Saturday, 10 January 2009

The Unmeasurable Price of War

By Paul Martin
BBC News

My close friend Ashraf and I have worked, eaten, discussed... even disagreed, through so many broadcasting assignments - some under intense pressure as Palestinian gunmen in Gaza fight Israel, or each other.

On the sixth day of this current war I could not get hold of Ashraf on the mobile phone. Later, in tears, he told me why. His youngest brother Mahmoud, aged 12, and his 14-year-old cousin, were told it was too dangerous outside Ashraf's family home in the deserted side streets. So the children played innocently on the family home's flat roof. Then an unmanned Israeli aircraft fired two small rockets. Ashraf rushed upstairs and took the boys to hospital, but it was hopeless. They were buried the same day.

Just the latest in a series of disasters for Mahmoud and Ashraf's very dignified father, a medical doctor. He had been turned into a refugee by the 1948 war. A year ago he lost one son, my marvellous and irrepressible cameraman Ahmed, in a car crash. And now his youngest boy, Mahmoud. Was there any reason for the rocket strike? Possibly. The Israeli unmanned aerial vehicle may have relayed back live pictures not showing children but just some fuzzy figures moving on a rooftop. How clear the aircraft's picture of Ashraf's rooftop was, is going to be the subject of an inquiry, the Israelis have promised. Also, Ashraf's home was close to one of the city's security headquarters.

In June 2007 I had watched - sheltering under large slabs of meat dangling in a butcher's shop - as the building was seized by Hamas forces. I have seen civilians on the Israeli side die too, blown to bits in suicide bombings. Eleven dead - including a whole family of six in a Jerusalem side street - bits of body splattered on the walls.

There was a macabre scene in 2001 at a beachside hotel in Netanya. Knives and forks hanging embedded in the high ceiling of a dining room, where 30 elderly men and women had gathered for a festival meal, all now dead. And in the Israeli town of Sderot over two years ago, I met an ambulance driver who had raced to the scene of a rocket attack that flattened a house near the Gaza border. He found his own grandson, one-year-old Osher, lying with his left eye dangling out and his head split open. Doctors saved his life. Then in a side street in Sderot there is a small bench, painted with red and blue flowers at the spot where 17-year-old Ella, a talented musician, was walking when a rocket hit and killed her.

I have also met killers - people who have destroyed innocents like Israeli Ella or Palestinian Mahmoud. They have their explanations. Some months ago, I went with a Palestinian rocket-firing brigade keen to dispatch their weaponry into the heart of an Israeli town (Sderot itself actually). Twenty-four-year-old Mohammed (on his first rocket-firing mission) said Israeli men, women and children would one day end up fighters. "So let's kill them first," he said. Months later I met him in a Gaza street. He had decided to retire from rocket-firing and return to computer programming.

Hamas's prime minister has an American-educated adviser, who once told me on camera: "Our rockets are not lethal enough yet but one day, God willing, they will be." I also met two Israeli pilots from the Cobra brigade, their twisted snakes emblazoned on the sides of their one-man helicopters, each bristling with rocket launchers and a machine gun. One pilot, Uri, pulled down his dark-glasses visor, then whipped out a Hebrew newspaper clipping with photos of a boy and his grandfather. They died, he said, when this man was picking up this kid from the nursery school. Uri was taking off, aiming to kill what he defined as terrorists. "I always carry these photos with me on a mission," he explained, "to remind me that when I hunt down a terrorist I am protecting people like these."

Did he sleep easy at night? I asked him. There was a long pause. "No," he said, "I sometimes lie awake and wonder, when I saw our target was close to civilians, whether I was right not to fire. Maybe I let him live and tomorrow he will kill more of our civilians." From neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian fighting men could I detect much empathy for the innocent.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/01/10 12:16:32 GMT

Friday, 9 January 2009

"On fence the toughest stance in Mideast" By Mona Eltahawy

By Mona Eltahawy
January 06, 2009

I was born in Egypt during one war with Israel, have vivid memories of another war with Israel and I was the first Egyptian to live and work in Israel for a Western news agency when I moved there from Cairo at the end of 1997 as a Reuters correspondent. And here’s the best piece of advice on the Middle East you will get today.

