Cristiana Moisescu is currently the editorial intern for New Internationalist. Her work as Features Editor of her alma mater's newspaper, the SOAS Spirit, earned her a runner-up place in the NUS Awards for Best Student Journalist of the Year. Her interests revolve around Middle Eastern politics, immigration issues and mental health coverage, but good ice cream will always come first.

You can also find her on LinkedIn.

twitter: 
@MCristianna
Teaser: 

Cristiana Moisescu is currently the editorial intern for New Internationalist. Her work as Features Editor of her alma mater's newspaper, the SOAS Spirit, earned her a runner-up place in the NUS Awards for Best Student Journalist of the Year. Her interests revolve around Middle Eastern politics, immigration issues and mental health coverage, but good ice cream will always come first.

You can also find her on LinkedIn.

And finally... Toni Myers

01.10.2016-toni-myers-590.jpeg

The Canadian documentary filmmaker is best known for her IMAX releases on space exploration, the latest of which is A Beautiful Planet. She talks to Cristiana Moisescu about training astronauts to shoot film and riding the Vomit Comet. © NG Images/Alamy Stock Photo

What drives you towards space exploration?

The space unit [the team behind A Beautiful Planet] grew out of the early days of IMAX, when it became apparent that the huge beautiful picture and the immersive quality of the experience was for taking people where they couldn’t normally go – to the bottom of the oceans, or the top of mountains. Space was a natural extension of that.

How does filming in space work?

The astronauts that we’re training to shoot in orbit are the most important part of the film. They are the filmmakers, not us. We do the finishing and the packaging, but we wouldn’t have these films without them. We train them for roughly 20 to 30 hours, over several months, how to operate the cameras and be directors – everything they need to learn to make a movie. And then we turn them loose in the simulators and say, ‘Go make your own home-movie now!’ They love the idea of making a movie; it’s a little less dry than the science they have to master and learn, so it is fun for them. We’re not allowed to interfere with their mission time up there, six days a week, so they do all this for us at weekends and at night.

Are there any differences to filming in space?

You need to test for the differences before you go – in the old days, when we were flying film cameras, we tested those cameras in a plane called the Vomit Comet. A graphic description, but very accurate! Now, the one unpredictable thing both in terms of film and digital is cosmic radiation, which is ever present, but in vastly varying quantities. So the film gets fogged and the chips on the digital camera get [dead] pixels.

Have you ever wanted to fly to space?

Totally. I’d be up for it; I’ve had dreams in which I was in zero gravity, floating around the [International] Space Station. During the making of the Space Station, I was allowed at the top of the Soyuz launch tower in Kazakhstan – this was the day before the launch. It was only 15 paces around the whole capsule and it felt so exposed. The thought of an uncontrolled explosion being lit underneath that tiny vehicle really gave me a new appreciation for the bravery of the people who were going up the next day.

Do you feel that space exploration and technology can eventually help to bring a solution to our climate-change woes?

I think that right now – and why I wanted to make this film – space travel certainly promotes an awareness that we live in a singular entity of a planet, that it is the only one we have and that everything outside it – well, you can’t survive in it. And that was one of the reasons to do the film, to draw a metaphor between the two systems, the space station being our mini-version of Earth in space, and [to show] how difficult it is to keep six people alive, to build a structure out there that sustains them. Earth is exactly the same, only for billions of people. Up there, they have to conserve their resources, their water, and carefully plan their food and their trash and all of those things; it’s like a mini-Earth. Only Earth doesn’t get any resupply ships.

What is your biggest fear?

My biggest fear would be not to be able to finish something, or to turn up at a writer’s meeting with no ideas: that’s the scariest thing – the writing part, the blank page. I just find it the most difficult thing, hands down.

A Beautiful Planet is released on DVD in October.

Cristiana Moisescu is a freelance journalist, currently living in London.

Mail-order abortion from India

Indian entrepreneur Mohan Kale has a solution for some of the 21.6 million women who resort to unsafe abortions every year.

His drug-sourcing company Kale Impex has teamed up with Dutch-based NGO Women on Web. They enable women in those countries where terminations are illegal – or highly restricted – to access painless medical abortions.

It’s a service in great demand. They receive more than 2,000 inquiries every week, from places as diverse as Kenya, Northern Ireland, Brazil and Poland.

Kale knows the stakes are high. ‘Many times, in the absence of proper means, desperate women consume toxic chemicals like caustic soda to pull off an abortion,’ he told The Guardian. ‘As a supplier, I am always running against time to get the drug where it is needed.’

The two pills required for a medical abortion are mifepristone and misoprostol. Despite many medical studies that prove they are safe to use, access to the pills is restricted in many countries. But they are legal in India and easily available with a doctor’s prescription.

A woman can apply for the pills online. First, a Dutch doctor approves the request subject to a review of answers about her medical history and pregnancy. A prescription is then sent to Kale’s company, in the city of Nagpur, from where the pills are posted at a cost of $97; if the woman can’t pay, the pills will still be sent.

Cristiana Moisescu

‘The day we give in is the day we die’

05-11-15-Romania-590x393.jpg

Tens of thousands of Romanians march against government corruption. by Vlad Petri

Following a devastating fire at a nightclub, Romanians have taken to the streets to protest corruption that kills. Cristiana Moisescu reports.

Thus ran the lyrics from Goodbye to Gravity’s song ‘The day we die’, as they played in the Colectiv nightclub on 30 October at the launch of their new album, Mantras of War.

Half an hour later, a fire broke out near the stage, set off by celebratory fireworks. In less than 15 minutes, it had swept through the club, killing 25 people and gravely injuring another 185. Among the dead, two of the band’s members, Mihai Alexandru and Vlad Telea.

A week later, on 3 November, the same lyrics appeared on protest signs, and were sung and shouted by throngs of people moving towards Bucharest’s Victoriei Square, to call out the government on its shameless lack of accountability. In total, more than 25,000 took part in the night’s protest.

On 4 November, an estimated 70,000 marched through the streets of Romania, filling their local squares, shouting down the country’s politics.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta had resigned earlier that day, taking down a much-maligned government with him. His resignation was quickly followed by that of Cristian Piedone Popescu, one of Bucharest’s district mayors, in whose jurisdiction the club was located.

There’s a sequence of events there which might not be immediately visible to the untrained eye, but to Romanians they are all too painfully connected.

Corruption links both the fire and the government: endemic, parasitic corruption. The club where the fire took place was operating without proper health and safety authorizations, with local authorities quietly ignoring the situation. There are hundreds of clubs like that all over the country, all with similar hazardous conditions.

I've written about the country’s corruption scandals before, but none have had quite the same emotional impact as this one. High-level corruption, involving exorbitant sums of money, rarely breaks into the daily worries of ordinary citizens, but petty corruption, bribes, shortcuts and back-alleying are part of a system known to all. Until now, however, the price had never been so high.

The Colectiv fire was merely a last, tragic drop in a sea of scandals, all involving cronyism and powerful politicians.

There’s the former vice-president, Gabriel Oprea, who, just two weeks ago, was up to his neck in a scandal involving the death of one of his police officers, who died in a motorcycle accident as he was speeding at 240 kilometres per hour as part of Oprea’s official motorcade; there’s the Social Democrat party leader, Liviu Dragnea, who recently ran for that leadership position against himself and won it with a resounding 97%; and finally, Ponta himself, whose latest exploits include an indictment for money-laundering, forgery and tax evasion.

These politicians are just some of Romania’s version of ‘Goodfellas’, apparatchiks too accustomed to play dirty to worry about individual consequences; until recently, they were also accustomed to winning.

The real shakedown started a year ago, when Ponta’s Social Democrat party – a reworking of the old Communist Party – failed to secure a sure-win presidential election, following a diaspora voting scandal which brought people to the streets in their thousands, abroad as well as at home.

The votes went instead to current Liberal president Klaus Iohannis, but they were empty votes, sealed in desperation by a people tired of letting ‘them’ have their way.

Now the president is no better than a mannequin, only able to communicate through his Facebook page: ‘I understand what is being asked and what is expected, and they are right, someone has to take political responsibility. The next step is for politicians, who cannot ignore this sentiment of revolt,’ he says.

On 5 November, he appointed an interim prime minister, Sorin Campeanu, former Minister for Education, who is another member of the Old Guard. In a statement, Iohannis acknowledged the ongoing protests, saying that he has decided ‘to consult for the first time a new actor: the civil society’ and that he will meet up with ‘a group representing both the civil society and what we call “the street”.’

Ponta, meanwhile, will slink back to the shadows for the time being. There’s a formidably nice prosecutor waiting to talk to him about those money-laundering charges, and there’s no better time to do it than now, when he is stripped of immunity and unencumbered by his well-meaning cronies.

There has been great deal of talk about the ‘social media’ revolutions – the Arab Spring sparked the concept, and now social media is organically propelling similar movements in Europe. There’s also a great deal of hope surrounding this – the Facebook generation, they’re calling us.

With the protest on 4 November, Romanians proved that they can rally around a common cause and be moved enough to take to the streets, in numbers higher than had been seen since the revolution which toppled communism 25 years ago. They proved that they can’t be bought off with mere resignations, that the cancer grows deeper.

Even so, all is not well. Reports have come from protesters out on the streets talking of suspicious groups overriding the movement, being violent, manoeuvring the situation. A closer look shows them to be party affiliates, local thugs and paid bullhorns.

Now that the prime minister and his government have toppled, it’s easier than ever to get side-tracked, to forget to keep demanding real change, not just a nominal one. There are questions to be answered now: what kind of political system do we want? What kind of country do we want to grow up in, grow old in?

Still, even with the 60,000 out in the streets, and with another protest scheduled for this week, one can’t help but wonder: why did we let it go so far? And since we have, aren’t we part of the system too?

‘Corruption kills’, said many of the protesters’ signs. So far, the death toll has reached 33, and counting.

Interview with Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

© Rafto Foundation

Two frogs fall into a bucket of milk and can’t jump out again; one gives up paddling and drowns; the second one refuses to do so and keeps paddling until the milk turns into cream and it is able to get out.

This is a story Bahraini activist Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has heard many times from her father, activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. It’s a story about resistance, fighting the fight, keeping your chin up. Ultimately though, it’s a story about hope.

‘You’re always so close before you give up,’ 27-year-old Maryam says. She is the co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and, because of her prominence as an activist, she was arrested in September 2014 upon her arrival at Bahrain’s Manama airport.

‘When I was stopped at the airport, I was assaulted by four policewomen, held incommunicado for more than 10 hours, and put into a freezing room – the temperature was turned down to such a degree that even the policewoman didn’t want to sit in the same room with me. I was not allowed to pray or go to the bathroom for hours. I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone.’

She was released under a travel ban and, when it was lifted, she left the country. Eventually, she was charged with assaulting a police officer and sentenced in absentia to a year in prison.

Arrests are commonplace in her family, who have always been staunch protesters against the al-Khalifa monarchy’s authoritarian rule. Her father is currently serving a life-term for ‘plotting to overthrow the king’ during the Bahraini uprising of 2011; her sister Zeynab was sentenced to four years in prison and could be arrested at any time. Her brother-in-law has also been arrested and tortured, and her uncle is serving five years in prison.

Crackdown on dissent

Indeed, arrests are everyday occurrences throughout Bahrain. Ever since the 2011 uprising, which was quashed by the government (with Saudi Arabia’s military help), the country has waged a systematic crackdown on all forms of dissent, and human rights abuse is rampant, often perpetrated with the silent approval of its foreign allies – Saudi Arabia, Britain, and the US.

‘Keeping up with the day-to-day arrests, the new cases, is a 24-hour job,’ says Maryam. ‘In a country as small as Bahrain, [there were] 89 people arrested in one week, which is a very high per-capita percentage. And that includes children a lot of times.’

The newly arrested disappear for a while – sometimes hours, sometimes weeks – and most of them report being tortured, as the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has documented. Maryam’s father has also spoken publicly of the sexual abuse he was subjected to in prison, trying to raise awareness of the regime’s brutality.

‘There’s a sense of numbness. This has been happening for such a long time – the sense of fear has been replaced with numbness and anger and frustration’

‘I've never talked to my father about the torture he’s endured,’ says Maryam. ‘He’s still in high spirits when I talk to him, he jokes, he laughs, seems quite himself. I’ve talked to my brother-in-law a lot, who was arrested at the same time as my father, and I’ve spoken to him about the torture he endured. But with my father… I don’t know how he’s coped with it. [The torture] is a part of the experience that many of us are very hesitant to visit – not a subject we would necessarily open up unless the other party does so.’

Bahrainis aren’t oblivious to what’s happening, either. ‘People are very highly educated, they follow the news. Most know what’s going on, even though they might not know specific cases. You could stop people on the street and ask them and they probably would know.’

The government’s intimidation tactics work for the most part, though. In the rural, Shi’a-dominated areas, teargas nighttime raids are a common occurrence and, because Bahrain is so small, the gas can sometimes reach the high-powered diplomatic or financial districts.

There is severe state-level censorship in Bahrain, and people have taken to Twitter to show just how frustrated they are with the regime.

‘Twitter has become the platform for Bahrainis to document, organize, communicate – you put everything on Twitter. As soon as someone gets shot, you take a picture, you put it on Twitter – you can get minute-by-minute updates of what’s happening on the ground, as it’s happening.

‘It’s not always a good thing: one of the problems we have, as activists, is convincing people not to [immediately] upload pictures of people who have been severely injured, which could get them arrested – the government can identify them when they go for treatment.’

Spyware and threats

Because Twitter is so popular and out of the state’s control, the government is continually trying to undermine it.

‘The government quickly learned that you don’t shut off the internet – you use it, you make it your own tool. There are [government] people operating on Twitter, defaming activists, going after anyone and everyone who speaks about Bahrain or criticizes the state.’

The Bahraini government also uses expensive spyware programs, usually bought from EU-based companies, in order to identify troublesome users, track them down and arrest them.

In these circumstances, are people not afraid? ‘I don’t know that I would call it fear. I feel like there’s a sense of numbness. This has been happening for such a long time – the sense of fear has been replaced with numbness and anger and frustration.’

Maryam herself has received countless violent threats, and has learned in time to take them seriously – the government’s eyes can reach all the way to London or Copenhagen, where she spends a lot of her time doing advocacy work for Bahraini human rights.

She knows that she’s probably being watched, and has come to see it as something to be expected, part of the job.

‘One of the things you do as an activist is you detach yourself from everything emotionally, because if you don’t, you can’t do the work that you do. Especially in a place like Bahrain, where so many people that you report on are people you know personally. Even the idea of having to deal with the emotional aspect of the work that we do is very difficult in itself. I feel like it’s Pandora’s box – once it’s open, I won’t be able to control it.’

And the work is important. The West’s collusion with Bahrain’s human rights abuse, the country’s domestic policies, which only serve to push a sectarian agenda, further dividing the population, the complete lack of accountability of the regime – they’re all issues about which Maryam and the GCHR are fighting to raise awareness.

‘These [foreign] governments look at Bahrain geopolitically, and to them it makes more sense to continue enabling a government which continues to commit human rights abuses on a daily basis, than to uphold it to these very basic principles. We’re asking for a very simple thing: a special session at the Human Rights Council in Geneva; a resolution, a stop on the arms trade, which have been used to kill protesters. These very simple things that should have happened in 2011, we’re still asking for in 2015.’

There’s a long way ahead, as Bahrain’s relationship with its Western allies seems stronger than ever – indeed, Britain recently signed an agreement with the kingdom to build a permanent UK naval base there. Meanwhile, the combined power of Bahrain’s Sunni ruling minority and the country’s religious extremism have turned it into the perfect ‘incubator’ for ISIS ideology.

‘It has to get to that point where people break down that wall of fear, like it happened in 2011, when people just said “enough is enough”. And a lot of times, it’s not just the poverty that brings people to that point, it’s the undignified way of treating people, when you rob people of their dignity, of their basic humanity, when you push them to a point where they feel like they need to fight back.’

‘Part of the resistance is staying positive, optimistic,’ Maryam says in her matter-of-fact tone. ‘It’s showing them that they can’t break you. The day you stop smiling, the day that you stop fighting, that’s the day they win.’

‘The tyrant can’t destroy the art’

olegblog.jpg

© Nichon Glerum/IFFR

UPDATE 25 August 2015: Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Russian military court, on charges linking him with terrorist activities in the Crimean peninsula. He denies the charges.

UPDATE 25 August 2015: Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Russian military court, on charges linking him with terrorist activities in the Crimean peninsula. He denies the charges.

Oleg Sentsov always wanted to be a filmmaker. The trouble is that filmmakers also need to be truth-tellers, and truth-telling is a much-frowned-upon activity in today’s Russia.

In May last year, the 38-year old Ukrainian director was arrested in his home in Simferopol, Crimea, by Russian police.

A year later, Sentsov is still awaiting trial.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), a modern embodiment of the KGB, has accused him of terrorist activities on Russian territory, including plotting attacks on railway bridges, power lines and public monuments in three key Crimean towns – Simferopol, Sevastopol and Yalta.

At the crux of the matter is Crimea itself, a territory disputed by Ukraine and Russia since the 19th century. Ukraine’s political grip weakened after the pro-EU Maidan protests of January 2014. The following month, pro-Russian armed forces took control of Crimea and in March, a ‘referendum’ in the area resulted in 95.5 per cent of voters supporting a union with Russia.

Sentsov, who is of Crimean origin, was actively opposed to Russian annexation. He was a member of AutoMaidan – the automotive wing of the pro-EU Maidan protests – which involved drivers delivering food and supplies in hard-to-reach places.

Andrew Wilson, a Senior Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Ukrainian politics, says: ‘Sentsov is a political prisoner and hostage. Russia doesn’t want anybody challenging its “project” in Crimea, and many Crimean Tatar activists have been arrested or disappeared. Sentsov is an articulate intellectual who can lay out an attractive vision of why the peninsula ought to belong to Ukraine.’

Sentsov’s case has sparked outrage across the film industry in Europe, with an immediate response from the European Film Academy (EFA), where directors such as Ken Loach and Pedro Almodóvar signed an open letter calling for his release.

This March, the Polish Film Academy organized a protest on behalf of Oleg Sentsov during a ceremony in Warsaw, and with the Cannes Festival underway, the Ukrainian Pavilion will host a petition supporting his release.

Although Russia’s human rights abuses in Crimea are well-documented, Sentsov’s arrest is still shocking.

Mike Downey, Deputy Chairman of the European Film Academy thinks Sentsov’s is a case of ‘right man, wrong place, wrong time. There is a bizarre arbitrariness to the Oleg Sentsov case, and honestly – despite my justification for the ongoing campaign – he will be freed as arbitrarily as he was imprisoned. It is in the nature of rule by despot.’

Agnieszka Holland: ‘We need to feel and express solidarity with our colleagues in different countries, [who are being] persecuted because they are fighting for freedom’

Did the open letter sent by the EFA help in any way?

Downey thinks it has ‘kept the case active in the public eye and made it clear to the FSB and the Russian judicial system (corrupt and unheeding as it is) that Oleg has support from all over the world – and that whatever the outcome of the trial – he will be supported. The case will be brought up again and again, and its injustice will reach a wider and wider audience. Oleg’s lawyers – whose guidance provided outcomes for the Pussy Riot case as well, believe that this is the most effective tool Oleg has.’

The money raised from events supporting Oleg Sentsov will go towards his family and provide resources for his legal backup.

Andrew Wilson thinks ‘any protest from [Sentsov’s] fellow artists is doubly valuable. Putin doesn’t like his empire of myths being undermined, and it helps focus Western attention on the merits of the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar cause. Crimea is not “eternal Russian land”.’

Sentsov is best known for his 2011 debut film Gaamer, about a Ukrainian boy who finds solace in video games. The movie excited interest among the European film community, earning good reviews. His following project, Rhino, was postponed due to the start of the Maidan protests and Sentsov’s involvement in them. .

His trial is being continually postponed and Sentsov faces the propect of up to 20 years in prison on terrorism charges. The FSB has also accused him of being a member of Right Sector, an extremist Ukrainian political party opposed to Russian intervention. Sentsov has denied the claim.

He currently resides in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, a place notorious for its use of torture and abuse. Sentsov himself claims he has been tortured, but his allegations are dismissed by the authorities, according to Amnesty International.

Agnieszka Holland, director and Chair of the EFA, says that support for Sentsov must go on.

‘The drop can destroy the rock,’ she says. ‘It took 10 years of international pressure for [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky; I hope it will go faster for Sentsov. We have to do what we can even if it seems to be hopeless.’

She continues: ‘I have quite a long dissident experience from Poland and Czechoslovakia, before 1989. This kind of visibility has always helped prisoners. But not only them – also ourselves, as an international community of artists and filmmakers. We need to feel and express solidarity with our colleagues in different countries, [who are being] persecuted because they are fighting for freedom.’

‘It was the great Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov who wrote in The Master and Margarita that manuscripts cannot burn. They will remain forever, even when they are destroyed. I don’t believe that a tyrant can destroy artists and art. The most important thing is that Oleg Sentsov believes it as well.’

Documenting Ukraine is a four-day umbrella festival bringing Ukraine’s leading names in documentary cinema and theatre to London, between 14-17 May.

Release Oleg Sentsov is a work-in-progress of Askold Kurov’s documentary about Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, to be screened during the festival.

A word with Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell

© Peter Tatchell

You’ve been a prominent activist for human rights since the late 1960s – what keeps you going?

I love other people and love justice, equality and freedom. These ideals, and my natural optimism, sustain me. Despite some setbacks, the trajectory of history is to triumph over oppression. There are many campaigns that I’ve been involved with where our collective action has won great victories, such as the movements against apartheid in South Africa, the US war in Vietnam and against communist tyranny in the Soviet bloc.

Plus, I’ve had the joy of assisting thousands of victims of human rights abuses to secure redress. It has often been hard, exhausting work, but these successes energize and inspire me to keep going. The positive feedback I get from people I’ve helped and worked with is also a great motivator.

What were your early inspirations?

As a teenager growing up in the 1960s, I was inspired by the courage and defiance of the black civil rights movement in the US – especially by Martin Luther King and the freedom riders. I embraced their tactics of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience as a means to secure political change.

Other inspirations include Mohandas Gandhi and Sylvia Pankhurst. I adapted some of their ideas and protest methods to my own contemporary struggle for human rights – and invented a few of my own.

What was it like growing up in a conservative family?

My family were working-class conservatives bordering on Christian fundamentalists, very similar to the family depicted by Jeanette Winterson in her book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Life revolved around the family and the church.

My parents had no social conscience or interest in politics. They did not approve of my teenage activism. My stepfather would quote St Paul: the powers that be are ordained by God. I retorted: What, even Hitler and Stalin? I got a beating for answering back. But after about 30 years, my parents began to understand and respect my work.

How do you feel about the upcoming British elections?

The general election will be a farce because of the unfair, anti-democratic voting system

The general election will be a farce because of the unfair, anti-democratic voting system. First-past-the-post worked fine when there were only two parties. But it’s unfit for purpose when we have five-plus significant parties.

The next parliament, like its predecessors, will not be representative of all voters. Millions of people who vote for smaller parties like the Greens will get few MPs. From 1955-2005, not a single British government won a majority of the popular vote. In 2005, Labour won 35 per cent of the vote but bagged 55 per cent of the seats. That’s not democratic. We need a form of proportional representation like they have in the Scottish elections – and a new Chartist-style movement to make it happen.

What do you think is the biggest struggle for human rights at the moment?

There are many huge challenges: to end global poverty and stop climate destruction. To empower women and girls, who represent half of humanity and are the single largest oppressed social group on the planet.

To support Muslims worldwide, who are the victims of Islamist extremism. And to defend civil liberties that are under attack in the name of defending democracy against terrorism. You don’t defend freedom by undermining it.

Why do you think so many are still against LGBTI people?

Organized religion is the major global force against LGBTI equality. It pushes homophobic values and laws that discriminate against LGBTI people. I find this odd.

Love and compassion are at the heart of most faiths, yet when it comes to matters of sexuality, most religious leaders promote prejudice and discrimination. They cherry-pick and distort relatively minor bits of holy text to justify their bigotry.

Another factor is the scapegoating mob mentality. Many people seem to need a minority to despise, to make them feel superior and to blame for the ills they suffer. The rejection of ‘the other’ and their persecution as ‘the enemy within’ recurs a lot throughout history.

Minority races, faiths, ethnicities and sexualities have all been victims. Leaders such as [Vladimir] Putin in Russia and [Yoweri] Museveni in Uganda are cynically colluding with the demonization of the LGBTI community as a way of distracting public attention from their government’s failings.

What are you most proud of?

The two attempted citizen’s arrests of the Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe. I did not succeed, but they helped raise public awareness about his human rights abuses.

The work you do requires a lot of time and energy, and you’ve had your share of unpleasantness along the way. Do you ever feel lonely?

I am too busy to get lonely. My many campaigns involve working with lots of interesting, kind-hearted people. I tend to work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and have not had a holiday for seven years. I live with never-ending hate mails and death threats from human rights abusers and their allies. It’s a tough life but a rewarding one. Thankfully, I have wonderful, supportive friends.

When were you most afraid?

In Brussels in 2001, when I was beaten unconscious by President Mugabe’s minders as I tried to make a citizen’s arrest on charges of torture. And again in Moscow in 2007, when I was bashed by neo-Nazis while supporting the bid by Russian LGBTI activists to hold a Gay Pride march. Both times, I thought I was going to be killed. Luckily, I escaped with just some minor brain and eye damage.

