Friday, April 27, 2012

The war of the walls

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel may have lamented the country’s “weak” security forces on Thursday, but there is at least one front on which they’ve shown remarkable fortitude this year: the stifling of political dissent. On Friday, two months after police charged the artist Semaan Khawam with disrupting public order for stenciling an image of a soldier in Gemmayzeh, the military police detained activists Ali Fakhry and Khodr Salameh without charge after finding them spray-painting a graphic in support of the Syrian uprising in Beirut’s Ras al-Nabaa district.

The pair were held and interrogated for almost 24 hours in four different military and security institutions, before being released on Saturday night amid concerted pressure from fellow activists demonstrating outside the Internal Security Forces building in Verdun. Salameh described the arrest to NOW as follows: “At around 11 p.m. Friday night, after finishing the graffiti, we were driving away when a soldier stopped us and called for an officer, who arrived with 15 or 20 other soldiers. They searched the car and then took us to the Fifth Intervention Regiment base in Karantina, where we were forced to stand handcuffed for two hours while they questioned us and confiscated everything in the car.”

Later, they were transferred to another military base, where they were falsely accused of evading an army checkpoint, according to Fakhry. “Then they closed us in a cell, an extremely dirty, small one, where you have the toilet in it, and the smell, and cockroaches climbing all over you, for nearly eight hours. At 11 a.m., they took us for another interrogation, where they asked us who was behind us, who was funding us, which foreign powers were giving us orders.” This continued at a third, then a fourth location, before they were eventually freed.

As NOW has previously reported, there is no law against graffiti in Lebanon, and security forces encountering artists at work ordinarily turn a blind eye. A clue to the difference in Fakhry and Salameh’s case may lie in the nature of the graphic they stenciled: a fist of solidarity surrounded by a recycle logo, with the words “The revolution continues – Syria” underneath in Arabic. For Ayman Mhanna, director of the Samir Kassir eyes (SKeyes) Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, this “definitely affected how they were dealt with.” As he told NOW, “The sensitivity right now in the Lebanese government and security apparatuses related to the Syrian issue is clear. Syria is a red line in their minds. They always like to say they are ‘dissociating’ themselves, whatever that means, from what’s happening in Syria - except when it comes to freedom of expression.”

Fakhry appears to agree: “We firmly believe our arrest was political. Doing a stencil does not justify being imprisoned in a cell and psychologically tortured in that way by four different military security departments. They wanted to make an example of us. They’re trying to shut up the youth from expressing themselves on the walls of Beirut.”

Perhaps ironically, the graphic that got the pair arrested was actually intended as a dig at both the regime and the opposition: “[The recycle logo] was a call for the Syrian revolution to correct its path. The true path is to get rid of the dictatorship, not to ask for international intervention, and definitely not to ask the Syrian regime to change its attitude. We want to remove this regime,” said Fakhry. And he is keen to stress the internationalism of his cause, which he staunchly denies is affiliated with Lebanese party politics: “We are entirely independent activists supporting all the Arab revolutions. We are with the Syrian revolution, and at the same time we’re with the Bahraini revolution and the Saudi Arabian revolution. We are neither March 14 nor March 8, because we believe that both are the source of problems in this country. For us, to write ‘Down with the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad’ is the same as writing ‘Down with Solidere’.”

Indeed, theirs is only one of many pro-Syrian-uprising stencils to have appeared in recent weeks, both in Lebanon and the wider region. Their idea, said Fakhry, was inspired by the Syria Freedom Graffiti Week campaign, which saw activists spray anti-Syrian-regime graphics in the streets of a host of Arab countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine. But even prior to this, he added, a “war on the walls of Beirut” has been waged over the past six months, “especially between pro- and anti-Syrian-revolution people. We spray ‘Down with Bashar’ one day, then the next someone else will spray ‘Long live Bashar’ over the top.” Salameh agreed, pointing out that the night after their arrest, “someone sprayed our graffiti in black to cover it.”

A spirit of defiance, in other words, appears to be gathering, as freedom of expression in Lebanon faces renewed threats. On Sunday, NOW reported the launch of the FREE newsletter, which aims to combat the country’s censorship laws. And more than 450 have pledged to attend on Tuesday, May 1 a demonstration in Hamra in which participants are encouraged to “communicate with Beirut’s walls and alleys” by spraying graffiti, playing music, dancing or expressing themselves however they see fit.

“It’s a very natural and healthy reaction from the freedom and art activists, because the repression of freedom of expression in the last few months has reached totally unacceptable levels. It’s unprecedented,” said Mhanna, adding that still more is to come. “We at SKeyes are also getting ready for a radical campaign against censorship. And you will see many more such initiatives in the near future.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting for this article.

Turkish town bans alcohol

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Turkey’s beloved “moderate” Islamists – you know, the ones that everyone keeps telling Arab revolutionaries to “emulate” – are at it again.

Not content with attempting to criminalise adultery; demanding that the Danish Prime Minister violate his country’s constitution by censoring the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons; and defending the Sudanese war criminal Omar al-Bashir on the grounds that “it is not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide”; the AKP, or ‘Justice and Development Party’ of Prime Minister Erdoğan has now banned the sale and consumption of alcohol in the province of Afyonkarahisar, ostensibly in the interests of the “public good”, according to the Hürriyet newspaper.

You may choose to believe, if you wish, that the party’s “spiritual” leanings are merely incidental here. But Erdoğan’s contempt for and loathing of the fruits of the grape and grain have a rich history, going back to his days as Mayor of Istanbul in the ‘90s, when he banned the sale of alcohol in city-owned establishments. Since coming to high office, he has repeatedly raised taxes on the stuff, telling drinkers to “consume less” if they didn’t like it. He’s tightened regulations on its sale and advertising, and wondered aloud why anyone should drink wine when the alternative of simply eating grapes exists (surely an unimprovable definition of philistinism). Last year, Istanbul mayor and AKP apparatchik Ahmet Demircan banned establishments from using outdoor tables in Beyoğlu, which happens to be the capital’s liveliest and most convivial nightlife spot. According to Hürriyet, after Erdoğan complained at how many of his compatriots drink “until they sneeze and retch”, the satire-proof dolt “first rejected claims that the government was acting out of religious motivation [in its latest alcohol crackdown], then rhetorically questioned whether doing so was necessarily a bad thing.”

Well, what a question! But that’s for another day. For tonight – as it is Friday, after all – I encourage every reader who cares about the small matters of civil liberties and religious pluralism to support our beleaguered Turkish brothers and sisters by investing in some Turkish beer or, even better, raki. Just watch out for those damn sneezes.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rich man's game in a poor man's neighbourhood

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with italics restored]

Golf, it’s often said, is a rich man’s game, and in few places is that more apparent than the Golf Club of Lebanon, the 18-hole course built in 1923 in what was at the time a spectacular, untouched coastal plain, and what is now the heart of Ouza’i, one of the city’s most wretched slums. As a non-rich man, I’ve never been much use at the game, but when a visiting friend suggested a round yesterday, sheer morbid curiosity got the better of me, and after handing over the $45 green fee (and declining the outrageous further $45 for a cart), I found myself staring down the first fairway.

In ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, Thomas Friedman wrote of this hole that it wasn’t called “a “dangerous par-5” for nothing. Several members were hit by bullets in their backswings there, because the 460-yard hole ran perpendicular to a PLO firing range […] When the Israeli army invaded Beirut in the summer of ’82, a convoy of Israeli armored personnel carriers drove right up the first fairway.” While things have certainly improved since those days, the course remains quite the disaster: manhole-sized craters dotting the fairways; greens like bunkers; and bunkers like marshes. (Incidentally, we did find a spent bullet cartridge too.)

Not that the experience was unpleasant: indeed, like much of Beirut, if you could ignore the unidentified loud bangs, the ubiquitous men on scooters and the abysmal poverty surrounding you on all sides, you could be convinced you were in a place of real tranquility and beauty. After a while, though, the poverty could no longer be ignored, as the breeze-block shanties spilled over onto the grass.

These appalling living conditions are all the more pronounced by the fact that the Club’s owners pay a mere $1 a year in rent to the government as per a legally-very-questionable contract, according to an Al Akhbar report. To rip off wealthy customers is one thing, but to rip off the state in a crushingly poor neighbourhood takes a special kind of contempt. How fascinating to learn, therefore, that the current Cabinet – which makes very large claims to financial rectitude – saw fit to extend this arrangement last December for – how long? – seven years. Oh my (Party of) God!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Lebanese march for secularism

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In two weeks and two days, the Lebanese Laïque Pride activist group will hold its third annual Seculars March Towards Citizenship, a three-hour procession from Sanayeh to Ain el-Mraisseh calling for “a secular civil state founded on citizenship” and “the abolition of institutional sectarianism”.

As the @LaiquePride account tweeted earlier in the week, their six key demands are as follows:

1. Enacting a unified Civil Code for the Personal Status Law
2. Passing the Law for Protection of Women from Family Violence submitted by KAFA to the Lebanese parliament
3. Abolishing article 522 of the penal law, which drops charges against a rapist if he marries his victim
4. Amending the nationality law for the right of Lebanese women to grant their nationality to their family
5. Passing the Draft Law Prohibiting the Pre-Censorship [of] Cinema and Theatre
6. Withdrawing the Lebanese Internet Regulation Act (LIRA) draft law

I’m aware that some Lebanese think it a rather good thing that, in their country, wives may be legally raped and beaten; marital and inheritance disputes are settled by theologians; films and plays are routinely censored; and a child born to the wrong faith can’t become president.

For those who feel otherwise, however, the march starts at 16:00 at Sanayeh Gardens, May 6th.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Another assassination attempt

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

“April”, TS Eliot once wrote, “is the cruelest month”. So it would seem in Lebanon, where just a day after the 37th anniversary of the Ain el-Rammaneh massacre that sparked the civil war, the journalist Mustafa Jeha was fired on by would-be assassins on the Damour-Jiyye highway in what was the month’s second attempt on a public figure’s life, as well as its second deliberate targeting of a journalist.

Mustafa is perhaps best known as the son of his eponymous father, also a writer, who fell victim to a successful assassination attempt in 1992. The motive of the killing remains unclear. On the one hand, Jeha père was an affiliate of the Guardians of the Cedars, the party-cum-militia whose highly controversial ideology earned it no shortage of enemies. On the other, he also wrote a number of books critical of Islamic doctrine, such as ‘Khomeini Assassinates Zoroaster’.

According to a statement released yesterday by the Beirut-based Samir Kassir eyes [SKeyes] Center, which monitors free speech violations in the Middle East, Jeha fils announced in January of this year that he was “re-opening the judicial case of his father’s assassination”, suggesting that Saturday’s attempt on his life demonstrated “the killers’ readiness to do all they can to prevent progress” in this regard. How singularly despicable that someone should be killed for wanting to know why his own father died. The SKeyes statement is well worth reading in its entirety, and - whatever one’s opinion of Jeha’s political and/or religious beliefs - one cannot but echo their unconditional condemnation of this anachronistic savagery. As George Orwell so imperishably put it: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Monday, April 16, 2012

Holocaust "mostly horseshit", says Mel Gibson

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In what must surely count as one of history’s most tersely-phrased utterances of five-star fruitcakery and fanaticism, the actor Mel Gibson recently described the Holocaust as “mostly a lot of horseshit”, according to a letter penned by a Hollywood screenwriter with whom Gibson was working on a now-scrapped film about the Jewish historical figure Judah Maccabee.

Of course, this kind of bigotry is more or less routine for Gibson, whose previous outbursts include informing a Los Angeles police officer that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” and telling his then-girlfriend that she deserved to “get raped by a pack of niggers”. Even so, one finds oneself whistling at the sheer variety of epithets in this latest trove.

As the letter says: “[Gibson] continually called Jews “Hebes” and “oven-dodgers” and “Jewboys” […] [He] said most “gatekeepers” of American companies were “Hebes” who “controlled their bosses […] [He] said the Torah made reference to the sacrifice of Christian babies and infants […] [He said] the mothers of the last three Popes of the Catholic church were Jewish [and] there was a Jewish/Masonic conspiracy to destroy the Catholic church […] [He] referred to Pope John Paul as “the devil” [who] “destroyed the church”” by implementing Vatican II, which famously repealed the charge of Christ-killing against world Jewry (a theme to which he repeatedly returns throughout the letter). “Perhaps most disturbing [was his comment that] “What I really want to do with this movie […] is to convert the Jews to Christianity.””

Indeed, what interests me much more than the crude insults and petty racism is his obsession with the supposed threat posed by Jews to his faith, which in its rank paranoia and delusion exceeds even the efforts of Osama Bin Laden. The religious underpinnings of Gibson’s habitual explosions are still poorly understood by the wider public. As the late Christopher Hitchens noted in a 2010 article titled ‘Mel Gibson Isn’t Just an Angry Narcissist’, Gibson is a member of a “schismatic crackpot sect” of Catholicism, “headed by [his] father, Hutton Gibson” that has “never forgiven the Vatican for lifting the charge of deicide against the Jews”. Seen in this context, Gibson’s latest remarks are yet another reminder – if anybody needed one – of the infinite ways in which religious ideologies nurture and cultivate, rather than restrain, the cancers of hatred and extremism.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Israel's mysterious wall with Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

For the first time in its 64-year history, Israel will build a wall along its northern border with Lebanon, according to recent press releases from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). After a series of tripartite meetings between UNIFIL, the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Israel Defense Forces, it was announced that a wall will be constructed “to replace the existing Israeli technical fence along the Blue Line near the town of Kfar Kila.” When contacted by NOW Lebanon, UNIFIL spokesman Neeraj Singh declined to give precise details about the wall, but media reports suggest it will be approximately one kilometer in length, five meters high, and equipped with surveillance technology.

NOW Lebanon travelled to Kfar Kila and found no evidence that construction has yet begun. The adjacent Israeli village of Metula, surrounded by Lebanese territory on three sides, continues to be demarcated by the same metal fence that spans the length of the Blue Line, and there was no building equipment to be seen at any point in the vicinity. Moreover, UNIFIL troops stationed at the fence told NOW that they were unaware of any construction activity to date.

Indeed, the larger question appears to be why Israel should build such a wall in the first place. The official reason stated by UNIFIL both in press releases and in conversation with NOW is to “enhance security” and “minimize the scope for sporadic tensions or any misunderstandings that could lead to escalation of the situation” in “this sensitive area.” Former UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel agreed, telling NOW that, “This is the weakest point across the fence. It’s very easy to breach this area because it’s in a gully, and therefore not easily observable from Israeli positions.” David Schenker, an expert on Arab-Israeli politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concurred. “This is obviously a pretty sensitive area [for Israel], being so close to Metula. They’re concerned about infiltration. Also, a wall can prevent direct line-of-sight firing of things like RPGs and mortars.”

On a similar note, in the nearby town of Marjayoun, a journalist, who preferred not be named, introduced NOW to some Hezbollah members. “The Israelis are scared,” said one. “They know that if they provoke us again, we will wipe Israel off the map.” Rhetorical bravado though that doubtless was, it may nevertheless be true that the IDF is seeking to avoid deploying troops wherever possible. As Goksel put it, “A wall can cover the area without the need for posting soldiers. From Israel’s point of view it makes sense.”

However, the area has not in fact been a hazardous or “sensitive” one historically. “In my experience [of 24 years], there were never any attacks there because it’s adjacent to a Lebanese village, so any attack there will make life for the Lebanese very difficult,” Goksel said. “I don’t think anybody has ever thought of doing anything there. Moreover, even if you cross [into Israel] there, you’re not going to come across an Israeli position for a long time, so it doesn’t make sense for anyone to attack from there. What are you going to attack? There’s no target.” Similarly, at the fence in Kfar Kila, NOW spoke to UNIFIL troops and a number of local residents, none of whom said they had ever had security problems in the past.

If not security, then what else may be on Israel’s mind? The journalist Harriet Sherwood of the London Guardian wrote last month that Metula locals “speak of a flourishing drug-smuggling trade along this stretch of the border.” Kfar Kila residents denied this, although it isn’t clear in any case how a wall of merely one kilometer would prevent such a trade if it did exist.

Alternatively, the wall may be part of a wider, more general Israeli initiative to bolster its borders. Much has already been written about its 760 kilometer-long wall in the West Bank (which extends beyond its legally-recognized borders). Much more recently, however, Israel has also commenced construction of a 240 kilometer-long barrier on its Egyptian border. Schenker suggests this trend reflects heightened anxieties in Israel about the broader political transformations in the region. “Israel is building a series of walls, the most prominent one along the border with Egypt, because the Sinai has now basically become ungoverned.”

Finally, some are skeptical that the wall will be built at all. “I know the Israeli mentality very well,” said the journalist in Marjayoun, who lived for many years under Israeli occupation. “If they want to do something, they do it. They don’t tell you about it in advance.”

Whether or not he turns out to be correct, Israel’s objective in constructing the wall will remain a mystery for the time being.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting for this article.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

In Syria, a Deir Yassin every day

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

As if yesterday’s news of the killing of Lebanese cameraman Ali Shaaban by the Syrian army weren’t morbid enough, the day also marked the 64th anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre, perhaps the most infamous of the series of lurid rampages that comprised what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has dubbed the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine” in 1948.

On that day, more than 100 Palestinian villagers, including women and children, died at the hands of Zionist militiamen (four of whom were also killed). News of the events spread rapidly to villages across the country, triggering a panic that led directly to the exodus of some 700,000 Palestinians into neighboring states, including Lebanon – often referred to as the nakba, or catastrophe.

As imperfect as such historical comparisons may be, I for one can’t help noticing that, in addition to Shaaban, more than 100 Syrians, including women and children, were also killed yesterday by the Assad regime. This came on the heels of a week that saw “at least 1,000” deaths, according to a Free Syria Army colonel; a number which, if correct, would put the average daily death toll for the week at 143; or in other words, a Deir Yassin every day. This is not to mention the almost 3,000 Syrians that fled to Turkey in a 36-hour period, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees in the country to over 24,000. Add to this the estimated 30,000 or so that have also fled to Jordan and Lebanon, and perhaps the comparison is not to be dismissed lightly.

The grotesque irony, of course, is that the perpetrator of these daily Deir Yassins claims to be the great champion of the Palestinian cause. It’s high time that his supporters – and there certainly seem to be plenty here in Lebanon – decide whether a Syrian life is the equal of a Palestinian life, and if so, why exactly they’re prepared to so chillingly emulate the Zionists of 1948 that they so hoarsely condemn.

Interfaith dialogue at its ugliest

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

At first glance, it looks like a gesture of positively saintly compassion and humanity: a Jew - indeed, a rabbi no less - travels all the way from America to visit a neglected synagogue in south Lebanon, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the country's destitute Palestinian refugees, and to proclaim their cause as his own. What, you may ask, could conceivably be more honourable?

Quite a lot, as it happens. For Rabbi Dovid Weiss, like the rest of his Neturei Karta devotees, comes from an ancient, albeit nowadays marginal, school of Judaism that proclaims it an abominable sin to establish a Jewish state in the biblical Eretz Yisrael - until, that is, the advent of the Messiah.

I hope it goes without saying that, as an ideology, this is not exactly Palestinian nationalism. Upon the Messiah's arrival, Weiss and his friends will assist in the utter and total Judaisation of the Levant, involving the submission of Jews on the one hand to fascistic halakha law, and Gentiles on the other to a choice between death and permanent subjugation.

It's an almost-exact mirror image, incidentally, of the vile alliance between Zionists and evangelical Christians, a prominent group of whom Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met just last month. As far as the latter are concerned, the mass immigration of Jews to the Holy Land is to be encouraged insofar as it accelerates the Second Coming of Christ, at which point non-Christians will face the similar dilemma of conversion or extermination.

Moral of the story: if you're cynical enough to conscript religious fanatics to your political cause today, don't be surprised if they try to kill you tomorrow.