Tuesday, March 26, 2013 3:20 PM
After a decade of war, Iraq
is a cauldron of sectarian violence, state-sponsored terrorism, and humanitarian crisis. Now a U.S.
client under the autocratic and corrupt Maliki government, Iraq has little
chance to escape the vicious cycle of violence and injustice.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
Back then, everybody was writing about Iraq,
but it’s surprising how few Americans, including reporters, paid much attention
to the suffering of Iraqis. Today, Iraq is in the news again. The
words, the memorials, the retrospectives are pouring out, and again the
suffering of Iraqis isn’t what’s on anyone’s mind. This was why I returned to
that country before the recent 10th anniversary of the Bush administration’s
invasion and why I feel compelled to write a few grim words about Iraqis today.
But let’s start with then. It’s April 8,
2004, to be exact, and I’m inside a makeshift medical center in the heart of
Fallujah while that predominantly Sunni city is under siege by American forces.
I’m alternating between scribbling brief observations in my notebook and taking
photographs of the wounded and dying women and children being brought into the
A woman suddenly arrives, slapping her
chest and face in grief, wailing hysterically as her husband carries in the
limp body of their little boy. Blood is trickling down one of his dangling
arms. In a few minutes, he’ll be dead. This sort of thing happens again and
over, I watch speeding cars hop the curb in front of this dirty clinic with
next to no medical resources and screech to a halt. Grief-stricken family
members pour out, carrying bloodied relatives -- women and children -- gunned
down by American snipers.
One of them, an 18-year-old girl has been
shot through the neck by what her family swears was an American sniper. All she
can manage are gurgling noises as doctors work frantically to save her from
bleeding to death. Her younger brother, an undersized child of 10 with a
gunshot wound in his head, his eyes glazed and staring into space, continually
vomits as doctors race to keep him alive. He later dies while being transported
to a hospital in Baghdad.
According to the Bush administration at the
time, the siege of Fallujah was carried out in the name of fighting something
called “terrorism” and yet, from the point of view of the Iraqis I was
observing at such close quarters, the terror was strictly American. In fact, it
was the Americans who first began the spiraling cycle of violence in Fallujah
troops from the 82nd Airborne Division killed 17 unarmed demonstrators on April
28th of the previous year outside a school they had occupied and turned into a
combat outpost. The protesters had simply wanted the school vacated by the
Americans, so their children could use it. But then, as now, those who respond
to government-sanctioned violence are regularly written off as “terrorists.”
Governments are rarely referred to in the same terms.
10 Years Later
Jump to March 2013 and that looming 10th
anniversary of the U.S.
invasion. For me, that’s meant two
books and too many news
articles to count since I first traveled to that country as the
world’s least “embedded” reporter to blog about a U.S. occupation already spiraling
out of control. Today, I work for the Human Rights Department of Al Jazeera
English, based out of Doha,
Qatar. And once
again, so many years later, I’ve returned
to the city where I saw all those bloodied and dying women and children. All
these years later, I’m back in Fallujah.
Today, not to put too fine a point on it, Iraq is a
failed state, teetering on the brink of another sectarian bloodbath, and beset
by chronic political deadlock and economic disaster. Its social fabric has been
all but shredded by nearly a decade of brutal occupation by the U.S. military
and now by the rule of an Iraqi government rife with sectarian infighting.
Every Friday, for 13 weeks now, hundreds of
thousands have demonstrated and prayed on the main highway linking Baghdad and Amman,
runs just past the outskirts of this city.
Sunnis in Fallujah and the rest of Iraq’s vast Anbar
Province are enraged at the government
of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because his security forces, still heavily
staffed by members of various Shia militias, have
been killing or detaining their compatriots from this region, as
well as across much of Baghdad.
Fallujah’s residents now refer to that city as a “big prison,” just as they did
when it was surrounded and strictly controlled by the Americans.
Angry protesters have taken to the streets.
“We demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah. We demand they allow in
the press. We demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions. We
demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons!” So Sheikh Khaled
Hamoud Al-Jumaili, a leader of the demonstrations, tells me just prior to one
of the daily protests. “Losing our history and dividing Iraqis is wrong, but
that, and kidnapping and conspiracies and displacing people, is what Maliki is
The sheikh went on to assure me that
millions of people in Anbar province had stopped demanding changes in the
Maliki government because, after years of waiting, no such demands were ever
met. “Now, we demand a change in the regime instead and a change in the
constitution,” he says. “We will not stop these demonstrations. This one we
have labeled ‘last chance Friday’ because it is the government’s last chance to
listen to us.”
“What comes next,” I ask him, “if they
don’t listen to you?”
“Maybe armed struggle comes next,” he
replies without pause.
Predictably, given how the cycle of
violence, corruption, injustice, and desperation has become part of daily life
in this country, that same day, a Sunni demonstrator was gunned down by Iraqi
security forces. Lieutenant General Mardhi al-Mahlawi, commander of the Iraqi
Army’s Anbar Operations Command, said the authorities would not hesitate to
deploy troops around the protest site again “if the protesters do not
cooperate.” The following day, the Maliki government warned that the area was
becoming “a haven for terrorists,” echoing the favorite term the Americans used
during their occupation of Fallujah.
In 2009, I was in Fallujah, riding
around in the armored BMW of Sheikh Aifan, the head of the
then-U.S.-backed Sunni militias known as the Sahwa forces. The Sheikh was an
opportunistic, extremely wealthy “construction contractor” and boasted that the
car we rode in had been custom built for him at a cost of nearly half a million
Two months ago, Sheikh Aifan was killed by
a suicide bomber, just one more victim of a relentless campaign by Sunni
insurgents targeting those who once collaborated with the Americans. Memories
are long these days and revenge remains on many minds. The key figures in the
Maliki regime know that if it falls, as is likely one day, they may meet fates
similar to Sheikh Aifan’s. It’s a convincing argument for hanging onto power.
way, the Iraq
of 2013 staggers onward in a climate of perpetual crisis toward a future where
the only givens are more chaos, more violence, and yet more uncertainty. Much
of this can be traced to Washington’s
long, brutal, and destructive occupation, beginning with the installation of
former CIA asset Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. His hold on power
quickly faltered, however, after he was used by the Americans to launch their
second siege of Fallujah in November 2004, which resulted in the deaths of
thousands more Iraqis, and set the stage for an ongoing
health crisis in the city due to the types of weapons used by the
In 2006, after Allawi lost political clout,
then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq
neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad tapped Maliki as Washington’s new prime minister. It was then
widely believed that he was the only politician whom both the U.S. and Iran could find acceptable. As one
Iraqi official sarcastically put it, Maliki was the product of an agreement
between “the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil.”
In the years since, Maliki has become a de
facto dictator. In Anbar Province and parts of Baghdad, he is now bitterly referred to as a
“Shia Saddam.” Pictures of his less-than-photogenic face in front of an Iraqi
flag hang above many of the countless checkpoints around the capital. When I
see his visage looming over us yet again as we sit in traffic, I comment to my
fixer, Ali, that his image is now everywhere, just as Saddam’s used to be.
“Yes, they’ve simply changed the view for us,” Ali replies, and we laugh.
Gallows humor has been a constant in Baghdad
since the invasion a decade ago.
It’s been much the same all over Iraq. The U.S. forces
that ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime immediately moved into his military bases
and palaces. Now that the U.S.
has left Iraq,
those same bases and palaces are manned and controlled by the Maliki
Saddam Hussein’s country was notoriously
corrupt. Yetlast year, Iraq ranked
169th out of 174 countries surveyed, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
It is effectively a failed state, with the Maliki regime incapable of
controlling vast swaths of the country, including the Kurdish north, despite
his willingness to use the same tactics once employed by Saddam Hussein and
after him the Americans: widespread violence, secret prisons, threats,
detentions, and torture.
Almost 10 years after U.S. troops entered a Baghdad
in flames and being looted, Iraq
remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth. There are daily bombings,
kidnappings, and assassinations. The sectarianism instilled and endlessly
stirred up by U.S. policy has become deeply, seemingly irrevocably embedded in
the political culture, which regularly threatens to tip over into the sort of
violence that typified 2006-2007, when upwards of 3,000 Iraqis were being
slaughtered every month.
The death toll of March 11th was one of the
worst of late and provides a snapshot of the increasing levels of violence
countrywide. Overall, 27 people were killed and many more injured in attacks
across the country. A suicide car bomb detonated in a town near Kirkuk, killing eight and
wounding 166 (65 of whom were students at a Kurdish secondary school for
girls). In Baghdad,
gunmen stormed a home where they murdered a man and woman. A shop owner was
shot dead and a policeman was killed in a drive-by shooting in Ghazaliya. A
civilian was killed in the Saidiya district, while a Sahwa member was gunned
down in Amil. Three government ministry employees in the city were also killed.
In addition, gunmen killed two policemen in
the town of Baaj,
a dead body turned up in Muqtadiyah, where a roadside bomb also wounded a
policeman. In the city of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, gunmen killed a blacksmith, and in the northern
city of Mosul,
a political candidate and a soldier were both killed in separate incidents. A
local political leader in the town of Rutba in Anbar Province
was shot and died of his injuries, and the body of a young man whose skull was
crushed was found in Kirkuk
a day after he was kidnapped. Gunmen also killed a civilian in Abu Saida.
And these are only the incidents reported
in the media in a single day. Others regularly don’t make it into the news at
The next day, Awadh, the security chief for
Al Jazeera in Baghdad,
was in a dark mood when he arrived at work. “Yesterday, two people were
assassinated in my neighborhood,” he said. “Six were assassinated around Baghdad. I live in a
mixed neighborhood, and the threats of killing have returned. It feels like it
did just before the sectarian war of 2006. The militias are again working to
push people out of their homes if they are not Shia. Now, I worry everyday when
my daughter goes to school. I ask the taxi driver who takes her to drop her
close to the school, so that she is alright.” Then he paused a moment, held up
his arms and added, “And I pray.”
“This Is Our Life Now”
Iraqis who had enough money and connections
to leave the country have long since fled. Harb, another fixer and dear friend
who worked with me throughout much of my earlier reportage from Iraq, fled to Syria’s
with his family for security reasons. When the uprising in Syria turned violent and devolved into the
bloodbath it is today, he fled Damascus for Beirut. He is literally
running from war.
Recent Iraqi government estimates put the
total of “internally displaced persons” in Iraq at 1.1 million. Hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis remain in exile, but of course no one is counting. Even
those who stay often live as if they were refugees and act as if they are on
the run. Most of those I met on my most recent trip won’t even allow me to use
their real names when I interview them.
My first day in the field this time around,
I met with Isam, another fixer I’d worked with nine years ago. His son narrowly
escaped two kidnapping attempts, and he has had to change homes four times for
security reasons. Once he was strongly opposed to leaving Iraq because,
he always insisted, “this is my country, and these are my people.” Now, he is
desperate to find a way out. “There is no future here,” he told me.
“Sectarianism is everywhere and killing has come back to Baghdad.”
He takes me to interview refugees in his
neighborhood of al-Adhamiyah. Most of them fled their homes inmixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods and towns
during the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007. Inside his cobbled-together
brick house with a roof of tin sheeting held down with old tires, one refugee
echoes Isam’s words: “There is no future for us Iraqis,” he told me. “Day by
day our situation worsens, and now we expect a full sectarian war.”
Elsewhere, I interviewed 20-year-old Marwa
Ali, a mother of two. In a country where electric blackouts are a regular
event, water is often polluted, and waste of every sort litters neighborhoods,
the stench of garbage and raw sewage wafted through the door of her home while
flies buzzed about. “We have scorpions and snakes also,” she said while
watching me futilely swat at the swarm of insects that instantly surrounded me.
And she paused when she saw me looking at her children, a four-year-old son and
two-year-old daughter. “My children have no future,” she said. “Neither do I,
and neither does Iraq.”
Shortly afterward, I met with another
refugee, 55-year-old Haifa Abdul Majid. I held back tears when the first thing
she said was how grateful she was to have food. “We are finding some food and
can eat, and I thank God for this,” she told
me in front of her makeshift shelter. “This is the main thing. In
some countries, some people can’t even find food to eat.”
She, too, had fled sectarian violence, and
had lost loved ones and friends. While she acknowledged the hardship she was
experiencing and how difficult it was to live under such difficult
circumstances, she continued to express her gratitude that her situation wasn’t
worse. After all, she said, she wasn’t living in the desert. Finally, she
closed her eyes and shook her head. “We know we are in this bad situation
because of the American occupation,” she said wearily. “And now it is Iran having their revenge on us by using Maliki,
and getting back at Iraq for
the [1980-1988] war with Iran.
As for our future, if things stay like they are now, it will only keep getting
worse. The politicians only fight, and they take Iraq down into a hole. For 10 years
what have these politicians done? Nothing! Saddam was better than all of them.”
I asked her about her grandson. “Always I
wonder about him,” she replied. “I ask God to take me away before he grows up,
because I don’t want to see it. I’m an old woman now and I don’t care if I die,
but what about these young children?” She stopped speaking, looked off into the
distance, then stared at the ground. There was, for her, nothing else to say.
