Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"You can't believe in that power anymore."

One of my Iraqi friends from Damascus, Sarab Shada, is interviewed here by the local PBS affiliate. The interviewer notes that she is Iraqi, and therefore asks her to explain all of Middle East politics - and she does so, like a pro.

Sarab is currently studying at Loyola University in Chicago, and I think she will do great things.

She's also trilingual - English, Arabic, Neo-Aramaic. How many people can say that?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

South Sudan

On Thursday, I will be taking my first trip with the organization I work for. I am going to the world's newest nation, South Sudan, with my boss and some of our colleagues. We will be meeting a group of several hundred people coming out of slavery in Sudan, documenting their stories and giving them food and other supplies, and delivering medical supplies to our clinic in the area.

Or rather, they will be. I'll be taking pictures, learning all that I can, and doing my best not to get in the way.

I probably won't be back until a week into February or so.

One of my professors senior year shared this photo with our class. The more lit-up a place is on the map, the more connected it is to the rest of the world, by transporation and telecommunications.

See that dark red splotch in eastern Africa? That's where I'm going.

It takes a day to get from the U.S. to Syria. It'll take me four days to get to our final destination in South Sudan.

South Sudan seceded from Sudan this summer, six years after a peace treaty put an end to sixty years of nearly constant warfare between the Muslim North and the Christian, animist South.

A gentleman I met this week (who is in a position to know) told me that 80% of adult women in this country have been raped, and virtually everyone above the age of seven has seen a person killed in front of them.

I think it's safe to say I'm not entirely prepared for this. If it comes to your mind, please pray for safety and mental fortitude for me.

Much love to you all.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The End of History, Come at Last!

"Ender's Game open casting call being held at the Hilton Garden Inn located in the Warehouse District of New Orleans on Saturday, January 14th from 11am to 3pm.

"Alexis Allen, along with Batherson Casting, are seeking bright and talented kids and teens ages 10-17 of varying ethnic background for the feature film production of Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game"; based on one of the most famous science fiction novels of the last 40 years.

"The film stars Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin. Oscar-winning Director Gavin Hood will be filming Ender's Game in New Orleans from February until June 2012, providing those selected with up to 8 weeks of work."


I am.

So very.


"If the other fellow can't tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn't trying to kill you."

Movies in the Muslim World

So, reading through a seven-year-old political column by one of my favorite sci-fi authors today, I came across this passage:

"Seeing Kingdom of Heaven this week, I was sharply reminded of the fact that Islam has produced great leaders who accomplished great things. The portrayal of Saladin in that movie coincided very closely with the historical record. And if this movie were actually to be shown in the Muslim world, Saladin's words in the script could be read as a political instruction manual for political Islam today." (Emphasis mine)

Kingdom of Heaven was actually shown in the Muslim world. And it was wildly popular.

I know this because a) I watched this movie in the Muslim world, and b) my Muslim Syrian Arabic teacher was a huge fan, and made us read dialogues for class about a bunch of friends who go to see the movie and talk about it afterwards.

One of the many assumptions about the Muslim world that goes too-little-challenged in our national dialogue is that the entire region is like Saudi Arabia. It's not. Saudi Arabia is the exception. In nearly every other Muslim country, social pressure is the only thing standing between you and movies, alcohol, strip clubs, and un-scarved women.

Or maybe, instead of using Saudi Arabia as a stand-in for the whole region, we've simply transplanted our conception of Eastern Europe onto the new Enemy.

But for the record - almost every kind of Western media is available in most Muslim countries. There is some censorship, of course, but it's mostly symbolic. Throughout the Syrian revolution, I could access the BBC, CNN and other news sites reporting daily on the Syrian security forces' atrocities. But Ha'aretz? (An Israeli newspaper). Not so much.

Far bigger obstacles to the free flow of information in the region are illiteracy, poor foreign language education, and low rates of book translation into Arabic. The UN's 2002 Arab Human Development report famously found that the entire Arab world tranlsated fewer books in the past 1,000 years than Spain translates in a single year
I was once shocked to find Patrick S. Seale's classic critique of the Syrian regime, Asad, in an open-to-the-public cultural center in Damascus.

Of course, it was in English.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Why would you watch news about Syria...

...when you can watch satirical puppet shows made by the Syrian opposition?

I don't know who this guy is, but these videos are masterpieces. Wonderfully scripted, wonderfully voiced, great music and camera work. They evoke real laughs and real horror.

Most of all, they are completely accessible to Western audiences (their English subtitles are WAY better than anything the Syrian Ministry of Tourism has ever written), but still distinctly Syrian. There are tons of inside jokes and references to Syria's political culture, so that watching these puppet shows is an education in itself. Check out Episode 6, "Talk show," where the diabolical and oblivious Bashar character reinterprets a real-life Syrian propaganda song to assert his divinity:

"Didn't you hear the song that goes:

'Millions and millions of Syrians swear
We will build our country with you our president,
and we won't kneel except to God.'

I like this song a lot, by the way. I blast it in my car and drive in circles around Ummayyad Square."

When I started watching them, I assumed they would all be comedies. For the most part, they are. But episode 7, "Investigation," is simply a dialogue between a political prisoner and a guard who is torturing him:

Prisoner: You are here because you are not free!

Guard: What? Are you crazy? I am free! I can thrash you and crush you. But you can't do anything. I come and go, unlike you who's in prison.

Prisoner: Look, you are imprisoned just like me. I'll leave prison in a month or two. But you'll stay here! Because you are afraid to take your freedom!

And episode 10, "Devils," a dialogue between Bashar and two demons who come to advise him on the uprising, is nothing short of horrifying.

These are dark, dark times for Syria. While it is still nigh impossible to know what's going on inside that country, it seems that the regime's ten months of unremitting brutality has succeeded in fragmenting the formerly peaceful opposition into groups willing to use varying degrees of violence to achieve their goals.

On Friday, over two dozen people were killed in a suicide bombing near an elementary school in Damascus' Al Midan district, an area just to the south of the church where I lived last year. Two weeks earlier, 44 people were killed in twin suicide bombings near a security forces' station in a wealthy Damascus district.

The opposition claims that the government is behind these bombings. I doubt it. In the long history of Islamic terrorism, few radical Muslims have ever blown themselves up in the service of a secular state. One suicide bombing might have been a false-flag attack from the government; three is the beginning of an Islamist insurgency a la Iraq or Afghanistan.

The regime is entirely responsible for this outcome. By meeting peaceful protests and entreaties with force, it has succeeded only in thwarting the possibility of a peaceful transition, and given al Qaeda-minded radicals an entrance into this once-harmonious country.

There is no clear way out of this mess, no Tahrir, no Tmisoara, only a long, bloody struggle. Dark forces have been unleashed in Syria, and they will not be tamed by all the democratic reforms in the world.

Pray for Syria.

And then watch Bashar's kids staging a protest in his house: