Monday, November 21, 2016

Praying for Freedom: Why Is Israel Silencing the Call for Prayer in Jerusalem?

As I was growing up, I was always reassured by the sound of the ‘Muadhin’ making the call for prayer in our refugee camp’s main mosque in Gaza. Whenever I heard the call very early in the morning, announcing in a melodic voice that the time for the ‘Fajr’ (dawn) prayer was upon us, I knew it was safe to go to sleep.
Of course, the call for prayer in Islam, like the sound of church bells ringing, carries a deep religious and spiritual meaning, as it has, five times a day, for the last 15 centuries, uninterrupted. But, in Palestine, such religious traditions also carry a deep, symbolic meaning.
For the refugees in my camp, the dawn prayer meant that the Israeli army had departed the camp, ending their terrifying and violent nightly raids, leaving the refugees behind, either mourning their dead, wounded or detained, and freeing the ‘Muadhin’ to open the mosque’s old, rusty doors, and announce to the faithful that a new day had arrived.
It was almost impossible to go to sleep during those days of the First Palestinian Uprising, when collective punishment of Palestinian communities throughout the Occupied Territories crossed every tolerable line.
That was before the mosque in our camp – the Nuseirat Refugee Camp in central Gaza Strip – was raided, along with other mosques, and the Imam was arrested. When the mosque’s doors were sealed shut by orders from the army, ordinary people climbed to the roofs of their homes during the military curfew and announced the call for prayer, anyway.
Even our ‘communist’ neighbor did – a man, we were told, who had never stepped foot inside a mosque all of his life!
It was no longer just a religious matter but an act of collective defiance, proving that even orders from the army would not silence the voice of the people.
The call for prayer meant continuity; survival; rebirth; hope and layer-upon-layer of meanings that was never truly understood, but always feared by the Israeli army.
The onslaught on the mosques never ended.
According to government and media reports, a third of Gaza’s mosques were destroyed in the 2014 Israeli war on the Strip. 73 mosques were entirely destroyed by missiles and bombs and 205 were partially demolished. This includes Al-Omari Mosque in Gaza, which dates back to 649 AD.
It also includes the main mosque of Nuseirat, where the call for prayer throughout my childhood gave me enough peace and calm to go to sleep.
Now, Israel is trying to ban the call for prayer in various Palestinian communities, starting in Occupied East Jerusalem.
The ban came only a few weeks after the United Nations culture and education organization, UNESCO, had passed two resolutions condemning Israel’s illegal practices in the occupied Arab city.
UNESCO demanded that Israel ceases such practices, which violate international law and attempt to alter the status quo of a city that is central to all monotheistic religions.
After staging an unsuccessful campaign to counter the UN’s effort, going as far as accusing the international institution of anti-Semitism, Israeli officials are now carrying out punitive measures: collectively punishing the non-Jewish residents of Jerusalem for UNESCO’s verdicts.
This includes the construction of yet more illegal Jewish homes, the threat to demolish thousands of Arab homes, and, as of late, restricting the call for prayer in various mosques.
It all began on November 3, when a small crowd of settlers from the illegal settlement of Pisgat Zeev gathered in front of the home of Israeli Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barakat. They demanded that the government ends the ‘noise pollution’, emanating from the city’s mosques.
The ‘noise pollution’- referred to as such by mostly European settlers who arrived in Palestine only recently – are the calls for prayer that have been made in that city since 637 AD, when Caliph Umar entered the city and ordered the respect of all of its inhabitants, regardless of their religious beliefs.
The Israeli mayor readily and immediately obliged. Wasting no time, Israeli soldiers began raiding mosques, including al-Rahman, al-Taybeh and al-Jamia Mosques in the Jerusalem town of Abu Dis.
“Military officials arrived before dawn to inform the muezzins, the men responsible for the call to prayer through the mosques’ public announcement speakers, of the ban and barred local Muslims from reaching the places of worship,” reported International Business Times, citing Ma’an and other media.
Praying five times a day is the second of the five main pillar in Islam, and the call for prayer is the summoning of Muslims to fulfill such a duty. It is also an essential part of Jerusalem’s intrinsic identity where church bells and mosques’ call to prayer often interweave into a harmonic reminder that coexistence is a real possibility.
But no such coexistence is possible with the Israeli army, government and mayor of the city treating Occupied Jerusalem as a platform for political vengeance and collective punishment.
Banning the call for prayer is merely a reminder of Israel’s domination over the wounded Holy City, and a message that Israel’s control exceeds that of tangible existence, into every other sphere.
Israel’s version of settler colonialism is almost unprecedented. It does not simply seek control, but complete supremacy.
When the mosque in my former refugee camp was destroyed, and soon after a few bodies were pulled out from underneath the wreckage to be buried, the camp’s residents prayed atop and around the rubble. This practice was replicated elsewhere in Gaza, not just during the last war, but the previous ones as well.
In Jerusalem, when Palestinians are prevented from reaching their holy places, they often amass behind Israeli army checkpoints and pray. That, too, has been a practice witnessed for nearly fifty years, since Jerusalem fell to the Israeli army.
No amount of coercion and court orders is likely to ever reverse this.
While Israel has the power to detain imams, demolish mosques and prevent calls for prayer, Palestinian faith has displayed far more impressive strength, for, somehow, Jerusalem never ceased calling upon its faithful, and the latter never ceased praying. For freedom, and for peace.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Chilling Silence Surrounds Rohingya...

For much of last week, the silence was disconcerting. After a series of coordinated attacks on border posts in western Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state left nine soldiers and police dead on Oct 9, a crackdown followed and the hunt for some 400 suspects turned bloody. The violence in the two weeks which followed left a further five officers dead, which is unforgivable, but the crackdown from authorities against the unrecognised Rohingya Muslim minority was more brutal: officially 33 accused insurgents were killed, including several suspects in custody, but given the secrecy there are fears the toll is much higher.
The area was sealed off from outsiders, international aid was denied or severely restricted, and little to nothing was said officially about what was happening in the flashpoint border city Maungdaw or elsewhere in Rakhine state. On Sunday, reports filtered through that security officials had forced about 2,000 Rohingya from their homes in western Myanmar's Kyee Kan Pyin village as part of the crackdown. It was also said 1,000 Buddhist residents had been displaced.
NGOs and the United Nations called for access and information, saying there were allegations of human rights abuses, with unarmed people shot, women and girls raped and assaulted, homes and Korans burned and shops looted. Allegations, it should be noted, that are extremely difficult to corroborate in the circumstances. The World Food Programme, which assists 152,000 people in Rakhine state, said while deliveries were slowly being made, as of Friday 50,000 people had not been reached in weeks.
On Friday, the silence broke with reports from Reuters that dozens of Rohingya women had been raped by groups of soldiers. The accounts from eight women interviewed both on the phone and in person were chilling, with a mother of seven saying her headscarf was removed before four men attacked her and a 15-year-old daughter. A 30-year-old woman also described being knocked off her feet by soldiers and repeatedly raped. "They told me, 'We will kill you. We will not allow you to live in this country,'" she told Reuters.
Senior figures in the Myanmar government denied the accusations, with one going as far as calling the accounts Islamist propaganda. The US State Department responded by saying it had voiced concern to Myanmar's foreign ministry and calling for an investigation which held those responsible to account. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: "The Burmese government should ensure a credible inquiry into the Oct 9 violence by inviting UN human rights experts to take part. Rakhine state's ethnic divide is perhaps Burma's biggest fault line. The government's handling of this inquiry is a big test for preventing future violence against the Rohingya and other populations."
One account the government has not denied, however, is the death in custody of Khawrimular, a 60-year-old Rohingya detained on Oct 14 on suspicion of involvement in the earlier attacks. Arrested along with his three sons and two of his brothers, he was described as a community leader yet authorities said he had to be subdued after grabbing a gun while in custody.
He was rendered unconscious and died on the way to hospital. The government has promised an investigation into this death.
Observers are worried this could be the worst violence to hit Rakhine state in the four years since 125,000 people were left displaced, leading to an annual exodus of asylum seekers. Without access it is impossible to say, but it does come at a difficult time as the government of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is still finding its feet and negotiating the balance of power with an army that still holds tremendous sway.
Much criticism has been levelled at Ms Suu Kyi for perceived and real failures to address or in some instances even acknowledge the plight of the Rohingya, considered among the world's most repressed and officially denied citizenship and rights under previous junta rule thanks to enmity that in turn dates back to the colonial era. Some of this criticism is justified, and even in June she told the UN her government would continue the policy of avoiding the term "Rohingya" -- they are seen by many as illegal Bangladeshi migrants. More sympathetically, it should be remembered democracy remains fragile in Myanmar after so many decades of military rule and there are many competing political forces, ethnic minorities and war-torn regions for the government to deal with. This is to say nothing of the men with weapons, money and power who stand to lose from the transition to democracy.
Nearly a year has passed since her election. While Ms Suu Kyi cannot hold the office of president, as a democracy hero and de facto leader her words carry weight. She is no longer an opposition figure but a world leader, and she needs to act as such. For years, her silence on the Rohingya has been disconcerting. In light of the recent violence, it is more troubling still.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Madaya Mom

Marvel has no shortage of superheroes under its creative branch, but perhaps none are more heroic, or relevant, than Madaya Mom. The new comic book series comes from a collaboration between Marvel and ABC News (both owned by Disney), detailing the real-life accounts of a mother living in the war-torn Syrian city of Madaya. 

The comic is based on a series of blog posts from the mother — who, for safety reasons, has chosen to remain anonymous — published on ABC beginning in January with "Syria Starving: A Family's Fight for Survival." The Madaya Momcomic takes into account some of her real-life exchanges with ABC's journalists; she would text them updates about her and her family's situation.

"Today, our one meal was rice and bean soup ... our bodies are no longer used to eating," the mother starts one exchange with ABC. This, in turn, became the opening line for the comic book. 

The mainstream media has given less coverage to Syrian cities like Madaya unless they've been beset by headline-grabbing tragedy. So the comic offers a new way to provide context to what daily life is like in the besieged region through the mother's perspective. It's the clear intent from ABC, as they have also provided a teacher's guide with the comic. 

Madaya Mom is available to read and download for free here.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The 2nd World Nomad Games...

In early September Kyrgyzstan hosted the 2nd World Nomad Games at the lakeside resort town of Cholpon-ata. The Games kicked off with a lavish opening ceremony on September 3 and closed with an eclectic concert on September 8. The week between was filled with earnest competition, friendly contests, and a full-on Central Asian Burning Man-like festival. Attended by delegations from more than 40 countries–some serious competitors and some perhaps press-ganged backpackers–the Games were a vibrant celebration of nomadic culture. “If Genghis Khan were alive, he’d be here,” the announcer at the opening ceremonies boomed to an appreciative cheer from the crowd.
8 September marked the final day of the World Nomad Games, which saw Kyrgyzstan finishing at the top of the medals table and an impressive closing ceremonyThe Games included over 20 sports and games traditional to nomadic cultures, including falconry, horse racing, wrestling and Buzkashi, a Central Asian sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal. The games were accompanied by a cultural programme, which this year featured music and fashion events.
Kyrgyzstan triumphed in the medals table, winning 79 medals including 25 golds. Making up the rest of the top five were Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan. The second World Nomad Games were held from 3 – 8 September 2016  on the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan.