Kafranbel: a paradigm of creative storytelling (Part 1/2)

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This is my first article for the section “Looking Inside the Uprising”, a product of a collaboration between OpenDemocracy  and SyriaUntold that aims to reinforce and make visible how Syrians think about, and culturally elaborate, their Intifada.

"Say Cheese", from Occupied Kafranbel. Source: Kafranbel Facebook page.

"Say Cheese", from Occupied Kafranbel. Source: Kafranbel Facebook page.

Kafranbel, also known as “the little Syrian town that could”, is a powerful symbol that SyriaUntold considers crucial for a better understanding of the Syrian reality. In a series of two articles we will explore the key themes and characteristics of Kafranbel’s production, which provides an insight into the Syrian scenario through powerful and creative storytelling.

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Syria and the emergence of grassroots artistic production

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This is my first article for the section “Looking Inside the Uprising”, a product of a collaboration between OpenDemocracy and SyriaUntold that aims to reinforce and make visible how Syrians think about, and culturally elaborate, their Intifada.

Of all the changes crystallizing around the ideals of the Arab uprisings, the ones that are unquestionably positive are those in the creative and expressive arenas. While the entire region is witnessing an artistic renaissance that can be linked to the emergence of Arab theatre during the uprisings of the 50s, the Syrian case is particularly extreme and prolific. To understand the complexity of the Syrian scenario, it is more important than ever today to follow the stories told by local citizen-made cultural and artistic production, which differs from the international geopolitically-dominated accounts of the country.

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SyriaUntold and Open Democracy: Looking inside the Uprising

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At SyriaUntold we have started a collaboration with OpenDemocracy, which has given birth to a new section entitled Looking Inside the Uprising. Through this collaboration, we aim to bring together a multiplicity of voices to reflect on multiple cultural, social and political issues related to the Syrian movement after three years from its inception: the re-building of a collective memory; the creativity at the base of daily practices of resistance; the state and role of the media; the issue of sectarianism and its consequences, just to name a few main themes and discussions this initiative aims to promote.

Read more.


Israel Struggles to Win “Hearts and Minds” in Media War on Palestine

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Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2009 were the first case of a conflict mediated by social media. Both inside and outside the Gaza strip, citizens and members of Hamas used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms to narrate, document and condemn the attacks. But no group’s use of these platforms was as intensive and coordinated as that of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Read more on Global Voices Advocacy.


Online Communication and Citizen Participation Class 2014

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Syrian artists Malek Jandali and Mohammad al-Siadi during their visit to our Online Communication and Citizen Participation class. Madrid, April 2014

 

It is that time of the year again, and it comes with a sweet and sour feeling. I am happy I will have some much needed extra time, now that deadlines are approaching, but I am sure going to miss my noisy Online Communication and Citizen Participation class, at Carlos III University.

It sure was noisy. One of the memories I will take with me from this semester was the image of half of the students (mostly the Spanish ones) catching up after a long weekend, shouting loudly from one end of the class to the other, while the other half (mostly our Erasmus students) covered their ears with both hands, in horror.

The combination of local and international students was actually one of the most enriching aspects of the class,  I feel privileged to have had such a diverse group, from which I have learnt so much. Here is a list of things I have learnt:

  • Spanish students are louder than most students
  • The class is colloquially called COPACIU (and I had to read the blog posts to find out!)
  • This new generation that some call millennials is very audience-oriented, very aware of the need to engage the readers and connect with others. I have seen this once and again through their posts
  • Visitors and real-life interactions are always exciting
  • Students like to change seats and meet new people, but they don’t like to admit it
  • The trend that says that Spanish people don’t speak English is changing
  • There is no reason to be nostalgic about the past, or depressed about the future

Finally, I will like to highlight the answers to our last #iNetizen assignment, which consisted on answering the following question posed by PEN on twitter to celebrate World Press Freedom Day: What is Freedom of Expression? #FreedomofExpressionIs…

Free expression is a feeling of security. Is the right to safely proclaim any thought without fearing consequences.

Free expression is… the foundation of a fair and uncensored journalism.

Free expression is art, made to be shared and contemplated.

Freedom of expression is the door to real life, full of culture, widespread ideas and equal rights. The life we dream of.

Freedom of expression is being allowed to create a better world.

Freedom of expression is love for humanity.

Freedom of expression is what differentiates us from being  just a large herd of sheep.

Free expression is…a utopia we’ll hopefully reach soon.

Free expression is to share our most hidden beliefs and thoughts without fear.

Freedom of expression is to say what others don’t want you to say.

Freedom of expression is the voice of the oppressed people.

Freedom of expression is having the ability to speak freely: something that is not valued until it is taken away.

The Internet opens up new possibilities to seek information and ideas. However, it is also where free speech is being challenged.

I still believe in freedom of speech because not believing in it is already letting them win.

Free speech is the right to manifest  your thoughts and desires without interfering with others’s self-expression

And one last sentence from one great student:

If I had to come up with a word to define this class, it would be eye-opener.  Until January I didn’t know about all the online and offline activism campaigns and all the different ways the government and those who are in power use our information (information that we’ve pretty much freely but not consciously handed to them). I’ve also learned to question things that I previously was taking for granted, such as free access to the Internet, that some government deny their citizens. It’s like I lived in a bubble and this class has been the needle that pinched it.


Yarmouk and the fallacy of neutrality

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This is a response to Ali Abunimah´s article “Palestinians trapped in Syria war, denied aid, stalked by starvation”. In his article, the author focuses on the suffering of Palestinians trapped in the Yarmouk refugee camp, besieged by the Syrian army since the summer without access to food and other supplies. To read it, click here. 

 

The fallacy of neutrality

As in many other Syrian neighborhoods, large segments of the Damascus Palestinian “unofficial” refugee camp Yarmouk joined the peaceful mobilizations and the widespread civil society efforts that emerged in March 2011 and were violently repressed by the regime.

As early as in June 2011, a local coordination committee was established in Yarmouk to coordinate protests, sit-ins, banners, slogans, civil work. Mohammad (who asked me not to share his last name) and Abu al-Abd Guevara (nickname), two Syrian Palestinians who had to flee the country and now live in Madrid, were in Yarmouk at the time. According to Guevara, “confusing the fact that Yarmouk was an open welcoming space with a position of neutrality is very misleading.” He continues:

People escaping the regime, and members of the civil opposition came from all over the city to take refuge in Yarmouk. We worked hand in hand in the camp, organized demonstrations, a coordination committee was formed… The regime started by targeting any form of peaceful activism, demonstrations, graffiti, chants, civil society building… that was what was happening all over the country, before the uprising became an armed rebellion. So Yarmouk was as “neutral” as the rest of Syria. 

It is true that many of us did not want the FSA to enter the camp because we thought that it would come at a high price, and we wanted to protect the people”, Ahmad explains. “However, things escalated after the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command killed 13 young Palestinians. The shabbiha from the General Command are as responsible for the suffering in Yarmouk as the regime itself.”

Ali Abunimah´s article, from the title itself – “Palestinians trapped in Syria war”- points at neutrality as a starting point, as if only Palestinians, and not civilians as a whole, were trapped in this tragic conflict. Neutrality is insisted on again through a quote:

According to Abou Nasser, while some youth in the camp organized in support of the Syrian opposition, “Yarmouk remained neutral the first year of the Syrian revolution,” amid “public awareness and consensus that the camp should be left out” of the conflict.

In addition to that, the “FSA enters the camp, regime bombs it” sub-headline of the article dangerously reminds us of the approaches that point at Hamas for Israeli attacks on Gaza. As if the Free Syrian Army (legitimate armed resistance, unlike illegitimate groups such as ISIS) was responsible for the ruthlessness of the regime against civilians. As if Assad needed excuses to shell and starve civilians.

The neutrality of Yarmouk is a fallacy, a recurrent and quite damaging one. To quote Talal Alyan, who wrote an outstanding article at Mondoweiss:

The Pro-Palestinian movement was delayed in picking up on the tragic unraveling of Yarmouk. It took the work of a great deal of dedicated activists to force it into the forefront of the solidarity movement’s agenda. What couldn’t be predicted, however, was that, in the place of silence, an ugly neutrality would hover over the new-founded concern

 

Syrian Palestinians are part of the reality they live in

Connected to the fallacy of neutrality is the focus on Palestinians as if they could be detached from the reality they have been part of, for several generations in many cases. Despite their strong sense of identity as Palestinians, Syrian Palestinians are culturally and socially Syrian, and they have equally suffered the corruption and the institutionalized injustice of the Assad-ruled system. There are Palestinians rotting in Assad´s jails and there are Palestinian shabbiha. The view of Palestinians as neutral victims “in Syria´s vicious war” is extremely dangerous and irresponsible, in addition to inaccurate.

Abunimah´s article starts by highlighting that “Palestinians have been disproportionately affected. More than half of the 540.000 Palestine refugees in the country have been forced from their homes by fighting”. However, more than half of the initial Syrian population (23 million) are now refugees or internally displaced as well, so there is no disproportion, but widespread suffering among the population.

Today, there are people all over the country, including Syrian Palestinians, who are being killed by starvation in neighborhoods like Yarmouk and Moaddamia. Starving the population as a strategy is despicable and intolerable, and it should be addressed as a whole, to avoid falling on sectarian views of our region, as composed of different breeds, religions, ethnicities that deserve different treatment. In the same way, the struggles for human rights in the region should be addressed as a whole. After all, the liberation of Palestine will not be achieved unless the people of the region are empowered and liberated from oppression.

—————————–

As a Syrian, I am extremely grateful for the solidarity shown by the people of Yarmouk, which welcomed peaceful protesters and activists prosecuted by the regime, turning the camp into a symbol. Yarmouk was a model for the Syria many of us dream of, one that maintains its diversity while respecting every person´s fundamental rights. 


Veritas Egypt and the use of international journalists as bait

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On October 14,  I was invited to a conference called “Egypt´s first popular congress”, which was later renamed as the Cairo Media Forum. Behind the organization, there was a consulting company called Bureau Veritas, linked to the Egyptian Marine and operating in the country since 1971.

The fact that the invitation mentioned the need “to show international media the truth about Egypt” raised some immediate flags. Anyone claiming to show “the truth”, a mantra repeated by repressive regimes and their information arms, raises immediate flags. Reading the rest of the conference contents and the following emails it became quite clear that this was a pro-military, government-backed event to try to gain legitimacy for the current government of Egypt. Referring to the 2013 events as a second wave of the Egyptian revolution, highlighting “its peaceful means”, and mentioning the government´s needs to fight terror, made it all the more obvious. To make it even more appealing, the site opened to a huge banner of the 2011 uprising and the 2013 protests, together with beautiful photos of the Nile and the hotel where attendants would be staying.

However, I still thought it could be worth attending. Listening to the reasoning behind the military coup and trying to understand the arguments that have become quite popular among large segments of the Egyptian society seemed worth knowing more about. My views on the coup, which I have repeatedly described as the kidnapping of the revolution, just as many of my Egyptians friends and colleagues have as well, are no secret, so I found it amusing that they would invite me. My colleague from Eldiario.es and renown Spanish war correspondent Olga Rodríguez, who has also been very critical of the coup, was also invited.

The conference was postponed several times, as the organizers seemed to be struggling with the dates and logistics. When I finally received an email with a plane ticket, only three days before the beginning of the conference, it was already too late for me to attend. In addition to that, the ticket was for a different date than I had requested, so I informed the organization that I would not be attending.

The following morning – today -, Olga called me to tell me that I was highlighted as a speaker on the event´s website, next to the Egyptian Military´s General Staff Colonel and Spokesman Ahmed Mohammad Ali, Egyptian intellectuals known for supporting the coup such as writer Alaa al-Aswani, international political figures such as Bernard Kouchner, and a list of international journalists and political analysts. Evidently, I had never accepted to be a speaker at this event, and I have serious doubts that most of the people whose names have been posted on the website and used as a means to promote the conference, have either. Attending, listening, and reporting is one thing, very different from participating as a speaker, which I consider endorsing. And I am very cautious about the events that I endorse.

I was never offered to be a speaker to begin with, and neither had Olga, who had also had her profile highlighted on the conference ´s website days before.  I never gave my consent for the organization to include my name, bio and photo – which I don´t know where they got from – either.

I am not sure what the conference organizers aim to achieve with this flimsy “marketing strategies”. If the purpose is to give the Egyptian government some much craved international legitimacy, is making international journalists and analysts aware of their clumsy manipulations the best way to do it? Making them angry by using them as bait in such an obvious way does not seem like a very good idea, even for blatant propaganda purposes.

If this event is a reflection of the current Egyptian government´s values and modus operandi, I have had my fair share of its manipulation efforts, without even having to set foot at the conference. I admit that now I am even more amused and intrigued about the content of the event and how it will be sold to international attendants, so if you are there, please share.

Also, do not miss Jack Shenker´s note on the conference and his experience with the Egyptian embassy in London.


FISAHARA: Film festival and human rights struggle in West Sahara

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Sahwari attendants to the festival, and their international guests, during one of the screenings. Source: Fisahara´s official website

 

For a few months now, I´ve been working with a team of journalists, artists and movie makers on the organization of FISAHARA - Festival Internacional de Cine del Sahara, that will take place between October 8-13. I have to admit that I didn´t not know so much about the festival until I joined the communications team this spring, although it has been going on for 10 years. In 2010, The Guardian named it “the world´s most remote film festival.”

FiSahara takes place in Dakhla, the most isolated of four camps, 130 miles from the nearest town and home to around 30,000 Saharawi refugees. There are no paved roads, no sources of water, no vegetation and in summer, temperatures can reach 50°C. And yet once a year a multiplex-sized screen rolls up on the side of an articulated lorry, a tented village springs up in the centre of the camp and hundreds of actors, directors and film industry insiders fly in from around the world for a programme of more than 30 films, some made by the refugees themselves.

This year, the festival will aim to reach out to an even wider audience in order to bring attention to the forsaken struggle of the Saharawi people. It also seeks to frame this struggle within the regional movement that has pushed millions of citizens of the Middle East and North Africa to demand freedom, justice and dignity since 2011. In fact, many find the root of the so-called Arab Spring in the Western Sahara, back in 2010, when the indigenous Saharawi population demonstrated against the occupying Moroccan authorities. Their demonstrations were violently put down, and eleven Saharawis were killed.

Despite the increasing threats, violence and suffering the region faces, the struggle against oppression that was at the core of the 2011 mobilizations remains, more than ever, a legitimate one. Creating and fostering  bonds and networks between civil activists in the Sahara, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and the rest of the MENA region is crucial to strengthen citizen voices against tyranny, whether this comes from fascist and so-called secular regimes or islamist threats. Many journalists, activists and movie makers from the region will join this festival´s edition. We are very proud of all of them, but there is one who is particularly inspiring.

Nadir Bouchmouch is a Moroccan activist who has been very involved in the February 20 movement since early 2011. His 40-minute documentary, Makhzen and Me, which shows the counter-attack by the Moroccan authorities as a response to the popular uprising, will be featured at the festival. Last week, he wrote the following message on his facebook page, which speaks louder than anything we may add:

This festival is particularly meaningful for me to go to because I have had enough of self-censoring myself on the Western Sahara issue. The refugees I will be working with are refugees because my country, Morocco, is occupying their land. This is why it is particularly symbolic that I am working with Guy Davidi, an Israeli who supports the Palestinian cause. I always hope more Israelis take action to support Palestinians, but how can I not expect the same from myself regarding Western Saharans? It’s almost the same issue: an occupier and an occupied, a settler-population and a refugee population… I was brainwashed for years to believe the Western Sahara was Moroccan, but says who? King Hassan II? Our state-owned TV channels? Our government-controlled history textbooks?

I will no longer be an accomplice, through silence, with the Moroccan regime of occupation of the Western Sahara. From here on, I will be loyal and consistent to my belief in democracy, human rights and equality for all. I will condemn the occupation and I will be a voice within Moroccan society that will choose to no longer be silent nor afraid. #FreeWesternSahara

 


Syria Untold: the Syrian civic movement within its context

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These days everybody is talking a possible US strike on Syria. Politicians, media and public opinion are divided between the “yes-or-no to intervention” parties.

Yet, by doing so, we are framing Syria in the wrong way. We tend to treat Syria as a matter of foreign intervention, as a geopolitical game between super-powers. This way we forget that, more than two years ago, peaceful demonstrations started in Syria as a civil society movement led by Syrians, asking for reforms, freedom and dignity. Today, the civic movement that took to Syrians to the streets in 2011 remains viable, yet highly neglected by the geopolitical conversations and the focus on militarization that tend to ignore the grassroots movement on the ground.

 

 

Syria Untold is a project which Syrian journalists, activists and designers from inside and outside the country have been incubating for more than one year.

 

Our aim has been to frame information on Syria within its historical, political and social context, and to focus on Syrian civil society and the way it has been coping with the increasing violence and militarization of the conflict by producing actions of creative resistance, civil disobedience and self-management.

Given the present situation, it is more key than ever to take a close look at this civil society component which has been neglected by politicians and the media, therefore by the international public opinion shaped by the latter.

Syria Untold aims to provides an overlook of the current development in the Syrian civic movement and a comprehensive overview of its evolution, offering a comprehensive archive of material and an overview of the creators and groups working in the field. We aim to make non-violent, civil society building more visible and to frame it within a very complex picture.

Syria Untold brings you independent voices, stories from the ground, personal accounts of daily resistance. We focus on everything about Syrian civil society whose crucial importance has been lost in the polarization created by the “yes” or “no” debates, and we highlight the importance of grassroots projects and civil disobedience against all forms of extremism and violence.

Our  site combines content aggregation from social media and information collected and shared by grassroots activists with original content produced by our team on the ground in Syria, both in English and in Arabic.

We do  hope that you will find our project useful; yet, as it is a work-in-progress we would be happy to get your feedback and suggestions about how it could be improved along the way. We want to welcome journalists, human rights organizations and any groups and individuals interested in Syria to use our contents and materials. Everything we publish is licensed under a Creative Commons license that allows for its use and re-distribution as long as the authors and sources are properly quoted.

Please help us share Syria Untold`s stories with the world; help us bring Syrian civil society back at the centre of the international debate on Syria.

With our best wishes

 

The Syria Untold team

Our website: http://syriauntold.com/en

Twitter: @SyriaUntold

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/syria.untold

 


When I go back to Syria

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After an inspiring conversation with some activists from the town of Kafranbel today, I decided that as soon as I can go back to Syria I will visit this town and meet its amazing people, who have become a symbol of resistance against tyranny with their creativity and weekly banners.

So I decided to post this message on twitter:

Writing this made me think about all the other things I want to do once I can finally go back to Syria. I actually visualized how it will be, and it felt great after two years of loss, grief and nostalgia. So I decided to ask a few friends to answer that same question: What will you do when you go back to Syria? And this is how the #whenIgobacktoSyria hashtag started.

Two hours later there were hundreds of messages by Syrians living abroad and people who had visited Syria and wished to go back. These are two of my favorite (Syrian humor  : ))

Yes, Syrians put ketchup on pizza, sorry but it´s true! Many of the tweets refer to food (Syrians crave their hommos and shawarma and kusa mehshi), the smell of jasmin, the sound of the Adan (call to prayer) and the streets of Damascus, Homs, Aleppo…

Other tweets honor the martyrs and thank those fighting for freedom:

Others refer to the work Syrian expatriates will do in re-building Syria after the regime is overthrown:

And then, Salim Idriss, Chief of the Free Syrian Army, tweeted:

Not only Syrians are longing to go back. Journalist Daniel Neep tweeted:

I´m inspired by all the comments, memories and ideas. Let´s keep working to make this happen. Thanks!! And Free Syria.