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Angry Arab

Not Mightier than Ali Farzat’s Pen

The physical attack on Syrian Cartoonist Ali Farzat last week was an important moment in the history of the Syrian uprising. Farzat is not any cartoonist: He is probably one of the most gifted contemporary cartoonists in the Arab world and beyond. Farzat has always reminded me of Michel Foucault: Both study power not in its centralization or as a formal structure but in its diffusion and emanations.


Farzat studies and mocks power in all aspects of our lives. People who think that Farzat attacks only the state or government have not seen his work. One of his most memorable works is a sketch of a man behind bars. But the bars are broken and the man does not leap to freedom. Farzat uses a few strokes and few words: yet the message is powerful and unmistakable. Farzat has worked for Kuwaiti newspapers and his mockery of Saddam’s regime were widely circulated although he was criticized by Syrian regime media, and even accused of “preparing” for the American invasion of Iraq.
Politically speaking, Farzat belongs to the liberal wing of the Syrian uprising: a wing that I have never been fond off. But the talent of Farzat is undeniable, and the cruelty of the attack on him by regime goons is also unmistakable. Farzat’s story was told by Sami Kulayb in a special episode of Aljazeerah Arabic TV show Ziyarah Khassah.

Farzat’s work was largely banned in Syria until he met Bashar Assad in 1999 and the two befriended each other. His cartoons started to appear in Tishrin (a daily mouthpiece of the regime) but the security apparatus and the ministers could not put up with his sarcasm and mockery.

The same newspaper later verbally attacked him and tried to implicate him with the worst conspiracies of Zionism. They called him conceited and arrogant, as if that diminishes his artistic talent.
Farzat was encouraged by the Bashar regime to publish one of the first independent publications during the short-lived Damascus Spring, a brief period of political and social debate encouraged by Assad the son when he assumed the presidency in 2000. I remember that I was eager to obtain the few available copies of Dumari: it was a satirical publication modeled after similar French publications. It was not sharp or effective or original, but it had the work of Farzat. Supporters of the regime spread rumors about him and point out some political positions he has taken (included some statements that were attributed to him in which he seemed to justify the American invasion of Iraq).
But the fact remains: Farzat’s work is most original. Unlike the work of Lebanese cartoonist, Pierre Sadiq (formerly of An-Nahar newspaper), Farzat is never direct or vulgar or obvious. He is deep in an art form that rarely knows depth. It can be said that Farzat’s work is dedicated to the demolishment of the dictator’s persona, and to the ways in which media are used to the benefit of the dictator.


The picture of Farzat in his hospital bed will live and will be seen as one of those moments in revolutionary times (maybe like “The Death of Marat” by Jean-Louis David for the French Revolution). That the attackers targeted his fingers indicates how powerful those fingers are. It is possible that the regime is settling scores: there are no talents to speak of on the side of the regime (singers `Ali Ad-Dik or Muhammad Iskandar, the notorious Lebanese misogynistic singer, are on the side of the regime), while Farzat and the splendid singer, Asalah, represent the Syrian uprising. Years from now, people will still be talking about the art work of `Ali Farzat, while the Baath Party will be relegated to the footnotes of Syrian history.


(Un)covering Syria

The state of coverage of Syria could not have been worse.  It is a battle of vulgar propaganda between the regime on the one hand, and the Saudi and Qatari media on the other hand.  

Of course, the tyrannies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are raising the banner of democracy, and they want us to believe that.  AlJazeera’s propaganda is more feverish and intense than Al-Arabiyya (the news station of King Fahd’s brother-in-law).  Tantawi sugar deal with Emir of Qatar is evident in the absence of coverage (or just barely) on the channel.  

Today, I did not find anything.  They want to cover up for Tantawi to the end, the way they are covering up for the Bahraini ruling family.  They report on the “dialogue” session in Bahrain as if it is a democratic development.  

Yesterday, I watched Syrian regime TV: they lie so blatantly.  According to the regime, there is still a roving criminal and terrorist network that travels around the country and shoots at protesters and at regime security men (they call them “law preserving forces” which in Arabic can also mean “regime preserving forces”).  

The narrator read a propagandistic report accompanied by footage of kids throwing rocks (presumably to prove that they are “terrorist”–the Syrian regime must have learned that from Israel).  Yesterday, they thought they found evidence of the terrorist network: they showed a grainy picture of a guy shooting.  Kid you not.  I don’t know what North Korean TV is like, but they remind me of it for some reason.  (I remember that Patrick Seale once told me that the English language daily of the regime is modeled–literally–after the North African daily).

 There is also the pattern of surrealism: they hold hours of discussion about some technical issue.  Yesterday, the reporter went to the street and asked people what “civilization” means.  I thought that they were playing on the classist bias of some Syrians who look at the protesters as low class (many refer to them in pejoratively classist terms as “Fathers of slippers” Or as shoeless).  

One reporter asked a woman whether civilization has to require certain conditions of upringing. It was just bizarre.  I saw a propagandist of the regime on Al-Arabiyya: he was going after Syrian dissident, Haytham Al-Malih, and he said:  “he looks like a fuel vendor on the street”.  I was so furious.  He did not like the suit and tie that Malih had on, it seems.  

What a joke: the Ba`th Party used to pretend to champion poor people and now this propagandist of repression is complaining about one guy’s appearance because it reminded him of a street vendor.  The Ba`th Party should change its motto: to fragmentation, repression, and Rami Makhluf and his cronies.  That is the true Ba`th Party.  

Aljazeera, on the other hand, continues its unbelievable and propaganda intensity.  They now rely on reports by “internet activists”.  I kid you not.  But say what you want about them, I admire their “eyewitnesses”.  Their one eye witness, “Abu Muhammad” is capable of seeing protests from his window in 10 cities and towns simultaneously.  The channel should also change its motto.  It should become: the opinion of the Qatari royal family–backed by Abu Muhammad’s report. 



As’ad Abukhalil@ ‘from Washington (in Arabic)

And Tamim Barghouthi

[2010.11.29]-As’ad Abukhalil on Cablegate @ DemocracyNow

The anguish of the murderous occupiers: the liberal Zionism of Eric Alterman

Since I came to this country, I have always believed that the worst Zionists in the US are the liberal Zionists–because they are so bad and don’t even know it. They are bad and yet they think they are good. Right-wing Zionists in the US are blatantly racists and are bigoted toward Arabs and Muslims and make no bone about it. Not the case with liberal Zionists. Take this guy, Eric Alterman: I have mentioned him before. He is callous and insensitive toward the Palestinians but yet have a very high opinion of himself as a sensitive liberal when all his writings on the Palestinians and Arabs in general drip with racism and contempt for the natives. And I can tell you this: whenever I read in any article the use of the word “anguish” I know immediately what I will get. As in: “Israeli anguish is also front and center.” This word is used always to imply that the suffering of the oppressed and occupied matches the suffering of the murderous occupiers because when they kill (as in the movie Waltz with War Crimes) they sometimes spend sleepless nights and that you therefore should show sympathy for the killers because the killing business sometimes distress them. And then this Alterman guy argues that the lives of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank is not bad. His evidence? A reporter for the occupiers in Haaretz. What is the difference between this contention by Alterman and those white supremacist writers in the 19th century who argued that slaves are content and that they should be left in their conditions of slavery. But then again: what do you expect from somebody who seeks the moral voice in the writings of Amos Oz, who more than anybody else in contemporary Zionist writings popularized the dehumanization of the Palestinian people? Amos Oz who never met a war (including the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 and the recent war on Gaza) by Israel that he did not endorse: although he usually comes out towards the end of every war to say, that Israel has rightly killed enough Arabs and now may stop. That is considered by Alterman and by other Zionist advocates of Israeli supremacy as a moral stance.

Revolution Airport: Ghassan Kanafani and Wadi` Haddad

from Angry Arab :
When I received the new book, “Revolution Airport: In the Shadow of Ghassan Kanafani” [in Arabic] by `Adnan Badr, yesterday I knew that it was the book that you could not put down until you complete it. I finished it yesterday and it is written by a person who works in the media department of the PFLP without him being technically a member of the PFLP. He worked closely with Ghassan, and provides a vivid picture of him. His account of Wadi` Haddad also sheds new light about his personality, and also provides a picture (unpublished before) of media sensitivity (by Haddad). He also reveals (for the first time in print, to my knowledge) that Kanafani did not hold any position of leadership within the Front at the time of his death, although the obituary by the PFLP after his assassination claimed that he was a member of the Politburo. It is an honest and interesting account of an interesting political era where the names of Habash, Haddad, and Kanafani dominated press accounts of Palestinian struggle (compare that to today, where the names of Rajjub, Dahlan, and Fayyad dominate press accounts of Palestinian politics). The writer is a Syrian leftist who was drawn into Palestinain struggle inspired by George Habash. He talks about his brief love story with one of the flight attendants of one of the hijacked planes in 1970 (Is the American “Vicky” still around in Philadelphia?). He also talks about the splits within the PFLP and talks about the Stalinist methods and jargon of Hashim `Ali Muhsin and his role at the time. The account is biased in favor of the people with whom `Adnan worked: like Kanafani and later Bassam Abu Sharif. Toward the end, the book took a bizarre twist: the author has words of praise for Arafat, and reveals his close ties to the Iraqi political leadership who were willing to welcome a Syrian dissident (just as the Syrian regime would welcome Iraqi political dissidents–it was part of the war between the two lousy regimes). This book, however, is an important and original contribution to the literature on the era: and the author knew what he was talking about, unlike those terrorism experts who write about Wadi` Haddad and company. He mentions that first meeting between Yuri Andropov and Wadi` Haddad but he did not mention that Haddad was later coopted by Andropov, and Haddad would say this to senior PFLP leaders in later years. Haddad felt he was compelled after Habash and company distanced themselves from Haddad’s actions in November 1971 in that famous Central Committee meeting of the Front.


Be skeptical: American polling of the Arab world

From Angry Arab
“The Greenberg polls found that The Israel Project had its work cut out for it in building Israel’s image in the Arab world. Asked separate questions about their attitude toward Israel and Jews, Palestinians and Jordanians had a universally and completely negative response to both. Egyptians were only somewhat less hostile. On the other hand, a plurality of Egyptians — 46 to 36 percent — approve of their country’s diplomatic relations with Israel. In Jordan, it went the other way — 51 percent opposing those relations and 42 percent approving.” Be very skeptical about American polls in the Arab world. I talked recently to a director of polling at Gallup, and I can affirm the following reasons to be skeptical:

1) Governments are often (especially in Egypt) are notified of the polls and often provide escorts, visible or not;

2) the questions are often drafted in English and don’t translate well into Arabic (I speak about a recent unpublished poll by an American firm and the questions that they gave people in Arabic don’t make sense because of the funny translation;

3) most of them rely on face-to-face interviews and people don’t feel comfortable in expressing their views;

4) the work is often subcontracted to local firms that have political biases (Hariri funding polling firms, for example, do the polling in Lebanon);

5) when interviews are done by phone, people are obviously reluctant to give answers that conflict with the views of the government (you can compare that with a cross section of polls in the Arab world, as I have done;

6) Zogby is more reliable in its polling in the Arab world.

7) the poor are often unpolled or underpolled in the Arab world (just as in Western countries). (Some 25 % of Americans now have only cellphones and no land lines and yet polls rely on land line phone interviews).


Angry Arab on Film Rendition

Rendition: Middle East and its presentation in Hollywood

I did not get to see the movie Rendition when it first came out, but I saw it recently on DVD. I never expect good out of Hollywood: in fact, I expect the worst when liberals tell me that a particular film, like Munich, is “sensitive”, or not that bad. Rendition is politically good in talking about the plight of an innocent Arab-American: it was good how it showed that some Arab-Americans can be seen as integrated into American life. But there are certain things that always bother me. Let us start with the Israeli factor. In every movie on the Middle East, you see an Israeli hand or foot or more. This one was no exception: there were Israeli actors who played Arab actors. Hell, the Arab who got the most screen time was an Israeli actor. And usually they shoot the Arab scenes in Israel but in this movie they shot them in Morocco. So that was good. And usually, characters speak atrocious Arabic with a heavy Hebrew accent, where Husayn becomes Khuuuuuuuuuuuseini. Not in this movie, and I waited for the final credit to see they hired an Arabic coach and translator. I forgot her name but the translations were not that accurate overall and the accents were quite inconsistent. This is common in such movies: you find the mother speaking in a Moroccan accent, while the father speaking Egyptian accent, and the kids speak Syrian accents, and some in the movie were speaking Fusha. Don’t get me wrong: this movie was better in that it showed the Arab characters speaking Arabic and we got subtitles. That was a step forward. But there were other problems in the Arabic: the sings of the demonstrators were in bad Arabic and sometimes placards carried half sentences. (Like one sign said that “Let America Go”, and I assumed that they were translating from a sentence that was intended to say “Let America go to hell”.) And there were other cultural problems: of course, praying and Qur’an is always big, but at least they showed one Muslim character drinking whiskey. That is realistic. But at one point, the fundamentalist militants were listening to music by Marcel Khalifah: Khalifah the communist. What was that? That aroused my interest regarding the Middle East experts who advised the movie makers. I waited to the very end and saw that they hired two “cultural experts” on the Middle East: one is a certain Noureddin Abedine and the other is Reza Aslan. I never heard of the first one and don’t be surprised if it is a code name for an Israeli expert. The second guy is no expert on the Arab world and does not speak Arabic, and has not even finished his graduate degree in the Middle East (he is still a PhD student at UC, Santa Barbara). And why do Middle East characters are always sweaty and jittery in movies? And why do they always invoke Allah (or Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, as they pronounce it in American movies and media for extra emphasis?) And Middle East women always appear as “grieving widows”: they looks sad, somber, and listless. Why is that? And did I hear the annoying voice of Ofra Haza in this movie? Why? And the suicide bomber portrayal is always wrong in Hollywood movies in that the character is seen forced or compelled or coerced while in reality they are the one who press their handlers and recruiters to send them (and I am afraid that it was no exception Paradise Now by Hany Abu As`ad and I have discussed the matter with him). And in this movie, there were people ready to shoot the suicide bomber if he failed to detonate the bomb. And that never happens in real life. I don’t know of one case in the Middle East where it happened although it may have happened with Tamil Tigers. And why do Middle East men always appear gruff and rough and cold? With the exception of the Green Card holder guy who was married to the the characters played by Reese Witherspoon. And one bothersome element in the movie: the sight of the CIA operative played by Gyllenhaal agonizing over the suffering of the torture victims while the Arabs involved had no conscience. The White Man always comes to the rescue in such movies, and the CIA operative in this movie was no exception. And why does Arab life in such movies appear cartoonish? Everything is exaggerated. And the portrayal of the Interior Minister in Morocco (although they left the Middle East North African country unnamed, but only identified as a North African country) and the chief of the secret police is not accurate: those usually are henchmen who are more likely to answer to the CIA station chief than to the prime minister. I finished the movie thinking: I would rather that the Middle East be left alone and ignored in American culture, than be dealt with “sensitively.” Spare me liberal Hollywood sensitivity, please.
PS Since I received at least one response on this point, I don’t mean that we should require elite qualifications before people can speak about the Middle East. That was not what I said: I only believe in specialization and training (like in Plato’s Republic without the belief in the different metals of people). And just as carpenters should be trained, Middle East specialists who offer expert opinions should also be trained. That was my point. Also, in the movie there is a scene of a fame AlJazeera newscast: it was so bad and the female broadcaster spoke awkward Arabic and was typically veiled when of the tens of news female broadcasters on AlJazeera, only one is veiled.
Posted by As’ad at 9:23 AM

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