Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Stories from Doha's Industrial Area

On one of our last days in Doha for the Terana Summit, we took a brief trip to the industrial area where migrant workers live. We arrived just as Friday prayers were ending and the market was beginning to fill with bodies. Men carried their prayer mats with them as they looked for ways to pass the afternoon, a rare chance to rest. The industrial area doesn't include a cinema, or really anything other than a few stores, some restaurants, and mosques. The fancy malls of commercial Doha - the Doha most visitors see - are forbidden to 'single men.' No one wants to be reminded of the workers who make that shiny fantasyland possible. I think the purpose of our own trip, arranged by our host, Georgetown Qatar, was just to let us look around a bit and see that somewhat-hidden, other side of Doha, but it so happened that there was a journalist in our midst.

Nadia Zaffar casually asked a few men about their experiences in Doha...and within minutes we were surrounded by a crowd of workers each trying to tell us his own story. Since I don't speak Urdu, and could really only catch the gist of what was being said (there was enough Arabic thrown in to know when the men were discussing a particularly awful supervisor, for example), my strongest impression was of a flood. It was a flood of complaints, of stories, of pain, even the odd joke. These men were overflowing.

Nadia captured some of what she heard in this short post. I hope you will take the time to read it.

Though most of the men we met that afternoon were from India, Pakistan, or Nepal, we did run into one Egyptian worker as we were leaving. "See you in Tahrir Square," he told us.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tagheer Egypt can believe in?

Two months have passed since the mass uprising in Egypt toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Since then, the supreme military council has commissioned a committee to amend the constitution, and a referendum was held to approve these constitutional amendments. Yet despite the euphoria that swept the nation two months ago, there are many concerns that the revolution's momentum has been stumbling of late.

For instance, the supreme military council led by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi has come under fire recently for supposedly dragging its feet in prosecuting former Mubarak cronies. Mubarak himself may be constrained by house arrest in Sharm el-Sheikh, but there is little doubt that the vast network of patronage that underpinned his rule has yet to be fully dismantled. Furthermore, the military council's recent warning that continued demonstrations and strikes will not be tolerated certainly hasn't won it many new fans. The same can be said about the arrest of a blogger who has dared to criticized the military council's leadership.

Another source of frustration are the constitutional amendments that many considered to have been rushed through. Though the referendum approved these amendments by a solid majority of 77%, many of the leaders who were at the forefront of the uprising campaigned vigorously against it them. Since these amendments call for elections by September, they naturally privilege the parties that are more organized at the moment. This would give a significant advantage to movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the NDP. Conversely, holding elections so soon would pose a challenge to many of the younger, less organized movements that still have not formed adequate cohesion following the uprising. This is why many of them campaigned against the amendments.

The military has pledged to transfer power to a civilian government after elections are held in September. Yet it remains to be seen if an elected civilian government will carry the revolution to its completion, or whether it will be subject to the military at the end of the day. The 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak was certainly an astonishing achievement in and of itself. Yet clearly, the revolution has a lot more work to do.

Inside Al Jazeera

One of the highlights of the Terana Summit, which whisked me away to Doha for the past week, was our trip to Al Jazeera. After the requisite tour of Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, not to mention the 'museum area' featuring ancient (it's from the 90's!) Al Jazeera gear and the last effects of Al Jazeera journalists who died when American forces bombed the Baghdad bureau, we headed into a meeting room to chat with the new media team. I'll post a more detailed rundown of that conversation later.

For now, let me direct you to some videos (shot by yours truly) of the next discussion, featuring some more big-whig characters, like Satnam Matharu, the Director of International Relations and Communications, Aref Hijawi, Director of Programs at Al Jazeera Arabic and TV presenter/anchor Ghida Fakhry, who looks exactly as glamorous in person as she does on TV. She explained the relationship between Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, something that has confused the channel's oldest and newest fans alike. Aref Hijawi spoke, er, shouted very candidly about the Palestine Papers, which he called Al Jazeera's biggest mistake to date.

The rest of the discussion was dominated by one of the lingering questions about Al Jazeera: is their main goal to report the news, or is it to influence what happens on the ground? What does it mean to be impartial? Do Al Jazeera reporters want to be impartial?
Another strand of that discussion revolved around whether it was fair to call Al Jazeera the "Fox News" of the Arabic-speaking world. Of course, the answer from everyone at Al Jazeera was a resounding 'no.' Matharu emphasized what he saw as the difference between Fox News and Al Jazeera: one imposes an ideology from top down, the other - if it encourages action - encourages action only through the voices of ordinary people and the reality on the ground. I began to wonder how a similar discussion with Fox News representatives might go....

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Assimilation in "Teherangeles"

Tablet Magazine recently published an interesting article about the Iranian Jewish community of Los Angeles. Themes include the departure of many Jews from Iran after the revolution of 1979, their arrival in Los Angeles, cultural differences between Iranian and Ashkenazi Jews in L.A., and the present state of the Jewish community.

Read the full article from Point of No Return via Tablet Magazine.

Check it out:

Many Persian families found their way to Sinai Temple, on Wilshire Boulevard, a popular stop for many Persian Jews arriving in Los Angeles after the revolution. By then, the Conservative synagogue had migrated from its original home near downtown to a modern building equidistant between Beverly Hills and Westwood. From the start, there were culture clashes between the Americans and the Persians. “They were breast-feeding their children in shul, during davening, and that was disturbing to a lot of people,” says Maurice Lamm, the rabbi emeritus of Beth Jacob, an Orthodox congregation in Beverly Hills. “So, Hillel Silverman, the rabbi there, was talking to me about how to handle it, and I said, don’t worry about it, let them come here.” Lamm offered David Shofet a room where he could hold a minyan and encouraged him to bring his father to Los Angeles. But Sinai’s associate rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, whose family fled Czechoslovakia a month before the Nazi invasion, campaigned to give his new congregants a home. “All I knew was that they were Jews, and we had to help,” Dershowitz explains now, waving away questions. But the clashes went on, growing almost senselessly petty. There were people upset that families were coming in late to services, that people were talking to each other in Farsi rather than English, that women were ululating at bar mitzvahs and weddings, and most infamously, that Persian regulars who were not synagogue members were taking home cookies after Friday night Oneg Shabbat services. Longstanding members resented the fact that the strangers weren’t trying to fit in.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More on Tik...

While I wait for some videos to upload - painfully slowly - from some interesting conversations yesterday at Al Jazeera Headquarters here in Doha, I want to quickly point anyone who read my last post to some of the articles and interviews Tik has done since being released from detention in Syria on April 2nd.

Although I'm very happy that Tik is finally home, I'm not just highlighting these interviews because I know him or because he's a fellow Middlebury student or because I want to promote my former Arabic students, et cetera. His testimony is a very special opportunity for us to hear about the sort of things one sees and hears while being held in a Syrian prison. Tik is very aware of the protection his American passport afforded him, and careful to remind others of what happens to prisoners without that protection.

New links are regularly added to the Facebook page created when Tik first went missing: some in print, some audio and some video.