I heard the same fatalism even from Awadh,
Al Jazeera’s head of security. “Baghdad
is stressed,” he told me. “These days you can’t trust anyone. The situation on
the street is complicated, because militias are running everything. You don’t
know who is who. All the militias are preparing for more fighting, and all are
expecting the worst.”
As he said this, we passed under yet
another poster of an angry looking Maliki, speaking with a raised, clenched
fist. “Last year’s budget was $100 billion and we have no working sewage system
and garbage is everywhere,” he added. “Maliki is trying to be a dictator, and
is controlling all the money now.”
In the days that followed, my fixer Ali
pointed out new sidewalks, and newly planted trees and flowers, as well as the
new street lights the government has installed in Baghdad. “We called it first
the sidewalks government, because that was the only thing we could see that
they accomplished.” He laughed sardonically. “Then it was the flowers government,
and now it is the government of the street lamps, and the lamps sometimes don’t
Despite his brave face, kind heart, and
upbeat disposition, even Ali eventually shared his concerns with me. One
morning, when we met for work, I asked him about the latest news. “Same old,
same old,” he replied, “Kidnappings, killings, rapes. Same old, same old. This
is our life now, everyday.”
“The lack of hope for the future is our
biggest problem today,” he explained. He went on to say something that also
qualified eerily as another version of the “same old, same old.” I had heard
similar words from countless Iraqis back in the fall of 2003, as violence and
chaos first began to engulf the country. “All we want is to live in peace, and
have security, and have a normal life,” he said, “to be able to enjoy the
sweetness of life.” This time, however, there wasn’t even a trace of his usual
cheer, and not even a hint of gallows humor.
“All Iraq has had these last 10 years is
violence, chaos, and suffering. For 13 years before that we were starved and
deprived by [U.N. and U.S.]
sanctions. Before that, the Kuwait
War, and before that, the Iran
War. At least I experienced some of my childhood without knowing war. I’ve
achieved a job and have my family, but for my daughters, what will they have
here in this country? Will they ever get to live without war? I don’t think
For so many Iraqis like Ali, a decade after
invaded their country, this is the anniversary of nothing at all.
Dahr Jamail is a feature story staff writer and producer for the Human
Rights Department of Al Jazeera English. Currently based in Doha,
Qatar, Dahr has spent more
than a year in Iraq,
spread over a number of trips between 2003 and 2013. His reportage from Iraq,
, has won him several awards, including the
Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism. He is the author of
the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us
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out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The
Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and
Copyright 2013 Dahr Jamail
Image by the U.S. Army,
licensed under Creative
Wednesday, May 09, 2012 3:02 PM
The Crockpot: Utne’s Weekly Guide to What You May
It turns out that only about
a tenth of Americans believe climate change isn’t real, and more than two
thirds think it should be a bigger political issue. The findings, by Yale and George Mason
University, fly in the
face of what’s passing for an environmental debate in this country, says Ecopolitology. Most Americans also
believe the environmentalism/economic growth conflict is a false one and that
sustainability can help create jobs. The really weird part? Another George
Mason study back in 2010 found that about
a quarter of weathercasters thought global warming was a hoax. But
honestly, who believes what the weatherman says?
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the world without us really noticing.
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complete the first-ever
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England 169 years to get
real on freedom of speech.
ancient Roman garbage heap can teach us about designing modern parks.
Knowing more than one
language has a profound
effect on brain development in children, and not just in language skills,
says New Scientist. New studies have
found that bilingual kids are better at concentrating, multitasking, and are
faster to empathize with others. And in adults, bilingualism may even stave off
the effects of aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s as it keeps the brain active
and vital. The best part? It’s never too late to learn. Read
Monday, January 30, 2012 11:29 AM
This post originally appeared at
Exclusive: New Iranian Commando Team Operating Near U.S.
(Tehran, FNA) The Fars News Agency has confirmed with the Republican Guard’s North American Operations Command that a new elite Iranian commando team is operating in the U.S.-Mexican border region. The primary day-to-day mission of the team, known as the Joint Special Operations Gulf of Mexico Task Force, or JSOG-MTF, is to mentor Mexican military units in the border areas in their war with the deadly drug cartels. The task force provides “highly trained personnel that excel in uncertain environments,” Maj. Amir Arastoo, a spokesman for Republican Guard special operations forces in North America, tells Fars, and “seeks to confront irregular threats...”
The unit began its existence in mid-2009—around the time that Washington rejected the Iranian leadership’s wish for a new diplomatic dialogue. But whatever the task force does about the United States—or might do in the future—is a sensitive subject with the Republican Guard. “It would be inappropriate to discuss operational plans regarding any particular nation,” Arastoo says about the U.S.
Okay, so I made that up. Sue me. But first admit that, a line or two in, you knew it was fiction. After all, despite the talk about American decline, we are still on a one-way imperial planet. Yes, there is a new U.S. special operations team known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Gulf Cooperation Council, or JSOTF-GCC, at work near Iran and, according toWired magazine’s Danger Room blog, we really don’t quite know what it’s tasked with doing (other than helping train the forces of such allies as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia).
And yes, the quotes are perfectly real, just out of the mouth of a U.S. “spokesman for special-operations forces in the Mideast,” not a representative of Iran’s Republican Guard. And yes, most Americans, if they were to read about the existence of the new special ops team, wouldn’t think it strange that U.S. forces were edging up to (if not across) the Iranian border, not when our “safety” was at stake.
Reverse the story, though, and it immediately becomes a malign, if unimaginable, fairy tale. Of course, no Iranian elite forces will ever operate along the U.S. border. Not in this world. Washington wouldn’t live with it and it remains the military giant of giants on this planet. By comparison, Iran is, in military terms, a minor power.
Any Iranian forces on the Mexican border would represent a crossing of one of those “red lines” that U.S. officials are always talking about and so an international abomination to be dealt with severely. More than that, their presence would undoubtedly be treated as an act of war. It would make screaming headlines here. The Republican candidates for the presidency would go wild. You know the rest. Think about the reaction when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that an Iranian-American used-car salesman from Texas had contacted a Mexican drug cartel as part of a bizarre plot supposedly hatched by senior members of the elite Iranian Quds Force to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant and possibly bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies as well.
Though doubts were soon raised about the likelihood of such an Iranian plot, the outrage in the U.S. was palpable. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that it “crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for.” The Wall Street Journallabeled it “arguably an act of war,” as did Congressman Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Speaker of the House John Boehner termed it “a very serious breach of international behavior,” while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers swore that it crossed “a very dangerous threshold” and called for “unprecedented” action by the Obama administration.
