“Please Take Us Out, We Are Dying Here”

Refugee camp in Damascus, Syria
Yarmouk camp, Damascus. Source: Guardian

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, what story do they have to tell when they come together like this? Are they adjectives, like: unbelievable, devastating, unimaginable, inconceivable, inhuman, insane, unreal, depressing, miserable, heartbreaking, despairing, powerless? Or nouns, like: hell, dignity, destruction, fear, sympathy, ocean, humanity, mercy, rubble, refugee, hunger, impoverished?

There are images from this world that baffle me, simply floor me. This was one of them. But then I saw the BBC video from the camp and I think it managed to chip away at what remaining hope I have left for humanity. I think it may have been the little boy at the end of the piece.

This visual documentation of our collective shame is absolutely haunting, in the true sense of the word. It’s easy to look for blame, and it’s even easier to point to those in positions of leadership that have failed us once again. But the truth of the matter is, politics aside, this is a shame for the Arab world to bear. It takes an entire population to allow for something like this to happen, and remain absolutely still.

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, this picture only needs one: shame.

Who’s Afraid Of An Alternative Homeland?

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I have to start by saying this video is a fantastic communication product. Aired as part of a news program, it’s designed to stubbornly drive home a single message, and attempts to grind it in to the public consciousness: Jordan is Jordan and Palestine is Palestine. If you stand back and watch this through a zoomed out lens, it’s like the King is giving an interactive presentation, and at minute three he actually does. Speaking about his rejection of the alternative homeland – the legendary plan to transfer remaining Palestinians in to Jordan – the King, in fairly informal language, provides us with evidence of his uniformity on the issue: a string of his comments on the alternative homeland from the past decade or so.

The video exposes us to what the King likely genuinely believes regarding this issue. It is obviously one he finds annoying and bordering on the absurd, as he demonstrates. Many have commented on the shift in tone, and that too is fairly apparent throughout. But aside from the aesthetics, I wanted to dig a bit deeper in to what the King is actually saying rather than just how he’s saying it.

He comments about how seasonal this issue is, and he’s right about that. Like clockwork, we’ve come to rely on it rearing its head almost every year in recent times. He comments about Jordan’s proactive role in the peace process as necessary, and he’s right about that too. He says we have much more important issues to deal with, and that also is (partially) true. He mentions the existence of a “group” of people that are responsible for fueling this issue, and subsequently social discord.

And this is the part I found most interesting. Not the discovery of a group of “responsible parties”, but rather the King’s framing of the issue as a matter of sedition. That term itself – fitna – isn’t a casual one to throw around, as any Jordanian journalist that has seen the inside of a courtroom will tell you.

However, the reason the King describes this issue as fueling social discord indicates that there is naturally a social dimension that is at odds with the concept of the alternative homeland – a dimension that is threatening enough that it warrants annual royal intervention. It suggests that the very notion of the alternative homeland aggravates us some how on a societal level. The natural question to ask here is: why? Why are we aggravated? What makes us so uncomfortable with the idea? The answers are usually alluded to but never really addressed head on.

It probably needs no pointing out, but there is no unified interpretation of what an alternative Palestinian homeland in Jordan actually means. Every side has their agenda, and subsequently, their interpretation. The Jordanian right tends to subscribe to interpretations from the Israeli right, which are usually absolutist and therefore somewhat illusionary in nature. It’s an extremist interpretation that suggests we would wake up one day to find a new flag, new national anthem and new leadership. Meanwhile, the more nuanced interpretations sound too conspiratorial. The alternative homeland is usually painted as a phased plan, agreed upon behind closed doors, and involves a gradual demographic encroachment on Jordanian soil, the expansion of the occupation in the West Bank, followed by neoliberal economic policies that seek to remake the Jordanian identity as an effectively neutralized global and capitalist identity.

