In a recent dispatch for The Spectator, Matthew Parris - South African-British columnist and former Conservative member of the British Parliament - treats us to an account of “What you learn standing on a street corner in Beirut”.
The corner in question is located on Rue Qobaiyat in the trendy Mar Mikhael neighbourhood, which Parris incorrectly identifies as Beirut’s “Armenian quarter”. So much for learning things.
Our traveller has turned up there in search of a haircut at a barbershop that never opens. The wait enables him to catapult himself into the role of spontaneous sociocultural analyst, first with the finding that “strangers glance sharply at each other in Beirut”.
Of course, any half-decent Orientalist knows to present his observations re: the “Other” in Western-centric terms - hence, for example, the nineteenth-century discovery by Frenchman Gerard de Nerval, a prominent character in Edward Said’s Orientalism, that the head ornaments of Druze and Maronite women in Beirut made them “look like the fabulous unicorns which support the royal arms of England”.
Parris, for his part, situates his study of Lebanese ocular movements within a recollection of his own attendance at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, where “the Queen’s eyes darted, birdlike and alert, to left and right, taking things in”. He continues: “So do the Lebanese.”
I myself can’t say I’ve noticed this habit in the past 13 years of visiting Lebanon, but perhaps I haven’t found the right street corner. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.
On 15 April, as news emerged of the fire raging at the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, social media was ablaze with hashtag-laden expressions of grief.
President Emmanuel Macron declared that the whole French nation was overwhelmed with "emotion", while Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo could not find "strong enough words to express the pain" she felt.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, among bazillions of others, tweeted that the incident was "heartbreaking". US President Donald Trump called it "horrible" and offered the helpful suggestion that "perhaps flying water tankers could be used" to extinguish the flames.
Meanwhile, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker bewailed the "sad spectacle" and "the horror" of the fire at Notre Dame, an institution allegedly belonging to "the whole of humanity".
Granted, humans on the receiving end of French colonial oppression or of the Catholic church's long history of crimes might fail to detect a common cause.
I'm not going to argue that it's impermissible to lament the demise of historically and globally significant architecture - or that anyone shedding virtual tears on behalf of Notre Dame automatically doesn't give a damn about other global causes.
But the magnitude of blaze-induced grief is nonetheless unsettling given that far more serious human tragedies rarely elicit such a level of international "heartbreak".
Where are the calls for flying water tankers or the all-pervasive despair when, for example, Israel periodically undertakes to set the Gaza Strip on fire? During Israel's 50-day Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the United Nations calculated that the Israeli military killed no fewer than 2,251 Palestinians, among them 299 women and 551 children.
In a television interview last June, Matteo Salvini — ultraright-wing Italian interior minister and deputy prime minister — responded with great modesty to pleas in the press that he rescue the city of Rome from a purported takeover by “gypsies”: “I am not Batman.”
Nevertheless, he proposed a census of Italy’s Roma population such that the non-Italian Roma might be expelled from the country. As for the Italian ones: “Purtroppo te li devi tenere in Italia” — “Unfortunately you have to keep them in Italy.”
Sane observers immediately denounced Salvini’s plan of action, warning that, besides not really being legal, an ethnicity-based population tally was reminiscent of a certain Benito Mussolini. Then again, maybe that was the point.
And while the census has yet to come to fruition, Salvini — who has long fantasized about bulldozing Roma camps — has found numerous other opportunities to play almost-Batman. A week after his TV interview, Italian authorities undertook a mass forcible eviction at a principal Roma camp in Rome — an action that, as Amnesty International noted, was carried out “in defiance of a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.”
Amnesty’s Catrinel Motoc remarked: “Rendering dozens of Romani families homeless, including infant children, is a cruel and callous act directed against a minority who have been at the brunt of discriminatory housing policies for decades.”
Today, as we mark International Roma Day, Italy’s war on the long-oppressed group rages on. Just last month, Amnesty filed a complaint with the European Committee of Social Rights alleging a “series of breaches” of the European Social Charter owing to “widespread forced evictions” of Roma communities, “the continued use of segregated camps featuring substandard housing and lack of equal access to social housing.”
Such affronts to justice are bolstered by public animosity toward the Roma, who are estimated to number up to 180,000 in Italy. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey, for example, found that 82 percent of Italians held anti-Roma views — much higher than any other European nation listed.