On the other hand, no one here would claim that a U.S. special operations team edging up to the Iranian border was anything out of the ordinary or that it potentially crossed any lines, red or otherwise, or was a step beyond what the international community accepts. In fact, the news, such as it was, caused no headlines in the press, no comments on editorial pages, nothing. After all, everyone knows that Iranians would be the equivalent of fish out of water in Mexico, but that Americans are at home away from home in the Persian Gulf (as in most other places on Earth).
The Iranian “War” Against America
Nonetheless, just for the heck of it, let’s suspend the laws of political and military gravity and pile up a few more fairy-tale-ish details.
Imagine that, in late 2007, Iran’s ruling mullahs and their military advisors had decided to upgrade already significant covert activities against Washington, including cross-border operations, and so launched an intensification of its secret campaign to “destabilize” the country’s leadership—call it a covert war if you will—funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of oil money; that they (or their allies) supported armed oppositional groups hostile to Washington; that they flew advanced robot drones on surveillance missions in the country’s airspace; that they imposed ever escalating sanctions, which over the years caused increased suffering among the American people, in order to force Washington to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and give up the nuclear program (military and peaceful) that it had been pursuing since 1943; that they and an ally developed and launched a computer worm meant to destroy American centrifuges and introduced sabotaged parts into its nuclear supply chain; that they encouraged American nuclear scientists to defect; that one of their allies launched an assassination program against American nuclear scientists and engineers, killing five of them on the streets of American cities; that they launched a global campaign to force the world not to buy key American products, including Hollywood movies, iPhones, iPods, and iPads, and weaponry of any sort by essentially embargoing American banking transactions.
Imagine as well that an embattled American president declared the Gulf of Mexico to be off-limits to Iranian aircraft carriers and threatened any entering its waters with dire consequences. In response, the Iranians promptly sent their aircraft carrier, the Mossadegh, and its battle group of accompanying ships directly into Gulf waters not far from Florida and then stationed a second carrier, the Khomeini, and its task force in the nearby Caribbean as support. (Okay, the Iranians don’t have aircraft carriers, but just for a moment, suspend disbelief.)
And keep in mind that, in this outlandish scenario, all of the above would only be what we knew about or suspected. You would have to assume that there were also still-unknown aspects to their in-the-shadows campaign of regime change against Washington.
Now, pinned to Iran, that list looks absurd. Were such things to have happened (even in a far more limited fashion), they would have been seen across the American political spectrum as an abomination (and rightly so), a morass of illegal, illegitimate, and immoral acts and programs that would have to be opposed at all costs. As you also know perfectly well, it is a description of just what we do know or suspect that the U.S. has done, alone or in concert with its ally Israel, or what, in the case of the assassination operations against nuclear scientists (and possibly an explosion that destroyed much of an Iranian missile base, killing a major general and 16 others), Israel has evidently done on its own, but possibly with the covert agreement of Washington.
And yet you can search the mainstream news far and wide without seeing words like “illegal,” “illegitimate,” or "immoral” or even “a very serious breach of international behavior” applied to them, though you can certainly find sunny reports on our potential power to loose destruction in the region, the sorts of articles that, if they were in the state-controlled Iranian press, we would consider propaganda.
While the other three presidential candidates were baying for Iranian blood at a recent Republican debate, it was left to Ron Paul, the ultimate outsider, to point out the obvious: that the latest round of oil sanctions being imposed by Washington and just agreed to by the European Union, meant to prohibit the sale of Iranian oil on the international market, was essentially an “act of war,” and that it preceded recent Iranian threats (an unlikely prospect, by the way) to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the planet’s oil flows.
And keep in mind, the covert war against Iran is ostensibly aimed at a nuclear weapon that does not exist, that the country’s leaders claim they are not building, that the best work of the American intelligence community in 2007 and 2010 indicated was not yet on the horizon. (At the moment, at worst, the Iranians are believed to be working toward “possible breakout capacity”—that is, the ability to relatively “quickly” build a nuclear weapon, if the decision were made.) As for nuclear weapons, we have 5,113 warheads that we don’t doubt are necessary for our safety and the safety of the planet. These are weapons that we implicitly trust ourselves to have, even though the United States remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons, obliterating two Japanese cities at the cost of perhaps 200,000 civilian deaths. Similarly, we have no doubt that the world is safe with Israel possessing up to 200 nuclear weapons, a near civilization-destroying (undeclared) arsenal. But it is our conviction that an Iranian bomb, even one, would end life as we know it.
Added to that fear is the oft-cited fact that Iran is run by a mullahtariat that oppresses any opposition. That, however, only puts it in league with U.S. allies in the region like Bahrain, whose monarchy has shot down, beaten up, and jailed its opposition, and the Saudis, who have fiercely repressed their own dissidents. Nor, in terms of harm to its people, is Iran faintly in a league with past U.S. allies like General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, who launched a U.S.-backed military coup against a democratically elected government on September 11, 1973, killing more than died in the 9/11 attacks of 2001, or the Indonesian autocrat Suharto on whom the deaths of at least half a million of his people are usually pinned.
At Home in the World
Here, then, is a little necessary context for the latest round of Iran-mania in the U.S.: Washington has declared the world its oyster and garrisons the planet in a historically unique way—without direct colonies but with approximately 1,000 bases worldwide (not including those in war zones or ones the Pentagon prefers not to acknowledge). That we do so, unique as it may be in the records of empire, strikes us as anything but odd and so is little discussed here. One of the reasons is simple enough. What’s called our “safety” and “security” has been made a planetary issue. It is, in fact, the planetary standard for action, though one only we (or our closest allies) can invoke. Others are held to far more limiting rules of behavior.
As a result, a U.S. president can now send drones and special operations forces just about anywhere to kill just about anyone he designates as a threat to our security. Since we are everywhere, and everywhere at home, and everywhere have “interests,” we may indeed be threatened anywhere. Wherever we’ve settled in—and in the Persian Gulf, as an example, we’re deeply entrenched—new “red lines” have been created that others are prohibited from crossing. No one, after all, can infringe on our safety.
In support of our interests—which, speaking truthfully, are also the interests of oil—we could covertly overthrow an Iranian government in 1953 (starting the whole train of events that led to this crisis moment in the Persian Gulf), and we can again work to overthrow an Iranian government in 2012. The only issue seriously discussed in this country is: How exactly can we do it, or can we do it at all (without causing ourselves irreparably greater harm)? Effectiveness, not legality or morality, is the only measurement. Few in our world (and who else matters?) question our right to do so, though obviously the right of any other state to do something similar to us or one of our allies, or to retaliate or even to threaten to retaliate, should we do so, is considered shocking and beyond all norms, beyond every red line when it comes to how nations (except us) should behave.
This mindset, and the acts that have gone with it, have blown what is, at worst, a modest-sized global problem up into an existential threat, a life-and-death matter. Iran as a global monster now nearly fills what screen-space there is for foreign enemies in the present American moment. Yet, despite its enormous energy reserves, it is a shaky regional power, ruled by a faction-ridden set of fundamentalists (but not madmen), the most hardline of whom seem at the moment ascendant (in no small part due to American and Israeli policies). The country has a relatively modest military budget, and no recent history of invading other states. It has been under intense pressure of every sort for years now and the strains are showing. The kind of pressure the U.S. and its allies have been exerting creates the basis for madness—or for terrible miscalculation followed by inevitable tragedy.
In an election year in the U.S., little of this is apparent. The Republicans, Ron Paul aside, have made Iran the entrée du jour on the American (and Israeli) security menu, a situation that couldn’t be more absurdly out of proportion or more dangerous. In fact, when it comes to “American security,” our fundamentalists are off on another rampage with the Obama administration following behind.
Just as a small exercise to restore some sense of proportion, stop for a moment the next time you hear of American or Israeli plans for the further destabilization of Iran and think: what would we do if the Iranians were planning something similar for us?
It’s one small way to begin, individually, to imagine a planet on which everyone might experience some sense of security. And here’s the oddest thing, given the blowback that could come from a blowup in the Persian Gulf, it might even make us all safer.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of
The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s
as well as
The End of Victory Culture
, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book,
The United States of Fear
(Haymarket Books), has just been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses reversal scenarios on a one-way planet, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
[Note: The initial “Iranian” news article in this piece was taken, with a few small changes, from “New U.S. Commando Team Operating Near Iran,” a post by the intrepid Spencer Ackerman of Wired’sDanger Room blog, an important place to keep up on all things military. Let me offer a bow as well to Antiwar.com, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward’s the War in Context. I don’t know what I’d do without them when it comes to keeping up.]
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt
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Friday, September 10, 2010 8:57 AM
Bidoun has a great interview with band members of Hypernova in their latest issue. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? The four rockers from Iran talked about the music scene in Tehran, what it was like to discover other bands in their country, and coming to the United States. Here’s a great snippet where Raam explains his theory about popular musical artists in Iran:
Raam: I remember my first cassette was a Queen tape. A lot of Pink Floyd, obviously. I was a huge fan, and I still am.
Negar Azimi: Why is Pink Floyd so big in Iran?
Raam: Pink Floyd is so big. And Dire Straits, they’re huge in Iran.
Negar Azimi: Dire Staits?
Raam: I have this stupid theory that someone came to Iran in, like 1985, with a box full of cassette tapes. And that tape collection was all we had until satellite TV came. I think it’s as simple as that. Then the internet came along, and suddenly we were up to date with the rest of the world.
Source: Bidoun (article not available online)
Thursday, August 05, 2010 3:14 PM
“With his arm around me I would melt into him and carefully link my fingers through his, neither of us speaking or looking at each other, leaving things superficially ambiguous. It would be years before we finally kissed but those late-night journeys in the savaris left us breathless and elated.”
That quote may read like a dog-eared, grocery store romance novel, but is actually emerging Iranian author Kamin Mohammadi recounting her story of risky, long-distance passion under multiple repressive Sharia-Law touting regimes in the latest issue of Virginia Quarterly Review. Throughout the essay, Mohammadi paints a vivid picture of “the interplay of repression, sexual experimentation, and the presence of technology,” especially in the lives of the Iranian youth. Her narrative is masterfully interwoven with modern techno-social history of Iran, including this shocking passage:
“[My lover] also started to accompany me to the local internet café where I joined all those lined up at the banks of computers to connect with the outside world. That was the beginning of another revolution that has changed so much in Iran; the ever-watched youth of Iran—a colossus in number—suddenly found in the internet two things they did not have in their everyday lives: an instant connection with the outside world, and anonymity. In a society in which most are forced to dissemble to some degree, to wear some sort of a mask in order to survive, a way to express oneself unhindered and without possible repercussion was intoxicating, and soon became addictive. In separate groups boys and girls were squeezed into the booths, giggling while tapping away. And pornography, of course, was the most popular search, any kind the limited bandwidth and censors would allow. This was before cell phones and before people had internet at home, before pornographic material started being passed around over Bluetooth and on CDs, and perhaps something about looking at this illicit material in a public space, its heady thrill, made what came after easier, made the chat rooms and the virtual dates inevitable. And the influence of pornography on the sexual imagination of the nation started right there in those internet café booths.”
(Thanks, Hit & Run!)
Source: Virginia Quarterly Review
Image by kamshots, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, June 18, 2010 12:21 PM
The news from Iran these days is as fit to print as ever, but surprisingly under-reported. Although the massive election protests last summer received top-tier coverage in venues like the New York Times and New Yorker, the news cycle has been a little blinder in the months since. One current story we can’t ignore comes to us from Virginia Quarterly Review:
Oxford PhD student Mohammad Reza Jalaeipour, who campaigned for opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi in 2009, was arrested on Monday afternoon, June 14, according to his wife, Fatemeh Shams.
Jalaeipour was first arrested on June 17, 2009. After attending a family wedding in Iran, Jalaeipour was prevented from boarding a flight to Dubai. He and his wife had been returning to the UK to continue their studies. The couple were members of the Third Wave campaign, a reformist youth movement that eventually backed Moussavi in the Iranian presidential election last year. Jalaeipour told the Wall Street Journal that, inspired by the Obama campaign, he had created pages on Facebook to reach young Iranian voters. After his 2009 arrest, Jalaeipour endured eighty days of imprisonment including more than fifty days in solitary confinement at the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. After his release, Jalaeipour remained in Iran with his parents, as his passport had been confiscated. His wife currently lives in the UK where she also attends Oxford.
This turn of events resurrects the desperation of Jalaeipour’s previous imprisonment, which VQR will document in their Summer issue by publishing letters Jalaeipour’s wife, Fatemeh, wrote him while he was in custody. VQR is getting the word out, but it’d be nice if Iran could stay in the crosshairs of our depleted attention spans.
Source: The New York Times, The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review
Image by Beverly & Pack, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, April 26, 2010 4:20 PM
In an attempt to "introduce more balance to the mainstream discussion of Iran," Counter Currents has published a quiz on Iran. It's a bit cumbersome at times, but it's good for more than a few important chin-scratching moments. Want to take the super-short version? Here goes (answers at the bottom of the post):
1. Is Iran an Arab country?
2. What percentage of students entering university in Iran is female?
3. What percentage of Iran's population attends Friday prayers?
Source: Counter Currents
Answers: 1. No, 2. Over 60%, 3. 1.4%
Image by kamshots, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, January 04, 2010 1:44 PM
In August the Iranian regime put 100 activists on trial for the massive summer street protests. Prosecutors insisted that the street actions were "planned in advance and proceeded according to a timetable and the stages of a velvet coup [such] that more than 100 of the 198 events were executed in accordance with the instructions of Gene Sharp."
Who is this Gene Sharp? If you don't know the man's work, you've probably never attempted to overthrow your government. A Christian Science Monitor profile calls Sharp "the godfather of nonviolent resistance" and describes the nature and impact of his work:
His work has served as the template for taking on authoritarian regimes from Burma to Belgrade. A list of his 198 methods for nonviolent action can be downloaded free of charge, along with his seminal work, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” which has been translated by his Albert Einstein Institute into two dozen languages ranging from Azeri to Vietnamese.
Hailed as the manual by those who conducted people-power coups in Eastern Europe, its contents were no secret in Iran, where authorities have obsessed for years about their vulnerability to a “velvet revolution.” In fact, a few years ago they requested—and were sent—hard copies of Mr. Sharp’s works. Officials saw this summer’s unrest as the fruit of his strategies.
Sharp dismisses accusations by the Iranian regime that he had any direct role in the unrest. Iranians, he explains to the Christian Science Monitor, citing “the 1905-06 constitutional revolution, and the 1979 Islamic revolution against the shah.”
Source: Christian Science Monitor
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Thursday, December 10, 2009 12:40 PM
The literary blog The Rumpus has posted a collection of images from found Iranian children's books. The images are incredible, and it's been fun watching as readers who speak Farsi write in with translations and other information. Enjoy!
Source: The Rumpus
Friday, September 04, 2009 12:15 PM
Iranian bloggers who went online to protest the disputed election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad owe a debt of gratitude to the spiritual dissident group, the Falun Gong, according to Eli Lake in The New Republic.
Falun Gong practitioners working with the Global Internet Freedom Consortium were instrumental in developing an anti-censorship tool called Freegate, which was designed to hide internet activity from the watchful eye of the Chinese government. All mentions of the Falun Gong are heavily censored in China, because, Lake reports, “the Chinese government views the Falun Gong almost the way the United States views Al Qaeda.”
Iranian internet users were able to use the software for a short time to protest the disputed election results, until the tool’s popularity in Iran overwhelmed the group’s servers and they were forced to shut it down.
Freegate is not the only tool that dissidents use to skirt censorship on the web. Lake also mentions the software Tor, profiled in the September-October issue of Utne Reader, an anti-censorship program that is funded in part by the U.S. government. The Falun Gong has urged the United States to fund Freegate, too, but support has not been forthcoming.
As good as programs like Freegate and Tor are at stymieing government censorship, China, Iran, Russia, and other countries are working feverishly on technology to fight back. Lake writes, “the race to beat the Internet censors is a central battle in the global struggle for democracy—a cat-and-mouse game where the fate of regimes could rest in no small measure on the work of the Falun Gong and others who write programs to circumvent Web censorship.”
Source: The New Republic
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Friday, July 17, 2009 11:58 AM
You're a foreign journalist locked up in a notorious Iranian prison facing espionage charges, how do you pass the time? You ask your interrogators for their reading suggestions, of course! That's what Iason Athanasiadis did, and now that he's back on the outside he's assembled a list of his interrogators' recommendations and published them at Global Post. Here's an excerpt:
Westoxification, Jalal al-e Ahmad, 1962: A recurring point of reference for my jailers, this is the pre-eminent philosophical work on which the cultural wars that followed the Iranian Revolution were conducted.
The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders: Highly recommended by my interrogators as the definitive account of how the West funded leftist and right-wing intellectuals during the Cold War seeking to dissuade them from succumbing to the lure of Communism.
Death Plus Ten Years, Roger Cooper, 1995: Highly recommended by one of my interrogators, this is a memoir by a British man convicted of espionage in Iran in the 1980s who spent more than five years in jail and was exchanged for a number of Iranian prisoners with the British government. My interrogator told me that after reading it he was convinced Cooper had been a spy “because he exhibited an intelligence mentality.” He did not delve further into what is an “intelligence mentality,” presumably because he sought to establish the same parameter with me.
A Man, Oriana Fallaci, 1981: At the conclusion of my interrogation, I was told that I should not be so upset that it had dragged on for three weeks. “You shouldn’t be so negative about your experience,” the senior interrogator advised me. “Look at Oriana Fallaci, she spent so much time in prison. It formed her.”
Source: Global Post
Image by Biggunben, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 08, 2009 4:59 PM
Beautiful young women with fashionable clothing and loose headscarves dominated much of the imagery that emerged from the recent Iranian protests. Writing for Women News Network, Latoya Peterson writes that the focus on fashion and beauty may distract people from the real issues at play in Iran.
“Often times, Western feminists become infatuated with the symbolic nature of veiling,” according to Peterson, “and fail to listen to women discussing what they are actually fighting for.” The photographs of women in modern, Western-style clothing with hair cascading out of their veils fit nicely into people’s preconceived notions of modern pro-democracy forces rebelling against the oppressive regime.
In fact, the disastrous economic conditions in Iran are likely what motivated the protests, rather than the politics of beauty and clothing. Emphasizing beautiful protesters could distract people and oversimplify the message of the protests.
The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, on the other hand, may have appreciated some of the problematic attention, Alexander Cockburn wrote for the Nation. According to Cockburn, “Unlike those attractive Iranians, Tamils tend to be small and dark and not beautiful in the contour of poor Neda, who got out of her car at the wrong time in the wrong place, died in view of a cellphone and is now reborn on CNN as the Angel of Iran.” Peterson admits, “Sex sells but so does Iranian beauty, compelling even those who are disinterested in politics and current events to pay attention.”
Women News Network
Image by Hamed Saber, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 07, 2009 1:17 PM
Millions of tweets sounded off in support of Iranian protesters in Tehran last month, but nary a Washington-borne tweet has sung out from the recent healthcare hearings in Congress, or in political protest of Obama’s actions in Afghanistan, writes Alexander Cockburn for The Nation. Nor did the Twitter phenomenon (aka: “Twittergasms”) come to the aid of the estimated 20,000 killed and hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamil people of Sri Lanka earlier this year.
Could it be because Iranians are better looking, asks Cockburn? He writes:
I don't recall too many tweets in Washington or across this nation about a methodical exercise in carnage. But then, unlike those attractive Iranians, Tamils tend to be small and dark and not beautiful in the contour of poor Neda, who got out of her car at the wrong time in the wrong place, died in view of a cellphone and is now reborn on CNN as the Angel of Iran.
Source: The Nation
Friday, June 26, 2009 6:06 PM
News from Iran is quickly receding from the 24-hour news cycle, but the situation in Iran has not gone back to normal. In fact, this coming weekend may be a turning point in the protests. Neda Salehi Agha Soltan, the murdered student who has become a martyr to many in the protests, was killed on June 20. Speaking from London, Iranian journalist and writer Azadeh Moaveni pointed out that Shi'ism traditionally commemorates a person on the seventh day and the fortieth day after a death. “In politics in Iran,” said Moaveni, “these are very important events, because people will turn out for these commemorations, and then they turn into protests.”
This weekend marks the seventh day after Soltan’s death, and the Iranian government has tried to tamp down on remembrances. The British Times reported, “The authorities had already banned a public funeral or wake and have prevented gatherings in her name while the state-controlled media has not mentioned Miss Soltan's death.”
The question, according to Moaveni, is “Will [the protests] flare up again in response to the emotional outpouring for Neda?”
Source: Azadeh Moaveni, The Times
Thursday, June 25, 2009 10:06 AM
An amazing thing happened over at Drawger , a website where illustrators post and discuss their work. Yesterday, artist Tim O’Brien posted the above portrait he drew of Neda Agha-Soltan, the woman whose death has become a symbol of the opposition movement after the contested election in Iran. As usual, other illustrators responded in the comments section. But through the magic of the internet, citizens in Iran also found it, and flooded the post with their own heart wrenching and inspiring comments . According to the artist, what is missing from the site are the hundreds of e-mails he received from people less comfortable posting in public. It makes you ponder the power of visuals, and how one image that strikes a chord can inspire a movement.
(Thanks, Edel Rodriguez .)
Image courtesy of Tim O’Brien
Tuesday, June 23, 2009 12:17 PM
The Virginia Quarterly Review has posted our favorite Iran reading list yet. It includes a graphic novel (guess), a book of 60,000 rhyming couplets, a work of admirable political and religious history, and a memoir called Funny in Farsi. "No one book could ever hope to encompass an entire country, let alone one as complex and multi-faceted as Iran," writes Michael Lukas. "But if you read these four, you’ll be on your way to understanding the home to 66 million people, eight major ethnic groups, seven languages, five religions, and thousands of years of history."
Source: Virginia Quarterly Review
Wednesday, June 17, 2009 10:30 AM
Reports coming out of Iran from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and various blogs are giving foreigners an unprecedented view into the ongoing political crisis in the country. The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, blogging from “a pier in Cape Cod,” has emerged as one of the major arbiters of information on the Iranian protests. Twitter and Facebook users are turning their profiles green in support of the protesters. The same technologies are giving idealists around the world the chance to engage in the crisis, both symbolically and actively. But just because people can engage, doesn’t mean they always should.
The raw, unedited nature of much of the information coming out of Iran could give every the impression that they know what’s really going on inside the country. The abject failure of cable news networks to cover the events reinforces that idea. Editor and Publisher recently admitted, “Web reports from Iranians, including Twitter feeds, have outflanked much of print and certainly cable TV.” With foreign reporters getting kicked out of the country, the reliance on social media for news will likely continue to grow.
As influential as social networking tools are in publicizing Iran’s conflict, much of that information has been unreliable. It was widely reported that opposition leader Mousavi was placed under house arrest, which was just one of many rumors that circulated and later turned out to be untrue. The best reporting, according to Kevin Drum writing for Mother Jones, may be coming from the BBC and the New York Times, and other mainstream, traditional outlets.
News from Iran has also made people “desperate to do something to show solidarity,” according to tech guru Clay Shirky in an interview with TED. Shirky said, “Reading personal messages from individuals on the ground prompts a whole other sense of involvement.” This has led people to help out the protesters, according to Shirky, by offering secure web proxies to help them mask their online identities. That sense of involvement, however, has the potential to lead people astray.
Some foreigners have been moved to launch web-based attacks against the Iranian state-run media, overwhelm the state’s servers with a constant stream of requests. Tech-President advocated this “bit of cyber aggression aimed at the Iranian government” as a way to channel the considerable energies of observers outside Iran. The process is so easy that I accidentally helped launch one of these attacks by clicking on an errant link while researching this blog post.
The motivation behind the web-attacks is understandable, but they may end up doing more harm than good. Evgeny Morozov, writing for Foreign Policy, points out that these attacks from other countries actually strengthen the Iranian government’s argument that “foreign intervention” is the driving force behind the protests. And if the attacks get bad enough, there’s a chance that the government could simply pull the plug on the highly centralized internet throughout the country, cutting off the Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube videos that feed the foreign knowledge of the protests.
Sources: The Atlantic, Editor and Publisher, Mother Jones, TED, Tech-President, Foreign Policy
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Tuesday, June 16, 2009 12:59 PM
1. Provide Cover: If you are Twittering about events in Iran from outside Iran, you have the luxury of not worrying about that knock on the door. Not so for Iranians. There is a movement afoot to provide cover for Iranian cyber-dissent by changing your Twitter profile to match the time zone and location of the Iranians brave enough to tweet the updates and calls to action. To do this, simply open the settings page and select "GMT+03:30 Tehran" and change your location to Tehran, Iran.
2. Change Your Facebook Picture: We did! It's a small thing, but a show of support on Facebook is something Iranians can see, so long as the government doesn't shut down the internet completely.
3. Spread the Stories: Iran is a deeply misunderstood place. Stereotypes abound and are typified by the front page of today's New York Post, which featured a photo from the protests and the headline: TURBAN WARFARE. Powerful narratives are emerging from inside Iran. Put them in your Twitter feed, on your Facebook page, on your blog, or send them out via email. The best place to find these narratives is over at Andrew Sullivan's Atlantic blog The Daily Dish or through a Twitter search for tweets about Iran.
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Tuesday, June 09, 2009 10:53 AM
Thursday, June 04, 2009 12:51 PM
The International Society for Human Rights has collaborated with the German ad agency Ogilvy and Mather to create a compelling collection of posters depicting the threat of cyber dissent to regimes with a less-than-friendly disposition towards free expression. Thanks to Max Klingberg for permission to publish these images.
Thursday, March 12, 2009 9:22 AM
Alt Wire is a morning digest of links and information collected and explained by a different guest blogger every weekday. Today's guest is Muslimah Media Watch editor-in-chief Fatemeh Fakhraie. Check back for tomorrow's guest, Shakesville blogger Melissa McEwan.
Wajahat Ali’s blog, GOATMILK, is hosting a monthlong series entitled “The Contemporary Muslim Women”, where Muslim women writers post guest entries. One of these writesr, Noura Erakat, writes about Irshad Manji’s misguided approach to the Gaza crisis.
The Muslim Sex Shop website takes a “halal” approach to sex in the life of a Muslim, discussing issues frankly but humorously in the form of poetry, guest fiction, and cheeky merchandise.
Jamerican Muslimah writes a checklist of Muslim male privilege in the style of Peggy McIntosh.
Persianesque is an online Iranian lifestyle magazine. The magazine recently featured a British exhibition of three generations of female Iranian artists, entitled
“Masques of Shahrazad”, and featuring artists such as Shadi Ghadirian (one of my personal favorites), Mansoureh Hosseini, and Golnaz Fathi.
Riffat Hassan, a theologian and Islamic feminist scholar of the Qur’an, writes a wonderful paper titled, “Members, One of Another, Gender Equality and Justice in Islam,” which thoroughly explores Islam’s position on human/women’s rights.
BIO: Fatemeh Fakhraie (Fatemehfakhraie.wordpress.com) is an Iranian-American Muslim woman who writes about Islamic feminism, Islam, and race for several online and print outlets, including Bitch magazine, Racialicious, and ReligionDispatches. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Muslimah Media Watch, website dedicated to critically analyzing images of Muslim women in global media and pop culture. She also serves as associate editor for the new website alt.muslimah.
Previous Alt Wire Guests: Joe Biel, Anne Elizabeth Moore
Monday, January 12, 2009 3:27 PM
Now that the U.S. presidential contest is finally over, GOOD magazine suggests that people turn their attentions to six particularly interesting elections that will take place around the world in the coming year.
First up is Israel’s parliamentary election, which may be delayed due to the current conflict in Gaza. The top two contenders are Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni; Netanyahu currently leads in the polls, but Livni has experience as the current Foreign Minister and a reputation of being untouched by corruption.
Other contests to follow include India’s parliamentary election in May and Iran’s presidential election in June.
Thursday, September 18, 2008 10:07 AM
The Seattle-Tehran Poster Show that premiered last month at the Bumbershoot music and arts festival is an enlightening mashup of graphic design sensibilities in which Western motifs and techniques meet Persian script, and the hipster rock world intersects with ancient Middle Eastern culture. The show’s approach is to pair up posters, one by a U.S. artist alongside one by an Iranian, based on their styles and imagery.
Although the Iranian posters are not explicitly political, their design choices are more loaded with meaning than meets the Westerners’ eye. “In Iran, graphic design is viewed by many as a creation of the West and is met with skepticism,” Mark Baumgarten writes in Seattle Sound (article not available online). The use of Persian script itself is guided by cultural strictures.
“Graphic designers in Tehran are expected to treat it with a respect that does not allow for using the language’s characters creatively,” he writes. “Still some artists are rebelling against that orthodoxy.” One is Shahrzad Changalvaee, whose work (above) is paired with a Spoon poster by Jeff Kleinsmith in the show, which is being billed as the first exhibition of contemporary Iranian posters in the United States.
Curator Daniel R. Smith, who traveled to Tehran to find poster artists, tells Seattle Sound the search was a challenge—he had to escape his “tour guide” minders to do it—but that state censorship was more a chilling effect than a death-sentence scenario.
“There’s just this general sense of what you probably shouldn’t be doing in terms of imagery and definitely in terms of political stuff and poster design,” he says. “But what I also hear is that whatever you want to do in private is not a problem. If you want to have a private exhibition of nudes, you can have it in your own house.”
The Seattle-Tehran Poster Show will be on exhibit through October 15 at Design Commission in Seattle. Next year it will travel to Tehran, where its organizers aim to share it with Iranian designers who are often prohibited from visiting the United States.
Images of posters by Jeff Kleinsmith and Shahrzad Changalvaee courtesy of the
Seattle-Tehran Poster Show
Thursday, July 03, 2008 12:32 PM
Iranian documentaries are startlingly candid, coming from "an essentially totalitarian society," writes the documentary film magazine Point of View (article not available online). The trade-off: not all Iranian films at international festivals come with official approval, nor are they all allowed to be screened in Iran.
That tension doesn’t mean Iran’s government doesn’t applaud its filmmakers. On the contrary—At the opening of Tehran’s Cinema Verité documentary festival last October, reports Point of View, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance praised documentary filmmaking as “a method of uprising against a world in which the truth is denied.” He also called it “a readily understood language which can be used in the struggle against evil.”
The Iranian documentaries discussed are more modest and less cryptic than the minister’s statement, not to mention more revealing about Iranian society than the cultural minister might like. They give less-than-lofty glimpses into “individual experience” like incarcerated youth dealing with the effects of drug abuse (It’s Always Late for Freedom) and Iranian male-to-female transsexuals (the Sundance-screened Be Like Others). The films reminders viewers of Iranian citizens’ humanity and individuality, writes Point of View, “at a time when our everyday knowledge of Iran is predicated on cultural generalizations.”
Image by Hamed Saber, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008 9:55 AM
A Russian Orthodox church is an unlikely venue for a rock concert, but in Tehran, musicians take what they can get. In These Times writes about a 2001 concert the Iranian alternative rock band O-hum (pictured at left) played to a packed, excited, moshing crowd in the neutral ground of a church. It was one of the few rock shows to have been staged in the country. Iranian alternative music, from rock to rap, has been stymied by censorship and repression.
The country officially bans Western music, so young people usually have to content themselves with illegal satellite MTV and Persian pop produced by Iranians living in LA. Websites like MySpace and Tehran Avenue have allowed the 1 in 4 Iranians who have Internet access a chance to sample native artists like O-hum. But there’s still much work to do.
The life of an artist in America, at once glamorous and poor, seems discouraging enough. But the life of an artist in Iran, where the state actively tries to stop your efforts, must be especially difficult. I wonder: How many potential Iranian Bob Dylans, Mozarts, and John Lennons have been discouraged by censorship and indifference and just gave up?
Curious about O-hum’s music? The band’s LP and EP are available for free download at its MySpace page. Also check out Iranian folk crooner Mohsen Namjoo.
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