Posted by Joshua on Friday, July 9th, 2010
Qifa Nabki has published an interview with me that is generating some discussion: Syrian-Israeli Peace: A Conversation With Joshua Landis
Here are two cultural stories of interest:
Syrian Cinema: Thumbing Its Nose at the Censor
Susanne Schanda, editing by Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de
Politically explosive films and television series from Syria are storming the Arab market. Now the film “The Long Night” – the first Syrian feature film to highlight the fate of political prisoners – has become ensnared in the censorship process. It is nevertheless reaching its audience via satellite television – even in Syria. Susanne Schanda reports that although the censors were full of praise for “The Long Night”, they passed it on to a higher authority for consideration.
Four men in blue prison gear with unkempt grey hair and stubble sit in their cell drinking tea. The light is crepuscular, the plaster is peeling off the walls. They have been behind bars for 20 years for criticising the regime. Karim is the oldest, he stays lying down on his metal bed and has his tea brought to him. He is resigned to his fate. Then the heavy iron door swings open, and out of all the men it is Karim who is ordered to pack his things and go with the guards. He is being released.
The opening scenes of “The Long Night” are almost wordless, and there is no music to break the silence. We watch as Karim washes himself, as the guards shave him and cut his hair. Then suddenly he’s out on the street, in a shirt and suit, a leather bag in his hand – he sniffs the air, and takes in his surroundings with amazement.
The film by Haitham Hakki, one of Syria’s best-known filmmakers, does not focus on prison conditions or the arbitrary nature of detentions. It deals instead with members of the released prisoner’s family, who have come to an arrangement with the regime and made their compromises. The unexpected release of Karim throws their lives into confusion, and triggers recriminations and feelings of remorse.
“I am concerned with the human drama, the film does not operate with political slogans,” says Haitham Hakki in an interview with Qantara.de in Damascus. He wrote the screenplay himself. Once this was approved by the censors, the film could be made in Syria with Syrian actors, under the supervision of star director Hatem Ali.
But the film required further authorisation before it could go on general release in Syrian cinemas. “The censors were full of praise for the film, but because of the sensitive political subject they passed it on to a higher authority for consideration. That was about six months ago. I’ve heard nothing since,” says the author…..( Read the rest)
The quality of the Syrian productions is by far superior to those of other Arab countries. How did Syria, of all places, reach that level?
Hakki: Right from the start, our aim was to make TV series with the quality of films. So we began to shoot with one mobile instead of three fixed cameras and went outside of the studios to real locations. Also, we let the actors speak the Syrian dialect. Before that everything had been spoken in modern standard Arabic, but using dialect sounds much more natural and makes the series more realistic. Today, the television industry in Egypt hires Syrian directors and actors to help improve the quality there.
How would you evaluate the economic importance of TV series in Syria?
Hakki: Today, TV series are the second biggest industry in Syria right after the oil industry. In the whole Middle East, only Egypt produces more than us, 3000 hours of series a year. Syria produces 1500 hours – that is equivalent to 50 TV dramas. Each one of them has 30 episodes so that they can be shown during Ramadan. There must be one episode for every day of the month of fasting…..
None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture
Joshua E. S. Phillips (Phillips book is excellent and has several scenes in Syria, where Phillips interviewed Iraq refugees and played hide and seek with the mukhabarat, who thought he was up to no good and eventually chased him out of the country.) Here is the Amazon blurb about the book.
The legacy of torture in the “War on Terror,” told through the story of one tank battalion. “A lot of people look at Adam Gray’s story and say people who commit suicide are cowards or they don’t have, in the army lingo, ‘intestinal fortitude,’ ‘the hoorah’ or whatever. It’s exactly the opposite. Adam was the most gung-ho soldier I ever met in my entire life—the first guy to kick down a door. [But] I think he hated who he was when he was there. And I think he couldn’t deal with what he had done. And I still have trouble with that. It haunts me every day, and it’s something I’ll never get away from.”—Jonathan Millantz, served with Adam Gray in Battalion 1-68 in Iraq. On April 3, 2009, Jonathan Millantz took his own life.
Sergeant Adam Gray made it home from a year’s tour in Iraq only to die in his barracks. For more than three years, reporter Joshua Phillips—with the support of Adam’s mother and the cooperation of his Army buddies—investigated Adam’s death. What Phillips uncovered was a story of American veterans psychologically scarred by the abuse they had meted out to Iraqi prisoners. How did US forces turn to torture? Phillips’s narrative recounts the journey of a tank battalion— trained for conventional combat—as its focus switches to guerrilla war and prisoner detention. It tells of how a group of ordinary soldiers, ill trained for the responsibilities foisted upon them, descended into the degradations of abuse. The location is far from CIA prisons and Guantánamo, but the story captures the widespread use and nature of torture in the US armed forces. Based on firsthand reporting from Jordan, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as interviews with soldiers, their families and friends, military officials, and the victims of torture, None of Us Were Like This Before reveals how soldiers, senior officials, and the US public came to believe that torture was both effective and necessary. The book illustrates that the damaging legacy of torture is not only borne by the detainees, but also by American soldiers and the country to which they’ve returned.
A Reader Review: “This book is engaging and affecting from the first to last page. The book is not dry policy discussion, overly graphic, or accusatory in tone. Phillips focuses instead on the personal stories of U.S. soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. His empathy for those he profiles shines through the pages. Phillips does not offer simple answers to why torture happens, but instead explores the many influences — personal, governmental, and cultural — that lead to it and to the tragedies it produces both for the tortured and the torturer. “
Also of note considering the ongoing debate over the legacy of Fadlallah is this excellent article.
The Sheikh Who Got Away Foreign Policy
BY DAVID KENNER | JULY 6, 2010
How the United States got Lebanon’s leading Shiite cleric dead wrong — and missed a chance to change the Middle East forever. ….
Following the end of the Lebanese civil war, Fadlallah became more circumspect about justifying attacks on Western targets. Along with Hezbollah and Iran, Fadlallah condemned the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as incompatible with Islamic law. The attackers, he said, were not martyrs but “merely suicides.” He attributed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s motivations for carrying out the attacks to “personal psychological needs” stemming from a “tribal urge for revenge.” He also denounced the July 7, 2005, attacks in London as “a kind of barbarism that Islam unequivocally rejects.”
As Fadlallah grew in stature throughout the Arab world and also seized the attention of many in Washington, the competing portrayals of him quickly failed to bear even a passing resemblance to each other. For the U.S. government, he was an unrepentant terrorist who played an integral role in Hezbollah’s most vicious operations. To the mourners in Beirut, he was a fierce critic of colonialism and an important pioneer in efforts to reconcile traditional religious teaching with modernity and gender equality.
There was an element of truth to the U.S. stance: Fadlallah was certainly no liberal, nor an ally to be recruited to advance U.S. security goals. However, even a quarter-century after that misguided assassination attempt, U.S. officials failed to appreciate the areas where their interests and Fadlallah’s overlapped, both in isolating Iran and reducing the appeal of fundamentalism within Lebanon. The United States always preferred blunt instruments and simple epithets — crude tools indeed for a complex man.
Here is a good article by Tony Badran on Fadlallah. Not too often that I like Tony’s work.
Lebanon Now, by Tony Badran
The passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah marks the end of an era for Lebanese Shiism. Who will attempt to fill his shoes as the leading marja remains to be seen, though it is safe to assume Iran, which never recognized his status, will try to fill the vacuum….
Michael Young explains why Fadlallah was not a liberal in Lebanon Now.