Sit on the fence.

Strange coming from an opinion writer who makes a living out of taking positions? Yes. But it’s too easy to take sides in the Middle East conflict. Few other parts of the world inspire such passion or leave such little room for doubt. For many, choosing sides is just an afterthought to their birthright: If you’re an Arab, go join the Free Palestine demonstrations; and if you’re Jewish, go join the Save Israel marches.

Don’t forget, you can always throw God into the mix. Lay claim to your holy sites and you’ll have religiously sanctioned wrath to fuel your rage. But what’s the point of choosing sides when both sides are losing? The real challenge when it comes to the Middle East is to sit on the fence and to understand that as with most chapters of this interminable conflict, civilians pay the most expensive price.

From that perch up there on the fence, keep your eyes firmly on Israeli and Palestinian civilians and ask about the responsibility of leaders to their people. The civilians of Gaza are victims of both Hamas and Israel. The former have been more concerned with firing ineffectual rockets at southern Israel where they targeted the very group of people they are now accusing Israel of hurting the most in Gaza — civilians.

Israel has launched a punishing bombardment and invasion of Gaza that will be used as the latest proof that it is the neighborhood bully. Its actions are bound to turn Hamas into the very heroes they don’t deserve to be and possibly unleash a new wave of unconscionable suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. And all for what? For those of us from the region, the easiest thing might be to follow our birthright to bias but the hardest thing is to scream “Enough” at a time when both sides seem bent on mutual destruction and when to criticize your side ensures accusations of being a sellout. But I insist on staying on that fence and being a sellout for peace.

Stay on that fence with me and scream and yell for a ceasefire.

Enough violence.

If Arab and Israeli Kids had their say...

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Burns/Iqbal Supper - A Celebration of Many More...

The Scottish Islamic Foundation has made a call for a Burns/Iqbal Supper as a means to raise ‘Islamic awareness’ recently at their national conference. I have been thinking about what this supper would entail for a few days now and have come to the firm conclusion that this is a good match. Yep, I’m agreeing with SIF for once! But, not without a fair comparison of the two individuals in question.

Robert Burns, or Rabbie Burns, was a Scottish poet from Alloway, Ayrshire who was also a lyricist and farmer who lived, 1759-1796. Alama Muhammad Iqbal(b. 1877- d. 1938) was a poet, philosopher, and politician from Sialkot, Pakistan (my parents home city!) who studied Islamic metaphysics in England and Germany.

Robert Burns lived a life of poverty and the only schooling that he had was by his father, William Burness. Iqbal concentrated his efforts on the establishment of an independent state for Muslims of British India. It was here that he joined forces with Muhammad Ali Jinnah with his vision that a secular state would play a much better force in the creation of Pakistan.

Iqbal believed that Islam should be a source for government and society but was a free thinker too. Iqbal therefore declared that the closing of the door of Ijtihād (creative independent reasoning on matters of faith) ‘pure fiction’, and suggested it was stopped partly by the emergence of legal thought in Islam and partly by intellectual laziness which, ‘especially in the period of spiritual decay, turns great thinkers into idols.’ Burns’ short life was focused on his great love of poetry, which gave him the truly deserved honour of being a force in the romanticism literary movement.

Iqbal’s work of philosophy of the ‘self’ is still highly regarded but his main role in political Islam is seen as his main contribution to Islamic civilization. Robert Burns was well known for his debauched life style, something a lot of poets are quite renowned for. Burns’ first child was born to his Mother’s servant and named Elizabeth Paton Burns. At the same time he had twins with Jean Armour with a subsequent relationship with a Mary Campbell. All of which were happening pretty much simultaneously.

I think what convinced me about and Burns/Iqbal supper was Iqbal’s love for Mirza Ghalib, ok ok, I am bias! Great thinkers, poet don't emerge in isolation, they all have inspirations from someone/somewhere. It adds an interesting twist to to tale to see that Iqbal was inspired by Ghalib, someone most have dismissed as a drunk but a closer look at his poetry and thoughts reveals a spiritual man...probably the same could be said of Burns, (see the recent publication, God, the Poet and the Devil: Robert Burns and Religion by Donald Smith)

It was on his way to Europe that Iqbal’s teacher from Lahore, Sir Thomas Arnold, advised him to visit the mausoleums of Khwaja Nizamuddin*, Amir Khusrau** and Mirza Asadullah Ghalib. Iqbal was greatly influenced by the poetry of Mirza Ghalib and it is said that when he visited the grave of Ghalib someone began to recite his poetry at which ‘Iqbal sobbed bitterly and embraced Ghalib’s grave’.

In his book ‘Stray Reflections’ Iqbal states,
‘I confess I owe a great deal to Hegel, Goethe, Mirza Ghalib***, Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil**** and Wordsworth. The first two led me into the ‘inside’ of things, the third and fourth taught me how to remain oriental in spirit and expression after having assimilated foreign ideals of poetry, and the last saved me from atheism in my student days.’

So, a celebration of Burns and Iqbal is inextricably bound to the great works of Hegel, Goethe, Mirza Ghalib, Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil and Wordsworth. What a beautiful mixture! God rest all their souls! I wonder if the Scottish Islamic Foundation had envisaged that a celebration of Iqbal unpacks a whole array of spiritualities and religiosity, if they did, well done! Who knows if I get an invite I may even be tempted to recite some of Ghalib's poetry to showcase the poet who influenced Iqbal...

The inscription on Ghalib’s tombstone:

'The Alive, The Eternal (these are two of the names of God)
the envy of Urfi and the pride of Talib has died, Asadullah Khan Ghalib has died
(Urfi and Talib were Persian-Indian poets)

Yesterday in sadness and mourning, grief-afflicted too
I sat by the Master’s grave with sorrow profound
Seeing me thinking of a tareekh, Majruuh [taareeKh = chronogram]
A heavenly voice said, “treasury of meanings is under the ground”'

Translated into English by Vasmi Abidi


Tuesday, 6 January 2009

This is the Tavern of Love

Aziz Mian Qawwal (Urdu: عزیز میاں قوال) (April 17, 1942 – December 6, 2000) was one of Pakistan's most famous Qawwals. Aziz Mian was born as Abdul Aziz (Urdu: عبد العزیز) on April 17, 1942 in Delhi, British India. The exclamation, Mian (Urdu: میاں), which he often used in his Qawwalis, became part of his stage name. He began to introduce himself as Aziz Mian Mairthi. The word Mairthi refers to Meerut, a city in northern India, from which he migrated to Pakistan in 1947.

Selected Verses of Aziz Mian:

Ay Allah, waiz ki bandagi hai jahannum ke khauf se
Maine gunah kiye tujhe ghaffar samajh kar
The preacher is pious only because he’s terrified of hell, Lord.
Whereas me, I sinned freely, trusting in your mercy

(Hashr Ke Roz Main Poochhunga)

Woh jahannum bhi mujhe de to karoon shukr ada
Koi apna hi samajh kar to sazaa deta hai
Even if he sends me to hell, I will still be grateful,
Since we punish only those who we count as our own

(Jannat Mujhe Mile Na Mile)

To farishte poochhenge mehshar mein paakbaazon se
Gunah kyoon na kare, kya khuda rahim na tha?
Trust me, the angels will ask the pious on judgement day:
"Why didn’t you sin? Didn’t you trust in God’s mercy?"

(Milegi Sheikh Ko Jannat)

Aziz Mian died from complications of hepatitis in Tehran, Iran on December 6, 2000. He was in Iran at the invitation of the Government of Iran, to perform on the occasion of Imam Ali's death anniversary.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

"Hamas is good, Israel is bad. Say it, say it!"

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
December 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST

"Why aren't you, as an Arab lady, writing about Gaza?"

The messages started to arrive soon after Israel's bombardment of Gaza had killed close to 300 Palestinians. Implicit was the pressure to tow the party line: Hamas is good, Israel is bad. Say it, say it! Or else you're not Arab enough, you're not Muslim enough, you're not enough.

But what to say about a conflict that, for more than 60 years, has fed Arab and Israeli senses of victimhood and their demands to stop everything else we're doing and pay attention to them because what's the slaughter of anyone else - be they in Darfur or Congo - compared with their own? Hasn't it all been said before?

And then the suicide cyclist in Iraq made me snap and I had to write, to lament the moral bankruptcy that's born from the amnesia rife in the Middle East. On Sunday, a man on a bicycle blew himself up at an anti-Israel demonstration in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The technique blessed by clerics throughout the Arab world as a weapon against Israel had gone haywire and was used on Arabs protesting against Israel's bombardment of Gaza. That twisted full circle completed on the streets of Mosul can be captured only by paraphrasing Karl Marx - Israel is the opium of the people. What else explains the collective amnesia in the Middle East?

Has Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni forgotten that, just last year, she was close to ousting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his handling of Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon, launched under very similar circumstances to those that preceded the bombardment of Gaza? And yet, there she was making the rounds of U.S. news shows to explain why Israel had to act against Hamas. Does Israel want to make heroes of Hamas in the way it did Hezbollah?

Talking about Hezbollah, has Hassan Nasrallah forgotten that, while he rails against Egypt for aiding the Israeli blockade of Gaza, he lives in a country - Lebanon - that keeps generations of Palestinian refugees in camps that serve as virtual jails? And the demonstrators in Jordan and Lebanon? Who reminds them that, in 1970, Jordan killed tens of thousands as it tried to control Palestinian groups based there, forcing the Palestine Liberation Army into Lebanon, where, in 1982, the Phalangists - Christian Lebanese militiamen - slaughtered 3,000 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps?

Not a single Phalangist has been held accountable for that massacre. An Israeli state inquiry in 1983 found Ariel Sharon, then defence minister, indirectly responsible for the killings during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But don't hold your breath for an Arab inquiry. It is Israel that gives sense to our victimhood. The horrors we visit upon each other are irrelevant.

It is difficult to criticize Palestinians when so many have died in the past three days, but the Hamas rulers of Gaza are just the latest of their leaders to fail them. For those of us who long to separate religion from politics, Hamas has given truth to the fear that Islamists care more about facing down Israel than taking care of their people. Where was the anger when two Palestinian schoolgirls were killed in Gaza as Hamas rockets meant for Israel fell short, just a day before Israel's bombardment began?

As for Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, has presided over a disastrous policy that, on one hand, maintains a 1979 peace treaty Anwar Sadat signed with Israel and, on the other, unleashes state-owned media fury at Israel that has fanned a near-hysterical hatred for the country among ordinary Egyptians.

Yes, Israel's occupation of Arab land angers Egyptians, but there is absolutely no space in Egyptian media or intellectual circles for discussing Israel as anything but an enemy. So Mr. Mubarak is reaping a policy that plays all sides against each other in a bid to make himself indispensable.

But my question is: Where is the anger of Egyptians and others across the region at the human-rights violations and oppression in their countries? If such large crowds turned out in Arab capitals every week, they could've toppled their dictators years ago.

It is the ultimate dishonour to the memory of Palestinians killed in the past three days to call for more violence. It has failed to deliver for 60 years.

We honour the dead by smashing through the amnesia until we break through to the taboos and continue to smash. Talking to Hamas? Israel should do it if it will end the violence. Focusing on internal issues in each Arab country and ignoring the opium that is Israel? Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians should do it before their states fail for the sake of Palestine.

Palestinians still have no state. What a shame it would be for one Arab country after another to fail in the name of Palestine.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based columnist for Egypt's Al Masry Al Youm and Qatar's Al Arab.