Film Screening – Silent War (Syrie, le cri étouffé)

I went to a film screening last week at SOAS – it’s taken me so long to write about it because it was so hard to watch. But it’s such an important topic that it NEEDS to be watched. (Trigger warning: Rape)

SYRIE LE CRI ETOUFFE – PriMed 2017 from CMCA on Vimeo.

It’s a lamentation. A howl, stifled yet deafening. A silent cry whose spasms tear through prison walls, basements, the antechambers of death. It’s the cry of Syrian women who, for the past six years, have been routinely raped in Bashar al-Assad’s jails. An organized, pre-meditated crime, based on a key taboo in traditional Syrian society, which makes it impossible for the victims to ever speak about it, knowing they risk rejection – even being stoned to death – by their own family. Rape – in Syria a weapon of war, but never discussed. A way of not only destroying the woman and her identity, but also breaking her family, her clan, and any form of resistance.

How did a woman’s body become part of Syria’s war? The question raised in this film letting women, previously walled-up in shame and silence, speak. (Source)

 

For obvious reasons, this film was hard to watch. The bravery of these women to share their stories is absolutely astounding. Rape is such a taboo topic, in most places in the world, but very much so in Syria. It’s hard to imagine the kind of societal rejection that these women face for acknowledging what happened to them. They have to overcome twice as much – the violation of their bodies, and then the rejection of their communities.

But this film is also important to watch. It’s not just about bearing witness to what these women endured. It’s also about understanding that rape is being deliberately used as a tactic against Syrian civilians by the Assad regime – for the express purpose of shattering communities and violating honour. There are many things that have occurred over the last seven years of the conflict that make me wonder how anyone could continue supporting the Assad regime – especially in the West (i.e. chemical weapons, besiegement, etc). Maybe this will help open people’s eyes to the atrocities that the regime is committing, and will enable people to admit that he should have zero legitimacy.

The film director, Manon Loizeau, was in attendance and gave a moving tribute to bravery and resilience of the women she met. She also explained that she very much didn’t want to insert herself into the narrative of the documentary, preferring to have it be only the testimony of the Syrian women she interviewed. There is no narration in the film, only the translated text in sub-titles of what the women are saying.

A number of women chose not to reveal their faces on camera, for fear of their identity being known, and Manon explained that there were many details of the testimonies that they could not include because it would identify the women. But there were a few who chose to bare their faces, name the men who raped them in prison, and have faced death threats and exile for doing so. May justice prevail in their cases, and for all the survivors.

Here’s another article from Al-Jazeera about the film.

Edward W. Said London Lecture 2018 – Amira Hass

I mostly focus on Syria on this blog, but the issue of Palestine is also one which I follow with some regularity. A friend of mine invited me to attend the Edward W. Said London Lecture for 2018 last night, which had Amira Hass as its speaker.

The event was titled The Preventable: Israeli Fantasies and Techniques of Population Expulsion.

‘The Oslo process precipitated an internal compromise in Israel: between the urge to make Palestinians vanish and the realization that the geo-political circumstances do not permit a repetition of the 1948 mass expulsion of Palestinian civilians. This compromise is best expressed in the systematic policy of creating Palestinian enclaves, which successive Israeli governments have meticulously pursued in tandem with the internationally sponsored negotiations process. The enclaves best exemplify the way in which Israel divorces the Palestinians and their very existence from land, history, space and movement – both mentally and physically. As Israeli politics loses its last traces of shame and sheds the final, tattered remains of its liberal pretensions, the danger of more audacious mass expulsions of the Palestinians from their land is growing.’ – Amira Hass.

Amira’s talk was so incredibly powerful – she pulls no punches in describing Israeli policies that seek to constrict and constrain Palestinians, and she was incredibly forthright in discussing the spectre of antisemitism that always arises whenever anyone criticizes Israeli policies.

I will try to find a video and upload the talk if they recorded it. In the meantime, definitely follow Amira on Twitter, and read her news articles on Haaretz.

 

Towards Socially Just Development in the MENA Region

And the events at SOAS just keep coming! Last night I went to a really interesting book launch for a publication called Towards Socially Just Development in the MENA RegionYou can actually download the publication as a pdf here.

It was a really interesting event, and it had my old professor Gilbert Achcar talking about his contribution to the publication.

I still have to read the book, but according to the blurb, it explains that economic policies adopted by most MENA countries over the last decades contributed to social injustice, inequality, marginalization, poverty, and unemployment (neo-liberalism policies predominately). Add to that political repression and authoritarianism, all these factors contributed to the Arab Spring. In the years after the Arab Spring, however, socio-economic injustice has continued to grow, but it has been more ignored than other issues.

