Giedre Steikunaite is a freelance writer and active observer currently based in London. Former editorial intern at the New Internationalist and an award-winning blogger, she has worked as a reporter for current affairs weekly Panorama and freelanced for various other publications.

Teaser: 

Giedre Steikunaite is a freelance writer and active observer currently based in London. Former editorial intern at the New Internationalist and an award-winning blogger, she has worked as a reporter for current affairs weekly Panorama and freelanced for various other publications.

Run, Palestine, run

Palestine marathon runners

Running past Israel's Apartheid Wall, which separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem and people from their lands. © Giedre Steikunaite

Bethlehem’s central Manger Square, on regular days a parking lot, dressed up in sports gear on Friday 1 April. Days of rain, harsh winds and temperatures dropping down to single digits that had preceded the weekend were replaced by warm sunshine, as if by special order for the 4,371 registered participants from 64 countries that were to run the 4th Palestine Marathon – or half marathon, or 10k (see, Agenda NI 491).

Start of the Palestine Marathon, 8am Friday 1 April 2016. To the left – the Church of Nativity, where, according to the Christian tradition, Jesus was born.

Giedre Steikunaite

It had all the elements of a typical marathon: city roads closed to traffic (and certain drivers expressing their unhappiness), photographers on road sides and in the way, field medics on alert; and, later, medals and selfies at the finish line. Bananas, dates, sliced oranges and plastic cups/bottles of water for the runners were also present on the side of the road, as was cheering and clapping and sore feet (yet no serious injuries, according to the ambulance teams). A typical marathon, only here one runs past a several-metre high concrete wall, two refugee camps, military checkpoints and colonized lands.

Since there is no 42.195-kilometre distance in Palestine uninterrupted by Israeli structures of control, the 290 people who signed up for the full marathon had to cover the same loop twice. A pleasant scenery no doubt, but political nevertheless. According to George Zeidan, the Marathon’s co-founder, it borders on black humour: ‘Midway through the race you come to the finish line and you see people running the half-marathon hugging their loved ones… Someone is proud of their wife, someone is proud of their kid, and you think “Shit, I have to do this again.”’

Almost half of the participants were women, a huge achievement given the prevailing social norms that view women running in the streets with patriarchal suspicion.

Giedre Steikunaite

That is, of course, part of the whole point. The Palestine Marathon is about challenging the Israeli system that restricts the natives’ freedom of movement. It is enshrined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but that matters little when an armed soldier blocks your way. There is the right but not always the option, as the organizers put it. ‘It’s the exact presentation of Palestinian life within one race,’ Zeidan says.

Walls of Aida camp are painted with images of shuhada [martyrs], people who were murdered by the Israeli army.

Giedre Steikunaite

The Palestine Marathon started in 2013 with 687 runners and grew to 4,371 this year. Almost half of the participants are women (45.7%), up from 39% last year. The organizers’ objective for the next two years is 5,000 participants with the same or higher female participation, and running groups all over Palestine. These are an integral part of the larger vision of Right to Movement, a global community of runners, the Marathon’s twin initiative. ‘We run for those and with those who are deprived of that right,’ they say and invite people in their place of residency anywhere in the world to start their own Right to Movement community. ‘It costs nothing except for me to go there, practise, and encourage others to come – and that is making the real difference,’ Zeidan says. In other words, to physically claim what is yours.

A runner after completing the full marathon.

Giedre Steikunaite

This year, in line with the Marathon’s message, Israel denied travel permits to more than 100 runners from Gaza, including last year’s champion and Olympian Nader al-Masri. The distance between Gaza and Bethlehem is not even 100 kilometres, easily covered by car in less than an hour. Similarly, Jerusalem is only 8.57 kilometres away from the Marathon start/finish line in central Bethlehem, yet many participants – spare the internationals – have never been there, thanks to the Israeli-controlled entry for Palestinians.

Back in Bethlehem, Mervin Steenkamp from South Africa finished the full marathon first, at 2:35:26. For several hours afterwards, people stationed at the last 100 metres before the finish line – a hill leading to Manger Square and the Church of Nativity – encouraged each runner with a ‘Yalla, yalla!’ [Arabic for ‘Go!’]. As in, Run, Palestine, run.

Medals for all participants are made from olive wood. The olive tree in Palestine symbolizes the people's resilience and strong relation to the land.

Geidre Steikunaite

Palestinian hunger striker ‘on the verge of death’

Khader Adnan

Khader Adnan, who has himself undertaken two long-term hunger strikes, shows his support for Mohammed Al-Qeeq. © Giedre Steikunaite

As winter temperatures rose slowly to above +10 degrees Celsius in Palestine, 33-year-old journalist and father-of-two, Mohammed Al-Qeeq, entered the 77th day of a hunger strike. Captured at night by Israeli forces from his Ramallah home in November 2015, he has reported being tortured during interrogations, denied a lawyer, and transferred to an isolation cell. By this time he had begun the hunger strike, refusing even routine supplements such as salt; after being issued with a six-month ‘administrative detention’ order (ie imprisonment without charge on secret evidence lawyers are not allowed to see) while in solitary confinement, Al-Qeeq continued his hunger strike, this time for freedom. Today, 77 days later, he has lost the ability to speak and can only communicate in writing, on those moments when his consciousness returns; he has also, reportedly, lost the ability to see. His general health condition is described as ‘on the verge of death’.

As Palestine is awaiting for the spring to come and the rains to hold back, Mohammed Al-Qeeq recently rejected an offer from Israeli courts to free him on 1 May, in three months’ time. Instead, he demands his immediate release and guarantees to be treated in a Palestinian hospital (currently he is being held in HaEmek hospital in the Israeli town of Afula). For Al-Qeeq, it is now ‘martyrdom or freedom’.

Solidarity protests demanding freedom for the journalist have been organized in Gaza, New York, Berlin and many other cities, in Palestine and abroad; other Palestinians held captive in Israeli jails have also refused meals in solidarity with Al-Qeeq.

As rain poured and then drizzled from Ramallah skies, stopping for a while only to continue with more force, a wooden fire was warming the temporary inhabitants of a solidarity tent in Ramallah’s central Arafat Square. Here stayed overnight, among other activists, the baker and community leader from Jenin city, Khader Adnan, who has completed two long-term hunger strikes that eventually got him his freedom from Israeli occupation prisons. In 2012, Adnan refused food for 66 days; in 2015, his hunger strike against his illegal detention by Israel lasted for 56 days, until a deal was reached that he would be released. 

Speaking from the Ramallah tent following a one-day solidarity hunger strike, Adnan called on the free people of the world to support Al-Qeeq’s struggle for dignity and freedom, as well as that of the around 600 other Palestinians imprisoned indefinitely without charge, and the more than 6,000 Palestinian people currently held in Israeli prisons. Adnan also expressed hopes for unity among the Palestinian society, its political factions and its prisoners across the political spectrum. ‘The prisoners’ movement and hunger strikes in particular are a symbol of the principle and demand for justice in Palestine. It proves that of course it is both possible and necessary to break the Israeli occupation,’ Adnan told the press after his victory in July 2015. ‘The prisoners, with strong will, are able to hold onto their rights. It is a symbol to show you what is possible.’

This same morning a group of youth occupied, for one hour, the headquarters of the Red Cross in Ramallah ‘in protest of the questioned silence of international organizations, especially the Red Cross, that grants Israel an international cover to execute journalist Mohammad al-Qeeq’. The youth demanded that the Red Cross visit Al-Qeeq in hospital and contact foreign embassies to deliver his ‘true message’ that he ‘wants nothing but his freedom’. Their communique goes on to say that the Red Cross is ‘a humanitarian organization that should be able to stand up against injustice and crimes’. So far there has been silence.

Yet little help is expected from the Ramallah Red Cross office, according to a local activist. ‘[Red Cross headquarters in] Geneva and New York are those that can make a difference,’ she said as a dozen mothers gathered at the blocked entrance to apply for prison visit permits. The Red Cross in Palestine is responsible for negotiating visiting permits for families of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. According to its statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross aims to ‘secure humane treatment and conditions of detention for all detainees, regardless of the reasons for their arrest and detention’ as well as ‘prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment’.

For Khader Adnan and dozens of other Palestinian long-term hunger strikers it was not, in the end, the Red Cross that won their freedom. It was themselves – with the support of people around the world.

US-based Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network has a list of actions people can take for Mohammed Al-Qeeq and all Palestinians imprisoned by Israel without charge.

Walking in Bethlehem this Christmas when peace is absent

21.12.15-bethlehem-view-590.jpg

A view of Bethlehem from a former mansion's porch, currently uninhabited. Only a hundred years ago all of this would have been olive groves. © Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

Watching the news from the Holy Land over the last few months hasn’t been a joyful or heart-warming experience. With the occupation of Palestine still in full swing, daily violence – structural, moral, physical, and systemic – on the rise, ‘Silent Nights’ are a world away from the realities of the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Bethlehem today – with its three refugee camps that were meant to be only temporary, 25-per-cent unemployment, lands constantly confiscated for the expansion of illegal Israeli settler-colonies, the Wall cutting the landscape and people from each other – can hardly be expected to host a happy party and tell exciting stories.

But she tries. With dignity.

On the corner of Star Street, a road which the Three Wise Men supposedly took, Sami the tea-coffee guy refuses to indicate exactly how much he charges for a hot drink. ‘Give whatever you think it’s worth,’ he insists and leaves you to it. That is his business strategy with foreigners. He told me once how his 2x2-metre cafeteria hosts dozens of men during Ramadan, when smoking and drinking in public would be considered (by both those who are fasting and those who aren’t) an offence lacking of any respect. So this is where they hang out drinking Sami’s tea and coffee during Ramadan, and this is where Sami watches – if he is not busy – the Patriarch on his way from Jerusalem to the Church of Nativity.

White stone walls with blueish doors is a characteristic feature of Bethlehem's Old City.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

To clear the way for the Patriarch through the crowds during his traditional Christmas procession is actually a job. Historically it was a paid job, but these days people do it for pride and respect, says Noor Awad, my guide on a ‘Bethlehem’s Quarters’ tour recently established by Visit Palestine, an independent hub aimed at promoting tourism in Palestine. There would be five or six people with sticks walking in front of the Patriarch until he reaches the Church of Nativity and there is a quarter in the Old City named after them. The Al-Kawawseh quarter was apparently famous for providing people to fill vacancies for this position.

Other Old City quarters on the tour include the tiny Syrian quarter, where Syrians and Armenians fleeing the genocide committed by Turkey established themselves in the early 20th century. Today their descendants call themselves Palestinian, yet they retain their specific identity that adds to the richness of cultures that has always been the essence of this region. A small community, some of its members still speak Aramaic, at least during Mass in their Syrian Orthodox church. Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the Greater Syria region that included Palestine, was also the language that Jesus and his crew most likely would have spoken.

There is also a Translators quarter, where lived people who, Noor says, have been translating for pilgrims and merchants for at least 1,000 years. Catering for visitors – religious and secular alike – is a well-established practice in this place, as Sami’s example clearly shows.

Israeli checkpoint in the Wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Nearby is Aida refugee camp.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

Christmas celebrations this year in Bethlehem are scaled down out of respect for the shuhada [martyrs] – more than 120 Palestinians killed by the Israeli army since the beginning of October; out of respect for their families as well as the injured, the imprisoned, and the shuhada of the future.

In Bethlehem, Christmas comes three times: first, for the Catholics on 25 December; then, on 7 January, the Orthodox celebrate theirs; and finally, 19 January is Christmas Day for the Armenians. In a land where at least 13 Christian Churches are present, in the city where the Church of Nativity stands with a crane looming over it – the roof was said to be unfit for worship, the building’s doors, walls and mosaics require restoration, which is being currently carried out to the disappointment of camera-armed tourists – in such a place Christmas comes thrice a year and every time it is welcomed by the community that used to be majority Christian until most of them left to find a better life elsewhere, preferably in the Americas.

This year’s Bethlehem Christmas motto, as defined by the city’s municipality, is ‘We have on this Earth what worths peace’ [sic]. It’s based on the opening lines of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, one of the greatest Palestinian poets of modern times, where he writes, ‘We have on this Earth what makes life worth living.’

A Nativity scene from Kenya, exhibited at the Peace Center every Christmas period.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

Peace was the underlying theme of Bethlehem’s official Christmas message to the world, repeated by the city’s mayor, Vera Baboun, numerous times during a press conference held at the beginning of December. Speaking to cameras ‘from the city of peace that lives no peace’, she reminded the world that ‘We are one injury, we are one pain; we are one tear, we are one joy.’ And because ‘Peace is absent’, we wish ‘Victory to peace’.

One year ago, Bethlehem’s Christmas motto was ‘All I want for Christmas is Peace.’ That wish still hasn’t been granted. And that is why, Baboun writes, ‘We urge you, people of conscience throughout the world, to intervene to stop this siege of Bethlehem and the continuing waterfall of our spilt blood.’

That is today. Noor the tour guide talks of the past.

He tells how Bethlehem – a village, never a city – historically never had stone walls to protect it from intruders, invaders, self-proclaimed ‘civilizers’ and their associates, as Jerusalem did (not that it helped her enough). But the people of Bethlehem built their houses on a hill so close to each other that all it would take to protect themselves from uninvited guests would have been shutting the heavy wooden doors placed in the narrow arched entrances to the inhabited area.

He tells how during the days of the Roman Empire, two canals delivered water from the surrounding area to both Bethlehem and Jerusalem; today, two of the city’s main roads run above what used to be Roman aqueducts. The vast olive groves and farmers’ fields that landowners would watch sipping sweet tea on their sunny mansion porches no longer surround the city, either. On their memory now stand family houses for Bethlehemites and illegal Israeli settlers.

He tells how at the beginning of the 19th century, during Ottoman rule, Bethlehem – a village, never a city – had seven quarters: six Christian and one Muslim. Named after the clans who occupied a certain area or the inhabitants’ favourite profession, the seven quarters today comprise the Old City of Bethlehem, but the religion ratio is no longer 6:1. With middle-class and well-off Christians emigrating en masse to foreign lands that are not military-occupied, today Bethlehem’s population is only around 15-per-cent Christian.

Christmas Tree in Bethlehem's Manger Square, December 2015. Right behind is the Church of Nativity, with the Peace Center to the left in the picture.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

The Christmas tree in Manger Square faces the Church of Nativity on one side and Omar mosque on the other. Noor retells an anecdote from December 1999 when, with only days left to the third millennium, the then-Pope John Paul II arrived in Bethlehem to deliver his speech. Preparations for such an important visit were very detailed, yet somehow the fact that Islam calls for Muslims to pray five times a day was forgotten. The Pope would have addressed the world and the muezzin the believers at the same time.

That didn’t happen though: before the Pope’s speech, the Sheikh announced through the mosque’s loudspeakers that out of respect for their Christian guest the Muslim call to prayer would be skipped that day. The Pope later thanked the Sheikh for this kind gesture, but foreign journalists reported that ‘Muslims interrupted the Pope’s speech,’ Noor says with a shrug. See, the Sheikh spoke in Arabic, his native tongue, the language of Bethlehem. That was 15 years ago. This year the Pope is not coming.

Manger Square itself, in the very heart of the City of Peace, where thousands of locals and foreigners celebrating Christ’s birthday mingle, was Bethlehem’s main market area until 1925 when it was moved inside the Old City. Today, Noor says, three kinds of products are sold there: fruit and veg, which mostly come from Israeli settlements; meat, both frozen and straight from the butcher; and products for those who cannot afford anything better: cheap plastic imports of almost anything, as well second- and third-hand goods.

‘Four kilos of mandarins for 10 shekel!’, ‘Come on, sisters, three kilos of bananas for a tenner!’, we hear the merchants around us. ‘The louder you shout, the more customers you will get. This is their strategy,’ Noor says. Does it work? ‘They believe it does.’

Sunset over Bethlehem.

Giedre Steikunaite/Gabriele Tervidyte

We all believe in something. Especially here, in the land the three monotheistic religions hold dear.

‘You know, the best aubergine [eggplant] in the world comes from Battir,’ Noor adds proudly. Battir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Bethlehem, a terraced village where sunset hikes ‘are truly beautiful’. The nearby village of Artas is famous locally for its lettuce. And Bethlehem’s honey is better than that of Ramallah, according to a Ramallah-based beekeeper. Merchants would agree.

Back on Manger Square, currently occupied by tourists and pilgrims, once stood a building that served as a police station and a prison. This is where the Ottoman rulers would torture Palestinians they didn’t like. During the British mandate of Palestine (1922-48), British occupiers followed the tradition and also imprisoned Palestinians they didn’t like. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, when the West Bank fell under Jordan’ s control, the Jordanians demolished it and built another structure in its place, to serve the same purpose. After the birth of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 the building was demolished once again; on its ruins was built what is today called the Peace Center, a multi-purpose complex with a well-stocked bookshop, souvenir shop, meeting halls, and an exhibition room that opens before Christmas and where one can observe the diversity of Nativity scenes from places as far away as Slovenia and Haiti.

Merry Christmas. With dignity.

Those who couldn’t be there

The disappeared

Just a few of the disappeared remembered at the World Social Forum in Tunis. © Giedre Steikunaite

A mother holding a framed picture of her child walks the streets in protest. She knocks on institutional doors; she seeks. She is Honduran, Guatemalan, Tunisian, Algerian, Aboriginal, she is Saharawi. Her tragedy is personal, yet shared the world over by thousands of mothers and fathers whose loved ones have been made to vanish. They disappeared in narco villas in Mexico, in interrogation and detention centres in North Africa and southern Europe, at the bottom of the Mediterranean in unmarked graves. They disappeared in the system.

It was those who were absent who were the most relentlessly ‘present’ at the 2015 World Social Forum in Tunis. The event gathered hundreds of activists and organizations; but thousands more could not attend, for their whereabouts are not known.

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Absent was the father of Abdelmalek Mahamdioua, Algerian member of Collectif des Familles de Disparu(e)s an Algerie (Collective of Families of the Disappeared in Algeria, an organization that documents forced disappearances and offers assistance to victims of state violence). During the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, the army abducted Abdelmalek’s father, together with 21 others, from a street. Witnesses say they saw all the men being hurled into a room that was then set on fire, but the government wouldn’t confirm or deny these first-hand accounts.

It was those who were absent who were the most relentlessly ‘present’ at the World Social Forum – those who could not attend, for their whereabouts are not known

‘I want truth and justice,’ Abdelmalek says, giving out pamphlets in the rain. ‘And I want to know why they took my father, because they took him for nothing.’

That why is designed never to be revealed, if it exists at all. Abdelmalek’s father is one of the 8,024 Algerians whom the government has so far officially recognized as having ‘disappeared’, although families believe there might be three times as many. The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, passed by the Algerian government in 2005 without public consultation, ensures that no government or military official, or member of the armed militias that fought the government, is held accountable for the murders and forced disappearances of the 1990s. Such impunity protects the perpetrator and further criminalizes the victim: the law permits imprisonment of up to 5 years and a 250,000 dinar ($2,500) fine for any attempt at independent search for the truth about the disappearances.

Despite this, families organize demonstrations and speak out in public, two decades on. An online public memorial contains the names and, where possible, pictures and life stories of the thousands of Algerians whom the state made ‘disappear’.

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Absent were the more than 500 ‘disappeared’ Saharawis and the dozens of Saharawi political prisoners in Moroccan jails. ‘They were imprisoned because they were fighting for freedom and human rights,’ says Mohamed Ali Mohamed, a youth activist from Smara refugee camp in Algeria, where people expelled from Smara village in occupied Western Sahara made their temporary home in 1975, when Morocco occupied the area and enforced its military regime. Forced disappearances – kidnap and imprisonment in clandestine detention centres – was one of the terror tactics used against the Saharawi civilian population.

While some people died in detention and others were eventually released, the fate of hundreds is not known. Faces young, old, and older in mostly black and white photographs are all that remains of these people.

In January this year, 22-year-old Saharawi political prisoner Abdelbagi Aliyen Antahah died of torture inside a Moroccan prison; in March, Saharawi political prisoner Ahmed S’bai started an open-ended hunger strike to protest against physical and psychological torture. ‘Our struggle is daily,’ Mohamed says. ‘We want to live in freedom, without occupation, without violence. We want our rights.’

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Absent were the 20,000 people officially identified as having perished in the Mediterranean Sea while en route to European shores. Absent were the thousands of those – nobody knows how many exactly – who disappeared, whether on the sea or after having reached their European destinations.

A Tunisian mother is holding a picture of three young men. The one in the middle is her son, who disappeared 4 years ago. He was 17 when he crossed the Mediterranean by boat and phoned his mother to tell her that he had arrived safely in Italy. There has been no news from him since. It was stories such as this one that the Carovana Italiana per i diritti dei Migranti per la dignità e la giustizia (Italian Caravan for Migrants’ Rights, Dignity and Justice) highlighted on their journey from Lampedusa to Turin last year.

Ayman, a Tunisian in his 20s, is a survivor. ‘I chose the life of harraga,’ he says, referring to the attempt to cross the Mediterranean by boat in search of a better life in Europe. Two and a half years ago the boat he was in capsized and he spent more than 12 hours in the water trying not to drown, watching others around him disappear into the deep. Italian coastal patrols were around, he says; they saw what happened and did nothing to save the people. ‘Since then, every day I think about it: Why?’ Ayman says, his voice barely audible as he speaks staring at the ground. A mother suddenly leaves the room, crying. ‘She says Ayman is lying and the boat never capsized,’ explains Imed Soltani of Association La Terre Pour Tous (The Land is for Everyone Association) which works with families of Tunisian migrants who disappeared. ‘Her son was in that same boat.’

Absent were the 20,000 people officially identified as having perished in the Mediterranean Sea while en route to European shores

Activists point out that EU border agency Frontex’s new operation, Triton, that limits rescue efforts to a 50-kilometre zone off the Italian coast (leaving anyone outside this area to tend for themselves, a left-to-die policy), is meant to reduce arrivals and deter boat refugees. While many rescue operations have indeed been carried out, non-assistance in emergency cases remains systemic. The Med is now a cemetery was an oft-repeated phrase at workshops on migration during the World Social Forum.

In response to the increasing number of deaths at sea, Watch the Med, an online mapping platform to monitor the deaths and violations of migrants’ rights at the maritime borders of the EU, launched a citizen initiative to support migrant and refugee people at risk of drowning. The Alarm Phone (+334 8651 7161), which people in emergencies are urged to dial after sending distress signals to European coastguards, is a hotline that ensures the documentation of every capsized boat or push-back attempt and puts pressure on the coastguards to launch or speed up rescue operations.

‘But the real issue, of course, is not the Alarm Phone. It is the freedom of movement for all,’ says Charles Heller, one of the minds behind the project. ‘Just take a ferry from Tunis to Naples and go,’ a member of the audience comments. Just as EU passport-holders do.

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Absent, too, were the thousands of Central Americans whose trips up north – to Mexico, to the US – are cut short en route; trying to escape poverty and violence in their own countries, they are the favourite prey of the narcos (drug cartels) who control migratory routes on Mexican soil. ‘Currently, human trafficking is more profitable for them than drug trafficking,’ says Marta Sánchez Soler of Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano (MMM, Mesoamerican Migrant Movement), an organization dedicated to finding migrants from Central America who disappear in Mexico. Ransom is demanded for kidnapped migrants who have relatives in the US or whose families in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua still have land or houses to sell; others are kidnapped to serve as labour force for the narcos – either in marijuana fields (profits from the latter are going down due to the legalization of marijuana in several US states, Soler says, while cocaine is on the rise) or random narco-related jobs – hitman, for example.

Kidnapped women are forced to cook for the narcos and are often sexually abused

The above-mentioned Italo-Tunisian Migrant Caravan takes inspiration from the work of the MMM, which has been organizing the Caravana de Madres Centroamericanas (Caravan of Central American Mothers) for the last decade. Working closely with grassroots committees of Central American families looking for their disappeared, the MMM has found 200 people and reunited them with their families. This, Soler says, is the main goal. The Caravan – which carries 40 mothers and takes a different route through Mexico every year, depending on the security situation, covering around 5,000 kilometres in three weeks – is designed to bring the issue of migrant disappearances to the public, to involve Mexican society in the struggle, and to denounce the government’s policies that make the disappearances possible, as well as its lack of action to prevent them. It also empowers the women. ‘From victims, the mothers turn into guerreras [warriors],’ Soler says. ‘We convert a tragedy into a social struggle.’

Since 2006, when the US and Mexican governments started the so-called ‘war on drugs’, violence on the Mexican side of the border has escalated. Since then, 70-120,000 people have gone missing; they either died en route or ‘disappeared’. Given the violence many of these people are fleeing, the term ‘migrant’ is not accurate to describe them. ‘They are not migrating, they are being forcibly displaced,’ Soler says. A woman with three little children explained why she was trying to enter Mexico without a visa (which is unaffordable and often unattainable for Central Americans): ‘The gangs killed my oldest two children and I am not going to wait until they kill the others.’ Another woman in Honduras, whose husband was murdered after joining a gang, received a bag of money shortly after his funeral. ‘We will bring you this every week until your children reach the age of 12,’ a gang leader told her. ‘You have to feed them well because they are now ours. We will come and take them.’

When not on the Caravan, the MMM works at a grassroots level to find people who have disappeared but are thought to be alive. By collecting pieces of personal information, they get clues that may lead to the person. ‘A mother tells us that she sent money to her child on the migrant route and she has the receipt. It contains a location, an address, and the name of a Mexican who withdrew the money, because undocumented migrants cannot do it. So we start looking for this person who could provide us with more clues,’ Soler says. ‘There was one guy who liked cockfights a lot, and we found him in a cockfight. If we hadn’t asked the families what this person liked doing, they wouldn’t have told us. [Such personal approach] gives us good results.’

Those good results bring families together. ‘The reunions are very, very beautiful,’ Soler says. ‘Everybody cries, everybody is very emotional, the mothers are very happy and much calmer.’

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Mothers across the ocean are also fighting for their own family reunions. Aunty Hazel, an Aboriginal woman from Gunnedah in Australia’s New South Wales, last saw her 18-month-old grandson in January 2014. Another grandchild has been gone for 4 years. ‘Every day I have to give strength to my daughter not to take her life,’ Aunty Hazel says. ‘Her children were taken away by the system.’ These are the new Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their communities by the Australian government in the name of ‘protection’. They, too, were absent. ‘We do need protection, but not from ourselves – we need to be protected from these governments,’ Aunty Hazel says.

The new Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their communities by the Australian government in the name of ‘protection’ – they, too, were absent

She is an activist with Grandmothers Against Removals (GAR), a grassroots movement against the ‘unprecedented theft of Aboriginal children from their families’ by ‘so-called “Child Protection” agencies.’ Figures show that, 7 years after the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Stolen Generations for stealing them, the theft is not only ongoing – it is on the rise. That ‘sorry’ was worth an increase of children’s removals from their families by 65 per cent; currently, around 15,000 Aboriginal children are being held away from their families. It’s the Department of Community Services that decides that Aboriginal communities are not good enough to take care of their children and in court, they don’t have to provide evidence to their claims – a social worker’s opinion is enough to take a child away. Those opinions, based on the Western model of child-raising, do not take into account the fact that in Aboriginal communities child-raising is done communally. ‘One child was taken away because she was seen running outside barefoot,’ says an activist with GAR. ‘Babies are being pulled from their mother’s hands while breast-feeding.’

Apart from personal tragedy, such policies are referred to as cultural genocide; child removals are 10 times as likely in Aboriginal communities as in white ones. Upon return, the stolen children are often unrecognizable to their own families; raised in an environment that has denied them their roots and their heritage, they come back without a sense of belonging. ‘With this hole in their heart they will never be full,’ Aunty Hazel says. She grew up in a mission house – a colonial settlement meant to control Aboriginal people’s freedoms – where she had to ask permission from a white English manager every time she wanted to do something. Indigenous Australians were told not to protest against white colonialism and oppression and stop demanding their rights, as ‘they’d come and take ye children’ as a punishment. Even an excuse was not necessary. ‘Sometimes you wake up and you don’t find one of your little cousins,’ Aunty Hazel recalls. As a child, she used to cry listening to her grandma, who was of the Stolen Generation. Today, she cries for her own grandchildren.

‘Maybe you don’t stop them but don’t let them stop you,’ says Aunty Jenny, also a member of GAR. ‘I’ve been fighting since I was 17. I am 60 now. You have to keep fighting.’ But who are you appealing to? ‘To the people who care.’ Are there any left? ‘I hope so.’

Checkpoint mornings

Checkpoint barbed wire

© Giedre Steikunaite

Sabah al-kheyr,’ [Good morning in Arabic] men half-whisper politely, carrying small plastic bags that contain the day’s lunch. They are off to work, mostly in construction, in shifts starting at seven or eight o’clock in the morning.

It’s 2.30 am. ‘Where else in the world have you seen people leaving for work in the middle of the night?’ asks a middle-aged man, without requiring an answer. ‘This is the most racist state in the world,’ he comments and rushes off. His hurry is justified: the queue is already forming inside the terminal and he needs to take his place.

Sabah al-kheyr,’ a bored voice is heard over the loudspeaker, somewhere unseen. The clerk in uniform has made an effort to greet workers in their mother-tongue; she then continues, in Hebrew this time, ‘Move on people, move on, don’t stand there.’

Only there is no way to ‘move on’: hundreds of people are already crammed in between the metal fences topped with razor wire and monitored by CCTV, a cage built to control their movement and their very presence here.

This is Eyal, an Israeli checkpoint on the outskirts of Qalqiliya, a Palestinian city completely encircled by Israel’s Wall. Built in 2007, Eyal is one of 11 Israeli military checkpoints through which entrance to Israel is administered.

This one is staffed by private-security companies, as opposed to the Israeli army. These outsourced services of control bring anywhere between $50-100 million of revenue to private companies such as Mikud Security, owned by Solly and Gila Olishar, that operate on behalf of the Israeli government.

Eyal opens at 4 am. Some 4,500 Palestinians with work permits cross it every night, and they start gathering there two hours before. They will enter through a turnstile, be scanned by a metal detector (apparently only two are in operation, making the process lengthy), then pass staffed sections where their documents and fingerprints are checked.

Giedre Steikunaite

Provided they are not selected for a random strip-search, they will leave the building on the other side and wait for buses to pick them up and bring them to work.

To accommodate the workers’ early breakfast needs and perhaps to provide a space more welcoming than the military checkpoint they are about to go through, food stalls dot the place.

They sell fresh bread with cheese, sesame seeds and spinach, soft drinks, small containers of hummus and baba ganoush, bars of chocolate and packets of crisps, as well as lighters and cigarettes. All this is ready for business at 1 am.

Brightly lit with fluorescent lighting and covered with posters in Arabic, advising workers on workplace safety (‘Wear a helmet’), they service the thousands of Palestinians who gather here from various parts of the Palestine area of the northern West Bank, from Jenin and Nablus to Qalqiliya and surrounding villages.

The night is calm. On Sundays, the start of the working week in Israel, it’s much more crowded and much noisier, the workers say.

On the ‘other’ side of the line

Sometimes it gets too much. In December 2014, several thousand workers declared a strike in nearby Sha’ar Ephraim, an Israeli checkpoint that separates the Palestinian city of Tulkarem from At-Tayba on the ‘other’ side of the Green Line (1949 Armistice Line).

They were protesting against overcrowding and demanding better treatment. They lost a day’s wages but won the battle, as conditions improved and time required to queue and be checked shortened after Israeli authorities paid to open all 16 of the biometric checking booths, as opposed to the usual four or five.

However, such improvements only lasted for a few days, after which things went back to ‘normal’. This January, 59-year-old Adel Muhammad Yakoub was crushed to death at that same checkpoint, due to overcrowding. He is survived by his wife and seven children, aged between 11 and 16.

These two incidents made local news. But the suffering and humiliation of thousands of Palestinian workers is not news; it’s a continuous, daily reality. And the main issue is not the conditions at the checkpoint – it’s the checkpoint’s very existence.

‘Where else in the world have you seen people leaving for work in the middle of the night? This is the most racist state in the world’

‘I’ve been working inside [Israel] for 25 years and it used to be easy to get to work,’ says a tall, well-built man, as he sips his night-time coffee by the fire at one of the makeshift cafés, overlooking the military watchtower. How is life like this? He shrugs, his face calm as a stone, his eyes betraying a mixture of enduring human dignity and structural humiliation.

Most people stuck here have stone expressions. It’s hard to make them smile – and there is nothing to smile about in this environment of systemic dehumanization.

Moreover, providing a cheap labour force for one’s oppressor adds another layer of psychological disturbance. Between earning meagre wages for a 16-hour-workday in the West Bank, or having no work at all, there just isn’t a real choice for people with families to feed and a decent life to lead. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Mind you, this is the legal way to provide for one’s family. The alternative – jumping the Wall, running through a hole in the fence – involves the danger of being shot or caught inside Israel without the required papers; yet thousands still take the risk.

‘We’ve had people die here, too,’ says a blue-eyed cigarette vendor who speaks in unpunctuated bursts. People in the queue are so close together they can barely move. Tired and angry, they start fighting those who attempt to sneak in; the turnstiles operated by private-security employees only allow one person at a time.

‘One by one, move one by one,’ barks the bored loudspeaker voice. One by one, 4,500 people, every night of the week, every week of the year. Except for Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when workers get a day off; their Muslim holiday is Friday, on which they have to labour.

The man who runs the café by the fire is the father of two, aged one and four years old. When asked how his checkpoint business is going, he shakes his head.

‘I make around 100 shekels [$25] a night, and spend half of it to buy supplies,’ he says. He doesn’t have a second day-job because there are no jobs around. Unemployment in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, is around 20 per cent, yet even those who do work are often not able to provide for their families due to low wages and constantly rising living costs. The main reason for crossing into Israel is to find work: wages there are two or three times higher, yet still lower than those of Israelis.

The call to prayer from mosques in Qalqiliya comes at 5.14 am, interrupting the night’s metal gate beeping. Several dozen Palestinians kneel down to pray on the side, while hundreds of others address God while standing between metal fences; with thousands behind them, one cannot risk missing their spot in the queue.

At 6.30 am, a 38-year-old man from Al-Fara’a refugee camp near Tubas (northern West Bank), still has half an hour to wait. On his work permit it says specifically that he can only cross at 7 am. ‘If their clocks say it’s 6.58, they will turn me back and I will have to queue anew,’ he explains. This afternoon he will return home; tomorrow he will be here again, having made the several-hour trip from Al-Fara’a to Qalqiliya via Jenin.

Only small numbers of Palestinians receive the so-called ‘sleeping permits’ that would allow them to stay in Israel overnight and avoid the time-consuming and soul-trampling trip back and forth every night.

Those who stay overnight often sleep in the buildings under construction in which they labour during the day, for rent is expensive and off-limits to Palestinians from the West Bank anyway.

It’s 7 am, and most of the people with work permits have crossed. They will return via the same route (one is not allowed to use a different checkpoint on the way back) in the afternoon, go home, have dinner, say hello to their children and go to sleep, to be here again the following night at 3 am.

During the day, Eyal will be visited by Palestinians who apply for prison visit permits or medical treatment permits, and by people who have been presented with an invitation for interrogation.

These past weeks, the Israeli army ordered dozens of Palestinian men from the Qalqiliya district to show up for interrogation, to be questioned on their views and activities; locals say the new military commander of the area wants to make his presence known. There is a room to the right of the workers’ entrance in which these young men are held.

Food vendors start packing up as the sun rises. Rubbish is abundant.

From the roundabout just outside Qalqiliya city, a road leads to another Israeli military checkpoint. Cars with yellow (Israeli) licence plates speed and pass through in seconds, carrying illegal Israeli settlers, living in colonies near Qalqiliya. They’ve just woken up and are on their way to work in Israel.

Independent Arab cinemas: against all odds

The Rialto cinema, Casablanca.

Cliff Williams under a CC Licence

Planting the flag of Palestine on the moon in her 2009 short film A Space Exodus, artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour says: ‘That’s one small step for Palestinians, one giant leap for mankind.’ In Nation Estate, shown at the Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFF) in early 2013, she projects a single skyscraper that houses the entire Palestinian population – Jerusalem on the 13th floor, Ramallah on the 14th – ‘living the high life’.

Sansour’s aesthetically polished and politically challenging futuristic visions contain two elements under-represented in Arab cinema – science fiction and comedy. ‘These genres are big budget studio productions – by definition, independent films don’t have that capacity,’ says Mona Deeley (pictured right), director of Zenith Foundation and producer of Cinema Badila (Alternative Cinema) on BBC Arabic. ‘Yet that doesn’t mean that Arab films are without humour.’ Sansour’s shorts are a case in point. ‘If she makes a feature sci-fi film, that will really be news.’

Many other independent Arab films have been making the news recently on the international stage. Production and distribution capacity in the region varies greatly: there is not a single cinema theatre in Saudi Arabia, but many in UAE shopping malls; Egypt, the regional hub of commercial cinema, has had to catch up with others in independent filmmaking; the Sudan Film Factory project is encouraging this non-existent industry; in Lebanon, infrastructure exists, but blockbusters score much higher than independent films. Jordan and the Gulf states are increasingly entering the stage. Subject trends are also highly diversified. ‘Otherwise it wouldn’t be independent cinema, we’d be talking about a factory,’ Deeley says.

A pluralist image

For these reasons, as filmmaker, curator and author of Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity Viola Shafik pointed out at the panel of Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema in London, ‘labelling it “Arab cinema” is problematic’; the French version – les cinémas arabes (Arab cinemas – in the plural) – is much more adequate as it describes ‘a pluralist image of what has been created in the Arab world’.

‘Saudi Arabia is a society covered in other people’s projections of it because it never represents itself. Wadjda gives an insight into things we never see, from streets to schools to life behind closed doors’

Judging from the selection of last year’s IFFs, certain topics might be passé in the media, but not in the wider imagination. One such is suicide bombing: Ziad Doueiri’s The Attack about a female suicide bomber in Israel won the first prize at the Marrakech IFF; Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God (Les Chevaux de Dieu) is based on true story of two brothers who detonated themselves in Casablanca in 2003 (‘It’s interesting to see a native take of people doing horrific things to their own country, see where they come from, and try to understand them,’ Deeley says); Merzak Allouache’s The Repentant (Le Repenti) is also about extreme violence. Yet Deeley is cautious in calling it a trend: ‘These films are in that range, but others, of course, aren’t.’

Those others deal with matters as diverse as Egypt’s uprising (e.g. Ibrahim El Batout’s no-budget, no-script thoroughly researched improvised documentary); the slavery of solitude (Coming Forth by Day by Hala Lotfy); marriage traditions and relationship taboos in modern-day Paris (Hold Back / Rengaine by Rachid Djaïdani); a police officer’s cowardice, fear, and inferiority in Casablanca (Zero by Nour-Eddine Lakhmari); or a girl who wants to buy a bicycle. The latter is Wadjda, a film by Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al Mansour that’s been shown at various IFFs, including Dubai, and will be on general release in Europe. Although such huge interest partly stems from the fact that Wadjda is probably Saudi Arabia’s first feature-length film, and directed by a woman, to Deeley there’s something more profound: ‘Saudi Arabia is a society covered in other people’s projections of it because it never represents itself. The film gives an insight into things we never see, from streets to schools to life behind closed doors.’

More than just politics

Yet such international interactions might be limited. As Shafik wrote in her book, ‘It is hard to distribute anything from the Arab and Muslim world in Europe that offers alternative or simply unspectacular stories that go beyond dominant, often negatively coded images and discourses on the region.’ Deeley has also heard complaints from Arab filmmakers over favoured subjects and Western funders and distributors being interested in the region merely as a political entity. But films don’t necessarily have to be political to be seen as such: in Wadjda, a girl wants a bicycle, but her being a Saudi girl adds political dimensions; a film from Palestine will be de facto political: the occupation cannot be escaped. Can such interest be rationalized? ‘Cinema is international. Thousands of films are being produced every year. For a festival or a cinema screen, it either has to stand out from everything else in terms of amazing filmmaking, or the subject itself has to draw audiences,’ Deeley says.

