Introducing Libyan author Najwa Binshatwan


Fadia Faqir, Najwa Binshatwan, and Ouissal Harize (translator)

On 20 February 2018, Libyan woman writer, Banipal Visiting Writer Fellow 2018, Najwa Binshatwan, gave the annual lecture at St Aidan’s College. I had the honour of introducing her, The following is an extract from my introduction:
“Najwa Binshatwan is a Libyan academic, novelist, and playwright. She was an assistant lecturer at the University of Benghazi and was awarded a PhD in human science from La Sapienz University in Rome. She is the author of three collections of short stories and three novels, including The Slave Pens, which was shortlisted for IPAF 2017 (aka Arabic Booker). In 2003 she received the Arab Creativity Prize at the Sharjah Festival, and her novel The Horses’ Hair won the inaugural Sudanese al-Begrawiya Festival prize, when Sudan was Capital of Arab Culture in 2005. She was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project and her story The Pool and the Piano was included in the Beirut39 anthology, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2010. Her work is also featured in Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations, which was published recently by Commapress, and showcases new works by previously unplatformed writers.

Nahla al-Ageli interviewed Binshatwan for Shubak Festival. She wrote, “An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.
There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell, and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that persist in the culture.
Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful, and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.”

One of the themes of the novel, and it has many, is visibility and its perils. In a vivid scene, the young slave endangers herself to have a glimpse of her face. Looking at her reflection in a shard of a broken mirror she becomes visible. That act was penalised not by the racist, misogynist society but by her mother because appearing in the picture, becoming visible even if just to yourself was subversive and might endanger your life.

Slave Pens can sit comfortably alongside great literature about slavery from Haley’s Roots all the way to Toni Morrison’s writings. For many reasons, the novel is a milestone, but the main one is that a woman writer dared to investigate, describe, and expose two slaveries: that of slaves and that of women.”

Introducing Iraqi Author Ali Bader

To counter the rise of racism and xenophobia, I began thinking about a project that could be an antidote to the toxic culture of hate prevailing all over the world. A fellowship in the west for Arab authors seemed a fitting way of challenging preconceptions and creating dialogue between civilisations.

During my travels over the past two years, I spoke to academics, writers, intellectuals, journalist both Arab and non-Arab about my dream.

In 2013 I had an author’s round table and a book signing at the Fourth Annual Translation Conference, held at the Hamad bin Khalifa University, and co-sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. Iraqi author and journalist Samuel Shimon, the London-based editor and co-founder of Banipal, a renowned international magazine of contemporary Arab literature published in English, gave a keynote speech in which he said that in his experience of publishing from Arabic into English, Western publishers needed to move beyond narrow stereotypes of Arabic novels and writers. Listening to him, the idea of cooperation with Banipal began germinating.

I went back to Durham and had a meeting with Dr Susan Frenk, the principal of St Aidan’s College, Durham University, where I hold a Creative Writing Fellowship, and this distinguished scholar and amazing woman welcomed the idea.

On 27 April, 2016, at the Abu Dhabi International Bookfair, I had a meeting with Margaret Obank, trustee of Banipal Publishing, and discussed the idea with her. The outcome was positive and we agreed to hold a meeting in Durham to discuss it further.

On 26 September Dr Sudan Frenk, Margaret Obank, Samuel Shimon, and I met and we agreed to set up the Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship (BVWF) for published authors writing in Arabic. History was made for the fellowship is the first of its kind. I have nothing but gratitude and praise for the Banipal team and St Aidan’s College.

Margaret kindly offered to conduct negotiations with the British Council. After a number of conversations and a meeting they agreed to support us.

We publicised the fellowship in November, 2016, and we received 198 applications. Some of the best Arab writers have applied. In December, in a meeting at the American University of Kuwait we chose the shortlist. Then the committee selected the Iraqi author Ali Bader as the first Fellow and he arrived in Durham on 23 January, 2017.

Truly, a dream come true.


Ali Bader is a well-known Iraqi novelist and essayist, whose work is making an important contribution to contemporary Arabic literature. He is the author of thirteen works of fiction, two of which were long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (aka Arabic Booker), and several works of non-fiction.

He was born 1979 in Baghdad, where he studied Western Philosophy and French Literature. His first novel,Papa Sartre: بابا سارتر, which was published in 2001, focuses on the legacy of the 1960s generation, and criticises their negative impact on their culture. Following its critical acclaim in the Arab world, he was awarded the State Prize for Literature in Baghdad in 2002, and the Tunisian Abu Al-Qassem Al-Shabi Award, and the novel was translated into English.

In 2002, his novel The Family’s Winter: شتاء العائلة revisits the of theme of the decline of the Iraq’s elite, but this time focusing on the aristocracy during the 1950s. That same year, he received the Literary Creativity Prize.

His third novel The Road to Mutran Hill, published in 2003, focuses on Iraqi’s social problems and the increasing division between different segments, denominations, and ethnicities, and it prophesies the disintegration of Iraq.

His novel Jerusalem Lantern is a fictional rendering of the life of the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said.

In his novel The Tobacco Keeper, which was short listed for the international prize for Arabic Fiction, he uses reportage, memoir, historical documents, etc. to constructs the life of Kamal Medhat, an Iraqi Jewish musician, whose body was found floating on the River Tigris. The novel follows his struggle to integrate into Iraqi society. The rich tapestry is layered skilfully and the distance between observer and observed is carefully orchestrated to create maximum impact. The narrative zooms in and out on the life of the composer, which mirrors the modern history of Iraq. Larger questions about identity, nationalism, and freedom both individual and otherwise are also raised.

His latest work, Crime, Art, and a Dictionary of Baghdad, is a novel about the sacramental and philosophical schools during the Abbasid era.

He is working on his new novel Liar takes All.

Ali Bader also wrote non-fiction:  Massion in Baghdad (2005), Sleeping Prince and Waiting Campaign (2006), Shahadat: Witnessing Iraq’s Transformation after 2003 (2007), and MNSG: Navigation between Home and Exile (2008), which won the Every Human Has Rights Media Award of 2008.

He is also a seasoned publisher and recently he took the reins of Alca Books. In addition, he contributes regularly to  the Arabic newspapers such as Al-Hayat, Al-Mada, Al-Dustour, and Al-Riyadh. He was also a war correspondent.

We are fortunate to have such a prolific and prominent Arab writer among us.

Reflections on my Experience as a Judge of a Literary Prize

I was delighted to accept Kuwaiti author Taleb al-Rifai’s invitation to join the judging panel of Al-Multaqa Short Story Competition 2016, sponsored by the American University in Kuwait and Al-Multaqa al-Thaqafi: Cultural Circle, found and managed by Dr al- Rifai.

Prominent Moroccan author Ahmad Al-Madini was appointed as a chair of the panel. My colleagues on the judging panel were: Egyptian author Ezzat al-Kamhawi, Iraqi writer and critic Salima Salih, and Kuwaiti writer and critic Ali Al Enazzi.

On 27 April, 2016 in Abu Dhabi the panel met in the presence of Dr Taleb al Riai, founder of the prize, to set the criteria for the selection. We agreed that on the following yardsticks: content and creativity in presenting it, language (accuracy, beauty etc.), use of imagination, impact (emotional and otherwise), and overall vision.

What made the process successful is that both the chairman and members of the judging paned observed total confidentiality, and never disclosed the procedure or discussed participants and their works with any outside parties. This resulted in a first round free of xenophobia, cliquism, preferential treatment and immune to outside influences.

As an academic and writer of fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading one hundred and eighty-four collections of Arabic short stories and exploring the literary map of the Arab world farther.

However, the amount of simple and simplistic works that get published in the Arab world is staggering and perhaps one reasons behind that is the way the publishing industry functions and publications processed. In many cases, authors pay publishers to get published not the other way round, which eschews standards and corrupts the measures commissioning editors apply when selecting a work. Alas most works that see the light should have been left in the dark. Another symptom of the lack of professionalism in publishing is the number of language and typographical mistakes. So, the author pays to be published and the publishing house spends very little on copyediting and/or printing the text and the result is poor indeed.

Most of the collections are either reportage, autobiography, memories, or confessional writing thinly disguised as fiction. They are hurried, shallow, crude and single-layered with little dramatisation and riddled with clichés without any plot or structure. In a few cases pornography is superimposed on the text and sexual scenes are not justified within the text or the context.

The description in most collections is stilted and the characters one-dimensional and static. And in many cases, you encounter sentimentality and emotions that are not justified within the text, therefore, could not be evoked in the recipient reader, a lack of what T.S. Eliot called the ‘objective correlative.’ Most collections fail at both form and content levels, which are interconnected of course.

There is a confusion concerning literary genres for prose is not poetry and no matter how beautifully-written a paragraph is that does not turn into a short story. Some writers use the twist or the surprising ending of poetry in prose. But poetic prose does not turn a text into a short story, which is a specific literary genre with its own prerequisites. There is also some over-writing and flexing of linguistic muscles without much success.

There is a marked difference in the levels of works considered for the prize and unevenness within the collections themselves. Many authors are full of good intentions, but they rarely realise them. Many authors suffer from shortness of breath and sloppiness where the movement of the hand is not completed. A disjointed literary work can be classified as ‘trauma literature’, where there are absences, but the text is normally complete and realises its full potential. But that does not apply to some of the collections I have read. Writers, in some cases, are not distant enough from their material so the they could turn them into resonant and meaningful literary texts and many use writing as exorcism or a way to vent out anger

Luckily a few authors master the art of writing fiction and in control of their tools. They use a multitude of techniques: the interior monologue, steam of consciousness, different perspectives, unreliable narrators, mixing of registers and voices, operatic corals, intertwining between fantasy and reality, intertextuality, and mythology. Some can be classified as modernist and others as postmodernists and very few are feminist. Some texts are original, creative and the imagination of their writer soars high.

In his multi-media collection “مصحة الدمى” Doll’s Infirmity”, Moroccan author Anis Arafai challenges the boundaries between fiction, essay writing, reportage and photography and the result is a tour de force. The collection cannot be classified as a photoessay or under graphic literature for that would be a reduction. Some of the prose rises to the level of poetry. Arafai uses the second person, which readers don’t encounter very often, adding to the uniqueness of his narrative. Overall his work is original, tightly-plotted, beautifully-written with a surprising ending.

It is a no mean feat for Arab authors to produce such works under the present circumstances. Some tackled political issues, such as how corruption permeates and destroys the societal fabric of a country with grace and lightness of touch. For example, in his collection “نكات للمسلحين” Jokes for Gunmen” Palestinian writer Mazen Maarouf, who unanimously won al-Multaqa Short Story Competition 2016, writes from a child’s point of view most of the time about oppression, lack of control over surroundings and other issues. This collection, in which each story is mature and complete, reminds us of the writings of the late Emil Habibi, but Maarouf takes Habibi’s writing to another level and a touch of surrealism is added to the combination of tragedy and comedy. The unusual and bizarre is mixed with the mundane to produce texts that are deceptively simple, but raise existential questions. The brutality of the occupier is always present in the background and presented indirectly or metaphorically without any mention of the political realities against which Maarouf’s texts are set or were produced.

Very few writers succeed in transposing us to their unique world, where reality is not only presented, but also reshaped. Some create rich multi-layered texts with a unique vision, which might help readers understand the complex realities of the region. In an Arab world riddled with wars, civil and uncivil, and conflicts, to pick up the pen and write is a triumph in itself. Furthermore, to produce unique and original texts that would stand any scrutiny whether local or international is a victory for Arabic literature and culture.

Published in Banipal 58, Spring 2017

عدد الأعمال السطحيّة التي تنشر في العالم العربي مفجع

أسعدني أن أوافق على الانضمام إلى لجنة تحكيم جائزة الملتقى للقصة العربية القصيرة لعام 2016 التي تمولها الجامعة الأمريكية والملتقى الثقافي في الكويت. ولقد استمتعت بقراءة مئة وتسع وثمانين مجموعة قصصية ضمن المجموعات التي تم ترشيحها للجائزة وباكتشاف جزءٍ من الخارطة الأدبية للعالم العربي

ويمكنني أن أقول بأنّه وللأسف فإنّ عدد الأعمال السطحيّة التي تنشر في العالم العربي مفجع، ولعل  أهم سبب وراء ذلك أنه في كثير من الحالات يدفع الكاتب للناشر مقابل النشر مما أخلّ المعايير التي يطبقها المحررون لاختيار العمل والسماح له برؤية النور. وسبب آخر أيضا، هو شح الروح المهنية لدى دور النشر المتمثل في تفشي الأخطاء اللغوية والمطبعية في النصوص.  فكما هو معلوم  في بعض الدول العربية، يدفع المؤلف لدار النشر، وهي بدورها تحتفظ بمعظم المبلغ وتنفق القليل منه فقط على تحرير وطباعة وتدقيق النص

حقيقىة، يمكن تصنيف معظم المجموعات التي اطلعت عليها تحت بند السرد الصحفي أوالتقرير النثري أوالسيرة الذاتية أوالمذكرات أوالخواطر أو أدب الاعتراف، وذلك دون  أدنى استخدام للأسلوب القصصي الدرامي. وربما كتب كثير من النصوص بسرعة، ولهذا نجد أنّ معظمها ضحل وفج وأحادي الطبقة ومليء بالتعابير المستهلكة دون أي حبكة أوبنية مدروسة. وفي حالات قليلة يتم إسقاط المشاهد الجنسية دون حاجة الى ذلك أو دون توظيف حقيقي لها في النص ودلالته مما جعلها تبدو دخيلة

