Refugee Need and Resilience in Zaatari

by Curtis Ryan | published June 22, 2014 - 7:00pm

Not surprisingly, a visit to the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan is mainly a depressing experience. Yet there are elements of inspiration here as well.

The depressing part is obvious. Zaatari is a refugee camp, opened in July 2012 and originally meant to shelter perhaps 6,000 people but now “home” to more than 100,000 men, women and children. Of these residents, the clear majority -- perhaps 65 percent -- are children. Zaatari has grown so large that it is probably the fourth largest “city” in Jordan (after Amman, Irbid and Zarqa). And the 100,000-plus Syrians in Zaatari are but a fraction of the population displaced by the ongoing Syrian civil war and now living in Jordan. There are at least 500,000 more Syrian refugees living in host communities, especially northern Jordanian cities and towns like Irbid, Mafraq and Ramtha. Another half million or so Syrians were already in Jordan when the war began. They were, and are, housed mainly in Jordanian cities, and now have no real means of getting home.

The Syrians join previous waves of refugees who fled to Jordan, including Palestinians and Iraqis. Jordan even took in Bosnian refugees during the wars over the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But with a population barely reaching 7 million, and an economy that was in crisis long before the Syrian crisis erupted, the resource-poor kingdom is increasingly feeling the strain of the latest refugee influx. The hope, of course, is that the Syrians’ stay in Jordan, and in the camp, is temporary. But that was also the hope in 2012 and in 2013 and, at present, at least, the Syrian war shows no signs of abating.

Despite the dire circumstances, there are signs of human resilience in Zaatari as well. It is inspiring to see how Syrians have attempted to recreate their former lives, or forge new ones, creating something like a community in the camp. Many observers -- and some refugees themselves -- casually ascribe this phenomenon to a natural entrepreneurial trait of the Syrian nation. But similar statements abound with regard to Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi emigrants and refugees, as well as just about every other group of displaced people everywhere. Resilience doesn’t come from some timeless, immutable national character. It’s simply a matter of ordinary people in horrible and decidedly extraordinary circumstances doing whatever they can to improve the lives of their families.

What is also inspiring is the effort put forth by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, NGOs, international aid workers and Jordanian volunteers to make the camp livable. There is much legitimate criticism to be leveled at global donors for failing to deliver on their ample pledges and even more ire to be directed at regional and global powers for placing geostrategic priorities above humanitarian ones. But here on the ground, in the midst of this sprawling camp, aid workers are doing everything they can to make the lives of the refugees somewhat better.

What started as a scattering of tents is now a mixture of tents and prefabricated housing (usually called “caravans” or trailers). Some families have linked two caravans together, with aluminum or other ad hoc paneling used to create a kind of courtyard, sitting room or storage space between them. As the camp expanded, it assumed a clear grid-like pattern, now broken into 12 districts for the purposes of distribution of food and supplies. Much of the initial expansion was the result of trial and error, but the UNHCR and the Jordanian authorities have made gradual adjustments, including serious attempts at urban planning, as the camp has steadily grown.

After a series of problems with food distribution, protests and riots, Jordanian security forces now have no visible presence within the camp. These forces have established themselves instead along the ring road surrounding the camp, creating a cordon on the perimeter of Zaatari. Within the camp, Jordanian authorities have allowed various forms of commerce to emerge largely without interference. Their permissiveness led to the development of a main street that is somewhat sarcastically referred to in the camp as the Champs d’Elysées. There are now more than 500 businesses in Zaatari, most of which are stalls and small shops selling goods and services. These enterprises include salons, fruit and vegetable markets, small restaurants (generally falafel and hummus stands) and shops offering perfumes, cellular phones, sweets and wedding dresses. There is even a small jewelry store and a pet shop, with parakeets prominently displayed.

Periodic distribution of basic foodstuffs and supplies occurs at centralized distribution centers, and more extensive supplies can be found at the Safeway that opened at one end of the camp. Coupons are available for key staple foods, while other items are sold for cash, but at wholesale prices. The Jordanian manager of the Zaatari Safeway has a team of Syrian employees, as part of the camp’s cash-for-work program.

In addition to this commercial life, there is a school at the very center of Zaatari. Not all children attend, however, because many families encourage young sons to work instead and earn some money for the family, often using wheelbarrows to haul just about anything for cash. For many daughters, the challenge is very different: There is a clear trend of Syrian girls being married at an early age to local or foreign men. The UNHCR and Jordanian authorities are well aware of this problem, and while they strongly discourage the practice, it seems to persist.

Still, international donors have tried to gear spaces in the camp toward children, so that they don’t (always) have to be young laborers or child brides, but can simply be children. There are now playgrounds, children’s activity centers, and dirt and gravel soccer pitches. The latter spaces are part of the efforts of the Asia Football Development Program and the Norwegian Refugee Council to engage both boys and girls in soccer, in the interest of physical health and psychological wellbeing, as well as a semblance of community feeling for children who may have lost everything in Syria. The youth football program may, in fact, be the most inspiring feature of life in an otherwise difficult set of circumstances.

International branding is splashed over every positive feature of the camp. Housing is spray-painted with flags of donor countries such as Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. Morocco’s green star on a red field is displayed at a large field hospital and set of medical clinics. Other facilities are marked with the flags of Japan, Canada, Australia, Qatar, the United States and the European Union. Meanwhile, a new camp has opened in Azraq and is already home to thousands.

Yet the foreign contributions to date are nowhere near enough. As the war continues, and refugees continue to cross the border from Syria, the strain on Jordan grows, especially in terms of basic services -- water, electricity, food and education. For both Syrian refugees and Jordanian host communities, the need is great.

Image: Curtis Ryan

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Justice for Rasmea Odeh

by Nadine Naber | published June 19, 2014 - 4:31pm

This past winter, I was privileged to participate in several events in Chicago organized by Rasmea Yousef Odeh, associate director of the Arab American Action Network and leader of that group’s Arab Women’s Committee. The events brought together anywhere from 60-100 disenfranchised women, all recent immigrants, from nearly every Arabic-speaking country. The attendees were there to learn English, share meals and stories, and discuss personal struggles, in everything from marriage and parenting to navigating the US educational and medical industries and the US immigration system. The women also talked about fending off racism. Together, they developed solutions for their own lives.

One event I attended was a celebration of International Women’s Day, at which immigrant women performed a play that Rasmea Odeh had written. The play focused on several generations of women in an extended Arab immigrant family who grappled with gender-related struggles both in the family and in American society with recourse to their loving but often tense connections with one another. The audience was engrossed, laughing and commenting throughout the performance, perhaps because they rarely see their own life struggles thus affirmed in America. Rarely, in fact, do they see humane, nuanced representations of Arab women’s lives at all.

After the play, attendees listened to music and celebrated their own accomplishments. Several women were from countries like Yemen and Iraq and had come to the United States without knowing a word of English. They could now read and write. Odeh asked each of her students to bring something they had written in English to be read out loud. The first woman stood up and read: “I love my teacher.”

As the event went on, women spoke over and over about the affection and gratitude they felt toward Rasmea Odeh for touching and transforming their lives and making such a beautiful space possible. I then understood why scores of women were attending each class, workshop or event -- even though they were under no obligation to do so and even though many had to walk by themselves through a polar vortex snowstorm (in Chicago, no less) to get there.