According to popular stereotypes, Roma are filthy, lazy thieves who refuse to integrate into the civilized world and prefer to fester in squalor. But how is a community meant to integrate when it’s literally blocked from doing so, its identity criminalized and its members forced to eke out an existence on the margins? “Segregated camps” aren’t exactly the stuff of civilization. READ MORE AT JACOBIN.
In February, Time Out Dubai ecstaticallyreportedthat the United Arab Emirates was "one of the happiest countries in the world", according to a new study by the Boston Consulting Group.
The article's author, Scott Campbell, gushed that the "transformation to happiness" had been "guided by the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum", who is not only the ruler of the emirate of Dubai but also the vice president and prime minister of the UAE.
Transformative steps have included "adopting a globally unique, science-based programme to analyse happiness levels" and "asking people to rate public services with emoji-style reviews".
Obviously, nothing says genuine human contentment - in an artificial land characterised by soul-crushing materialism and malls with ski slopes - like a digital yellow smiley face.
This is not the first time that the UAE has turned up on the frontlines of "happiness". In 2018, the World Happiness Report, published by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranked the country twentieth among 156 nations and the happiest in the Arab world.
In preparation for April elections, Israeli prime minister and right-wing icon Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to increase his chances of forming a majority government by finagling a merger of extremist party Otzma Yehudit — Jewish Power — with Jewish Home, another far-right party whose ideology is more palatable to mainstream opinion.
Otzma Yehudit subscribes to the worldview of Meir Kahane, the New York-born rabbi — assassinated in 1990 — whose movement was banned from Israeli politics in the 1980s and classified as a terrorist group in the United States. Among the many charming ideas inherited from Kahane are that the occupied Palestinian territories should be annexed to Israel and Palestinians should be expelled.
The New York Timesnotes that Netanyahu has “enraged Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States by striking a bargain with a racist anti-Arab party whose ideology was likened by one influential rabbi to Nazism.” And it’s not just the usual liberal Zionists wringing their hands at the perceived sullying of Israel’s image.
AIPAC — pillar of the Israel lobby in the United States — retweeted a condemnation of Otzma Yehudit by the American Jewish Committee, seconding the conviction that the party is “racist and reprehensible.” (This didn’t stop AIPAC from tweeting the very next day that it was “honored to announce” Netanyahu’s impending attendance as a speaker at its 2019 policy conference.) Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Zionist Anti-Defamation League (ADL), also took to Twitter to lament that the Otzma Yehudit leaders and their “hate-filled rhetoric” were “being legitimized” by the Jewish Home-Jewish Power union: “There should be no room for racism & no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy.”
But while the ostensibly antiracist uproar no doubt comes off as noble, the fact is that Israel is fundamentally a racist and anti-Arab state that has carried out an uninterrupted flow of reprehensible behavior.
Where, pray tell, are all of the concerned curators of Brand Israel when the country opts to undertake one of its regular bouts of slaughter in the Gaza Strip? Where are the paeans to tolerance and democracy when Israeli Arabs are deemed second-class citizens and non-Israeli ones are treated as either terrorists or collateral damage? READ MORE AT JACOBIN.
Speaking on 6 February to Fox Business about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a grave warning about outside interference in the South American nation: “People don’t recognise that Hezbollah has active cells. The Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela and throughout South America."
The next day, the US Southern Command’s Admiral Craig S Faller informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran “has deepened its anti-US influence campaign in Spanish-language media, and its proxy Lebanese Hezbollah maintains facilitation networks throughout the region that cache weapons and raise funds, often via drug trafficking and money laundering”.
As usual, concerned media took the ball and ran with it.
In one exemplary piece of sensationalist drivel for Radio Farda - the Persian-language component of the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty network (with a website also in English) - Penny L Watson babbled about the threat posed to the US on account of Hezbollah and Iran’s alleged conversion of Venezuela into a base of operations.
As of 2010, she asserted, there were “as many as six terrorist training camps” scattered around the Venezuelan capital of Caracas and Margarita Island off the country’s coast, regularly hyped as a terror hotbed. (I myself incidentally visited the island around that time and didn’t manage to track down a single “terrorist”, despite being in the company of a Lebanese-Palestinian friend who had fought alongside Hezbollah against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.)
A New York Post article by Benny Avni, who surmises that “Iran’s clerics” must be “trembl[ing] as they watch their old Caracas allies teeter”, brings up another pet factoid regularly regurgitated by right-wing fearmongers: the possibility of air travel between Venezuela and Iran. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.
Che Guevara left Argentina at 22. At 21, Belén Fernández left the U.S. and didn’t look back. Alone, far off the beaten path in places like Syria and Tajikstan, she reflects on what it means to be an American in a largely American-made mess of a world.
After growing up in Washington, D.C. and Texas, and then attending Columbia University in New York, Belén Fernández ended up in a state of self-imposed exile from the United States. From trekking—through Europe, the Middle East, Morocco, and Latin America—to packing avocados in southern Spain, to close encounters with a variety of unpredictable men, to witnessing the violent aftermath of the 2009 coup in Honduras, the international travel allowed her by an American passport has, ironically, given her a direct view of the devastating consequences of U.S. machinations worldwide. For some years Fernández survived thanks to the generosity of strangers who picked her up hitchhiking, fed her, and offered accommodations; then she discovered people would pay her for her powerful, unfiltered journalism, enabling—as of the present moment—continued survival.
In just a few short years of publishing her observations on world politics and writing from places as varied as Lebanon, Italy, Uzbekistan, Syria, Mexico, Turkey, Honduras, and Iran, Belén Fernández has established herself as a one of the most trenchant observers of America’s interventions around the world, following in the footsteps of great foreign correspondents such as Martha Gellhorn and Susan Sontag. READ MORE AT OR BOOKS.
Shortly after right-wing figure Juan Guaido auto-proclaimed himself interim president of Venezuela in January - to the immediate applause of US President Donald Trump - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the appointment of a special envoy to "help the Venezuelan people fully restore democracy and prosperity to their country", that is to get rid of legitimate Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro once and for all.
The envoy is neo-con extraordinaire Elliott Abrams, praised by Pompeo as a "seasoned, principled, and tough-minded foreign policy veteran", whose "passion for the rights and liberties of all peoples makes him a perfect fit and a valuable and timely addition" to the State Department team.
"Veteran", at least, is an accurate description. Abrams indeed boasts a long career of shady political exploits in Latin America undertaken on behalf of the American government.
While serving in the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Abrams was a star of that Cold War period known as the Iran-Contra affair, during which the US illegally sold weapons to Iran and funnelled the proceeds to right-wing Contra forces busily terrorising Nicaragua.
Abrams was even convicted for his role in the affair, but was later pardoned by George HW Bush.
In her war memoir Blood on the Border, US scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz recalls Abrams's lofty prediction that "when history is written the Contras will be folk heroes".
But the Contras were responsible for setting off a decade-long war that killed an estimated 50,000 Nicaraguans, and thus understandably aren't recalled as "folk heroes" by anyone but a hardcore group of delusional neocons. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.
Once upon a time in Syria, there was an evil dictator against whom the people rose up. They were brutally repressed, and war ensued.
This, at least, is one of the versions of the Syrian conflict (2011-present) that is mass-marketed on the international scene, in all of its oversimplified, decontextualised, and politically expedient glory. It's fortunate, then, that antidotes to such deceptive reductionism exist - among them the newly edited collection Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War.
The editors are Linda Matar of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Ali Kadri of NUS and the London School of Economics, who explain in their introduction - titled "Syria in the Imperialist Cyclone" - that the objective of the compilation is to provide a "broad-scope analysis of what went wrong in Syria" and perspectives from "different angles of the political spectrum".
Obviously, this is not a book that will go down well with Western cheerleaders for the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who delight in smearing as "Assad apologists" anyone who dares to deflect a bit of blame for the conflict onto any other party.
And while the various contributors to Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War do deliver significant criticism of Assad and his policies, the overarching role of the aforementioned cyclone is made painfully clear. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.
As part of a crackdown on corruption and crime, Mexico's new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has revamped the national fuel distribution system to deter petrol theft - a move that has resulted in temporary shortages across various Mexican states.
The United States media have turned up to highlight the real takeaway: the shortages may affect the transport of Mexican avocados and the availability of guacamole for the annual massively hyped, televised sporting event known as the Super Bowl to be held this year on February 3.
A recent Reuters headline blared: "Holy guacamole! Mexican fuel shortage threatens Super Bowl snack." Other outlets followed suit. CNN warned that "Super Bowl guac may be off the table if gas shortage sidelines Mexican avocados," Maxim magazine foretold a "major guacamole crisis", and the Eater website took the (foot)ball and ran with it: "Cue the guacpocalypse."
In short, while the avocado dip may be in short supply, the cheesiness definitely isn't. And speaking of cheesy, concerned Super Bowl viewers are reminded that at least there's always queso - that staple dish of Texas that often involves "cheese" that is not actually cheese. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.