Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why I Wear the Keffiyeh

This morning I boarded a flight from the DC/Metro area to Atlanta. As I slid into my middle seat, the woman in the window seat looked up. “You’re brave to wear that today,” she said, nodding at the black and white scarf around my neck. I smiled to myself, stowing my backpack under the seat in front of me before responding. I settled into my seat and turned to the woman, who was middle-aged with beautiful dark skin. She wore an olive-colored suede suit, large silvery earrings, and a hand-painted scarf twisted around her head in a very African style. “Believe it or not,” I told her, “I receive many more positive comments from wearing this than I do negative.” Perhaps that’s part of why I wear it, I thought. She smiled.

Yasser Arafat made the black and white keffiyeh a symbol of Palestine back in the 1960’s, much as the King of Jordan made the red & white version of the traditional Bedouin scarf a symbol of Jordan. Today, the black and white keffiyeh is strongly associated with Palestine– the fight for freedom, the oppression of the Gaza strip, the “Middle East conflict.” To some, the Palestinian keffiyeh represents resistance and solidarity; to others, it represents terrorism and the worst kind of Muslim fundamentalist. The latter view is what caused my seat-mate’s reaction.

A Chilean-German friend who lives and works in Europe and has traveled extensively in the Middle East told me once that he would never dare to wear the keffiyeh in the United States. Both friends and strangers have echoed his comment with varying degrees of awe, pride, and trepidation at my “daring.” They expect my display of such a supposedly controversial symbol to attract trouble, or at the very least some sort of derision or negativity. Their expectations aren’t unfounded, yet my experiences over the last year have been exactly the opposite – wearing the keffiyeh brings genuine interest, knowing smiles, and sometimes heartfelt thanks (occasionally discounts and job offers, too).

The only truly negative reaction I’ve received from wearing the keffiyeh came soon after I returned from Egypt around this time last year, and it came indirectly. A friend of the family picked me up from the airport one day in early January 2009, during Israel’s War on Gaza. Her parents have worked for the US Department of State for many years and are close friends of my mother’s. Nothing was said that night, but later my mother told me her friend had made a comment about noticing I was wearing a “terrorist scarf.”

More often, the reactions I receive are inquisitive or appreciative. A man came up to me in a Starbucks once and complimented me on my scarf. He asked where I got it and then said his daughter wore one every day. I was shopping with my mother in Florence when a shopkeeper asked me where I got my scarf and then if I spoke any Arabic. “Shuwayya,” I said. His Jordanian coworker was thrilled at my little bit of Arabic and proceeded to offer us a discount slightly lower than the “just for you” discount given to most tourists. Vendors in Rome’s Porta Portese occasionally ask, “enti filistina?” Are you Palestinian? Or I receive nods and smiles from strangers on the street or on buses, the sort of looks I understand and always return.

I was waiting for a bus in Rome one evening when an older man commented on my scarf. “Are you anti-Israeli?” he asked me. “No,” I told him, trying to form a response in Italian. “No, I’m not anti-Israeli, but I don’t support their war. I have friends in Palestine, and I wear this for them.” The man, who seemed to approve of my response, asked where I was from and what I was studying. 

In February I took a shuttle bus from Logan airport to a hotel in downtown Boston. I happened to be wearing my keffiyeh, which started a conversation with the bus driver, who was Egyptian. He and I talked about everything from Palestine and the keffiyeh to Egyptian politics and cultural differences (he also told me the location of the best shwarma in Cairo – down a narrow alley across from the Mosque dedicated to the Prophet’s daughter; I didn't tell him I'm a vegetarian).

The keffiyeh has become a symbol steeped in misconceptions over the past years. Some of you may recall the Dunkin’ Donuts/ Rachael Ray “scandal” of 2008, when the popular donut shop pulled an online commercial featuring Ray because she wore a black and white scarf resembling the keffiyeh. Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin discussed the issue in her blog, and on May 28 commented: “Anti-American fashion designers abroad and at home have mainstreamed and adapted the scarves as generic pro-Palestinian jihad or anti-war statements. Yet many folks out there remain completely oblivious to the apparel’s violent symbolism and anti-Israel overtones.” Malkin’s comments reflect the sentiments which many expect I should face.

Yes, keffiyehs are sometimes worn by Arab terrorists and have appeared in videos of hostage-takings, among other things. They are also commonplace at anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rallies and marches, and Malkin is right that many of the youngsters who wear different colored scarves patterned after the traditional keffiyehs have no idea what their symbolism is. Yet the keffiyehs are so much more than a symbol of “murderous Palestinian jihad,” as Malkin calls it. If terrorists start wearing Gucci jeans is Gucci suddenly going to become a ‘terrorist’ symbol? What about the fundamentalist Christians who have bombed abortion clinics – will wearing the cross come to symbolize violent Christian fundamentalism?