I could not help but recall the scenes at the Arab Women’s Committee events some months later, in May, at a historic Chicago conference in commemoration of the 1964 Freedom Summer, when civil rights icon Angela Davis insisted that every social justice activist in the US embrace solidarity with Palestine and the movement demanding that the US government drop its charges against Rasmea Odeh.

Charges? What charges? Why would the US government want to prosecute this 67-year old Palestinian-American community activist and teacher?

On October 22, 2013, also in Chicago, Department of Homeland Security agents arrested Odeh. She was subsequently indicted on one charge of unlawful procurement of naturalization, and released the same day on a $15,000 bond. The US government accuses Odeh of failing to answer a question truthfully on her naturalization application ten years ago in 2004. She is scheduled to stand trial in a Detroit federal court starting on September 8, 2014. If convicted, she could face up to ten years in prison and fines up to $250,000. She may also be deported and have her US citizenship revoked after the potential prison sentence is served. From national call in-days to student protests, petitions and mobilizations to pack the courtroom, a campaign to support Odeh has gained massive support.

US officials say they are after Odeh for immigration fraud. The Department of Justice alleges that Odeh failed to disclose on her naturalization application that she had served time in Israeli jail -- even though her sentence was based on a confession she made in the midst of 45 days of sexual and physical torture while in detention. In addition, Odeh’s 1969 conviction in Israel was determined by a court system that systematically abuses Palestinians’ due process rights and convicts Palestinians at a rate of 99.74 percent. The Israeli military justice system that is applied to occupied Palestinians, in fact, has itself been found to be in immense violation of international law -- from the lack of protections against torture and rape while in custody to the simple fact that virtually no Palestinian walks away free from an Israeli trial. The Israeli state also unlawfully imprisoned and tortured Odeh’s family and destroyed her family home soon after her arrest.

Odeh’s release from Israeli jail was followed by exile to Jordan and immigration to the US. Living in Michigan and Chicago since 1994, she has worked at the Arab American Action Network since the mid-2000s and led the Arab Women’s Committee, one of the most successful empowerment programs for Arab immigrant women living in poverty. For this service, Odeh received the Mosaic Award for Outstanding Community Service from the Chicago Cultural Alliance. Thanks to her leadership, the Arab Women’s Committee now has a base of nearly 600 Arab immigrant women and does much more than the typical social service program. Women may obtain language training and other services, but they also come to find emotional support, genuine human interaction, artistic and writing activities, political discussion and debate, and a level of solidarity otherwise absent from their lives.

The question remains: Why is Rasmea Odeh being prosecuted, and why now, for an alleged infraction that is a full decade old? Analysts connect her arrest with many previous US government campaigns against Palestinian-American activists and their supporters. Under the Nixon administration, there was Operation Boulder. The case of the Los Angeles Eight outlasted three (and almost four) presidents before it was finally set aside. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, there has been increased spying, profiling and infiltration of Arab and Muslim communities and there have been prosecutions for sending charitable aid to Palestinians, as in the case of the Holy Land Five.

In all of these cases, as in Odeh’s, what the US government considers suspect is connected to what Palestinian-Americans and their supporters are permitted to say about Israel -- and to Israel’s own systems of militarism, surveillance, repression and incarceration. There may also be a connection between Odeh’s indictment and the 2010 FBI raids targeting 23 anti-war and Palestine solidarity activists in the Midwest. And Palestine Solidarity Legal Support responded to more than 100 more incidents in 2013 alone. These incidents involve not only extra government scrutiny but also all sorts of intimidation and bullying. The Odeh indictment may also be related to the US government’s Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program, which delays and denies naturalization applications of members of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities, solely on the basis of religion, ethnicity and/or national origin.

But again, why Rasmea Odeh, and why now? Why now, when so many Arab immigrant women in Chicago are celebrating their personal successes in America partly due to Odeh’s remarkable leadership? Why now, when the Palestinian struggle, typified by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, is growing faster than ever before in Chicago and across the US?

We may never really know why, but this much is clear: The federal government is using immigration infractions as a political tool to target Rasmea Odeh with criminal charges. The circumstances of her case are especially aggravating: 1) Israel tortures and sexually assaults Palestinians like Odeh as a means of facilitating the colonization of Palestinian land; 2) the US is complicit going back decades in Israeli war crimes and violations of international law; and 3) the US is now excavating the naturalization papers of a 67-year old survivor of sexual torture in order to brand her as a criminal.

These circumstances are why the streets of Detroit will be filled and the courtroom packed on September 8. From now until then, the collective voice of those whose lives Rasmea has touched, and the growing number of others who support her, will continue to demand: Drop the charges now!

For more information on this case and how to support Rasmea Odeh, see here and here.

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Postcard from Guantánamo

by Lisa Hajjar | published June 17, 2014 - 3:22pm

On June 14, 123 people -- including a military judge, teams of civilian and military defense lawyers and prosecutors, eight courtroom observers, and 15 journalists -- flew on a C-17 from Andrews Air Force Base to Guantánamo Bay for military commission proceedings. It is my fifth trip to Guantánamo, and the second to cover the pre-trial hearings related to the September 11, 2001 attacks. (I went three times in 2010 to cover the last hearings in the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian “child soldier” who pled guilty and was convicted in October 2010. My reporting on that case can be found here, here, here and here.)

This time around, the media pool includes TV reporters from NBC, CNN and Fox News. These outlets had not sent anyone in years because the happenings at Guantanamo aren’t deemed sufficiently newsworthy to justify the expense. But interest was ignited by the prisoner swap two weeks ago when the Obama administration quickly and secretively transferred five Afghan prisoners out of the Cuba prison in exchange for the release from Taliban custody of American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl. The transfer happened so quickly, in fact, that Cmdr. John Filostrat, spokesperson for Joint Task Force-Guantánamo, said he learned about it on the news. Filostrat gave one-on-one interviews to members of the media on June 15. My short interview with him can be heard here.

Usually, ten seats are reserved for 9/11 victims’ families who wish to make the trip, and they are selected through a lottery. This time, however, none were invited. As Karen Loftus, the staffer in the Office of the Chief Prosecutor of Military Commission who acts as liasion with the families, explained in an e-mail, “Knowing how difficult it is for our families to make this trip to GTMO, and with the likelihood that the families may get an hour or two in court at most, we decided not to bring families to GTMO in June.” The slowness of the proceedings, which is inexplicable to many laypeople who are not attuned to the unique legal issues that this case raises, is a major cause of frustration for many victims’ family members. So keeping them away this week makes perfect sense. Not only are the proceedings not moving forward, but the case has also been temporarily derailed by recent events.

The one-day 9/11 hearing this week focused exclusively on revelations that emerged in April that the FBI was conducting investigations into the defense teams of the five suspects, and had solicited team members (none of them lawyers) to report on their colleagues. Special prosecutors were appointed to look into the matter and respond to defense allegations that this spy operation created real or potential conflicts between lawyers and their clients. At the hearing on Monday, no one from the 9/11 prosecution team was present in court because that team was “walled off” to enable the defense lawyers and special prosecutors to speak freely about possible detrimental consequences of the investigation for lawyer-client relations and due process.

The lead special prosecutor, Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez, argued that the FBI investigations are not happening now (i.e., they are over) and, therefore, there is no basis to argue conflict of interest or to hold further hearings. Defense lawyers were not assuaged. James Connell, lead lawyer for Ammar al-Baluchi, argued:

[T]he prosecution’s argument that “there is no investigation” is heavily dependent upon tense. It is heavily dependent on…the simple present tense, and that’s significant because of the procedural posture that this has happened.

Connell and the other defense lawyers urged the judge, Col. James Pohl, to initiate a thorough inquiry into the full scope of the FBI investigation: who was being investigated and why; who on the teams cooperated with the FBI; and who up the chain of command ordered the investigations.

The lawyers claimed that they cannot know if there is a conflict of interest unless they know the details about the FBI investigations. As Connell explained, typically when the possibility of a conflict arises, a defendant can seek an opinion from a different lawyer about whether his rights have been compromised:

But because Mr. al Baluchi can’t communicate with anyone, he can’t communicate with the American Bar Association, he can’t communicate with the Virginia state bar, he can’t communicate with the International Human Rights Organization. He can’t communicate with anybody. He can’t call an attorney said say, “I need a second opinion,” which is something that everyone else in the whole United States can do.

The lawyers also described the chilling effect of the investigations on their own abilities to do their jobs. David Nevin, lead lawyer for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, elaborated:

This is an unusual case, and we know that. We’ve known that all along. It’s a very unusual case…. I believe we are under investigation and we’re under scrutiny all the time, and…my analogy of sitting around the campfire and hearing the wolves howling out there is not based on my imagination. I’m not saying, ‘Was that a wolf,’ and my companion is turning to me and saying, ‘What are you talking about, that was my pack creaking.’ No, we have been down this road many times….

Here, Nevin is alluding to government reviews of written communications between lawyers and clients; the audio feeds discovered on defense counsel tables in the courtroom; the accidental transmission by the prosecution’s information technology staff of thousands of defense teams’ confidential emails, which are stored on a shared server; and the electronic monitoring devices hidden in smoke detectors in rooms where defense lawyers meet their clients.

Nevin went on:

Until we know that we’re in a position to protect client confidences, we can’t engage in defense work…. [T]hat’s why I used this analogy about the campfire and why I talked to the court about Lynne Stewart and why I talked to you about the trip to the Middle East that I canceled. These are not hypothetical matters that I’m throwing out here for argumentative purposes…

We act, we act, we live in a state of uncertainty. And the inquiry that we have proposed…is what will allow us to pull back the clouds, get some sunlight in here and let us see where we stand. And then we can go forward.

It is not clear when Judge Pohl will issue his decision in the matter. The next round of hearings for the September 11 case is (tentatively) scheduled for August 11-15.

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Hybrid Loyalties at the World Cup

by David McMurray | published June 15, 2014 - 3:04pm

The World Cup raises nationalist (make that nativist) sentiment to a fever pitch all around the Mediterranean Sea basin. But nowhere does the temperature run higher than in France and Algeria (as Martin Evans discusses at length in this article).

Football skirmishes between the two began long before the Algerian war for independence from France (1954-1962). The Mouloudia Club -- with its Islamic-sounding name, green-for-Islam jerseys and headquarters in the casbah of colonial Algiers -- was founded in 1921 as an expression of indigenous Algerian nationalism and a symbolic poke in the eye of the colonizer. The French colonial authorities spied on Mouloudia and the other Algerian teams that sprang up during the 1920s, fearful that the clubhouses would become centers of dissidence. The French even passed a regulation in 1928 requiring that every Algerian team have at least three European players, a number increased to five in 1935.

French teams in the Hexagone profited from Algerian football prowess back in the day. None other than Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, played during the 1939 season with Olympique de Marseille while stationed in the city during his military service. A fellow countryman, Abder Ibrir, played goalie six times for the French national team in 1949-1950.

Then the war of independence broke out. A 1958 World Cup qualifying match provided the backdrop for a dramatic demonstration of Algerian national pride: Nine Algerian players deserted the French League, demonstrating their solidarity with the independence struggle and sending a strong message that Algeria was not French. The footballers fled under cover to Tunisia and there formed the nucleus of the first independent Algerian national team. Two of them, Rachid Mekhloufi and Mustapha Zitouni, had been selected to play for the French in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, where the French eventually lost to Brazil in the semifinals. Many French fans felt the outcome might have been different had the two talented Algerians stayed on squad.

After independence in 1962, the settler clubs were disbanded, Algerian clubs formed their own national championship tournament and the country joined FIFA. Mekhloufi returned to play with his old club in France, as did several other players. Algeria’s first World Cup appearance didn’t happen until 1982 in Spain. The Algerians qualified again for the World Cup in 1986 in Mexico. In 1990 Algeria won the Africa Nations Cup, but during the ensuing “black decade” the country was plunged into civil war and nothing much was heard about the Algerian team.

The center of gravity in Algerian and French sporting encounters shifted in the 1980s and 1990s to France, where the children of Algerian immigrants were coming of age at the same time as the right-wing anti-immigrant Front National party was making its presence felt. The most famous footballer of this second generation was Zinedine Zidane, born to Algerian parents in Marseille in 1972 and hailed as a national hero, as much by Algerians as by the French. He led the famous “Black, Blanc, Beur” (the latter term is used to describe French youth of North African origin) multicultural French national team to a World Cup victory in 1998 by scoring two of the three French goals against Brazil in the final match.

Zinedine’s team’s victory in 1998 may have been the high point of Franco-Algerian athletic relations. Things went downhill quickly afterwards. A match in France between the two nations in 2001 had to be called off after Algerian fans, most of them French-born, stormed the playing field. Zidane’s career ended in the 2006 World Cup final in Germany when he head-butted an Italian player and was thrown out of the match. Widespread rumors at the time claimed that the Italian was talking trash about Zidane’s sister. Whether true or not (the Italian player was hardly known for his politesse), the rumors had the effect among white French of reinforcing stereotypes of Arab patriarchal prickliness.

The low point for the French National team came at the South African World Cup of 2010, which saw the squad disgraced by a nasty exchange between player Nicolas Anelka, a French-born convert to Islam and son of Afro-Caribbean parents, and the white French coach, Raymond Domenech. Anelka was sent home as punishment. The rest of the team refused to practice before the next game as a sign of solidarity with Anelka and against the treatment meted out by the coach. They lost the game to Mexico 2-0. Much of the French nation, according to newspaper headlines in the days following, lived the dust-up as a wound to their national pride, a source of shame, a stain on national honor, an embarrassment, a moment of infamy and the like.

The French Football Federation (FFF) responded to the catastrophe of 2010 by launching a secret plan to limit to 30 percent the number of young black and Maghribi-descent players to be trained at the seven national youth training centers spread around France (Anelka is an alumnus of the most famous school located in Clairefontaine). The French national team coach at the time, Laurent Blanc, reportedly favored restricting the number of young players who didn’t share, “our culture, our history.” He went further and quoted the reigning world champion Spanish team as saying, “We don’t have a problem. We have no blacks.”

Ironically, it was Algeria that had created the “problem” the FFF coaches’ quotas were meant to solve: namely, how to see to it that France did not spend millions of euros to train young players who then went off to play for other national teams. Prior to 2003, footballers who had played for one country in an international match at the junior or senior levels could not play for another country. Algeria had protested and gotten the rule modified so that players with dual nationality who declared before the age of 21 their wish to play for another country could do so. Eligibility rules were tightened back up in 2004 in the wake of complaints that Qatar and Togo had naturalized a bunch of Brazilian players with no ancestral links to their countries of residence. The newer rules stated that the player either had to be born in the country he was playing for; had to have a biological parent or grandparent born in that country; or had to have lived for at least five years in the country in question. Algeria succeeded in getting age-limit restrictions scratched altogether at a FIFA congress in 2009. The Algerian squad immediately benefited from the rule change by welcoming onto their 2010 World Cup national team over a half dozen players of Algerian descent who had played on French national teams as youths.

The value to Algeria of the rule change is even greater at this year’s Mondiale: 15 of 23 footballers on the 2014 team are foreign-born. Switzerland is the team with the next highest number of foreign-born players with six of 23 (the US has five of 23), so it’s obvious that Algeria benefits greatly from the training provided by France to players with Algerian ancestry. The counter-argument states that the French national team makes its choices first. Those players who fear they will get no playing time or who have been passed over altogether are the ones who then play for Algeria. The big money and prestige come from playing for France, not Algeria. Look at Zidane, or so goes the argument, for proof that the French are the real winners in the scramble for players of Algerian descent.

A final kerfuffle popped up in late 2013. One of the French national team stars, a player of Algerian descent named Karim Benzema, went on record refusing to sing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. The Front National tried to make hay of the story, with its leader, Marine LePen, intoning gravely that Benzema should not be given a spot on the French team because of his lack of patriotism. Benzema protested that he would be honored to play for “Les Bleu,” and that his desire not to sing had nothing to do with sports. It came out in the aftermath that Zidane, too, never sang “La Marseillaise.” The mini-scandal began to die down when it was discovered that even the great French “white” football hero of the 1970s and 1980s, Michel Platini (of Italian ancestry), didn’t sing the national anthem. Apparently, a majority of present-day players don’t sing the song before games and probably never did. 

The Front National released a final communiqué on June 12, 2014, three days before France’s Mondiale match against Honduras. The right-wingers’ sports commissar, Eric Domard, lectured the team about the need to recapture the hearts of the nation and to refrain from doing anything political. Know your place and stay in it, was the clear message from Domard. We don’t want “to resuscitate the grotesque myth of the ‘Black, Blanc, Beur’ team of 1998,” he warned. Curiously, most French fans would think they had died and gone to heaven if the 2014 national team performs anywhere near as well as the “grotesque” team of 1998.

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Catastrophe and Consequence

by The Editors | published June 13, 2014 - 3:01pm

What is happening in Iraq is a catastrophe, but not a sudden one. The violence in Iraq has been worsening steadily over the last few years. And more to the point, today’s crisis is the consequence of failed policies and failed politics -- national, regional and international -- years and even decades in the making.

No understanding of today’s Iraq is complete without the background of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and ensuing Gulf war, and the 13 years of UN economic sanctions, all of which set the stage for the additional disasters that would befall Iraq with the US-led invasion of 2003.

In that year, the decentralization of the state in Baghdad was well underway; it would be accelerated by the policies of Washington and its Iraqi proxies. No doubt the state of Saddam Hussein could have used a little decentralizing, but the haphazard and often punitive manner in which it was done led to polarization and chaos. The economic fiefdoms set up by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militias before they attacked Mosul earlier this week are but one manifestation of the war economy that germinated in the late 1980s and took root in the sanctions era. The sectarianism at fever pitch in today’s Middle East is not some timeless scourge, as so many talking heads would have it, but the sadly predictable outcome of conscious choices made by contemporary political actors, among them Saddam, for sure, but also two US presidents named Bush and a wannabe American viceroy named Bremer.

We offer here a selection of articles from our archives that shed light on the deeper roots of Iraq’s ongoing civil strife.

In “A War on Multiple Fronts,” Nida Alahmad and Arang Keshavarzian summed up the ways in which the Iran-Iraq war weakened the state in Baghdad. Khalid Medani argued in 2004 that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had tried to implement “State Building in Reverse.” Reidar Visser and, three years later, Joost Hiltermann, were deeply skeptical of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s attempts to reestablish a strong central state.

Pete Moore and Christopher Parker laid out “The War Economy of Iraq” at the height (at least to that point) of the post-Saddam civil war. In a follow-up piece, Moore went on to explain the economic grievances that undergird much of the unpopularity of the Maliki government.

In 1995, Pierre-Jean Luizard surveyed the ethno-sectarian divisions wrought by regime policies and concluded: “For the first time an elite in power in an Arab country may, by ceding its place, sign the death warrant on a state system issued by colonialism, a system to which numerous elites in neighboring countries are also clinging.” In 2000, Faleh A. Jabar wrote in depth about the “retribalization” of Iraq in the sanctions era. Soon after the formation of the CPA’s “Iraqi face,” Raad Alkadiri and Chris Toensing worried about “The Iraqi Governing Council’s Sectarian Hue.” Later, Toby Jones espied an “Iraq effect” inflaming sectarian tensions across the region and Amanda Ufheil-Somers looked at the terrible effects of Iraq’s wars on the country’s Christian population.

In a series of two articles, Rochelle Davis investigated the efforts of the US military to use culture as a weapon in Iraq. Nada Shabout interrogated the formation of Iraqi political culture through the lens of modern art.

On the regional stage, Toby Jones saw Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies “embracing crisis” to shore up their authoritarian rule after the empowerment of the Iraqi Shi‘a and -- perhaps worse from the royals’ perspective -- the Arab popular uprisings of 2011. Nicholas Seeley examined “The Politics of Aid to Iraqi Refugees in Jordan.”

We are far from the only Middle East observers who strongly opposed the 2003 invasion. Like many, we thought the case for war was weak and misleading to the point of mendacity, but we were also against the invasion on the grounds that Iraq would suffer horribly, both in the “major combat” and whatever would come afterward. That is not to toot our own horn too loudly. Our Iraq coverage has plenty of holes and we made a few mistakes.

We simply want to suggest, amid all the shouting about “who lost Iraq,” that no tactical adjustment of US policy, military or otherwise, is likely to “save” that country, whether Maliki stays (nominally) in charge or not. In 2003, Iraq was in dire straits. Once the US invaded, every decision made by Washington and its agents on the ground simply deepened the quagmire. (We refer readers to Jason Brownlee’s World Politics piece “Can America Nation-Build?” for this exact case with reference to historical precedents.)

In the face of the maelstrom in Iraq, which has always wreaked the great majority of its havoc upon Iraqis, a little humility would help us all.

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Petraeus’ Real Failure

by Laleh Khalili | published June 12, 2014 - 11:38am

On the sidelines of the catastrophic failure of the Iraqi army to hold back the militias of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (or ISIS, as it is usually known), and the fall of Mosul to that group, a debate is taking place in the United States about whether this turn of events is yet another black mark in the massive ledger of retired Gen. David Petraeus. As Anne Barnard of the New York Times tweeted, “Remember the ‘Mosul miracle’ under Petraeus?”

On the other side, Fred Kaplan of Slate published an article (plugging his book on the counterinsurgents) arguing -- accurately enough -- that what Petraeus did in Mosul was a case of nation building, however ephemeral it may have been, and however bloodily it may have ended. Kaplan’s headline places the blame for the fall of Mosul firmly on the shoulders of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, going so far as to declare that the collapse of Mosul is not the fault of the United States.

While anyone who predicted the cataclysm that would engulf Iraq and much of the Middle East in the wake of a US invasion should laugh bitterly at the diagnosis proffered by Kaplan (or his headline writer), Barnard’s quip is also chronologically muddled. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (headed by Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi) emerged in full force in Iraq after May 2004, by which time Petraeus’ 101st Airborne Division had been gone from Mosul for a few months. In the end, the US general whose name is most closely associated with the progenitor of ISIS is Stanley McChrystal, whose Joint Special Operations Command soldiers -- operating under a series of task force names (TF6-26, TF-88, TF-145 and so on) – tracked down Zarqawi and assassinated him in June 2006.

What is worth noting about Petraeus’ tenure in Mosul is not rehashing the stale debate over whether counterinsurgency is dead (or even whether Petraeus is the one person to blame for the US imperial misadventures). Petraeus’ time in the northern Iraqi city coincided with the disbanding of the Iraqi army by the US proconsul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer. In Mosul, in order to forestall inevitable public dissatisfaction, the 101st Airborne acted not only as a police force, but also as a border patrol. Petraeus personally distributed vast sums of cash to various local elites in order to secure their acquiescence in US occupation. The purchase of local loyalty and the cultivation of proxies established a pattern that would be repeated nationwide in 2007, when Petraeus was placed in charge of the “surge,” and that was arguably the most significant factor in mobilizing Iraqi paramilitaries (the sahwat or Sons of Iraq) to fight Sunni radical Islamist groups.

The “Mosul miracle,” then, was a blatant case of attempting indirect rule during a conquest, secured through the distribution of imperial largesse and favors. Its relevance to today is only indirect. For where Petraeus failed was in imagining that a conquering military that exploits existing social fissures (ethnic and sectarian) to bolster its own control could also create a national client army ex nihilo. Immediately after leaving Mosul, Petraeus became the commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which was tasked with training and equipping the new Iraqi army. He saw himself as a veritable T. E. Lawrence, building an allied army from scratch like the British colonel thought he was doing in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. In a lecture he gave at a center-right Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Petraeus made this notion explicit:

Our tasks were to help the Iraqis, and we underscored the word “help” because we very, very much believed in what Lawrence of Arabia wrote back in the famous 27 articles, in 1917, when he was out helping Arabs, where he discussed about helping them, rather than doing it for them. And we took that to heart right from the very beginning. That particular quote has been in just about every brief that we’ve given to anyone, and it is one again that we subscribe to.

Literally, helping the Iraqis organize their forces, designing the overall force structure.

Literally, making up what are called tables of organization and equipment, who gets what weapons, who gets how many vehicles, what radios, all of the elements that make up a unit and designing that, and that’s a huge amount of work. And there now is in fact a very well-defined force structure for the short term, the mid-term and the long term.

We’ve helped them rebuild hundreds of border forts, hundreds of military bases, small and large; some as large as to hold an entire army division, others as small company or battalion outposts. Police academies, military academies, military training centers, branch schools, all of the facilities, if you will, even the ministry buildings themselves, battalion, brigade, division ground forces headquarters and so on, and all the pieces and parts that link them together.

The sixth chapter of the 2006 FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency Field Manual is dedicated to “Developing Host Nation Security Forces.” The chapter is less sanguine about the difficulties of creating a client army than the relentlessly positive Petraeus allowed in his self-promotion. This manual of imperial policing in the twenty-first century points to where problems may arise:

The behavior of HN [host nation] security force personnel is often a primary cause of public dissatisfaction. Corrupting influences of power must be guarded against. Cultural and ethnic differences within a population may lead to significant discrimination within the security forces and by security forces against minority groups. In more ideological struggles, discrimination may be against members of other political parties, whether in a minority cultural group or not. Security forces that abuse civilians do not win the populace’s trust and confidence; they may even be a cause of the insurgency. A comprehensive security force development program identifies and addresses biases as well as improper or corrupt practices.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for US forces is accepting that the host nation can ensure security, using practices that differ from US practices. Commanders must recognize and continuously address that this “the American way is best” bias is unhelpful. While relationships among US police, customs and military organizations work for the United States, those relationships may not exist in other nations that have developed differently.

Though it draws on threadbare understandings of how culture works in warfare, the manual nevertheless acknowledges the fundamental paradox of using proxies to fight wars the imperial patron has started: that politics will trump technocratic solutions; that clients often have their own interests and will not necessarily act in the way their imperial patron may desire; that once ethnic and sectarian divisions are mobilized by the patron and cultivated (in ID cards, biometric data collection, detention profiling and counterinsurgency wall building) it is nearly impossible to relegate these fissures to oblivion while building a national army.

The latest version of FM 3.24, now renamed Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, released without fanfare a few weeks ago, retains the trite references to culture, but T. E. Lawrence -- quoted in the earlier version -- is nowhere to be found. Here, working with and through the “host nation” receives two chapters, not only one. The new field manual is much more hard-headed and frank about what works. Its introduction to “indirect methods” of countering insurgencies is a glorious exemplar of military-speak:

An indirect approach seeks to support existing governments, security forces and groups through increasing capacity to counter an insurgency and enabling existing capabilities. This approach indirectly counters an insurgency by working through host-nation institutions or with groups in the society. The United States can use nation assistance and security cooperation to aid a host nation in building its institutions.

Beyond nation assistance and security cooperation, there are several methods that are indirect methods for countering an insurgency. Among these are generational engagement, negotiation and diplomacy, and identify, separate, isolate, influence and reintegrate. Beyond these methods, there are several indirect enablers that are important in any counterinsurgency. This includes integrated monetary shaping operations.

In the end, perhaps Petraeus’s ideas remain most influential here -- though the failure is no less profound. Never mind the dubious fighting prowess of the Iraqi security forces trained by the US. One wonders about the extent to which these forces have the capacity to deploy “integrated monetary shaping operations” when ISIS is reported to have looted banks holding hundreds of millions of dollars.

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The Latest Iranian Distractions

by Norma Claire Moruzzi | published June 9, 2014 - 10:22am

While senior Iranian and US officials are planning bilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear research program, the Iranian and world media are distracted by other issues: young women who post images of themselves without hejab on Facebook, and a video of six well-heeled youths dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” The gyrating youngsters were arrested and compelled to issue an apology on state television for what authorities said was a “vulgar clip” that had “hurt public chastity.” Meanwhile, an anonymous Facebook page popped up demanding that the women who had photographed themselves with uncovered heads be lashed and imprisoned. The woman who runs the “My Stealthy Freedoms” Iranian-women-without-hejab Facebook project, journalist Masih Alinejad, has been subjected to relentless blackballing in the state-run media.

The confluence of events is no accident. While parts of the Iranian government seem to be inching closer to resolving the long-standing tensions with the United States, other parts of the regime are energetically targeting symbolic representatives of “Western” cultural corruption. How better to sabotage political rapprochement than by confirming everyone’s worst fear -- that the Iranian state is a rogue actor rather than a rational one?

This should all sound vaguely familiar. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reliably commanded the world’s attention whenever he contrived to drop a stray remark about the illegality of the state of Israel. In the ensuing commotion, Iran’s Jewish citizens, at some 25,000 the largest such community in the Middle East outside of Israel, were almost always ignored, despite being a recognized religious minority with rights to religious practice and dedicated parliamentary representation.

Similarly, there were a number of Iranian “Happy” videos posted on the Internet, and lots of young Iranian women post photos of themselves without hejab on social media. But nothing makes for better publicity than a little notoriety. In this case, although the apparent notoriety may be attached to the six hapless dancers and to Alinejad, the intention may be much more self-referential -- another instance of the Islamic Republic’s hardline political faction manipulating perceptions in order to ensure Iran’s continued isolation. To the extent that this faction is aware that it cannot achieve political hegemony or an electoral mandate inside Iran, this strategy of isolation is a success. The hardliners know their best bet for staying in power and safeguarding their interests -- political and economic -- is to ensure that no one from outside is seriously willing to engage with the alternatives available inside Iran. Iran’s arch-conservatives know they must also discredit Iranians outside the country, like Alinejad, who call attention to corruption in the Islamic Republic, such as the parliamentary “bonuses” that she unearthed in 2005. (This reporting, and not the hejab project, is likely the real reason why the state is determined to destroy her reputation.)

It is right to condemn the targeted persecution of these young people. The smear campaign against Alinejad, which has sought to involve her family, is especially despicable. The latest installment is a false news story claiming that because she was inappropriately dressed (and therefore “asking for it” in the traditional parlance of sexual assault apologists) she was raped in front of her son. Alinejad has systematically responded to the various rumors that factions of the state have initiated about her, and rightly pointed out that there is a tinge of desperation in the latest accusations that she is a “whore” (to be despised) rather than a “heretic” (who would have to be taken seriously as a religio-political dissident).

But the persecution also needs to be kept in perspective. Alinejad lives in Britain, and despite the emotional damage she has suffered (she has stated that she is estranged from her father because of direct efforts made to convince him of her “immorality”), she is not in physical danger. The “Happy” video dancers and director (who had all credited themselves in the video, which has not been the case in most of the global “Happy” video tributes) were all shortly released after being put through a formal process of public humiliation (expressing regret and stating they had been misled). They could still be prosecuted, but as with many instances of targeted repression in Iran, it is more likely that the state will hold the threat of prosecution in reserve, to ensure that they don’t pull such a stunt again.

In the meantime, not everyone is distracted by the latest hysteria over cultural politics. Kambiz Hosseini, an expatriate Iranian who posts satirical news commentaries, has pointed out that while the state is unable to deal with chronic problems of environmental and economic mismanagement, it is efficiently focused on amateur pop song performers. Why pay attention to the dangerous levels of air pollution, the drying-up of famous saltwater and freshwater lakes or the high levels of inflation and unemployment? Why effectively prosecute the acknowledged scandals of elite corruption, when you can take public pride in arresting kids dancing on the Internet?

Most Iranians inside Iran know that the “Happy” prosecutions, and even the attacks on Alinejad, are just more instances of cultural saber rattling in order to keep attention diverted from political and economic problems and the possibilities for their resolution. The big question is: How effective will the strategy be everywhere else? Facebook and YouTube posts are often ruefully regarded as everyone’s favorite contemporary distraction. Will they effectively distract from the ongoing efforts to resolve Iran’s geopolitical and economic isolation? Let’s hope that those involved are able to keep their focus.

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Boom, Bust and Boom in Dubai

by Pete Moore | published June 9, 2014 - 9:28am

It’s easy to be critical of Dubai and its socioeconomic model.

The city-state’s racialized labor hierarchy is plain as day. South Asian and African workers sweat in the broiling heat to expand the city’s infrastructure and erect its “iconic” skyscrapers. Filipinos, women and men, manage everyday commerce. Women, some of them Eastern European, service the male contractors in bar-brothels. In cool, air-conditioned comfort, white Western Europeans collect the commissions and the handful of Emirati citizens reaps the rents. These segregated communities exist in and around the hotel pools and restaurants frequented by tourists (and academic researchers), who look the other way.

So it came as little surprise when Dubai’s 2009 fiscal crash, part of the global financial meltdown, was welcomed with joy in many quarters. Plummeting real estate prices, abandoned projects and widespread layoffs seemed to signal an end to the Dubai experiment.

But predictions of doom have consistently fallen short. When the US began its pullout from Iraq, for example, the expectation was that the contractor and security business that had flooded Dubai’s hotels and port facilities would dry up. Yet that custom has been replaced by a new flow of Western prospectors looking to cash in on Iraq’s oil-fueled rebuilding and greatly increased consumption of consumer goods. When the city-state announced plans for a light-rail system, doubters said no one would ride, but today the lines are efficient and enthusiastically used. And when another of the world’s largest malls, Dubai Mall, opened in the midst of the fiscal crash, many believed its storefronts would never be filled. That prognostication, too, has turned out to be hilariously wrong.

So is Dubai really back? Well, first one must recognize that the 2009 crash was real and lasting. The emirate’s debt-leveraged growth came to a screeching halt when foreign creditors called in the interest all at once. For the first time, an Arab petro-princedom was at serious risk of default on its loan obligations. The various corporations tied to Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the absolute monarch, were on the hook for billions. And while officials claimed a collective equity of $80 billion in domestic assets, no one knew what that amount consisted of or how it could be liquidated. Expatriates exited the country, simply abandoning mortgages and car leases with no fear of legal repercussions. Dubai’s laissez-faire approach generated its own blowback: easy come, easy go.

But Dubai’s leaders had two key political advantages. First, absolute rule comes with a special kind of rule of law. Many of the creditors who extended loans to fuel the city-state’s growth did so under the legal impression that Dubai’s real estate firms (Emaar) and transport operators (DP World) were sovereign, that is, state-owned, entities, thereby guaranteeing repayment. But when the crash hit, officials reverted to claiming that those entities were “private,” that is, family-owned, meaning that if creditors wanted to demand payment, they would have to do so within Dubai’s legal structure, where the rulers are also rather conveniently the arbiters of the rule of law. This neat trick persuaded most creditors to ease the terms of loans and accept a reduction of the interest charges. Second and more important, Dubai had the neighboring UAE capital of Abu Dhabi in its corner. Dubai’s crisis threatened Abu Dhabi’s investments as much as Al Maktoum’s, and so Abu Dhabi’s central bank came to the rescue with $10 billion. After all, the ultimate collateral is still the plentiful oil in the ground.

What the crisis and subsequent recovery revealed is not so much Dubai’s brilliance at development but the point to which global capitalism has evolved in the Gulf. Dubai was certainly not the first Gulf monarchy to institute a race-based labor hierarchy. The city-state trumpets its diversification from oil, but that is a myth, for without Abu Dhabi’s help (and Saudi Arabia’s), there would be no Dubai. While some Dubai corporations like Emirates Airlines expand internationally, those profits cannot cover the debts. As a result, officials have rolled out a number of regressive indirect taxes (the kind of value-added taxes libertarians in the West admire) on the expatriate community that, while short of income extraction, make a mockery of Dubai’s proclaimed tax-free status. Indeed, much of what is claimed as Dubai’s achievement is owed to external factors. Arang Keshavarzian has persuasively demonstrated that the growth of Dubai’s Jebel Ali port in the 1980s was tightly linked to the Iran-Iraq war and the rise in costs of shipping and insurance in the northern Gulf. In the 2000s, the money generated by America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan buoyed Dubai, only to be replaced by elite capital flight from Arab countries experiencing the 2011 uprisings. Washington’s recent crackdown on tax havens in Europe has only made Dubai’s financial and real estate sectors more attractive.

