Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nahr al-Bared comes to Beirut

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

A camp resident explains entry restrictions into the camp (Author's photo)

I had already been intrigued for some time by reports of the new Nasawiya Café in Mar Mikhael (drink beer on a sofa surrounded by intelligent women? If you insist…). So when I then heard they were hosting a live talk with residents of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp last night, I saw no reason not to attend.

Somewhat shaken by the verbal abuse meted out at the entrance (a simulation, you see, of the camp’s notorious army checkpoints), and feeling vaguely as though I’d walked into a Hunter Thompson novel, I squeezed myself between the wall and the roughly 150 other attendees while a camp resident expounded on this or that aspect of camp life with the aid of a projected slideshow. As someone whose Arabic is, shall we say, sub-Qabbanian, I couldn’t follow more than the general gist of what he and his co-residents were saying. However, we were subsequently shown a screening of Sandra Madi’s documentary, ‘Nahr al-Bared: Mokhayyam I3tiqal’ (‘Detention camp’), with English sub-titles, and after two hours which also included a Skype Q&A with Madi and other refugees live from the camp, a central point had amply emerged.

Which is, in summary, that the overwhelming majority of the camp’s thousands of residents are non-violent non-Islamists who have, for the last five years, been subjected to highly unnecessary and unreasonable restrictions on movement, labour, commerce and the general ability to attain a basic standard of human dignity. Stories of absurd harassment recall the occupation of Palestinians in another territory: one resident told of a schoolbus being prevented from entering because one of the girls had the ‘wrong’ kind of ID (unique among Palestinians in Lebanon, those of Nahr al-Bared have to carry not one but three kinds of government-issued documents).

Quite apart from the humanitarian considerations, this does the Lebanese government no favours. As one resident put it: “I was against Fatah al-Islam, we all were. So if the Lebanese government won [in 2007], then I should have won too. But they treat me as if I was the loser.” The implication here applies to camps around the country: by alienating rather than partnering with peaceful Palestinians – who, as already noted, are the vast majority – the government only empowers the extremist fringes. The day will come when this is yet again a problem for the Lebanese as much as for the Palestinians.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lebanon, battleground of cyberwars?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In his most recent book, “Beware of Small States,” journalist and 50-year Beirut resident David Hirst argues that tiny Lebanon’s unique demography and geography condemn it to ever be the “battleground” of the region’s larger power struggles. It appears that this holds equally true for the newest – and potentially most dangerous yet – form of warfare: that being waged in cyberspace.

“Flame,” also known as “Flamer” and “SkyWiper,” is the latest of several pieces of malicious software (“malware”) to have targeted major institutions in the Middle East in recent years. It is, according to Kaspersky Lab, the Russian IT security firm that first identified it, “one of the most complex threats ever discovered”; a “big and incredibly sophisticated” malware that “redefines the notion of cyberwar and cyberespionage.” Strongly suspected to be the work of the US and/or Israeli governments, its principal target thus far has been Iran, with a smaller number of further attacks on the Israeli/Palestinian territories, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Unlike “Stuxnet,” a previous malware that physically disabled centrifuges at a uranium enrichment facility in Iran’s Natanz in 2010, Flame appears to be designed purely for espionage. Described as an “attack toolkit” by Kaspersky, the malware allows its controllers to extract a multitude of data by such means as “sniffing the network traffic, taking screenshots, recording audio conversations [and] intercepting the keyboard.” It is thought to infiltrate computers through websites, emails (a technique known as “spear phishing”) and infected USB drives and local area networks (LANs).

In terms of actual damage done, the Iranian Computer Emergency Response Team (“MAHER”) revealed in a statement released May 28 that Flame had caused “mass data loss in Iran.” This followed the closure of an oil production facility on Kharg Island in April due to a then-unidentified malware attack in which data had been stolen. In addition to these, Kaspersky said that Flame has accessed “emails, documents, messages, discussions inside sensitive locations, pretty much everything.”

As for Lebanon, no specific details have emerged as to the targets of the 18 attacks identified by Kaspersky (compared to 189 on Iran). In general, the company said, “victims range from individuals to certain state-related organizations or educational institutions.” The company did not respond to requests for further information.

Experts contacted by NOW Lebanon could only speculate about the Lebanese targets. “Flame was targeting schematics and designs – rumor has it they may have been looking for schematics for nuclear facilities in Iran,” said Professor Haidar Harmanani of the Lebanese American University. “Now, is it possible that they might have been looking for schematics for Hezbollah hideouts or military bases in Lebanon? Are these on networked computers? It’s not clear.”

What was also unclear until recently was the identity of Flame’s creator; confirmed as a joint US-Israeli venture in the Washington Post on Tuesday. According to the report, which cites anonymous officials, the malware was developed by the US National Security Agency, the CIA and the Israeli military with the aim of delaying Iran’s alleged efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and thus avert the perceived need for a military attack.

This followed an announcement last week by Kaspersky that a key chunk of the Stuxnet software was based on Flame itself; a finding described by the company’s Chief Security Expert Alexander Gostev as “very strong evidence that [the] Stuxnet/Duqu and Flame cyber-weapons are connected.” Stuxnet itself was confirmed as a joint US-Israeli creation in a lengthy New York Times report earlier this month.

Even before these announcements, however, much circumstantial evidence had suggested Israeli and/or American involvement. For one thing, Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon all but admitted it on local radio last month. “Anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat – it’s reasonable [to assume] that he will take various steps, including these, to harm it,” hesaid. “Israel was blessed as being a country rich with high-tech. These tools that we take pride in open up all kinds of opportunities for us.” A spokesman for the minister later denied to the BBC that the statement implied Israeli responsibility.

Furthermore, there appeared to be few possible alternative creators. “Only a handful of nations have the technical capacity to do this kind of work,” according to Scientific American. “The list would include the United States, the UK, Germany, China, Russia, Israel and Taiwan.” While the other five could not be ruled out, Israel and the US are the two most vocally opposed to the Iranian government.

In any event, against such highly sophisticated electronic weaponry, there appears to be little the Lebanese can do in the way of self-protection – a fact underscored by the series of much cruder attacks on government websites in March. “All I can advise people to do is keep their machines’ anti-virus software up to date,” said IT security specialist Nabil Bou Khaled to NOW. Beyond that, the country appears – as so often – to be at the mercy of its larger friends and foes.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Former Al-Akhbar contributor tears them to pieces for Assad apologetics

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Max Blumenthal, the influential left-wing American journalist who was until yesterday a contributor to Al-Akhbar English, has today terminated his column and written an incandescent attack on his former colleagues and the Assad regime itself.

And, Christ, is it good. It’s all there: the “malevolent propaganda” of Amal Saad-Ghorayeb; the “dillentantish [sic] quasi-analysis” of Sharmine Narwani; the “friendly advice for Bashar Assad” from editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin; the “nickel-and-diming” of the civilian death toll; and the “outlandish ravings” of the “morally compromised outlet” in general. He writes punishingly of the paper’s whitewashing the regime’s “pornographically violent crackdowns on what by all accounts is still a mostly homegrown resistance” as well its “long record of exploiting the Palestinian struggle to advance its narrow self-interests.” And he brilliantly ridicules the manner in which its apologetics have emulated the crudest examples of Israeli and US propaganda (I’ve been wondering myself where all this “leftist” hate for al-Qaeda was during the Bush years).

There are far too many haymakers to quote in a blog post of this size, but the one with which he concludes is perhaps the most damning:

“A few years ago, while visiting the offices of the Nation Magazine, a publication I frequently write for, I reflected on what it might have been like to be working there during the 1930s when its editorial leadership supported Stalin and willfully ignored his crimes. What were the internal debates like, I wondered, and how would I have reacted? The past few weeks at Al Akhbar have brought those questions back into my thoughts, and they are no longer hypothetical.”

The only remaining question is how Al-Akhbar and its groupies will respond. My guess is old-fashioned baseless accusation. Bought by the Lobby? Closet neocon? Naiive, provincial American who doesn’t even speak Arabic? I can’t wait to find out.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A repeat of history at Nahr al-Bared?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon. Co-written with Nadine Elali and Matt Nash]

In another of what is becoming a series of outbreaks of instability to afflict Lebanon in recent months, three Palestinians were killed and several others wounded between Friday and Monday in clashes with the Lebanese army in refugee camps across the country. While Interior Minister Marwan Charbel was quick to describe the events as a “coincidence […] not planned,” suspicions to the contrary have been fuelled by the particular location of the first killing – the northern Nahr al-Bared camp, site of the months-long battle between the army and the Islamist Fatah al-Islam outfit in 2007 – as well as the timing, less than two weeks since deadly gunfights in nearby Tripoli.

Accounts of what exactly triggered the violence on Monday vary. Arkan Bader, a Nahr al-Bared resident and leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in the camp, told NOW Lebanon that some youths were attempting to bury Ahmad Qassim, the young man killed on Friday, on a plot of land belonging to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) but under the control of the Lebanese army. The army’s refusal to allow them to enter the land led to a confrontation, which ultimately ended with two dead and some 20 wounded. While an army statement claimed that soldiers initially used tear gas and rubber bullets against refugees armed with Molotov cocktails, Bader and other camp residents claim the army immediately fired live bullets and that the youths were merely throwing stones.

“This could have been dealt with by other means,” said Hassan Shishniyeh, press spokesman for the Palestinian Embassy in Lebanon. “There are other forms of weapons than live bullets which can be used in civil disobedience cases. Everybody knows that Nahr al-Bared is devoid of arms. We ask the Lebanese army not to use excessive force against Palestinian civilians.”

Several people interviewed by NOW expressed the view that the violence was in some way deliberately engineered, as many perceived the 2007 conflict to be. Riad Kahwaji, founder of the INEGMA think tank, placed the blame on pro-Syrian factions within the camp. “It’s most likely that those who confronted the army were elements loyal to the Syrian regime, such as Fatah al-Intifada and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). According to my sources, the Lebanese army has been watching these groups closely, especially in light of what’s happening in Syria, and fears they may be used to stir up problems as a means of diverting attention from next door. I think this is more or less what we’re seeing right now in the camps,” he said.

“No one enters the camps without the knowledge of the Palestinian factions, including the pro-Syrian ones,” he added. “So if there are ‘infiltrators’—as the government claims—who let them in? Experience shows that Islamist elements in the camps are linked to the Syrian regime.”

For his part, Shishniyeh said that in Nahr al-Bared, “There are some who are trying to drag the camps into a position we don’t want to be in; who are trying to incite the army into a confrontation,” although he did not name any particular group. He did, however, make a point of observing that the army behaved more responsibly in Saida’s Ain al-Hilweh camp, where protests went on Monday in response to the Nahr al-Bared events, than it did in the north. “In Ain al-Hilweh, the army was wise in the way it dealt with protests. It retreated to lessen the anger of the people and only returned when things were calmer.”

Nadim Shehade, associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at London’s Chatham House, argues that either way, the events have been politically exploited. “The event and timing are weird. If the incident is purposefully done, then it is to blow up the situation in the north. But it could also not be purposefully done; it could have happened and then some people took advantage of it to increase the agitation. It is not necessary that there be a conspiracy, but when it happens it might be to some groups’ interests to increase the tension.”

He adds, however, that such an incident was inevitable, given prevailing conditions in the camps. Nahr al-Bared is the only Palestinian camp in Lebanon where entrance and exit are controlled by the Lebanese army; a situation Shehade describes as “unsustainable.” “The whole issue of the Nahr al-Bared camp has been put on the back burner for a long time. There are certainly underlying factors and tensions behind this outburst. Things are extremely bad for the refugees, and there’s a feeling among them that the government is doing nothing about it. There’s no interaction with the refugees themselves; the only interaction is with the factions. And if you ask the people there, they say the factions don’t represent them, and indeed only add to their problems. There is no proper interlocutor between the people and the Lebanese government,” he said.

“Moreover, the state handles Palestinian refugees purely as a security matter [rather than a humanitarian one]. There was a time when they were treated in a more comprehensive manner.”

Shishniyeh agrees, describing the “humiliated” feeling of many residents of Nahr al-Bared. “There are four kinds of passes they have to show at checkpoints in and out of the camp, there are delays in reconstruction, and many of them are still prevented from returning to their homes. There’s a great deal of resentment among them toward the military cordon [enforced by the Lebanese army]. We ask the Lebanese army to end this military state that the civilians are subjected to on a daily basis. Easing these policies will ultimately lead to a more positive mood that will alleviate the current tensions.”

Putin, 'resistance' kingpin, snubs Assad to visit Israel

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In a story that I wager will not make the Syrian state press, Russian President Vladimir Putin – whose watertight loyalty to his ally Bashar al-Assad has been hailed by ‘resistance’ types as a mark of his unshakeable anti-imperialist grit and courage – is set to travel to Israel next week, where among other things he will be opening a World War II memorial in the city of Netanya. He will also be travelling to the West Bank (to meet Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, arch-foe of ‘resistance axis’ heavyweight Hamas), and to Jordan (one of only two Arab countries to have made peace with Israel).

Sadly for his protégé Bashar, Putin doesn’t seem to have made time for a stopover in Damascus.