I’m looking forward to reading the book – it should be really interesting, because social justice isn’t an aspect of the region that gets a lot of attention, and we should be striving to create more socially just conditions, not just in the Middle East, but also in the West as well (where neo-liberalism has also eaten its way into our institutions).

 

Syria & the Left: 7th Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising

Another week, another great event at SOAS – Syria & the Left: 7th Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising with Leila al-Shami. Leila is co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War

The event was a really interesting exploration of the failure of the left (or parts of it) to stand with revolutionary Syrians, and why some on the left, in common with those on the right, have supported the Assad regime.

Leila did an excellent job of explaining the rationale behind those who support Assad, which was important for me to understand, since I’ve had such a hard time in understanding why anyone would support a very obvious murderous dictator. According to Leila, there is a section of the left that is so anti-imperialist, that they view Assad as standing up to “imperialist powers”, and really fail to notice or acknowledge the immense suffering of civilians under Assad’s regime. In my mind, the rights and wants of Syrians on the ground are much more important than any anti-imperialist political chess match, and we should be listening to Syrian voices.

I highly recommend watching the livestream video of the event, which you can find here.

(Note: it was a deliberate choice not to film Leila’s face for security reasons).

Open Source Intelligence in Syria

I went to a super interesting event last night at SOAS – Open Source Intelligence in Syria with Eliot HigginsIf you don’t know, Eliot Higgens (aka Brown Moses) is the founder of Bellingcat, a website which which applies the use of open source investigation to a range of topics. Eliot’s work on Syria focuses on the authentication of weapons and planes, including the monitoring of the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Through Bellingcat, he was involved in documenting the most recent chemical attacks in Syria and the geo-tracking of airstrike targets and sources.

Eliot’s presentation was absolutely eye-opening. It is really astounding the amount of open-source information that exists out there, and how you can use it to verify (and disprove) events on the ground. He showed the process he’s used to verify videos and pictures, and how to disprove the propaganda that seems to be coming from Russia who use a similar type of open-source rhetoric, but actually are obfuscating or blatantly lying about their facts.

I highly recommend watching the event if you have time. Click here to access the facebook livestream of the event.

Also, definitely follow Eliot Higgins on Twitter, and check out the Bellingcat website!

 

Haringey Migrant Support Centre

I just started volunteering with a local organization called the Haringey Migrant Support Centre, a drop-in centre which provides free immigration advice from legal professionals, and advice and signposting services on welfare and health issues.

I’m still going through their training course now to become a volunteer advocate, which works to understand the issues of the visitor to the centre, sit with them with the legal advisor to make sure they understand the legal advice given, and to also signpost them to other organizations for help. It seems like it will be a really interesting role.

On Monday we did some training on immigration issues and common things that we will be seeing with visitors who attend the drop-in. As an immigrant myself to the UK (first as a student and now on a two-year working visa), I had absolutely no idea how hostile the immigration environment actually is here. Cuts to legal aid, really harsh Home Office decisions on leave to remain, right to family life, and even asylum and refugee claims are just making life absolutely terrible for so many people. We can argue about the right kind of immigration policy and what “kinds of people” should be “allowed” into countries, but honestly, at the end of the day, people are people, and are deserving of respect and dignity. This article was just published today, which I think really encapsulates how hostile the situation is now.

Also, a point that I think isn’t mentioned enough in the immigration debate is about the people who self-select to migrate. There are always going to be chancers and cheats who want to take advantage of benefits (from people born in a country to the people who migrate to that country), but by and large, the people who move are ambitious, driven, intelligent, and searching for a better quality of life and better chances than are available in their home country. These are absolutely positive attributes, and we should be celebrating people who are brave and adventurous and courageous enough to pick up, leave everything behind, and travel to the great unknown in search of prosperity. We should be providing more opportunities for people to succeed, not putting restrictions on their capabilities.

Anyways, rant over! I think volunteering at HMSC will be a really good way to learn more about the immigration situation in the UK, and the kind of housing and welfare issues that also face migrants and other people here. And hopefully, I’ll be able to do some good work too.

Help Refugees Choose Love Shop

I just started volunteering with Help Refugees at their Choose Love shop down in SoHo. It’s a fantastic idea – you go into the shop, and instead of buying a gift for your friends or family for Christmas, you can actually purchase an item that a refugee would need, like sleeping bags, tents, blankets, hygiene packs, school supplies, and even mobile phones and accommodation.

There’s been some excellent coverage on it already (see here, here, and here) and it’s open for all December until Christmas. If you’re in London, you should definitely swing by, or you can also purchase items on the virtual shop too.

Ghiras al-Nahda

It has been a super busy month since getting back from Jordan, and I’m in the final crunch time of finishing my MA dissertation. Lots of time spent at the library!

Senate House Library

I’m looking at the rise of Syrian NGOs in local communities as humanitarian service providers, especially given the lack of access that international NGOs have in different areas of Syria – in particular opposition held areas or areas under regime siege. I was going to look at a number of different organizations, and maybe do a cross-comparison of them, but I’ve decided to focus on one – Ghiras al-Nahda, which operates in Damascus and the countryside, including the Eastern Ghouta.

In a tragic sense of necessity is the mother of all invention/innovation, Ghiras al-Nahda is working on a campaign for the people of besieged Eastern Ghouta to grow their own mushrooms, which is a viable and nutritious food source in an area where food is scarce and has to be smuggled in or grown.

They have a fundraiser on the platform CanDo, which is a really interesting humanitarian fundraising initiative, that sort of circumvents traditional funding and donor streams.

Jordan!

I got back from Jordan the other day, and I’ve finally caught up on some sleep and some laundry, and now I have time to tell you all about it, and to share some pictures!

  • Day 1:
    • We spent the day in Amman, going to the Citadel, walking around the downtown area (and ate delicious knafeh!).
Amman Citadel
Knafeh
  • Day 2:
    • We went to the British Embassy to learn about what British civil servants do, and then we went to National Art Gallery and had a lovely view of the King Abdullah I Mosque from the Jungle Fever Cafe (I spent a lot of the evenings after dinner back at the cafe trying to work on my MA dissertation!).
King Abdullah I Mosque view from Jungle Fever Cafe
  • Day 3:
    • We went to the Dead Sea and spent the day floating effortlessly in the salty water!
Dead Sea
  • Day 4:
    • We spent the day in Jerash at Gaza Refugee Camp with a local organization called Basmatik Hatallim, who do children’s programs for some of the children in the camp. Then the organizers took us for a picnic type lunch in Ajloun Forest.
Ajloun Forest Reserve
  • Day 5:
    • We spent the day meeting with the Regional Team at the UNICEF Regional Office in Amman, which was incredibly interesting. We then went to the Middle East University, to meet some other students and be taken on a tour of the university. We did some other activities with these students over the next few days, so it was great getting to meet them.
UNICEF Regional Office, Amman
Middle East University
  • Day 6:
    • We spent the day with the other students from MEU at Madrasti Summer Camp just north of Amman in the Marka area.
    • Later in the evening some of us met up with the students from MEU to play some football – it had to be late in the evening so it was finally cool enough to play! This was an absolute blast – football is such a universal language.
Football in Amman
  • Day 7:
    • On this day we drove up to Azraq to go to the Azraq Wetland Reserve. It was really interesting learning about the nature conservation efforts that they are doing in this wetland, but it was SO hot! Probably the hottest day in Jordan for our whole trip, and for most of the day we were directly under the sun. Worth it though.
Azraq Wetland Reserve
Azraq Wetland Reserve
  • Day 8:
    • We spent the day with some beneficiaries of the Al-Aman Fund, where we taught some workshops on CVs and interview skills. And then we had our farewell formal dinner at the Grand Millennium Hotel with the partners of our trip – and I even gave a little speech!
Formal Dinner at Grand Millennium Hotel
SOS Children’s Village, Irbid

 

And that was it! The next day it was up early in the morning and off to the airport. I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity to go to Jordan, and to have seen so much of the country. It’s definitely given me the confidence to travel there again (which I will hopefully do soon!), and I’ve learned so much more about Jordan than just it’s tourist attractions. All the people we met were lovely as well!

Jordan Trip Details

We had our orientation for the Jordan trip the other day – I am SO excited! The other students going on the trip all seems nice – it looks like a good mix of undergrads and postgrads, and I’m hoping we’ll all get on well.

The trip is the Al Sadi Changing Lives Program, which works to expose UK university students to Jordanian and Middle Eastern culture. Our itinerary is still being finalized, but it looks like we’ll be doing some cultural things as well as some volunteering type things. We’ll be going to the Dead Sea, as well as the Citadel in Amman, and then doing some volunteering with children at Gaza Refugee Camp, and meeting the UNICEF Regional Team.

(Unfortunately, we won’t be able to make it to Petra, since it’s quite a long trek from Amman and we have lots of other things planned. Definitely a bit sad about that, since Petra has been on my list of places to see for forever, BUT it just gives me a good reason to go back to Jordan one day.)

I’m a bit nervous about what to expect, but I’m also beyond excited….now to do some shopping to make sure I have some appropriate clothes (it’s going to be HOT!) and to get some Jordanian dinar. Wish me luck!