‘Independent films anywhere are niche films watched by people who are looking for culture beyond formulaic filmmaking. They’re about aesthetic, soul, and mental satisfaction’

Have the uprisings played a role? ‘One can argue that cinematic representations are part of a wider phenomenon of self-reflection that was growing in the Arab world and reached its peak with the revolutions of the Arab Spring,’ says Lina Khatib, head of programme on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University. ‘You can count on the Middle East to have one crisis or the other, so there’s always interest in the region for that reason,’ Deeley says, half-jokingly. ‘In the mainstream media, there’s still a top-down narrative of what goes on there; not enough is being shown about culture.’ That’s why BBC Arabic’s commissioning of Cinema Badila was a positive step forward: ‘When you give so much air time for a region, there should be some allocated to things that are not to do with war and destruction and give more depth to what you’re reporting on.’

Accessibility is another concern. In the absence of general releases in cinemas, IFFs have become the main platform for independent filmmakers. Even if their films are not seen by mass audiences, they become part of the cultural heritage and conversation. Yet IFFs are only part of the solution. With this in mind, Deeley co-founded Zenith Foundation, a non-profit platform for independent cultural production focused on the Arab region. Its online shop sells DVDs of carefully selected Arab films. However, Deeley admits that the project hasn’t taken off very well: ‘When you have films that people don’t know how to google and directors they never heard about, even an online platform is an obscure platform.’

Art and industry

So cinema is not only art – it’s also an industry. The twin financial challenges of production and distribution are giant struggles for filmmakers at both public and private level. That’s why Deeley believes that, not being a big ticket-seller, the art sector, including independent cinema, must be subsidized: ‘As societies we recognize that in life, industry and buildings are not enough. We need culture. Independent films anywhere are niche films watched by people who are looking for culture beyond formulaic filmmaking. They’re about aesthetic, soul, and mental satisfaction.’

Is the future bright for independent Arab cinemas? ‘It has triumphed against every single odd,’ Deeley says. ‘If it’s done that so far, I’m very optimistic.’ And, as Sophie Chamas, co-editor of Mashallah News, wrote: ‘The independent Arab film industry is a veritable orchestra of diverse voices and perspectives that have the potential to crack or even pry open many a closed, angry and rigid regional mind, initiating curiosity or, at the very least, introducing confusion and doubt into what was once a disciplined house of unwavering conviction.’

Censorship and the arts: should forbidding be forbidden?

I forbid it! A still from mockumentary Mamnou3!.

Courtesy of Mamnou3!

Prologue

In an office where the red stamp reigns and a single ‘wrong’ line can condemn an artistic work, the Colonel asks his most zealous employee: ‘What do you have today, Lamia?’ ‘A play and some foreign movies, [which] need to be changed, amended or banned,’ she replies. Her colleague is ‘busy’ playing Solitaire on his computer, while another colleague kicks out at someone applying for permission to make a film because he does not have the correct number of copies of his documents. The camera shakes as if to reflect the blurry conditions under which this institution operates.

Meet the censors... a still from Mamnou3!

courtesy of Mamnou3!

This is Lebanon’s Censorship Bureau, as seen by the creators of Mamnou3! (‘Prohibited’ in Arabic), a mockumentary-style web series which aims to popularize the fight for cultural freedom in Lebanon. ‘By highlighting the absurdity of state censorship, the series invites the citizen to ask the following question: By whom, why and by what authority is censorship carried out in the Lebanese state?’ says Nadim Lahoud, the series creator. That’s the essence of Mamnou3!: rather than protesting against individual censorship decisions, it challenges the very institution of censorship in the 21st century.

Scene 1: Going down

But what is there to challenge in a country which, we’re often told, is the region’s ‘oasis of freedom’? This year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Lebanon 93rd (out of 179) in its annual World Press Freedom Index. In 2002, when the Index started, the country was 56th. The 2011 report on press freedom in the Levant published by SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom identified three main downward trends:

1) physical assaults on journalists (more than 50 cases were recorded in Lebanon in 2011) 2) attempts to regulate content online 3) increasing censorship in the film industry.

The draft law to impose state control on the internet was eventually shelved following a massive public outcry, but the anti-censorship front cannot afford a break: as Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid, whose film Beirut Hotel was banned in Lebanon, put it, ‘Nothing works in this country except the censorship bureau.’

Censorship of artistic and literary works falls under the jurisdiction of the Directorate General of General Security. Busy as a beehive, it banned 10 films in 2011 and five this year to date, according to SKeyes Center, including De Gaulle Eid’s documentary about the Lebanese Civil War, Chou Sar? (What Happened?) and Hana Makhmalbaf’s Green Days about the opposition protests in Iran in 2009. The authorities also didn’t want the outspoken Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar’s memoirs of his prison years – The Betrayals of Language and Silence – to be exported; nor did they like journalist Rabih Shantaf asking ‘inappropriate questions’ at the Ministry of Energy and Water, telling him to stay away.

Lebanon’s censorship body is ‘as transparent as a block of lead’

Censorship is also imposed by non-state actors. Lebanon’s commercial carrier MEA, for example, banned Al-Akhbar newspaper from its aeroplanes (a decision later deemed illegal by a judge). And threats by religious extremists to the music band LMFAO led to them cancelling their Beirut gig.

This recent increase in censorship is politics-related, says Ayman Mhanna, executive director of SKeyes Center. First, the change in government: whereas the previous Cabinet had ministers with connections to civil society organizations who pulled their weight to reverse censorship decisions, the new Cabinet doesn’t consider this issue a priority. ‘The current ministers of culture, information and the interior do not seem particularly interested in confronting the censorship body,’ Mhanna says. ‘When there is a situation of political calm, there aren’t lots of censorship decisions. Whereas in periods of political tension and political divide […] there’s an increase in decisions to censor movies and plays.’

Lebanon’s censorship body is ‘as transparent as a block of lead’, Lahoud says. ‘The reasons they give for their decisions are so vague and cryptic that they are risible. “Threatens civil peace” is a common one. How a roll of film can threaten civil peace is anyone’s guess.’ If censors decide to justify their decisions (which they conveniently don’t have to do), they simply list their remarks without accepting any discussions or negotiations, according to the authors of Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice, the first comprehensive study of Lebanon’s state censorship. It’s enough to state that a film ‘encourages sodomy’ or is ‘immoral’ without presenting any justification.

Red ink and rubber stamps... a still from Mamnou3!.

Courtesy of Mamnou3!

The process of applying for script/filming/screening/distribution permission is time-consuming and expensive, which is particularly difficult for young artists. In addition, inconsistency thrives at many levels: a film shown in cinemas with certain scenes cut may be allowed to go uncensored on DVDs. And while public morals are ‘protected’ by a scrupulous classification for scenes containing nudity, sex and profanity, physical violence on the screen doesn’t usually enjoy such attention and is left in peace.

Perhaps the most worrying feature is that the censors are not accountable to others. They also have a close relationship to various state and non-state actors. For guidance and advice, they turn to religious groups of all denominations. Political parties, ‘friendly’ foreign states and regimes, as well as the state of Lebanon itself, draw the red lines of censorship, scrupulously adhered to at the expense of creative freedom. The extent to which a foreign regime is sensitive to criticism defines whether or not a creative work will be censored in Lebanon; on the home front, documentaries in particular suffer from the authorities’ effort to protect the state’s and political parties’ image at any cost, especially when it comes to documenting experiences of the 1975-1990 civil war.

When the choice is between upsetting a religious or political leader and an artist, it’s a no brainer.

Scene 2: Daily lunacies

‘It is unacceptable that these authorities single-handedly, and without recourse to the judiciary or any other democratically accountable body, decide what citizen X or Y is allowed to watch and discuss,’ Lahoud says. ‘State censorship should be abolished: when it comes to art, it should be forbidden to forbid.’

In direct response to increasing censorship, creative acts of resistance are springing up in Lebanon. Earlier this year, artists, activists and journalists organized the anti-censorship event I AM FREE. MARCH, a civil movement promoting active citizenship, recently launched The Virtual Museum of Censorship, an illustrated online database of material that has been censored since the 1940s.

Rather than protesting against individual censorship decisions, the series challenges the very institution of censorship in the 21st century

Despite the media anger that follows censorship decisions, public outcry tends to be fleeting, and is often limited to the media and artists themselves. That’s why Mamnou3!’s creators decided to take the issue of censorship beyond cultural circles. The decision not to use any narration was deliberate: the story is open to interpretation. ‘The camera simply acts as a passive inside observer of the daily lunacies of censorship in Lebanon,’ Lahoud says.

The attention the series received has been overwhelming. To Mhanna, the 70,000 clicks and numerous articles, blogs and TV reports indicate that it has hit the spot: ‘When civil society organizations do things that are not your typical workshop or press conference, there is public attention.’ Two main techniques to bypass censorship and deceive the Bureau are piracy and the internet. ‘The best part of Mamnou3! is that it’s impossible to ban,’ Lahoud says. Censors can’t do much about the series because it’s posted online.

While some creative types refused to collaborate on the series for fear of repercussions, many in the crew agreed to work precisely for that reason. This, Lahoud says, only strengthened Mamnou3!’s raison d’être: ‘Artists should not fear their state.’

Scene 3: Artistic resistance

For Lahoud, the series is ‘the ultimate act of artistic resistance: the authorities are still scratching their heads’. This is what they worry about:

All episodes of Mamnou3! are available on YouTube and Cinemoz, a video-on-demand platform to and from the Arab World.

Censorship and the arts: should forbidding be forbidden?

I forbid it! A still from mockumentary Mamnou3!.

Courtesy of Mamnou3!

Prologue

In an office where the red stamp reigns and a single ‘wrong’ line can condemn an artistic work, the Colonel asks his most zealous employee: ‘What do you have today, Lamia?’ ‘A play and some foreign movies, [which] need to be changed, amended or banned,’ she replies. Her colleague is ‘busy’ playing Solitaire on his computer, while another colleague kicks out at someone applying for permission to make a film because he does not have the correct number of copies of his documents. The camera shakes as if to reflect the blurry conditions under which this institution operates.

Meet the censors... a still from Mamnou3!

courtesy of Mamnou3!

This is Lebanon’s Censorship Bureau, as seen by the creators of Mamnou3! (‘Prohibited’ in Arabic), a mockumentary-style web series which aims to popularize the fight for cultural freedom in Lebanon. ‘By highlighting the absurdity of state censorship, the series invites the citizen to ask the following question: By whom, why and by what authority is censorship carried out in the Lebanese state?’ says Nadim Lahoud, the series creator. That’s the essence of Mamnou3!: rather than protesting against individual censorship decisions, it challenges the very institution of censorship in the 21st century.

Scene 1: Going down

But what is there to challenge in a country which, we’re often told, is the region’s ‘oasis of freedom’? This year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Lebanon 93rd (out of 179) in its annual World Press Freedom Index. In 2002, when the Index started, the country was 56th. The 2011 report on press freedom in the Levant published by SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom identified three main downward trends:

1) physical assaults on journalists (more than 50 cases were recorded in Lebanon in 2011) 2) attempts to regulate content online 3) increasing censorship in the film industry.

The draft law to impose state control on the internet was eventually shelved following a massive public outcry, but the anti-censorship front cannot afford a break: as Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid, whose film Beirut Hotel was banned in Lebanon, put it, ‘Nothing works in this country except the censorship bureau.’

Censorship of artistic and literary works falls under the jurisdiction of the Directorate General of General Security. Busy as a beehive, it banned 10 films in 2011 and five this year to date, according to SKeyes Center, including De Gaulle Eid’s documentary about the Lebanese Civil War, Chou Sar? (What Happened?) and Hana Makhmalbaf’s Green Days about the opposition protests in Iran in 2009. The authorities also didn’t want the outspoken Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar’s memoirs of his prison years – The Betrayals of Language and Silence – to be exported; nor did they like journalist Rabih Shantaf asking ‘inappropriate questions’ at the Ministry of Energy and Water, telling him to stay away.

Lebanon’s censorship body is ‘as transparent as a block of lead’

Censorship is also imposed by non-state actors. Lebanon’s commercial carrier MEA, for example, banned Al-Akhbar newspaper from its aeroplanes (a decision later deemed illegal by a judge). And threats by religious extremists to the music band LMFAO led to them cancelling their Beirut gig.

This recent increase in censorship is politics-related, says Ayman Mhanna, executive director of SKeyes Center. First, the change in government: whereas the previous Cabinet had ministers with connections to civil society organizations who pulled their weight to reverse censorship decisions, the new Cabinet doesn’t consider this issue a priority. ‘The current ministers of culture, information and the interior do not seem particularly interested in confronting the censorship body,’ Mhanna says. ‘When there is a situation of political calm, there aren’t lots of censorship decisions. Whereas in periods of political tension and political divide […] there’s an increase in decisions to censor movies and plays.’

Lebanon’s censorship body is ‘as transparent as a block of lead’, Lahoud says. ‘The reasons they give for their decisions are so vague and cryptic that they are risible. “Threatens civil peace” is a common one. How a roll of film can threaten civil peace is anyone’s guess.’ If censors decide to justify their decisions (which they conveniently don’t have to do), they simply list their remarks without accepting any discussions or negotiations, according to the authors of Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice, the first comprehensive study of Lebanon’s state censorship. It’s enough to state that a film ‘encourages sodomy’ or is ‘immoral’ without presenting any justification.

Red ink and rubber stamps... a still from Mamnou3!.

Courtesy of Mamnou3!

The process of applying for script/filming/screening/distribution permission is time-consuming and expensive, which is particularly difficult for young artists. In addition, inconsistency thrives at many levels: a film shown in cinemas with certain scenes cut may be allowed to go uncensored on DVDs. And while public morals are ‘protected’ by a scrupulous classification for scenes containing nudity, sex and profanity, physical violence on the screen doesn’t usually enjoy such attention and is left in peace.

Perhaps the most worrying feature is that the censors are not accountable to others. They also have a close relationship to various state and non-state actors. For guidance and advice, they turn to religious groups of all denominations. Political parties, ‘friendly’ foreign states and regimes, as well as the state of Lebanon itself, draw the red lines of censorship, scrupulously adhered to at the expense of creative freedom. The extent to which a foreign regime is sensitive to criticism defines whether or not a creative work will be censored in Lebanon; on the home front, documentaries in particular suffer from the authorities’ effort to protect the state’s and political parties’ image at any cost, especially when it comes to documenting experiences of the 1975-1990 civil war.

When the choice is between upsetting a religious or political leader and an artist, it’s a no brainer.

Scene 2: Daily lunacies

‘It is unacceptable that these authorities single-handedly, and without recourse to the judiciary or any other democratically accountable body, decide what citizen X or Y is allowed to watch and discuss,’ Lahoud says. ‘State censorship should be abolished: when it comes to art, it should be forbidden to forbid.’

In direct response to increasing censorship, creative acts of resistance are springing up in Lebanon. Earlier this year, artists, activists and journalists organized the anti-censorship event I AM FREE. MARCH, a civil movement promoting active citizenship, recently launched The Virtual Museum of Censorship, an illustrated online database of material that has been censored since the 1940s.

Rather than protesting against individual censorship decisions, the series challenges the very institution of censorship in the 21st century

Despite the media anger that follows censorship decisions, public outcry tends to be fleeting, and is often limited to the media and artists themselves. That’s why Mamnou3!’s creators decided to take the issue of censorship beyond cultural circles. The decision not to use any narration was deliberate: the story is open to interpretation. ‘The camera simply acts as a passive inside observer of the daily lunacies of censorship in Lebanon,’ Lahoud says.

The attention the series received has been overwhelming. To Mhanna, the 70,000 clicks and numerous articles, blogs and TV reports indicate that it has hit the spot: ‘When civil society organizations do things that are not your typical workshop or press conference, there is public attention.’ Two main techniques to bypass censorship and deceive the Bureau are piracy and the internet. ‘The best part of Mamnou3! is that it’s impossible to ban,’ Lahoud says. Censors can’t do much about the series because it’s posted online.