What I look forward to is seeing how this gets contorted to fit the ‘resistance’ party line. As it stands, you will recall, the noble Syrian Baathists are being attacked by ‘terrorists’ who take their orders from Tel Aviv (perhaps occasionally via Riyadh and/or Washington: a distinction without a difference). As against these beasts, Assad stands alone but for benevolent Putin, who happens to have increasingly warm relations with… Tel Aviv.

So wait, who are we resisting again?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The pulse of Palestine: Dispatch from Ramallah and elsewhere

Last weekend, I spent a day and a half in various parts of the West Bank. Rather than write it up as a conventional travel piece, I thought I’d profile three people I met during my stay, with extracts from conversations we had, and then end with a description of Ramallah and some general concluding remarks. [Note: For my account of a previous trip to Jerusalem, see here.]


Muhammad was the first person I spoke with at any length. We happened to be sitting next to each other on the public taxi (‘service’) from Jericho to Ramallah – a ride of about half an hour that passes countless settlements and some of the most famous sections of the West Bank wall. It also transports one from the arid landscape of the eastern border strip to the relative greenery of the rest of the country.

Inta min hon?” is how he begins our conversation. Are you from here? The question is so ridiculous, given how I look, that in retrospect I realize he was finding a diplomatic way of asking if I was Israeli. I tell him in Arabic that No, I am in fact a British tourist. He smiles and seems to relax. “Ah, British – welcome!” he replies in English. I ask where he’s from (Jenin) and from there we proceed to chat about Jerusalem, the Wall, and the occupation in general.

“There are three kinds of Palestinians: those who can go to Jerusalem any time; those who can go only with special permission; and those who can never go. In fact, there’s a fourth kind – those from Gaza, who can’t even leave there. I’m the second kind. Usually we only get the permission on religious holidays, if there’s been no violence lately. But even then, they don’t allow men between the ages of 18 and 35. They’re the youth, they’re most likely to, uh, do something.”

He pauses and smiles after those two words. “You can sneak in, you know. There are guys who do it, with ladders or whatever. And usually, you don’t sneak in unless you’re going to do something! But even if they catch you, they just kick your ass and send you back. It’s no big deal.

West Bank wall, somewhere between Jericho and Ramallah

“The wall is like a snake,” he says when it first comes into view – ugly, and rather smaller and feebler than I’d expected. “It snakes from village to village, because they want to take a bit from every one along the way.” After a pause, he adds with a laugh, “They’re stupid; they’re caging themselves in. We don’t care!” 

Arafat's and Marwan Barghouti's faces on the Wall


Rawda Khouriya is the co-owner and manager of my hotel for the night: the Khouriya Family Guesthouse, a stunning stone villa converted into a bed & breakfast in the village of Jifna, about fifteen minutes north of Ramallah. The Khouriyas are a Christian Palestinian family originally from Taybeh, which readers may know as the hometown of Palestine’s very own Taybeh Beer. Everything about the house reminds me of a Lebanese Christian home, from the ubiquitous pictures of Mary to the bottles of Johnnie Walker Black to the view from the balcony, which could easily be Marjayoun (and, indeed, is only 200km south of it). 

View from the Khouriyas' home
The Khouriyas' villa

We talked a great deal over the course of my stay, about Lebanon as well as Palestine (“The Lebanese,” she said with a gush of admiration. “They really know how to live!” Yes, and how to kill, too, I replied, perhaps unfairly). At a glance, life in Jifna looks wonderful. Even the nearby Jalazun camp for refugees of the 1948 war is heaven on earth compared to the dumps that Palestinians have to live in here in Lebanon. But on closer inspection, the comforts are illusory, even for a well-off family like the Khouriyas.

“Please, when you shower, be quick,” urges Rawda. “Water is very limited here, and we haven’t been able to buy any for two weeks. It’s going to cut off any day now.” She points out the black cartons of water, bought from Israel, that are placed on the roofs of every house in the village. “You won’t see these in the settlements,” she adds with a snort. 

Water cartons on the roofs of Jifna homes
As indeed I did not. And speaking of which, Jifna lies on the outskirts of a certain Beit El, a religious Zionist settlement which was in the news at the time for having been declared partially illegal by the Israeli High Court (a decision that Prime Minister Netanyahu was “not happy” about, but which would ultimately “strengthen the settlement movement” when the homes were moved to another, “legal” part of the same complex). Proximity to a settlement adds numerous difficulties to everyday life, including sudden road closures, harassment, and violence. “Last week [the settlers] stoned four passing cars,” says Rawda. “We don’t dare drive past at night anymore. And if anyone approaches on foot, they shoot.” 

