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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Will Saif al-Islam Surrender to the ICC?

Saif al-Islam al-Qadaffi is reportedly considering turning himself in to the International Criminal Court, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. He likely fears the possibility of a brutal, extrajudicial 'YouTube execution' if he remains in Libya.

Above: Saif al-Islam. via the The Daily Telegraph.
The Libyan NTC has opposed Saif al-Islam's extradition, preferring to try him in Libya if captured. The latter option would certainly lend credibility and legitimacy to the NTC; furthermore, an ICC trial could take many years. "Libya's new rulers might not be satisfied with the idea of him spending the next decade playing board games with Ratko Mladic," wrote Joshua Keating on Friday.

Many remain skeptical that Saif al-Islam is sincere about surrendering to the ICC. Let us suppose that Saif al-Islam, who is possibly hiding in the desert somewhere near the Libyan border, has the means to make his way to safety. By Monday, he might be able to board a plane without interception, as NATO military operations will have ended.

Aside from the Hague, where might Saif al-Islam be looking to go? While many countries do not recognize the ICC, the following countries are rumored to be the most likely options:

1. Sudan, Zimbabwe, or Algeria. None of these countries recognize the ICC; Zimbabwe enjoyed good relations with Colonel al-Qadaffi. Several al-Qadaffi family members are currently exiled in Algeria.

2. Venezuela. Chavez has not made any public offers to grant Saif al-Islam asylum, but has refused to recognize the new Libyan government. He was an old ally of the elder al-Qadaffi.

3. Niger or Mali. According to the Daily Telegraph, another one of al-Qadaffi's sons, Saadi al-Qadaffi, currently has asylum in Niger. However, Niger and Mali recognize the ICC.

While the symbolic value of capturing Saif al-Islam commands attention in the present, the more profound challenge lies elsewhere, namely building a transparent, democratic, accountable republic in Libya.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rosa Eskenazi

This weekend I saw My Sweet Canary, a documentary which explores the life of Rosa Eskenazi (189?-1980). Rosa Eskenazi was a famous Greek-Jewish rebetika singer. She was born into a destitute, low-class Sephardic family in Istanbul in the 1890s.
Her family later moved to Thessaloniki, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. Eskenazi was discovered while living in Kommotini (today part of Greece), and later became an international rebetika star.

                                   Rosa Askenazi sings a typical rebetiko song.

My Sweet Canary was shown as part of the New York Greek film festival, which continues until November 6th. The documentary follows three young musicians -- an Israeli, a Turk and Greek -- who travel through Greece and Turkey to uncover Eskenazi's life.

Rebetika is a genre that combines elements of shared culture from Anatolia (and the Balkans), dating back to the Ottoman period; rebetika songs draw on the Arab and Turkish makam system. Instruments typically used include the bouzouki, oud, baglamas, clarinet, santouri, tambouras, violin, guitar etc.

               Mehtap Demir performs "Rambi," a rebetiko song, in honor of Eskenazi.

Rebetika developed in Greece, brought by refugees who had departed Asia Minor after the Greco-Turkish war of 1923. I thought the documentary did a good job of presenting the latter event, which remains a highly sensitive issue today, while at the same time evoking the shared culture that existed in the region during the Ottoman period. Rebetika songs are typically performed in Greek and Turkish – or a mixture of the two; vocations like "ah maan" "ya allah," "ya leli" are commonly used. I thought it would have be interesting if the documentary had explored more cultural influences from Greece's northern neighbors, however the focus was mainly on Greece and Turkey.

As rebetika music gained popularity in the 1920s, it came to be associated with the urban lower classes; it was considered a seedy, disreputable genre. Songs dealt with subjects like alcohol and drug use, prison life, but also evoked the deep pain of refugees and immigrants who left Asia Minor for Greece in 1923. Thus rebetika is also known as the blues of Greece. It was banned in the 1930s under the Metaxas dictatorship, which considered it too backwards and oriental. It fell out of favor in 1950s, but was revived in the 1970s and remains very popular today, in Greece, the US, Israel, Europe, etc.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Will Jews Play a Role in Post-Revolutionary Libya?