And that, I suppose, is the magic word yet again. Identity. That’s really what makes us uncomfortable; that’s where the social discord lies, that’s the elephant in the room. The alternative homeland is merely a thorn in its side. There is an entire population out there that drops all logic to the floor when the issue of an alternative homeland arises, and becomes emotionally driven. It’s because the issue provokes the question of identity: they are thinking about what the establishment of an alternative homeland on Jordanian soil would mean for them and their collective. Where do they fit in the scheme? Are the old social contracts invalidated? What new social realities will they face in an alternative homeland? All the while, Fragmented and subjective narratives of 1970 history – a past attempt to create an alternative homeland – streams through the mind like a film reel.

In the video, the King suggests (11:20) that Jordanian citizens silence one another should the topic of an alternative homeland ever be brought up in everyday conversation. Playing to cultural norms, he strategically shrouds the issue in shame, rendering it shameful to even discuss. But the problem with this approach is that it builds on a continued policy of sweeping the biggest societal issue under the rug, or perhaps in our case, throwing the rug on top of the elephant and hoping no one notices. Our inability to reconcile who we are as Jordanians fuels our inability to trust one another, which means conspiracies like the alternative homeland will continue to circulate whether the list of names the King has are published or not next year.

The strategy of silence is largely responsible for allowing the issue of national identity to fester, and manifest in different shapes and forms, the alternative homeland being only one of them. The Arab Spring has pushed this unstable identity in to more hostile waters,  providing an open invitation for different parties to manipulate the issue for an assortment of reasons.

But the agenda of those who fan the flames isn’t very relevant to me so much as the fact that there are flames there to fan in the first place. “Responsible parties” are not “creating” social discord – a word that gives the impression something is being manufactured – instead, they are pressing on open wounds already there. And these are wounds that have been poked by different actors for different purposes, including the state. So, it’s quite possible that one can shame certain “responsible parties” from poking the wound and aggravating society, but the wound remains the same.

The King was right when he said the Arab Spring presented an opportunity for Jordan. My personal fear is that failing to address this wound is perhaps the biggest opportunity we’re missing.

On Jordan’s Tribal Myth

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Who would’ve thought it, but after MP Mustafah Hamarneh gave a talk on tribes and was criticized for it by MP Adbul Kareem Dughmi in parliament, a heated debate on the role of tribes has finally found some place in the public sphere. Hamarneh claimed he was not insulting Jordanian tribes when he said that they were turning in to militias, and essentially, his talk really boiled down to building a country based on citizenship rather than allegiances to tribal affiliations. It seems to me that the missing context for all this has actually been the peace talks. Centered squarely in HM King Abdullah’s portfolio, critics have been fanning the flames of skepticism, resurrecting the age-old tried-and-tested fantasy of the “alternative homeland”; a secret plan to move all Palestinians in to Jordan and declare it their new country. To even consider this as an option is considered sinful by most Jordanians (regardless of origin), not only because it would mean a complete surrender of historic Palestine, but also because such a move would force Jordan to grapple with it’s biggest elephant in the room: our national identity.

It is the topic that poisons every well. For example, only several weeks ago there seemed to be some mobilization over granting Jordanian mother’s the right to pass on their citizenship to their children, a struggle that has been a constant fixture of the activist landscape for years now. The news was greeted with some jubilation, but the fight was far from over as ultra-nationalists spent the weeks that followed vilifying the issue, and framing it as yet another attempt to destroy our fragile social makeup – the one that supposedly maintains the political status quo. The issue was no longer about the right of a Jordanian mother to give her kid the same rights his peers have, but rather how granting such rights would turn Jordan into Palestine.

So this seems to represent the contextual backdrop on top of which this sudden debate about tribes has emerged, and it’s one that is also articulated somewhat by columnist Mohammad Abu Rumman. If you note Dughmi’s attack on Hamarneh, they are all thrown in to the same pot. One might argue that given the sensitive politicization, this would be the absolute worst time to advocate for these causes, or have a debate about the elephant in the room. But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps this is the absolute best time to start that conversation.

Dughmi throws a grenade and sits back to watch other MPs pounce like well-trained lackeys. If that wasn’t political orchestration, then I don’t know what is.
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Virginia Tech Class Invites HM King Abdullah For A Talk

This caught my eyes today: a video of Professor Boyer of Virginia Tech and his World Region class gleefully inviting HM King Abdullah to speak to them about the region. I thought it was a message worth passing on if only because I haven’t seen that many white people cheering “JORDAN! JORDAN!” in unison since Michael Jordan won the 1998 NBA Championship. Good times.

But in the interest of academia (and sleeping better knowing there are more young Americans who can now confidently point to Jordan on a map upon request) – I pass this message on. Who knows. Maybe it’ll catch the right eyes.

Update:

Right on time.

Reviewing: The Square (الميدان)

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The Square is a beautifully crafted chronicle of Egypt’s ongoing revolution that, from beginning to end, manages to inspire, dispirit, and then fill your heart with a renewed sense of hope. I know others will be reviewing this film in the weeks and months to come as it (hopefully) gains momentum, but I wanted to talk about it from what is perhaps a personal perspective; as a young Arab who felt, as many did, connected to something greater on that day in February when Mubarak stepped down. Because sometimes you watch a film, especially a documentary, and you can’t help but connect it to a personal context, to find out where it fits in your viewing of history.

On January 31st, a week after the sit-in in Cairo’s Tahrir Square began, my mother passed away after a long battle with cancer. In her hospital ward at the Jordan University Hospital, I can remember how all the TVs were tuned to Al Jazeera as it broadcasted the beginning of all this. Now Jordanian funerals are typically forums for social chatter, designed to tactfully distract a family in mourning, so politics is always a convenient conversational tool to that end. And naturally, Egypt was all anyone could talk about. Many Jordanians had already taken to the streets and their protests translated in to a quick changing of the government. But uncertainty plagued everything, and it felt like everyone in Jordan seemed more concerned with Egypt, putting down bets on what would happen next. Egypt was monumental in our minds. There was that subtle, conventional recognition that the way Egypt goes, so goes the rest of the region. I’m not sure how much of that is true any more.

But then came that moment, which I can only describe as the closest thing to the moon-landing my generation of 20-something year old Arabs had ever witnessed. Mubarak’s speech was a mass event. His words embossed with defiance while the other half of the screen – the Square – roared in anger. And what a roar that was. It rendered that speech his final one. Personally, it was the strangest few days and weeks of my life; a potent mix of personal melancholy, and Egypt providing the only glimpse of a light at the end of that dark, dark tunnel. It was a tremendous moment, reality-altering even – when you see millions of people your age stream in to a public square and try to take back what’s rightfully theirs, realizing their own sense of collective power – that’s Neo choosing to take the red pill in The Matrix. It is a moment that caused a permanent mental shift; a new realization of the limits of possibility. That was the moment that, for better or worse, I think made most of us realize that something had been unleashed that couldn’t be put back in the box.
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Reviewing Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Pussy Riot

“Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it”, reads the Bertolt Brecht quote in the film’s opening sequence. A fitting statement. Brecht, a German poet, playwright and prominent Marxist among other things, was also an artist familiar with both state repression and the inner workings of a courtroom. Fleeing Nazi Germany only to find himself in the heightened nationalist fervor of America’s Cold War era, Brecht was questioned by the House of Un-American Activities, and was the eleventh member of the “Hollywood Ten” who originally refused to testify, but changed his mind. Appearing in court in overalls and puffing a cigar, Brecht was questioned about his ties to Soviet Russia and the Communist party, but managed throughout the questioning, to literally lose his adversaries in translation. Fast forward to today, and the Russia Brecht was questioned about is a different one. Only not entirely.

The first thing you need to know about Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, is that this isn’t a documentary about Pussy Riot. It’s not a documentary about feminism or even post-Soviet politics of Russia under Putin. It only kind of is. In fact, this is a story about disruption. It is a story about what happens when a group of people – in this case, young women – contest the political status quo in a repressive environment; it is a film about what happens when you cast a stone in to a pond. It is about disruption; it is a vivid examination in to what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Both the force and object could have been anything really; the stage could have been set anywhere, and perhaps the ideological drivers could have been anything, held by anyone. And that is perhaps the universality of the message this documentary tries to deliver in the span of 90 minutes.
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