Beit El settlement, near Jifna

I ask her about Hamas; specifically whether as a Christian Palestinian she has conflicting feelings about a strong party that is nevertheless Islamist. “We don’t really think as Christians or as Muslims. Everybody is so sick of the Palestinian Authority; their corruption, their weakness. So people voted for Hamas – yes, even Christians – because we thought they were different, that they had integrity. But now, it looks like they’re all the same.”

And I ask her that clichéd, but necessary question: what’s the solution?

“64 years is enough. We can’t take anymore. Khalas [enough], you take Haifa, take the beach, take everything that’s nice, but leave us this. We don’t need a new settlement appearing every month. Let us live in our part, let us move around, don’t make us drive for hours when it should take twenty minutes. You can have your land, we can have ours, and we can visit each other. But let us share it as equals, not with one above the other.”


Jan is not someone I expected to meet in the West Bank. A Dutchman in his fifties or perhaps early sixties, he is not a journalist, nor an activist, nor really a political person of any kind. He is, in fact, a stamp collector. His dream is to own all of the 82 varieties of Palestinian stamps that have been issued since 1994. Within minutes of us meeting he is pulling out entire sheets of them, each bearing a slight variation on the classic Arafat portrait. This is apparently a business. “You know how much these are worth? $600,” he smiles. “I’m holding $600 in my hands. And this is nothing!”

Over arguileh at the Jifna village club that night (Jan is also staying at the Khouriyas’), I learn a bit more about why Jan is really in Palestine. It transpires that he once lived for three years in Israel, during the 1970s. “I’m not a Jew,” he says (not that I asked or would have minded), “but I was married to an Israeli girl at the time.

“I was always being told by Israelis of the urgent need to kick all the Arabs out, how the only good Arab was a dead Arab, and so on. This was the norm. It converted me, to put it bluntly, from being pro- to anti-Israel.”

He complains of the overwhelmingly prevalent pro-Israel bias back in Holland (which he credits to the still-seeping scars of the Nazi occupation). “When I tell friends I’m going to Palestine, they become hysterical. ‘Don’t you know how dangerous it is? They’ll stab you, they’ll rob you, they’re terrorists for God’s sake!’ All I can do is laugh. I’ve never felt safer or more welcome than I do here in Jifna.” Indeed, as we sit outdoors among twenty or so locals watching the Euro championship, the only conceivable source of anxiety is the verbosity of the commentator. (Rawda, too, had complained with great bitterness of the tired and stupid “terrorist” line, which belongs in the same intellectual dustbin as the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)

There is a charming sort of innocence to Jan, which emboldens him to do things few others would. In Hebron, he says, he approached the sealed Jewish quarter (or “clean zone”, in the settlers’ parlance) with an Arab friend. “Can we go in?” he asked the soldier in Hebrew. “You can, but he can’t.”

“Doesn’t it make you feel strange,” Jan then asked, “that in front of you are two human beings, and you’re telling one that he can come in and the other that he can’t?” 

“Such is life,” was the soldier’s reply, though Jan insists he detected a glimmer of unease. “At the end of the day, it’s his job, what else could he do? But I’m convinced I made him think a little.”

Before calling it a night, I ask Jan too what the solution is. “Nothing that can be done overnight. But in the long run, I’d say what’s needed above all is the education of women. Educated women will raise their sons not to be extremists, not to continue the endless cycle of revenge. It’s actually an idea I read about in ‘I Shall Not Hate’, the memoir of a Palestinian doctor whose three daughters were killed by Israeli tank shells. It was the cleverest idea that I’d heard, personally. But it will take generations.”


There’s an energy in Ramallah quite unlike that of any city I’ve seen. With its winsome stone buildings, built around cobbled churches and mosques in the hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in other circumstances it might have just been a picturesque escape from the crowds of the Old City. Things, however, worked out rather differently, with the result that Ramallah today is a city galvanized by politics. There isn’t a square inch of al-Manara, the city centre, that doesn’t host a poster, a flag, a sticker or graffiti. Parts of Beirut are like this, but Beirut is a city of internal disagreement; of fragmentation and factionalisation. In Ramallah, there is that rare, spiriting feeling of single-minded purpose. 

al-Manara, Ramallah city centre

Tribute to Vittorio Arrigoni, Italian activist killed by Islamists in Gaza

Posters protesting administrative detentions of Palestinians in Israeli jails

And that purpose – much as I detest the word and all its abuse and misuse around the Arab world – can only be described as resistance. Not the lugubrious, murderous, religion-soaked pseudo-resistance of a Bin Laden or a Khomeini. On the walls of Ramallah there is colour, there is humour, there is a celebration rather than a negation of humanity. Like Beirut, Ramallah is a city of both Christians and Muslims, but unlike Beirut, the posters in Ramallah don’t distinguish between Christian and Muslim slogans and heroes. “Ramallah does not know creeds and factions,” wrote the poet Mourid Barghouti in ‘I Saw Ramallah’. I snorted when I read it – living in Lebanon will do that to you – but now I believe I was wrong to do so. 

Barghouti’s equivalence

I could write more: about the Wall, about Bir Zeit, about driving to the Green Line and the settlements every fifteen minutes along the way. But as I said, this is not a travel piece, so I’ll close instead with the following.

In I Saw Ramallah, Barghouti makes a seemingly straightforward observation as he prepares to enter his country of birth for the first time in thirty years. “There is no topological difference between this Jordanian land that I stand on and that Palestinian land on the other side of the bridge.”

Those of us fortunate enough to have been able to verify this, and to have descended into the Jordan Valley from both the eastern and western directions, will agree that the two sides are indeed nearly mirror images of one another. Anyone who has stared from Jordan across those agricultural plains, or the Dead Sea, at the peaks of Palestine on the horizon knows well enough what the peaks of Jordan look like when viewed from the other side.

It was this juxtaposition, or equivalence, of Barghouti’s that flashed to my mind as I crossed the King Hussein Bridge from Jordan myself, and saw all over again the unfolding of the apparatus of occupation. In particular, it was the sight of a young, pale blonde girl ordering a veiled Palestinian woman to queue that brought it on. Never before was the utter, radical abnormality of the Zionist project so plain to me. Consider, I thought, how Lebanese women look, how Syrian women look, how Jordanian women look. Consider how Palestinian women look. Now look again at that blonde hair, that white skin. Can there really be a dispute as to which one is the native around here?

Friday, June 15, 2012

God's war on medicine

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

An ongoing debate concerns the matter of whether religion and science are compatible; symbiotic; antagonistic; or even, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, “non-overlapping magisteria”. As two pieces of news this week show, this is no irrelevant, ivory-tower squabble between bespectacled egg-heads, but a practical question with real, often grave, consequences in the real world.

Take the case of the cleric Maulvi Ibrahim Chisti, of Pakistan’s Punjab province, who has declared vaccination against polio to be “un-Islamic” and called for “jihad” against all those involved in its proliferation. His reason? The vaccine is a “poison”; a “Western conspiracy” designed to render the Muslim population impotent.

Polio is, of course, one of those diseases like smallpox that shouldn’t exist anymore. Science conquered it as long ago as 1950, and it is now entirely eradicated in the developed world. Yet according to the World Health Organisation, it’s actually on the rise in Pakistan, with over 150,000 children not immunized against it, largely thanks to the terrifying propaganda of religious charlatans like Chisti.

But hey, this kind of stuff only happens in the ill-educated, impoverished tribal backwaters of Asia, right? Wrong. Consider the recent statement by senior American Roman Catholic bishops that President Obama’s health care plan threatens religious liberty in a way not seen since the beheading of Thomas More in the 16th century. The grievance in this case was Obama’s refusal to remove contraception from proposed health insurance packages. Of course, by this logic, a Jehovah’s Witness might argue that the inclusion of blood transfusions is also an egregious assault on his faith, just as I might invent a religion right now that claims (on equally valid evidence) that rape is virtuous, and decry state opposition to this as Stalinist brutality, and so on.

It comes down to this: If what my doctor says contradicts what your holy book says, my doctor wins. And if you want to exempt yourself from condoms or the polio vaccine or gathering sticks on the Sabbath, you’re more than welcome to do so, but you may not force the rest of us to follow you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In Amman, a microcosm of Syrian fascism

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Arriving in Amman last Thursday, my Jordanian friend took a detour on the way from the airport to my hotel. “There’s something you need to see,” he grinned.

Moments later we came upon a truly bizarre scene. On one side of the highway were approximately a hundred demonstrators, waving Free Syria flags and chanting anti-regime slogans down a megaphone. On the other was the Syrian embassy, recognizable by the large Baathist Syrian flag planted on the roof.

A common enough situation these days, you may say. But what distinguished this from other Syria protests I’ve seen were the concert-standard loudspeakers that embassy staff had placed on a balcony from which to blast militaristic pro-regime music in a juvenile attempt to drown out the protests.