While some creative types refused to collaborate on the series for fear of repercussions, many in the crew agreed to work precisely for that reason. This, Lahoud says, only strengthened Mamnou3!’s raison d’être: ‘Artists should not fear their state.’

Scene 3: Artistic resistance

For Lahoud, the series is ‘the ultimate act of artistic resistance: the authorities are still scratching their heads’. This is what they worry about:

All episodes of Mamnou3! are available on YouTube and Cinemoz, a video-on-demand platform to and from the Arab World.

A word with Adonis

You’re the author of over 50 books of poetry and criticism. Have you written everything you wanted?

It’s impossible, because words can never express everything. Everything that is not finite requires infinite forms of expression. I’m lucky that the world remains very rich with meaning, and you can always discover aspects of it you can recount. That’s how the world remains open, and that’s why one has always to oppose things that keep the world closed – religion and ideology – because they both tell you: ‘this is the truth’.

Adonis, Arab poet, critic and thinker.

Photo: Torstein Blixfjord. Artwork: Untitled, 2011, mixed media on paper, by Adonis.

You recently announced you were retiring from poetry. Why?

I have not retired; I am expressing myself in different forms. For me, poetry is a very wide concept. It’s not simply about writing a poem – that’s not what poetry is. For me, poetry is existence itself expressed in different forms – words, calligraphy, music, love.

Has written poetry lost its power?

Creative writing requires creative reading. I find that generally in today’s world the standard of creative reading is weak. No-one reads creatively. There are two kinds of reading and two kinds of writing: the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical is based on asking questions, it deals with existence: what is my role here; what is the meaning of my existence? Poetry in that sense is a vertical process. Horizontal reading reflects the consumer culture; it’s based on the answer, on consuming, on passivity. For the horizontal concept of the world, quantity is more important. That’s why the most banal novelist will sell many more copies than the most important philosopher. I believe this to be one of the manifestations of the current crisis in civilization.

What are the consequences of this horizontal view?

We become machines. We no longer enjoy the sense of individual freedom. Even democracy is in crisis: the larger numbers are winning, but that doesn’t mean the most important policies are winning.

What is democracy to you?

To me, democracy is consciousness. It’s the true ability to choose. It’s culture. But unfortunately, this has been eroded, it does not exist. That’s why I have reservations about the type of democracy we live in.

You said once that fixed identities don’t exist. How can you support this idea in a world obsessed with identities – ethnic, national, religious?

I respect everybody’s feelings, beliefs and desires, but I believe that religious and ethnic identities are blind. One’s true identity is their humanity. It’s not that you belong to this land, or this nationality, or this group: you belong to a universal humanity. And when you belong to humanity, your identity is always open. There’s an old Arab saying: ‘All countries that have become my home, are my country.’ I think the fact that ethnic and religious identities are becoming more ingrained is part of the crisis of civilization.

Is it possible to overcome this crisis?

In the long term, I am optimistic, because humans were always capable of finding new ways, new solutions. But in the short term, I am very pessimistic. Our societies are being destroyed. The way our people are calling on foreign powers to come and liberate us from our oppressors only increases our dependency and shows our weaknesses.

What do you identify as the Arab world’s biggest problem?

Religion and the use and abuse of it both by internal forces and foreign powers. I am not against individual faith; my opposition is to the religious institution. Why should our education be religious? Why should poetry be religious? Why should relationships be governed by religion? I believe that Muslims must deepen their faith but also strive to live as one society, not against each other. The problem is that today, Islam is a religion with no culture; the culture has been eroded. Islam is now a series of slogans and rituals and very simplistic ideas, but it is no longer ingrained in its culture – it has lost its cultural depth.

Adonis was interviewed at London’s Mosaic Rooms. Giedre Steikunaite is a freelance writer

Olympic sex-trafficking myth creates climate of fear

It started with a number. One morning several years ago, Dr Nivedita Prasad from Berlin’s Ban Ying Coordination and Counselling Centre against Trafficking in Persons opened a newspaper and panicked: a news report claimed that 40,000 ‘forced prostitutes’ were coming to Germany for the 2006 Football World Cup. ‘I thought, where are we going to put 40,000 people?’ Prasad recalls. ‘There are eight beds in our shelter, and only about 400 in the whole of Berlin!’

She needn’t have worried, since it turned out that 40,000 was a fictitious number. What was worrying, however, was the response: 71 police raids in brothels during the football month, compared to 5 to10 a month in ‘normal’ times. They resulted in 10 deportations of undocumented (migrant, not trafficked) sex workers. Nobody counted psychological damage.

Such enormous discrepancies between what’s predicted and what actually happens have reoccurred during major international sporting events, from the 2004 Olympics in Greece, where no trafficking cases related to the event were found despite fears of ‘sex tourism’, through Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics, the US Super Bowl and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa – where only a tiny increase in paid sex supply was observed.

It seems that in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, London is next in line. On a mission to find trafficked women, intensified police activity – crackdowns on brothels, frequent raids – in the capital’s six Olympic boroughs is creating climate of fear among sex workers, says Georgina Perry from Open Doors, an NHS outreach and clinical support for sex workers initiative. Marginalized, sex workers are also cut off from essential health and support services: raids lead to displacement – from a flat to the street – which makes it impossible for health workers to assist them. This crackdown strategy drives business underground, making it more dangerous for women, and they are also less likely to report rape or other forms of violence to the police. ‘This is collateral damage of a rumour,’ Perry says.

That rumour claims that big sporting events attract multitudes of men who seek paid sex, the increasing demand of which is supposedly met by trafficking. But governmental institution after institution, NGO after NGO, consistently don’t find any link between sports events and trafficking for prostitution. South Africa’s Department of Justice and Constitutional Development found no cases of trafficking during the 2010 World Cup; five were found in Germany during the 2006 World Cup (less than its monthly average); police didn’t notice anything ‘out of the ordinary’ during recent US Super Bowls. In fact, many sex workers actually take a break during such events. ‘I’m going on holiday,’ an experienced sex worker told Prasad before the World Cup. ‘Business is going to be bad.’

That’s because short-term events are not profitable for traffickers, Julie Ham argues in her report ‘What’s the cost of a rumour?’ Given increased police presence during sporting events and the fact that local markets usually meet the demand for paid sex anyway, criminal effort simply wouldn’t pay off. But despite all the evidence that there is no evidence, the rumour resurfaces over and over again. Why?

Ironically, it partly comes down to good intentions: media attention provides charities with a good opportunity for more successful fundraising and a good moment to push politicians to ‘do something’ about trafficking. But more sinister elements are at work, too: moral panic helps justify social control measures such as anti-immigration and anti-prostitution. Portraying women as helpless victims who need to be ‘saved’ from ‘wicked men’ upholds common sexist philosophy and maintains hetero-normative attitudes that prevail in our society: surely, the World Cup is a devilish alcohol-and-paid-sex feast for men-turned-beasts, is it not? And the only women present at sporting events are sex workers, right?

This doesn’t mean that trafficking should be written off as a problem solved – far from it. To challenge the alleged link between sporting events and trafficking is not to downplay the very serious issue of human trafficking but rather to see the wider picture, says Joanna Busza, senior lecturer in sexual and reproductive health. The worst is that, apart from harassing sex workers, the rumour results in diversion of much needed resources to deal with the real – not imagined – problems: prevention of human trafficking and rights of women as women, as sex workers and as migrants. Anti-trafficking efforts must be ‘proportionate, sustainable, evidence-based, cognizant of other sectors in which trafficking occurs, and done in consultation with groups affected by trafficking,’ Ham writes in her report. And certainly not only short-term.

Things can be different at London 2012 if priorities are shifted from sensationalism to consistent tackling of the root issues. As Catherine Stephens of the International Union of Sex Workers says, the rumour gets so much media attention because it involves four crucial elements: money, power, gender and sex. Mainstream media knows that all this sells, but remember: it only sells because we buy it. 

Photo by mugly under a CC Licence

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