Monthly Archives: August 2010

Syrian sex trade

A report from ABC News on the Syrian sex trade. Young Iraqi refugee girls are forced into prostitution via nightclubs and temporary ‘marriages’ – the trade has become so established that the film describes Damascus as the Middle East’s ‘sex tourism capital’, focussed around its red light district (Jermanah, which is not named in the film).

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Helwan workers on trial

An Egyptian military court is expected to deliver its verdict tomorrow in the case of a group of workers from Helwan Factory for Engineering Industries.

On the 3rd August, protests against poor working conditions took place at the factory after a gas canister exploded and killed a worker named Ahmed Abdul Hadi. Eight workers were referred to the military court on charges of stopping production and destroying factory property. Their defence lawyers have had only limited access to the case files. Egypt’s military courts are unaccountable and secretive; under the country’s 30-year emergency laws, however, they can try civilians, in a practice widely condemned by human rights groups. Amnesty International has released a statement specifically referring to the Helwan workers’ case – the statement was published on Al-Shorouk news but was then removed a few hours later. The Egyptian press are not reporting on the trial because it involves the military (the factory in Helwan is a military factory).

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Chasing racists

‘Muslim bombers off our streets’

‘We want our country back, we want our country back’

‘There were ten Muslim bombers in the air

There were ten Muslim bombers in the air

There were ten Muslim bombers

Ten Muslim bombers

Ten Muslim bombers in the air

The RAF of England shot them down…’

‘We love the floods, we love the floods’

– English Defence League chants, Bradford

Yesterday I went to Bradford with Martin and ‘I’m not an activist, I’m a photographer’ Rob. The English Defence League (for background see here) had been granted permission to stage a static demonstration in Bradford city centre. Unite Against Fascism, backed by several MPs and trade unions, were holding a counter-demonstration. We travelled on a UAF bus headed by a loquacious Scot named Roddy and filled with copies of Socialist Worker, a publication that alternately soothes me and irritates me. But usually irritates me. Arriving at the UAF demonstration, reggae music was playing from a stage, kids in keffiyehs were wandering around, and a nice man was selling plates of rice and peas. We had been told that if we left the UAF area that we would be arrested; but after ten minutes we left without incident and went to find the EDL, who were apparently near Barclays Bank. I asked an old lady for directions. She had come out to see what was going on  – ‘the trouble we’re expecting, with the EDL and the Muslims.’ She was a long term Bradford resident and, according to her, the town was being ‘overrun’.

The EDL had been corralled into a small patch of grass surrounded by a green fence and a police cordon. When we arrived, their enclosure was fairly empty, with a hundred supporters at most. Rob and I nipped in under a knife arch. A sound system was playing EDL songs, which seemed to mainly consist of the words ‘EDL, EDL,’ over and over again. The crowd was overwhelmingly made up of young and middle-aged men, some of whom were obviously drunk. Buses kept arriving with more EDL members, who were greeted by cheers from those already inside the camp. The chants would start up intermittently, usually in front of photographers (the EDL are total media whores, from what I could judge, and love dancing around in front of cameras). They were pretty risible. The most odious were ‘We love the floods, we love the floods’ and ‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’ (Bradford’s Asian population is mainly Pakistani). A lot of the EDL were an odd combination of terrifying and ridiculous. ‘I’m gonna smash your camera and rape your mum,’ one shouted at me as I stood taking pictures. I spoke to some of the less threatening ones. An inoffensive-looking old man named Jim told me that all the problems in the world were due to religion. According to him, the Muslims in Bradford had called for sharia law, but of course the press had paid no attention. ‘The ethnic minority will be the majority in 20 years’ time,’ he said.

These girls were both fifteen. They had become involved in the EDL through a brother. Do you mind if I photograph you? Not bothered. How about if I record you? Not bothered. They told me their parents ‘don’t like us mixing with Pakis.’ Nevertheless, their mother had some Asian friends. I asked what these Asian friends thought of their involvement in the EDL. ‘Not bothered.’ I met a seventeen-year-old boy who gave the most coherent explanation I heard of why he was there. His priority was defending England, he told us. ‘The biggest threat right now is Islamic extremism,’ he said. If the biggest threat were, say, the IRA, they would be protesting that. He was articulate and bright; it sounded as though he had been fed some of his lines, but he knew what he was saying. He was especially concerned about the treatment of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. We were right to remove Saddam Hussein, he said, because of the threat of chemical weapons; ‘the same as Iran,’ he added. In his opinion, the civilian deaths were a price we had to pay for that.

After a while, I got really sick of hanging out with racists and left the EDL camp. Later, I would not be able to return; the camp filled up, became violent, and all the journalists left. You needed a press card to even get close and my fictional employer, ‘Cambridge Daily News’, wasn’t cutting any mustard. Outside the camp, the EDL’s token Asian member, a Glaswegian named Abdul, was being paraded around for the cameras. ‘They wouldn’t touch me if they were racist,’ he said. A man nearby asked him about a recent incident in which some EDL members had thrown pork at a group of Muslims. ‘How do you know that was the EDL?’ Abdul asked. Later, I would hear Asian lads in the street chanting ‘Abdul is a dick, Abdul is a dick.’ One Asian policeman said to another: ‘Don’t you wish we could all just fast in peace and not be here all day?’

A fairly lively group of local people had assembled across from the EDL camp, behind a police cordon. They were chanting ‘EDL go to hell,’ and ‘Fascist thugs off our streets.’ A few of the shabab were getting a bit rowdy and older Muslims were reining them in slightly, telling them ‘They haven’t done anything yet’. At a certain point, the distance between the EDL and the locals was only a few yards. Separated by police, they screamed at each other. The EDL chanted ‘Muslim bombers off our streets’ and the local Asian kids chanted it right back at them, then shouted ‘Then what? Then what? Is that all you’ve got?’ We went around the corner for a sandwich and got talking to a Christian preacher who blessed both the camps. ‘Whose side are you on?’ Martin asked his female sidekick. ‘Jesus’,’ she said. As we were talking, we heard shouts from the camp. We ran back to find the EDL had thrown stones, bottles, and smoke bombs at the demonstrating locals. Rob caught us up a little while later. ‘Bloody preachers,’ he said. ‘I always get talking to them and they always go on for ages.’

EDL camp from a distance, with Israeli flag. They really are such idiots.

The atmosphere got more tense as the afternoon went on. The EDL camp was pretty full now, and the police were pushing them further and further into one corner. From our vantage point, it was a seething mass; they kept trying to push against the police lines and getting pushed back. I was in the middle of a large group of mainly Asian kids who kept charging against our police lines and getting beaten back. There were chants of ‘The police protect the fascists’. I nearly got knocked down a couple of times and didn’t manage to get any decent pictures. Then, all of a sudden, we saw a group of EDL break out of the camp and run down a side street. The crowd I was in started to run en masse down a parallel road.

mobb deep

We caught up with the breakaway EDL group at Bradford train station. They were running into the station as riot police stopped anyone from interfering with them. People were standing on cars in the car park, shouting at the EDL to come and fight, as they escaped on trains. We managed to persuade the riot police to let us into the station. A couple of EDL members with gory head wounds were slumped against the wall. Around the corner, riot police were escorting another group of EDL into the station.

We left soon after that. Back at the UAF camp, where we had spent a grand total of about half an hour, they were giving away the last plates of rice and peas. The buses were leaving; Roddy told us over the bus’s microphone that the day had been a huge defeat for the EDL and a huge victory for the UAF. On the way back, we had to pick our service stations carefully to avoid accidentally running into the EDL. We stopped at South Mimms at sundown so the Muslim guys on the bus could pray. I wandered around the back of the bus to find half of them having a fag instead. Rob called to say we were on Sky News. Doing what, I asked. Running in a mob, he said.

Throughout the day, I was never quite sure whether I was demonstrating or reporting. The line seemed to blur a lot. I would remove my keffiyeh to enter the EDL camp (not to would be suicidal) and would put it back on when I got out. I would talk to racists and nod along with what they were saying in order to get them to talk to me more. I would listen to people in the street chanting ‘Racist thugs off our streets’ and not join in because I was too busy recording it on Rob’s dictaphone. There was something, too, in the eyes of Jim or the bright young seventeen-year-old, that wasn’t entirely inhuman. Rob and I both tried to explain his argument about the IRA to some of the anti-fascist demonstrators, who totally dismissed it. The EDL are fascist thugs and I have zero sympathy for them or their cause. But they have their views for a reason, however warped or ignorant that reason might be. I went to Bradford to figure out what that reason was, and I haven’t figured it out yet.

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Fish in a barrel

Really, taking down Thomas Friedman is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s so easy and so tempting. Mostly I like to leave well alone, but occasionally the fact he gets to spout on at thw NYT with such impunity just gets to me. He is an example of how someone pretending to be sympathetic to the Middle East and to have an affinity with Muslims can actually come out with the most odious neoconservative nonsense.

‘I love that line: “We have to surprise them.” I was watching the movie on an airplane and scribbled that line down on my napkin.’

Seizing on a fairly vapid line from a fairly vapid film, he files it away in his thought book. His writing tends to everyman metaphors that come off as vaguely meaningless – baseball, snack food, representing hugely complex Middle Eastern conflicts through the warped lens of American popular culture. The lure of an empty phrase is seemingly too strong to resist.

‘I tried to recall the last time a leader of importance surprised me on the upside by doing something positive, courageous and against the popular will of his country or party. I can think of a few: Yitzhak Rabin in signing onto the Oslo peace process. Anwar Sadat in going to Jerusalem.’

I find it hard to see how either of these acts were positive and courageous. Both of them had little impact other than nice photo opportunities and the approval of the West.

‘Look at Iraq today. Five months after its first truly open, broad-based election, in which all the major communities voted, the political elite there cannot rise above Shiite or Sunni identities and reach out to the other side so as to produce a national unity government that could carry Iraq into the future.’

Seven years after the West created a sectarian mess in Iraq, surprisingly enough, tensions remain between Iraq’s different factions and show little sign of improving. What a shame those ‘tribal’ Arab leaders can’t see past their ideological blinkers. I have little sympathy for Iraq’s political elite, but the situation is far more complex than he paints it.

‘True, democracy takes a long time to grow, especially in a soil bloodied by a murderous dictator for 30 years.’

And by foreign troops for the last 7.

‘Yes, because the roots of 9/11 are an intra-Muslim fight, which America, as an ally of one faction, got pulled into…Bin Laden attacked us because we prop up his Saudi rivals — which we do to get their oil.’

Perhaps this is one reason. But it goes without saying (one would hope…) that there were so many more.

‘In Iraq, you have the pure Sunni- versus-Shiite struggle.’

And what exactly is that, please? There is NO SUCH THING. This is Middle Eastern politics for idiots. Sunnis hate Shiites, Shiites hate Sunnis, when will they ever learn. Lazy.

‘The reason the Iraq war was, is and will remain important is that it created the first chance for Arab Sunnis and Shiites to do something they have never done in modern history: surprise us and freely write their own social contract for how to live together and share power and resources.’

Yes, just like before the colonialists came and carved up the Middle East with a ruler. Thank goodness we invaded to give them a chance to correct our mistakes.

‘But it will be impossible without Iraqi Shiite and Sunni Mandelas ready to let the future bury the past.’

It really is very boring when writers drone on about how the Middle East needs a Mandela, or a Gandhi, or whoever. South Africa had a Mandela. India had a Gandhi. Stop imposing your paradigms of leadership on the rest of the world.

‘Indeed, the big problem is not those Muslims building mosques in America, it is those Muslims blowing up mosques in the Middle East.’

No, of course the big problem is not the Muslims building mosques in America, it’s the bigots trying to stop them.

‘And the answer to them is not an interfaith dialogue in America. It is an intrafaith dialogue — so sorely missing — in the Muslim world.’

He is deliberately confusing this issue. Interfaith dialogue is sorely needed in America. It is also needed in the Muslim world. It is not sorely missing in the Muslim world, but perhaps Thomas Friedman is too busy lamenting all those Muslims blowing each other up to notice when they talk to each other.

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Palestine today

Almost half of Palestinian school children in East Jerusalem are attending private or unofficial schools due to a lack of classroom space.

The city spends four times as much on elementary schooling for Jewish students.

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Lebanon and the right to work

The bill I wrote about recently proposing new civil rights for Palestinians refugees in Lebanon has passed – well, a rather watered down version. In the face of parliamentary opposition, mainly from the Christian right, Jumblatt’s legislative proposal had key parts stripped away, most significantly the right to own property. Lebanon’s Palestinians still cannot work in several important fields like engineering, law, and medicine, even if they are qualified – to do so would require joining a professional syndicate, which are closed to them. And the bill does nothing to combat the employer discrimination that prevents many refugees from finding even a menial job. Around 60% of Palestinians in Lebanon are currently unemployed and the community in general remains in poverty.

Changes have been made to employment law: Palestinians can apply for work permits, claim for an accident at work, and pay into a pension fund. Yet the watering down of the key proposals mean that the bill is unlikely to dramatically affect the quality of life of Lebanon’s refugee community.

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Yemen chronicles

The Guardian is running an excellent series of special reports from Yemen by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Ch ch check it out.

Part 1: Al-Qaida in Yemen: Poverty, corruption, and an army of jihadis willing to fight

Part 2: Shabwa: Blood feuds and hospitality in al-Qaida’s Yemen outpost

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