Friday, November 21, 2008

Of Social Contracts

Back. I've been busy, travelling.

Remember that book from Poli-Sci 101 ? Jean-Jacques Rousseau ? I received the special issue of Al Ahram on Social Contract... Here's an article that I recommend, about Egypt and Sharia law, and below the comment I sent, titled "Yes, We Can".

On another forum I've had lots of reactions to this comment. A surprising number of people mistake secularism with the absence of religion, rather than a way to treat all religions equally. I'll follow up on that. Any lawyers ?


Yes, We Can !

I was interested by your article "The absent woman" on Sharia and civil law in Egypt. 

In the same article you talk about social contract and about Sharia. You make the point that the rank of women as second-class citizen in the civil law stems from a misinterpretation of the Sharia, and you make call for a new, more "modern" interpretation of Sharia. I am sure that none of your assumptions were commanded by political correctness rather than sincere beliefs, therefore I'd like to go further and ask a question.

Do you have a social contract with Sharia ? Should every citizen have one ? The concept of social contract involves, at least symbolically, that every citizen agrees to some form of contract, and that is clearly materialized in a democracy, where citizens make the law and therefore willingly submit to it. But citizens didn't write the Sharia, God did.

As you said, the current interpretation of Sharia may contradict the very constitution it's embedded in. In fact it does contradict even higher laws: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, binding all member States of the United Nations, including Egypt. Which is why some members, including Egypt, decided to re-write it, or write their own Declaration of Human Rights, no more "universal", but suitably the "Cairo Declaration of Human Rights" according to Sharia, or Human rights in Islam. There is no universality any more for the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference who signed this text.

They were bothered by a certain number of universal rights, especially articles 16 and 18, for instance, so... they changed them:
Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
The Islamic conference's declaration, in turn, gives men and women the "right to marriage" regardless of their race, colour or nationality, but of course not religion. That is not subject to interpretation. Whichever way you turn that rule, marriage is strictly regulated by Sharia.

Same for Article 18: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief". Of course, no muslim country can accept that, because apostasy is a crime, according to Sharia, and freedom of conscience does not exist.

The preamble of the Cairo declaration states that "All men are equal in terms of basic human dignity", whereas the Universal Declaration said "rights", Article 6 of the Cairo declaration states that women are guaranteed equal dignity, in contrast to the Universal declaration which offers equal rights. These are just a few examples of the differences between the two Declarations.

As you can see, your observations on women being "less equal than others" could also apply to non-muslims. That is inevitable, since Sharia is stated as a source of the law: one religion above the others.

Therefore, the inevitable conclusion if one wants equal rights among all citizens is that civil law and Sharia cannot live in the same text, nor be enforced by the same entity, however liberal the interpretation. The State has to choose one or the other to be consistent. Sharia is an individual choice, guided by faith, not to be forced unto the people by means of a civil code.

There are moderate muslims who live perfectly happy in Western societies, they live according to their faith, and according to a law that grants rather more equal rights than in Egypt. Why is that possible in the West ? Because it happens in open societies where religion and State are separated clearly.

It appears that your assumption that "Religion is an ally to equal citizenhip" is a vastly overstated one, or wishful thinking. I appreciate your call on scholars to bring an interpretation more suitable to the times. But what if, in their vast majority, they think the current interpretation should not be changed ? And you still submit the fate of the people to those unelected scholars. Which ones have the authority ?

I liked your attack on a so-called "Eastern Identity", for I can hear the criticism of a secularist model in the Middle East: "our Eastern identity is not ready for this. We have to keep our Sharia as a law, because our people want it and it's part of our identity." Is it ? Surely, Christians could have said the same when the Church and the State were separated in the West, and they did. But change happened, enforced by political courage. What is and what is not "Eastern Identity" ? Is it really religion ? What about minorities then ? 

A telling reality all over the Middle East is the existence of a line "Religion" in all ID papers and passports. What is the necessity for the State to record that information, if not to sort citizens and treat them differently in various situations ?

You mention that the responsible of the inequality between men and women is the patriarchal set of customs, rather than religion. But what if patriarchal rules were an inherent part of many major religions, including Islam ? It is a possibility that should not be ignored.

Some rules are not to be "re-interpreted", but simply erased, like of course were erased the practice of stoning or chopping hands. But, is it still Sharia, if it was expurgated from the most embarrassing passages ? Can one pick and choose ? Justice and common sense always run the risk of being overrun if they contradict the religion of a majority. Can religion be separated from State in the Middle East ? A lot of local friends say "this is the way things are around here, and no one can change it with a magic wand". The question is: do you want to change it ? Are Middle Eastern people fundamentally different from the western ? I beg to differ.

Someone whose middle name is Hussein recently said something very inspirational to all of us about change. Wherever we live, whichever society, whichever social contract or environment. Can we change it ? Can we change ourselves ? That gentleman responded: "Yes, we can."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A bullet in the leg

1. ANger. After seeing this Israeli soldier shoot a (rubber) bullet at point blank range in the leg of a blindfolded Palestinian held by another soldier. How can these Israeli soldiers not realize the shame they bring not only on their country but also on all Jews, when they have no right to speak for anyone else.

On the bright side, the video was shown by an anti-colonization, militant Israeli NGO. Those Israeli gave small video cameras to Palestinians to record every incident they could see in the street, and to be able to show it to the world.

The man who was shot recovered, and the one who shot the bullet was sent to prison. But only because there was this evidence.
2. Niqab. France has gone mad. It denied citizenship to a Moroccan woman because she was wearing the niqab. Everyone in France seemed happy about that: the right, the left, womens' organizations... They said it's a submissive practice that goes against the place of women in our society.

First, the French called it a Burqa (which is the "grilled" Afghan version). Second, they said she was practising her religion in an "extreme way" (although there's nothing in the Q'ran on niqabs). Third, this is a private matter. How you choose to dress should not affect your access to citizenship. What about people who have S&M practices and choose to walk in the street with a leash (I've seen some punks do that in London) ?

3. Run to see "Waltz with Bashir", the animated movie about the War in Lebanon. An israeli soldier tries to remember what happened to him when the Christian militias went into the camps of Sabra and Chatila to kill Palestinians. It's probably not going to show in Arab countries though, since it's made by an Israeli, although it's very critical of Israel.

The same happened to "The Band's visit" last year, a very nice Israeli movie about an Egyptian band coming to Israel to perform music at a Palestinian festival.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


1. I remember heroes in black and white, from a time in black and white. My grandfather's war, the second World War, was in black & white. There were not as many questions. Morals were simpler, people had simpler choices and it seems to me were more straightforward.
He'd always go back to those three years of fighting, as the most important of his life. Of course, whenever I asked him about it, my grandmother would go "oh, here we go agaaaaaain".

2. Time has taken her away. She was travelling last time I was in France, and I couldn't meet her. She died suddenly, while I'm here, away.

We always assume that we have time, when we really don't. We can't afford to postpone anything: seeing family, friends, our loved ones, when we are able to see them, because really no one knows what can happen next. It's very obvious, of course, but still we forget about it all the time: WE DON'T HAVE TIME. We forget until it's too late.

When life goes away, so go the laughters to come, and the ones you had are all that's left.

3. Se worried about me since you left. She asked questions.

I saw a recent picture of you, by coincidence, on the net. It was unexpected. And it did me good: I felt nothing. It made me realize I am probably not in love with you any more. There is just this longing of something valuable that was wasted away. Like I gave a part of me that is gone, and there's a hollow feeling there.

I still google your name sometimes, to check on you. All I need is to know that you're alright, that you're doing fine. The only form of love I have left for you: knowing that you're ok. And that is enough.

4. There's more life and love ahead, but it's hard to jump into the water again when you nearly drowned once. This week, I had a very real reminder that time is running from our fingers.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What's in a name

1. Barack Hussein Obama's being ridiculously attacked by Republicans for sharing his middle name with Saddam. Stephen Colbert made a hilarious remark that "Rodham" (Hillary Rodham Clinton) also sounds like "Saddam". Hey, here's the next joke for late shows and conspiracy theorists: has anyone noticed that his first name is also the surname of Israel's Defense minister and ex-prime minister, Ehud Barak ? Go figure.

2. On a more serious note, a couple  of days ago I was mentioning the soaring price of fuel triggering strikes in 2 businesses: trucking and fishing. The same scenario is now expanding geographically. UK truckers are joining the strikes. In Thailand and South Korea, truckers and fishermen strikes were violently repressed. More strikes on fuel prices in India and Hong Kong.
 Philippines are Malaysia are hit hard too. The images from all over the world start to look exactly the same. In Barcelona, the busiest city of Spain, there is a shortage in gas stations. No more fuel.

It's expanding to other industries too: the Lisbon airport is CLOSED due to fuel shortage. The capital of Portugal, a major European city ! Farmers in France started protesting too. Major car companies are reacting fast. Toyota in Japan is reducing its production of SUVs to switch to hybrids. Hummer in the USA are closing plants.

In Russia, Gazprom warned that the price of the barrel is going to hit 250 dollars (now 135).
That's only the beginning. Start buying shares of bicycle makers and running shoes !

Funny that no one in the US is protesting yet, while war is hindering normal production in the world's largest oil reserve: Iraq.

3. Another ressource that is being depleted: water. In the Middle East, especially. The authorities in Jordan have started to send the police against misuse of water, like washing your car or watering your garden during the day.

Dilemma under the sun

There's a big bright sun over Amman. And I have a fantastic roof. Sun + roof = sitting outside soaking it up, reading the newspaper. Not in the Middle East, not in Amman. I went up with my paper and sunglasses, debated whether I could take my shirt off at least through the cartoon section and let my skin photosynthesize that vitamin D and soak up natural anti-depressant.

I did. But after 5 minutes of sitting there with my shirt off, I just "felt" eyes over me. I noticed all the surrounding windows like as many dark eyes. Now, I don't know. Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe the curtains around were just moved by the wind... I just felt wrong. I put my shirt back on, cursing. And went downstairs, because what's the use ?

I have a dream, that one day in Jabal Weibda, man will be able to read his newspaper shirtless on his roof without feeling like he's in the nude on Broadway.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Of Bush and my grandmother... and stuff

1. I just saw George Bush on TV. I couldn't concentrate on what he was saying, because I just noticed how much he looks more and more like my grandmother. Seriously. It's disturbing.

2. It has begun. The moment when the price of oil has become so expensive that it threatens the profitability of businesses directly depending on it. In Portugal, Spain and France, truck drivers and Fishermen no longer make profits when they work, due to the price of gasoline. The strikes expand geographically, and it's probably going to expand to other sectors of the economy.

The current crisis is also affecting the price of food worldwide. In Bengl Desh, Ethiopia, Egypt, news are coming. In Europe, people are now being very careful trying to save money when they shop for food.

Maybe the strikes in Europe will eventually stop, after negociations to lower the taxes on oil. But this is just a temporary solution to a long-term problem: the finite nature of this planet's resources. Check out the Story of stuff, that I found on this Jordan blog. It explains really well the nature of the problem.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Only Middle Eastern Gay Pride Parade

Yesterday was the 10th Gay Pride parade, in Israel, to promote the rights of gays and lesbians. That's one thing for which Israel is actually more progressive than its neighbours. When will a Gay Pride event be organized in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon or Egypt ?

Most governments in the region are very repressive (remember the Queen boat in Cairo). I suspect many Middle Eastern people even refuse to accept the existence of same-sex love.

Remember the hilarious statement of Mahmood Ahmadinejad stating that "there are no gays in Iran". From what I saw, Jordan and Lebanon are a bit more tolerant than Egypt. In Tel Aviv's Gay parade, the feminist group called "Black Laundry" also protest each year to promote Palestinian rights, a common sight in all progressive, left-wing demonstrations.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ban the Dane... the return

I love Amman. Whenever I think my rants are moot, and I might run out of topics for this blog, I just buy the newspaper.

The problem is: I talk to intelligent, educated, modern, open-minded Jordanians, and it distorts my understanding of local reality. Thank God (yes!), the front page of the Jordan Times today runs a title on BOYCOTT...

Yes, aaaaagain, the old Danish cartoons story. The Amman general prosecutor decided to subpoena the Danish journalists for running the cartoons in 2006, and a new ban on Danish products is planned to start this week.

The story doesn't say if Danish insuline should be boycotted by hospitals and diabetics, since Denmark still produces 90% of it, despite Saudi's efforts to build a new plant.

I wish I could find online and publish on this blog the French cartoons of the 1970s on Jesus walking on the sea, and his disciples swimming around saying: "you should join us, the water's perfect !", and many others that even the Pope must have had a good laugh with.

So, we're still there. Some among us are still stuck into a timeframe where their religion is threatened by a cartoon. I remember the excellent movie "The name of the Rose" where the church was destroying and hiding some forbidden books of Aristotle and Aesop because they were funny and laughter was the enemy of God.

Also, yesterday I was discussing about Roberto Benigni's controversial efforts to laugh about everything. And he was right.

OK the cartoons were not funny. But that is their only crime, and the only reason I disagree with them. Voltaire said "I do not agree with you but I will defend to death your right to say it".

Laughter and caricature is a healthy way to point our own shortcomings, and this boycott reaction is the worst possible reaction.

A very funny actor, Desproges, once said: "One can laugh about everything, but unfortunetely not with everyone". I couldn't agree more.

Random thoughts, coming back from Europe

1. I was re-reading the short text by Kant: "What is enlightenment ?". Always a pleasure.

"Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's reason without guidance from another. This immaturity is comes from lack of resolve and courage to use reason. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] "Have courage to use your own understanding!"--that is the motto of enlightenment.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why a great proportion of men, long after having reached the age of maturity, gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their "guardians".

It is easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, I need not exert myself at all. Others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (especially women) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult.

Having first made their livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the cart to which they are harnessed, these "guardians" then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone. Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in the end learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts."


I was glad to learn that Barack Obama won t

he nomination of the Democratic party. After all, this long fight against Hillary yielded a lot of exposure, and also toughened him for the fight to come with McCain, so in the end it was a good thing.

3. Even when the sun shines in Europe, it's never as much of a sun as the one in the Middle East. Actually, I doubt it's even the same. I'm glad to feel its rays back on me again.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ben Laden and the Pope

Today, to my surprise, two personalities I generally disagree with, issued interesting statements.

The first was Osama Bin Laden
The second was the Pope Benedict.

1. Here is the first"Osama bin Laden released a new message on Sunday that accused Arab leaders of sacrificing the Palestinians and called on Muslim militants in Egypt to help break the blockade of Gaza"

Well, we have to agree. There are about 50 jobs that a Palestinian CANNOT apply to in Lebanon. Official discrimination is in place in most of the Middle Eastern countries where Palestinians live. Since there is a policy of maintaining Palestinians under a refugee status, many Palestinians are born in exile and will never be given the citizenship of their country of birth, which goes against my belief in jus soli.

Unofficial discrimination is also a reality: ask a father from Lebanon or Egypt if he would give his daughter to a Palestinian husband.

Human Rights organizations issued many reports on Palestinian discrimination in the Middle East. Here is Amnesty International

Plenty of testimonies are available, like this one :"Being a refugee in Lebanon since my birth, I have witnessed and lived through all kinds of prejudices practiced against my people.Palestinians are not allowed to work in many jobs".

After so many statements that Egypt was supporting its "Palestinian brothers", why did Egypt close its border with Gaza ?

2. I had so many objections against the election of Pope Benedict XVI, especially considering his misguided youth when at the same age, young men aged 17 died in the resistance. Today Mr Ratzinger is using his position of moral authority and his ministry for a good cause: the ban on cluster bombs.

He unexpectedly took on to speak against the production of these bombs. A cluster bomb is a bomb that subdivides into many smaller bombs scattered indiscriminately on the ground, many of which do not explode after impact. These smaller bombs just lay there for months or years, until a civilian, usually a child, picks up this funny-looking piece of plastic, and gets maimed or killed.

The largest producers of cluster bombs, of course, do not support this ban. That would be China, Russia, Israel, and of course the US.

It's a bit sad that these statements come from people I dislike (the Pope) or despise (Bin Laden). The statements stand out because of the personalities of their authors, being who they are. It would be more comforting if they came more often from people that we do support.

The REAL Iron-Man

Okay... Let's breathe and change topics a minute. Check out Yves Rossy, the Swiss pilot.

I want a pair of these !

About "heroes" in the Middle East: with the Black Iris, I don't understand why so many otherwise reasonable people here cannot be at all critical of Hassan Nasrallah. That includes some European observers, fascinated by the guy. 

Why isn't Lebanon entitled to try and have a government with the monopoly of legitimate violence, as any other State (in the definition of Max Weber) ? What's so great about having a sectarian State within a State, supported by foreign powers ?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Do I have the right to use my mind ?

Should I apply my reason only to things confined to my country of citizenship, or do I have the right to observe, study, and build a reasonable informed opinion on things related to the rest of the world ?

As a great admirer or travelers and observers, Ibn Battuta was always a long-time hero for me. He travelled from Morocco to Central Asia, Afghanistan, China and the Arabic peninsula. He was an acute observer and "journalist", commenting on local habits, and often acting as a judge, using his wisdom and common sense.

No one has infinite knowledge, but wisdom and common sense are universal tools that one can apply in China as well as in Timbouctou.

But today I am more and more weary of the criticism of change in sectarian societies: change (especially in the sense of open democracy and separation of religion and state) is bad, because change comes from the outside. Change is a new form of colonialism, with soft power.

There is a legitimate suspicion in that criticism. Even if it is flawed, I can understand it because by definition it comes from closed societies.

That is why change should mostly come from within one country's borders. The biggest job is done in the field by local, grassroots NGOs.

Let only the Egyptian NGOs tackle FGM in Egypt, only Jordanian NGOs tackle "honor killings" in Jordan, only Muslim NGOs tackle women's rights in Islam, only Israeli NGOs criticize Israel.
Not because they're the only ones who share these principles and values. But because they -at least- cannot be accused of neo-colonialism and of being insensitive to local cultures.

My conclusion, after years of working with NGOs is, maybe there is no place yet in the world outside Euro-America, for a cosmopolitan community of observers of Politics, a fraternity of freethinkers, because at the local level there will always be the obstacle of  "if you don't come from here, you have no right saying what you think because it just means you want to impose your values".

No amount of time traveling, studying customs and languages can give the legitimacy needed by closed societies in order to listen to new ideas and think about changing.

But it's vital that we look beyond our own problems, that we imagine solutions.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Happy (?) Birthday Israel

So... today's the day. Happy birthday Israel. But... are you really happy ?

It's a year of 60th anniversaries: May 14, 1948: Israel was born (May 15: Nakba started). A few months later: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued.

I keep finding it funny that the United Nations created in a few months' interval a State based on ethnic preference, and a Declaration that condemns ethnic/religious discrimination.

Funny also that one year before, India (also formerly under British rule) gained independence and was partitioned along ethnico-religious lines with Pakistan, forming two "ethnically homogenous" (!) States. Of course the ensuing massacres did not teach anyone anything, nor did the refugee situation in both countries, and the lingering territorial problem. Well, at least India is now a Democracy that has a Muslim President. That's not likely to happen soon in Israel.

It took me some time to get to see the point of Palestinians, because at first I did not question the wisdom of the UN decision to create two States in 1947-48. I thought all the current problems came from the post-1967 situation, the occupation of territories, the settlements, the wall, etc.

But applying a cartesian approach, I decided to get rid my my preconceptions and started to question the legitimacy of this UN decision, 60 years ago, to create these two "monoethnic" entities, and to question the philosophy behind it.

It's easy to see what is wrong in the pure logic of an ethnically based country today. Let me take an example: Aliyah.

For those who are not familiar, Aliyah is the "Law of Return" that says that even if I have no connection whatsoever with Israel, know no one there, don’t speak Hebrew, and know nothing of Judaism, I am still entitled to immediate Israeli nationality, based on my “race”, because one of my ancestors was Jewish (and therefore I'm "ethnically Jewish" if that makes any sense to anyone). In the meantime, Palestinians will not enjoy equal  rights.

Let's see what it would mean in another context. It's as if the USA issued automatic citizenship to "ethnic" White Anglo-Saxon Protestants from all over the world, and denied that same citizenship to Native Americans, while forcing those "Indians" out and restricting them to reservations.

Oh wait... That's what happened in America... But that was in the 19th century. They got away with it then, there was no one to look over their shoulder. But in the middle of the 20th century and a fortiori in the 21st century still, it looks bad.

This is exactly why renowned historian Tony Judt says Israel is "an anachronism":

"The very idea of a "Jewish state"—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one. In today's "clash of cultures" between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp."  (see full article)

Tony Judt is, might I add, Jewish. Like many other Jews, he questions this philosophy of mixing ethnicity and State, as clearly a notion of the infamous past. Other Jews who think like this include Ilan Pappe, Jeff Halper, Rony Brauman and others. Google their names + "One State Solution" and you'll get plenty more references.

Since it's Israel's birthday, I mention only the Israelis who question the ethnic principle, but of course plenty of Palestinians also think the same, starting with the late Edward Said.

So there is hope. You can see it, for example, in Galilee - where Jews and Arabs live in a region relatively free from state interference. I saw the other day a BBC report on the city of Jaffa, where Jews and Arabs have always and still live together, in stability.  Jaffa is not particularly exceptional, this situation can be repeated everywhere.

I also meet  more and more Jews and Palestinians (Christian and Muslims) who see in this option a better way to achieve stability, long-term security, and economic prosperity.

One State Solution means a secular state, with clear separation of religion and politics, under the protection of the UN and the US, that would protect and guarantee the rights of Jews and Arabs, equally, that would actively mix them in schools, and develop the poorest parts of the country (Gaza), like the reconciliation process did in South Africa.

What about past grievances ? Already a number of Palestinian and Israeli historians started working together to achieve a common narrative for the history of this land. In his book, Ambassador Dennis Ross, chief US negociator during the Oslo process, argued that "the problem was the differing narratives of the two sides and the failure to reconcile the conflicting perspectives". Re-writing a common history book for both sides is one of the tools of engineering a reconciliation process.

Some have said that Israel is reproducing South African apartheid, so indeed there is hope. What  South Africa did 15 years ago, ending the apartheid and starting a process of peace and reconciliation within ONE single state, seemed almost impossible at the time. Yet they did it, and although South Africa is not home yet, the violence of the 80's is long gone, and it's the most vibrant economy on the continent. It has a Black President, and the Blacks did not start killing the Whites frantically.

Many Jewish organizations are not happy with the state of things (to mention a few: “Rabbis for Human Rights”,  "Israeli Human Rights Group", "Israeli Peace Group", "Fellowship of Reconciliation", etc). Hava Keller, an old grandmother who was once an Israeli soldier, now speaks for Palestinians, much like White activists were advocating for Blacks' rights in South Africa. There's hope. Check Yesh Gvul, that group of Israeli soldiers who protest against their army. 

This anniversary is the oportunity to say "Israel is not home yet. Maybe it was wrong of the UN to create it that way 60 years ago. Let's not deny Israel its right to exist, but let's give it the chance to become, at last, a modern, open democracy, with equal rights  for all, so that Jews and Palestinians can live in peace together on the same, undivided land."

To end this post, I will tell you a story. When I saw the picture below, by an Israeli artist, painted on walls in Tel Aviv, it reminded me of it. Alexander the Great, in order to unite his Empire and avoid future clashes between Persians and Greeks, planned to create a new class by intermarriage of Macedonian and Persian families. He ordered his most prominent soldiers and officers to marry Persian women. He himself married foreign, Roxanne of Bactrian. But this is another story...

Good night, and good luck :)

ps. As I'm still awake, I heard that a rocket fired from Gaza wounded 14 Israelis in Ashkelon. Tomorrow's going to be the Israeli response. Business as usual.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Occupation 101

1. I just went to see "Occupation 101", the documentary on Palestine by Sufyan Omeish (thanks, Lina !)

At first, I thought this movie was exactly what the title says: a 101 documentary,  for people with no clue about what is going on in Palestine. One more of these. In Europe, as opposed to America, we've been quite extensively exposed to documentaries about Palestine.

I was wrong. It's not one more of these. After 15 minutes, the specificity of this documentary started revealing itself. Clearly, it's destined to an American audience (hence the choice of statistics that will appeal to American taxpayers about how their money's being spent). But, the specificity is that the majority of the witnesses who speak against Israeli occupation are Israeli Jews.

This makes it all the more interesting, especially when shown to a Middle Eastern audience. It shows anti-Zionist Israeli Academics, journalists, Human Rights lawyers, activists, etc, bashing their country's policy. And that is refreshing. Humanity.

I thought I had seen it all before but the first image that caught my attention was indeed quite disturbing: Israeli soldiers using stones to break the limbs of prisoners. To be frank, the only thing these images come close to, in their sheer brutality, are World War II documentaries about the way the Germans treated the Jews. Sadly. It is quite unpleasant to draw the parallel. Also, the parallel with South Africa's apartheid is underlined.

I am normally quite weary of the use of the image of children in documentaries. I think it usually relies too much on pathos to be honest. But there is a quite rare interview of a very articulate little girl who has to be no more than 7 years old, and who talks extensively of her own experience, with her own references. She complains vehemently that her clothes always smell of gas, but she can't throw them because they're the only ones she's got, and she couldn't enjoy her new rings, because her house and belongings were destroyed.

As I said, I hate to see sad children in docs, because there are sad children everywhere, and that doesn't say much. There are also sad children who suffered bombings in Israel. But this little girl, she's not sad. She's angry, disappointed, and righteously indignated, in the way a reasonable adult would be.

I dare anyone who sees that sequence to be able to speak, with that lump in the throat, immediately after listening to her.

There are the inevitable Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky interviews, always interesting. A couple of "refuznik" Israeli soldiers, one old woman who was an Israeli soldier in 1948 and speaks against occupation. This is quite new, too.

It's undeniably a powerful documentary, not just one more of the same. For me, I did learn new things, which is, after all, why I'm in the Middle East at all. 

2. More on this "honour killing" story in Jordan. Everyone says that religion has nothing to do with it, that it's a minority of lunatics who perform those crimes. But I'm wondering if any formal condemnation will come from the mosques in the next Friday sermons. If a few clerics could come out and be vocal and clearly condemn those practices, maybe it would help educate the perpetrators.

3. I was wondering why many Jordanians don't like debating politics and exploring different options on a number of issues. I think I might have found at least one part of the explanation.

If you live in a system where your voice does not count, will you bother to express it ? I wonder how many Jordanians actually vote. And if they vote, I wonder if the vote has any influence on the outcome of the country's policies. Surely, if you cannot choose your leader and the way the government spends your taxpayer's money, you're not going to bother debating about policy options on education, religion, human rights, etc. Especially in an executive monarchy, without accountability (that I know of).

So that would explain why debate seems sterile and useless, and why some people feel they cannot do anything to promote change. It must feel very disempowering, can't blame them.

Yet, Jordan seems to do quite fine. Better than its neighbours. Better than Egypt, and definitely better than Lebanon. For now. For how long ?

Knowledge, Respect and Responsibility

Many people infantilize traditional societies, like those performing Honor killings and FGM, with a demagogic, twisted discourse based on a terribly wrong interpretation of Max Weber's famous "axiologic neutrality", and a misuse of the word Respect.

Mostly, all modern education is based on the philosophy of Enlightenment and Humanism. A belief in Mankind. An optimistic view that things will get only better if we put our minds to it. Everywhere.

It is the philosophy that brought us a few Revolutions, including scientific revolutions, and the various Declarations of Human Rights, especially the first principle: all men are born with equal rights, equal dignity, and should be given equal opportunities. Everywhere.

By a strange deviation of the thought, there is a branch of academics known as relativists who extended that belief to claim that all cultures are equivalent, in all aspects, everywhere, and at any point in history. Therefore, no progress should ever be attempted to me made.

In other words, it means denying access to closed societies. Disguised as a very "open-minded" approach to the world, this is, in fact, a terribly despising, conservative posture.

It means "we (from rich countries or the wealthy classes in developing countries), are the happy few. We have had access to culture and opportunities, but you guys (Africans, South American natives, poor people everywhere, etc) should stay as you are, because we respect your culture".

So I met a well-intentioned anthropologist, well-educated, who was explaining that NGOs should not tamper with local cultures. She said in substance that NGOs should "respect" local cultures and not try to suggest to implement ideas they think are better. It's a philosophy that I understand. But allow me to have a doubt.

The problem is, it's a philosophy from the de-colonization time... 60 years ago. It was also the big debate in NGOs about 50 years ago. It was new and necessary then. Now, it's moot.

NGOs have evolved a lot in 50 years. They integrated this criticism, they changed their approach, became very aware of local cultures, of local empowerment, they started to listen before they suggest changes. But the victims of traditional societies cannot be left abandoned.

It poses an epistemological problem: if you cannot judge values, there are no values, everything is worth the same, good or bad. There is no good, nor bad. No beliefs. Especially it contradicts the platonician belief that the aim of democracy is the pursuit of happiness, and to have a better society. And it bans the pursuit of virtu, Machiavel's "civic virtue". Sometimes you just have to take a stand, with all due respect.

So... What of Relativism today ? It seems it's the ultimate lack of respect for "locals", actually.

Read the newspaper today in Jordan: ONE MORE HONOR KILLING. A man killed his 22-year-old sister for sleeping with her lover.

Relativists say let's respect him, the brother and his family. It's their culture. Let them learn with time, and not interfere. Let's maintain them longer in their ignorance and bigotry.

Denying that the other can be as good, and as bad, as myself and my society, is denying similarities, denying kin-ness, for better and for worse. It's denying the fact that, deep inside, we're all made the same way and have the same instincts. And we're all entitled to progress. And we can all learn. All societies actually make progress. No one can stop it, thank God. But we can slow it down or accelerate it considerably.

It is a good idea that progress should be shared. Those who had access to knowledge were just lucky, and should share it with the rest, just like Penicillin was shared, otherwise it's called being incredibly selfish, self-centered, and unfair. After years of expensive education, it seems ungrateful to believe that one should keep their ideas and experiences to themselves and not share them.

With great knowledge comes the great responsibility to share it.

The whole world has learned from all cultures. We've learned mathematics from the Arabs, we learned from the Chinese, from India, and yes, we do learn from Africa, and, yes, Africa learns from other continents. It is not a bad thing. Ideas should circulate, should adapt to societies, and they most of the time do, in a smooth way.

Take the best in all cultures, reject the worst. That seems sensible, common sense. Plus, sharing is also challenging. It shakes one's beliefs. It can shatter them or make them stronger, more firmly based, having been through the fire of a different reality.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

How I worshipped Satan in the Holy Land

I hate borders. This is not new. I still think fondly of the good old times when a man like Ibn Battuta could roam the Middle East without borders and passport, just a letter of recommendation in hand. Nowadays, he would never make it 50 miles from home. Borders and walls never stopped any terrorist anyways.

Here's a little experience I had a few days ago. Pay attention if you plan on traveling the Middle East. My plan was to go from Amman, Jordan to Sinai, Egypt, and to save money by not using a plane.

Aqaba is right next to the city of Eilat in Israel, and Taba in Egypt. There are boats that go directly from Aqaba to Egypt, to Taba or Nuweiba.

The trouble is, nobody in Aqaba knows when and where those boats leave. So, I missed it and took the road. This shouldn't be a problem, since I am a European citizen and don't need a visa to go to Israel.

The Taxi from Aqaba to the border takes about 5 minutes. Crossing Eilat in Israel, border to border is about 10 minutes. So, there I went.

I arrived at the border at 1 pm, carefully asking the Jordanian officer to stamp my exit on a separate sheet of paper, not on my passport, in case I wanted to go to Syria or Lebanon.
5 minutes later, I walked the 100m no man's land between Jordan and Israel, till I reached the Israeli flags.

There was nobody else crossing. The woman on duty took my passport and called her superior, from intelligence security services. The grilling started.

"What is your nationality ?
- French, as you can see on my passport" I was still smiling.
- Where does your name come from ?
- France
- It is not a French name
- Yes it is. Define 'French'. Good luck, it's been an ongong debate in my country for more than 2 hundred years...
- ... What? You know what I'm talking about
- I certainly do not. Please be specific. At an administrative level, being French means I hold a French passport, which I do. At a philosophical level, being French means to want to live in a certain culture, which I do too. We happen to be a diverse nation, with blonds, brunettes, tall, short, etc. So, again, please be specific and I would be very interested if you could define, in your opinion, what constitutes a "French".
- Er... Very well, what is your religion ?"

At that point, I was already starting to boil. I considered this last question an unrequested invasion of my privacy that had nothing to do with my entering or not in Israel. I told her so.

"Sir, this is a security check. I can ask whatever I want" she said.... Or can she ? I know that even in Israel there are law, I'm pretty sure of that, and an officer can't just do what she wants...

She repeated the question again. Again, I refused to answer.
"With all due respect, officer, this is really none of your business.
- If you do not cooperate, this will take longer.
- OK, officer, I'll tell you, since you insist. But you may not like it. I actually worship SATAN. We satanists have a special ritual: we listen to Death Metal on saturdays, stand on one foot, raise our hands to our ears and move them around, while jumping in rythm, see, like that. Then we engage in orgies until the morning..."
- ...
- Oh but wait! Wait!...
I raised my hands to my head and closed my eyes
- What is happening to me?... I... I... I feel I'm about to convert. Yes! I just converted to being a Buddhist. Ok, scratch that religion line from before: I'm a Buddhist now. Let's hurry, I'm not sure how long it'll last.

Like all people with limited wits and unlimited powers, she did not have a sense of humour and did not appreciate. At all.

- What is your email ?
- As you know, my email is private correspondence and has nothing to do with passport check. (I ended up giving her a bogus email)

Further questioning, about the religion of my parents, grandparents, etc. At one point, I saw myself staying there for a very, very long time, arguing my unalterable secular point of view. The sun was declining so to save time I confirmed that one of my ancestors (one of my great grandfathers) was Jewish, hence the name.

"So you're Jewish
-No. Pay attention. As I just told you. One of my beloved great grandfathers was. I happen to have been conceived through the help and intermission of about 7 other greatgrandparents, 4 grandparents and two parents, oddly enough. And I'm a Buddhist. Three of my grandparents were catholics, why is there just one grandparent that counts? Or does it mean I'm 1/4th of a Jew, 3/4th of a Catholic, even though I just converted to Buddhism before your eyes? Should I see 3/4th of a mass and then read 1/4th of Talmud?
- So you're ashamed of your Jewish ancestors ?
- Actually I'm very proud of all of my family, and especially of my Jewish Grandfather. You do know, of course that according to Jewish rules, since my mother is not Jewish I can't claim to be Jewish? Or did I just break the news to you? It's kind of a big deal.
- ... But you dais your grandfather is jewish.
- (sigh) Yeah
- So if you're Jewish, why didn't you immigrate into Israel ?"
- Oh Lord..."

I was just bewildered. She was serious. Angry, actually.
"Er... Maybe because I'm French. I'm fine thank you."

Flipping through my passport...
"Why do you visit so many Arab countries ?
- Why not ?
- I ask the questions. Why do you visit Arab countries ?
- Because I love to travel.
- Do you speak Arabic ?
- I am learning.
- Why do you want to learn Arabic ?
- Because I value new knowledge
- But why go to those countries ?
- Because I like it
- Why do you like it ?"

I was getting bored. I talked about the pyramids, culture, poetry, tourism, language, people... anything to finish this silly interview.

"So why don't you visit Israel more instead ?
- You mean since you are so welcoming?".

Flipping again... "So why did you go to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan ?
- It was my job, as an aid worker"

Somehow, it did not compute for her. I was a new species. A Klingon. So I patiently started explaining, but I still did not make sense in her world. She was getting more and more confused and frustrated.

"Did you visit Israel before ?
- Yes
She typed on her computer. My file came up. "You went to GAZA ?!"

That was on an old passport, but they keep all the records.

"Yes. As a French citizen, with people of my Embassy I went to Gaza"

That was it. The proof I was up to no good.

They proceeded to unpack everything I had. EVERYTHING. The vitamins in a box were analyzed one by one. They chemically analyzed my shampoo, toothpaste, and every speck of dust on my personal items (for which they use a special swab), for explosives. Then I was kindly asked to strip in front of a male officer who applied some kind of detector to the area dearest to the future of my descendants.

When, surprisingly, they didn't find any bomb in my crotch, neither of course anything wrong with my passport, she was obviously even more frustrated.

"So you live in Amman ? Do you have friends there ? Arabs and Palestinians ?
- Of course
- What is their name ? What is their job ? Give me their names and telephone numbers.
- I will do no such thing. You can't bother my friends to check on me from Israel, because if you call them, they won't be my friends any more. Tell you what: if you want to contact someone in Amman, to check on me, call my Ambassador, here's the number of my Embassy. Then you may have a slight diplomatic situation, denying entry to a tourist from a friendly country with a valid passport.
- ..."

She disappeared with my passport. I was left there waiting for 4 more hours, knowing that the border closes at 8pm. I complained to an officer several times, until I got to speak to the guy in charge.

"Sir, this is standard procedure. If you are not happy you won't make it into the country.
- Fine. I'm not crossing any more. I'm going back to Jordan.
- You can't. We hold your passport. You have to wait till we decide what to do with you."

At approximately 7pm, the frustrated woman reappeared, she gave my passport to the immigration desk.

I decided to change tactics with the new officer, a blonde young woman, and tried my charm... "So... finally I get to cross ! Please put the stamp on a separate paper. Can I go now ?
- What is your religion ?
- Ma'am, I already answered all that with your colleague !!! I'm an ex-Satanist, newfound Buddhist, ok ? I'm thinking of converting to Zoroastrian soon.
- She is Intelligence. I am Police. Not the same service. I can ask you the questions I want"

OK, I thought. This is groundhog day. I've got to get the hell outta here.

"Look. The name's Jewish, OK ? I'm a happy French citizen who does not want to immigrate. According to your own definition of Jewish, I'm not Jewish because my mother is not Jewish. Nobody's perfect, y'know ?"

She looked up at me and smiled. Finally !

The "shortcut" took me over 6 hours. 6 hours to cross 5 kilometers, because of a non-intelligent Intelligence officer. She poked her nose into everything: my email addresses, my bank accounts, my job, my way of life, hell, every single thing was incomprehensible to her world. And she's supposed to see travellers all day.

Back to my trip. The Taba border, in Egypt, took me about 5 minutes. A look to check that my passport was genuine, that I had the right visa, a smile from a jovial officer, and "Ahlan wa Sahlan, welcome to Egypt. Enjoy your stay Sir"

No comment.


To make a long story short, if your name is not "suspicious", if you did not visit "strange" countries like Gaza, and if you divulge a certain number of personal facts, like the telephone number of your Palestinian friends, crossing the border should take no longer than 15 min.

Why, oh why, is it so hard to cross these few miles when on paper they all allow European citizens to come and go ? Winston, can you erase back those borders ?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis

Identity is a funny thing. I suggest the reading of Amin Maalouf's book on the subject. Jean Paul Sartre wrote interesting lines on it too.

Given the many definitions you can give to Palestinian, Arab, Jew, Muslim, Israeli, these identities are not mutually exclusive. In theory, it is very possible that one same person can be all of them, combined.

Consider Dr. Uri Davis, long-time Palestinian activist. He's famous for criticising Israel. Professor Davis is officially a Palestinian, as written on his passport, and describes himself as an Anti-Zionist Israeli Palestinian Jew. He's born of a Jewish mother, and he's an Israeli citizen. He's a member of the Palestine National Council, and of the Movement Against Israeli Apartheid in Palestine. I don't know if he's a Muslim, but it's very possible. He could also belong to the large category of Arab Jews.

He's only famous because he's an activist, but of course he's not the only case of multiple-identities. Consider also the case of a person born of a Jewish father, with a Jewish surname, of a non-Jewish mother. According to most Jews, he's not Jewish, according to most Arabs, he's Jewish. And this is without even asking him what he thinks he is, or without even considering his religion. Only filiation.

Welcome to Paradoxland, aka: the Middle East.

A funny thing is the phenomenal success of the movie "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis" in France. It broke all records in the history of cinema in the country that invented it. 20 million admissions at the Box-Office.

It's a comedy about French micro-regional identities: North  vs South. Can't be more French than that. 

The funny thing is, the two main characters, who each represent the most typical North and South Frenchmen, are both played by children of immigrants, and it's never even mentioned in the story. Both actors come from Algerian parents. But they're so integrated that no one in the audience even questions that they're typically French.

Their sense of humour, the way they talk, the common references, without which this comedy would never work, are totally and absolutely French.

Make no mistake about it. Actors Kad Merad and Daniel Hamidou (a.k.a Danyboon) are both very proud of their parents. But their identity is French. Nonetheless, to anyone in the Middle East, no matter who they really are, they'll forever be "Arabs".

Which brings me again to point this clear distinction between identity in the Middle East and in the West.

In the West, identity is "self-empowered". In the Middle East, identity is defined by others, by default, with absolutely no empowerment or self-determination by the individual: "I can not define who I am". Others do, and others will disagree among themselves as to who I am or what I am, leading to countless practical problems and massively erroneous statistics. 

It also leads to large-scale disinformation and misconceptions. In-depth understanding of Egypt or Jordan implies getting past gross ethnical statistics, because people are simply more complex and subtle than that. They're at the same time more united by a common heritage, and more subdivided into smaller, less homogenous groups.

Under these conceptions lies the dangerous assumption that a number of characteristics (culture, political opinions, tribal allegiance, and other non-biological acquired characteristics) are transmitted through blood, which is the very definition of racism.

As sensitive as we all are to the charm of tradition, this rampant concept of tribal/religious/ethnic classification, along with other remnants in the world (like the hereditary caste system in India) is something that defies pure logic. As shown above, it is very easy to demonstrate how it relies on absurd, subjective concepts, that do not resist simple analytical examination. Therefore, it's very likely that it is necessarily going to erase itself in a distant future, with higher level of education, mixing families and more complex  societies forming.

The question is: when will this change be acknowledged ? And will people and leaders resist it or welcome the change ?