Inside Gaza’s kitchens, a cookbook about food and life in the strip

Standing at the busy kitchen of the co-author of the Gaza Kitchen cookbook Maggie Schmitt, we prepare together Kefta (ground meat mixed with bread, spices and onions). She crushes the dill and hot chilli pepper craftily in a Gazan zibdiye (a heavy unglazed clay bowl, accompanied by a lemonwood pestle) that she admits has become one of her most precious kitchen items. I slice the tomatoes and onions while her 1-year-old son, curious, takes a taste from the Tahina (sesame paste) and squirms. Being from Gazan origin myself, this is not the first time I prepare Kefta and other Arab dishes. However growing up in the diaspora, I never found the Gazan recipes that my father so affectionately remembers from his childhood in the strip, so when I first heard about the Gaza Kitchen cookbook, I didn’t think twice before buying it.

Gaza Kitchen cookbook _ photo by Hala Muhanna

Gaza Kitchen cookbook _ photo by Hala Muhanna

With the aim of not letting the rich food heritage of Gaza disappear with the political conflict that burdens the strip, Gazan author and activist Leila El-Haddad and Schmitt teamed up to document its cuisine in the 600 page cookbook. Between the kefta and the exotic roasted watermelon salad, the book recounts stories of daily household economy under the siege and electricity cuts and most importantly gives faces and names to Gazans often represented in the media as numbers in the fight between Hamas and Israel.

The authors shifted their focus from the famous falafel and hummus to home cuisine, the many Gazan dishes that have been passed from generation to generation, never written down, and are now disappearing with the 48 generation. Armed with a camera and a notebook, they roamed the strip and cooked together with women from the urban and rural parts of Gaza, they visited refugee camps and Christian families and noted down exotic recipes like Arugula soup, Rumaniyya (sour lentil and eggplant) and roasted tomatoe and kishik (fermented wheat) stew.

Used to being interviewed about nothing else but politics, Schmitt´s questions took Gazans by surprise. “We told them, no, no… all we want to know is how your grandmother used to prepare the Rumaniyya,”  Schmitt passionately recounts. The authors were overwhelmed with invitations for lunch and dinner.

While the Gazan cuisine is as varied as the habitants of the strip, they are all characterized by the generous use of spices and dill, the chefs´ fastidiousness and the healthy diet of vegetables and legumes. Indeed, celeb chéf´s like America´s Anthony Bourdain called it “An important book on an egregiously under appreciated, under-reported area of gastronomy. This is old school in the best possible meaning of the term.” while the jury of the Gourmand International Cookbook Awards at the International Cookbook Fair in Paris named The Gaza Kitchen the Best Arab Cookbook of 2013.

“We didn´t use chilli that often,” my father comments on the recipes. There is a reason to that. With the economical hardships Gazans face under the siege imposed on them since the election of Hamas in 2006,  the nutritionally rich and fast growing chilli peppers proved a viable and inexpensive product as it requires little irrigation. Indeed, for many of the poorest Gazans´s children, their lunch at school is limited to a flifil ma67un (smashed hot chili pepper) sandwich.

More than a simple cookbook, Gaza Kitchen starts from the everyday household economy and connects it to bigger political, economic, social and geopolitical questions. It sheds light on the active de-development of Gaza and Isreal´s policy of turning it from a productive economy to a dependent one through controlling import and banning factory components, machines and raw materials like cement from entering the strip. The ongoing blockade also left limited possibility for export which caused the strip´s private sector to collapse.

As a result, many Gazan´s turned to farming. Families also revived the use of clay ovens, traditional methods of cooking and conserving foods that my father remembers from his childhood in order to survive the persistent electricity cuts due to Isreal´s bombing of the strip´s sole power plant in 2006 and its ban on the import of machines and raw materials to rebuild it.

The ban on the import of sesame also changed the local tastes as Gazans are no longer able to produce red Tahina, a Gazan delicacy of roasted sesame paste that they invented. Zaatar (a spice blend of dried herbs, mixed with sesame seeds, dried sumac, salt and other spices) popular all over the levant as a Palestinian delicacy) also disappeared from the tables of Gazans as Israel declared it a protected species and banned harvesting it.

Life in the strip might not be easy but make no mistake, this is not a Gazan sob story. In Schmitt and El-Haddad´s cookbook we are invited to the busy kitchens of strong cheerful women, giggling children and grandmas recounting old love stories. The cookbook also lightly touches upon social issues in the strip such as polygamy and women´s right to education and work in Gaza´s conservative circles. Avoiding big political questions, the authors tell the personal stories of the individual women just having lives buffeted by the circumstances of history and document the specific material details of their everyday life that few people in Europe know.

“We wanted to focus on ordinary people and especially women and just see how you live through these insane circumstances and maintain basically your humanity and your sense of humor and your ability to take care of your kids and be a normal person,” Schmitt explains.  “Our aim was to give a sense of having gone to someone´s house and had dinner because if you share someone´s table and you know a little bit about their life and you meet their kid then you cannot in good conscience vote for policies that would bomb them and wipe them off the face of the earth. It´s just a basic strategy of humanizing.”

More about the book on its official webpage.

Review of ’Arous Amman, a novel by Jordanian writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout

’Arous Amman (Amman’s bride), a controversial book in both its form and content

Book cover of 'Arous Amman

Book cover of ‘Arous Amman

In an interview on Roya Jordanian TV channel with writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout, the presenter referred to a gay character in Zaghmout’s novel ’Arous Amman as shaz (an offensive term to describe gays, similar to faggot). „Muthley,” Zaghmout corrected her using a politically correct word for “homosexual”. By the end of the interview, the presenter was using „LGBT-friendly language”.

More than a literary work, Zaghomout’s first novel ’Arous Amman is an activism work advocating women rights and sexual liberties in the conservative Jordanian society. The novel is based on  a collection of short stories, film scripts and blog posts that Zaghmout published on his popular blog. The blog had 118,745 subscribers at the time of publishing this review.

What makes Zaghmout’s blog-turned-into-novel stand out is that it not only tackles some of the major taboos in Jordanian society like domestic rape, inter-religious marriages, sex out-of-wedlock which are often covered in contemporary literature, but it also raises other sensitive issues that are less talked about like LGBT rights and the sexual rights of women who were tricked into marrying homosexual men to hide the husband’s sexual orientation. What also makes it unique is that it is one of the few Arab feminist novels written by a man. Perhaps this is also why it is one of the few novels that don’t crucify men and blame them solely for the plight of women in the Arab world. Rather, Zaghmout presents them as loving fathers and supportive husbands and sometimes even victims of the patriarchal society just like women, blaming women rights violations in the Arab world on the patriarchal upbringing, ignorance and social pressure among others. It is also one of the few feminist novels I read that managed to walk the fine line between creating sympathy for its violated women and LGBT characters and being too depressive. In his novel, Zaghmout does not only showcase the problems that Jordanian women and LGBTs face, but also explains the mentality behind it.

The form and language of ’Arous Amman is no less controversial than its content. It is made up of a series of monologues and reflections by its main characters: 4 women and a homosexual man with very little dialogue. If this sounds daunting, it isn’t. Zaghmout divided his novel into short, blog like sections written in a simple language often using colloquial words which made it easy to read and accessible for a wider audience. While the style he adopted definitely helps in spreading his advocacy message, it triggered heated debates among the more traditional Jordanian intellectuals who call for elitist literature written in pure fusha (literary Arabic language).

Rather than its simple language and form, which I personally found suitable for the message that the novel conveys, what I didn’t like in ’Arous Amman is its romantic ’everyone lived happily ever after’ ending because it lies in contrast with the story’s serious and sometimes even tragic tone. To avoid including spoilers here… it just wasn’t convincing!

’Arous Amman is definitely a good choice if you are a foreigner interested in better understanding the psychology behind women and LGBT rights violations in the Arab world. While the novel might offer little new information for Arab readers, its power lies in challenging the traditional mindset of Arab societies and being brave enough to call social prejudices and atrocities by the name.

The Odd One Out

Growing up in a family of doctors, Buthayna Ali’s household couldn’t have possibly been further removed from the arts. I discuss with the Syrian-born artist in Damascus how societal, religious and gender-related taboos fuel Ali’s oeuvre.

Buthayna Ali at her exhibtion We. 2006. 330 rubber swings, rope, sand, sound and light. Total size: 600 square metres.

Since the first time she attended an art exhibition as a tiddler, Buthayna Ali knew she wanted to become an artist. As a child, she would organise weekly in-house exhibitions for her family and showcase portraits of them, landscapes and sketches of her surroundings. Although her father expected her to study medicine, Ali applied to Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts (where she now teaches painting) and later completed a diploma in painting from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts and a Master’s degree in Islamic Art History at the Paris IV Sorbonne University.

As a multimedia artist, Ali is not only the odd one out in her family, but also within the Syrian art scene that is still largely dominated by classical art forms. Even though Ali admires the works of artists like Michelangelo, Manet and Schiele, the modernist art tendencies of artists like Duchamp in the early 20th century left the biggest impact on her. “The freedom in art in the 20th century helped me break many boundaries. Art for me is about freedom,” Ali says.

I can’t decide which is more provocative in conservative Damascene circles – the art forms that Ali pursues or her eagerness to break the taboos of sex and religion in her work. One thing is certain: Ali’s work never fails to raise eyebrows in her native Syria. When asked what her thoughts are on addressing ‘square issues’, Ali shrugs. “Art is meant to break traditions. It is important to free your tools and open your mind to new ways of expression,” she says, acknowledging acceptance of the fact that conventional spheres in Syria may not appreciate her work. “The first time I saw an installation as an art student in France, I thought it was crap. You don’t wake up one day and start to like video or installation art,” she adds; “To appreciate these art forms, you first need to understand the process that led to their creation and this does not happen between one day and another.”

Breaking Taboos

Even outside Syria, Ali’s work causes controversy. Her installation, No Comment, features copies of the Qur’an, Bible and Tanakh chained inside a glass display case with audio recordings of Islamic verses, Assyrian hymns and Jewish songs. It was denied entry into Jerusalem for participation in the 2009 exhibition, The Other Shadow of the City, curated by Samar Martha at Al-Hoash Gallery. Through the work, Ali criticises religious hypocrisy and implies that the teachings of the three religions are no longer followed, but are instead used for political propaganda. Ali did not receive an official explanation as to why the work was rejected. The work, which was never exhibited, didn’t make it back to Damascus and was ruined on the way.

“I made this artwork especially for The Other Shadow of the City exhibition and I chose this subject because Jerusalem for me is about these three religions and their fight to gain control over the city,” Ali said. “I was very disappointed that the art work was not allowed into Jerusalem. I’ve always dreamed about visiting Jerusalem and I was so excited that my work could be exhibited there.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Her easygoing and informal persona allows her to stroll along the streets of Damascus to convince ordinary Syrians – from the local butcher to the veiled woman walking down Souk Al-Hamidiyeh – to talk to Ali openly about their views on sex, life and the concept of homeland. In her installation, Marionettes, Ali probed men and women from different cultural and religious backgrounds on Syria’s curious lingerie production which includes edible undergarments and remote-controlled bras that play music and spring open with a press of a button. The inspiration for this work came from seeing kitschy lingerie spread out on a peddler’s small table next to the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in Old Damascus. “I found it very contradictory that it is a taboo to talk about sex, yet it is perfectly normal to sell lingerie in front of places of worship and to have women, mostly veiled ones, go into the Syrian equivalent of sex shops where men sell them lewd lingerie!” exclaims Ali.

The piece, exhibited in Point Ephémère in Paris in 2007, features eight lingerie items hung by strings, like marionettes, and which face eight mirrors. Visitors standing in front of the mirrors appear to be wearing the undergarments; a changing room – for anyone wishing to try on the lingerie – plays audio files of conversations between Ali and interviewed men and women who had been asked their opinions on the lingerie and whether they would purchase any of the items. To Ali’s surprise, most of the Syrian men she interviewed said they didn’t like them, while the majority of the women said that they would wear them.

Syria’s provocative lingerie production caught the interest of other artists as well. Designer Rana Salam and writer Malu Halasa published the book The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie in which various Syrian women voiced their fears, hopes and view of sex and marriage. In Marionettes, Ali decided to go a step further by making visitors of her exhibition, even if only virtually, wear that lingerie and thus see the subject from a more personal point of view.

“The work is about the viewers rather than the exhibited lingerie. I wanted to challenge the visitors and dare them to wear those lewd pieces,” Ali says pointing out that interaction with the audience is why she chose to make installations instead of paintings.  “A boundary always exists between the viewer and a painting, and it takes a long time to overcome it. Installations, on the other hand, involve all the senses of the viewer making the artwork easier to grasp and more intimate. This also makes it more colourful. Monet painted the Cathedral in each period of the day to show it, each time, in a different light. My installations change with every visitor; each one of them make it appear in a different light.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Issues of Displacement

During the interview, roles were often reversed and Ali was the one asking the questions – something akin to the second nature of a restless artist. “In Arab countries we take many things as a given. There are a lot of things that you don’t question because you are not supposed to,” she says. “I didn’t choose my name, my sex, my country of origin or the religion I was born into. There are a few things left where I can have a choice, so why not? Asking questions gives me choices.” Her constant travel between Europe, Syria and Canada for study and work allowed her to question the concept of home, especially when meeting second-generation immigrants who consider their parents’ country of origin as their homeland even though some had never lived there and don’t speak its language. “Can you inherit a homeland?” Ali asks. “I don’t understand how it can be that you grow up and spend your whole life in a certain country and yet feel that you belong to another one that you’ve hardly visited!” Inspired by the immigrants and their sense of dislocation, Ali created the photomontage, Examples, in which she asked immigrants in various countries where it is that they call home. Exhibited in 2008 at Paris’s Enrico Navarra Gallery, the work features interviews and portraits of Ali’s ‘examples’ created in a book format, but hung. Like bookends, each person’s face and the back of their heads framed the contents within, thus inviting viewers to read what is essentially, within these ‘minds’. The conversation then begs the question: where does Ali call home? Unflinchingly and in a heavy Damascene accent, she quickly says, “Al-Sham (Damascus) is my home. I don’t see homeland as a political unit though. Less than 100 years ago, the Syria we know today did not exist. My homeland is where I grew up and where my childhood memories are.”

Dislocation is also a central theme in Ali’s installation, Y, which was commissioned and later purchased by Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art. The artwork is comprised of 22 slingshots which symbolise the 22 Arab countries that according to Ali, “catapult their citizens”, or, in other words, force them to immigrate and seek asylum for various political, economical and social reasons. Using cement, Ali sized each slingshot according to the size of the Arab country it represents and reflected its migration rate during the last decade in the length of its rubber straps. Why slingshots, I ask? “Because they involve a short period of flying. They give a sense of freedom. This initial freedom, however, is short-lived. They will soon hit the ground with a brutal jolt,” replies Ali, referring to the emotional impact of being uprooted.

Calling for Equality

Ali insists that she is not a feminist. However, the Syrian tradition of deeming trivial or casual conversations ‘women’s talk’ and the fact that two women’s testimonies equal a man’s in Syrian courts provoked the title of one her most recent works, Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! that was exhibited at Tütün Deposu in Istanbul in 2010 as part of the Sharing Waters sauna meets hammam project curated by Ulla Kastrup. In the piece, Ali explores the hammam as a refuge for women away from the sphere of male influence and authority; a place where they can spend “me-time” and share their secrets and concerns mostly concerning the opposite sex.  Ali’s belief of women being unequal to men is not restricted to Syrian society – the work includes a Japanese woman’s recitation of discrimination in her workplace because of her gender; an Iraqi refugee’s tales on being a prostitute in Syria and an American woman’s criticisms on society for frowning upon her having four or five sexual partners. “I see the hammam as a place where women peel off their clothes and restraints and enjoy a short period of freedom and gather strength to face their lives in a patriarchal society,” adds Ali. “It was very hard to convince women to open up and tell me the stories that they would otherwise confide in their close friends in a hammam.” Getting these women to talk was not the only challenge – Ali’s subjects opted to record their voices on tape for sake of privacy as opposed to speaking with her face-to-face. This element of ‘secrecy’ and indistinctness was reflected in Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! via two standard metal lockers fitted with 15 closed tier boxes in each. Light and recordings of each woman’s narrative spill out from the sealed boxes. Yet, when viewers open a locker, the light goes off and the sound is muted.

Light forms an integral part of Ali’s works. Since her first show, an installation of a tent which was also her graduation project at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts, was criticized by the jury for not using light, Ali put a lot of effort in this aspect of her work.

“I felt that by not using light I let my work down. Light in an installation is just as important as colour is in a painting,” Ali said.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

Ali’s most recent exhibition took place last November in Venice in the Fondazione Prada’s new exhibition space, the Ca’ Corner della Regina, where she showcased her work Y. Since then, however, the artist has not made any new artworks. The anti-regime demonstrations which began in Syria in March 2011 and rising death toll have had a profound impact on her; being so emotionally engrossed in the rebellion has distracted and conceiving other artwork is not a priority she holds at present.

When asked about her future plans, Ali shakes her head. “I used to tell my students at the university that if you stop working for one day, then you are not an artist! Yet here I am, one year after the unrest started in Syria and I am no longer able to work,” Ali says admitting that it is the first time she stopped making art since she was a little kid. “Living inside Syria, I feel like I am inside a box and I can no longer see things clearly. So many people are dying and all I am left with is a deep feeling of shame,” she pauses. “My only plans now are to see the end of the bloodshed in my country.”

This article was published in the current March/April issue of Canvas art magazine. See pdf version here.

The Spanish Spring

So the Spanish revolution – or the 15M (el movimiento 15M)*  as the Spanish like to call it – is not led by the young only, It is about building an active civil society rather than changing regimes, and it isn’t about money but rather ethics! I talked to consultant in International Cooperation and Development, Alberto Hedo Delgado and screenwriter, Mario Cuesta Hernando, who are both actively participating in the 15M, to find out what “other” misconceptions I have about the revolution.

 “From Tahrir to Madrid to the world, world revolution,” says one of the banners raised by Spanish protesters referring to sit-ins organized by Egyptian protestors in Tahrir square. Do you think the Arab Spring will turn into a “European or Spanish Summer”? Why do you think so?

Mario: There have been slogans linking the Spanish Revolution to the Arab Spring, to the Greek fury in Syntagma Square, and the Icelandic demonstrators who refused to pay their bank debts… The difference is that in Spain (and so Europe) we demand economic changes (like protection of public services, stopping the international stock-market speculation and cutting the links of governments with the economic powers), while the Arab Spring is about politics and demanding democracy. I think the main link is that in a global economy, citizen movements are global too. With different demands, we look around and we think “this is the time”.

What do the two revolutions have in common?

Alberto: Both movements avoid (at least in principle) concrete ideologies. What unites people in both movements is the desire for change and the need to find a better form of government. Both movements are using social media to expand and take both national and international hold. Another common element in all the movements that have emerged this year is occupying a physical space (squares) as a symbol of taking over the power by the people.

Mario: Both [revolutions] have the impulse of the youth but involve people of every age and are supported by the middle class. All of them were unexpected in their strength and persistence. For me, persistence is the singularity of all these demonstrations.

Analysts say the Spanish revolution is about the power of the globalised industrialized corporations and their partnership with banks rather than democracy and politics. What do you think? If yes, how are you hoping to change this power relationship between banks and corporations?

Mario: We demand new economic ethics, but this can only be done through politics. I don’t expect banks and corporations to change their mentality, but I do expect the parliament to release laws that will force them to act ethically.

However, every person you ask from the 15M will give you a different perspective on what economic and politic changes he/she expects. Some people just expect stronger regulations for banks and stock exchange, others want to protect public services (Health, Education…), but there are anarchist tendencies demanding a complete change of the rules. I think all of us would agree on two things: we didn’t provoke this crisis, so we shouldn’t pay and suffer the consequences (that we already do); and we must do whatever it takes to avoid a crisis like this in the future.

How to make that happen? First, by encouraging people to express their anger. It is necessary to spread an individual “revolutionary state of mind” and the sense of responsibility that as citizens we should be aware, meet with those who share our concerns, and find tools for citizen participation other than voting.

Second, – and I think this is the main goal of the 15M till now- to control media’s agenda. The last decade journalists were supporters of political parties. Their agenda was the same as the parties’ agenda. The political section of [local] papers were like “kids’ fight” between the government and the opposition. “You did this”, “but you did it before”, “but you do it more often”. The political debate was extremely shallow. Now, whether journalist and politicians agree or disagree with our movement, but they talk about us daily, and that means they talk about our concerns, our demands, and they can’t do it without using our vocabulary: poverty, abuse, speculation, unemployment, justice… we pushed politics debate to a more adult level.

And finally [we are achieving change] through specific actions, some of which were already taken before the 15M, but the revolution has provided them with better logistics and higher numbers. For example, since the start of the financial crisis, thousands of families were evicted from their homes because they couldn’t pay their mortgages (200 families daily since 2007; 15.491 only in the first three months of 2011). When the police and the court secretary go to the house to evict the family, they find hundreds of people at the front door. Only riot police can move those people, and usually banks (who own the mortgage) prefer not have that bad publicity. So families can stay. It is working so well that we have caught media’s attention, and the parliament had to approve a law to protect families. Still, the [new] law was not good enough and we keep meeting at front doors. Persistence is working.

Protestors called for boycotting elections. Yet municipal elections witnessed a relatively high figure this year (65 per cent of Spanish voters). Why do you think is that? And what do you think of the elections’ result?

Alberto: The 15M is not an organized movement, with a visible head or leader to follow. Each person or small group choose the best form of protest they like. Media promoted the view that protesters were mainly calling for abstention. I doubt that the majority did so, since the election results showed that abstention was not significantly higher than it was in previous elections. Major political parties, large corporations, banks and mass media fostered the view that we are young “anti-systems”, we ignore politics and elections, just a bunch of anarchists protesting without any proposal. This is clearly an attempt to discredit a movement that is taking shape and gaining growing acceptance by society. But we will not stop. To quote one of our slogans: “we do not fear” and since many people have no jobs, no homes, no peace of mind or rest… we have plenty of time!

Spain has tended, except in very specific historical periods, towards conformism. This is finally starting to change. But still, there are many people with pessimistic attitudes, who will not vote. Many people who failed to vote cried the next day because the right party won almost everything. It was devastating. Now it is time to convince those who chose not to vote that in the next election they should play an active role and vote.

Mario: participating in a democracy is not only about voting every 4 years. You must get involved and participate. For example, I am against the weapon industry but my savings were in a bank that finances that industry. I was basically demonstrating in the evening against what I was financing in the morning, so I searched for another bank and I moved my savings.

Things don’t happen every 4 years. Suddenly a huge financial crisis happened and we were not prepared to react as sovereign citizens. Politicians didn’t think for a second that they had to ask before giving our taxes to banks, because in their mentality if we don’t like what they do we will vote differently in 4 years time… A decision so important should not have been taken without asking people in a referendum. Look at Iceland, they refused to pay. That can’t happen again, and the only way to avoid it is by having regular citizen participation.

Would a change of regime in Spain, anyway, help solve the economical crisis the country is facing today?

Alberto: The crisis is global, so a change of government and attitude will not change anything related to the international crisis. However, there are concrete proposals that assemblies of 15M made to mitigate the effects of the crisis like limiting bailouts to banks and financial institutions, promoting social spending and supporting families to encourage household spending and revive the economy, identifying the implications of the alleged Spanish debt and rebuilding the Spanish National Bank as a public entity with the capacity to control inflation and financial transactions.

It is clear that the implementation of such initiatives, will not be to the international markets and international financial institutions’ likening. Nor will it be to the likening of many countries that promote initiatives of public spending cuts. This would have consequences for Spain and the debt ratings by rating agencies, but the more important thing for Spanish society is to feel that the Spanish government is more concerned about the people it represents rather than external institutions who are only concerned about their own interests and about maintaining an economic and political system that is clearly unfair.

The Spanish revolution was described by journalist Matthew Campbell in The Australian as “Part new-age festival, part student sit-in” that “has no leadership, no party affiliation and no specific aims”. As participants in the protests, how do you see the Spanish revolution? What is it about?

Mario: Mr Campbell is right when he says “has no leadership, no party affiliation and no specific aims”. But I don’t consider it an obstacle, even more, I think it’s a big achievement, and part of the nature of the movement. We demand new politics, starting by a new way of doing politics. However it is not true that we don’t have specific aims, we do. But we have many. I like very much the distinction that Antonio Negri makes in his last book Multitude. He says revolution of the masses was a XX century movement, meanwhile now people behave as a multitude: a sum of individualities, a net.

Alberto: As I see it, the Spanish revolution is the struggle to overcome a political, social economic, immoral, unfair and violent system that is less democratic than they want us to believe. It is a struggle for the governments to begin to rule by and for the people and not by and for banks and international markets.

The movement is not made up of a few young students, there are all kinds of people: young and old, children, women, men … What unites us is a desire to recover our dignity, control of politics and ultimately to regain control over decisions that affect our daily lives.

Dubbed the “lost generation”, the Spanish youth was described as apolitical and passive. Yet, since the 15th of May, thousands of Spaniards took to the street to demand change. How is the current revolution changing the attitude and mentality of the Spanish youth?

Alberto:  After 40 years of repressive dictatorship, the arrival of democracy without promoting the mobilization of citizens led to conformity. It was as though we’ve gone as far as we could. This is not entirely true! now we can see that people are thinking. A revolution is not something that emerges one day, but it is an amalgam of emotions and feelings and need for change that has been brewing for a long time in the heads of people. They just had to overcome their fear to express themselves publicly.

When everything looks fine, as promoted by all political and economic institutions, you can only think that you’re lucky. During good times, if you say something is wrong, society rejects you and considers you extremist or maybe too pessimistic. This is why people have been quiet although they enjoy a supposedly guaranteed freedom of expression.

Mario:  Not only youth is supporting the movement. Mass media say it does, maybe because they love the label of “youth-revolutions” but that’s a terrible simplification and has been very painful for the 15M. I’m sure many old people who agree with our aims didn’t join because of that awful label. My neighbourhood-assembly had to make specific actions to break that image and involve everybody on the hood, regardless of their age. I can’t understand why some people think that “young” is more romantic.

The two activists stressed that they are not representatives of the 15M and that their views do not represent the views of all protestors.

* el movimiento 15M: the 15 M movement – refers to the first protest that marked the start of the Spanish revolution on May 15.

Bill of Rights

What does the Syrian constitution say about citizenship and how might this change?

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

With the escalation of the unrest in Syria and the accompanying surge in political dialogue, there has been a resurgence of discussion about the concept of citizenship.

In his book Guide to Citizenship, Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher, wrote that it is not enough to define citizenship as acquiring a nationality and enjoying the civil and political rights it offers. The definition includes active participation in public life.

“Freedom is the legal status quo of the citizen meaning that a citizen is free to choose between becoming an active citizen who participates in public life or…being a passive one,” Abbas wrote.

“Citizenship means the right of citizens to participate in all aspects of life,” Adel, a young theater critic who asked to remain anonymous, told Syria Today. He explained that the concept combines rights and duties, but that in Syria, duties trump rights.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties.”

Until recently, broader duties and rights as citizens went ignored, he argued, because people were more concerned with their everyday struggles.

“Through chatting with friends or with the grocer, I have a perception that the majority of people here have a similar direction in life: to secure a living for their families,” he said. “What has been happening [since the unrest started] put this view to the test. Things are bigger than that.”

The outline
Lawyers interviewed by Syria Today argued that deficiencies in ensuring citizens’ rights in Syria come from flaws in the constitution, where the state defines its idea of citizenship and organises the relationship between the government and citizens. Others said that the constitution guarantees adequate rights to citizens; however, the problem lies in many laws which are, in fact, unconstitutional.

In his speech last month, President Bashar al-Assad said that the new media, parties and electoral laws will allow “citizens to participate in making decisions, monitor and denounce” activities of the state. Making this change, Assad said, might require revising the constitution or issuing a new one.

President Assad said that no changes will take place before September and if any do occur they will be based on what the national dialogue meetings, held in July, recommended. It called for the establishment of a committee to “offer suggestions” that would create a “contemporary and new” constitution that “ensures political collectivity, social justice, the sovereignty of the law and basic human rights”.

Contradictory rulings
To implement citizens’ rights, as outlined in the Syrian constitution, articles from the very same constitution must be changed and effectively applied.

People’s political and civil rights can be found in the first chapter of the constitution titled “Basic Principles”. It grants all citizens personal freedom, equality before the law, participation in the political, economic, social and cultural life of society, the freedom of faith, the right (and duty) to work, free obligatory education, the right of free and open expression, freedom of the press and the right to demonstrate peacefully.

However, articles like number 8 – which grants the ruling Ba’ath party a monopoly on political power in the country – contradict and effectively negate the right of citizens to participate in political life.

Nazih Maalouf, a lawyer and former judge and the manager of Syria Court, a legal website that covers human rights and other legal issues in Syria, said the constitution includes many contradictory articles. For example, it states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but another article says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

“Syrian women cannot pass down citizenship to their children, and they do not have the right of equal inheritance, or even [the right] to take independent decisions in many cases; like marriage, or travel,” Diala, a 27-year-old working in a private bank who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Syrian constitution states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but at the same time says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

Anwar al-Bouni, a lawyer and head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies, said that problems like these come from laws that contradict the constitution.

“In the Syrian constitution, there is no discrimination between men and women, but discrimination exists in some laws like the nationality one [which prevents Syrian mothers from passing their nationality to their offspring],” Bouni said.

Recently, a committee was set up to study the draft bill about amending Article 3 of the Nationality Law, which includes granting nationality to the children of Syrian women married to non-Syrians.

Another measure that contradicts the notion of universal equality came in with the constitution of 1961, which was drafted following a military coup that ended three years of union between Egypt and Syria, when the Syrian republic was first defined as Arab. This remained unchanged.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties. Equality and people’s general liberties must be established by the constitution regardless of their religion or ethnicity.”

A new constitution, if amended or overhauled, should more clearly delineate citizens’ rights in order to prevent such contradictions in the future, he said.

“Individual liberties must be addressed by the constitution and should not be governed by laws because laws are subject to change, according to who is in power and are easy to play around with,” Maalouf explained. “The constitution is obligatory and is not easily changed.”

Challenges to change
“Changing the constitution alone is not enough. There should be a new constitution,” the veteran lawyer Bouni said.

According to Bouni, the power of the country’s constitutional court is restricted. It is supposed to be able to strike down unconstitutional laws. But the president, according to the constitution, assigns the members of the constitutional court to four-year posts, limiting the court’s independence. Another article in the constitution states that only the Syrian president or a quarter of the parliament can challenge unconstitutional laws.

As a result, the system is crippled, Bouni added.

“Obviously, they [members of parliament] are not going to issue unconstitutional laws and then refer them to court. Consequently, there are hundreds of unconstitutional laws in Syria and no one can challenge them,” he explained. “Since the establishment of the constitutional court not a single Syrian law has been challenged as unconstitutional.”

I published this article together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun in Syria Today

We used only first names for interviewees who wished to remain anonymous.

Behind the Scenes

Political disagreements and production cuts are affecting the creation of television series for Ramadan this year.

Unshoodat Al Matar Film Set Location 1

The success of Syrian dramas is their ability to convey the social and political concerns of Syrians and Arabs. This year, however, what used to be a strength has turned into a weakness. The outspoken views expressed by some Syrian drama professionals towards the unrest in Syria has caused production companies to deny work to certain artists and has also prompted some activists to boycott dramas made by people with whom they disagree. Further, the economic impact of the unrest that began in March is also impacting the funding available for producing new dramas.

Both factors are causing a decrease in the film industry this year, and this drop will be visible during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting that begins in August. Many Arabs recognise this season as being as much a time for watching drama series as it is a time for religious devotion. Arab and Syrian production companies release their soap operas during Ramadan.

While there are no exact figures on the number of Syrian soaps that will be produced this year, drama professionals say the number will be far fewer than the 30 series that, according to statistics provided by the state news agency SANA, were aired during Ramadan last year.

Production down
Although political disagreements are hurting drama production, the economic impact of the unrest is the main hindrance in the production of television series.

Syrian producer and actor Firas Ibrahim said in an interview with Shorouk News website that major Syrian production companies stopped several soaps that were planned for this Ramadan season due to financial worries. While he said he is not planning to stop the production of his drama series Fi Hadret al-Gheyab (In the Presence of Absence) about the life of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, he said he is worried that it will not achieve the financial success he anticipated.

“With demonstrations sweeping over the Arab World, there has become a real marketing crisis because of a fall in advertisements that are the main financers of TV series,” Ibrahim told the website, adding that channels that used to pay about SYP 95m (USD 2m) for a series are now only paying SYP 9.5m (USD 200,000).

According to Ibrahim, some television channels are not signing contracts with studios to buy rights to air series currently in the making because of concerns that, because of the unrest, the production companies would fail to complete the series in time to be broadcast during Ramadan or that they will not attract viewers.

Boycotting drama
Drama, like political dialogue, is also becoming polarised in the current climate. Increasingly, there are online campaigns by young Syrian activists to boycott both series that feature pro-government artists and those that feature people who support the opposition. This division makes it harder to convince advertisers to invest in Syrian soaps this year, since it reduces audience size.

“No sane advertiser would invest in a series that is boycotted by the audience,” said a young woman from Damascus who is a member of a campaign to boycott pro-government artists and asked to remain anonymous.

Activists published lists of pro-government and opposition artists and named them as “shameful” or “honourable” according to which side the activists support. The founder of a Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists, who asked to stay anonymous, said his page’s “followers” are not only boycotting dramas that feature pro-regime artists but also the channels that broadcast them.

“The boycott has already started. When I asked [people] to boycott (Syrian actor) Abbas al-Nouri’s programme on MBC channel, the followers not only agreed but even asked to boycott all channels that work together with artists from the shame list,” the founder of the page, which had more than 19,661 followers at the time Syria Today went to print, said.
Manea’ al-Jarba, founder of a Facebook page that lists artists who support the ‘Syrian revolution’, said he compiles the lists according to the artists’ statements to the press and their posts on social-networking sites.

Even Egyptian activists, who compiled their own shame lists during the Egyptian revolution, started an online campaign that calls upon the Egyptian production companies to terminate their contracts with pro-government Syrian artists.

There is only one shame list by pro-government activists, but Syria Today could not reach its founder. In addition to listing opposition TV professionals, the list also names politicians and other public figures who support the Syrian revolution. The list had 1,123 followers by the time Syria Today went to print.

Joelle and Rasheed 1

Perhaps more interesting than the economic impact of unrest on Syrian television and its effect on viewership is the drama it is causing behind the scenes. Disputes among drama professionals over the unrest in Syria are aggravating the challenges to producing television series this year.

A petition signed by more than 300 Syrian actors, writers and other TV professionals calling for the Syrian government to “lift the food siege imposed on Dera’a” and to provide the city’s children with food and medical supplies sparked tension between drama professionals. The artists released the statement, dubbed the ‘milk petition’ – because of its request that residents be given milk and other necessities – following the Syrian military operation that started on April 25 in the southern city of Dera’a against what the government alleged were “terrorist groups”.

The signatories were criticised in a campaign by other drama professionals and media spokesmen in both official and some private Syrian media. Famous directors such as Hesham Sharbatji went as far as publicly calling those who signed the petition – including his daughter, director Rasha Sharbatji – “traitors” in a programme on the private Syrian TV channel al-Dunia.

In a statement published shortly after the “milk petition”, 22 Syrian film production companies announced in a statement that they would boycott all its signatories. The companies described the petition’s “fabricated claims” as “a political statement masked as a humanitarian call” that aims to “offend both the Syrian nation and its government”.

Some Syrian production companies also called for rescinding the Syrian Order of Merit that President Bashar al-Assad granted Muna Wasif, the famous Syrian actress and mother of prominent opposition figure Ammar Abdulhamid in 2009, because she had signed the petition.

In an interview with the official Syrian TV, director Laith Hajo said that the Syrian artists’ union also discussed firing members because of their political views.

“We demanded lifting the emergency law and now every Syrian citizen is creating his own emergency law and giving himself the right to randomly attack and fire others,” Hajo told the channel.

As a result, TV professionals reported concerns that they will lose their jobs.

“They [Syrian production companies] want to stop me from working because of my humanitarian call,” Mey Skaf, a Syrian actress who signed the petition, said. So far, she added, none of her contracts had been cancelled.

Attempts at reconciliation
Moves by public personalities to address these disputes have so far failed. A meeting organised by a Palestinian figure to bring opposing drama professionals’ views closer ended without resolution – there was an argument and several attendees walked out. All footage of the meeting captured by local media was seized by the authorities and could not be aired. Drama professionals, some of whom attended the meeting, did not reply to Syria Today’s repeated requests for comment.

President Assad also met a number of Syrian drama professionals, including the actress Wasif, who described the meeting as “transparent and civilised”. During the meeting, Assad asked the artists to stop their accusations and stressed that “the word traitor is not included in our dictionary”, Wasif told the Syrian media following the meeting.

Still, Syrian artists continued to argue publicly over their political stances.

The founder of the Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists said he believes that regardless of the artists’ views and the boycott campaigns, few people will watch television series this Ramadan anyway.

“Arab news channels are all that Syrians watch these days,” he said. “People from both sexes and all age categories are breathing politics. I don’t expect things to settle down before Ramadan and therefore this year’s drama season will suffer a huge blow unless it focuses on politics and the current Arab revolutions.”

Facebook page founder Jarba agreed, adding: “The Arab World is busy today reshaping its identity, which is taking place on the ground and not on the screen.”

I published this article in Syria Today magazine.

Scared Off

Prolonged unrest is keeping tourists away.

Only last year, Damascus ranked seventh on the New York Times list of top destinations. Since political unrest began in mid-March, however, the alleys of Old Damascus – one of the main tourist attractions in Syria – have emptied. Tourism and small businesses are suffering. Shop owners who used to be busy all day selling goods are now sitting in front of their shops, drinking tea and hoping for customers to pass by.

Syria was previously known as a country with beautiful ruins, a green coast and rich cultural traditions. News of tanks entering major cities and thousands of refugees crossing into Turkey has now fostered the perception of Syria as a country of violence and war.

Warned away
The US and EU countries have issued travel warnings against visiting Syria and international insurance firms have cancelled coverage for travellers. Together, this has caused a significant dip in tourism, Rami Martini, chairman of the Syria Federation of Tourism Chambers said in an interview with Al-Khabar, a local Arabic-language business weekly.

Most airlines flying to Europe have reduced their flights due to lowered demand. In June BMI rolled back its daily service from Damascus to London Heathrow to just four flights a week. Other airlines to have reduced their services include Austrian, Germania, Malév and Turkish; while Cyprus and Lot have cancelled all flights.

As a result, the businesses of hoteliers like Somar Hazim, owner of Beit Rose Hotel in Old Damascus, have been badly hit. According to Hazim, occupancy at his hotel decreased from 90 percent last year to 5 to 10 percent this year, forcing him and other hotel owners to reduce staff. According to Al-Khabar, occupancy rates in Aleppo are close to zero.

“As demand is decreasing, competition is growing and prices are going down. A room that I used to rent out for SYP 5,700 (USD 120) is rented now for about SYP 3,100 (USD 65),” Hazim said. “Our only guests are foreigners who study or work here and their relatives who come to visit.”

The absence of tourists has also affected small businesses, such as the antique shop owned by Nasser Ideen al-Shahrour in Sarouja near Old Damascus. Shahrour said he sometimes goes 15 days without a sale.

“I cannot guarantee anything now. I buy a gram of silver today with SYP 50 (USD 1) and tomorrow the price might be SYP 55 (USD 1.1),” he said. “This means I can’t have fixed prices and this is affecting demand which is already badly decreasing.”

The downswing
Syria’s reputation for safety and its improving marketing strategies boosted the country’s tourism industry during the last two years. Annual tourist revenues totalled SYP 389bn (USD 8.2bn) last year, or about 13 percent of GDP. With dwindling oil revenues, tourism was a crucial foreign currency earner for Syria. While the expected total revenue from tourism in March, April and May was predicted by the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Tourism to be SYP 23.8bn (USD 500m), the chamber said that income was 30 percent lower than expected in March and has decreased significantly more in recent months.

In its 11th Five-Year Plan, the Syrian government set the goal of attracting 5.1m more tourists a year by 2015; the current annual total is 9m tourists – including travellers transiting through the country.

Lamia Aasi, Minister of Tourism, said during a recent meeting of tourism professionals in Aleppo that there has been a “very sharp” decline in the number of tourists entering Syria. She said that, in May, tourism numbers were 32 percent compared to this time last year, because virtually no European tourists are visiting the country now. Aasi argued it was a “strategic error” to depend so heavily on business from European tourists, with the European market too subject to the changes of global politics. In contrast, she claimed, Asian markets are “only affected by natural circumstances or economic crises”.

She added: “Our long-term strategy is to target Asian markets such as China, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia and Iran which did not suffer a decrease in the number of religious tourists coming to Syria.”

According to Bassam Barsique, director of marketing and development at the ministry, domestic tourism, which makes up 22 percent of total revenue, was unaffected by the crisis. Some major tourism investment deals were unaffected, too. In an interview with Arabian Business, Jumeirah Group, a UAE hotel management firm, said that despite the political uncertainty in Syria, it is continuing with a project it started in November last year to manage the 350-room, five-star Jumeirah Syria Towers hotel built by Souria Holding in central Damascus.

The ministry has also completed a study aimed and finding ways to reduce prices to attract more tourists. It is also rescheduling loans for tourism facility owners and is granting them exemptions on payment of interest and fines.

Even if things calm down, Hazim, the hotel owner, is not optimistic about the future. He said he believes that the harm done to the country’s image cannot be easily undone.

“It will be difficult for the tourism sector to recover quickly,” he said. “Tourism is the first sector to be hit, and the last to recover. It is because it is a profession that depends on a place’s reputation.”

I published together with Muhammad Atef Fares in Syria Today magazine.