An open letter to Senator Seselja (Australian Capital Territory)

You fall into the trap of mentioning women’s rights and gay rights in Israel…let me tell you being gay is not some super power that allows Palestinians to fly over checkpoints and walk through apartheid walls.

Senator, you used your privilege to speak in the Senate on March 18, 2014 to call for the condemnation of what you alleged were anti-Semitic incidents on Australian university campuses. You are absolutely right that Australians should be concerned wherever there is racism and hate and that our society needs to stand firm against all forms of incitement against any people of any colour, religion or ethnicity. This is why I write you this open letter.

It may surprise you that we are in fact in agreement about one thing and that is it is not acceptable to single out and attack members of the Jewish community. I would add it is also not acceptable to single out or attack any Israeli individual. This is why the Boycotts Divestments and Sanctions movement only targets businesses and institutions that are funded by the state of Israel [or that benefit from Israel’s occupation], because we know the importance of separating individuals from policies and we know that at the end we will have to live together Palestinians and Israelis in peace and as equals.

Sir, it is not acceptable for a Senator in Australia to display this level of ignorance of a global movement, and to spread harmful rhetoric and deliberately regurgitate false information about what it is and what it stands for. What you have referred to as thevile and detestable Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Movement’ is a non-violent legitimate movement that sees Jews and Palestinians as brothers and sisters who can and will one day live at peace together in an environment that is built on equality justice and freedom. Your attempt at linking a couple of minor incidents of disagreement in Australian University campuses is a cheap opportunistic attempt which only serve those who you thank at the end of your speech.

You name in your speech Seacret, L’Oreal and Jericho, as well as Caterpillar, these are companies that profit from Israel’s occupation some of them are present inside Israel’s illegally occupied areas and the Caterpillar bulldozers you mentioned have destroyed thousands of Palestinian homes leaving the families out in the street. You wouldn’t have stood for this if it was your home being demolished, your land being stolen and your livelihood being destroyed, but because it is the Palestinians who suffer and not you, you don’t seem to mind.  I am certain this is exactly the kind of racism we should all be appalled by.

No businesses and institutions should ever be above scrutiny when it comes to their practices, and if they infringe on the human rights of others, they should be boycotted. Boycotting these businesses you named is not as you claim‘harassment and victimization of Jewish people’, in fact boycotts are supported by a growing number of Jewish and Palestinian peace activists who unlike you, would like to see an end to the conflict and a new era for a peace with justice.

Sir, you also fall into the trap of mentioning women’s rights and gay rights in Israel. You ignore the countless women under Israeli occupation who are forced to have their babies at checkpoints, you turn a blind eye to the thousands of children who are arrested, some as young as five, by Israeli soldiers and tried in military courts, you ignore the dearth of human rights abuses committed by Israel every single day, and let me tell you being gay is not some super power that allows Palestinians to fly over checkpoints and walk through apartheid walls. When an entire population is held captive inside bantustans denied basic human rights your words about the state that imprisons them being a bastion of rights are nothing but a white wash of reality.

You criticize Australian politicians who support the BDS movement and you note that you find it ‘interesting that those who actively push for human rights and equality in parts of the left are some of the strongest backers of this movement’ yet you still don’t get it. Doesn’t that tell you something?

Your statement can only be described as hateful incitement against those of us who work hard to end racism and discrimination and who insist that there be full equality between Palestinians and Jews and as such it is exactly what Australians should condemn in the strongest way possible.

Sir, your rhetoric inflames the conflict by protecting Israel’s system of oppression and discrimination and you should know that if history has taught us anything, it is that there was never peace where injustice prevailed.  There will be justice equality and peace in Palestine but it will not be with thanks to politicians like you.

I will leave you with this old quote from President Kennedy “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”.

Samah Sabawi

 

Palestinian Australian playwright Samah Sabawi receives government grant to produce Gaza love story on Melbourne stage

Palestinian Australian playwright Samah Sabawi was congratulated today in an electoral Press Release issued by the Hon. Gordon Rich-Phillips MLC, for receiving a government grant to go toward the production of her playTales of a City by the Sea in Melbourne’s La Mama Courthouse Theatre.  Below is the full press release:

ELECTORAL RESS RELEASE 

Hon. Gordon Rich-Phillips MLC

Thursday, 12 December 2013

LATEST GRANTS SUPPORT LOCAL CREATIVITY

Gordon Rich-Phillips, Member for South Eastern Metropolitan Region, today congratulated Narre Warren artist Samah Sabawi, who is among 85 artists and organisations across the state to share in the latest round of $1.3 million of Victorian Government arts grants.

Mr Rich-Phillips said Arts Victoria’s new grants program, VicArts Grants, sought to support projects across all art forms by some of the state’s most exciting independent artists and arts organisations.

Samah Sabawi will receive a $10,000 grant to present a theatrical journey into the lives of the playwright, a Palestinian Australian, her family in Gaza and the events experienced over several years.

Taqi Khan, under the auspices of Multicultural Arts Victoria Inc, Hampton Park, has also received a grant of $15,000 to be used for a significant project for Melbourne’s local Afghan Hazara community, encompassing contemporary and traditional Hazara music, singing and poetry.

“I am pleased that our local arts sector has been recognised in this statewide program and I look forward to seeing the projects as they come to fruition,” Mr Rich-Phillips said.

Overall, the latest round will create career development opportunities for more than 2200 Victorian artists.

The VicArts grants program, announced as part of the 2013-14 State Budget, is aimed at streamlining the process of applying for a grant while opening up funding opportunities to innovative ideas.

“Grants recipients include artists at all career stages and overall, more than a third of the recipients are receiving government funding for the first time,” Mr Rich-Phillips said.

“The arts sector contributes $11.4 billion to the state economy each year and up to 110,000 jobs. It supports the Victorian Coalition Government’s broader goal of supporting growth and innovation in all sectors across the state.”

The next round of applications to the VicArts Grants program will close in March 2014, for projects commencing in July.

To find out more about the VicArts Grants program and to see the full list of recipients, visitwww.arts.vic.gov.au

Poetry, Palestine and the Language of Resistance – An interview with Samah Sabawi

SEPTEMBER 20-22, 2013
by DOUGLAS VALENTINE

Samah Sabawi is the honored guest in this, the fourth installment in my Political Poetry series at Counterpunch.

Previously, I interviewed Sowetan Lesego Rampolokeng, whose hard-hitting poetry, including “bantu ghost”, expresses the outrage black South Africans still feel over the horrors of apartheid forced upon them by white supremacists.

Samah Sabawi, a poet and political activist, has likened Gaza to an “Israeli-controlled Bantustan.”   She has known the alienation and despair of a refugee since the Israelis forced her parents (and thousands of other Palestinians) to flee their homes in Gaza in 1967.

Now a Palestinian-Australian with Canadian citizenship, Sabawi is the author of three plays — Cries from the Land, Three Wishes, and Tales of a City by the Sea.  She has also co-written the book The Journey to Peace in Palestine: From the Song of Deborah to the Simpsons.

Sabawi’s poems deal with Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, often from the empathetic perspective of someone not directly on the scene with her comrades.  She expresses the plight of nearly two million people in the concentration camp called Gaza, as well as the millions of lost souls in the Palestinian diaspora.  In her poem, “Defying the Universe”, dedicated to her husband Monir, she asks:

Are your loved ones trapped behind the wall

Do they need the army’s permission

For their prayers to reach the sky

For their love to cross the ocean

And touch your thirsty heart

Are your loved ones trapped

Do you yearn to be in your family home

And when you call, do they always say

“we are fine, alhamdollelah”

Does it surprise you that they are whole

While you… are broken

Must they always worry about you

Urge you to have faith in your exile

Must they always pity you

For not breathing the air

Of your ancestors’ land

Must they always comfort you

Even when the bombs are falling

Do you ever wonder who is walled in

Is it you…or is it them

And when it finally dawns upon you

That their dignity sets them free

Do you feel ashamed of your liberty

Israeli oppression of the Palestinians takes many forms.   As Sabawi recently explained in an interview with Joe Catron, “The currency used here (in Gaza) is the new Israeli shekel, the IDs all the residents carry are issued by the Israeli interior ministry, all births go through the Israeli national registry, the essential products are all Israeli in this captive market” (“Israel’s Gaza Bantustan,” 5 January 2013).”

Sabawi is part of a new generation of Palestinian thinkers who insist on reclaiming the discourse and reframing the language used to assert Palestinian rights.  For her and many others of her generation, language is an essential tool in the struggle for liberation.  She writes in her poem “Liberation Anthem” “I’ll craft new words of expression/ outside of this suffocating language/ that has occupied me/ Your words/ are like your walls/ They encroach on my humanity.”

Sabawi rebels in her poetry against adopting a language she sees as complicit and dictated by the occupier.  She insists on using words such as “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe the reality of life in Palestine.  When a newspaper editor recently deleted these words from an op-ed she submitted saying they were “too strong,” she responded with this:

Words!

I stand dispossessed

No congress behind me

No statesmen surround me

No lobby to breathe hellfire

No media eager to appease

No three-ring circus

Of intellectual jesters

Academic clowns

And policy experts

Who truly do not see

the big elephant in the room

No legal acrobats

Dance for me

On a thin rope of decency

No politicians

Juggle oppression

And human rights

On my behalf

No trips to boost careers

For MPs and their wives

No propaganda movies

No radio broadcasts

No myths

No lies

No hasbaranites

No army,

No country

Not even one leader

To believe in

All I have are my words

To tell my story

My voice

To demand justice

But you tell me

My language is too strong

While speaking and writing forthrightly about the horrors of Israeli oppression, Sabawi maintains strong connections with anti-apartheid Israelis, and she advocates reconciliation and understanding.  But she believes that reconciliation can only begin once the oppression ends.  Consider the following lines from her poem “Liberation Anthem”:

To the people of Israel who fear our freedom:  Don’t be afraid, we will liberate you too.

This is my rendition

Of an anthem to be sung

That day you and I

Will stand side by side

Shoulder to shoulder

Watching a new dawn

Wipe away

Decades of hate and savagery

The day I rise

From the ruins of your oppression

I promise you I will not rise alone

You too will rise with me

You will be liberated

From your tyranny

And my freedom

Will bring your salvation

Given the total support of the US Government for Israel, there seems to be no other rational alternative.   And yet, Palestinians politics is marked by deep divisions, not least between Hamas and Fatah.  Sabawi’s goal is to overcome the divisions between Israel and Palestine, and among Palestinians, not by proselytizing or demonizing people, not by humiliating or obliterating, but by discovering a common human bond. As Sabawi says:

I am more than demography

I’m neither your collaborator

Nor your enemy

I am not your moderate

Not your terrorist

Not your fundamentalist

Islamist

Extremist

Militant

Radical

I am more than adjectives

Letters and syllables

I will construct my own language

And will defeat your words of power

With the power of my words

In her poem “Against the Tide” she pledges “I will not delight/ In the suffering/ Even of those/ Who oppress me.”

I recently asked Sabawi about her poetry, the poetry of Palestinians, and the political situation in Gaza.  I noted that perhaps the most frustrating form of psychological oppression Palestinians suffer is the total antipathy of the United States Government.   The US blocks every vote to condemn Israel at the UN, it provides Israel with the weapons and means of its oppression, while the mainstream American media suppresses and distorts the facts, even rationalizing the mass murder of 1400 Palestinians in Gaza in 2009 as necessary for Israel’s security.

DV      Gaza is a Bantustan, but the many nations seem to have turned their backs on the Palestinians, although, in contrast, much of the world joined in the boycott of South Africa.  This is largely due to the fact that Palestinians have been thoroughly dehumanized by the Israeli-AIPAC propaganda machine.  Can poetry help to overcome the prejudice that many Americans have?    Is translating from Arabic to English part of the problem?

SS         Humanity doesn’t always respond instantly.  The world community is often slow to react in the face of oppression and injustice especially when it is being perpetrated by powerful state actors and driven by corporate greed.  But history has taught us that no tyranny can last forever and that the people will always overcome oppression.  To use your example of South Africa, it actually took a long time for the world to take a stand against the apartheid regime.  Think about it: white supremacy over South Africa began with the arrival of the early Dutch settlers as far back as the mid 1600s and institutional discrimination against the indigenous population began in the early 1900s.  The Boycott movement against South African Apartheid didn’t start till the late 1950s and it took world governments years and for some even decades before they made a stand.  So, when you’re looking at the timeline of the Palestine/Israel conflict in comparison and especially in the last two decades you will see that Palestinians are in fact gaining the support of the world community at a much faster pace perhaps this is so because we have more direct and instant modes of communication at our fingertips.

So yes, the world may have initially turned its back on Palestinians and even adopted the Zionist discourse of blaming and dehumanizing the victims but times have changed and we have come a long way.  Palestinian solidarity is growing and the overwhelming show of support at the UN for an observer seat for the state of Palestine last year if anything has illustrated the isolation of Israel and its allies in the face of a world community that is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Now you ask if poetry might contribute to this in any way.  I guess I would say that art in all its forms can have an important role to play in humanizing people and conveying their story.  Art can serve to inspire and instigate change.

Who can deny that the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish for example offered many in the west a window into the lives of Palestinians; their pain, their aspirations and their yearnings?  Although Darwish’s poems were written in Arabic, they were translated into many languages and served as a bridge between Palestine and the rest of the world.

Of course language can be an obstacle but I think that the Palestinian experience is a universal one and so is easily translated.  We are a people disposed standing up against tyranny and oppression, fighting for a just cause.  This resonates with people in any language.  Here are a few lines from one of my favorite Darwish poems:  “Who Am I, Without Exile?” (translated by Fady Joudah)[i]:

A stranger on the riverbank, like the river … water

binds me to your name. Nothing brings me back from my faraway

to my palm tree: not peace and not war. Nothing

makes me enter the gospels. Not a thing … nothing sparkles from the shore of ebb

and flow between the Euphrates and the Nile. Nothing

makes me descend from the pharaoh’s boats. Nothing

carries me or makes me carry an idea: not longing

and not promise. What will I do? What

will I do without exile, and a long night

that stares at the water?

 

DV        Palestinians have no power over their oppressors.  They are powerless to stop the settlements.   At the slightest hint of uprising, the Israelis come down like a storm troopers.  But Palestinians do write poetry – or have the Israelis tried to stop them from writing poetry too?

SS         For the Israeli Zionist project to succeed in asserting legitimacy and presence on the ruins of Palestinian homes and lives, it needed to do two things: make the Palestinians invisible to the world by denying their existence (‘a land without a people for a people without a land’), and/or in the event that they become visible, demonize them by manipulating the discourse – for example, by emphasizing Palestinian violence and terror while undermining and ignoring Palestinian non-violent resistance and the reality of occupied vs. occupier. This is why Israel views Palestinian culture with great contempt. After all, Palestinian artists and cultural figures tell the stories of their people and by that they reflect a reality through their art that Israel would rather conceal.

So yes, certainly Palestinian culture, like all other facets of Palestinian life, faces tremendous challenges under Israeli occupation. Palestinian cultural figures were first targeted by British and later by the Israeli authorities. Some were assassinated, others were imprisoned or banished into exile. Amongst the artists and intellectuals assassinated by Israel are writer Ghassan Kanafani (Abukhalil 2012) and poet and intellectual Wael Zuaiter (Jacir 2007).

The attempt at erasing Palestinian culture was clear during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when Israeli forces looted and confiscated the accumulated national archives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which included valuable and rare collections of films and other Palestinian cultural artifacts (IMEU 2012).

Today, Palestinian cultural figures under Israel’s occupation are caught in an intricate and multi layered system of oppression.  For example, Human Rights Watch issued a report (27 July 2012) accusing Israel and its security arm the Palestinian Authority of  “trampling on the rights of Freedom Theater’s staff,” adding “[a] theater should be able to offer critical and provocative work without fearing that its staff will be arrested and abused.”
The HRW statement referred to Israel’s ongoing system of arbitrary arrests and detention.

Of course it is important to recognize that repression does not always ride on a military tank. The worst kind of repression is one that manifests itself inside colonized minds desperate to present their craft to the world and aware that their success hinges on their ability to be on the good side of their political masters. I mean artists find it challenging enough in rich societies to make a living out of their art, so imagine when you are stuck in a Bantustan where most people struggle to feed their families. That’s where the role of the PA and international donors raises some questions about which artistic projects receive funding and which ones don’t; which artists are given a platform and which ones aren’t. For the most part, Palestinian resistance has through the years overcome such challenges and Palestinian artists both inside Palestine and in Diaspora continue their effort to liberate Palestine one poem, one painting, one novel and one song at a time.

DD       In your poem “Verses and Spices” you talk about how “Growing up/ My father’s poems/ Ran through my veins/ Like blood/ A necessary life ingredient/ A rhythm that kept my heart pumping.”   Your poems stress the crucial importance of language in resolving problems.  In this poem you speak specifically about your father’s poems.  Please tell me a little about traditional Palestinians poetry and which Palestinians poets American should, or can read today to get a better understanding of the situation in Gaza.

SS        Your question asks specifically about “traditional Palestinian poetry” but I actually grew up with a wide range of Arab poetry. We weren’t raised to see “Palestinianism” as distinct from Arab nationalism.  We the Palestinians were part of the Arab world and took pride in that. Our definition of Palestine back then was also based on nationalism: one secular state for all three religions. That was the mantra of the PLO in the early 1970s.  Much has changed since and we have become factionalized and sectarianized beyond recognition.

It is true I grew up in a house of verses and spices. Poetry was always present at every meal and every gathering. My father, Abdul Karim Sabawi, a distinguished Palestinian novelist and poet, tried to introduce me to classical Arabic poetry such as Al Mutanaby and Omar Alkhayam but apart from sounding lyrical to my ears, that type of poetry didn’t really capture my heart. The language was too formal, too clever and too distant in time to feel real.  It also reflected a ‘male’ view of the world, which as a young girl and later a woman not only alienated me but at times even offended me.  It was when my father recited modern Arab poetry like that of Mahmoud Darwish (Palestinian), Nizar Qabbani (Syrian), Amal Donkol  (Egyptian) and especially Salah Jahin (Egyptian) that I would tune in and pay attention.  My father encouraged me to navigate my way through his large collection of poetry books. Modern Arab poetry varies in style but I found myself gravitating toward poetry that conveyed ideas and not just showcased linguistic prowess. For example Egyptian giant Salah Jahin ‘s quatrains made use of colloquial everyday simple Egyptian dialect to communicate complex philosophical ideas:

The rich man was buried in a marble tomb

The beggar was buried in a hole with no coffin

I passed them by and marveled to myself

 Both graves emanate the same stench

My father’s own poetry also ranged in style. Some of his poems were in colloquial Gazan dialect while others in sophisticated classic Arabic.  His poetry reflects the quintessential Palestinian experience, which at its core is a universal human experience of loss, dispossession and exile. To give you an idea of the spirit of my father’s poetry, here is one he wrote that first morning he woke up in 1967 to find himself a refugee in Jordan.

Erasure

When you were parched

We quenched your thirst

With our blood

Now

We carry your burden

Disgraced

We cry in shame when asked

Where do you come from?

Dishonored we die

 

If only the stray bullets

From the occupier’s guns

Were merciful

That they pierced through our legs

It only they tore through our knees

If only we sunk in your sand

Deep to our necks

If only we got stuck

And became the salt of your earth

The nutrients in your fertile soil

If only we didn’t leave

 

The gates of our hearts

Are wide open to misery

Don’t ask us where this wind is blowing

Don’t ask us about a house

Or windows

Or trees

The Bulldozers were here

The Bulldozers were here

And the houses in our village

Fell…Like a row of decayed teeth

 

They haven’t colonized Mars yet

And the moon is barren

Uninhabitable

So carry your children

Your memories

And follow me

We can live in the books of history

They’ll write about us…

“The wicked Bedouins

Landed in Baghdad

They landed in Yafa

They landed in Grenada

Then they moved on

They packed their belongings

And rode on their camels

They didn’t leave their print on the red clay

And all their artifacts

Were faded

With the passing of the years”

 

Does anyone in the world really care?

Does anyone care?

What difference does it make

To be an Arab…

A Native American…

Or a dinosaur

SS       So as you can see, poetry was always a part of my life. But I never thought of integrating it into my activism until one day when I saw a YouTube video of Suheir Hammad reciting her poem ‘First Writing Since’ in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. This was a milestone in my life. First of all, I was so happy to hear a captivating articulate Palestinian woman poet at last! But more than that, her poetry was not written in Arabic and translated into English. Hammad’s poetry comes out in English and is effective and authentic and real.  This brings me to my next point: Palestinian writers today are a diverse group of people with countless citizenships who speak many languages and who are able to use a variety of mediums to reconstruct their national identity and to communicate their stories of exile.  So when we talk about Palestinian literature in the modern sense we must acknowledge that it now transcends linguistic and geographic borders.  It was Suheir Hammad who helped me come to terms with my own identity crisis. Yes, I can be Palestinian and I can write my poetry in English.

DV        Please tell me a little more about where you live and what you’re doing now.

SS         I live in Melbourne Australia and I’m currently working toward the production of my recent play Tales of a City by the Sea. The play was inspired by a collection of poems I wrote during Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008/2009.  It is set to be staged at La Mama’s Courthouse theatre in Melbourne September 2014 and I am so blessed that La Mama has agreed to be our presenting partner for this production.  We hope the Arabic version of the play will premiere at the same time in Gaza and in the West Bank.  I am also working on a poetry book with Palestinian writers Ramzy Baroud  andJehan Bseiso  along with some incredible artists. So next year is looking like a very busy artistic year for me.

I’d like to end with a poem that inspired my recent play. It is dedicated to the Free Gaza Movement and the victims of the Mavi Marmara:

Tales of a city by the sea

The landscape constantly changes

Only the sea remains the same

Salty…

Fluid…

Mysterious…

Moody

A consistent presence amid the chaos

Its whooshing waves whisper tales

Of occupiers that have come and gone

Crusaders, tyrants and warlords

Riding on their horses

Riding on their Tanks

Riding on their F16 fighter jets

Always riding through

Leaving their footprints

And part of their history

Leaving their artifacts and ruins

Leaving fire and debris

Always leaving…

Only the sea remains

A cure for the trail of broken lives left behind

A landmark untouched by human greed and destruction

Oblivious to war occupation and aggression

Defiant to the rules of man

It embraces the shores of a battered city

It makes a mockery

Of those who try to break its spirit

Those who think they can contain

Its one and a half million beating hearts

It laughs in the face

Of that big iron wall

There is no limit to the sea’s audacity

It breaks the siege every day,

One defiant wave at a time

Connecting Gaza to the rest of the world

And connecting the world with the Shati refugee camp

If you stood with your back to Gaza facing the sea

You can imagine you are some place else

Beirut, Barcelona, Alexandria or Santorini

You can dream of the promise of what lays

Beyond the horizon

Countries, continents the whole world is out there

If only you could ride the sea

If only your body was bullet proof

If only your boat was made of steel

If only your dream was real

The landscape will change once more

Only the sea will remain the same 

Its whooshing waves will whisper new tales

Of occupiers that have come and gone

June 2010 Melbourne Australia

DV  Thank you very much, Samah Sabawi, for this incredibly informative and moving interview. 

Please visit Samah’s website talesofacitybythesea.com to read more about Palestine the culture, the politics and the people, and to get more updates on her play Tales of a City by the Sea.

Samah can also be reached on twitter @gazaheart

For information about Doug Valentine and his Political Poetry series, visit his website www.douglasvalentine.com or email him at dougvalentine77@gmail.com

One of Samah Sabawi’s poems will appear in the forthcoming anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, March 2014).  Please email John Crawford at jcrawfor@unm.edu for information about pre-ordering the anthology.

Notes.


[i] Reprinted from The Butterfly’s Burden (2007) by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah. Used by permission of Copper Canyon Press,www.coppercanyonpress.org.
Source: The Butterfly’s Burden (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)

Statuses and Headlines: Dedicated to the tireless social media activist

Words scatter

Attention span expands

between statuses and headlines

I frame my perils of wisdom

on cyber walls

I denounce

I declare

I divulge my soul

I offer solidarity

and pass verdicts like delusional royalty

My virtual life a parody

my profile page an imaginary throne.

 

Newsfeed filled with corpses

Attention span expands

between statuses and headlines

We protest discrimination

famines and wars

140 characters to tear down the walls

140 characters to stop genocide

140 characters to expose a politician who lied

140 to give voice to the voiceless

to affirm a life

branded worthless

Nameless

children die everyday

Nameless

mothers grief everyday

Nameless

fathers bury their sons everyday

Nameless

mass graves are dug everyday

Nameless

insignificant refugees

threaten our peace of mind

Nameless

faceless detainees

out of sight out of mind

Nameless

women sell their bodies

sell their babies

sell their organs to survive

No dignity in poverty

Populations stripped of humanity

Only atrocities bare names

Military operations romanticized

‘enduring freedom’

‘desert shield’

‘pillar of clouds’

‘cast lead’

air strikes idealized

Minds stalled paralyzed

War on terror

War of terror

War for terror…

terror…

terror…

terror…

terror…

we grow numb desensitized

News feed jammed with hasbaranitzes

Government agents paid for lies

They ‘like’ and ‘share’ what we despise.

 

Morals in peril

Attention span expands

between statuses and headlines

140 characters to liberate Palestine

140 characters for gender equality

140 characters to raise money for charity

140 characters

I am wearing thin

140 characters

where do I begin?

 

Thoughts scatter

Attention span expands

BEYOND statuses and headlines.

 

Against the tide

I will not be polarized

I will not be factionized

Tribalized

Sectarianized

Colonized…and fragmented

Like a heartbroken nation

I will not be moved by hatred

Or blindly pick a side

And hide

Behind a well crafted slogan

I will not place my trust

In demagogy

I will embrace ideas

Not ideology

An enemy of my enemy

When a tyrant

Is MY enemy

Choosing the best of two evils

Is choosing evil

I will not fall for this game

Of demonizing an entire people

I will not delight when pain is inflicted

On another

I will not close my eyes

To inhumanity

I will defend my enemy’s rights

Because freedom

Is not a commodity

To be had by some

And denied to others

I will not delight

In the suffering

Even of those

Who oppressed me

More importantly

I will trust

My maternal instinct

What passed through my womb

Though precious…is not distinct

A beautiful human baby

Of flesh and blood

No different from that

Born by the ‘other’

There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’

Every death will be mourned

By a grieving mother

Her tears

More powerful

Than any flag

I will not be polarized

Did Facebook kill Arab nationalism? The impact of social media on the drive for democracy in the Arab region

By Samah Sabawi

Social media played an essential role in the early days of the Arab revolutions in promoting and strengthening civil society actors in their quest for democracy.  However, more recently, social media has become a tool used by various movements in the region to disempower civil society and prolong democratic reform by highlighting divisions, polarizing views while making citizens more vulnerable to government propaganda and surveillance. After all, social media is open to anyone who logs in regardless of his or her true or made up identity, intellect, education, nationality or status in society. While this inclusive nature can be viewed as a positive democratic feature, it can have a detrimental impact on the quality, integrity and credibility of the content shared and the information needed in order to create a healthy and informed ‘public sphere’.

The arrival of the Internet opened up new and exciting venues for public deliberation. Transforming the power of broadcasting away from the centralized structure of traditional media to the decentralized nature of the Internet. This has been hailed as ‘the second media age’ (Poster1995). Many sources can now broadcast to many receivers, and citizens have seemingly equal access into this public forum that has global reach. This has transformed the existing political power structures, empowering and amplifying the voices of civil society while challenging the power and control of the ruling class.

Social media played an essential role in this transformation, with Facebook being one of its most popular social networking services, boasting 1.11 billion monthly active users as of March 2013 (Facebook 2013). These numbers continue to increase as users from around the world join the social networking site and form virtual communities unhindered by physical distance, class, ethnicity or gender. Within these virtual communities, strangers who may never meet in real life can become ‘friends’, exchange photo albums, comment on each other’s triumphs and tribulations and share their political and social views of the world. Semitsu (2011) described Facebook as a ‘controlled ecosystem’ where users voluntarily reveal private information about their lives and sometimes even their most intimate thoughts. This has made it a very attractive tool for advocates, corporations and world governments alike, as they all compete for access into the hearts and minds of this large online population in order to dominate the social networking space and to promote their agendas.  The current revolutions in the Arab world offer us great insight into how these cyber battles for space and influence are fought between citizens and state actors.

In the Arab world, the internet offers civil society and opposition groups space where they can express dissent, organize and network, away from the intrusive gaze and control of the authoritarian governments under which they function.  ‘To peruse the Arab social media sites, blogs, online videos, and other digital platforms is to witness what is arguably the most dramatic and unprecedented improvement in freedom of expression, association, and access to information in contemporary Arab history’ (Ghannam 2011). According to a report published by the online resource Arab Crunch, in the year 2010, before the first Arab revolution began, 17 million people were using Facebook in the Arab region with 5 million users in Egypt alone.

The year 2011 saw sweeping protests throughout the Arab world starting in Tunisia and moving to Egypt, then Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Yaman and in smaller numbers other Arab countries. Howard and Hussain (2013) examined the role of digital media in provoking inspiring and sustaining these popular movements for democracy.  Adopting a comparative method in their approach and taking into account both the diversity and the common shared experiences of the citizens within the region, they argued that even though only a minority of the population in countries that were affected by the ‘Arab Spring’ had internet access, this minority was in fact significant politically as they represented the ‘educated elites’ who have the energy and the financial means to organize. This view was shared by many analysts and pundits who applauded the leading role Facebook and Twitter played in offering the protestors the space needed to organize, strategize, raise awareness and share tips on how to resist and challenge the authority.

Egyptian youth were amongst the first users of Internet in the Arab world to utilize social networking sites as a political tool (Harb 2011). They were the force behind various movements sprouting online focusing on Egyptian police repression and the corruption of the Mubarak regime. These movements included the 6th of April protest movement, which ultimately took its online expression of discontent into the streets, staging protests as early as 2007, years before the Egyptian revolution of 2011 began.

Governments in the Arab world watched these online communities closely and with contempt. Their initial reaction was to meet online criticism with brutality in order to strike fear into the hearts of the offenders while deterring others from such acts, after all ‘It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable’ (Eric Hoffer 1954). For example, the former Egyptian regime implemented a heavy-handed response to online activism arresting bloggers and torturing and imprisoning them. This gave the regime a mistaken sense of security (Harb 2011), which soon began to diminish as Egyptians collectively decided to break the fear barrier and to take to the streets on the 25th of January 2011.

As protests spread in the Arab region, the important role of social networking became all the more evident as it gave the protestors access to the world community where they were able to amplify their message and receive tactical support. According to Howard and Hussien (2013) boingboing.net was quick to offer guidelines on how to protect anonymity online, an ‘Activist Action Plan’ was translated and hosted by the Atlantic Monthly while Telecomix posted information on how to rely on landlines in order to bypass the state’s efforts to block access to broadband networks. In the week leading up to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the number of tweets from Egypt and world-wide about the Egyptian revolution increased from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day while videos featuring protests and political commentary went viral (O’Donnell 2011).

During the first year of the Arab revolutions it appeared that ‘Digital media provided both an awareness of shared grievances and transportable strategies for action’ (Howard and Hussien 2013), which enabled the rise of the people and the fall of at least three oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.  But as time passed, it became more difficult for the people to achieve their democratic aspirations in other countries such as Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, where the protests still rage today. One theory as to why this may be the case was offered by Howard and Hussien (2013) who suggested that a revolution’s failure or success hinges on its citizen’s access to technology.  They argued that countries that have more ‘tech-savvy civil society groups’ such as Egypt and Tunisia were able to successfully overthrow their dictatorships faster and with less ‘casualties’ than those countries that were not as strong technologically such as Syria. While this may be the case, it is also important to consider that just as the protestors were learning from one another the blue print of revolution, the dictators were also learning from one another how to manage these revolutions, drive a counter revolution and gain the upper hand both in the real world and online.

Authoritarian regimes often apply the same blue print in controlling the flow of information and crushing dissent. In fact, Arab ministers of Interior meet annually in order to exchange ideas on how to further secure their regimes. Howard and Hussien (2013) point out that during the last several years, the meetings focused on developing ways to tighten media regulations, increasing censorship and government control and expanding this control to the world wide web. For these governments, it is crucial to establish deterrence by creating and fostering a culture of fear by way of arresting and torturing dissidents.

However, the traditional deterrence factor proved to be no longer sufficient in 2011 when dissent spilled out from the virtual realm into the streets. As the protests spread, Arab governments had to develop new strategies. The first strategy was to censor and block online content while using their state media agents to disseminate their version of events. For example, when the revolution began in Egypt, the regime quickly tried to block Twitter, then Facebook, and to disrupt phone-messaging services. This resulted in an ongoing ‘battle of the blogosphere’ (Ghannam 2011) where citizens relied on proxies to bypass government blockings and firewalls. Two days later, the Egyptian government tried to shut down the Internet all together and even targeted phone networks to disrupt the flow of text messaging. The result was not in the government’s favour.  Feeling a sense of isolation, people who lost their Internet connection and phone services were forced to go out into the streets ‘when they could no longer follow the unrest through social media’ (O’Donnell 2011). It didn’t take long for the tech savvy cyber army of activists from across the Arab World to exchange codes, tips and software to enable Egyptians to access the Internet once again.

When the Mubarak regime finally collapsed, many hailed the Egyptian revolution over attributing its apparent success to social media. Howard and Hussien (2011) even went on to suggest that ‘it is difficult to say whether the revolutions would or would not have happened without digital media’. Others proclaimed that the new media era has ushered in ‘the age of empowered individuals, who use potent new technologies and harness social media to organize themselves’ (Kirkpatrick 2011). But in hindsight, it would appear such views might have exaggerated the role of social media in the drive for democratic reforms in Egypt and beyond.

History teaches us that where there is state oppression, eventually the people will rise with or without the help of technology. Research done on political activism and the Internet also downplays the role of social media as a driver behind political action as it suggests that people who are likely to be politically active online are those who are already ‘political junkies’ (Johnson and Kaye 2000). Therefore, it would be incorrect to contend that without Facebook, the Arab revolutions wouldn’t have happened. As Zahera Harb points out, ‘social media facilitated the revolution when the right moment arrived’ (2011). The incident that sparked the first of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia was not planned on the pages of Facebook, it was a spontaneous act of despair by a Tunisian man who set himself on fire to protest the economic hardships the people of Tunisia endured. It was his act that brought about ‘the right political moment’. Harb notes that the success of the Tunisian revolution is what inspired the youth of Egypt to follow suit and to organize their revolt. In other words, the Tunisian revolution is what brought about ‘the right political moment’ for Egypt’s revolution to begin. Finally, the suggestion that the revolutions were a result of a sudden online mobilization lead by the youth grossly overlooks the importance of the older Arabs ‘whose participation was critical’ (Lust &Wichmann 2012).

More telling of the limited power of the Internet and especially social media in driving democratic reforms is the fact that the revolutions in the Arab region are not over and democracy is yet to be delivered even in places where the regimes did fall like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Remnants of the failed regimes and the existing authoritarian regimes are evolving and are becoming more sophisticated, creating and supporting websites that promote their own view of politics and morality while dispatching their foot soldiers online to spread confusion and gather information. Arab officials have also become active on social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (Ghannam 2011) and governments are expanding their state-run media institutions into the online sphere.

Hussien and Howard explored in their work the rise of the counterinsurgency campaigns in the Arab world, pointing to how activists from the Arab region struggled to dominate their country’s hashtags on Twitter as army of advocates for the various Arab regimes used the countries’ hashtags to disseminate countless tweets depicting ‘photographs of national monuments and soccer statistics’ (Hussien and Howard 2013). Another method used by the Arab governments in the cyber battlefield was dispatching an army of anonymous trolls to defend the Arab regimes in order to silence the debate. This was evident when twitter feeds about the protests in Bahrain were suddenly dominated by the appearance of thousands of online anonymous defenders who ruthlessly executed a strategy of abusive attacks on anyone tweeting about Bahrain. Lynch (2013) argues it was the actions of these ‘trolls’ that ultimately crushed the online debate.

The use of anonymous trolls by governments adds to an already confused online ‘public sphere’ in which many activists and civil society actors also choose to remain anonymous for fear over their safety. With anonymity comes the question of credibility and trust. This issue is strongly evident if we observe the ongoing debate surrounding Syria on social networking sites. Videos and graphic photos are constantly being disseminated but many come with no disclosure and no way of verifying their origin or the authenticity of their message. The result of this is a public sphere where people become sceptical of any information they receive unless this information corresponds with their own pre-existing views. Unfortunately, this leads to increasing polarization.

Lynch (2013) argues that the polarization in the Arab world is reinforced within social media discourse, blaming this on the prevalence of the ‘informational bubbles’ that exist within social media. These bubbles do more to fragment and divide than they do to inform and encourage democratic compromise. Most often they foster  ‘a narrow geographic focus’ of the world (Lynch 2013). Lynch’s argument is supported by the fact that Facebook groups are mostly nationally based or driven by a common political or religious agenda.

In the Arab region, the lines have been drawn in social networking space between the various parties to the raging conflicts.  While such trends can strength the various groups internally by reinforcing their beliefs, they do little to encourage positive interaction with other groups who share different points of view.  Lynch (2013) points to the current online interaction between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ruling party and opposition groups and observes that each side is eager to share and disseminate ‘uncritically’ any article that makes the other side look bad, in the final analysis he concludes that ‘the reality is that Islamists and their adversaries retreat to their respective camps, reinforcing each others’ prejudices while throwing the occasional rhetorical bomb across the no-man’s land that the centre has become’ (Lynch 2013).

This is not to say that social media is to blame for the current sectarian divisions in the Arab world. What social media does, is play a role in reflecting the current changes in the ‘texture of Arab politics’ (Lynch 2013) moving away from the traditional hold the Arab regimes had on the flow of information and creating new means by which the battle for control of information is waged.

Therefore, while it may be true that social media offers a new space not previously available for citizens to organize, communicate, and develop new and enhanced tactics of democratization, it cannot be viewed as an ideal space that will bring democracy to the Arab region, as many had hoped it would during the initial phase of the Arab revolutions. Democracy cannot be born nor flourish out of a sphere where the facts can be mixed with fiction, where sources cannot be verified and where accountability is lacking. If anything, social media is now being used to amplify sectarianism and to spread fear and mistrust of the other. And just as messages of Arab nationalism and unity dominated the social media networks at the start of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, messages of sectarian hatred fuelled by the tragic ongoing fighting in Syria is what is now dominating social media networks in the Arab world.  The initial optimism for democratic reform has given way to scepticism while social media has become a virtual battlefield that is being manipulated equally by propaganda from all the different sides, as they all compete for dominance and power both in the turbulent regions of the Arab world and online.

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