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December 2013

Osama Alomar, Syrian writer

lydia-davis-alomar-intro.jpgThe following introduction is from “Fullblood Arabian,” a collection of stories by Osama Alomar, translated by C. J. Collins, which will be released by New Directions later this week.Osama Alomar, a young Syrian writer who has been living here in the United States for the past five years, belongs at once to several different important literary traditions. Most immediately evident are two: that of the writer driven into exile from his own country and culture; and that of the writer of very short stories.The plight of a writer who has an established reputation in his own country, and none at all here in his adopted country is a plight shared, of course, with immigrants of other professions, including, for instance, the Puerto Rican lawyer who leaves a thriving practice in his native country to manage a grocery store in Massachusetts; or the Jewish scholar or physician who flees Nazi Germany to work in a textile factory in New York. It involves a profoundly disturbing change of identity in his new world, and often in his own eyes. His identity in his new community is, in a sense, a necessary disguise; and he faces the challenge of holding his two identities in balance, adjusting himself to the new, keeping the old alive. Alomar left a culture in which his prize-winning fiction and poetry had been published in four collections to date, appeared regularly in literary journals, was shared out loud with appreciative others in convivial living-room gatherings. By contrast, his writing is known here only to a few. How fortunate, then, that with this first collection of stories in English he will begin to find an audience both in the U.S. and in the larger Anglophone culture.

The other tradition to which Alomar most obviously belongs—in this case by choice—is that of the very short story. But this tradition is complicated, for within this genre, we have different traditions and different types. While Alomar is working within his own particular cultural heritage, he is of course also sharing in a wider international legacy of the very short story or prose poem, the more contemporary part of which spans more than a century at least: from the prose poems of Baudelaire in the mid-nineteenth century, to those of Francis Ponge and other French poets of the twentieth; the lyrical and nostalgic real-life stories of the early twentieth-century Viennese Peter Altenberg and the quirky numbered “handbook” instructions of the Bohemian / Czech Dadaist and pacifist Walter Serner; the Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s grim and syntactically complex paragraph-long stories in The Voice Imitator; the self-denigrating, anti-climactic, quarrelsome tales of the Soviet Daniil Kharms; the lyrical autobiographical sequence of the Spanish Luis Cernuda; and the pointed philosophical narratives of the contemporary Dutch writer A. L. Snijders (whose term, zkv or zeer korte verhaal—very short story— means exactly the same thing as Alomar’s al-qisa al-qasira jiddan); to mention only a few.

And then, there are the literary traditions in which the very short story shares, and Alomar’s work with it, including moral tales, fairy tales, works of magical realism, coming-of-age novels, and so forth ad infinitum. I read, for instance, Alomar’s “Conversation of the Breezes” and I hear, suddenly, an echo of the voice of the swallow in Oscar Wilde’s very moving late nineteenth-century tale, “The Happy Prince.” I read his “Sea Journey,” in which a weary office worker dreams of delirious adventures in the waves and wakes to find he is late for work, and I am reminded not only of Kafka but also of the great early twentieth-century Dutch writer Nescio, both of whom so vividly evoke the man of imagination stuck within the rigid entrenched bureaucracy of the madly irksome office routine. Again I think of Nescio’s classic, Amsterdam Stories, with its interrelated stories of three pals growing up together, and also of a long early section of the multi-volume My Struggle, by the contemporary Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, when I read Alomar’s “Dividing Line,” one of the rare longer stories in the book and a succinct and crystalline tale of adolescent exuberance, heedlessness, rebellion, and epiphany. And—to return to the short form—Alomar’s insidious and powerful tale, “The Hammer and the Nail,” deploying personification with such utter ease and inevitability, reminds me of the terrifying absurdist domestic fables of the contemporary American poet Russell Edson, while the eccentricity and anguish underlying the occasional simple friendly tale reminds me of the weird and powerful work of the Brazilian Clarice Lispector, one of whose main forms was also the short story.

Although my frame of reference may be international, it is not particularly Syrian, which is of course my own loss. I have turned to Alomar’s translator, C. J. Collins, to learn what, in Alomar’s Syrian or Arabic heritage, have been the sources of his inspiration, particularly in the short form, and he has given me some interesting insights into the history of the form in the Middle East, both recent and older: there was an explosion of this form of writing in Syria in the 1990s; it became popular in magazines and newspapers as an expression of frustration at Syria’s bureaucracy and corruption and lack of freedom of expression. In an economically depressed time, too, there was a demand for the densest, briefest, most compressed of stories—a longer literary work was in fact a luxury—and these were shared and circulated freely and spontaneously, like personal anecdotes.

One of the best-known contemporary practitioners of the Arabic-language short story is the Syrian Zakaria Tamer, now in his eighties—many of his story collections have been translated into English and are available here. Going back another fifty years, there is the Lebanese literary and political rebel Khalil Gibran, with his formally innovative spiritual stories or prose poems, hugely popular in the American counter-culture of the sixties and an important influence on Alomar (Gibran himself being profoundly influenced by the earlier cosmopolitan Syrian prose poet Francis Marrash, who died in 1873). But the very short form has its roots in various Arabic literary traditions that go back to the Middle Ages and before, one important example being the mammoth story compilation One Thousand and One Nights (whose multi-cultural origins lie in the tenth century or arguably even earlier) and fable traditions like the Panchatantra, a third-century Indian set of linked animal tales imported into Arabic in the eighth century as the Kalila wa Dimna.

The personification of animal characters in the Kalila wa Dimna, for instance, finds its direct descendent in the naturalness and conviction with which Alomar personifies many of his protagonists, whether they be natural elements—the ocean, a lake, fire and water, breezes, clouds—or everyday objects such as a wistful and ambitious drop of oil, that cruel hammer and that gullible nail, a proud bag of garbage—or, yet again, abstractions such as freedom and time, allowing us to move easily into the alternate reality created in so many of these stories, whose forms range from moral fable to political fable to political allegory, to myth, to realistic moral tale, even to undisguised political statement, as in the title story “Fullblood Arabian” with its crushing final sentence.

The range of forms within this collection is matched by the versatility with which Alomar shifts tone, subject matter, and even structure from one story to the next. While some of the tales are explicitly angry or bitter, others are ironically detached, and still others make their point with a piece of sly wit, one of these being “The Pride of the Garbage,” in which a bag loaded with garbage, in its vainglory, is satisfied only if it is placed on the very top of the heap of bags bound for the dump. Formally, some stories proceed straight to the final shock or stunning image, as in “The Drop,” with its beautiful closing opposition of earth and sky. In others, the focus shifts smoothly, subtly, and naturally throughout the story, so that, to our surprise, the subject turns out to be something quite other than what we expected.

Such is the case in “Expired Eyes,” where the firm grounding of the plot in a realistic situation (a man enters his apartment after a day at work) allows us to accept its fantastical, perhaps futuristic ending (the man goes to his doctor to acquire a set of new eyes): here, realism is skillfully deployed, along with a reverberating emotional truth, in the service of fantasy. In Alomar’s stories, however, fantasy never devolves into mere whimsy. His magical imaginative creations are, every one, inspired by his deeply felt philosophical, moral, and political convictions, giving these tales a heartfelt urgency.

“Tongue Tie,” one of the simplest, neatest, and hardest-hitting, in its humorous restraint, ably illustrates this and can be quoted in full, being also one of the briefest:

Before leaving for work I tied my tongue into a great tie. My colleagues congratulated me on my elegance. They praised me to our boss, who expressed admiration and ordered all employees to follow my example!

* * *
Four stories by gtranslated from the Arabic by C. J. Collins with the author:

FULLBLOOD ARABIANTHE FIRST, wistfully: “If only I were a fullblood Arabian horse!”

THE SECOND, disdainfully: “Would you wish to be an animal when God in his mercy has created you as a human who belongs to a great and ancient nation proud of its glorious history?”

THE FIRST: “Man, don’t you know that the value of a fullbood Arabian horse in this world is far greater than the value of a fullblood Arabian human?”
THE PRIDE OF GARBAGEWhen the owner of the house picked up the bag of garbage and headed out to the street to throw it in the dumpster, the bag was overwhelmed with the fear that she would be put side by side with her companions. But when the man placed her on top of all the others, she became intoxicated with her greatness and looked down at them with disdain.
A DROPA drop of dried blood on the ground looked at the setting sun with an expression full of sadness. “Why do people look at that giant drop with happiness while they look at me with fear?” she asked in a weak voice. “We share the same roots!”

A reply came to her from somewhere unknown: “Because you are fixed to the surface of the earth and she is fixed to the sky.”
EXPIRED EYESClimbing up the steps to his home one night after working late, he staggered back and forth from exhaustion, carrying paper bags filled with fruits and vegetables. After entering the apartment and putting down the bags, he opened the door to his bedroom and was shocked to see his wife making love with insane ardor to a friend of their son’s. She glanced up at him, deliberately flashing him looks of malicious gloating. He rubbed his eyes hard and opened them to see her humbly performing her prayers. He rubbed his eyes again, this time with furious intensity, and opened them to see her dancing completely naked in front of the window that faced the house of their young neighbor. He closed his eyes in horror, rubbing them with two hands like tornadoes. When he opened them again, his wife was there, inviting him to share breakfast in bed, her eyes brimming with love and tenderness.

He knew then that the allotted time of his eyes had expired. He visited the most famous eye doctor in the country to have two new ones implanted—specially ordered fresh from the factory. And from that day on, he saw his wife exactly as he desired.

Lydia Davis received this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Her next collection of stories, “Can’t and Won’t” will be published next year.

C. J. Collins is a student of Arabic and a librarian currently based in Grafton, New York.

Osama Alomar was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1968, and is now living in Chicago. He is the author of three collections of short stories and a volume of poetry in Arabic, and performs as a musician. His short stories have been published by Noon, Conjunctions.com, The Coffin Factory, Electric Literature, and The Literary Review.

Photograph: Christopher Anderson/Magnum

 

see the full article here

Charlie Chaplin Factory scenes

Syria conflict: Barrel bombs show brutality of war

By Jonathan Marcus BBC defence correspondent

Citizen journalism image from Aleppo Media Centre of damage from barrel bombs
Activists said more than 70 people were killed when barrel bombs hit Aleppo in mid-December

For all the attention given to the issue of chemical weapons in Syria the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of deaths and injuries – especially civilian deaths and injuries – are caused by conventional weapons.

Many of them – like the barrel bombs reportedly used again in Aleppo by Syrian government forces during recent days – are home-made, relatively crude and totally indiscriminate in their impact.

The barrel bomb is essentially a large, home-made incendiary device. An oil barrel or similar cylindrical container filled with petrol, nails or other crude shrapnel, along with explosives.  With an appropriate fuse, they are simply rolled out of a helicopter.

The first recorded use of such weapons  goes back to late-August 2012.

Since then, weapons experts like the blogger Brown Moses and human rights groups have closely monitored their role in the conflict.

Large pipes were initially used but more recent examples have been more the size of oil drums. The weapons have been captured on video both in storage from a site overrun by rebel forces and also in at least one instance actually being rolled out of a government helicopter. Unexploded munitions have also been photographed.

Incendiary weapons which are defined as those intended to cause injury “through the action of flame or heat” are banned from use in populated civilian areas under the terms of the UN Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons. While Syria is not a party to the convention, the campaigning group Human Rights Watch has insisted that the employment of these weapons constitutes a war crime and that those responsible should be held to account.

International efforts to condemn the use of such weapons have been stymied again this week with Russia reportedly refusing to back a Western-proposed text at the UN Security Council that would have condemned the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for carrying out such indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.

Syrians inspect the rubble of damaged buildings following a Syrian government airstrike in Aleppo on 17 December.
Rebels say government forces have been using barrel bombs in Aleppo for days

Why use them?

A spokesman for the US delegation reacted angrily, noting that the US was  “very disappointed that a Security Council statement expressing our collective outrage at the brutal and indiscriminate tactics employed by the Syrian regime against civilians has been blocked”.

This, of course, is consistent with Moscow’s broader diplomatic approach. As one of the Syrian government’s few allies, it has blocked any concerted UN Security Council action on Syria.

Quite why the Syrian government should resort to the use of these home-made munitions is unclear.

While in no sense accurate, they are probably easier to deploy from helicopters over built-up areas.

Hitting such targets with fast-moving fixed-wing aircraft would be more difficult.

Syria of course has also used a variety of Russian-supplied air-delivered cluster munitions which again are highly indiscriminate weapons when used in civilian areas.

The Syrian government’s use of these types of munitions against its own population in rebel-held areas is a measure of the brutality of the conflict, which shows no sign of abating even as plans to remove chemical stocks from the country move into high gear. 

main story

Stop Starvation in Syria | End the Blockades

December 19, 2013

Call to Join the International Hunger Strike

Syrians are slowly dying of malnutrition – but not for lack of food.  A military blockade surrounds dozens of Syrian towns.  This starvation siege prevents 1.5 million Syrians from receiving food or medicine.

Qusai Zakarya is one of them.  He is 28 years old.  Qusai declared a hunger strike on November 26, to demand food and medicine be allowed to reach civilians across military lines in Syria.  “We are all hungry here in my hometown anyway.  Let me be hungry for a purpose,” Qusai says.

We are starting the first phase of a “rolling” solidarity hunger strike onFriday, December 20, where someone will do a hunger strike every day in support of the hunger strikers in Syria through the rest of December.

We are also working on putting together a list of supporters for launching a larger campaign leading up to the Geneva Conference in January.  We are asking that you commit to one day of a symbolic hunger strike and that you give us permission to put your name on the materials to publicize the hunger strikes more widely.  We also ask, if you are able, to send in a photo of yourself or group to stopthesiege@gmail.com, maybe with a sign illustrating your participation.

Our goals:

  • To call for food and medicine now to all besieged towns in Syria.
  • To call for a binding resolution from the UN Security Council requiring the regime in Syria and all armed parties to allow humanitarian organizations immediate unfettered access to aid the civilian population without discrimination, including cross-border access and cross-line access (from regime-controlled areas into rebel-controlled areas).
  • To alert media and political representatives to this situation.
  • To support this act of civil resistance in Syria.

Can you join us this holiday season in standing in solidarity with Syrians?  People of conscience everywhere must act to break the siege that is affecting over a million people. In Solidarity and Hope,

  • Keith Ellison, U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District
  • Razan Ghazzawi, Syrian blogger-activist & former political prisoner
  • Rev. Kristin Stoneking, Executive Director, Fellowship of Reconciliation
  • Gail Daneker, Friends for a Nonviolent World, Director of Peace Education Advocacy
  • Huwaida Arraf, Palestinian American co-founder of International Solidarity Movement
  • Medea Benjamin, Code Pink
  • Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Syrian writer & former political prisoner
  • Mona Eltahawy, Egyptian feminist writer
  • Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Co-Founder of Shomer Shalom Network of Jewish Nonviolence
  • Jawdat Said, Syrian nonviolence teacher for over fifty years
  • Marilyn Hacker, American Poet
  • Mina Hamilton, American Writer
  • Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, Lecturer, University for the Creative Arts
  • Michael Nagler, Metta Center for Nonviolence
  • Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies, University of San Francisco
  • Suad Mohamed, University of Virginia
  • Danny Postel, University of Denver
  • Bob Nechal, Friends for a Nonviolent World
  • Nader Hashemi, University of Denver
  • Raed Fares, Media Office Director for the Town of Kafr Nbel, Syria
  • Afra Jalabi, Syrian Nonviolence Movement
  • Mohja Kahf, Syrian American poet & academic
  • Linda Thomson, Minnesota Peace Project
  • Ian Keith, St Paul Elementary School Teacher
  • Wael Khouli, Physician and Human Rights Activist
  • Mazen Halabi, Community Activist
  • Cathy Murphy, Peace Activist
  • Andy Berman, Veterans for Peace
  • Terry Burke, Friends for a Nonviolent World
  • Nicole Halabi, School Administrator
  • Wendy Tuck, Educator

(organizations listed for identification only)

Join us! Please sign up by sending your information to stopthesiege@gmail.com

Name: Affiliation: Country: E-mail:

source

A Trip to the Border

Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

I’ve just returned from a brief visit to the Syrian/ Turkish border, to the Salaam School for refugee children in Reyhaniyeh on the Turkish side, where I was working with the Karam Foundation, and to Atmeh camp inside Syria, where almost 30,000 people are sheltering from the slaughter. Northern Syria is dotted with similar camps.

You can view pictures from the trip here.

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Something that doesn’t come across in the pictures is how cold it is. Snow was lying on the ground in Atmeh the day before I arrived, and a child had frozen to death. I’ll be writing about my experiences and some of the stories of the people I met. In the meantime, here is the trip summed up by my Facebook status updates:

December 6th – the first stage of my trip to the turkish-syrian border involved being examined at edinburgh airport under schedule seven of the terrorism act (2000). To this the failed human beings of east and west have reduced the syrian people’s revolution.

drank tea and ate knafeh with the teachers of the Salaam School in Reyhaniyeh. very inspiring to see the organised hard work that’s gone into fitting new walls into a villa (and building an olive grove) to make a school which serves over a thousand refugee children. forget Assad, ISIS, and the Coalition – the future of Syria belongs to self-organised and committed Syrian women and men

December 7th – Assad forces backed by foreign Shia terrorists have executed dozens of civilians in Nabk. Watch the silence of the Western media, which seems to have no problem with terrorism and religious extremism when it seeks to preserve the status quo.

December 8th – there are the blue hills of syria, as ethereal as the future, so near and yet so far

December 9th – among the children’s chosen heroes in my storytelling workshop were Robin Hood, Batman, my brother the martyr, my father the martyr, and Sponge Bob. Among the problems to be solved were a dinosaur eating people, a car hitting a pedestrian, my house being shelled, and my cousin stuck in prison.

1000 days of the Syrian people’s revolution. 1000 days of Assad’s genocide. 1000 days of the world’s powers enabling the genocide directly or indirectly. A third of the population homeless. Thawra hatta an-nasr…

tonight the temperature’s at freezing point. a few miles away thousands of children are sleeping in plastic tents or under trees.

December 10th – Razan Zaitouneh

two men from Saraqeb, Idlib province are here with us. One of them lost his mother, grandmother, sister and brother to regime bombing on 15/09/2012 (he was also in the house at the time). these two are part of a team which publish various independent magazines, including Zeitoun wa Zeitounah, a children’s magazine. i saw a copy today. on the front it reads: ‘I have the right to express myself.’ of course the notion of free expression was forbidden by the regime for over four decades. the publication of such magazines is a sign the revolution has already succeeded, alongside the accumulating tragedy.

You sit abroad and read about the regime’s genocide, ISIS’s barbarism, the criminality of some of the free army militias, and you despair. You come near to the heart of the tragedy, a tragedy too enormous to comprehend, and you experience hope and love and inspiration. The struggling Syrian people, the women and men and children, are the most articulate, the warmest and brightest, the kindest and most sensitive, the bravest and most persistent people in the world. Borders and nationalities don’t mean much to me, but I’m enormously proud to be Syrian. I’ve never been prouder.

December 12th – there’s nothing wrong with dancing

I was talking to a teacher today. Her husband was an officer in the Syrian army. He defected because he didn’t want to murder his neighbours. He was captured. Seven months ago he died under torture. His body was thrown in a mass grave. Everybody has a story from this genocide.

December 14th – Atmeh camp, just inside Syria, and nothing has changed for the better since my last visit. More refugees now, less hope of imminent return, and instead of hot, dust-laden wind, melting snow and cold red mud. Despite it all, the people’s hospitality is extreme. People who own almost nothing serving glasses of tea and offering lunch.

spent the evening with a young doctor who worked in a field hospital in kafr batneh, the eastern ghouta, damascus suburbs. the regime has targetted bakeries, schools and hospitals in particular. after the plane fired its missile the doctor found himself swallowing dust, between life and death, trying to make sense and direction of the screams. that was a year and a month ago. he’s recovered, but has a hundred scars on his body and more on his mind. everybody has a story.

December 15th – spent the morning with a woman from Homs whose husband was tortured to death. his body was returned with bullets in the legs, chest and head, covered with burns, and missing chunks of flesh. the widow stayed in Homs until a missile hit her house. she showed me her broken arm and her son’s arm tatooed with burn scars. her little daughter sat listening to the story, which she witnessed, and which she must have heard recounted a thousand times.

something I won’t forget is the biting, burning, bone-deep cold, and the children in the camp in plastic sandals, no socks.

December 16th – I’m preparing to leave, inspired (by the persistence of the Syrian people) and depressed (by the slow death of Syria) in equal measure. I believe our team has made some difference to the children we worked with, and I will write the stories of some of the people I met, but all this is a blue drop in a red ocean of suffering which will continue to expand so long as the fascist regime and its backers are enabled to continue the genocide. The genocide is the prime story, not the Islamist extremism or sectarianism which have been deliberately engineered by the regime. The solution is ultimately not humanitarian, but political and military. In the coming decades we will all pay the price for ignoring this fact.

it doesn’t end. the cab driver who took me from Aziz’s place in Antakya to the airport is from Lattakia and happens to know my family. He and his 15-year-old son were arrested together. “They beat my son until he was nearly dead. They beat me until I wished I were dead.” In a cell with 50 others and a hole in the floor as a toilet, which they had to use in front of each other. Nobody was able to wash in the two months that he was inside. Two months of beatings, insults, humiliation, and near starvation. Then father and son were released, for which he thanks God profusely, because “so many die in their prisons.” Everybody has a story.

Cold Open Presidential address SNL

AIPAC’s Visa Waiver defeated

The House of Representatives left DC for the year just hours ago, and with it they left behind a terrible bill. The US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act included admission for Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program, which would have codified in US law the right for Israel to discriminate against US citizens on the basis of religion or ethnicity.
And now that bill is dead!
Jewish Voice for Peace supporters, working in coalition, played a critical role in this victory:
·     Over the past few months, JVP chapter-led delegations met with their members of Congress in 23 cities to argue against the bill
·     Over 10,000 thousand JVP supporters signed a petition to the State Department
·     Hundreds more participated in call-ins
And it worked! Congress just let the bill die without even a vote on the floor of the House or Senate.
The significance of our win cannot be overstated.
As you know, Arab and Muslim Americans are systematically targeted for harassment, detention, searches, delays, and deportation when trying to enter Israel. Including Israel in the Visa Waiver program with 37 other countries would have tacitly approved and rewarded Israel’s discriminatory practices.
The influential Israel lobby group AIPAC made the bill one of its top priorities for 2013, but it didn’t even get out of committee. AIPAC lost this fight. They lost their fight against diplomacy with Iran. And they lost the fight on bombing Syria.
The lesson here? We can fight AIPAC, and we can win.

عابرون في كلام عابر | محمود درويش

IF ONLY FOR A SECOND // Mimi Foundation // EN

 

see also photo gallery here

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