Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Strange Horizons

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iraqGautam Bhatia, for the sci-fi magazine Strange Horizons, hosted critic Marcia Lynx Qualey, writers Anoud and Ali Bader, and me, for a fascinating discussion on Arab sci-fi and other genre experiment. This was prompted by the short story collection “Iraq + 100”. You can read the discussion here.

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April 24, 2017 at 2:16 pm

Posted in Culture

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Dancing in Damascus

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wissam

by Wissam al-Jazairy

This review of miriam cooke’s new book was published at the Guardian.

Syria’s revolution triggered a volcano of long-repressed thought and emotion in cultural as well as political form. Independent newspapers and radio stations blossomed alongside popular poetry and street graffiti. This is a story largely untold in the West. Who knew, for instance, of the full houses, despite continuous bombardment, during Aleppo’s December 2013 theatre festival?

“Dancing in Damascus” by Arabist and critic miriam cooke (so she writes her name, uncapitalised) aims to fill the gap, surveying responses in various genres to revolution, repression, war and exile.

Dancing is construed both as metaphor for collective solidarity and debate – as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it isn’t my revolution” – and as literal practice. At protests, Levantine dabke was elevated from ‘folklore’ to radical street-level defiance, just as popular songs were transformed into revolutionary anthems.

Cooke’s previous book “Dissident Syria” examined the regime’s pre-2011 attempts to defuse oppositional art while giving the impression of tolerance. The regime would fund films for international screening, for instance, but ban their domestic release.

souad-al-jundi

by Souad al-Jundi

“Dancing in Damascus” describes how culture slipped the bounds of co-optation. Increasingly explicit prison novels and memoirs anticipated the uprising. Once the protests erupted, ‘artist-activists’ engaged in a “politics of insult” and irony. Shredding taboos, the Masasit Matte collective’s ‘Top Goon’ puppet shows, Ibrahim Qashoush’s songs and Ali Farzat’s cartoons targeted Bashaar al-Assad specifically. “The ability to laugh at the tyrant and his henchmen,” writes cooke, “helps to repair the brokenness of a fearful people.”

As the repression escalated, Syrians posted atrocity images in the hope they would mobilise solidarity abroad. This failed, but artistic responses to the violence helped transform trauma into “a collective, affective memory responsible to the future”.

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January 27, 2017 at 12:14 pm

Posted in book review, Cinema, Culture, Syria

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The ‘Hakawati’ as Artist and Activist

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hassanI interviewed my friend Hassan Blasim, a brilliant writer and a wonderful human being, for the National.

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and film-maker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections “The Madman of Freedom Square” and “The Iraqi Christ” (the latter won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize), and editor and contributor to the science fiction collection “Iraq +100”. His play “The Digital Hat Game” was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.

Because it’s so groundbreaking, his work is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.

Why do you write?

To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.

If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq? why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realise the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom, and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.

Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.

Maybe writing is a psychological treatment, or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.

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Written by Barnwalls

January 5, 2017 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Culture, Iraq, writing

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The Sound and The Fury

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Abu Hajar 2This was first published (with some great links) at the Guardian. Picture is Abu Hajar. More stories about him and many others in our forthcoming book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’.

In the first heady weeks of the Arab Spring commentators made much of the role played by social media, and certainly Facebook in particular provided an indispensable tool to young revolutionaries throughout the region. But less noticed, and ultimately far more significant, was the carnivalesque explosion of popular culture in revolutionary public spaces.

The protests in Syria against Bashaar al-Assad’s dictatorship were far from grim affairs. Despite the ever-present risk of bullets, Syrians expressed their hopes for dignity and rights through slogans, graffiti, cartoons, dances and songs.

To start with, protestors tried to reach central squares, hoping to emulate the Egyptians who occupied Tahrir Square. Week after week residents of Damascus’s eastern suburbs tried to reach the capital’s Abbasiyeen Square, and were shot down in their dozens. Tens of thousands did manage to occupy the Clock Square in Homs, where they sang and prayed, but in a matter of hours security washed them out with blood.

This April 2011 massacre tolled an early funeral bell for peaceful protest as a realistic strategy. In response to the unbearable repression, the revolution gradually militarised. By the summer of 2012 war was spinning in downward spiral: the regime added sectarian provocation to its ‘scorched earth’ tactics of bombardment and siege; foreign states and transnational jihadists piled in; those refugees who could got out.

Civil revolutionaries did their best to adapt. Alongside self-organising committees and councils, Syrians set up independent news agencies, tens of radio stations and well over 60 newspapers and magazines. Kafranbel, for instance, a rural town become famous for its witty and humane slogans, broadcasts discussion, news and women’s programmes on its own ‘Radio Fresh’ – despite a recent assault by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. And Enab Baladi (My Country’s Grapes), is a newspaper published by women in Daraya, a besieged, shelled and gassed Damascus suburb. Remarkably, the magazine focuses on unarmed civil resistance.

As a result of both security concerns and communal solidarity, anonymous cooperative endeavours proliferated, amongst them photography collectives such as the Young Syrian Lenses.

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December 7, 2015 at 11:14 am

Writers in Erbil, 2011

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I wrote this account of the Erbil Literature Festival in early 2011, as Assad was bringing war to Syria, before the PYD militias took over Syria’s Kurdish areas, long before Mosul fell to Daesh. Since then there’s been a revolution in Syrian culture, and a further expansion of Iraqi literature. Ahmad Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad”, mentioned here, last year won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as ‘the Arab Booker’.

the Chaikhana Muchko in Erbil

the Chaikhana Muchko in Erbil

5th May 2011

It was an annoying journey out: a thirty-mile lift to the train station, then a train, a bus, a plane, a transit zone, a plane; unfitting and refitting my belt, tired and prickle-skinned among the glassy hustling public, and the jarring mesh of duty-free odours, and the funneling tunneling lights. My night in Vienna, old Austro-Hungaria, was spent in a very contemporary airport hotel. The windows were sealed by regulation. I lay on the bed and watched TV – all I ever do in anonymous, upmarket hotels – on pillows too bulky, sheets too sterile. I watched too much Arabic Jazeera, slow eyes chasing the script on the news bar, about the killing in Syria, in Homs and in Dara‘a. I slid to sleep to the hiss of airconditioning.

6th May

Inaam Kachachi is a Paris-based novelist and journalist. Her most recent novel, available in English too, is “The American Granddaughter”, which concerns a young Iraqi-American woman who ‘returns’ to Iraq as a translator with the American military.

When Inaam returns home these days she finds that Baghdad, the cradle of her early life, has become a foreign city. Last time she was there an American soldier assumed she was the foreigner because she was dressed only in T-shirt and trousers, revealing her light skin, startling orange hair and (by her own description) her plumpness. ‘When he passed by me he said “Hi Ma’am!” I replied in English,’ (she puts on a parodic American growl) – ‘“Fuck you, I’m Iraqi!”’

Once she mentions her plumpness I notice it. She’s elegant and swish with it too. Her size seems to be an outward manifestation of powerful inner warmth, as if her raging humour requires great space to rush about in. We’d met before, half a year earlier in Berlin, and we wave to each other as she comes through the Vienna airport gate.

So: eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey. And south over snow-caked mountains towards the flatlands of Iraqi Kurdistan. I think I glimpse the glistening Tigris from my port hole. On the other side of the river is Mosul, where Inaam’s family originates (and, so rumour has it – much more distantly – mine too), and near Mosul are the ruins of Nineveh, where Ashurbanipal’s library was buried and dug up, and with it the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest versions of the flood myth, the omens and divinations of the ancient world. I experience a frisson of firm location: my first time in Iraq, which is the homeland of all writers, the birthplace of literature, the Babel-land of stories. This is where human beings first discovered writing.

The airport is contemporary, spacious and airy. Our group of writers is processed through passport control and into a minibus, green fields and long grass on either side; after a kilometre we stop at a lonely concrete hut where our bags are scanned again. We change buses here, for security’s sake.

And into the city. It’s called Hawler in Kurdish, Erbil in Arabic, Arbaa-ilu (Four Gods) in Akkadian, and Urbilum (The Upper City) in Sumerian. It’s the fourth largest city in Iraq, the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Its population is well over a million, but it doesn’t feel like that. It’s spacious like the airport, low rise, and most of it is in very good shape.

Our hotel compound is surrounded by blast walls. The public side of the walls is painted with murals – prisoners breaking through bars, the Pepsi logo, mountains and flowers. Our bags are searched and scanned at the entrance to the compound and again in the foyer of the hotel.

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Syria Speaks on Tour

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Khalil, Khaled, and me (pic by Khalil)

Khalil, Khaled, and me (pic by Khalil)

This was published at the National

For a week in June, Syrian writers and artists toured England, giving readings and workshops to promote “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline”, a book reflecting the country’s new revolutionary culture. British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab describes the experience.

*

In Bradford we met a woman who had tried as hard as she could to forget she was Syrian. We didn’t discover her original trauma, but we heard its symptoms over a British-Pakistani curry. She hadn’t spoken Arabic for years, and never told anyone where she was from. Once a policeman detained her for an hour because she refused to tell him her origin.

In Bristol, on the other hand, we met a little old woman who, with her red hair and flowery dress, we might have mistaken for English. But she was a Damascene, and she wept when I read a description of her city. Afterwards she came to introduce herself. “I’ve lived in England for thirty years, and I didn’t realise until the revolution that I had a fear barrier inside. Then I noticed I’d never talked about Syria. I’d tried not to even think about it. But those brave youths gave me courage; they gave me back my identity and my freedom.”

So the Syrian revolution is alive and well in Bristol if not in Bradford, for this is where the revolution happens first, before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations – in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words. Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’ in which public discourse was irretrievably devalued by enforced lip-service to the regime and its propaganda pieties. As a result, many Syrians describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, a kind of rebirth. In “Syria Speaks”, Ossama Mohammed’s story “The Thieves’s Market” concerns a woman who attends the state’s official demonstrations, until her friend is murdered for participating in an oppositional one. “I grew up,” she says, “came of age, abandoned someone and was abandoned, on a march that finished yesterday.” When that coerced march ended and a thousand new ones began, Syrians found unprecedented liberation simply by expressing honest opinions in the presence of their neighbours, by breaking the barriers of fear.

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July 18, 2014 at 9:20 am

Syria Speaks on Front Row

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I spent the last eight days on tour with Syria’s greatest novelist Khaled Khalifa, artist Khalil Younis, and writers Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen. We were promoting the Syria Speaks book, a collection of art, cartoons, essays, short stories and novel extracts from revolutionary Syria. It felt useful to approach the subject through human stories rather than banging the head against the tired old political discourses. I’m writing about the tour and book for a piece which should be published next month. In the meantime, here on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Khaled, Malu and I discuss the new culture, Khaled’s experience under bombs, and the ISIS phenomenon.

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June 19, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Syrian Revolutionary Culture

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I and Malu Halasa discussing cultural change in the Syrian Revolution at BBC World TV. I’m looking forward to seeing Khaled Khalifa and other Syrian writers and artists in Copenhagen in a couple of days, at the exhibition organised by Malu.

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March 18, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Posted in Culture, Syria

Arab Earthquake

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art by Chant Avedissian

Throughout yesterday messages were sent out from within the Egyptian regime to the effect that Husni Mubarak was about to resign. Millions went onto the night streets to celebrate the victory. Then, incredibly, Mubarak repeated his intention to stay. He lied about his contributions to Egyptian sovereignty and addressed the Egyptians as his children, to screams of derision. Despicable as he is, there was something of the tragic hero about him, tragic in the Greek or Shakespearean sense. The very traits which had thrust him to greatness – stubborness, brutishness, contempt for the people – were condemning him, with every word, to the most ignominious humiliation. He spoke from the gravel of his octogenarian throat, a man of the past adrift in a strange new world.

Tragic or not, it was certainly theatre – directed by the military. Communique Number One had already been delivered. Then this evening Omar Suleiman made a curt admission of defeat, for he too has been deposed (although he announced only Mubarak’s fall). The military’s Supreme Council is in charge.

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February 11, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Posted in Arabism, Culture, Egypt, Tunisia

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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January 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Arabism, book review, Culture, Syria

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Beirut 39

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This was published at the Guardian.

The Arab world is undergoing seismic transformations, groping its way towards new, as yet unknown forms, throwing up works of art as well as bombs in the process. In the face of vast complexity, however, and in a time of war, our media’s first response is to dumb down.

If the news media simplifies, literature, by offering social and psychological context, broadens and diversifies our understanding of the region, and particularly literature written by Arabs. (When Martin Amis or John Updike write about Arabs, they are of course writing about themselves, their own ideas of how Arabs tick.)  The reading public seems to know this. Recent years have seen an increasing demand for Arabic writing in English translation, though Europe still translates far more.

So the publication of “Beirut 39” ­– 39 extracts by Arab writers under 40 – is a timely and worthwhile initiative. The 39 are winners of a contest organised by Banipal magazine and the Hay Festival of Literature, and the book’s name honours UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2009. “Beirut 39” contains short stories, novel extracts and a few poems, often brimming with exuberant confidence and sparkling with innovation. The quality of translation ranges from acceptable to excellent.

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June 12, 2010 at 9:56 am

Myth and Memoricide: Shlomo Sand’s “Invention of the Jewish People”

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Denise Buonanno's Le Juif Errant

This review essay was published at The Drouth.

A nation is “a group of persons united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbours.” Karl Deutsch.

“I don’t think books can change the world, but when the world begins to change, it searches for different books.” Shlomo Sand.

Our Assumptions About Israel

Here is what we in the West, to a varying extent, whether we are religious or not, assume about the Jews and Israel:

The Jews of the world, white, black and brown, are the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses, after leading the Jews out of Egyptian enslavement, gave them laws. Emerging from the desert, the Jews conquered the promised land of Canaan, which became Judea and Israel, later the mighty kingdom of David and Solomon. In 70CE the Romans destroyed the temple at Jerusalem and drove the Jews from their land. A surviving Jewish remnant was expelled when Muslim-Arab conquerors colonised the country in the 7th Century. And so the Jews wandered the earth, the very embodiment of homelessness. But throughout their long exile, against all odds, the Jews kept themselves a pure, unmixed race. Finally they returned, after the Holocaust, to Palestine, “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

This story has been told again and again in our culture. Today we find bits of it in Mark Twain and Leon Uris, in Hollywood’s output and in church pulpits, and of course in the mainstream news media. American Christian Zionists – devotees of the Scofield Bible – swear by it, and swear to support Israel with all the power of their voting block until the Risen Christ declares the apocalypse.

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May 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Clan, State, Islamic Polity

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Abdelwahab el-Affendi

Could the root causes of the Arab-Muslim ‘malaise’ be cultural? That’s what journalist Brian Whitaker suggests in his book ‘What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East’. The thesis sounds suspicious, but Whitaker isn’t a cheap Orientalist, and he uses interviews with Arabs as his raw material. The key issues his informants keep pointing to are indeed the issues that, wherever you meet them, young Arabs complain about. These include an undue emphasis on submission and obedience in the education system, at work, and in the home, the social valorisation of conformity, and a corrupt public space.

The personal is the political. The problem in every sphere is one of overbearing authority, and it’s true that this is ultimately family-based, ultimately the result of overly-narrow personal identifications. In fact, I would argue that tribalism, nepotism, sectarianism, even forced marriage and honour killing, are all manifestations of the tyranny of the clan. And the tyranny of the clan is the result of bad governance.

The clan, repeats novelist Rafik Schami, “saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.” It saved them by providing economic and social solidarity, a sense of identity, and physical protection. This was necessary because over the years, for most of the time, there has been no safe field of activity other than the clan, no civic life free from the depredations of warlords, sultans and foreign colonialists. Society has had no choice but to turn inward. The traditional Arab town house is an architectural embodiment of the phenomenon. It looks shabby from the outside, just a door in a wall – this to deflect a pillager’s attention. Inside there’s a courtyard with a tree and a pool.

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May 4, 2010 at 10:12 am

The Pen and the Sword

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This review was originally published in the indispensable Electronic Intifada.

Edward Said was one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century – prolific, polymathic, principled, and always concerned to link theory to practice. Perhaps by virtue of his Palestinian identity, he was never an ivory tower intellectual. He never feared dirtying his hands in the messy, unwritten history of the present moment. Neither was he ever a committed member of a particular camp. Rather he offered a discomfiting, provocative, constantly critical voice. And against the postmodern grain of contemporary academia, his perspective was consistently moral, consistently worried about justice.

Said was primarily a historian of ideas. More precisely, he was interested in ‘discourse’, the stories a society tells itself and by which it (mis)understands itself and others. His landmark book “Orientalism” examined the Western narrative of empire in the Islamic Middle East, as constructed by Flaubert and Renan, Bernard Lewis and CNN. Said’s multi-disciplinary approach, his treatment of poetry, news coverage and colonial administration documents as aspects of one cultural continuum, was hugely influential in academia, helping to spawn a host of ‘postcolonial’ studies. Said’s “Culture and Imperialism” expanded the focus to include Western depictions of India, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, and the literary and political ‘replies’ of the colonised.

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April 26, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Visiting the Great Satan

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Notre Dame University

I’ve never before visited the USA. Like everybody else in the world, I’ve had it come to me. Its approach has been unstoppable, for good and for ill. For good first: the incredible achievement of American prose, which leaves British writing of the last century far behind. I am astounded by Faulkner, Bellow, Updike and Roth (when they’re good), Cheever, Scott Fitzgerald, and now Joshua Ferris. Formulaic Hollywood switches me off, but I can’t get enough Spike Lee or Martin Scorcese. I love Bob Dylan, Public Enemy and Miles Davis, just for starters. Jazz and particularly hip hop are American art forms which have travelled very well indeed. These two came originally from the black poor, and it’s the heterogeneity of America, and the possibility of marginalised genres and people being heard, which is so appealing. America is a continent-sized country of mixed-up Africans, Jews, Italians, Irish, Latinos, French, Wasps, and everyone else. It should be the most globally-minded and tolerant country in the world.

It isn’t of course. A narrow hyper-nationalism, the shaping of public discourse by corporations and lobbies, and a stupifying media and public education system have seen to that. Which brings us to the ill: America’s homogenising rage, which has ravaged first its own main streets (so Naomi Klein says in No Logo) and then the high streets of the world; its humourless TV gum; its advertising culture of false smiles and sugary platitudes; its racism, wars, military bases, aircraft carriers, support for dictators and apartheid regimes. These are the reasons why the US is known in some parts as the Great Satan, standing behind most of the little satans sitting on Asian and African thrones. In Muscat, Damascus, Shiraz and London I’ve met many people who have been made refugees by the USA.

America is the empire, admittedly in decline. In one sense, therefore, I haven’t needed to visit to know it. But last week I visited nevertheless, for a conference at Notre Dame University which I enjoyed very much.

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Written by Barnwalls

November 25, 2009 at 4:09 pm