Who would you like to banish from the planet?

I don’t want to banish anyone. But I would like to banish prejudice, inequality, war, and poverty. I’d prefer human rights abusers to see the wrong they are doing and become human rights defenders. I believe in redemption and forgiveness.

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

The Paris attack – a pathway to extremist Europe

parisblog1.jpg

©

The attack on the headquarters of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, which resulted in the death of 12 people on Wednesday, has triggered a wide range of reactions: from shock and solidarity, to anti-Muslim feelings, clash-of-civilizations arguments and victim blaming.

While most mainstream media organizations have been quick to condemn them and rally around the inalienability of freedom of speech, in comments and editorials across the world, the very question of whether Charlie Hebdo was right to continually ‘push the limits’ of satire is still being debated.

Of course, that’s just the problem.

Charlie Hebdo was not in the business of publishing divisive cartoons for the sake of it. There is an important distinction to be made between criticizing a people and criticizing a set of ideas, which is what all religions are. Similarly, criticizing Islam, or Judaism, or Christianity as a religious whole, is not the same as criticizing these religions’ extreme minority factions, which have real political repercussions in a world where religion should long ago have been stripped of political power.

Freedom of expression does not stop where cultural taboos are in place – in fact, one could argue that its main responsibility lies in challenging those taboos, saying the unspeakable. The right to question is at its most valuable when the stakes are higher, when the danger is greater: when you receive death threats, your headquarters are firebombed and you need police protection to do your job, and you still keep doing it.

However, Charlie Hebdo had been criticized throughout its history, including by the French government, now united in support for the magazine. What was once seen as stupidly adding fuel to the fire, has now become a symbol of France itself, hit in its heart. The 9/11 of France, they’re calling it.

This is the crux of the matter. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is less about religion and much more about politics, the very politics which created the need for it to continue publishing anti-Islamist cartoons. And what would politics be without powerful symbols behind it?

Take the attackers, for example. So different from a lone suicide bomber, with a DIY-bomb strapped to his chest, their modus operandi has been nothing if not sleek, prepared, a clean execution. Their impeccable French, clothes, their knowledgeable movements, their marksmanship – they all spell out a pre-planned visible provocation. They push the boundaries of our fears deep into our safe zones, disproving the theory that attacks like these are rooted in madness, showing instead a carefully thought-out, lucid plan.

It’s a clever, manipulative practice, forcing the hand of a government which has reacted predictably, with strong-arm tactics. By using 9/11 imagery and rushing to brand it a terrorist attack, French officials are linking this atrocity to the ‘war on terror’, suggesting a dangerous future for any possible resolution to the conflict and fuelling yet more war rhetoric. Have we not learned our lesson yet, after 14 years of a failed ‘war on terror’, the consequences of which have directly played into this and similar attacks?

If the French government keeps up this rhetoric, the only possible winners here will be the extreme rightwing and the fundamentalists.

Indeed, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, has wasted no time devising a strategy on how to maximize votes from this situation. She, too, has embraced the ‘France is at war’ rhetoric, calling for more secure borders and a tougher police force, going so far as to suggest a referendum on the death penalty.

In Germany, the anti-Islam Pegida protesters have just been given a perfect excuse for justifying their existence – this is what Europe must be protected against, ‘the likes of them’. In Britain, UKIP leader Nigel Farage has already come out blaming multiculturalism and a loosey-goosey attitude to immigration for the attacks, raking in more votes.

At the other end of the spectrum, somewhere in Syria Islamic State (IS)’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is having the best day of his life.

The terrorists have been linked both to al-Qaeda and IS, adding to the confusion, and both organizations – the latter an offshoot of al-Qaeda – stand to gain much from this. Their appeal lies in that revolutionary glow which attracts foreign recruits in their dozens, promising what the ‘Western’ lifestyle as they know it has not been able to deliver: empowerment.

For the many forgotten in the banlieues of the world, constantly alienated in a society which at once demands their integration and prevents it, it’s that promise of power – or its semblance – which is most appealing. If that comes via a religious heatwave, then so be it.

In the midst of these two extremes are countless ordinary citizens, a mainstream Europe of tolerance, for whom multiculturalism is a reality, not wishful thinking. So far, the attacks have prompted people throughout the world to show their solidarity by mobilizing in their thousands, calling for reflection and unity.

How much longer will a moderate attitude survive if tensions continue to rise, escalating with each new attack? Will tolerance and liberal values prevail in the face of the horror of Kalashnikovs ringing out on what was supposedly just an ordinary day?

There is much to be won for extremists from a Europe divided, reduced to nation-states fiercely protecting their borders, dwarfed into political ignominy.

Indeed, the day after the attacks, ‘Freedom has been killed’ was the headline of many newspapers in France, a signal of just how deeply this has shaken the core of France’s liberal values; exactly the result the attackers were after.

Wanting to make sense of this tragedy is understandable, but to package it into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ issue would be an oversimplification and a strategic mistake (Which us? Which them?). Identity-politics should be cast aside, and unity become more than a slogan.

Already, there is dissension in the ranks of the ‘united’ French government regarding a memorial march scheduled for this Sunday, to which the Front National have apparently not been invited.

Meanwhile of course, there are calls for Muslims to come out and take a stand against the attacks, as if the attacks have anything to do with the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. As if Islam, as understood by that majority, has any relevance in what is fundamentally an extremist attack which serves a political interest, disguised under the murky layers of religion.

France appears to be at war. Throughout the country, four mosques have been attacked already. The war has begun, but who is fighting it?

As for Charlie Hebdo, its staff have been the tragic victims of a political conflict under the guise of a religious taboo. What would happen if major media outlets around the world dared to show the cartoons tomorrow – would the taboo be broken, or reinforced?

Romania celebrates ‘vote of blind faith’ election victory

casajurnalistuluiprotesteblog.jpg

Bucharest, 16 November: Romanians demand the Prime Minister's resignation beneath a photo of his political opponent, Klaus Iohannis. © Casa Jurnalistului

After a full day’s voting, on Sunday 16 November, a ‘Yes we can!’ feeling swept through Romania, taking over social media and reaching all the way to people still queuing outside Romanian embassies throughout Europe, hoping to vote.

Their enthusiasm is understandable. After two weeks of protests amid concerns that the current prime minister, Social-Democrat Victor Ponta, would be elected president, their fears were assuaged.

A little after nine in the evening, it became clear that Klaus Iohannis, a Liberal-Democrat and the mayor of a provincial Transylvanian town, had won, with 54.5 per cent of the vote compared to Ponta’s 45.49 per cent,

These have been the most fiercely contested elections Romania has seen in a long time, with voters’ anger ignited by the voting conditions in the Romanian diaspora.

Never a traditional support base for the Social-Democrats, Romanians abroad were prevented from voting in both election rounds by a stalled voting process and legal debates mired in newspeak and accusations of blame (two foreign ministers have already resigned over the debacle).

Fuelled by social media networks, in the course of the two weeks between the first and second round of elections, public opinion coalesced against the prime minister.

Most of all however, people rallied against the idea that the country was simply up for grabs by the followers of the old communist regime.

In a classic, ironic case of leaders toppling due to self-made enemies, Ponta recast himself as the enemy of most Romanians abroad, increasing their determination to vote in the second round.

In some cases, people queued for more than 11 hours, standing in the cold and rain, waiting for what should have been a matter of routine, a basic democratic tenet – the right to vote. In total, almost 400,000 Romanians voted abroad.

Back home, with a turnout of 62 per cent, Romanians flocked to polling stations, propelled by their friends and family abroad as much as by a sense of urgency and fear. Theirs was a self-defence vote cast out of dread rather than support, something of which the president-elect is very aware.

Klaus Iohannis did not win on his own merit. At 55, more elegant and soft-spoken than the brash Victor Ponta, he is still perceived as a weaker candidate, with relatively little experience in the big political arena.

Still, he has been quick to acknowledge that he understands the message Romanians have sent him: that this is a vote of blind faith, a choice of the ‘lesser evil’ and for some, a hope that the old system can finally be done away with.

Almost 10,000 people protested in Cluj, Transylavania, against Prime Minister Victor Ponta. Daniel Tapuleasa

On the other hand, at 42 and as one of the youngest European prime ministers, Victor Ponta is the darling of European Social-Democrats. His campaign relied heavily on honing this Western-leader image. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, also a Social-Democrat, even went on Romanian television to give Ponta his support.

Many Romanians, however, associate his image less with European leaders and more with local moguls and party leaders sponging off the state’s resources, whose names are constantly popping up in numerous corruption trials.

His particular brand of ‘shadow politics’ is less than appealing to an increasingly young electorate which is becoming more politically astute and less willing to accept leaders with seemingly unbreakable ties with corrupt politicians, all eager to see a ‘friend’ in the top seat of the country.

And yet Ponta has a stable support base of traditional voters. A more seasoned politician, he was at a clear advantage during the elections and could easily have slid into the president’s seat, had he stuck to a clean campaign against a relatively unknown adversary.

His fate was sealed by the ire he triggered in an otherwise latent, young electorate, by dragging his feet on the diaspora vote issue and refusing to acknowledge the corruption plaguing his party.

On election night, people across the country protested against Ponta, with 10,000 gathered in front of the government building in the capital Bucharest, all demanding his resignation.

Throughout the day, news of voting fraud taking place in the south of the country had filtered through social media, while footage of mile-long queues abroad had already aired in prime time.

When the exit polls started predicting Iohannis as the winner, the protests turned into a street celebration.

That is perhaps the best outcome of the elections: not the fact that Iohannis has won, but that Romanians have found a common idea to rally around, one heartfelt enough to draw them out of their houses and into the streets in their thousands.

They wish for a different Romania, where the ‘smart guys’ don’t always win, where politics is about more than personal gain and where leaders are held accountable for their actions (or lack thereof). Most of all, a Romania which allows them a future.

Now, in the first post-election week, it’s more important than ever not to forget that. Iohannis might have polled better than Mr Ponta, but he, too, is surrounded by ‘faithful’ party cronies, who should be shown the door as soon as possible.

Any hope in Iohannis’ integrity or political astuteness is misplaced. Instead, what is needed is increased awareness of the political games being played out in Parliament, now facing a weakened Socialist majority and a slowly crumbling coalition.

More significantly, Romanians should realize that this was not Iohannis’ win, but their own. If they want to set the country on a better trajectory, they should not forget that.

We are the people, we are the giant

stillwearethegiant.jpg

Still from We Are The Giant: protest in Manama, Bahrain, 2012. © We Are The Giant

How did you decide to make this documentary?

Greg Barker: I was very interested in [the concept of] revolution and I spent a lot of time looking at how contemporary events were informed by actions of the past. I was inspired by the people who are standing up for the ideals that helped build the countries that we live in and wanted to tell a story that really explored what it takes to stand up to those ideals and the sacrifices that people have to make.

Why did you choose those three countries?

GB: In a film like this, you can have an infinite number of choices so it’s really just through research and spending a lot of time with people… eventually, these were the ones that seemed to have an interesting way of telling a story.

There’s no right or wrong, it’s just making the choice that these particular characters, in these countries, represented the full scope of the revolutionary experience, from armed struggle to non-violence

The movie opens with interesting credits, depicting controversial revolutionary figures such as Lenin, Mao Zedong and Ayatollah Khomeini. Didn’t you fear that association?

GB: No matter what you think about Mao or Che or Lenin, just like the American revolutionaries, they actually talked a lot about revolutions. Whether you agree with what they did, they spent a lot of time thinking about what revolutions involve and what they entail and why they happen.

That’s an academic exercise that they all did, which is independent of what they then did in the course of their own revolutions.

When Zhou Enlai [..] was asked by [Henry] Kissinger what he thought about the French revolution, he said ‘it’s too early to tell’. These things take a long time.

These are people whom I wanted to reflect the full breadth of the revolutionary experience, because it’s not always pretty and it’s not always what we might like or even what the people who began it would have liked.

Khomeini’s revolution in Iran had the support of a broad segment of society and then changed quickly in the ensuing years. The French Revolution was about one thing and then turned into something else. It’s not an easy or a pretty process.

Watching the movie, it felt like you took a step back from what we’re seeing, but that you also left the context slightly unclear.

GB: You have to give a sense of the human drama, of the human experience of it all, rather than a report of what happened. So we all felt it was important to focus on the journey of these people and the ethical and tactical choices that they make along the way.

And because when you make a film like this, it’s not going to last for years – events change and the outcome now won’t be the outcome in five or 10 years – you make a film that is rooted in a moment in time. It doesn’t try to say: ‘This is where we are’.

I know that some of the platforms that I’ve gotten, I got because I wear a hijab. And because I’m a woman of colour - Maryam al-Khawaja

The fact is, it would be outdated if we tried to do that. We finished this film in January, so much has already happened [since then]. You have to make the film in a way that you hope will stand the test of time, it’s very tricky when you’re dealing with current events, but that’s the nature of this art.