وقد ظهر الوصف في معظم الأعمال جامدا، واللغة ركيكة ، والشخصيات مسطّحة. وفي كثير من الحالات تم استعمال الرومانسية التي عفى عليها الزمن، حيث نجد فيضا من العواطف والمشاعر غير المبررة في النص، وبالتالي؛ لا تستحضر في القارئ المتلقي أي ردود فعل نفسية لعدم وجود ما سماه إليوت بالمعادل الموضوعي*. وهكذا فشلت مجموعات كثيرة على مستويي الشكل والمضمون. وتجدر الإشارة إلى أن هنالك التباس بشأن الأنواع الأدبية، فالنثر ليس شعرا ومهما كانت الفقرة مكتوبة بشكل جميل فإنّ هذا لا يحولها إلى قصة قصيرة. ومن الملحوظ أيضا وجود حالة مفارقة شعرية إدهاشية في نهاية كثير من النصوص، وبالرغم من ذلك تبقى نثرا أو نثرا شعريا ولا تنطبق عليها معايير القصة القصيرة. وبعض الكتاب قد “أفرط في الكتابة*”  محاولا استعراض العضلات اللغوية بلا طائل، حيث بقي النص ضحلا

وهنالك تفاوت كبير في مستويات الأعمال المرشحة للجائزة وضمن المجموعات نفسها. ولا تكفي أن تكون نية الكاتب حسنة ليتحقق نجاح العمل الأدبي

وكثير من الكتاب هم من ذوي النفس القصير حيث لم يستطيعوا إتمام إبراز جمال القصة. ومن الأعمال ماهو مفكك، ولكن لا يمكن أن نصنفه تحت بند أدب الصدمة*، الذي يتميز بوجود فجوات في السرد  القصصي، مع اكتمال العمل وتحقيقه لأهدافه. وكان جليا أنه في كثير من النصوص تم إستعمال الكتابة للتنفيس عن الضغط النفسي وتطهير الذات

ولحسن الحظ هنالك قلة من الكتاب المرشحين للجائزة بدو متمكنين من تقنيات الكتابة القصصية وأدواتها، اذ استخدموا المونولوج الداخلي والأبعاد المتعددة والرواة غير الموثوق بهم وتيار الوعي وخلط اللهجات الاجتماعية والأصوات المتعددة، والتحول اللغوي والمزج بين الواقع والفانتازيا، واستخدام التناص والموروث الثقافي والأساطير. ويمكن تصنيف بعض النصوص بأنها حداثية أو ما بعد الحداثة، والقلة القليلة منها نسوية. وهنالك نصوص أصيلة وخلاقة يحلق فيها خيال الكاتب عاليا

وعند القليل من الكتاب، كما في حالة أنيس الرافعي، كان المزج بين الاجناس المختلفة كالقصة القصيرة، والسرد الصحفي، والتصوير الفوتوغرافي خلاقا. والنص هنا أصيل والبناء محكم والحبكة متينة ولغة النص شعرية أحيانا والنهاية مفاجئة. الخطوج الروائية تمزج بمهارة فائقة ويتم جمعها ببراعة. وقد استخدم الكاتب ضمير المخاطب وهذا ما لا نراه في كثيرا من النصوص القصصية

ومما يدعو للتفاؤل أن الكتاب استطاعوا إنتاج مثل بعض هذه الأعمال في ظل الظروف الحالية الصعبة التي يمر بها العالم العربي. حيث عالج بعضهم القضايا السياسية ببراعة؛ مثل كيفية تسرب الفساد ببطء إلى أن يتدمر النسيج الاجتماعي. وعلى سبيل المثال هنا، مجموعة الكاتب الفلسطيني مازن معروف “نكات للمسلحين” التي فازت بالجائزة بالإجماع. كتبت  هذه المجموعة على خلفية الاحتلال الإسرائيلي لفلسطين وهوما يتناوله الكاتب في بعض القصص فعليا وبعضها الآخر مجازيا. وذكرتني بكتابات الكاتب الفلسطيني الراحل إيميل حبيبي إلا أن معروف تميز عن حبيبي بقدرته على خلق عالم سوريالي يتوازن فيه ويتساوى الخوف والمرح والسخرية والكابوسية. ويتعامل معروف مع هذا الموضوع الجاد بسخرية وفكاهة أحيانا لينتج نصا مضحكا ومبكيا في آن واحد . وقد نجح في تعرية وحشية ودموية المحتل بسلاسة وخفة في هذه المجموعة دون أي ذكر للأحداث السياسية التي اسهمت في إنتاج هذه النصوص

ويمكن القول أن القلة القليلة من الكتاب قد نجحت في نقلنا إلى عالمهم الغرائبي الخاص وقدمت لنا قصصا قصيرة فريدة لا تصور الواقع فقط بل تعيد تشكيله. وخلق البعض نصوصا غنية متعددة الدلالات ذات رؤية خاصة قد تساعدنا على فهم حاضرنا واستشراف مستقبلنا، وهذا يشكل انتصارا لنا وللغتنا وأدبنا بالرغم من كل التحديات




“*objective correlative”


“*Trauma Literature

Arabs Writing in English

The full text of Hani Bargouthi’s interview for

1. Could you walk me through the process of deciding to write your novels?

The creative process is complex and has a mystery to it. You do not ‘decide’ to write your novels. They come to life on their own volition. Issues germinate and at one point it becomes necessary to express your enthusiasms through the medium of fiction. Each novel tackled questions that I was grappling with or exposes an injustice through a medium that hopefully humanizes and beautifies.

2. Where did choosing to write in English fit into the process? Why did you decide to write in English, despite the subject matter mostly being Arab countries, characters and storylines?

I didn’t choose to write in English. The British Council gave me a scholarship to do an MA in Britain, and as a freelance journalist then the idea of doing a creative writing degree was appealing. I wrote my first novel in English and then went back to Jordan, studied Fusha Arabic and was determined to write in my mother tongue. But in the 1980s oppression was the order of the day at every level whether political or personal. I could not breathe let alone write.  Let me quote Sartre, ‘The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy.’ One of the prerequisites for writing is freedom. So I decided to go back to the UK and do a Ph.D. in creative writing. After that – as Conrad said – English became a capability.

3. How did writing in English affect the publication process, and was it easier to find a publisher in English than it would have been to find an Arab one? Did this contribute to writing in English?

Actually it is very easy to find a publisher in Arabic. All you have to do is pay them and you get published. This is how most publishing houses in the Arab world function: authors pay publication costs.

In Britain the story is different. Publishing is on merit only and you cannot buy your way into it. I wrote because I was silenced by my society and finding a voice in whatever language was essential for my survival. I honestly didn’t expect to be published or catered for an audience.

4. Did you find it easier to write in English considering some of the subject matter being taboo?

Yes, at the beginning. In Nisanit I was free to write whatever I wanted and because of that newly-found freedom the text is full of four-letter words. Fusha Arabic, which is a product of a male-dominated culture, is masculine and riddled with taboos. So I took refuge in another language and wrote about sensitive issues. But after writing in English for a while I discovered its own restrictions so each language has a cultural residue that comes with prohibitions and etiquettes. A skilled writer navigates through all of that.

5. How do you feel the work’s publication in English has affected the size and type of audience?

There is no doubt that if you write in English your audience is international. My books were published in eighteen countries and sold well in Australia, the USA, India etc. That wouldn’t have been possible if I wrote in Arabic. However more and more Arabs read and the audience in the Arab world now is considerable.

6. Would you be open to your work being translated to Arabic? How involved would you like to be in the process?

I was translated into Arabic. The Arabic translation of My Name is Salma went into a third edition, which I am really pleased about. I was completely engaged in the translation process and oversaw every word, every sentence.  By the way the translation is faithful to the English original and not a single word was omitted or idea censored. Willow Trees Don’t Weep is being considered for translation into Arabic.

7. Given the subject matter, how do you think people would have received the work had it been written in Arabic instead?

Judging from the reviews and my engagement with readers of the Arabic translation the reaction is overall positive despite the controversial subject matter. The Arab world is in turmoil and readers are eager for literary works that tackle taboos and sensitive issues.

8. Do you feel that the Arabic language is equipped to cover all the topics discussed in your work?

Now I think it is. Language is just a tool and if you master it you can create whatever you want: feminist, dystopian or magic realist novels. But women, for example, have to expose its misogyny and purge it first.

9. Will you continue to write in English?

I don’t know where the journey will take me after finishing Petra Mon Amour, the novel I am working on. Will it take me back to writing in Arabic, my mother tongue? Who knows? Watch this space.

عمان عمانان: غربية وشرقية

أدي تصريح منسوب إلى ابن وزير العمل والسياحة في الأردن نضال القطامين إلى زوبعة افتراضية اجتاحت مواقع التواصل الإجتماعي منذ عدة أسابيع. فقد قام ابن الوزير بنشر تعليق على الفيسبوك يهاجم فيه سائق سيارة من نوع كيا بعد مشاحنة نشبت بينهما حين توقفه عند إشارة ضوئية. و كان ابن الوزير قد قام بنشر ما يلي على صفحته في الفيسبوك “الناس غاضبون مني لمجرد أني أسوق سيارة مرسيدس س كلاس. وكما وصفه بعض أصدقائي , هذا شخص حاقد.  ومن الصعب فهم نفسية هؤلاء السافلين المريضين والمتخلفين فكرياً في هذا البلد.” وقد اعتذر القطامين لاحقاً عن تعليقاته قائلاً أنه لم يكن يقصد أية إهانة. كما عبر عن دهشته من مدى ردود الفعل تجاه الحادثة

على الرغم من اعتذار القطامين إلا أن تعليقاته التي ترجمت إلى العربية, و انتشرت بسرعة, أدت الى ثوره افتراضية في مواقع التواصل الإجتماعي. وقام العديد من النشطاء والمغردين بنشر تعليقات استياء واستنكار اتجاه الحادثة تحت وسم ابن _الوزير#. وفيما اشتبه بعض المعلقين أن الحكومة ترغب في إثارة النزاع الطبقي, عبر آخرون عن غضبهم لأن راتب الوزير القطامين مدفوع من عرق جبين المواطنين الذين يدفعون الضرائب. ورغم أن هذه الحادثة ليست, بحد ذاتها, بتلك الأهمية، إلا أنها تعد مؤشراً على حالة الامتعاض من الطريقة التي يعامل فيها الأغنياء والمتنفذين مع الفقراء والأقل حظاً في المجتمع الأردني, ناهيك عن أمد طويل من اللامساواة

العاصمة عمان مقسومة إلى شطرين أشبه ما يكونوا بكونين متوازيين, يقع الشطر الأول في الناحية الغربية وأغلب سكانه من الأغنياء المترفين وأما الشطر الثاني فيمتد في الناحية الشرقية من العاصمة وأغلب قاطنيه من الفقراء المحرومين. بدأت تجربتي مع ما يعرف ب”الربيع العربي” في كانون الأول عام 2010. ففي عطلة العيد المجيد اندلعت مشاجرة بين طفيليين  وهم شرق أردنيون و محسيريين وهم فلسطينيون  في منطقة جبل التاج في عمان الشرقية وهو أحد الأحياء المزدحمة والتي غالبية سكانها من الفقراء. وأدت المشاجرة إلى قيام شرطة مكافحة الشغب بمحاصرة الأحياء الحي مستعينة بالآليات المسلحة والسجون المتنقلة مما حدا بالمتقاتلين المشحونين ومعظمهم من الشباب بالهتاف تنديداً بالاضطهاد وبإلقاء الحجارة وحرق الإطارات ومهاجمة السيارات . فما بدأ كمشاجرة بين مجموعات متنافسة أخذ منحناً سياسياً تجلى بقيام المتظاهرين في نهاية المطاف بترديد هتافات تطالب بالإصلاح. ومنذ تلك الحادثة, بدأت الأزمة بالتصعيد حيث أصبحت هناك حوادث طعن و إطلاق رصاص متكررة في حي كان ينعم بالأمن والسلام

فور بدء قوات الأمن استعمال الغاز المسيل للدموع قمنا بإغلاق كل النوافذ والستائر وتلثمنا بالأوشحة. ذهبت خارجاً لأرى ما يحدث وحاولت تسجيل الإشتباكات والتقاط الصور ولكنها لم تكن واضحة بسبب الظلام والدخان. وفي صباح اليوم التالي لم يبق اى اثر لليلة السابقة، اذ تم إحضارعمال النظافة قبل الفجر لتنظيف المنطقة من اي دليل للاشتباكات. كان الأثر الوحيد المتبقي لما رأته عيناي هو علبة الغاز المسيل للدموع ،المصنوعة في البرازيل،  التي سقطت في حديقة  أحد جيراننا في الحي

وفي اليوم التالي كان لدي اجتماع في فندق حياة عمان الذي تصل كلفة الإقامة فيه لليلة واحدة إلى 515 دولار أي أعلى من معدل الدخل الشهري للكثير من الأردنيين، أما الجناح فتبلغ كلفته 6166 دولار. عند دخولي الفندق، وجدت نفسي وسط  واحة هادئة مليئة بالأزهار المستوردة الباهضة الثمن تتوسطها مدفأة وشجرة عيد ميلاد مذهلة انعكست صورتها على الواجهة الزجاجية فوق ظل لمئذنة مضيئة منتصبة فوق تلة بعيدة. وكانت نغمات الموسيقي الكلاسيكية الممزوجة بأصوات قرع الكؤوس و الضحكات  تتردد في المكان ورائحة العطور والسيجار الغالي تعبق في الأجواء. كثيراً ما يقوم فندق حياة عمان بتنظيم حفلات تذوق النبيذ للأغنياء وأصحاب الذوات.  ووظيفة رجال أمن الفندق، الذين يقومون بتفتيش الأشخاص والأمتعة ،هي حماية رجال الأعمال الأجانب والسياح وكل من يستطيع شراء مشروب بسعر 7 دولار. أما قبح الأحياء الفقيرة ومخيمات اللاجئين و بيوت صفائح “الزينكو” فهي بعيدة عن العين والقلب.  فهذا الجزء “الراقي” من المدينة يكاد لا يدرك شيئاً عن ذاك الجزء الثاني القابع على مرمى بضعة أميال فقط والذي كان متقداً في الليلة الماضية، خاصة أن مثل هذه الأحداث لا تحتل سوى سطوراً قليلة في بعض الصحف الإلكترونية

ترجع بي ذاكرتي إلى الوراء عندما كنت جالسة في أحد مقاهي عمان الغربية أحتسي القهوة مع صديقة لي لينضم إلينا ابن أحد العوائل الغنية المتنفذة. أخذنا النقاش إلى الوضع الراهن، وحين قلت أن الفجوة بين الفقراء والأغنياء آخذة بالاتساع و أصبحت أكبر حجماً وأكثر وضوحاً مما قد يؤدي  إلى تداعيات لا يحمد عقباها كانعدام الأمن والإستقرار رد قائلاً: “يجب على الفقراء أن يبحثوا عن وظائف ويباشروا بالعمل”. استأذنتهم على الفور وأخذت سيارة أجرة لأعود إلى عمان الشرقية حيث يسكن والداي. في الطريق, قال لي سائق التاكسي أن الفجوة بين دخله وما عليه إنفاقه شهريا تبلغ حوالي 423 دولار. بحسب إحصائيات البنك الدولي 12% من الأردنيين تحت خط الفقر

يقبل معظم سكان عمان الشرقية بأي وظيفة كانت مثل ترميم الملابس وبيع السلع الرخيصة وتصليح الأواني وتوصيل الطلبات والمشتريات للمنازل. وعلى الرغم من ذلك، ازداد عدد الشباب المتسكعين في الشوارع. وبحسب تقارير البنك الدولي إن معدل البطالة الرسمي المعلن عنه يقدر ب 15% بينما يتراوح في الواقع ما بين 25-30%. ويصل معدل البطالة للشباب الذين تتراوح أعمارهم بين 20-23 سنة إلى 40% و36% لمن تتراوح أعمارهم بين 25-39 سنة. إن عدم وجود فرص عمل إضافة إلى قلة المراكز الترفيهية والمساحات المخصصة  للمجتمع المحلي يؤدي إلى الشعور بالإحباط العام  الذي يحوله أقل استفزاز إلى غضب عارم

لذلك، ضربت تعليقات ابن الوزير على الوتر الحساس لا سيما أن الفساد والمحسوبية في تفشٍ مستمر. عندما كنت في الأردن، ذهبت إلى إحدى الدوائر الرسمية لأقوم بتجديد بطاقة الأحوال المدنية. أما رحلتي لفرع دائرة الجوازات العامة في المحطة، فقد استدعت إلى ذاكرتي شيئاً مشابهاً رأيته في بوغوتا. ففي عام 2008 ذهبت إلى العاصمة الكولومبية لحضور المؤتمر الرابع و السبعين لنادي القلم الدولي كضيفة شرف. حين وصلت الى الفندق كان في استقبالي ثلاث مجموعات مختلفة من الحرس إضافة إلى الكلاب البوليسية. فالجرائم منتشرة والأجانب في خطر إذ لا يسمح لهم  بالتجول أو حتى مغادرة الفندق بدون حماية أمنية مشددة. وفي إحدى المرات التي غادرنا فيها الفندق ركبنا باصاَ صغيراً مر بنا في شارع بدون أية إضاءة. بدا المنظر كأنه نسيج من وحي مخيلتي. فجأة، وجدت نفسي أمام مشهد من فيلم عن نهاية العالم إذ كانت الحشود تتجمع لشراء البضائع أو للمقايضة عليها في الظلام، أي سوق سوداء بالمعنيين المجازي والحرفي. نشر الباعة المتجولون رقعهم على الأرض لتترامى على جانبي الشارع. وعلى بعد بضعة أمتار ترى النيران والدخان وتسمع الموسيقى الصاخبة، ورائحة الطعام الدسم تفوح في الهواء.  احتشد الناس في الشارع يغنون ويرقصون في الظلام مما اضطر السائق إلى القيادة بحذر ليتفادى الاصطتدام بالأكشاك المتنقلة

على خلاف بوغوتا، كان الوقت مبكراً والشمس ساطعة في عمان. أخذت تاكسي إلى المحطة ولكن المرحلة الأخيرة من رحلة تجديد البطاقة كانت بطيئة. بدا المكان مثل سوق البراغيث او الجمعة إذا كان مليئا بالاكشاك المتنقلة لبيع الملابس والأحذية والأثاث القديم والأساور وقلائد الخرز. تم نشر البضائع ومعظمها مستعملة ورديئة الصنع على الأرض بل وتجاوزت الرصيف لتُنثر في الشارع نفسه فكان لابد لسائق التاكسي من توخي الحذر كي لا يدهس الباعة وبضائعهم المبعثرة في كل مكان

عندما وصلنا الفرع المحلي لدائرة الجوازات بدا كل شئ متواضعاً ولكن منظماً. وكانت الإشارة الوحيدة من الماضي التي تلوح في المكان هي الرجل المسن الذي يجلس على كرسي قش ويبيع الطوابع في الخارج. قدمت طلبا ثم دفعت ووقفت في الطابور. لم أرى أي دليل على معاملة تفضيلية. في أثناء انتظاري اتصل بي مسؤول رفيع المستوى وسألني عن مكاني. وعندما أوضحت له أنني أنتظر تجديد بطاقة الأحوال المدنية أجابني مستغرباً: “لماذا؟ سأصطحبك إلى مدير الجوازات العامة وتجدد بطاقتك بينما تنتظرين في مكتبه مستمتعة بكاسة شاي”. رفضت عرضه بأدب

هذه الواقعة تدل على أن  الكثير من المتنفذين والأغنياء في البلد يدبرون شؤونهم دون تعبئة نماذج أو الإنتظار في طوابير حيث يدير لهم أمورهم ومعاملاتهم آخرون. وفي بعض الأحيان يحصلون على مبتغاهم و يقومون بإجراءات رسمية بدون أية زيارة، حتى لو شكلية, للدائرة أو الوزارة المعنية. وهذا خير دليل على تفشي الواسطة والمحسوبية. فإذا لم يكن عندك واسطة فلن تستطيع تدبير امورك بسهولة. على سبيل المثال, هناك وظائف معينة في وزارة الخارجية تذهب فقط لأبناء وبنات عائلات معينة. لذلك كانت هذه النقطة بالتحديد، أي الشفافية والوضوح في توزيع فرص العمل، من مدرج مطالب حملة “ظلمتونا” وتيار الإصلاح الأردني حراك

بناءً على ذلك، عندما التقي سكان عمان الغربية مع سكان عمان الشرقية، الأغنياء والفقراء، على تلك  الإشارة الضوئية, كان من الطبيعي أن يكون هناك حالة تنافر واستياء أدت إلى مشاجرة. وإن ردود الفعل على العبارات التي كتبها ابن الوزير على صفحته في الفيسبوك، مشيراً إلى الجدال الذي نشب بينه وبين المواطن الأردني العادي، هي ليست موجهة له شخصيا ولايمكن إدراجها ببساطة تحت بند الغيرة أو الحسد أو النزاع الطبقي بل هي خير دليل على حالة القرف العام من الواسطة والمحسوبية والفساد المتفشي والحرمان الاقتصادي

تم نشر هذا المقال في جريدة القدس العربي

Behind the Façade in Amman

Statements attributed to the son of the Minister of Labour and Tourism in Jordan, Nidal Katamine, caused an uproar on social networking sites few weeks ago. He posted a tirade against a motorist driving a Kia, who started an argument with him on a traffic light. The minister’s son posted the following on his Facebook page: ‘People are angry with me because I drive an S-Class Mercedes . . . He is what my people call a ‘hater’. But you don’t seem to understand the psychology of sick minded backward cunts in this country.’ Katamine apologized for his remarks, saying that he did not intend to cause any offence, he also expressed surprise at the scale of the reaction to the incident.

Despite his apology his comments, which were translated into Arabic and circulated, caused a storm on social media. Under the hash tag ‘son-of-the-minster’ activists and tweeters posted comments, which were either deprecating or critical. Some suspected the government of stirring class conflict. Others were angry because his father’s salary is paid by the taxpayers. Although this incident is not important in itself it points to a malaise in Jordanian society: the way the rich and powerful treat the underprivileged. And a large number of poor Jordanians have been at the receiving end of unequal treatment.

Amman is divided into two parallel universes one on the west, mostly affluent, and one on the east, mostly poor. This is how I experienced the so called ‘Arab Spring’ which began in December 2010. One Christmas three years ago a fight between Transjordanian Tafilis and Palestinian Mahsirys erupted in Jabal al-Taj, a crowded poor area in East Amman, and instantly the riot police surrounded the neighbourhood with their armoured vehicles and mobile prisons. The mostly young men charged, shouting abuse, and hurling stones. They attacked stationary vehicles and burnt tyres. What started as a quarrel between rival groups turned political and towards the end the demonstrators shouted slogans calling for reform. Things have escalated since in what used to be a peaceful neighbourhood and incidents of stabbing and shooting are reported recently.

When the riot police began using tear gas we closed all the windows and curtains, wore scarves and wrapped them like masks around our faces. We were worried about my mother who has a chest condition. I went outside to see what was happening. I could not film the attacks because it was dark and smoky and the photos I took were blurred. The morning after there was no trace of the night before. Street cleaners were brought in before dawn and they swept the rubbish and carted all evidence away. The only evidence that what I saw actually happened was a canister of tear gas made in Brazil, which fell in one of the neighbour’s gardens.

The next day my meeting was at the Grand Hayatt Regency hotel, where a room costs up to 365 JOD, higher than the average monthly income of many Jordanians. You could also pay 4365 JOD for a suite. I walked into an oasis of calm, imported expensive flowers, open fires and an amazing Christmas tree. Its reflection on the glass was against a lit minaret on the distant hill. The sound of classical music, clinking of glasses, and laughter, and the scent of expensive cigars lingered in the air. Hayatt Regency often organise wine tasting for the uber wealthy. The body and luggage searches before you get in, and security guards protect foreign businessmen, tourist and those who can afford a drink for about 5 JOD. The ugliness of poor neighbourhoods, refugee camps and shanty towns is out of sight and mind. This part of the city knew little about that other part of the city few miles away, which was on fire the night before especially when such riots merit few lines in an on line newspaper.

I remember sitting in one of the cafés in west Amman having coffee with a friend. The son of a rich and influential family joined us. When I said the gap between rich and poor is getting wider and more visible and this will lead to instability and lawlessness. He said, ‘the poor should find jobs and start working.’ I excused myself and took a taxi to East Amman, where my parents live. The driver told me that the gap between what he earns and spends is about 300 JOD. According to the Word Bank 12% of Jordanians are under the poverty line.

Most East Ammanis take any job going: mending clothes, selling cheap merchandise, fixing utensils, couriering groceries to houses. But over the years the number of young men gathering in street corners rose. According to the World Bank Report unemployment is officially pegged at about 15%, but actually may be in the range of 25-30%. The unemployment rate for those between the ages of 20-24 is almost 40% and is 36% for those between ages 25 and 39. Living with no job prospects and few urban recreational centres or spaces, the youth are frustrated and their anger comes to the surface at the least provocation.

The son of minister’s comments hit a raw nerve because corruption and nepotism are rife. I went to one of the departments to renew my Identity Card. The trip to the Mahatta branch of the Passport Office reminded me of something I saw in Bogotá, Columbia, where I was a Guest of Honour at the 74th World Congress of International Pen in 2008. When I arrived at the hotel I was welcomed by three different groups of guards and sniffer dogs. Crime was wide-spread and foreigners could not leave the hotel or travel unescorted. In a mini bus we drove through a dark street with no lighting and the sight seemed like a figment of my own imagination. I was suddenly in a post-apocalypse film where crowds gathered to buy or barter goods, a black economy literally. Vendors spread their knick-knacks on the ground on both sides of the street. There were camp fires and music, and the smell of street food filled the air. People haggled, sang, danced in the darkness and the driver had to drive carefully to get through the makeshift stalls.

Unlike Bogotá, it was morning and the sun was shining in Amman. I took a taxi to Mahatta. The final leg of our journey was slow. The place looked like a flea market and was full of makeshift stalls selling clothes and shoes, old furniture, bead bracelets and necklaces. Most of the used goods and low quality items were spread on the floor and infringed on the main road itself. The driver had to navigate carefully so as not to run over peddlers or their merchandise.

When we arrived to the local branch of the Passport Office all seemed humble, but orderly. The only nod to the past was the old man, sitting on a straw chair and selling stamps outside. I applied, paid and joined the queue. There was no preferential treatment and the only thing that you might encounter in any other county was that one of the female civil servants was in a bad mood. A high ranking official rang me and asked me where I was. I explained that I was waiting for my new ID card. He said, ‘Why? I will take you to the head of the Passport Office. It will be renewed while you enjoy a cup of tea.’ I politely refused his offer.

So some of the affluent and powerful get their affairs done without filing a form or waiting in queues. It is all handled for them by others. Sometimes their applications are processed without even visiting the relevant department or ministry. Nepotism and preferential treatment is wide spread. If you don’t have a wasta: an influential intermediary you don’t go far. Certain jobs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, go to sons and daughters of certain families and one of the demands of Thalmtouna Campaign and Hirak, Jordanian Reform Movement, is transparency about job allocation.

When the residents of the two parts of Amman met, the rich and poor, at that traffic light, they didn’t like each other and an argument ensued. The reaction to the row of the Minister’s Son with an ordinary Jordanian citizen and his Facebook status is not personal, or can be easily classified under the politics of envy, or as spite and class war. It shows simmering resentment at nepotism, pandemic corruption, and economic deprivation.


Zantedeschia 2

Zantedeschia 2 by Boo Beaumont

It was winter. Lying in bed I watched us crack. You packed your bags, but left the black wedding suit labelled ‘Next’. Your manhood’s paraphernalia: cufflinks, ties, boxer shorts, the watch I bought you, cards, anniversarial vowing of undying devotion and my love for lemons that perhaps rubbed on you.

They brought me so far: watching flames in the fireplace tilting this way and that in his cottage, funereal music, phone calls through crackling lines, e-mails, freesias, endless cups of English tea, Farsi fereshteh, Palestinian fatit humus. ‘Have a warm soup dear! Keep calm and put the kettle on!’

It is autumn now. I stand on the wet grass with the viaduct behind me, each arch lit a different colour. X-Rayed flowers projected on the sandstone wall and round-headed sashes of the church.  Austere into sublime. We look, but don’t see what lies beneath a face. Images of inners exposed melt into each other.The scan shows how they regroup, disperse, tear, mend. Petals pulsate and reach out. The stoma and grana capture light, turn it into energy. Nectar.An eternal call answered. Breathe out! Cells dancing to the music of be. Soundtrack cyclical. A libretto without a tenor. Flora in f major. Life.That you could not pack.

This piece was inspired by Boo Beaumont’s Metamorph, Durham Lumiere 2011. See more of her work HERE

Is the Arab Spring Leaving Women in the Cold?

Women’s contribution to the popular protests that swept the Arab world is energetic and inspiring. Some of the bravest people in the Arab countries battling for a democratic future are women. They are doctors and lawyers, writers, human rights activists among others.

In Bahrain women, including doctors, university professors and students, have been kidnapped or arrested and tortured by the Bahraini security forces since the beginning of the latest uprising in February this year. The image of the silent and oppressed Arab woman was totally shattered when the Bahraini 20-year-old woman poet, Ayat Al-Qurmuzi read her poem in Tahrir Square. It was an amazing act of courage and defiance. She called for the king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s resignation and openly challenged his oppressive rule. She called, ‘Bahrain is owned by Al Khalifa. It is my Bahrain.’  She heard that the authorities are looking for her so she went into hiding upon her return to Bahrain. The security forces coerced the Qurmuzi family into disclosing her whereabouts. On 31 March she was arrested and the family heard no word from her since. Her mother, devastated, recorded a heart-rending plea for her release on YouTube and it went viral. She also spoke to the international media begging for mercy. She, like many other Arab mothers, was pushed into activism and visibility by her plight. When the family started searching for Ayat the police told them they had no information about her and tried to force them to sign a letter stating that their daughter had gone missing. In mid-April, an anonymous call was made to the Qurmuzi family informing them that Ayat was ill. Doctors confirmed later that Ayat had gone into a coma after being raped for several times. Eventually, the physicians’ efforts failed to save Ayat’s life and she died at the army hospital.

Similar to Bahraini women Libyan women work side by side with men to keep the revolution alive, society and economy functioning and uprising visible. Women are fighting on the many fronts, organising popular committees, feeding the family and nursing the sick. They also address the public in Benghazi and aid the herds of international media. On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of women took to the streets in Benghazi to call for freedom, to clamour for peace, and to honour their dead. There is no doubt that women in Libya are the backbone of the revolutionary movement.

In some cases they are perceived as the instigators of the uprisings. In Egypt shortly after the ousting of Ben Ali a 26-year old Asmaa Mahfouz, a computer company employee and now a prominent member of Egypt’s Coalition for the Youth Revolution, has been credited with having sparked the protests that began the uprising in January 2011 in Cairo. In a video blog posted on facebook on January 18, she urged Egyptians to fight for their human rights and to voice their disapproval of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. IShe challenged Egyptians to take to the street by saying, ‘If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25th. Whoever says women shouldn’t join protests because they will get beaten let him have some honour and manhood and come with me on January 25th. To whoever thinks it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people I say, “You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president or any policeman who beats us in the streets.”’ She appeared wearing the veil and her message was in harmony with her prescribed role as a Muslim woman.

The same tactic has been adopted by 30-year old Yemeni activist Tawakul Abdel Salam Karman. Karman is a journalist, staunch defender of freedom of the press, an advocate for human rights, and a member of the Islamist party Islah. On January 23, Yemeni officials detained Salam Karman for leading protests at the university in Sana’a in support of the Tunisian revolution and calling for the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over thirty years. As a result of violent street protests that erupted against her arrest, the government soon released Salam Karman from detention. She is now a key figure in a revolution that has yet to run its course.

Bringing to mind The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo or the disappeared in Argentina hundreds of Syrian women marched along the country’s main coastal highway to demand the release of men seized from their home town of Baida, where the police beat and kicked handcuffed detainees on camera recently. This is one of many organised protests by Syrian women.

Many Arab women activist appear wearing the hijab and although their messages are beamed through modern modes of communication and have a reformist agenda they are clothed literally and metaphorically in traditional dress. Women’s movements in the past were led by secular feminist. This tactic of subverting and reinventing ‘traditional’ expectations of womanhood in the service of revolution can be found in number of women’s movements in the region. It is a point of departure for Arab and Muslim women.

Whatever their tactics Arab women play a crucial role in revolutions sweeping the region, but alas most of their menfolk are not supportive of them and do not see the ‘women question’ as crucial. Not one single slogan in all the uprising is about the inferior position of women or is calling for parity between the sexes. Men still see gender-equality lower down the scale than sovereignty and democracy and some believe that women are inferior. Many historical, religious, political and social reasons are behind the widespread belief that Arab women are ‘lesser beings’, weak and impressionable, therefore, cannot be trusted with the grave responsibilities of full citizenship and leadership.

During the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt women were seen as figureheads and sometimes used as mascots to mobilise men, but when the dust settled many were asked to go back to the kitchen where they belonged. An Egyptian woman, who took part in the uprising in Tahrir Square, was worried. ‘The men were keen for me to be here when we were demanding that Mubarak should go,’ she told Catherine Ashton in Cairo, ‘but now he has gone, they want me to go home.’

And the domestic sphere is where the problem for Arab women really lies. After demonstrating in the streets women went home to archaic familial hierarchies. One of the most important institutions in the Arab world is the family, where patterns of oppression are normally produced and reproduced. Hisham Sharabi argues that the extended family is the predominant model in the Arab world, which is normally ruled by the father, who perceives his children as an extension of himself.  The Arab child is oppressed by his father and is over-protected by his mother. ‘Paternal domination can only be disabled by women emancipated through a complete restructuring of the nuclear family.’ Drawing women into active participation in decision-making bodies starts by changing the family structure to become more egalitarian. This will gradually be reflected in other institutions in society. As familial structures are revised, then other societal structures will follow.

Moreover, all citizens of the Arab world (male and female) have obligations towards the state, but do not enjoy many political, civil and social rights. Females are still less equal than their male counterparts. Arab women are second-class citizens, dependent and subordinate. Some women in Jordan were energised and inspired by the uprisings and decided to divorce their abusive husbands only to find that the whole system is tipped against them. Similar to many other Arab countries, women in Jordan cannot pass on their citizenship to their children or husbands; they are still discriminated against by the legal justice system and the judiciary; they need permission from their legal guardians to choose their place of residence or join the labour market. Their right to divorce is still not included in the Personal Status Law, which is mostly based on selective interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith (prophet Mohammad’s saying and deeds).

The recent remarks made by President Ali Abdullah Saleh condemning women’s participation in public protests as being un-Islamic reflects the secondary status of women. Yemen’s conservative customs concerning women, for example, are not legislated as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Sex discrimination in Yemen is sanctioned both by law and in practice. The Personal Status Law calls for wife obedience, allows marital rape, reinforces stereotypes about women’s roles as caretakers within the home and severely restricts women’s freedom of movement.

Throughout the Arab world fundamental issues, therefore, related to women and their rights have yet to be addressed. Although the picture is still grim the possibilities and challenges are endless in this period of transition. Traditional forces, whether secular or religious, might curtail the role women could play in future democracies.

Although equal rights for all citizens is a by-product of democracy the road to achieving that in the Arab world is long and winding and the future is unknown and unmapped. If traditional forces, regardless of their beliefs, triumph then women’s rights will be last on the agenda and will perhaps be traded off in brokering for power. In every Arab country there is what Leila Ahmed dubbed ‘Establishment Islam’. It is a technical and legalistic version of Islam that largely bypasses its ethical thrust and humane and egalitarian spirit. There are many manifestations of this narrow and selective interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith. For example, Saad al-Husseini, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, its highest executive body, stated that while the ‘Freedom and Justice’ party’s new platform must still be approved by the Guidance Office and its Shura Consultative  Council and will adhere to the Ikhwan’s position on the presidency. Many members of the MB argued that a woman cannot hold final power over a man nor a non-Muslim over a Muslim. In other words neither a Coptic Christian nor a woman could run for president of Egypt.

Some Tunisian Islamic parties are making similar noises, although much more subtle and less pronounced. A majority of Tunisia’s High Commission, which is responsible for planning the July 24 elections in Tunisia, voted to ensure parity between men and women in the membership of the National Constituent Assembly.  Electoral lists will have to adhere to parity between male and female to be accepted. However, Islamists, who are becoming more vocal in post-revolution Tunisia, pointed out that women should earn their political rights by merit and should not be granted automatic access to political positions by applying positive discrimination. The debate is heated and the jury is out on this issue. Khadija Cherif, a long-time feminist activist, said to NPR that the return of Islamist parties to Tunisian politics could pose a threat but women will remain vigilant. ‘The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we’ve never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society. We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics.’ Even if the next elections bring in Islamic parties, their manifesto has to be inclusive and egalitarian otherwise women’s space in the emerging democracies will be defined and restricted by religion.

Despite all the challenges women continue to be political within an undemocratic and mostly authoritarian context. They are calling for a form of democracy in which they can play as great a role as men. However, there are worrying signs that this may be denied to them. Tackling women’s rights is a key to unleashing liberal and modernist forces in the Arab world, but old practices and prejudices prevail. For example, the position of Islamist in Tunisia, or virginity tests conducted on arrested female demonstrators in Egypt, or the mercurial position of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on women’s presidency. The eradication of discrimination – whether on grounds of gender, race, religion or sexuality – is the only road to full citizenship rights. Participatory democracy requires not only the right to form political parties and freedom of expression, fair elections, but a generosity of spirit and a willingness to view one’s fellow citizens as fundamentally equal.

The fact is that participatory democracy cannot be achieved without elevating women to the status of full citizenship. Democracy, women’s liberation and equality are intimately connected and both have in common a concern with emancipation, freedom both personal and civic, human rights, integrity, dignity, equality, autonomy, power-sharing, liberation and pluralism. Women’s emancipation leads to emancipation of other groups within the political polity. No future state can be called democratic if personal and group freedoms are limited. The Arab spring will not endure and the shoots planted will not grow without liberating ‘the last colony’, Arab women, and empowering them.

Marginalised, Demonised Revolutionaries

Adam Shatz concludes his article in the LRB by saying ‘if the Egyptian movement to be crushed it will be, in part, because of the conviction that ‘we are not them’.’ Egyptian men and women, Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed as other and inferior for so long that their uprising took the world by surprise. Neither the think tanks in Israel or USA predicted the spread of mass civil unrests in different parts of the Arab world. The lack of respect for Arabs and Muslims in the corridors of power and the way they are daily reduced and deformed on the pages of newspapers are some of the reasons behind that.

In 2007 The Guardian’s research into one week’s news coverage showed that 91% of articles in national newspapers about Muslims were negative. The London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who commissioned the study, said that the findings were a ‘damning indictment’ of the media and urged editors and programme makers to review the way they portray Muslims. Livingstone said. ‘I think there is a demonisation of Islam going on which damages community relations and creates alarm among Muslims.’

According to Sander Gilman ‘such images both result from and result in action. Our fantasies about difference, our anxieties about our status, can result in medical theories about the Other which relegate human being to the status of laboratory animals (in Auschwitz or in the America South); in racial theories that reduce the other to the status of exotic, either dangerous . . . or benign.’ Writing of stereotypes and pseudoscientific theories that were commonly used in colonial discourse turned ‘Muslims’ regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture or language into laboratory animals and made places like Camp X possible, where the suspects, who were never put on trail and found guilty, are treated like animals.

Muslims are perceived as either ignorant and rich or bloody thirsty terrorists. Arabs, marginalised, demonised, racially abused in the West, treated as backward by many of the Israelis revolted against their oppressors. Egyptians got sick of their corrupt, brute dictator who doesn’t allow free speech, elections and tortures and imprisons and even ‘disappears’ his political opponents

The initial reaction by the BBC was to ignore the news in Cairo, concentrate on Sharm el-Sheikh and British tourists and the whole ‘Egypt conflict’, as they called it, would go away. Many western commentators and journalists stated that the Egyptians and are not ready for and/or deserve democracy. The arguments can be summarised as such: democracy is for white people, Christians, Jews and Israelis and Muslims and Arabs do not deserve it. Cohen, cited by Adam Shatz, and some websites like Israel National News referred to the people in Tahrir Square as ‘mob’ conjuring up images of the dangerous and unruly Ottoman savage outside the walls of Vienna in 1529. Richard Cohen argued in the Washington Post that the west had to choose between two alternatives: human rights or history:

Those Americans and others who cheer the mobs in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, who clamor for more robust anti-Mubarak statements from the Obama administration, would be wise to let Washington proceed slowly. Egypt and the entire Middle East are on the verge of convulsing. America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same.

If 9/11 hardened the Muslim Christian binaries and turned Arab dark features into triggers for alarms everywhere, at shopping centres, trains stations and airport 25/1 in Egypt softened those binaries and blow up static, ahistorical and clichéd representations of the Arab. The cracks between western propaganda and reductionism, for most of the reports in the British press were found ‘inaccurate and alarmist’, and flesh and blood Arabs and Muslims began to show. Egyptians, who have similar dark features to Mohammed Atta, proved to be genial, peace loving, press savvy, able to use social networks for maximum effect and steer media representations of their civil disobedience. Aljazeera’s live coverage is punctuated by the crowds shouting silmiyyeh ‘peaceful revolution’. Suddenly a shift in paradigms occurred and was reflected in the tone and content of the coverage. The fossilised image of the evil Muslim that can be traced back to the defeat of Moors in Spain and beyond was shaken. For the first time in a hundred years or more Arabs began to respect themselves and make their own history not Cohen’s. As a result some of the writing in the press on the revolt was tinged with admiration on this side of the divide. New formations are evolving in the western mind and psyche as we speak. This is one of the many triumphs of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. It also shows that peaceful resistance and dialogue are far more superior weapons to violence and terrorism.