While hardly a crime against humanity, I couldn’t help feeling this gesture contained a distillation or a microcosm of the sheer fascism that is the essence of the Assad regime. Just like the slap that the Greek Golden Dawn thug gave to a woman on live television last week, it’s the attitude that dissent is not merely to be ignored but actively, forcibly repressed that signals the utter contempt for democracy in such minds.

P.S., off topic: Take a look at these pictures from downtown Amman, opposite the famous Al-Quds restaurant. These bullet holes are some of the very few remnants of the 1970 Black September events. Hardly impressive when compared to, say, the Sodeco building, but Black September is still a highly taboo subject in Jordan. “I remember in school someone asked the teacher what happened in 1970,” recalled my Jordanian friend. “He slapped him across the head.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

(Re)Walking the Walk

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, though with different pictures]

The church of the Armenian Evangelical Christian sect, which doesn't actually exist in Armenia (Author's photo)

I appreciate that the WalkBeirut tour is old news for veteran NOW Lebanon readers, but after three years and a significant re-shuffling of the route, I hope I’ll be pardoned for a brief update.

Starting now in Clemenceau, as opposed to Hamra as previously, this four-hour trek led by AUB alumnus and WalkBeirut founder Ronnie Chatah took me and some thirty others through over a dozen of the capital’s historic jewels last Sunday. Fancying myself, quite irrationally, as an authority on Lebanese history, I was continuously and increasingly annoyed to find Chatah’s knowledge surpassing, even humiliating my own at every turn. Indeed, the brilliance of his narration is his ability to accommodate the utter novice (“Who was Yasser Arafat?” someone once asked) while also sating the appetites of a more demanding audience.

In Qantari, you’ll learn about the Armenian Christian sect that only exists in Lebanon, as well as how to identify the specific Turkish, French and Lebanese elements in the still-preserved architecture of the neighbourhood. At the Holiday Inn – where a passing service driver shouted “How many died there, how many?!” in a tone that seemed to hold us personally responsible – you’ll discover which room Arafat stayed in, and what Ariel Sharon did when he took the building off his nemesis. At the synagogue in Wadi Abu Jmeel, you’ll learn about the Lebanese Jewish woman who liked to tell visitors how she once “slapped” Sharon “to the ground”. The journey continues downtown through the Roman baths, the Grand Serail, Place de l’Étoile and Martyrs Square, where it would be no exaggeration to say that Chatah’s oratory turned epic. Somehow, he summarises more than a century of the square’s history in a way that manages to be fully political, without being at all politicized.

Classic architecture in Qantari, incorporating Ottoman, French and Lebanese influences (Author's photo)

The Ottoman part (Author's photo)

Also an Ottoman touch (Author's photo)

Chatah summing up 100 years of history at Martyrs Square (Author's photo)

Fittingly (as I would come to see it), the tour culminates at Samir Kassir Square, where Chatah delivers a powerful – and, again, apolitical – tribute to the historian who gave us the 600-page-long magnum opus, Beirut. Explaining that Kassir’s passion and bitterness about the city’s rapidly disappearing history was the very inspiration for WalkBeirut itself, he invited an audience member – in this case, me – to read out an Arabic sentence of Kassir’s that neatly captures the ethos of the whole enterprise: "عودوا إلى الشارع، آيها الرفاق، تعودوا إلى الوضوح" (“Return to the street, dear friends/comrades, and you will return to clarity”). Something we might all do more often.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Apologies in advance, from a Brit to Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with my original italics restored]

Starting tomorrow, the United Kingdom will embark on no fewer than four days of state-imposed, taxpayer-funded celebration of the country’s hereditary dictatorship. Her Majesty Elizabeth II (to use a much-abbreviated version of her official title) has now held the throne for sixty years – comfortably surpassing the reigns of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad combined – a fact for which millions of her subjects will be gathering over the course of the compulsory holiday to express their delight and gratitude.

The BBC – whose journalistic integrity on matters monarchical approximates that of a Stalinist propaganda rag – has a fawning promotional guide to the events, which are almost comically tedious: a barge flotilla on the Thames here; a lawn picnic there; a Gary Barlow concert over there. There’s even going to be a “service of thanksgiving” at St Paul’s Cathedral, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, for which a “special prayer” has been drafted “at The Queen’s direction”. One line “thanks and praises” the Almighty for “blessing” Britain with “ELIZABETH [sic], our beloved and glorious Queen”, thus reaffirming the nakedly theocratic notion – popular with despots since time immemorial – that the sovereign has been personally hand-picked by God.

This festival of dictator worship would be regrettable enough were it merely confined to British soil. But it appears there are mortifying plans to export the hysteria to Lebanon, in what is being billed as ‘Britweek’. One might have thought that in the current regional upheavals, the representatives of leader-for-life autocracies might keep something of a lower profile – none more so than Liz, who was spotted last month lunching cozily with the sanguinary King of Bahrain, among other tyrants.

But then, keeping a low profile in the Middle East has never exactly been a British specialty. For what it’s worth, some of us – this Brit included – have at least some sense of shame, and of contrition. Sorry, Lebanon.

NB: If you’re in Britain and would like to demonstrate against the celebrations, see here for details of the official Jubilee Protest, organised by the fine people at Republic.

After Houla, will Ankara act?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Ever since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan memorably compared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Hitler and Mussolini last November, Ankara has looked to be among the governments most receptive to the idea of military intervention in Syria. This was underscored in March when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately rejected proposals by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for the creation of military and humanitarian ‘buffer zones’, as revealed by commentator Tony Badran in a NOW Lebanon exclusive. Naturally, then, eyes will again be on Ankara in the wake of last weekend’s mass killings in Houla, which left 108 civilians dead, including 49 children, according to UN figures. In response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Wednesday ordered all Syrian diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours, and warned of potential “further measures” to be taken.

In fact, some say that Turkey has already started intervening covertly. The Henry Jackson Society Middle East specialist and occasional NOW Lebanon contributor Michael Weiss reported last Tuesday that the Turkish army had begun arming and training the Syrian opposition. “Rebel sources in Hatay told me last night that not only is Turkey supplying light arms to select battalion commanders, it is also training Syrians in Istanbul. Men from the unit I was embedded with were vetted and called up by Turkish intelligence in the last few days and large consignments of AK-47s are being delivered by the Turkish military to the Syrian-Turkish border,” wrote Weiss, who had reported from Hatay for NOW the previous week.

Weiss elaborated on this in conversation with NOW. “At the moment, it’s just Kalashnikovs, paid for by Gulf countries, probably through third-party intermediaries. A US government source tells me there are RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] too but the rebels haven’t confirmed that. In any case, it’s not what they need to defeat the regime. If you ask them, they tell you they need anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons; stingers and cobras. My guess is this is a kind of trial phase, to see how they get on. And we’ve already begun to see some results; they’ve liberated some key areas of Idlib in the last few days.”

NOW has been unable to confirm this report independently. Maher Esber, a Syrian opposition activist with close ties to rebels on the ground, says that Free Syria Army personnel in Turkey are currently working independently of the government. Both the Hurriyet columnist Mustafa Akyol and the ORSAM analyst Oytun Orhan told NOW that while they had heard similar rumors, they had seen no concrete evidence as yet. Weiss, however, asserted that both a US government source and an American journalist currently embedded with the rebels have corroborated the story. “I think it’s definitely true – I don’t see any reason the rebels would make this up when just two weeks ago they were complaining to me that they hadn’t received anything,” he added.

As for whether Houla will become the “turning point” in the conflict that the US State Department said on Tuesday that it “hoped” for, analysts seem skeptical. “There have been a lot of turning points,” said Orhan sarcastically. “Houla might be one of them. But while countries will surely increase pressure on Syria, in practice it’s difficult to do anything that really helps the opposition. We’ll see some strong words being exchanged, and various declarations being made, but I don’t think any country, not even Turkey, will take military measures alone.”

Weiss agreed, echoing Orhan’s refrain that, “There were lots of turning points. [The siege of] Baba Amr was supposed to be a turning point. But the UN Security Council statement wasn’t that significant. We now know that fewer than 20 of the victims were killed by shelling – the bulk were executed by the shabiha [pro-regime militiamen] – so what the UNSC did was blame Assad for the minority of the deaths, while leaving open the question of who killed the rest. So, naturally, the regime and the Russians now say it was the opposition that did it, which is patently false. Once again the Security Council has effectively bought the regime more time.

“So I doubt this can be turned into anything significant at the level of international action. Turkey is very keen to establish buffer zones, but it can’t and won’t do anything without American consent. And we come back to the fact that, in an election year, President Obama of all presidents is not going to involve himself in a Middle Eastern conflict.”

Indeed, with Russia stating plainly on Thursday that its “consistent” position on Syria will not yield to “pressure,” the diplomatic impasse that has hitherto immobilized the Security Council looks set to persist. Short of direct, unilateral, boots-on-the-ground intervention, then, Turkey and its allies against Assad are left with few options but to covertly fund and arm the rebels – a course of action that may well be already underway.

Nadine Elali and Luna Safwan contributed reporting to this article.