Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for January 2011

Changing the Air

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Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali is in Abha, Saudi Arabia. France wouldn’t have him. (Despots, note the speed with which a sponsor drops a client who has outlived his usefulness.) Arab activists are calling for protests outside Saudi embassies.

In Tunisia, the extent of the people’s sacrifice over the last month is becoming clearer. Reports describe Ben Ali’s police terrorising rural areas with punitive rapes and random murders.

And the terror continues. Since Ben Ali’s fall, Tunis and other cities have been plagued by violence. Some of it, such as attacks on Ben Ali family businesses, can be classed as revolutionary. Some more of it is the natural result of taking the lid off after so long; a mix of exuberance, criminality, and what Gazmend Kapplani calls an ‘orphan complex’:

Tyrants are merciless beasts, precisely because they leave behind distorted societies worn down by oppression and above all suffering from an orphan complex. Those who give themselves over to indiscriminate looting and destruction the minute the statues come down are like orphaned children robbing the corpse of a false and terrifying father.

But the most terrifying violence appears to be organised by Ben Ali’s militiamen. Tunisians report battles between army forces on the one hand and ‘police’ and other highly-trained, well-armed gangs on the other. Some of these gangs have been driving through residential areas shooting randomly at people and buildings.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 17, 2011 at 2:24 am

This is What Victory Looks Like

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photo by Hassene Dridi for AP

Written on the night of January 14th 2011

The dictator, thief and Western client Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali, beloved until a few hours ago in Paris and Washington, has been driven from Tunisia. His reign was ended not by a military or palace coup but by an extraordinarily broad-based popular movement which has brought together trades unions and professional associations, students and schoolchildren, the unemployed and farmers, leftists, liberals and intelligent Islamists, men and women. One of the people’s most prominent slogans will resonate throughout the Arab world and beyond: la khowf ba’ad al-yowm, or No Fear From Now On.

It is to be hoped that Tunisia will now develop a participatory system based on respect for citizens’ rights, that it will reclaim and develop its economy, implement social justice, and move out of the Western-Israeli embrace. The revolution, however, is beset by dangers. Although the head of the snake has been sacrificed, the conglomerate of interests behind the Ben Ali regime is largely still in place, and will be working furiously to restrict and roll back popular participation. For this reason it is of crucial importance that Tunisians are tonight raising the slogan ‘al-intifada mustamura,’ or ‘the intifada continues.’

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 15, 2011 at 4:09 am

Scenes from the Revolution in Tunisia

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The protests in Tunisia are growing and spreading. What began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in Sidi Bouzid at first declared itself a rebellion against unemployment, then became a revolt against corruption. Today ‘freedom’ is one of the words most vigorously chanted. Almost all sectors of society have joined demonstrations and strikes against the Bin Ali regime, a World Bank favourite. Tunisia’s intifada is far more broadly-based than the Green Movement in Iran. In this case, however, Hillary Clinton says the United States is “not taking sides.” Meanwhile the regime has closed schools and universities indefinitely. Human rights groups say over 50 protesters have been murdered by American and perhaps Israeli munitions. The regime claims the figure is 21. Particularly in this lamentable period we must salute the bravery and sacrifice of the Tunisian revolutionaries, and thank them for bringing us hope.

The first film is to a soundtrack of revolutionary Tunisian pop music. The sign the man waves at 0.40 says ‘No Fear After Today’ or ‘No Fear From Now On.’ The second features the symbolic burning of a Bin Ali artwork. The third shows a hospital dealing with the dead and injured, and is not for the faint-hearted. I put it up to remind us of Neda Sultan, and because the BBC doesn’t (although it does have this report).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 13, 2011 at 2:59 am

Posted in North Africa

Sabriya

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by Ali Farzat

It’s Damascus: bustling alleyways and courtyards crammed with silence. Sabriya is secretly in love with Adil. Her brother Sami is secretly in love with Nermin. Both loves are chaste and built on idealism, and both are doomed. Adil and Sami join the 1925-27 revolt against the French occupation. Sami is killed by the enemy. Nermine is badgered into marrying a wealthy old man, then ends up eloping with her hairdresser. Sabriya’s fiance Adil is killed, probably by Sabriya’s bullying brother Raghib who doesn’t like the idea of her marrying a baker’s son. Sabriya is left alone to care for her dying mother, then her dying father. Finally she kills herself, leaving her journal for her niece to read, and a message: “Do not let your life be in vain.”

Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet” (in Arabic, “Dimashq Ya Basmat al-Huzn”, or “Damascus, O Smile of Sadness”) was published in Syria and then transformed into a controversial and wildly popular muselsel, or television series. (If the Egyptians are famous in the Arab world for films, the Syrians do muselselat, particularly period dramas). This elegantly-written, carefully-dramatised period novel is nostalgic but also very current in its concerns.

Ulfat Idilbi explicitly links the struggles for national rights and women’s rights. When Sabriya participates (wearing niqab) in a women’s demonstration against the French, she says: “For the first time I felt I was a human being with an identity and an objective, in defence of which I was ready to die.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Arabism, book review, Culture, Syria

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Ours Are The Streets

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This review was written for the Guardian.

Here’s another suicide bomber novel. We’ve had Amis and Updike’s uninformed attempts, plus variations on the theme from Sebastian Faulks. This time, though not of Muslim background, our author is a British-Asian and he does have some important insights on the anguished inbetweenness suffered by so many second-generation immigrants, which in some rare cases may constitute part of the psychological background to political radicalisation.

As a study of migrants, the frustrated ambition of the first generation and the generalised alienation of the second (from the ‘home country’ as much as from ‘home’) – this could as well be titled ‘Ours Are Not The Streets’ – the novel is very successful.

People of a variety of backgrounds will recognise the complex allegiances of Imtiaz, the chief protagonist, who “felt fine rooting for Liverpool, in a quiet way, but not England” and who finds himself “defending Muslims against whites and whites against Muslims.” Everybody will appreciate Suhota’s deft treatment of the generation gap. Imtiaz’s repeated ‘why can’t you be normal?’ is a common adolescent interrogation, but one which becomes more acute in an immigrant household. Suhota is very good at dramatising children’s rankling shame at their migrant parents’ submission to humiliation. Imtiaz’s father’s silence as a passenger pisses in the back of his cab, or when a member of a hen party demands he grope her breasts, and Imtiaz’s squirming response to the silence, are excrutiatingly well written.

Imtiaz is really very British. He stands up to his parents and marries Becka, his pregnant white girlfriend, who happily converts to Islam and moves into the family home. They have a daughter, Noor. Imtiaz, not assimilated but reasonably comfortably integrated, seems to have it all.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 8, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Posted in book review

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The Murder of Salmaan Taseer

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Salmaan Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, has been shot dead by one of his own security detail for the supposed crime of defending Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman threatened with execution under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law was introduced by the British and given extra teeth by military dictator Zia ul-Haq, and is commonly used for the pursuit of grudges against the weak. The most disturbing aspect of Taseer’s murder is that both puritanical Deobandi and traditionalist ‘Sufi’ Barelvi religious leaderships have expressed support for it. Many Pakistanis are lionising Taseer’s murderer. For decades sections of Pakistan’s ruling elite have peddled religio-nationalist chauvinism as a stop-gap substitute for social justice. The result is today’s ugly combination of elite and mob rule. I reviewed a book by Taseer’s son here. Below, novelist Mohammed Hanif reports from Karachi:

Minutes after the murder of the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salmaan Taseer I saw a veteran Urdu columnist on a news channel. He was being what, in breaking news jargon, is called a “presenter’s friend”. “It is sad of course that this has happened but . . .”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

Posted in Pakistan

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Inspiration from Tunisia

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The anti-regime protests spread across Tunisia involve trades unionists, the unemployed, lawyers, journalists and students. The people chant against “the killers of the people, the flayers of the people.” Their slogans include “Tunisia is the people, not the government,” “We’ll solve the police crisis, we’ll solve the Tunisian crisis,” and (I think – the sound isn’t clear) “Work, Freedom, National solidarity.” The first film shows a Tunisian town continuing to fearlessly demonstrate despite tear gas and truncheon attacks. (A maths teacher has been shot dead by police during the protests). The second (over the fold) shows a demonstration in the capital. Arabic speakers can follow this link to al-Jazeera’s round-up of the most recent developments.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Posted in North Africa