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Narcicyst x SXSW: No Party in Apartheid

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

For those of us (myself included) who missed last week’s South by Southwest festival, there was one notable event that took place outside of the venues and that was a small but heartfelt protest against a private Israeli consulate party.  The party featured a number of Israeli bands, including the popular Hip Hop act, Soulico, at a club in downtown Austin. However, not everyone found the timing of the party to be particularly appropriate (but since when do Israelis give a F about timing?). Iraqi-Canadian rapper The Narcicyst, alongside Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum and Palestinian rapper Ragtop, led a rally outside the club, with bullhorns & placards, chanting “Ain’t no party in apartheid!”

The reference to South Africa is apt, in my opinion and from my firsthand observation of the willful isolation of Arabs (read: Palestinians) in Israel. And the protest also strikes me as completely appropriate, if not necessary, given the announcement only a week earlier of the construction of 1600 new Israeli homes in East Jerusalem, an arrogant affront to the world community.

Narcy puts it very succinctly in an interview that was later broadcast on NPR, “Our basic thing is BDS: Boycott Divestment Sanctions. We want the people of Palestine to be represented and for them to have an identification just like everybody else in the world does.”

Here’s a lil video from the protest (thanks to participant Grace Alfar)

One of the members of Soulico, Ronen Sabbo, felt that Narcy and the other protestors were protesting against the wrong people: “They don’t know us personally, they don’t know what we are about. They don’t know that we are trying to do the opposite of any government or of any occupation or establishment. We are trying to do music with people like Arabic MCs, Arabic singers, we have Arabic instruments, and, it’s funny that they demonstrate in front of us as if we’re soldiers. We’re just musicians you know.”

But I have to admit, and Narcy says the same in his own response, the protest is not against the musicians themselves but against a government whose actions they implicitly condone by agreeing to play at their party. Narcy said, “We have no problem, we’re not here to boycott the artists per se, we did research on the artists and checked their work out and it’s not necessarily anything against them, but the Israeli consulate represents the Israeli government, regardless, so you can’t really separate the two.”

Anat Gilead, Israeli consul to the US for cultural affairs, had this to say: “We’re doing culture here. We’re focusing on music and people that music can bring. That is what we’re here for.” But I can’t accept that any thinking person could celebrate culture in the midst of a total disrespect for humanity.

There really is just no party in apartheid (except, unjustly, for the oppressors). The just party will be afterward, when the separation and humiliation finally come to an end and everyone can join, or at least enjoy their own, in peace.

(“Ain’t no party in apartheid” courtesy of Narcy’s excellent blog: http://illuminarcy.blogspot.com/

Photo credit: Laith Majali / Immortal Entertainment (immortalent.wordpress.com/)

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DAM in Sheikh Jarrah: Protest re-Imagined

March 15, 2010 1 comment

For several months now, left-wing Israeli and Palestinian protesters have been holding weekly protests in the town of Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem, to protest the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in favor of Jewish settlers. Protesters, Arab and Israeli, have been met with police violence, rampant arrests, and regular visits from stone-throwing Orthodox Jews.

Nevertheless, hundreds continue to gather each Saturday in Sheikh Jarrah, among them foreign activists and Arab-Israeli lawmakers. Social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have been instrumental in raising international awareness about what’s going on in East Jerusalem and keeping supporters informed about the rallies. YouTube and Flickr have also played important roles, allowing for real-time photo/video archiving of the rallies, including aggressive police behavior, arrests, and counter-protests from Orthodox Jews. The video below shows a typical scene from such a rally, beginning with smiling Israeli demonstrators offering a bouquet of flowers to the chief of police, and ending with police getting aggressive with demonstrators at the end of the rally and Orthodox Jews approaching.

The day before, the Palestinian rap superstars, DAM (Da Arabian MCs) gave a free performance in Sheikh Jarrah (promoted by the International Solidarity Movement) that drew a large crowd as well, though no arrests or violence (though the concert did lead to the police declaring the next day’s rally unauthorized, citing a regulation that allows only 1 public assembly per week).

Their underlying message was the same as that of the protesters, though the words they used go beyond a simple chant to the complex rhyme scheme of their 2001 anthem, “Min Irhabi/Who’s the Terrorist?”, which frames the rhetorical conundrum of the powerless Palestinian being accused of terror by those who terrorize (the Israeli government) by evicting families from their homes:

Who’s a terrorist?
I’m a terrorist?!
How am I a terrorist when you’ve taken my land?
Who’s a terrorist?
You’re the terrorist!
You’ve taken everything I own while I’m living in my homeland
You’re killing us like you’ve killed our ancestors
You want me to go to the law?
What for?
You’re the Witness, the Lawyer, and the Judge!
If you are my Judge
I’ll be sentenced to death
You want us to be the minority?
To end up the majority in the cemetery?
In your dreams!

The question this raises for me is one of the effectiveness of public assembly and how, in the Imagination Age, we can understand political protest in the form of cultural performance. By drawing a crowd of young people to a live music event, where the focus was on the artists and their words, not on confrontation with the police or with Orthodox Jewish settlers, the organizers of the DAM show in Sheikh Jarrah achieved, in my opinion, a level of political statement as strong as any other. This type of event allows the call for justice to be sounded without inciting violence, and offers an alternative means of contextualizing the conflict within the minds of young audiences, wherein the arts are seen as a viable form of protest, and an alternative to physical conflict. It is yet another powerful example of music being used as a political tool in the Middle East, with Hip Hop leading the charge.

In comparing these two events in Sheikh Jarrah, neither of which received much attention in the press nor any official response from the Israeli government, how do we then measure their relative effectiveness? I would argue that the events were most effective in tandem,  expanding a traditional protest event into a multi-dimensional, cultural happening and linking cultural expression to an ongoing political struggle. With the dissemination of photos and videos via social media and crowd-sourcing platforms, both events succeeded at reaching local and international audiences in a way that they never would have been able to achieve through traditional news coverage. Furthermore, the coupling of diverse events around a single cause augments the dimensions of the overall campaign by offering multiple points of engagement for activists, supporters, and observers. In the case of Sheikh Jarrah, Hip Hop has added that dimension of cultural engagement and, in so doing, expanded the local base of support and the global impact of the movement. Whether this model of public protest will eventually eliminate the need for traditional physical confrontation is almost irrelevant. What is important here is that the legacy of young people rallying around political art is alive and well in the Imagination Age.

Photo credits: (above) Brady Ng (via Palestine Monitor), (top) Uruknet.info

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My name is Khan (or Hussain)… (pt. 2)

March 9, 2010 Leave a comment

When I was blogging last night about the film “My Name is Khan”, and its intersection with President Obama, it did not yet occur to me that the greatest irony of the film is not the Muslim Indian actor named Khan playing a Muslim Indian hero named Khan, who must tell the president that he’s “not a terrorist”. Oh no, not by far. It took the photo above to remind me that the greatest irony here is that Khan, both the actor and the character, had to make this confession to a man who is also considered a terrorist because of his Muslim surname, which, in this case, happens to be Hussain.

And here’s the kicker: the photo was not taken in some distant, “anti-American” land. It wasn’t even taken in some racist, redneck boondock. It was taken on West 123rd Street, in the heart of Harlem, at the Atlah World Missionary Church. I felt compelled to find out what else the good Pastor James David Manning had to say, so I visited the church’s website and boy, did I find out. From what I can tell, Atlah is a predominately Black, evangelical church, school, and would-be media producer that counts among its ministries:

  • Exploring the lies taught by our “leaders” who have used slavery as the means to incite hatred of white people to perpetuate the lies.
  • Exposing the ill effects of the media moguls of Jay-z, 50 Cent, and others upon Black youth.
  • Exposing the Magnificent Seven – Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton, T.D. Jakes, Louis Farrakan, Don King, and Cornell West, as the American witch doctors.

And here’s a taste of the Pastor’s rhetoric, as it concerns President Obama’s decision to send Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Haiti after the earthquake.

In the end, I’m still not quite sure what this says about America and Obama and Muslims but I do see just how closely our struggle with race (which, contrary to stupid opinion, did not “end” with the election of Mr. Obama) and our struggle with religion are linked in this country, making the identity (and authority) of Obama doubly controversial. What is also clear is the power of visual storytelling, specifically in the form of film and video, in manipulating that identity for the purposes of communicating either love or hate. We’re yet to see many Obama portrayals in film but I suspect we’ll yet see many more, and especially from the rest of the world, who is just as busy as we trying to figure out how the land of opportunity could become the land of paranoia.

My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist

March 7, 2010 Leave a comment

“My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist”. This is the leitmotif of the new film from acclaimed Bollywood director, Karan Johar, and it is one that bears repeating, especially in the United States. The main character, a Muslim Indian with a severe case of Asperger’s syndrome (played by Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan, who is also Muslim), first utters these words at the very beginning of the film, as he is being roughly searched at the San Francisco Airport. This sets up the primary theme of the film (which Khan’s grandmother whispers to him before he sets out for America), that “there are two kinds of people in the world, good and bad”. What she doesn’t explain to him, however, is that most people tend to extend this judgement over entire groups and have difficulty making exceptions to their deeply-ingrained prejudices. Such is the painful truth that Khan is forced to learn in post-9/11 America, as a series of anti-Muslim attacks unfold, including one that results in the death of his wife’s son, who isn’t even Muslim. Khan sets out on a Gump-esque mission to tell as many people as he can that he is “not a terrorist”, including President Bush, to whom he shouts those very words at a rally and is promptly tackled by Secret Service and sent to an FBI detention center for interrogation. Khan is eventually released when 2 young Indian journalists come across video footage of the rally to corroborate Khan’s story but the point has been made: In the US, if you’re name is Khan, you will be treated like a terrorist.

And, in the great tradition of art imitating life, this point proved true last summer when Shah Rukh Khan, the actor who plays Khan in the film, was detained at Newark Airport for over an hour of “secondary questioning”. Khan, one of the biggest film stars in India and the developing world, was on his way to New York to promote “My Name is Khan” when this tragically ironic twist of fate occurred. Below is a news report from CNN-IBN.

By the end of the 2.5hr film, Khan has also journeyed to a poor village in the deep South and helped save a Black church after a Katrina-esque hurricane, establishing an interesting link between Muslims and African-Americans and setting up the requisite happy ending (a natural law in Bollywood) in which the newly-elected President Obama awards Khan for his heroism and says to him, “Your name is Khan and you are not a terrorist!”. Then everyone in the crowd joins hands to sing “We Shall Overcome”  and we all live tolerantly ever after.

But only in the movies. In the real world, President Obama has fallen well short of the promise he made last April, in Cairo, “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Doha last month, at the US-Islamic World Forum, conceding that the Obama administration had not yet fulfilled many of the policy changes it had promised and pleading for patience. The Secretary spoke of “shared responsibility” but the general consensus across the Arab World is that the US commitment has been “insufficient and insincere”. One need only look at the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and ongoing occupation of Gaza, the still-open detention center at Guantanamo, the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, diplomatic deadlock with Iran, and a lack of cultural engagement to see why Muslims the world over are feeling disappointed and deceived.

Meanwhile, the White House recently announced the appointment of a new “special envoy” to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 57 states that considers itself the collective voice of Muslims around the world. And, guess what… the special envoy is a Muslim! But, luckily for him, perhaps, his name is not Khan. It’s Rashad Hussain, a deputy White House counsel who helped prepare the Cairo speech last year. The White House touted this appointment (which comes less than 1 year after the State Dept.’s appointment of a ‘special representative’ to the Muslim world, Farah Pandith) as “an important part of the president’s commitment to engaging Muslims around the world based on mutual respect and mutual interest”.

In honor of all the Khans in the US and abroad who are not terrorists, I will withhold my applause until Mr. Obama and his special representatives actually get on the stage and start singing the song they promised us all we would hear. They may not know the exact words yet, but it couldn’t hurt to take a cue from one very hopeful Hindi film and just start humming “We Shall Overcome”.

Here’s a teaser from the official website with a familiar melody…

And here’s the full trailer with English subtitles

Auschwitz survivor x Turkish Hip Hop group: Anti-Racism Campaign in Germany

March 4, 2010 Leave a comment

From The Independent, Kirsten Grieshaber, Thursday, 28 January 2010

Esther Bejarano says music helped to keep her alive as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. Now, 65 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camp, she has teamed up with a German hip-hop band to get her anti-racism message to today’s youth.

“It’s a clash of everything: age, culture, style,” Ms Bejarano admitted in an interview to mark Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday. “But we all love music and share a common goal: we’re fighting against racism and discrimination.”

On the first track of the album Per La Vita, which the 85-year-old has released with the Microphone Mafia, the band sing about longing for world peace. “My head is bowed, too many tears held back,” the song “Shalom” goes. “Worried I look around and see what happens, I’m not their leitmotif, which is the base of their lives: Violence, hatred and death, because too many people remained silent.”

The daughter of a Jewish cantor from Saarbrücken in western Germany, Ms Bejarano studied piano at home until the Nazis came to power and tore her family apart. She was deported to Auschwitz, where she became a member of the girls’ orchestra, playing the accordion every time trains full of Jews from across Europe arrived at the death camp. “We played with tears in our eyes,” Ms Bejarano remembered. “The new arrivals came in waving and applauding us, but we knew they would be taken directly to the gas chambers.” Although she survived, her parents and sister, Ruth, were killed.

For 20 years, Ms Bejarano has played music from the past – Yiddish melodies, tunes from the ghetto and Jewish resistance songs – with her children Edna and Yoram in a Hamburg-based band called Coincidence.

About two years ago, Kutlu Yurtseven, a Turkish rapper from Microphone Mafia, asked her about a collaboration to combat the growing racism and anti-Semitism in Germany. The octogenarian thought hip-hop “was really a bit too loud” but saw it as a way to reach Germany’s youth.

“We want to keep the memories of the Holocaust alive, but at the same time look into the future and encourage young people to take a stand against new Nazis,” she said. “I know what racism can lead to and the members of Microphone Mafia are immigrants and have experienced their share of discrimination as well.”

Mr Yurtseven, a 36-year-old Muslim, sees a message of religious harmony. “All religions ask to love and respect other. That’s what we do,” he said. The union of hip-hop and Jewish folklore was quite a hit. The rappers have mixed Jewish songs with hip-hop beats and also created lyrics for some of the songs that a younger audience can relate to. Per La Vita was issued last year and a documentary about the unusual pairing will be shown at schools across Germany.

Their audiences range from teenage immigrants at urban youth centres to an older crowd that might be expected to favour a more classical approach. “They love it,” Ms Bejarano said. “Even some of the older guests climb on the chairs and dance.”

She said it can be exhausting to perform with young people, but she chuckled: “I’ve educated the boys. We’ve lowered the volume and I told them to stop jumping around all the time.”

Mr Yurtseven said: “I asked Esther how she can make music after Auschwitz, and she said if they had taken the music from her, she would have died.”

Israel x Obama: Yes, We Can (co-opt the brand)

March 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Having just returned from a week and a half in Israel, I’m torn over how I want to portray what I observed there. And perhaps that is the only true portrayal that I can give, one of a land torn in at least three directions: by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab Muslims, and those who want nothing to do with either and just want to live a secular life. This comes as no surprise to anyone who follows Middle East politics, though what did come as a surprise to me was the lack of positive (read: non-violent) interaction between these groups on a quotidian basis. No matter what city I was in, there remains a stark separation between Orthodox Jews, secular Israelis, and Arabs, with the latter being relegated to hidden enclaves, run-down neighborhoods, furtive shadows in big city streets. My own cousins, secular, progressive Israelis by any measure, have only one regular encounter with Arabs in their neighborhood: their gardener. Even their eldest daughter, who is my age and getting a Masters at Be’er Sheva University, has no Arab students in her social circle, nor any in her classes. These discouraging statistics were reiterated by nearly every Israeli, young or old, that I talked to over the 10 days I was there – even those who claimed to be sympathetic to the “Arab situation”. And don’t even try getting ultra-Orthodox Jews to interact with anyone else or anyone to interact with them. They live completely isolated from the rest of the world and everyone in it. So how can these three groups hope to live together in any kind of peace if they don’t even attempt to interact with one another on a daily, non-political basis? Call me naive, but I had hoped to see a little more integration, especially among young people, by 2010. After all, if the US can elect a black man to the White House…

And, sure enough, that black man has already had a powerful impact in Israel, but not necessarily the one that I (or Obama himself) would have hoped. Instead of embracing the Obama message of community engagement and multiculturalism, it seems that Israel is more interested in the Obama brand, as evidenced by this commercial for one of the big Israeli TV networks, YES:

Apparently, the YES network will be offering new shows and more stars this season and viewers should be as excited about this as the smiling black couple and their enthusiastic supporters dancing across the White House lawn. Clearly, this has nothing to do with the original “Yes We Can” message but the cynicism that such a shameless commercial appropriation demonstrates caused me a moment of anger and resentment at the whole Israeli people for trading in a noble sentiment of collective strength for a convenient TV slogan. It’s the same resentment I felt towards the incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when he completely co-opted the Obama website, without actually embracing the spirit, let alone the politics, of Obama himself. This kind of slick appropriation of the Obama brand and style, in my opinion, evidences a larger theme of Israeli smugness in internal and external politics. Another example was the recent sardonic Tweeting by the Israeli Embassy in London “Israeli tennis player carries out hit on #Dubai target”, which was posted on the day the Israeli ambassador was asked to tell the British government if he knew anything about the use of fake passports in the assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai last month. The tweet linked to an article about the Israeli tennis star, Shahar Peer, who reached the semifinals of a tournament in Dubai before losing to Venus Williams. The Israeli Embassy removed the posting as soon as it was reported in the British press, but the ongoing question of Israeli involvement in the assassination remains an unfunny joke to the rest of the world as it is widely understood that the job was carried out by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad.

While all of this was going on, I was also reading about the violent protests erupting in Hebron over the Israeli government’s announcement that it would extend control over two holy sites within the Palestinian West Bank territory. This may have been just another week in the land of stones and tear-gas but I couldn’t help feeling that the hubris that enables Bibi to snatch holy areas is the same that enables Mossad to take out Hamas leaders in a foreign country, and the same that enables Israelis to go about their lives ignoring their neighbors, just watching TV with more stars and shows, saying smugly to themselves, “Yes We Can” But I wonder for how long.

To be fair, I did hear the Obama slogan one other time last week from an earnest falafel-maker in Tel Aviv. He was not trying to sell me anything (besides falafel) but instead wanted to convey his genuine belief in what Obama could mean for the world. It restored in me a modicum of faith that there can still exist in the holy land hope for a better day, when overcoming human differences can lead to peace. Thank you, falafel man. I hope you’re right.