Less revealed through crisis have been the domestic social repercussions of Dubai’s openness to the world. Segregating and then expelling foreign workers when they attempt to strike is one manifestation. But the reaction from citizens is difficult to observe. High-profile arrests and the hunt for Muslim Brothers in the wake of the 2011 uprisings suggest that locals are not as quiescent as assumed. Maintaining the façade of a socially conservative Dubai (Muslims do not buy alcohol and women do not wear short dresses in public) requires not only increasing financial rents to the locals but also their own segregation. Over the years, the areas of the city occupied primarily by citizens have shifted, but the imperative to keep the locals away from the expatriates has remained. As the city has grown, new enclaves have opened to service this isolation of the citizenry, a tiny, ultra-privileged minority who are fearful of living in a city they did not build. Their educational facilities are handsome, but appearances deceive: Dubai has high secondary-school dropout rates and remedial programs at the university level are common. Decades of programs to push nationals into private-sector employment are rolled out again and again, only to fail again and again since unproductive public-sector jobs are so much easier. Expatriates express disgust with Dubai’s citizens, as they do throughout the Gulf, but few pause to ponder whether the sons and daughters of the sheikhs are more effects than causes of the boom-and-bust societies in which they live. Indeed, the most damning failure of Dubai’s development may be the cultivation of a feudatory younger generation.

Social scientists have typically looked at financial crises as the times when the most important politics happen. But that judgment may require reevaluation since boom and bust seem more symptomatic than exceptional with regard to the path of neoliberal globalization in the Middle East.

Dubai experienced smaller though no less jarring crises in the 1990s and 1980s. Kuwait, the usual contrasting case to Dubai, set the bar with the crash of Souq al-Manakh in 1981. Then, postdated checks instead of external creditors fueled a semi-legal stock market that traded in shares of corporations located outside Kuwait and, ironically in many cases, in the Emirates. Kuwait’s bailouts took longer, but, in the end, it was oil money that did the trick, with intervening help from Iraqi occupation and war. Boom and bust is just business as usual in the Gulf and local observers expect Dubai to experience another “downturn” ahead of the planned 2020 Expo.

So, yes, Dubai is back, but it never really left.

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North Africans Go Long-Distance Shopping

by David McMurray | published May 31, 2014 - 11:11pm

George Trumbull’s recent blog entry about Middle Eastern outposts in other parts of the world rightly mentioned Marseille and the Italian islet of Lampedusa, with its now closed migrant detention camp, as two “Middle Easternized” spaces of the European Mediterranean. I want to briefly revisit the two sites and suggest other possible ways of reading them.

Marseille first. George alludes to the Marseille that forms a link in an older migration chain that brought Algerians north by the tens of thousands to establish new working lives in France. Marseille has been the destination of Algerian migrants since before the 1960s. A diaspora of commercial and cultural importance -- even political importance, as George points out -- has taken root there and flourished.

But that Algerian-Marseille connection began to weaken somewhat during the “black decade” of the 1990s as Algeria descended into civil war and France closed its ports to Algerian passengers. Alicante, Spain took up the slack. A shipping line between Alicante and Oran that had fallen into disuse was reenergized as the south-north traffic sought replacement destinations for Marseille.

The nature of the migrant traffic was changing as well. Michel Peraldi, an investigator based at the MMSH in Aix-en-Provence, points out that Alicante today is one of the most important entrepôts of what he calls the “suitcase trade,” which refers to the relatively short-term, circular migrant commerce that connects far-flung European and Middle Eastern cities with markets in North and sub-Saharan Africa. He draws attention to these new forms of mobility as one of the main ways migration is carried out today. The mass movement of manual laborers for life, or at least for decades, from Tunisia to Paris, Morocco to Belgium, and Algeria to Marseille that marked the 1960s-1980s has given way to much shorter trips. Migrants now head out with empty suitcases from Oran or Algiers. They land in Alicante or Marseille, immediately take waiting buses for places such as Naples, get off the bus at the international goods markets there, fill up their suitcases, hop back on the bus and return to the ports and the ships that take them home again. Moroccans may also buy tickets on buses that cross the Mediterranean to Spanish ports or take similar buses to Dusseldorf, buy things like used German cars and car parts and then drive the cars home to the German car markets in interior cities like Beni Mellal. Buses also run from Oujda to Prague and Barcelona to Fez, and connections can even be made to get easily to Poland and back on what are essentially long-distance shopping trips.

I point this out to suggest that, though Marseille has been dramatically altered by the massive influx of North African migrants and their descendants, much of the rest of Europe is also within the orbit of North Africa, thanks to the much more ambulatory forms of migration taking place today. North Africans have set up connections with all sorts of markets and are altering the landscape as they move goods, services and people around a vast network of interconnected trading locations and shuttle routes. The giant DragonMart, or mega-souk, in Dubai that is discussed by Jacqueline Armijo in the last issue of Middle East Report fits into this network. Goods from the Dubai retail centers make their way to the clothing and textile markets of Istanbul. Tunisians, Algerians and Moroccans don’t need visas to visit Turkey, so the Istanbul markets are a popular destination for the suitcase traders, especially the closer Tunisians. Many are actually paid by middlemen to make the voyage for a fee. Some of the cargo brought back makes its way down to markets in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.

A final point: Peraldi suggests that Lampedusa suffers from media overkill. This suggestion in no way is meant to take away from the appalling suffering and sacrifice of those who risk everything to get there, who have journeyed from as far away as Eritrea or Liberia and spent years doing it and paid a fortune in the process (a journey explained in detail in Hans Lucht’s 2011 study Darkness Before Daybreak). But the images of bodies floating at sea or washed up on the shore dovetail with European public opinion of southern migration to Europe as an obsession, an assault or as traffic in poor victims hustled out of their life savings by mafia thugs who run the lucrative refugee trade. Alicante and its connections to places like Naples paint another picture. As Peraldi puts it, they are the antitheses of Gibraltar and Lampedusa. They are the connection points between north and south today. Traders by the thousands pass through them on a daily basis, in the process of carrying out an international trade that connects interior cities of North Africa with China, Dubai, Istanbul, Poland, Dusseldorf, and on and on.

The human flow of southern migrants is not washing up on the shores or battering down the gates of Europe, but is working social relationships and face-to-face connections into a giant web of circulation that forms a transnational latticework of impressive dimensions. The mass labor migration that connected Algiers to Marseille yesterday has been superseded by migrant circulatory networks connecting Chinese workshops to Tamanrasset clothing souks today.

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Youth of the Gulf, Youth of Palestine

by Ted Swedenburg | published May 31, 2014 - 10:19am

I recently came across two accounts of Arab youth that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. One is Kristin Diwan’s issue brief on youth activism in the Arab Gulf states for the Atlantic Council, and the other is a documentary by filmmaker Jumana Manna on Palestinian “male thug culture” in East Jerusalem. The film is called Blessed, Blessed Oblivion.

One of the many conceits about the Arab uprisings of late 2010 and 2011 is that their chief engine was revolutionary youth. It is this insight (and hope) that seems to guide Diwan's report. Those familiar with our publications will not be surprised to read about the centrality of youth activism in Bahrain, where the underground February 14 Youth Coalition played a leading role in the 2011 uprising. In the fall of 2013, the coalition was the target of stepped-up repression, as the regime associated the organization with terrorism and put 50 of its members on trial. But decentralized youth networks persist in organizing resistance and nightly confrontations with the security forces.

Readers might be more surprised about the extent of youth activism in Kuwait, not usually thought of as a hotbed of resistance. In Kuwait, a youth-led movement organized marches, sit-ins and, eventually, an invasion of Parliament in November 2011. These actions were ultimately successful in forcing the emir to sack long-time Prime Minister Sheikh Nasir al-Muhammad Al Sabah in the wake of a corruption scandal. In 2012 Kuwait witnessed the founding of the first independent youth political society in the Gulf, the Civil Democratic Movement. Though small, the Movement has worked diligently with other youth organizations to push opposition members of Parliament to agitate for an elected government. The emir responded by dissolving Parliament in October 2012 and changing the election law so as to make coalition building more difficult. His move was met by the largest demonstration in the country’s history, as tens of thousands mobilized to demand that he rescind the new election law.

Saudi Arabia, unlike Bahrain or Kuwait, has no parliament and a modest history of civil society activism. Diwan argues that, in the face of these severe constraints, Saudi Arabian youth have taken to social media, where they have articulated new forms of political expression. In July 2013, for instance, they launched unexampled criticism of the kingdom’s spending ways, as the hashtag “the wage doesn’t meet the need” hit a million tweets a day. YouTube clips produced by youth comment satirically on social and political issues, demonstrating by their popularity that young Saudi Arabians urgently desire frank commentary. Youth are also using social media to forge virtual connections across class, sectarian and regional divisions, and reformers are active on Twitter and in e-zines.

In all these cases, whether in response to the robust youth activism in Bahrain or the milder and mostly virtual activity in Saudi Arabia, Gulf regimes have cracked down hard. Bahrain’s repression has been the most brutal, with the importation of Saudi troops and the imposition of ever more stringent limits on freedom of expression. Kuwait has put dozens on trial for involvement in street protests or offending the emir. In December 2013 Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approved a sweeping new anti-terrorism law that criminalized almost any imaginable form of political dissent. In Saudi Arabia, moreover, divisions between Shi‘i and Sunni activists have worsened, in large part due to differences over the Syrian conflict, while in Bahrain at present the Shi‘i activists seem to have little hope of winning over Sunni allies.

Given that there is little youth mobilization in either Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, and that activism in Oman is on par with Saudi Arabia’s, given the crackdowns and given the significant Shi‘i-Sunni splits in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, at the end we seem left only with a potential for youth to emerge as leading actors for social change. But perhaps, Diwan hopes, youth will soon be on the move again to protest cuts in government subsidies.

But given this ultimately pessimistic overview, does it really make sense to continue to look to socially networked youth as the hope for change in the Gulf? The fact that Shi‘i and Sunni youth are divided, as in Saudi Arabia, and openly antagonistic, as in Bahrain, would suggest that the category of youth as a unified social actor has severe limits. Moreover, it is doubtful that the Arab uprisings were exclusively youth rebellions in any case. Jessica Winegar, for instance, argues that older generations played an essential role in the Egyptian uprising that unseated Husni Mubarak. The labor struggles in the decade that preceded the revolt of 2011 were also an essential precedent and precipitant of Egypt’s revolt.

If Diwan’s report demonstrates that significant numbers of “responsible” and civic-minded youth in the Arab Gulf states seek political change, Manna’s film Blessed, Blessed Oblivion treats a segment of the youth of Palestine that is usually avoided by scholarship or politically engaged journalism. Pundits might call these young people “delinquent,” or more charitably, depoliticized.

It is not quite accurate to call Manna’s film a documentary in the conventional sense, as it is inspired by Kenneth Anger’s groundbreaking experimental 1963 short Scorpio Rising. Like Anger, Manna focuses on a kind of “underground” all-male social milieu, but in East Jerusalem. Her offering is beautifully and artfully filmed. There are scenes of cars in the shop being lovingly tuned up, washed and polished. Men’s faces are shaved and their hair carefully cut and styled in the barbershop, beneath a portrait of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud ‘Abbas and with Egyptian comic ‘Adil Imam on the TV screen. Weightlifters sculpt their torsos. Hashish is consumed. A group of young men gathers outside in the dark, dancing the dabka, lit by car headlamps. A nationalist folkloric male dabka troupe, their necks wrapped in kaffiyas, performs as well, although these young men seem to be from the same milieu as the hash smokers and auto aficionados.

The very smart soundtrack is a mix of folkloric Palestinian (“Ya Zarif al-Tul”), Eurodance (Culture Beat’s 1993 hit “Mr. Vain”), Egyptian sha‘bi (Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim) and contemporary Arab pop from Sama and Udhayna al-‘Ali. It, too, is typical in its heterogeneous mix of global, regional and local trends.

While the scenes are all homosocial, Manna’s film never quite achieves the visual subversiveness of Anger’s film, with its leather-clad bikers, flashes of nudity, homoeroticism, and juxtaposition of Christian and Nazi imagery. Yet, on the other hand, the vulgar and at times downright dirty talk in Manna’s film is quite transgressive. The film features a young man pretending to be a mom, telling her son to go out and get his father some Viagra, because she is horny and if her husband doesn’t satisfy her, she’ll shame herself by going after her male neighbors. “I swear my vagina has grown teeth,” she says. “It has started biting, my son.” Curses and crude language are used throughout, sometimes in popular verse. At one point there is a dramatic shift, as a long-haired young man recites lines from “The Martyr” (1936), by the famous nationalist poet ‘Abd al-Rahim Mahmoud, who fought in the 1936-1939 revolt and died in battle in the 1948 war. Among the lofty lines that the young man recites, in classical Arabic: “And I will protect my blood with the edge of my sword.” But immediately after he has finished, he adds, in colloquial Arabic, “Us Bedouins, we love to fuck.”

Although Manna’s film has artistic and experimental aspirations, it is at the same time very ethnographic, but without analysis or narration. It simply presents a very real segment of Palestinian youth that is typically overlooked due to the seeming imperative to focus only on Palestinians who “resist.” The young men’s obsessions, moods and desires are depicted without judgment. Their raunchy repartée, intense interest in cars and careful attention to how they look are never criticized for failing to confront the occupation. Their behaviors are not blamed on the Israelis or on US cultural imperialism. Nor is it suggested that these young men need to be rescued or that they require, as I wrote in Middle East Report 247, “the tutelage of state institutions, experts and the nationalist intelligentsia,” who would encourage them to abandon their heedless pursuits and set nobler goals.

The political context is not entirely absent here, but it is background, and the focus is on lived lives, which are not to be explained by or considered reducible to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.

And perhaps Manna’s is the more useful position: to start from where youth are, from their aspirations and daily practices, rather than to expect that they will be the avant-garde of social change, because they tweet and blog and go on Facebook. Maybe analysis of Arab youth should start with learning who they are, rather than only respecting them when they conform to our preconceived ideas of what constitutes civic engagement.

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