I find nothing surprising about the story of David Gerbi, a Libyan-born Jew who attempted to return "home" and restore the dilapidated Dar al-Bishi synagogue in Tripoli. About a week later, Gerbi flew to Rome, where he resides, after a protest was convened over his presence. The main objections of the protestors included Gerbi's support for Zionism and his past relations/negotiations with al-Qadaffi. The Libyan Jewish diaspora is currently split regarding his visit.

Protestors objected to David Gerbi's presence. One sign reads, "David, go back to where you belong...there is no place for a Zionist among us!" (Aljazeera.net)

So, in the short-run, it seems unlikely that Jews will play a role in Libya. (thus the title of this blog post is largely rhetorical) However, it would be premature to dismiss the Arab Spring in Libya on the basis of Gerbi's experience, adopting old arguments about Libyans being too barbaric or anti-Semitic to allow Jews to participate in a democracy. There is no denying past violence and injustices committed against Libyan Jews. Nevertheless, we should not abandon the possibility of some kind of future Jewish political participation and return to Libya, which, however unlikely, remains intriguing.

Other aspects of Gerbi's visit are of interest to me. Gerbi's request to become a representative of the Libyan Jews on the Transitional National Council is still pending.

                          David Gerbi is interviewed via Skype after his visit to Libya. 

Also, the Qadaffi regime and the rebels were in a sense "competing" over the Libyan Jews this summer, seeking to incorporate them as a symbol of tolerance and diversity. Al-Qadaffi sent a delegation to Tel-Aviv this summer, desperate to repair his tarnished international image. (Saif al-Islam had invited Libyan Jews to return to Libya in 2004.) Rebels invited Raphael Luzon, a Jew born in Benghazi, who currently resides in the UK, to return to Libya and take part in politics.

“I said I would accept it once I see it is real democracy and the proposal is offered,” Luzon told the Jerusalem Post in August. “If I do it I do it for one matter: the historical matter. The first Arab country that proposed that a Jew run in a free election," he said.

Luzon was interviewed last week in Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, where he discussed (among other things), David Gerbi's visit to Libya.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Joseph Schacht

Last week I came across an interesting biographical anecdote about Joseph Schacht, (d.1969) one of the most well known scholars of Islamic law of the 20th century. Part of an article written by the late Jeanette Wakin in memory of Schacht, the anecdote details how Schacht participated in colonial administrations as part of his research:
Always eager to widen his knowledge of Islamic law in practice, Schacht undertook a research trip to Northern Nigeria in 1950, the most important Muslim territory in the British West African colonies, under the auspices of the Colonial Office. He made several more extended research trips to Africa, especially East Africa from 1953 to 1964. In 1952, he was invited to be a visiting professor at the University of Algiers' Faculty of Law, still a French institution, and the next year was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree from that university. (p.7)
(The same anecdote is cited in a review article by David S. Powers. A response to Powers by W. Hallaq is forthcoming.)

Most obviously, this anecdote serves to remind us of Schacht's position relative to colonial power. It is worth thinking about how any scholarship on sharīʿa is "affected" by power. A further question interests me: how exactly did this research process work, i.e. under the auspices of colonial authorities? To what extent / how did the colonial bureaucracies oversee Schacht's research? For example, what forms did Schacht have to fill out? What were the requirements for receiving funding?

Of course, there is nothing unique Schacht's trip; W. Hallaq shows how British, Dutch and French Orientalists "proved to be quite helpful in the implementation of the government's and settlers' policies." (p.435) Plenty of other legal Orientalists worked in colonial administrations, such as Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (d.1936), who famously posed as a Muslim in order to conduct research in Mecca.

On a different note, some of Hurgronje's photos and sound recordings were were on display at a museum exhibit last year; they depict the Mecca of 1885: