Monday, March 30, 2009

Jean Genet's Prisoner of Love

Alwan for the arts Presents:

Reading and Discussion: Jean Genet's "Un Captif Amoureux" (Prisoner of Love) with an Introduction by Ahdaf Soueif
Monday, March 30, 2009 7:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts

A Dramatized Reading in Arabic, French and English with Footage Screening
Introduced by Ahdaf Soueif
Readers: Tala Hadid, Omar Khalifah and James Wintner
Free and Open to the Public

Despite his constant affirmation of treachery and betrayal in his literary work, Jean Genet's political commitments were pure and intransigent. His allegiance to revolutionary struggle where identities are in metamorphosis, whether these identities are "black" or "Palestinian" turned him into an intellectual married to agitated causes, a self-scrutinized intellectual who is not interested in going native. Prisoner of Love, Genet’s final ode, is a magisterial political reflection on many of the themes that his fiction suggested and explored.

In September 1982, Jean Genet (at the request of his Palestinian friend Leila Shahid) visited Beirut and found himself in the middle of the Israeli invasion of the city. He was one of the first foreigners to enter the Palestinian refugee camp of Chatila after the Christian Lebanese Phalange, with the compliance of the Israeli command, tortured and murdered hundreds of its inhabitants. There, pushing open doors wedged shut by dead bodies, Genet memorized the features, the position, the clothing, the wounds of each corpse till three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove him at gunpoint to their officer.

On the first page of Prisoner of Love, Genet writes: "Reading between the lines is a level art; reading between the words a precipitous one. If the reality of time spent among-not with-the Palestinians resided anywhere, it would survive between all the words that claim to give an account of it. They claim to give an account of it, but in fact it buries itself, slots itself exactly into the spaces, recorded there rather than in the words that serve only to blot it out. Another way of putting it: the space between the words contains more reality than does the time it takes to read them. Perhaps it's the same as the time, dense and real, enclosed between the characters in Hebrew."

Jean Genet (December 19, 1910 – April 15, 1986) was a prominent French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist. Early in his life he was a vagabond and petty criminal, but later took to writing. Genet's mother was a young prostitute who raised him for the first year of his life before putting him up for adoption. While he received excellent grades in school, his childhood involved a series of attempts at running away and incidents of petty theft. For his misdemeanors, including repeated acts of vagrancy, he was sent at the age of 15 to Mettray Penal Colony where he was detained between September 2, 1926 and March 1, 1929. In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives an account of this period of detention, which ended at the age of 18 when he joined the Foreign Legion. He was eventually given a dishonorable discharge on grounds of indecency and spent a period as a vagabond, petty thief and prostitute across Europe— experiences he recounts in The Thief's Journal (1949). After returning to Paris in 1937, Genet was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts and other offenses. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem, "Le condamné à mort," and the novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). In Paris, Genet sought out and introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet's novel published, and in 1949, when Genet was threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions, Cocteau and other prominent figures including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence commuted.

By 1949 Genet had completed five novels, three plays and numerous poems. His explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality was such that by the early 1950s his work was banned in the United States. Sartre wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development entitled Saint Genet. Between 1955 and 1961 Genet wrote three more plays as well as an essay called "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet", on which hinged Jacques Derrida's analysis of Genet in his seminal work "Glas".

From the late 1960s, starting with a homage to Daniel Cohn-Bendit after the events of May 1968, Genet became politically active. He participated in demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in France. In 1970 the Black Panthers invited him to the USA where he stayed for three months giving lectures, attending the trial of their leader, Huey Newton, and publishing articles in their journals. Later the same year he spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps. Profoundly moved by his experiences in Jordan, Lebanon and the USA, Genet wrote a final lengthy memoir about his experiences, A Prisoner of Love, which would be published posthumously. Genet also supported Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as Michel Foucault and Daniel Defert's Prison Information Group. He worked with Foucault and Sartre to protest police brutality against Algerians in Paris, a problem persisting since the Algerian War of Independence, when beaten bodies were to be found floating in the Seine. Genet offers a critical dramatization of what Aimé Césaire called negritude in his play The Blacks (1959), presenting a violent assertion of Black identity and anti-white virulence framed in terms of mask-wearing and roles adopted and discarded. His most overtly political play is The Screens (1964), an epic account of the Algerian war of independence. In September 1982 Genet was in Beirut when the massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. In response, Genet published "Quatre heures à Chatila" ("Four Hours in Shatila"), an account of his visit to Shatila after the event. In one of his rare public appearances during the later period of his life, at the invitation of Austrian philosopher Hans Köchler he read from his work during the inauguration of an exhibition on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila organized by the International Progress Organization in Vienna, Austria, on December 19, 1983.

Genet developed throat cancer and was found dead on April 15, 1986 in a hotel room in Paris. He is buried in the Spanish Cemetery in Larache, Morocco.

Ahdaf Soueif is known for the bestselling novel, The Map of Love, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1999 and subsequently translated into more than 20 languages. She is also the author of the massive In the Eye of the Sun and the short story collections Aisha and Sandpiper – later amalgamated into I Think of You. A political and cultural commentator with a special interest in Palestine, she writes for various newspapers in the West and the Arab world. Her seminal article, “Under the Gun: A Palestinian Journey,” was originally published in The Guardian and then printed in Soueif’s 2004 collection of essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground. Soueif has also translated Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah from Arabic into English. Born in Egypt, Soueif hás a PhD in Linguistics from the U.K. and is the recipient of three honorary DLitts from British universities. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the U.K., the Bogliasco Foundation in Italy and the Lannan Foundation in the United States. She is a member of the Arab Writer’s Union, the Egyptian Writers’ Union, PEN Egypt and PEN UK. In 2008 she founded the U.K. charity, Engaged Events, which initiated the annual Palestine International Festival of Literature (PALFEST). PALFEST 08 took place last May in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. PALFEST 09 will take place in May in Jerusalém, Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem and al-Khalil. Ms Soueif lives in Cairo and London. Her website is


Alwan for the Arts
16 Beaver Street (between Broad and Broadway), 4th floor
New York, NY 10004
(646) 732-3261
TRAINS: 4/5 to Bowling Green; J/M/Z to Broad St.; R/W to Whitehall
St.; 1 to Rector St. or South Ferry; 2/3 to Wall St.; A/C to Broadway-
BUSES: M1, M6, M9, M16, M20.

Alwan for the Arts is wheelchair accessible.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Political Literature in the Arab World

Arab Students United and Shuruq 2009 present

Political Literature in the Arab World

What role does literature play in the conflicts and struggles of Arab society?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Time: 7:00pm - 9:00pm

Location: New York Univeristy, Kimmel Building, Room 907

*Refreshments will be served. This event is free and open to the public.

When we think of Arab literature, we usually think of writers such as Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt and Ghassan Kanafani of Palestine. Their work conjures up a time when the Arab intellectual movement was at its strongest, when writers were an integral part of social and political movements on the ground. But where are the Naguib Mahfouzes and the Ghassan Kanafanis today? Do Arab writers today make the same sort of impact as the writers of yesterday? What role does literature play in the conflicts and struggles of Arab society, both of the past and of the present? Is a novel just a novel or a poem just a poem, or do the words actually make their way from the page to the Arab street? The panelists will discuss these questions and more.

Distinguished panelists include:

Professor Mona Mikhail, New York University
Professor Noha Radwan, Columbia
Ginan Rauf, PhD candidate Harvard
Farid Bitar, Palestinian Poet

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fair Warning: Crazy White Lady Wants Revolution

Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) appeared on Sean Hannity's radio show Wednesday and the internets are abuzz with the majestic weirdness of her pronouncements. Apparently Bachmann believes that President Obama is a "tyrant", the US is moving toward "economic Marxism" and calls for an "orderly revolution" among right-thinking people to prevent "Democrats from achieving their ends."

Wait. What was that last one again?

Here is the full quote:

"At this point the American people - it's like Thomas Jefferson said, a revolution every now and then is a good thing. We are at the point, Sean, of revolution. And by that, what I mean, an orderly revolution -- where the people of this country wake up get up and make a decision that this is not going to happen on their watch. It won't be our children and grandchildren that are in debt. It is we who are in debt, we who will be bankrupting this country, inside of ten years, if we don't get a grip. And we can't let the Democrats achieve their ends any longer."

So, in other words this lady, who is an elected official of the United States of America, just called for the overthrow of its government.


Lets play a game. Lets imagine what would happen if Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim ever elected to the United States congress had appeared on...oh, I don't know, Al-Jazeera... and announced that he thought it was time for a revolution in the United States. What do you think would happen?

Yeah, me too.

Sean Hannity's bright pink head, beneath its lush, mink-like Irish Curse mane, would literally explode. But Hannity's response to Bachmann was positively pensive as he thoughtfully encouraged her by saying, "you are not overstating this case, Congresswoman, and you don't need to apologize for it. And as a matter of fact, it's refreshing."


Bachmann, whose JD is from Oral Roberts University has many passions, including creationism, homeschooling and "Islamic terrorism." For example, in 2007 she claimed to have personal knowledge that Iraq was going to be split down the middle by Iran and recreated as "The Iraq State of Islam" which would function as a "terrorist safe haven zone"... and then she admitted she didn't know what the fuck she was talking about. Her legislative interests include the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, which opposes the nation-wide shift away from incandescent bulbs toward the more environmentally friendly Compact Fluorescents. She said in support of that bill, "We are working on a light bulb bill. If the Democrats can hose up a light bulb, don't trust them with the country." That's right ladies, Michelle Bachmann supports your right to choose... incandescent light bulbs.

I am not making this up.

Now, nobody loves a conservative nutcase more than me, but I think the fact that this woman, who is an elected official (I can't get past it!) can appear on a conservative radio show aimed at people who oppose the current administration and politely request a coup d'État... I just don't think that is a joke. Admittedly, it is hard to take Bachmann seriously. She has crazy eyes and seemingly lacks even a rudimentary understanding of economics, which is apparently not an impediment to holding public office in Minnesota (see also: Ventura, Jesse)... but still. And she qualified her call for revolution with "orderly", which makes it sound less like fascism and more like a Martha Stewart cooking segment on the Today Show (kind of a fine line anyway).

But still.

Is there a minority person alive who isn't clear on what happens after all the conservative nutjobs "wake up get up and make a decision that this is not going to happen on their watch"?

Yeah, me too.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My Name is Rachel Corrie

A new production of My Name is Rachel Corrie by theater company Co-Op Theatre East premieres at New York's Kraine Theater April 5th. COTE was founded last spring by three graduates of the Performance Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Co-Artistic Directors Ashley Marinaccio and Robert A.K. Gonyo and Literary Director Casey Cleverly write, "Co-Op Theatre East produces socially minded performance that deals with the questions of today, the situations we find ourselves immersed in as New Yorkers, Americans, and world citizens at this moment. Edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner from the writings of Rachel Corrie, a young peace activist whose life was cut tragically short, this play is a testament to the potential for one dedicated person to make a profound impact on the world."

COTE's production of My Name is Rachel Corrie is presented in collaboration with actress Theresa C. Johnson and Pace University, with support from Pace University's Office of Multicultural Affairs, Sociology/Anthropology Department, Theatre and Performing Arts Department, Project Pericles, and Pforzheimer Honors College.

April 5th at 2 p.m.
April 5th, 6th & 7th at 8 p.m.
The Kraine Theater
85 E. 4th Street, (betwen 2nd and 3rd Aves)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Look Twice

A few months ago, I got into a fistfight on the subway.

I was coming home from work and it was packed. There was this gawky twelve year old kid standing nearby. I’d noticed him earlier in the ride clowning around with a friend: Skinny kid, all fingers and toes, awash in the dorkiness of an actual pre-teen who does not have his own show on the Disney channel. I was tired and spacing out when the door slid open and people shifted to get off. The kid made a move for the door but I had a few stops left so I twisted out of the way to let him exit but instead of moving forward he just stood there, blinking and stammering. Just as I was asking him, “are you getting off?” someone behind me gave me a hard shove out of the way. I fell forward, the guy walked around me, and out the door…but not before I gave him a hard shove back.

Then he whirled around and sucker punched me in the face.

In retrospect, the dorky kid was probably paralyzed because he could see past me to the impatient guy who, it turns out was big. Very big. But I didn’t really have time to process any of that in the moment because when he punched me I saw red and…do you remember how Garfield the cartoon cat used to sail through the air to throw himself on to a cartoon lasagna? I did that. “Hello,” said my lizard brain, “I will be taking it from here.” Impatient guy was surprised. The people around us, who were streaming off of the subway, were surprised. Hell, I surprised myself. We stumbled out on to the subway platform as New York commuters, disinterested but ready to move away in case one of us pulled out a weapon, watched blankly.

This is the part of the story where everyone wants to know if the guy was black. Yeah, he was. No, I did not yell something racial at him. Or struggle with myself because I really wanted to yell something racial at him. Or think something racial and then feel guilty about it later. This is not that kind of story. Once I got a look at him, the first thing I registered was “Fuck. He is very big.” (I am not small by any stretch, but he was bigger than me. And he was an unhappy giant compared to the poor, nervous dork back on the train.) I hadn’t been in a fistfight since I was a kid but I used to box at my old gym so I wasn’t totally at a loss. Now that I saw them coming he couldn’t land a punch but since his reach was longer than mine, I couldn’t really get close enough to do much damage either. Basically, we were two guys in winter coats and messenger bags cursing and struggling, it wasn’t exactly Ali/ Frazier. But then his right hand shot out, closed around my throat and he began to squeeze.

I stared down the length of his arm and looked him dead in the eye.

About eight years earlier, in the weeks after 9/11, I was on the subway when a trashy white guy was yukking it up with one of his buddies on his cell phone as the train went above ground. He was doing that thing where he thinks his conversation is so amusing that he was speaking very loudly so that everyone else can enjoy it too. And the thing he was talking about so loudly was killing Arabs. I was standing a foot away from him and he had no idea that he was talking about killing me. Unlike the guy from my then-office who had to quickly explain he was Cuban to group of punks looking to beat an Arab on his way home from work a few days before, I am fair skinned, green eyed: invisible. Listening to him laugh about murdering me, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I had no confidence that anyone would lift a finger if half the people on this train decided to beat me to death. I was sick with anger and fear, shaking from adrenaline pumping into my body. I stared at him until he noticed me. His eyebrows shot up. He looked away and looked back. His face was beery and pink. My face was blank. “You want something?” he said. I said nothing. I just waited. “You got a problem?” I shook my head. I wanted him to see me and know who I am. I thought to myself, “Look at me, you son of a bitch. Look at me and see me.” I thought, My people invented higher mathematics. The concept of time. We invented the concept of Zero. The color purple. The letters in the alphabet that make up the words you are using to talk about exterminating us. My father ran away to fight the Nazis in World War ll and was sent home because he was just a skinny kid. He fought in Korea as a young man and when he died decades later, he was buried with an American flag in his casket.

And I. Am. Standing. Right. Here.

I could feel all of the things about me that made his eyes just slide over me in the first place—my skin, my eyes, my perfectly assimilated western bearing—fall away and for the first time he could see that I am an Arab.

He reddened and said under his breath, “Do you want to hurt me?” I shook my head. Watery eyed, he began to bluster at me about how his cousin is a fireman. “Are you a fireman?” I asked evenly. He looked down. “No, uh, I tried to take the test and uh…”

I started to laugh. It was cruel but I couldn’t help it.

“You don’t know what it means to be a hero!” he hissed. “Neither do you” I said, my eyes on his.

That is the look I feel myself giving the guy who has his hand on my throat. All the anger and frustration of the intervening years—Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Lebanon, Palestine, legalized torture, “random” searches, profiling, casual hatred—comes pouring out of my eyes and into his. I want him to see me too. “I am standing right here!” I think at him. His eyes get big and I can tell he is thinking, “Oh shit, this guy is crazy.” And its true, I am crazy. The world is making me crazy.

Then something happens I wasn’t counting on. His hand goes soft around my throat but just before he lets go, his eyes cut to the side. And I know in that second he is wondering if there are any cops on the platform. Suddenly he sees himself, a very big black man strangling a—for all intents and purposes—white man in broad daylight on a busy subway platform. There isn’t really any way this can go well for him. He knows this but his anger made him forget. He jerks his hand away and begins to step back. But I am not making it easy for him. I am ready to go and I tell him so. He is more and more wary and tries to get away from me. “Yeah, when you tell this story don’t forget to add the part where you walked away, bitch!” I shouted after him as he high tailed it up the subway steps.

Yeah, I know. Stupid. I’m not telling it because I am proud of myself.

I am telling it because between those two looks—when I looked at him as he was strangling me, and when he looked away to check if there were cops on the platform—there is a story about race in America. Racial invisibility is always relative and conditional, when you are discovered or reveal yourself, anything might happen. Looking the way that I do is sometimes like stumbling into a cave of sleeping bears, every interaction is a potential confrontation. The lack of instantly recognizable markers for racial or ethnic identity creates an atmosphere of potential threat. On the other hand, for people like my would-be strangler, whose skin color immediately marks him “other”, racial visibility makes him perpetually vulnerable to authority. I have no illusions that I chased him off by myself—it was the ghosts of white men with guns that sent him up the steps and away from me. It seems that we are all always moving in and out of visibility, depending on who is looking.

Like a Rorschach, the picture emerges between the black and white.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Photojournalist Scout Tufankjian at Alwan

Alwan for the Arts Presents:

Book Reading/Signing: Scout Tufankjian, Photographer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009 7:00 P.M.
Free and Open to the Public

Photojournalists, though, necessarily adaptable and nimble, often specialize in certain areas: politics, society, culture, or war and conflict. Rare, however, is the photographer who goes from covering conflict in the Middle East to documenting in depth, a US presidential campaign. Scout Tufankjian is one such photographer. She spent four years in the Middle East, primarily, in Gaza, where she covered the election that brought Hamas to power. Back in the U.S. in late 2006, Ms. Tufankjian was asked to photograph a potential presidential candidate doing book signing in New Hampshire. Sensing the unique excitement the crowd had for a relatively unknown figure, Barack Obama, she decided to cover his still-unannounced campaign from that point until its conclusion, which turned out to be his election as President. After the campaign, Ms. Tufankjian distilled the more 12 thousand pictures she took into a book she entitled Yes We Can: Barack Obama’s History Making Presidential Campaign.

Scout Tufankjian appears at Alwan to discuss the craft of photojournalism from the perspective of someone who has practiced it in dramatically different places. She will talk about some of the challenges she has faced in differences contrasting her experiences in the Middle East, the Obama campaign., and the multiple other places she has gone with camera and an eye to tell a story through pictures.

About the author:

Scout Tujankjian is an independent photographer who spent four years of her career covering the Middle East, primarily from Gaza. Scout Tufankjian has had photographs published in every major newspaper and news magazine, including Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, People, The Guardian, ELLE, Esquire, Essence, Rolling Stone, Fortune, The Times of London, Stern, Der Spiegel, and many others. Before covering the Obama campaign, Tufankjian worked photographing the conflict in the Middle East, primarily the Gaza Strip, for four years. Tufankjian is represented by Polaris Images. She lives in Brooklyn, and has a B.A. in Political Science from Yale.

Alwan for the Arts
16 Beaver Street (between Broad and Broadway), 4th floor,
New York, NY 10004, (646) 732-3261
TRAINS: 4/5 to Bowling Green; J/M/Z to Broad St.; R/W to Whitehall
St.; 1 to Rector St. or South Ferry; 2/3 to Wall St.; A/C to Broadway-
BUSES: M1, M6, M9, M16, M20.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Uncultured Wars

New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich is--with barely concealed glee--trumpeting the downfall of the influence of the religious right on US politics in the aftermath of the Obama administration's reversal of Bush policy on stem-cell research in his article When Times Go Bad, Americans Don't Turn to the Christian Right -- They Turn to Each Other. Rich writes,

"When Barack Obama ended the Bush stem-cell policy last week, there were no... overheated theatrics. No oversold prime-time address. No hysteria from politicians, the news media or the public. The family-values dinosaurs that once stalked the earth — Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and Reed — are now either dead, retired or disgraced. Their less-famous successors pumped out their pro forma e-mail blasts, but to little avail. The Republican National Committee said nothing whatsoever about Obama’s reversal of Bush stem-cell policy."

Rich draws a historical parallel between our present moment and Roosevelt's post-prohibition New Deal politics. The comparison is provocative: he points out that, following the humiliating defeat Christian conservatives suffered over the Scopes Monkey Trial they lost power and didn't gain significant political traction in the US again until the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1970s. Rich has a good time with all of this, paraphrasing former Bush speech writer David Frum who contrasted apparent "devoted husband and father” Barack Obama, whose worst vice is “an occasional cigarette" with conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh, whose “history of drug dependency” and “tangled marital history” make him “a walking stereotype of self-indulgence.” Rich writes,

"What’s been revealing about watching conservatives debate their fate since their Election Day Waterloo is how, the occasional Frum excepted, so many of them don’t want to confront the obsolescence of culture wars as a political crutch. They’d rather...just change the subject — much as they avoid talking about Bush and avoid reckoning with the doomed demographics of the G.O.P.’s old white male base. To recognize all these failings would be to confront why a once-national party can now be tucked into the Bible Belt."

But that is not the only revealing thing in Rich's essay. If he is correct and the stem-cell legislation (or, more properly, the relatively modest reaction to it) is a pivot away from the influence religious conservatives enjoyed during the Bush presidency then, arguably it is going to get even more difficult to call out anti-Arab racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia because these sentiments will be expressed by liberals. We needn't look further than Rich's essay, which is subtitled, "This economic crisis spells an exodus for the Christian ayatollahs and the culture wars of the past 40 years" for confirmation of this fear.

Ayatollahs? Really?

So, in other words, even when liberals are talking, Islam is still the ne plus ultra of religious nut-baggery against which all Christians are judged. This sentiment is hardly new among the self-defined US left. For example, Bill Maher's "religulous" schtick regularly employs Islam as its limit case. Given the vast array of sins that can be attributed to conservative Christian religious leaders in the US, what is gained exactly through the comparison with Islam or Muslim religious and/or political figures? When I heard Steven Salaita speak about his new book of essays, The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, he addressed the dearth of nuance about the Middle East among US liberals. In Salaita's terms, the left "seems to believe in the same set of assumptions about Arabs and Muslims as the right."

For Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East and the United States, the old white men, whose passing Rich celebrates are not the only worrisome population. The antipathy against us is far more widespread and insidious. As the Obama presidency progresses it will be interesting to see how--or if--the narrative changes.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Music: Brightblack Morning Light & State of the Blog

As we head into our third month here at the Pomegranate it seems like a good time to pause and ask where we are going. So here are a few thoughts and some news about upcoming posts for you to ponder while you enjoy this awesome track from California psych-rock band Brightblack Morning Light (as promised):

In reviewing my posts I realize that there have been a lot centered around Palestine/Israel. Partly that has been a result of my horror over the assault on Gaza, which was in full swing as I began this blog, and then the annual observation of Israeli Apartheid Week. However, it is fair to say that the occupation of Palestine has been a growing focus of my activism in recent years. Certainly there are other important issues in and around the Middle East re: politics and culture and we will address some of these. However, Palestine/Israel will remain an open topic for us here at the Pomegranate.

I have a series of artist interviews in the works that will begin appearing soon. I will be having conversations with artists in different media around the notion of culture and politics, and publishing the transcripts. This will be an ongoing series and hopefully we will begin to hear from international artists on these themes. This has been logistically difficult to organize but I am excited about it.

Also: I have been invited to become a regular contributor at Racialicious so I will be cross-posting there on race and pop culture in a broad sense, and on Orientalism and cultural representations of the Middle East in particular. If you are unfamiliar with Racialicous I urge you to check it out, it sets the standard for discussions of race and culture.

Finally, I will post random music to the site on an occasional basis, as above, mostly for fun.

If you have topics you would like to see explored here please tag me on Delicious @vspomegranate.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Naomi Klein: Boycott Divest Sanction

Naomi Klein continues to be one of the few reasonable voices on Palestine/Israel. In this essay she argues persuasively for a boycott of Israel based on the previous successful model that was so influential in ending South African Apartheid. This argument is not new, but it is unusual to find it expressed in the mainstream western press. Taken together with her earlier essay "Laboratory for a Fortressed World", which I blogged previously, Klein eloquently maps an ethical response to Israeli Apartheid that eschews rhetorical posturing in favor of effective political action. A version of this essay was originally printed in The Nation. For more information about Naomi Klein visit her official website here. And further information about the boycott is available here.

Enough. It's time for a boycott

The best way to end the bloody occupation is to target Israel with the kind of movement that ended apartheid in South Africa.

It's time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa. In July 2005 a huge coalition of Palestinian groups laid out plans to do just that. They called on "people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era". The campaign Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions was born.

Every day that Israel pounds Gaza brings more converts to the BDS cause - even among Israeli Jews. In the midst of the assault roughly 500 Israelis, dozens of them well-known artists and scholars, sent a letter to foreign ambassadors in Israel. It calls for "the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions" and draws a clear parallel with the anti-apartheid struggle. "The boycott on South Africa was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves ... This international backing must stop."

Yet even in the face of these clear calls, many of us still can't go there. The reasons are complex, emotional and understandable. But they simply aren't good enough. Economic sanctions are the most effective tool in the non-violent arsenal: surrendering them verges on active complicity. Here are the top four objections to the BDS strategy, followed by counter-arguments.

Punitive measures will alienate rather than persuade Israelis.

The world has tried what used to be called "constructive engagement". It has failed utterly. Since 2006 Israel has been steadily escalating its criminality: expanding settlements, launching an outrageous war against Lebanon, and imposing collective punishment on Gaza through the brutal blockade. Despite this escalation, Israel has not faced punitive measures - quite the opposite. The weapons and $3bn in annual aid the US sends Israel are only the beginning. Throughout this key period, Israel has enjoyed a dramatic improvement in its diplomatic, cultural and trade relations with a variety of other allies. For instance, in 2007 Israel became the first country outside Latin America to sign a free-trade deal with the Mercosur bloc. In the first nine months of 2008, Israeli exports to Canada went up 45%. A new deal with the EU is set to double Israel's exports of processed food. And in December European ministers "upgraded" the EU-Israel association agreement, a reward long sought by Jerusalem.

It is in this context that Israeli leaders started their latest war: confident they would face no meaningful costs. It is remarkable that over seven days of wartime trading, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange's flagship index actually went up 10.7%. When carrots don't work, sticks are needed.

Israel is not South Africa.

Of course it isn't. The relevance of the South African model is that it proves BDS tactics can be effective when weaker measures (protests, petitions, backroom lobbying) fail. And there are deeply distressing echoes of apartheid in the occupied territories: the colour-coded IDs and travel permits, the bulldozed homes and forced displacement, the settler-only roads. Ronnie Kasrils, a prominent South African politician, said the architecture of segregation he saw in the West Bank and Gaza was "infinitely worse than apartheid". That was in 2007, before Israel began its full-scale war against the open-air prison that is Gaza.

Why single out Israel when the US, Britain and other western countries do the same things in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic. The reason the strategy should be tried is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work.

Boycotts sever communication; we need more dialogue, not less.

This one I'll answer with a personal story. For eight years, my books have been published in Israel by a commercial house called Babel. But when I published The Shock Doctrine, I wanted to respect the boycott. On the advice of BDS activists, including the wonderful writer John Berger, I contacted a small publisher called Andalus. Andalus is an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus's work, and none to me. I am boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis.

Our modest publishing plan required dozens of phone calls, emails and instant messages, stretching between Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Paris, Toronto and Gaza City. My point is this: as soon as you start a boycott strategy, dialogue grows dramatically. The argument that boycotts will cut us off from one another is particularly specious given the array of cheap information technologies at our fingertips. We are drowning in ways to rant at each other across national boundaries. No boycott can stop us.

Just about now, many a proud Zionist is gearing up for major point-scoring: don't I know that many of these very hi-tech toys come from Israeli research parks, world leaders in infotech? True enough, but not all of them. Several days into Israel's Gaza assault, Richard Ramsey, managing director of a British telecom specialising in voice-over-internet services, sent an email to the Israeli tech firm MobileMax: "As a result of the Israeli government action in the last few days we will no longer be in a position to consider doing business with yourself or any other Israeli company."

Ramsey says his decision wasn't political; he just didn't want to lose customers. "We can't afford to lose any of our clients," he explains, "so it was purely commercially defensive."

It was this kind of cold business calculation that led many companies to pull out of South Africa two decades ago. And it's precisely the kind of calculation that is our most realistic hope of bringing justice, so long denied, to Palestine.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sunday Music: Black Mountain

Not sure why, but I am really liking this syrupy stoner-rock right now. Black Mountain are Canadian and along with bands like Brightblack Morning Light from CA (who will probably show up here at some point) represent a shift toward the heavy on my playlist. Must be the economy...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Naomi Klein: Laboratory for a Fortressed World

The other week when I went to hear Steven Salaita read from his new book, Uncultured Wars--Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought someone in the audience asked him about liberal commentators he liked, given that he was critical of them for their general misunderstandings and Orientalist assertions about the Middle East. (Salaita was critical of critics like Barbara Ehrenreich for her Feminist Orientalism, re: the women of Afghanistan, for example.) He was hard pressed to come up with a liberal critic who had a thoughtful engagement with the Middle East but after a few minutes consideration answered, "Naomi Klein." I agree that Klein is one of the few who have a nuanced take and, in honor of Israeli Apartheid Week I thought I'd post an article of hers about Israel from 2007. Here is the link to the original article from The Nation.

Laboratory for a Fortressed World

Naomi Klein

Gaza in the hands of Hamas, with masked militants sitting in the president's chair; the West Bank on the edge; Israeli army camps hastily assembled in the Golan Heights; a spy satellite over Iran and Syria; war with Hezbollah a hair trigger away; a scandal-plagued political class facing a total loss of public faith. At a glance, things aren't going well for Israel. But here's a puzzle: Why, in the midst of such chaos and carnage, is the Israeli economy booming like it's 1999, with a roaring stock market and growth rates nearing China's? Thomas Friedman recently offered his theory in the New York Times. Israel "nurtures and rewards individual imagination," and so its people are constantly spawning ingenious high-tech start-ups--no matter what messes their politicians are making. After perusing class projects by students in engineering and computer science at Ben Gurion University, Friedman made one of his famous fake-sense pronouncements: Israel "had discovered oil." This oil, apparently, is located in the minds of Israel's "young innovators and venture capitalists," who are too busy making megadeals with Google to be held back by politics.

Here's another theory: Israel's economy isn't booming despite the political chaos that devours the headlines but because of it. This phase of development dates back to the mid-'90s, when Israel was in the vanguard of the information revolution--the most tech-dependent economy in the world. After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Israel's economy was devastated, facing its worst year since 1953. Then came 9/11, and suddenly new profit vistas opened up for any company that claimed it could spot terrorists in crowds, seal borders from attack and extract confessions from closed-mouthed prisoners.

Within three years, large parts of Israel's tech economy had been radically repurposed. Put in Friedmanesque terms: Israel went from inventing the networking tools of the "flat world" to selling fences to an apartheid planet. Many of the country's most successful entrepreneurs are using Israel's status as a fortressed state, surrounded by furious enemies, as a kind of twenty-four-hour-a-day showroom--a living example of how to enjoy relative safety amid constant war. And the reason Israel is now enjoying supergrowth is that those companies are busily exporting that model to the world.

Discussions of Israel's military trade usually focus on the flow of weapons into the country--US-made Caterpillar bulldozers used to destroy homes in the West Bank and British companies supplying parts for F-16s. Overlooked is Israel's huge and expanding export business. Israel now sends $1.2 billion in "defense" products to the United States--up dramatically from $270 million in 1999. In 2006 Israel exported $3.4 billion in defense products--well over a billion more than it received in US military aid. That makes Israel the fourth-largest arms dealer in the world, overtaking Britain.

Much of this growth has been in the so-called "homeland security" sector. Before 9/11 homeland security barely existed as an industry. By the end of this year, Israeli exports in the sector will reach $1.2 billion--an increase of 20 percent. The key products and services are high-tech fences, unmanned drones, biometric IDs, video and audio surveillance gear, air passenger profiling and prisoner interrogation systems--precisely the tools and technologies Israel has used to lock in the occupied territories.

And that is why the chaos in Gaza and the rest of the region doesn't threaten the bottom line in Tel Aviv, and may actually boost it. Israel has learned to turn endless war into a brand asset, pitching its uprooting, occupation and containment of the Palestinian people as a half-century head start in the "global war on terror."

It's no coincidence that the class projects at Ben Gurion that so impressed Friedman have names like "Innovative Covariance Matrix for Point Target Detection in Hyperspectral Images" and "Algorithms for Obstacle Detection and Avoidance." Thirty homeland security companies were launched in Israel in the past six months alone, thanks in large part to lavish government subsidies that have transformed the Israeli army and the country's universities into incubators for security and weapons start-ups (something to keep in mind in the debates about the academic boycott).

Next week, the most established of these companies will travel to Europe for the Paris Air Show, the arms industry's equivalent of Fashion Week. One of the Israeli companies exhibiting is Suspect Detection Systems (SDS), which will be showcasing its Cogito1002, a white, sci-fi-looking security kiosk that asks air travelers to answer a series of computer-generated questions, tailored to their country of origin, while they hold their hand on a "biofeedback" sensor. The device reads the body's reactions to the questions, and certain responses flag the passenger as "suspect."

Like hundreds of other Israeli security start-ups, SDS boasts that it was founded by veterans of Israel's secret police and that its products were road-tested on Palestinians. Not only has the company tried out the biofeedback terminals at a West Bank checkpoint; it claims the "concept is supported and enhanced by knowledge acquired and assimilated from the analysis of thousands of case studies related to suicide bombers in Israel."

Another star of the Paris Air Show will be Israeli defense giant Elbit, which plans to showcase its Hermes 450 and 900 unmanned air vehicles. As recently as May, according to press reports, Israel used the drones on bombing missions in Gaza. Once tested in the territories, they are exported abroad: The Hermes has already been used at the Arizona-Mexico border; Cogito1002 terminals are being auditioned at an unnamed US airport; and Elbit, one of the companies behind Israel's "security barrier," has partnered with Boeing to construct the Department of Homeland Security's $2.5 billion "virtual" border fence around the United States.

Since Israel began its policy of sealing off the occupied territories with checkpoints and walls, human rights activists have often compared Gaza and the West Bank to open-air prisons. But in researching the explosion of Israel's homeland security sector, a topic I explore in greater detail in a forthcoming book (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism), it strikes me that they are something else too: laboratories where the terrifying tools of our security states are being field-tested. Palestinians--whether living in the West Bank or what the Israeli politicians are already calling "Hamasistan"--are no longer just targets. They are guinea pigs.

So in a way Friedman is right: Israel has struck oil. But the oil isn't the imagination of its techie entrepreneurs. The oil is the war on terror, the state of constant fear that creates a bottomless global demand for devices that watch, listen, contain and target "suspects." And fear, it turns out, is the ultimate renewable resource.