Do you feel that by focusing this much on these three families, and less on the context, you risk idealizing the figure of the revolutionary?

GB: I don’t think so. It’s pretty tragic what happens to all of them. What I would say is that it might be a noble path, but not one that I would want to take lightly. I don’t know that I would watch the film and think ‘I want to be a revolutionary’, probably on the contrary – but in the end, history is changed by people who do that.

Not for me to say that they’re idealized, but I think that if you look at key figures throughout history, often, people who are the idealists are the ones who leave their mark and stand the test of time. Lenin was also a revolutionary and an idealist in his own way, and things changed after the Russian Revolution.

I think that if you look at [Mahatma] Gandhi, [Martin Luther] King, [Nelson] Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, these are people who stood up for something, and they were just ordinary people when they began their campaign – three years after they started, Mandela was in jail for life, King was still a fairly small time preacher in the South and Aung San Suu Kyi was still a mother. You can’t judge the impact of these people until time passes.

I wouldn’t say we idealize it, but I think people who become heroes, do so in a way that, at the time you’re looking at them, looks pretty mundane and often hopeless, and the journey can seem almost irrelevant or foolish at the time.

Still, knowing how perverted things have become in Syria, it seems that the path to revolution is not always noble. And the documentary didn’t really show that.

GB: It’s not always noble. Again, we’re not making a film that tries to explain all the context, I really wanted to show what happened when people began on a non-violent path, and then, for a lot of seemingly different, valid reasons, decide that they have to take up arms anyway. Like Mandela did, actually. It’s a common phenomenon; it’s the price they paid, the consequence.

‘Our job is to fight for those people, that’s our responsibility’

Maryam al Khawaja is a dual national, Danish and Bahraini. Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been in prison since 2011, following protests against he Bahraini government, and her sister and mother have been arrested as well. Maryam was arrested on 30 August 2014, when she landed in Manama, Bahrain, trying to visit her family.

The documentary leaves off with your sister in and out of jail, you still abroad, but things have changed since then. You’ve managed to go back to Bahrain twice and you were arrested there in August.

Maryam al-Khawaja: Things changed – Zainab [Maryam’s sister] got out seven months ago, in February; I went back and got arrested, I went to prison for a while and then I got out [in September 2014]. Now things are back to where they started: I’m outside, doing advocacy work, and Zainab’s back in prison.

And she’s eight months pregnant too. Do you think she’s going stay in prison until she gives birth?

MK: Yes, she had a hearing. It was supposed to be a sentencing, but the judge adjourned the trial until 4 December. My analysis is that it’s probably related to the fact that there are elections happening on 22 November, and so it’s really bad PR to sentence her right now.

But it also means that because she’s in her last month of pregnancy, she will probably be giving birth during her imprisonment.

You do a lot of advocacy work, and are very public about it, and so is your family. Have you or your family ever had any qualms about taking part in this documentary?

MK: The documentary hasn’t been made fully public yet [at the time of the interview] so I haven’t really seen what the response from the public is generally going to be.

I do know that in the past, we have had criticism from people saying ‘You’re doing this to be in the spotlight, this is all about you’. I’ve heard that kind of talk before.

It was because of the position that I was in, doing the human rights work that I was doing and getting a lot of interviews. And it was mostly non-Bahrainis, but people were saying ‘You’re doing this because you want the attention.’

Which is fair enough, they’re entitled to their opinion. I think that for us, what’s been challenging, and this is something that was a challenge for me about the documentary itself.

When Razan Ghalayini [co-producer] first contacted me about the documentary, first, she asked me a lot of questions, and I thought she was working for Bahraini intelligence, so I didn’t want to talk to her.

Key figures throughout history are often people who are the idealists, the ones who leave their mark and stand the test of time - Greg Barker

Afterwards, I told her that my only reservation about doing this documentary, the only way that I would agree to do it, is if they promise to make sure that it’s about Bahrainis, about Bahrain, even if we’re in it. That it’s about the Bahraini struggle, not about us.

So I don’t mind us being used as a vessel to bring out the story of what people are going through inside the country. That’s the way I see myself, as an amplifier to people who don’t’ have a voice inside the country.

Do you feel like the documentary accurately portrays that?

MK: To a large degree yes, I think it talks about what’s going on in Bahrain. They gave me and my sister the space to talk about how we are not what matters when it comes to Bahrain, how it’s about the people’s struggle. For me, that was very important.

Our job is to fight for those people, that’s our responsibility. Even if the movie was mainly about me and my sister and my family, I feel like it gave us an opportunity to talk about what you will usually not hear in Bahrain.

Bahraini activists Zeinab al-Khawaja (left) and her sister, Maryam al-Khawaja (right).

Maryam al-Khawaja

There was a very striking image in the documentary, with men and women on either side of a large avenue, protesting, but separated. In Bahrain, how relevant is that image for daily interaction between men and women, in politics, in social spaces?

MK: It is and it isn’t. I know that when they see that image, generally, people’s reaction is ‘Oh, Muslims, they separate men and women.’ For me, it’s pretty impressive that they’re walking alongside each other.

There’s no space in the street to be walking next to each other, but the fact that the women are not walking behind the men is an important image.

Also, sometimes, it’s just about being comfortable. I’ve been in those protests and I’m what you may call a liberal. For me, it wasn’t an issue of being around men or not, it was about being in all of this together.

At the same time, it was more comfortable to not be in a position where I’m constantly around men and in a very small space. Sometimes, it’s just more comfortable to be around women. It’s not necessarily something that was done as a statement of separation between the sexes.

Do you feel that as an activist, your access to doing certain things has been restricted or freed up by the fact that you’re a woman?

MK: That’s not a very easy question to answer. I know that some of the platforms that I’ve gotten, I got because I wear a hijab. And because I’m a woman of colour.

People are saying ‘Oh look, there’s this Arab hijabi woman… check check check, she knows how to speak English very well, she’s talking about human rights and revolutions, we have to have her on this platform’.

I know that my identity and the way I look actually gets me access to some places. And I make use of it. I don’t necessarily always like it; I don’t like the fact that I’m profiled. For example, I’ve gotten invitations in the past asking me to come and talk about Muslim women’s issues.

But I don’t represent Muslim women, I represent myself; and even if I talked about Muslim women’s issues in Bahrain, they’re not going to be the same that people deal with in other places. And I’m not familiar with every issue that Muslim women deal with.

There is to some extent, that pigeonholing, but at the same time, it also provides me with more access; it’s a double edged sword.

For me, it’s about how to make the most of it. And it’s the same thing when I’m talking in places where there is support for the Bahraini government.

For example, a few years ago, my family got an award from a US organization and people were telling me ‘How can you go there, how can you accept this award? These are people who are representing the US government, which is enabling the Bahraini government’.

What I did, I accepted that award, but I stood there and I bashed US policy in Bahrain. I used my entire speech just to talk about how bad US policy is towards Bahrain. So they might be doing it for the wrong reasons, but I will make use of that platform to get our message out.

We Are The Giant opens in cinemas on 14 November and will be available on DVD from 24 November.

Syria’s gardens of death

Gardens Speak installation

Tania el Khoury's Gardens Speak installation. © Jesse Hunniford

Can you tell me a bit about your background as an artist?

I started in 2005, and I work mainly with live art: sometimes I perform in my pieces, sometimes not, but they’re always interactive. The audience makes the piece happen. ‘Gardens Speak’ is an interactive sound installation, almost performed by the audience themselves.

How did you get the idea for this project?

The idea was generated by a photograph I saw at the start of the Syrian uprising, in 2011, of a woman digging a grave for her own son, in her garden – a domestic garden. What really struck me in this photo was that it was very powerful and very telling about what’s happening there now, about how people’s lives and intimacy are turning into a grave. It was also quite delicate... it just affected me for a long time.

I became interested in the places of burial in Syria during the uprising, and why that was happening, and how it became a common practice to bury the dead in gardens, whether domestic gardens, home gardens or communal parks, communal gardens, even gardens where kids play. And I had some friends inside Syria who would send me photos of kids playing in the park, but at the same time you can see that right next to them there are graves which have been recently dug.

This was partly because people couldn’t get to the main burial sites, because of shelling or checkpoints; what was also quite telling for me was the fact that the Syrian regime was targeting funerals, because some of them were turning into protests, turning into celebrations of the lives of the activist or the revolutionary or even the civilian who had died at the hands of the regime, so it was a celebration of their lives and their common struggle. The regime was targeting these funerals, and these funerals would generate more death.

Also, at some point, the narrative of people’s deaths was contested – the regime would force the family to write or sign papers saying things like their loved one had been killed by armed insurgents, or something like that, forcing the living to betray the dead.

This is where the idea came from, that this regime is not only oppressive when you live with it, it oppresses even after you die, it follows you at the site where you are being buried, follows you in the narrative of your death. I wanted to challenge that, resist it by telling the stories of 10 real people and what happened to them and their dreams – people who were buried in their gardens, rewriting their own history.

‘Gardens speak’ offers such a different view to the Syrian uprising from what we see in the media. What do you think is the main function of that?

Oral histories always challenge the grand narratives of the regime, of the Western media or of the Arab media, who have their own agenda. Any oral history of ordinary people challenges that, or at least questions some of the things.

The idea is slightly controversial – have you encountered any resistance to it?

The project is still very new, and I haven’t shown it yet in the Arab world. So far people have been really moved by it – these are people’s stories and an it’s an experience where you get to reflect on what’s happening, but also to reflect on your own existence, on your own vulnerability, it allows you to grieve whatever you want to grieve for. It has been quite well-received.

Would you say that the installation plays out as an interaction between collective death and the individual experience of death?

I would say it’s about a collective struggle, not collective death; but also about individual people. And not only their death, but their life.

This regime is not only oppressive when you live with it, it oppresses even after you die. It follows you at the site where you are being buried, follows you in the narrative of your death

I thought a lot about how to write stories of people who were killed and I made a choice to not write the stories from the [perspective of the] moment they died, as if the most important moment was that they were killed, but [to write it] allowing their individual dreams, hopes, identities to appear.

So it’s very personal. Ten audience members experience it at a time, and each one hears the story of one person. In a way, it’s like a one-on-one performance.

I know that you tried to incorporate people’s actual voices in the sound clips.

I wrote the stories in the first person, as if they are told to us, and I also edited them with found material or material that was given to us of their own voices, or of the moment they were killed, or from when they were buried. So there are sounds of their burial, people digging, praying over them.

How did you choose only 10 people from the many stories?

The idea was to have different scenarios, different stories from different parts of Syria – some of [the people] were part of the revolution, some were in an armed struggle, some were peaceful activists, some civilians. Different ages. It’s a selection of people, people whose families we managed to get in contact with, so as to actually obtain the personal information.

What was the families’ reaction to ‘Gardens Speak’?

The people that I personally talked to were very encouraging of the project and thought it was such a strong idea; they were very positive about it. However, most people who were in Syria were spoken to by a Syrian activist who was working with me on the project and who had a certain kind of, let’s say... credibility with them, so they knew about her, for various reasons; she was respected and that helped a lot, people opened up to her, as opposed to just this random Lebanese woman calling them for information.

Why Syria and not another currently ongoing conflict?

I don’t feel that the Syrian uprising has been very far from me, I feel quite affected by it. This is one of the main uprisings in the Arab world, with a big contested narrative, and which was let down by the global Left. While everyone was celebrating the Egyptian revolution, from the start, the Syrian uprising was judged and not really supported globally.

I feel that people forget that this was a legitimate uprising that started against a brutal dictator, a brutal regime, and which was forcibly oppressed and turned into a militarized resistance, with no help at all.

We tend to forget that and judge it all as a big civil war – that’s why I don’t really call it a civil war, because it’s a war against people by a powerful regime and I feel like there’s a lot to say there.

Also, [there is] the idea of a beautiful, peaceful, domestic, intimate space, turning into a nightmarish grave, a reminder that you’ve lost a very close person... for me this was disturbing, as an artist. So I didn’t necessarily decide to do something on Syria.

How do grief and memory interplay here?

Grief is a very important resistance tool – that’s not really my idea, a lot of people have written about it, in feminist theory, people like Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou; the idea is that those who are killed are cannot even be grieved; that if we don’t know their names, hobbies, their life, then it’s easier to kill them.

So we mourn them and tell their stories as an act of resistance, hoping that this will make it more difficult for them to be killed.

And to be forgotten.

Yeah... but they won’t be forgotten by their community and their loved ones. And the world didn’t know them to start with in order to forget them, but it needs to, and to know their stories, that they were human beings who had hopes and lives and dreams like everyone else.

‘Gardens Speak’ is on at the Birmingham Fierce Festival until 12 October.

Pages