Perhaps the deeper question is, what does it mean to be a symbol of Palestine? A symbol of Palestine is something much greater, something much deeper than modern Islamic extremism. To represent Palestine is to represent thousands of years of rich history. The keffiyeh ties today to the past, to a deep tradition that is not only Muslim but also Christian and even Jewish. The keffiyeh has come to represent strength and solidarity, and courage in the face of adversity. Yes, the Keffiyeh is in many ways a symbol of Palestine, but this does not make it a proponent of violence or bloodshed. The keffiyeh is a symbol of freedom, of hope, of a people’s fight against repression.

I wear the keffiyeh not because it’s a great fashion accessory or because it’s totally in style. I wear it to remind myself and those who recognize it that there is still injustice in the world, and also because I know peace is possible. For me, the keffiyeh is also much more personal than that. The keffiyeh represents friendship. I wear the keffiyeh for my friends in Gaza and Ramallah, for my friends all over the Arab world who support the Palestinian struggle, for all those whom I have never or will never meet. For me, the keffiyeh is personal.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Buzzwords of 2009

TIME Magazine's last edition for 2009 includes various lists and quotes looking back over the year - person of the year, notable people who died, various statistics. I won't reproduce all of that here, but I thought some of you would get a kick out of TIME's Buzzwords of 2009:

Sexting n. - sending lewd messages or photos via cell phone
"Because sexting cases are so new, local communities across the country very greatly in their handling, from filing child pornography charges against the teenagers involved to alerting parents and letting them deal with it." - New York Times, March 25 2009
...really? Somebody's... filing charges again teenagers for... what, exactly? Sending dirty text messages?

Birthers n. - conspiracy theorists who deny Barack Obama was born in the US
"The birther movement may be premised on a fictitional belief, but it is savvy: birthers now wear the term as a badge of honor, as if they were a persecuted minority." - Atlantic, July 21 2009
*shakes head* Scot Adams once said, "The most dangerous thing in the world is a resourceful idiot." I think we have a few too many of those...

Death panel n. - a fictitional group alleged to be in charge of rationing care in health care reform proposals
"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents of my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide... whether they are worthy of health care." - Sarah Palin, Aug. 7, 2009
Really, Sarah?

Here are a few other tidbits:
  • 31.1 million people watched Michael Jackson's memorial on TV; 33.3 million watched Princess Di's funeral
  • 200 million people joined Facebook
  • 13,505 e-mails, on average, were received per person
  • 17 US citizens were arrested or convicted on terrorism charges
  • 1 in 7 Germans want to restore the Berlin Wall
  • 139 US newspapers folded
  • 2,705 miles sq of Brazilian rain forest were cut down (74% less than 2004)
Oh, and Berlusconi managed to make the issue, too - twice. Once for his comment to the homeless after the Abruzzo quake - "They should see it like a weekend of camping" - and he also made #1 on the 'breakups' list (his wife filed for divorce).

That's all for now, folks!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fighting for Gaza's Heart

Today "Gaza" is a buzzword. It was last year, too. And the year before that, and before that, and back farther than is comfortable to contemplate. Gaza is in the news, on the lips of those who know her and those who don't. Gaza is facts and figures and pictures of bloody children on television and calls of jihad and terrorism on CNN (or perhaps FOX News would be more appropriate). Some of you may know where Gaza is, some may have no idea, and a few of you may know her story.

But how many of you know her heart?

Gaza is more than an occupied territory. Gaza is more than a war zone. Gaza is more, even, than a political nightmare and the breeding ground of terrorists. What, then, is she?

Gaza, a tiny place about twice the size of Washington, DC, is home to more than 1.5 million people. Gaza has - or, in many cases, had - schools, offices, stores, museums, fields. Gaza is a home; one which has persistently persevered. How often have you stopped to think about that? Have you contemplated, instead of the political reality, the day-to-day reality?

Many Gazans cannot get the food they need. The schools cannot get the educational materials. There are shortages of even the most basic necessities - can you even fathom buying toilet paper on the black market? And yet Gazans survive.
Yasmeen: See the TV still in their living room?
I bet they were watching TV and wondering,
when will we be next?

But, what about the "terrorists?" you might ask. A friend of my mother's told me once that Gazans had voted for Hamas, a "terrorist" organization, and in so doing had asked for Israel's January war. I could feel my heart breaking as I tried to explain to this woman, the seasoned wife of a military man, that Hamas' electoral win could not justify Israel's war.

My words fell on deaf ears. It is moments like that which sometimes cause me to wonder why I bother at all... but then I would see another dead or bloody Palestinian child flash across CNN or Al-Jazeera and remember why.

But I am a foreigner who has never set foot on Palestinian soil. What do I know?

My friend Yasmeen is from Gaza. She left home to study at the American University of Cairo. Studying abroad is difficult and risky for Palestinian students, but they have few other options to continue their education. Getting a visa can prove to be an impossible task, and those students who are lucky enough to get one face the possibility of not being allowed to return home - ever.

After nearly two years of being away, Yasmeen was able to return home to Gaza for summer break this year, after Israel's war. After returning to Egypt, she posted albums of photos on her facebook account. One album contained photos of a mass of rubble - what was once the American International School of Gaza. Yasmeen's high school. Her comments under some of the pictures clearly reflect the pain, the sense of injustice and helplessness which so many Gazans feel: under a photo of charred school buses - "The terrorist's buses." Under a photo of a bottle of Crayola powder paint - "the terrorist's gunpowder;" a playground - "the terrorist's training ground;" a textbook - "terrorism for dummies guide."

In another album there are pictures taken all around Gaza - buildings, schools, homes, businesses. Most destroyed beyond repair. Here are stairs leading to air, there a picture of the Wall. And then, suddenly, green grass? Poppies? Is that... wheat, and daisies, and children playing on a beach? Yasmeen's comment: "This is in Gaza too. Don't be shocked."

Even in a place of so much death and pain, there is still beauty. There are still bright daisies and green grass and fields of wheat and poppies and beautiful sunsets over the Mediterranean. There are weddings and birthdays and new babies. Gaza is still full of life.

What does the future hold for that life? Yasmeen offers a chilling observation: "While the world continues to build up, Gaza will build her future underground."

Maybe, if the world remembers Gaza's humanity, her heart, that won't happen. Maybe, instead, Gaza's children will be able to grow in the sunshine.

I've been wanting to write a post about Gaza for a long time now. Sometime after Israel's War on Gaza in January of this year I realized I needed to write about Gaza. But I wanted to say something which has so often been left unsaid. I wanted to capture the thoughts and feelings running around inside myself and combine them with the pain I've seen and heard, the experiences and first-hand knowledge of my friends, the facts themselves. It's taken me nearly a year of thinking and contemplating and wanting to write... and perhaps sometimes that's what it takes.

Special thanks to Yasmeen for her pictures, her insight, and her courage. Allah ma3ik.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Who's burning the rainforest?

Many people believe tropical rainforests, in the Amazon and elsewhere, are being destroyed by poverty-stricken people with no other means of making a livelihood or providing for their families. The sad truth is that very seldom is rainforest cut or burned by those with a genuine need.

In Brazil, 200 people own 90% of the cattle ranches in the country. Those ranches, mostly located in areas where there used to be rainforest or on clear partches within the Amazon, provide over four million head of cattle each year. These ranch owners are the ones responsible for a large part of the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon.

Logging is another major cause of deforestation, and here again the situation is one of the rich getting richer, not of the poor taking advantage of the vast resources of the Amazon basin. In addition, many of the trees destroyed for logging purposes are neither useful nor desired - they are simply in the way of the valuable hardwood trees, many of which are sold with falsified approval documents.

Photo: A truck loaded with logs
on the Trans-Amazonian Highway.
September 2009

Until recently, I was one of the many who believed that most of the deforestation of the Amazon was being done by people, indigenous or not, who had no other means of survival. This was something I had been taught somewhere along my education, and it was a fact which seemed to make sense - but the reality is very different.

When the Brazilian government begain construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway in the 1970's the road was intended to encourage settlement in the Amazon, particualrly by poor Brazilians who had nowhere else to go. The government soon realized that the settlement plan was not bringing the results intended. Instead, the "highway" - a narrow, barely two-lane dirt road which turns to a sloppy, muddy, dangerous mess in the rain - was allowing penetration of the Amazon by cattle ranchers and loggers, among others.

Some of the burning which happens in the Amazon is done on the lands of indigenous tribes or by poor settlers. Much more, however, is done by a very different group of people. They use the "burning season" to exploit more areas of primary forest to enhance a profit which, usually, is already extensive.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Smoke over the Amazon

A few moments ago I was browsing the news in an effort to reaquaint myself with the happenings of the world after trekking the southern Amazon Basin with the National Outdoor Leadership School for the past 3 months. I came across a short piece on Al Jazeera which hit home - Smoke over the Amazon.

