exercises power in an authoritarian and often arbitrary manner, the superman reigns supreme. Is this the fundamental nature of Arab political culture? Are Arab societies truly not ready for open democracy? Is it an excessively cultural relativist judgment to state that some societies merely need this form of rule? Posting gigantic images of Assad, Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad across Syria, Shiite areas of Lebanon gives these places a sense of order and bestows them with the notion that some strongman is protecting them from the malevolence of Israel, Christians, and the West in general.
One notable phenom that pertains to this wrangling about loyalties and constantly shifting allegiances is the Shi'ite-Sunni rift. It seems that most of this intra-Islamic conflict is about the political might of Iran, not about theological differences. Most Shi'ites, at least in Iraq and Lebanon, have deep historical ties to Iran, either because they became Shi'ite due to Iranian missionary activity or because they have ancestral ties to Iran. Much of the current geopolitical struggle between the icons of Shia Islam and the West is over the tense Cold War developing between Iran and its proxies and the U.S. and its satellites. The influence of Sunni-inspired fundamentalism is perhaps waning. One curious phenom is that Palestinians themselves often refer to Hamas as the Shi'ites or Persians merely due to the source of the movement's funding, suggesting that the region's struggles are often more a function of material conflict and Machivellian political alliances rather than a truly ideological or religious clash.
As far as these tribalistic leaders go, the masses might be right to support movements that actually work towards their interests in terms of social welfare, physical defense, and national pride. In most of these cases, the propertied and educated elites will not support the people's Islamic choice because they have a vested interest in propping up regimes that are more friendly to their materialist inclinations and that maintain their bourgeois status. This is not to say that wealthy scions throughout the Islamic world do not support scores of Islamist movements. However, in the cases of Iran, Lebanon, and Gaza, it is evident that these movements possess true power because the masses of uneducated, disenfranchised citizens have found their voice. But, at the end of the day, the Islamist alternative typically is reckless in offending the West and places the masses in even greater danger. Aggressively Islamist forces often receive the terrorist appellation, thereby endangering their supporters in the international clash of civilizations.

Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq are failed states that do not function as unified national entities in the international arena. The national governments maintain sovereignty over, at most, half of the country's territory. Moreover, these places are wracked by the regional tug-of-war that divides their land into sectors that are controlled by various regional superpowers. Each has a contingent that leans to the West and a contingent that leans towards Teheran and/or Mecca. The power of iconic strongmen in these societies is quite strong. Perhaps some societies simply need to be ruled by some supermen and perhaps other countries (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel) are entitled to seal themselves off from these other relatively backward and fundamentalist places. Does Gaza simply need to Hamas to control Gazan society and provide security, meaning, and legitimacy to the government? Must the world continue to boycott governments that are favored by the people and are thus a legitimate democratic choice? Maybe it is time that the neocon gospel is discredited once and for all. Democracy is not the goal, and democracy exists nowhere. Certain societies have the right to retain anti-Western prejudice, as long as the fundamental stalemate exists between the dueling expansionist/hegemonic Western and Islamist ideologies.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

As Assyrian as the Syrian Sun

Syria is a little bit creepy on the inside. While the internal security situation is such that foreign visitors have nothing to fear upon entering the country, the mysterious workings of the regime and the oddly simplistic people make for an entirely peculiar Syrian travel experience.

Those folks with American travel documents entering on land from Lebanon can expect to wait somewhere between four and twelve hours to gain entry. The local border authorities are required to fax the visa application to the Foreign Ministry in Damascus, and the process is elongated by the politically-driven desire to make Americans wait for the bureaucratic process to unfold as slowly as possible.

On the whole, Syria is a mismanaged nation, whose infrastructure and economy would be better served by a more enlightened regime. However, at the same time, the internal security situation is relatively stable for the region. Therefore, the dominance of the Ba’athist Party makes for a rather safe society, albeit a nation that is much ill-served by a regressive, totalitarian government.

Moreover, from what most people who are familiar with Syria claim, the nation is a largely closed society, and the vast majority of Syrians are undereducated. A lack of books keeps the populace simple and in check. Because the people are easily controlled, the patriotic sentiments of the masses allow the society to push forward through the ages. Without the drastic and draconian brainwashing techniques employed by the ruling class, the Syrian society would disintegrate. This is not to say that the citizens would never be better served by a more open, liberal, tolerant, and Western-oriented regime. However, it is apparent that the social controls that exist in Syria are effective and do indeed prevent the society from becoming like failed national enterprises such Iraq and Lebanon, with all due respect to people whose loyalties lie with those nation-states.

Generally, the Syrians appear to be effortlessly kind people. Although their living situation is decidedly 3rd World and although most Syrians cannot speak English, the Syrians gladly befriend Western visitors and take a significant interest in showing them around. To their credit, most Syrians opt not to base their opinion of Americans on propaganda spewed at them by their government-controlled media. The problem between Syria and the U.S. is clearly based on friction between the governments and is a function of international political alliances and the balance of power, rather than true animosities between Syrian and American people.

Due to the persistent Iranian influence on Syrian international diplomacy, global orientation, and cultural disposition, the giant Shiite Persian mammoth is omnipresent in Damascus, especially in the form of Shiite pilgrims. One hears only Farsi and very little Arabic in perhaps the most architecturally esteemed center of worship in the Muslim world, the Ummayad Mosque. Iranian visitors no doubt outnumber American visitors by some power of 10.

The tug-of-war between Iran and the United States has left Syria diplomatically bombarded by contrasting interest groups. So far, the Iranians have managed to keep their lap dog faithful. At almost 20 million heads (and growing rapidly), Syria is becoming a force to be reckoned with, even if it does not make decisions of its own accord. Though the Syrian leader was previously an ophthalmologist who was practicing in Britain before his father died, the parliament reduced the minimum presidential age by six years to accommodate the younger Assad’s ascent to the authoritarian post. At the helm of the Axis of Evil associate state, Assad nonetheless does not want to shepherd his quasi-pariah state into full international isolation.

Traditionally, the Alawite minority (at around 11% of the population) was propped up by the French colonial overlords. They still form the core of the political ruling class of the nation. In addition, Christian Syrians, who comprise about 10% of the population, form the core of the country’s merchant caste. There are still several Christian villages in Syria where the inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. 1 in 10 Syrian citizens is a Kurd. Armenians, Druze, Palestinians, Bedouins, and most recently, Iraqis, are also major ethnic groups present in Syria.

The elder Assad massacred upwards of 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in 1982 in an effort to keep Islamists at bay. The regime’s pan-Arabism, once having led the Ba’athist government into a bi-national Arabist state with Egypt, has been put into question by a rivalry with Saudi Arabia and an alliance with the Shiite giant. Syria’s identification as an Arab society is perhaps not that thorough, given the region’s mixed ancient history of Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Aramaean, Hebrew, and Canaanite influence, just to name a few of the peoples who have lived within the contemporary borders of Syria. As far as its Lebanese neighbors are concerned, the relationship has become a bit hairy. Though its intelligence workers have essentially departed, there are herds of Syrian workers in Lebanon who function as temporary workers.

The future of Syria's position in the region depends upon its willingness to reform and to refrain from allowing Iran to dictate its every move. In all likelihood, it will regain much of the Golan Heights in the near future. Many folks in Syria mention suggestions here and there of how to foster a lasting peace with the southwestern enemy. Luckily, a war is no longer in store for this summer. However, a serious conflict is more than likely to occur prior to the end of the American president's term of office. Syria could suffer gravely if it plays the ignorant antagonist in this international chess match. Long live Assyria.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cedars and/or Embers

Lebanon is reeling. Lebanon is tense almost to the point of utter havoc. The warning signs are everywhere, and ordinary people seem defeated by the unassailable reality that the quasi-failed state they inhabit is doomed.

You can see it in the eyes of Sunni shopkeepers in Beiruti neighborhoods like Borj abi Heydar, where the fragile rapport between Lebanese soldiers and local Amal agitators is increasingly attenuated.

You can feel the hatred pulsating from uppercrust, urbanized Lebanese in Jbeil who lament the tendency of the Lebanese masses to follow their respective group leaders. To each his clan-like father figure and to each his right to be a pawn in the civilizational clash in which Lebanon is a central battleground.

You can breathe the gentle country air of the Beqa’a Valley, where Hezbollah radicals in Baalbeck swear never to allow Western imperialists to gain a foothold in their beloved homeland. Anti-Americanism runs high in this part of the country, and the region still suffers from last summer’s war.

Yellow Hezbollah flags contrast with massive images of Rafik Hariri, both affixed to bridges, light posts, office buildings, and apartment buildings across the stunningly attractive yet ravaged nation. The signs of political chaos are juxtaposed among the dazzling array of features of natural beauty that make Lebanon so coveted, so invaluable.

You can also sense how ordinary Lebanese are held hostage by political thugs. Most folks care not to implement this or that ideology or program. Most folks are motivated by material gain or lack thereof and not by some grand scheme to promote Islamist, American, or Communist dominion the world over.

While ideology is powerful and has driven so many people to fight interminably for their sector of society, you get the idea that the struggle for socioeconomic resources is integral to the Lebanese predicament.

Lebanon is an eternal paradox. People take their faith and their ethnic background so seriously. People are willing to take their religion with them to their final resting place if need be. Yet, curiously enough, most Lebanese have changed sides an incredible number of times throughout history. Not only have families been converted, for example, from Maronite to Shiite and back again, but each side in question has switched from being pro-Syrian to pro-Israel to anti-Western innumerable times.

Hatreds last only as long as the trend of which they are a component. Loyalties die hard but are often won over by political promises, international jockeying, and financial bribes. The current political quagmire appears as utter deadlock, but inevitably, the present balance of political forces will give way in due time to a fresh assortment of animosities and allegiances.
Some Shiites who fought with Israel in the 80’s are now the fiercest opponents of the Jewish state. Druze militiamen who swore never to coexist with Christian mountaineers have now made a pact of peace. Michel Aoun, once the most vociferous opponents of the Syrian occupation, is now one of the staunchest and most powerful leaders of the March 8th camp, the anti-Western, pro-Syrian coalition that has been buoyed by Hezbollah’s ongoing campaign against Israel.

The parallel occupations of Lebanon by Syria and Israel reflect an infinitely complex array of ethnic and political arrangements that only seem to become more elaborate and disjointed. The Syrians, in response to growing political agitation by PLO supporters, originally arrived to instill order in a society that was gripped by a legacy of colonial injustice and sectarian strife. The Israelis, in order to protect their northern border from rocket attacks, have invaded Lebanon on three occasions. Shiite militias, namely Hezbollah, have now replaced the Palestinian militants as the iconic rebellious Lebanese faction on the international stage. All the while, the festering Palestinian refugee problem is perhaps the most important long-term problem to address in Lebanon. Without a solution, this aspect of the conflict will continue to afflict peacemakers and elude resolution.

Military checkpoints and security checks are everywhere in Lebanon. After more than a handful of political assassinations in the past two years, the people are afraid. Ideology runs up against the cold reality of livelihood, land, and other scarce resources. Are Lebanese people more driven by blind ideological devotion to sectarian leaders or are they motivated by material want?

These two options are inextricably tied together in Lebanon, a country where the areas most affected by Israeli bombardment are the most impoverished. In addition, Iran and the United States are pumping money into their respective allies, investing in infrastructure, arming factions to the teeth. Yet, are institutions strengthened that can protect ordinary people? It seems ever more true that clever leaders take advantage of gullible citizens in this ongoing chess match.

Lebanon has been the site of countless proxy wars and functions in many ways as a pawn in international rivalries. Even if it be a pawn, the nation is now split more than ever into its eighteen religious denominations and seventeen political groups. While polarized into diametrically opposed camps, ordinary Lebanese people suffer. Some groups promise thorough peace with Lebanon’s southern neighbor, yet others swear to continue the anti-Zionist crusade until the end. Mere mention of the name “Syria” in certain circles will result in harsh rebuke, while particular groups swear by the righteousness of the one-time Lebanese occupier and current Iranian right hand.

In a country where reportedly more Shiites were killed by other Shiites than by any other group and where more Maronites where killed by other Maronite than by any other group, there are many questions and few answers. Lebanon is eternally perplexing, always charming, and incessantly perilous. For the Lebanese diaspora who have fled the political turmoil in their homeland, it is increasingly difficult to observe the rapid disintegration of the national fabric. Accords tend to fade with time in Lebanon, and Lebanese seem to find infinitely more security in communities across the globe than in their embattled heartland. For the one quarter of world Lebanese who remain in Lebanon, Greek Orthodox and Sunni, Druze and Melkite, life is a struggle for identity. The diversity of the country is baffling.

Despite all of the tragedy and the potential for ever more violence, Lebanon awes and Lebanon breathes. She reels, bracing herself for more civil war. Yet, at the end of the day, she prevails; and the Lebanese spirit emerges triumphant from the cedars and embers.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Iron like a Lion

Once upon a time, Aziz and Habibi lived in an ancient port city. Originally called Joppa, the city is now known to most as Spring Mound. Aziz and Habibi were proud to reside in a land that had often been wrested from their ancestors' control. Though the messiah had never truly been a viable presence in their lives, much consideration was owed to various sects that preached the eventual descent of a messianic figure. Aziz and Habibi generally felt that the political outcomes of mankind go in cycles.
One member of their tribe lived just across the hallway from them in Spring Mound and was known conveniently to all inhabitants of the building as the Ghostess. This Ghostess is said to have been a distant relation of both Aziz and Habibi, dating to the days when their people dwelled in the caves of Transylvania. This bizarre woman of extreme pallor typically isolated herself from her society and even from fellow ghosts. Ghostess frequented the lair of the lion in order to maintain contact with these two sons of sin. Although the forces of Yahweh often punished Aziz and Habibi for their delinquency, Ghostess managed to cough up some sympathy for both Aziz and Habibi, who perennially arouse the ire of Yahweh's foot soldiers.
Aziz and Habibi's people are an ancient people, whose connection to the land has lasted millennia. While their people have always enjoyed ebb and flow, victory unto defeat, ecstasy upon misery, they remain throughout the ages an immortal people. The contemporary challenges to the mandate of Aziz and Habibi will eventually fall by the wayside. The law of return shall triumph in the long term, as the true inhabitants of the soil rightfully reclaim their crescent of earth from the impostors. Unbeknownst to the infidels, Aziz and Habibi secretly ally with a number of distinct deities that don't always receive the backing of their whole tribal alliance.

Aziz and Habibi have forsworn allegiance to the warlords for whom they have battled generation after generation. The hope is everlasting. Even if they are removed from their land for an ephemeral era, Aziz and Habibi are always certain that they will eventually be reacquainted with the land of their ancestors. Aziz and Habibi may travel the world around, but they know where their home will forever be.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ghetto Town Flavor

B-Boy of G-Town is comin' up outta the hood.

His hood is called Shuafat Camp, a sprawling refugee camp located on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The camp is surrounded by the eight-meter high concrete separation barrier. Even though all of the camp's inhabitants possess Jerusalem ID cards (since their homes fall within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem), they must pass through an ominous Israeli checkpoint to enter the Holy City.

This be G-Town. Ghetto Town. The hip-hop consortium named after a village of chaos. A hamlet of disorder. A zone of utter misery. And an oasis of pride.

The group is trailblazing because although there have been a few Palestinian rappers, there have never been Palestinian Arabic-language rappers who explicitly repped Jerusalem. These folks have Jerusalem coursing thru their veins.

Some of the members of G-Town, namely its leader B-Boy (Mohammed al-Mughrabi), have twice been rendered refugees. The Arab-Israeli conflict goes in cycles, and the first two pinnacles of conflict in 48 and 67 dislodged the al-Mughrabis from their homes both times. First they fled from their native village of Lod in central Israel/Palestine, which had been slated to become part of the Arab state under the 1947 UN Partition Plan. Due to the family's partial Moroccan heritage, they relocated to the Moroccan quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, where a sizable number of Moroccans lived just steps away from the Western Wall.

The historically important Moroccan (Mughrabi) quarter settled hundreds of pilgrims from North Africa. After the Arab Legion decimated the adjacent Jewish Quarter in 1948, refugees flooded into the fully Arab-controlled Old City.

B-Boy's family was among those who moved to the neighborhood. However, their relative contentment under Jordanian occupation was short lived. Upon the Israeli conquest of the Old City during 1967's Six Day War, demolition crews destroyed the Moroccan quarter. In revenge for the 1948 Jordanian destruction of the synagogues and homes of the Jewish Quarter, the Israelis summarily wrecked the Moroccan Quarter upon their assumption of Old City control.

The stated purpose of the demolition was to make way for a plaza in front of Judaism's holiest spot, the Wailing Wall. The result was a remodeled section of the Jewish Quarter and fresh refugee status for hundreds of families. B-Boy's family was among them, and this was the 2nd time his family became refugees of the conflict.

This time, they relocated to Shuafat Camp, east of the Shuafat neighborhood in the northern suburbs of Jerusalem. The camp settled thousands of Arab refugees, who all became Israeli residents with prized blue Jerusalem ID cards.

B-Boy was born at the start of the 1st Intifada in 1987, when refugee camps throughout Palestine erupted in a paroxysm of stone-throwing. The camp has always been notoriously lawless, destitute, and neglected. Upon construction of the separation barrier at the height of the 2nd Intifada in 2003, Israeli authorities decided to separate Shuafat Camp from Jerusalem, forcing residents to enter the city via Shuafat checkpoint. Israel wanted nothing to do with this bastion of clan violence and perennial balagan.

The 7th of 8 kids in the al-Mughrabi family, B-Boy has perhaps come to terms with the reality of his living situation. His camp is patrolled by neither Israeli nor Palestinian security forces because Israel proper is protected from the camp by the separation barrier, and Israel does not wish for Palestinian police to provide security in a camp nominally located within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. A number of family-based clans control the camp.

CNN put together a clever report several months ago in which B-Boy was interviewed. The report focuses on the drug addiction and violence that have become unmanageable in Shuafat Camp.

B-Boy is a refugee twice over and is thus as Palestinian as they come. Yet, B-Boy goes to art school in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, a section of the city that straddles the line between East and West and was in fact No Man's Land between 48 and 67. B-Boy is a fluent speaker of Hebrew and English. Therefore, his outlook is global and far more open than one might expect. He does not limit his worldview to the dingy gutters of his native camp. His imagination stretches beyond the nightly rat-tat-tat and merciless gangbusters that run rampant in Shuafat Camp.

In addition to his burgeoning career as a hip-hop practitioner and his multimedia studies, B-Boy runs a recreation center for youth in the basement of his apartment bloc. He coaches ambitious young campers in the basics of Capoiera and always manages to thrive in his ghetto town, which locals sometimes refer jokingly to as "Chicago Camp."

The 20 year-old emerging artist represents for his community of almost 30,000 desperate souls, where the unemployment rate hovers around 50%.

G-Town has put on rap shows all over Israel and Palestine. The group's concerts inspire Arab the nascent hip-hop spirit from within the belly of Palestine.

The hip-hoppers were recently featured on the soundtrack of a documentary film about drugs in the mixed city of Lod, which was screened at Jerusalem's Cinemateque on July 12th. They also performed at a Jerusalem-area festival that marked the 40th Anniversary of the Israeli presence in the West Bank, where they were decidedly the most thuggin' of all the performers.

"We wake up and eat humus, but they wake up and eat Cornflakes," said B-Boy, referring to the difference between Shuafat neighborhood and Shuafat Camp. B-Boy said that the Stop Snitching mentality pervades in the camp and that most Palestinians from outside the camp harbor ill will towards Shuafat Camp residents, who are generally perceived as uneducated criminals.

Though B-Boy was schooled on Tupac and Eminem from an early age, he took his formal schooling much more seriously than his peers. Most of his friends never finished high school, but B-Boy devoured both his schoolwork and an endless quantity of rap education ranging from American pop to Arab rap groups such as Dam from Lod and MWR from Akko.

"Those guys just talk about Israel and drugs, but I wanted to rap about Jerusalem," said B-Boy. "The situation here is much worse than elsewhere."

He continues, "Not many people knew about American rap just a few years ago. Some kids could write poetry and other could sing. But no one had flow. I wanted to build a hip-hop city, a sort of culture factory with breakdancing, graffiti, etc. I wanted to teach rap to everyone in Shuafat Camp."

B-Boy says that previously he could never get respect, being from what he alternatively calls Gangsta Camp, Gangsta Town, and Ghetto Town.

Having released G-Town's first album in January 2007, B-Boy is poised to blow up. Subject matter on his tracks range from mothers and relationships to peace and humanitarianism.

"I don't like politics, but life is political," said B-Boy, who believes that Hamas probably takes better care of the common folk than Fatah, who many camp residents blame for years of neglect. Regardless, he's not too interested in the minutiae of Middle Eastern politics. B-Boy jokes about having been chased off by Israeli cops for throwing a concert on Salahdin Street in the Old City. Even so, B-Boy seems intent on sticking to a wholesome path towards refugee glory and redemption.

Since G-Town's tracks are generally in Arabic, it's difficult to comment on the lyrics. Yet, one English hook stands out from the rest.

On a track titled "One not Two," G-Town relates: "Life is so.../ Been living it once, not twice / Sing with us this song / We all live in one world, not two worlds."

B-Boy is enthusiastic about linking up with other musicians in Israel/Palestine. "I don't care for Subliminal's politics, but his music is good. Maybe we can make a song together one day if we meet up via David Broza, who recently brought us into the scene. Either way, we've got many years ahead of us in this rap game."
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