Some of my friends and colleagues launched an ezine last year which bridges a gap that has bedeviled many of the best efforts to broaden understanding of the Arab world in the English-speaking world. Politics has so overwhelmed coverage of the Middle East that the culture and dynamism of Arab society has usually escaped the notice of those not tuned into Arabic literature, the unofficial press, blogs, TV, and film.
Part of the problem may be linguistic. Many well intentioned native English speakers who have labored for years to study Arabic (like myself) are nevertheless ill equipped to handle poetry, to keep abreast of the Beirut daily al-Akhbar, or to follow the latest Egyptian soap.
This is not to say that language is necessary for understanding. There were Orientalists who could list the “sisters of kana” from memory but had never met a living, breathing Arab. Conversely, many of my activist friends who don’t know a stitch of Arabic understand Palestine better than many PhDs.
Many have commented on the importance of tech savvy Arab youth for the Arab Spring. I have to think that a growing population of American scholars who were raised in the Arab world or between the Arab world and the US has also transformed the landscape of activism and scholarship in the US. One of the fruits of this demographic reality is the political-cultural ezine al-Jadaliya which is firmly rooted in both worlds.
It is probably not an accident, but al-Jadaliya appeared just before the Arab Spring got started. The result is a cornucopia of articles on politics and the arts (and everything in between) that reflects the vitality, creativity, and novel use of technology that are the hallmarks of the Arab Spring.
Those of us not intimately familiar with contemporary Arab culture could take in Iraqi-American poet Sinan Antoon’s appreciation of Adunis (“The Arab Spring and Adunis’s Autumn”) or Amal Hanano’s blog documenting a trip to her native Aleppo exploring the chasm that lies between being a Syrian in America and a Syrian in Syria during the regime’s four-month old assault on protesters.
Two other older articles caught my attention. Those of us who have relied on mainstream American accounts will be intrigued by Linda Herrera’s “Y for Vendetta: the Other Face of Egypt’s Youth Movement”. Herrara is the foremost analyst of popular culture, social media, and revolution in the Middle East. Those of us who know the film will be surprised (or maybe not) by the figure Guy Fawkes cuts as an icon of protest in Turkey, Tunisia, Iran and Egypt.
Lisa Hajjar, the expert on the sociology of law and torture, tells the story of the unheralded heroes of the “War on Torture”, that ugly underbelly of the so-called “War on Terror”. In “The Legal Campaign Against American Torture”, she profiles lawyers of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, and the American Civil Liberties Union who fought the good fight and labored against all odds– and in the face of repeated defeats– to challenge the American state itself. Maybe even more surprising to those of us on the political Left are the efforts of military lawyers, members of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) corps, who did what they could under the circumstances to defend the rights of Guantanamo detainees. Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift defied the Pentagon to challenge the legality of the military commissions themselves.
Hajjar concludes, “In my opinion, this legal campaign has not been a failure, despite the losses. Were it not for the work of lawyers and their allies, the torture policy would not have been challenged at all. Moreover, the legitimacy and necessity of litigation (on any socially significant matter) cannot be judged solely by the outcome of cases. The very act of going to court serves at least two important functions: It demonstrates a commitment to the norms and laws that torture is always and everywhere illegal, and it creates a record of struggle to defend human rights and enforce international law. This campaign will be important in the future, perhaps even more than at present, as a record of resistance to inhumanity and dehumanization.”
On a local note, there is a group that works to help heal the wounds of torture in St. Louis, The Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma. The Center, which was founded in the early 1990s provides “holistic mental health services for war and torture survivors in partnership with other local community agencies to better serve the needs of immigrants and refugees.” Their clients come from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, Vietnam, and other countries that are experiencing unrest. There are volunteer opportunities for those interested.