Over the past few months, I have often seen the same smoke Mr. Elizondo saw through the window of his plane, and occasionally from a much closer vantage point. I can recall seeing plumes of white or brownish-black smoke rising into the air and patches of blackened earth and trees where the fires had been. Once, while our bus was driving on the Trans-Amazonican Highway, we drove through a place where there were fires on both sides of the road. There was zero visibility within the haze. Neither we nor the driver could see the reddish ribbon of the highway for a few long moments. When we finally exited the cloud, the heavy scent of smoke remained with us.

looking back on a fire
over the Trans-Amazonica.
Nov. 2009

A few of the fires which occur in the Amazon Basin are natural, started by lightning. In the serrado (or savanna) environments, fires are part of the natural cycle. Most of the fires, however, are man-made. They serve as the first step in clear-cutting the rainforest for agricultural use or farmland. According to data from the late 1990's (I'll update with more recent data when I have a chance to find it), over 20,000 km2 (7,722 square miles) of rainforest are cleared per year.

Until the rains come, this is still the Burning Season in the Amazon.

Expect more on my Amazon expedition, and more about rainforest ecology and deforestation, once I'm back in the US.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Amazon Expedition - the first 40 days

29 September, 2009 - Day 23, 6:28am - The morning dawned bright and orange. At first, as I peered out of my hammock and through my bug net, all that was visible was a bright, vibrant orange ball, silhouetts of trees, brush and hills on the opposite shore, and the intensely orange reflection of the water. Slowly the sun rose into the sky and the world became visible - lively greeen leaves and sprigs pushing up from the brown dirt and dead leaves on the ground... rocks, trees, moving water - the rapid we descended yesterday directly across on the opposite shore. From somewhere, I seem to smell yeast bread - it must be coming from the instructor's campsite. It smells good. I could go back to sleep, but I think I'll get up and enjoy the morning.
I am currently writing from a small internet cafe in the city of Apui - smack in the middle of the Amazon Basin, on the Trans-Amazonian Highway. Today begins the second of three days of travel to reach a small, remote community on the Madera River, where we will spend the following 5 days. I don't have much time to write, but I will give you a taste of what has been going on.

During the first 30 days of our expedition, we (15 students, 4 instructors, and the director of the Juruena National Park) traveled 600 kilometers in open canoes down the Juruena and Tapajos rivers. We camped on rock ledges and sandy island beaches in the middle of the river; we ran Class 2 rapids, lined our canoes through shallow water, and portaged around massive waterfalls. We saw hundreds of birds of every shape, color, and size, and hundreds of thousands of insects. There were nights where the sky was so clear it seemed one could see every star in the sky, and nights when the mosquitoes were so thick you cold grab a hundred simply by waving your hand before your face. We've woken up to exquisite sunrises and to ants eating our tents in the middle of the night; to extreme thunder storms and calm, placid mornings.

After our river section, we traveled for about a day and a half further down the Tapajos River and then spent 7 days hiking along the river. Sometimes we were walking through relatively open forest under the canopy, and at other times fighting through unbelieveably dense tangles of vines and undergrowth in areas where the canopy had been disturbed and sunlight found its way to the forest floor, allowing green things to grow up in a dense tangle.

That is all I have time to write now... but I shall recount stories of stingrays and river dolphins, giant Suma Uma trees and armies of leafcutter ants, capering monkeys and all manner of other forms of life and nature once I have completed this Amazon Expedition.

Oh, and one last thought: "The Amazon" is everything you ever heard it was, and more.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hello, Amazon!

Just so all of you know, I will be taking a break from blogger (and the internet ALL TOGETHER!!) and will be spending the next 80 days in the Amazon rainforest. I´ll update if I can... if not, I shall be back in December!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ramadan Kareem!

Wishing all of my friends a happy Ramadan! To my Egyptian friends, I wish I could be in Cairo to celebrate with you!

Trading in Humans

In many areas of the world today, human body parts are bought and sold illegally. Sometimes without the consent of the donor. This is not a new issue but it has come to my attention in various ways recently. I can remember reading a news article three or four years ago about a woman somewhere in the developing world who woke up from a routine surgery to discover that while she was under anesthesia her husband had authorized the doctor to remove part of her kidney, which he (her husband) sold.

The incidents I wish to bring to your attention today are no less distressing. On the contrary, in some ways they are much worse.

Selling body parts in Egypt: An American friend who is currently attending grad school in Egypt recently wrote about an experience in a poor neighborhood on the fringe of Cairo. He is currently working with COFS, the Coalition for Organ-Failure Solutions. COFS is an NGO in Egypt which combats organ trafficking and the exploitation of the poor and refugees as a source of organ and tissue supplies. COFS has recently begun work on a documentary about the issue, and my friend's visit to the poor neighborhood was to conduct interviews for the documentary. Here is an excerpt from his blog:

Both interviews went as planned, first the husband, and then his wife. The husband at one point during the interview pulled up his shirt to reveal his scar from where they had cut to remove his kidney. The wife’s interview was a lot more distressing than her husband’s for Amr, as at one point he had to stop the interview because he started to breakdown. All I can say is that it was in this situation that I was fortunate enough not to know Arabic fluently to understand the procedures and horrific details of their experience.

Read the rest here.

Hunting Albinos:
The second issue I wish to address here is one I have read about in the news recently, and that is the hunting of Albinos in Burundi. Witch doctors in Tanzania provide their customers with potions made from the body parts of albinos, which reputedly bring fortune in life, love, and business. Arms, Legs, and genitals are considered the most valuable, and reportedly fetch a lot of cash - as a result, albinos are being hunted for their parts. This is part of an account told to Al-Jazeera journalists at a safe house in Burundi:

Jeremiah began to tell us how one night his brother, Daniel, also an albino, was visited by their older non-albino brother, accompanied by a group of unfamiliar men.

That night Daniel was slaughtered by the older brother who sold his body parts for $240, Jeremiah later discovered.

"I saw my brother's dead body. All his limbs, arms and legs, were chopped off and gone. Afterwards my brother and my sister-in-law were overheard fighting over the money they had received selling his body parts.

"Furthermore, we have evidence that the murderers came through my older brother's compound and spent some time in his house discussing how they were going to kill him. I was lucky not be home at the time," Jeremiah said.

Jeremiah's story is not unique. To read more about the situation of albinos in Burundi and Tanzania, go here and here.

Human trafficking is not an issue which is new on the international scene. Quite the contrary - human trafficking is frequently the subject of political activism, government programs, and NGO attention. There are many organizations which strive to end the international child sex trade or try to prevent cross-border trade which lands illegal immigrants in sweat shops - or worse - in foreign countries. Even illegal organ trading is not a new subject - but it is one which seems to receive far too little attention.

There are many issues here, most of which are not simple or easy to solve. Not only are humans being hunted for body parts to be used in magic potions, some people are even driven to selling their own body parts. Poverty-stricken people in places such as Egypt are being exploited for their organs and tissue. How is one forced to make such a choice, to sell one's own kidney, for example? If you are reading this blog, chances are you are lucky enough not to be one of those people. What if you weren't so lucky?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Coming Home

All-you-can-eat buffets, free refills, meals-on-the-go... America. For one who spends the academic year in Europe, coming home is always an adjustment. No matter how long one is away or how far one travels, any who travel can attest to that. Traveling opens our world, whether that's the intention or not. Even for one who travels often, coming home is always different. Or, perhaps, it is always the same.

Shortly after returning home from the spring semester at University, I had lunch with a friend who had also recently returned to the United States, after living abroad for the past decade. We settled on "Joe's Pizza and Pasta" for lunch, joking that it was probably a typical American 'fake Italian' restaurant (we can talk - we both study in Italy). Joe's turned out to have a lunch buffet, which we enjoyed, along with the massive fountain sodas with free refills. I reacquainted myself with American buffet customs by introducing them to my friend.

The check arrived at the table barely after we began eating, and shortly we both came to the realization that neither of us could eat anywhere near the amount many Americans would eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Turns out European serving sizes have become habit.

Every place, every home or adventure, has its own habits. I frequently find myself smiling or shaking my head and thinking, "that's America," no matter where I am. Just as frequently, the thought "that's Italy" or "that's Cairo" runs through my mind. Part of truly knowing any place or any culture is having the experience of returning -- of coming home. Seeing familiar faces and familiar places, the things that will never be the same and the things that will never change. When one leaves and then returns, one inevitably sees ones home through different eyes.

My mother will never quite understand how, after being born and raised in the United States, I come home and American supermarkets make no sense to me. But for one who learned to live on their own abroad, home will never be quite the same.

Another thing one will always run into, whether at home or abroad, is stereotypes. America tends to get a bad rap for stereotyping the rest of the world and being ignorant of anything beyond their state borders, much less anything beyond the national borders. This is probably mostly true. To be honest, however, the same is true of people all over the world.

Traveling can in some instances lead to being an ambassador of sorts - both to and from your own culture. I've seen and heard the stereotypes which various groups of people hold about themselves and about the rest of the world, from those which prove themselves over and over to those which hold not even a grain of truth. All Americans are egregiously wealthy. The entire non-English speaking world hates Americans. Americans understand the situation in Gaza. Every Muslim country forces every woman to wear a head scarf (or burka, even). The Middle East is dangerous. Italians are great lovers. Italians eat spaghetti with meatballs. All Americans just want to get drunk.

These are a few of the stereotypes I've heard, either overtly or inferred. Some are flattering - it certainly inflates the Italian ego to have the world think they're the best lovers - and some not so much.

To respond to a few: no, the entire world does not hate all Americans (just President Bush); no, not all Americans have unlimited reserves of wealth; very few Muslim nations require ANY woman to wear a headscarf, and some (Turkey) forbid it in public places; Italians do not eat spaghetti with meatballs; and not all Americans want to get drunk all the time -- just Americans studying abroad in Europe (or on Spring Break).

One stereotype I hear over and over, however, couldn't be farther from the truth: people accept these stereotypes as true. More often than not, I have been faced with inquisitiveness and not hostility, everywhere in the world.

Having been raised in a small, Virginian town where I attended the same high school as my mother, the quirks and traditions and even the stereotypes of the people of this town are part of me and my life just as much as of the lives of those around me. That's not to say I agree with or believe the same things as the people I grew up around, any more than I agree with all of the stereotypes I hear abroad. But all of the quirks and traditions and stereotypes I encounter in my life affect my interpretation of those I already knew and of those I will learn.

Perhaps, in the end, the best part of leaving is coming home.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why is the washing machine in the kitchen? Contemplating gender roles in the Meditarranean

If you have ever spent time around the Mediterranean, you may have experienced the peculiar phenomenon of finding the washing machine in the kitchen. I've seen this in many apartments from Rome to Cairo. Some argue this reflects Mediterranean societies: putting the washing machine in the kitchen keeps women in their place.

The traditional view of Mediterranean societies, from Italy to Egypt, says men are in charge and women are subservient to their men. Men dominate the public sphere. They gather in cafes or in shisha (water-pipe) bars, discussing politics and football. Women, on the other hand, are relegated to the private sphere. They appear in public accompanied by a male relative or keep out of the way, perhaps congregating in homes or on side streets, and they discuss happenings in their communities.

But the traditional view taken by the social sciences is exceedingly Euro-centric and male-dominated. The social sciences today remain essentially what they were as disciplines 100 years ago, when they were created by Western male academics attempting to fit everything into terms they were familiar with. Stagnation and resistance to change within the disciplines was the result, according to Lisa Anderson, a specialist on politics in MENA. Considering this, the gender situation in the Mediterranean can be viewed very differently.

Women’s interest in subjects dealing with interpersonal relationships has been referred to as ‘gossip’ for decades. This gossip, however, is actually discussion of issues over which women have direct influence and can wield actual power. The ‘important’ discussion of politics and soccer, on the other hand, are topics over which men have no influence: they are removed from the place of action and have no power over what happens.

It is true that men typically dominate the public sphere and women the private, but the motivations behind this division may not be as clear as they seem. For example, in rural areas of Italy men can be seen sitting in their cars along country roads, reading a newspaper or otherwise idling their time away. Why? Their women, viewing them as nuisances, have kicked them out of the house until supper time.

A curious result of the division between public and private spheres is seen by Lila Abu-Lughod, author of Veiled Sentiments, who conducted an extensive case-study while living with a Bedouin tribe in the western Egyptian desert. She discovered that the women were always abreast of all happenings in the public sphere of men, usually thanks to sons and younger men of the family. Women have an extensive grasp of both the public and private spheres; Men, however, only have access to public knowledge. The women’s world is almost entirely closed to men. If, then, knowledge is power, the power balance in the Mediterranean may not be quite what the social sciences have traditionally deemed it to be.

The traditional views are not wholly without merit. It is true that gender roles in the societies around the Mediterranean are strictly divided. Change is difficult, as these roles are commonly accepted as preserving and protecting society. While mobility between the spheres is possible, particularly among the upper class, it is also true that in many areas the role of women is forcibly made subservient to men. Some may believe the suggestion that women actually have a more powerful role in Mediterranean society than traditionally thought to merely be wishful thinking. Yet at the same time, perhaps the question of why the washing machine is in the kitchen deserves a bit more thought.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Israel's 'defense' hard to defend

Israel has justified its offensive against the Gaza Strip by claiming that it is fighting a defensive war. This ‘defensive’ war, however, is hard to defend in light of facts and information coming from every party except Israel.

These are some recent headlines from various international news media covering the conflict in Gaza:

  • Israel ‘shelled Gaza civilians’ (Al Jazeera)
  • Gaza under fire despite truce (Al Jazeera) / UN ceasefire call goes unheeded (BBC) / Israel, Hamas brush off U.N. cease-fire resolution (CNN)
  • Obama’s strategic silence on Gaza (BBC)
  • Gaza ‘human shields’ criticized (BBC)
  • UN agency says 80 pct of Gaza needs urgent food aid (Reuters)

For most news media covering international news, Israel’s offensive against Gaza has remained the top story over the past 14 days. Of the major news networks – Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Reuters – only CNN has found something more news-worthy than Gaza: debate over Obama’s position on the War on Terror.

Let’s consider some of these issues in regard to Israel’s claims:

Israel ‘shelled Gaza civilians’:

According to the United Nations, the Israeli military moved approximately 110 Palestinian civilians – half of whom were children – into one home, advising them to stay indoors. Over the next 24 hours, the home was shelled repeatedly by the Israeli military, killing more than 30 people. An Israeli spokesperson said the issue would be looked into.

Even supposing the Israeli army forgot it had moved Palestinian civilians into this particular home specifically, the structure was of no military threat. In addition, it is believed that the Israelis stationed 100 meters away from the building were aware that there were injured civilians inside and that they did nothing to help, which is a breech of international law.

Gaza ‘human sheilds’ criticized:

Both the Israeli military and Hamas have been accused of putting civilian lives in danger and using civilians as ‘human shields,’ which is also illegal under international law.

UN agency says 80 pct of Gaza needs urgent food aid:

Israeli spokesmen have insisted that Israel is working in "close co-operation with international aid organizations during the fighting, so that civilians can be provided with assistance." If this is true, why must international aid agencies, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continuously appeal to be allowed to provide aid? The Gaza Strip has suffered a shortage of food, medicine, and other essential supplies for the last 18 months due to an Israeli-enforced blockade. Since the Israeli offensive has essentially cut Gaza into two pieces, neither side may obtain aid from the other. In some documented cases, wounded civilians have languished for as many as 4 days without food, water, or medical supplies – and aid workers have continuously been denied access.

According to Palestinian medical sources, at least 10 paramedics have been killed while attempting to assist the injured. In addition, Israel guaranteed a 3-hour reprieve from fighting on Wednesday to allow aid to enter the area and to allow bodies to be claimed.

When the UN aid convoy fell under Israeli fire, one Palestinian driver was killed and two more were injured.

Clearly, Israeli statements simply cannot be taken at face value. Nor, however, can Hamas: Hamas also fired on Israeli troops during Wednesday’s 3-hour ceasefire.

As I’ve mentioned before, no one denies that Israel has frequently fallen under fire of rockets fired by Hamas and other militant groups inside Gaza, and Israel has a history of responding with greater force than was used against it. In no way do I suggest that Israel should let itself be a sitting duck for terrorists.


I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage, ‘an eye for an eye.’ But think about that for a moment: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth would leave the whole world blind and toothless. The number of children killed in Gaza has risen by two hundred fifty percent since the ground operation began. Excuse my sarcasm for a moment, but how much damage can unarmed infants do to the mighty state of Israel?

Murdering civilians will not lessen Israel’s problems – if anything, it will exacerbate them. Cardinal Renato Martino, Justice Minister to the Pope, has likened the situation in Gaza to a “big concentration camp,” as the Vatican condemns Israel’s actions. "The world cannot sit back and watch without doing anything," said Cardinal Martino.

As Israel continues its offensive in the face of world opposition, it will only serve to justify the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in the eyes of the Palestinian people. Violence only begets violence, and it is difficult to suppose that the massacre being committed by Israel as I type this will have any positive repercussions for either Israel or Gaza.

We are not all Gaza – no one is like those in Gaza. They are unique – irreplaceable.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Reality of the long-awaited Security Council resolution

Less than an hour ago, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution. The international community has been calling for such a resolution since Israel began its offensive against Gaza on December 27 – 14 days ago. Members of the UN Security Council passed the resolution unanimously with the exception of the United States, who abstained.

The resolution calls for an "immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire" in Gaza. It gives no timeline. Israel’s offensive is not specifically condemned, nor is Hamas rocket fire mentioned – although the resolution reportedly condemns all acts of violence against civilians and all acts of “terrorism.”

Legally, the resolution is binding. However, the United Nations has no mechanism with which to enforce this resolution or any other – a fact that is well-known and has often been cited as one of the many reasons the UN is ultimately ineffective at best. Due to this lack of enforcement, it would not be surprising for Israel to simply ignore this resolution as it has ignored other UN resolutions in the past. Or perhaps Israel will use the lack of a timeline as an excuse to continue its offensive.

I do not dispute – and have yet to hear any who do – that Hamas, and others, have fired rockets into Israel. I do, however, challenge Israel’s statement that it is fighting a defensive war. Israel is one of the strongest military powers in the world. It is engaging, via ground and air, in an offensive attack against an unarmed and unorganized civilian population. All it takes to determine that something is very clearly uneven here is a look at the numbers: over the past 14 days, more than 760 Palestinians have been killed (and 3,000 more injured) and in the same period 13 Israelis have been killed (there are no numbers available on how many Israelis have been injured).

Of those 13 Israelis, only 3 were civilians. The others were soldiers, one of whom was killed before Israel’s offensive began.

What about the Palestinians? Of the more than 760 killed so far, over 200 were children. Come, now, Israel – where are your militants?

A few days ago, Israeli forces bombed a UN school, killing more than 40 Palestinians. The world was outraged – but Israel claimed the strike was in retaliation, as were other strikes against UN schools. Israeli military sources claimed that missiles were fired from within the school and that Hamas militants were using refugees in the building as “human shields.”

Today, Qatar-based Al Jazeera announced that a UN investigation had stated no militants were in the building at the time it was bombed. Where is this piece of information in Western media? Apparently, non-existent.

Any of you reading this may check these facts for yourselves. Read Al Jazeera and BBC and CNN. Find the articles and the information and decide for yourself how the facts are being portrayed – but however they are portrayed, the facts are there. Israel promised a 3-hour ceasefire yesterday in order to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza – and then fired on the convoy, killing one Palestinian driver and injuring two others. Decide for yourselves whether rockets shot from southern Lebanon hit a retirement centre or a nursing home in Israel – and decide whether it matters.

The world has denounced this offensive, although it has adopted softer language than that many would have preferred. Still, the United States remains silent. Motionless. Neither the outgoing president nor the incoming one have spoken strongly – Israel’s timing, it seems, was perfect. However, even if Israel had acted at a time when the administration in the United States was not undergoing change, can we assume at all that the outcome would be different?

Again, I ask Israel, where are your militants? Where is your proof? And of the world, I beg – who will stop this massacre? For what can the murder of innocent civilians, of children, be, if it is not a massacre? The United Nations cannot stop it. The authority to do so, then, must come from somewhere else.

Wake up, America. Remember that your tax dollars are helping to fund the murder of hundreds of children. If America truly is a nation that stands united, let us do so, but let us stand against the murder of innocents. This does not mean we will stand with terrorists, but that we may condemn the injustices committed by both sides. But first we must learn what it is we are supporting and why we should reconsider what to this point has been unconditional support.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Israel under fire?

“Israel under fire,” read a blurb at the bottom of CNN this morning. Photographs of wounded and bleeding Palestinian children flashed across the screen. The voice of the newscaster reported that Egypt and France were working on a ceasefire deal and that Israel would accept only if the deal included an international arms embargo on Hamas.

No mention was made of Palestinian deaths. No numbers or blurbs on the screen reported that 680 Palestinians have been killed and more than 3,000 injured.

Later in the news broadcast, a CNN reporter was seen on camera in Israel. He was taking shelter in a bunker with Israelis, waiting for the rocket hit that was preceded by a siren. The reporter translated that a man in the bunker was calling for him to “tell them,” the viewers, about these attacks. The rocket hit and everyone rushed out of the bunker towards the site – arriving there, a part of the road was slightly blackened and the windows of an unoccupied taxi had been blown out. No one was injured.

The reporter stressed the need to stop these attacks, and demonstrated how quickly emergency personnel were on the scene. There was no mention of Israel’s refusal, up to this point, to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. No mention of overburdened hospitals or lack of aid to civilians.

Eventually, after discussing the current hot news from Capitol Hill for the third time, CNN reported that Israel had bombed a United Nations school. According to the report, Israel was claiming that Hamas was firing missiles from this location and using civilians as “human shields.” In the last breath, the newscaster mentioned that the UN was calling for an investigation.

No mention was made of the 43 Palestinian lives lost or the 100 Palestinians injured in that single attack.

The rest of the world is not denying that Israeli lives have been lost. The rest of the world is not denying that there has, indeed, been distress to Israel and the Israeli people. The rest of the world also recognizes the extreme suffering of the Palestinian people by the hands of the Israeli government. But the United States alone seems to deny that Israel has caused any distress to the Palestinian populations. The United States has vetoed UN resolution after resolution that criticizes Israel. The United States seems to deny that the Palestinians are people, simply believing that they are all terrorists who deserve to die in order to protect Israel. Hamas is blamed for everything, and even accused of using its own people as “human shields,” while as little blame as possible is placed on the shoulders of Israeli militancy.

With blanket support from the United States, Israel effectively has free reign to do whatever it wants.

It's no wonder the American people have no idea what is really happening in Gaza - the news media paints an unbelievably one-sided picture. For further reading: