‘Magic of monuments’ can return tourists to Egypt: Zahi Hawass

Interviews

Cairo, The Arab Weekly –  “I think tourism can return this year,” said Egyptian archaeolo­gist and former Antiquities minister Zahi Hawass. “We need a global cam­paign to bring tourists back and, if that can happen, then I think 2017 will be the year that tourists come back to Egypt.”

Hawass, speaking to The Arab Weekly at his cluttered central Cairo office, said he was continu­ing to promote Egyptian antiqui­ties and Egyptian tourism on his foreign trips.

“Yes, this is the message that I am taking wherever I go: Egypt is safe. If you go to any archaeologi­cal site, it is completely pro­tected,” he said. “The problem is we don’t know how to promote Egypt properly. The magic of monuments can bring everybody [back].”

The former long-time head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and then Antiquities minister, Hawass was in charge of Egypt’s museum and monuments, including the pyramids of Giza. Although he no longer has a position in government, Hawass remains a dedicated archaeologist and is involved with many archae­ological projects, including plans to re-scan the Great Pyramid and the Valley of the Kings.

He said he hoped that new discoveries would catch the public’s imagination and draw tourists back to Egypt.

There is some light on the horizon. British travel group Thomas Cook has announced an increase in demand for holidays in Egypt, even though a British ban on direct flights to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el- Sheikh after a Russian airliner crashed in northern Sinai in October 2015 remains in place.

Russia has also indicated a renewed openness to resuming direct flights to Egypt this year. Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland earlier lifted travel restrictions to Sharm el-Sheikh and Cairo recently announced the establishment of a fund worth an estimated $280 million to upgrade hotels and tourist resorts in expectation of a new influx.

Even if the tourists do not return to Egypt to see its antiqui­ties, Hawass said he has a plan to take Egypt’s antiquities to them.

“Antiquities can be like the chicken that lays the golden egg… every day,” he said. “I think from antiquities, Egypt can solve many of its problems. Even if the tourists are not coming, you can bring money in by sending exhibits abroad.

“The King Tutankhamun exhibit that I sent to London brought $120 million to Egypt. Exhibits such as this are the only way to bring money back into the country.”

The Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibit, showcasing artefacts and statues from the lost cities of Canopus and Thonis- Heracleion, was at London’s British Museum last year. Egypt is also preparing for a new interna­tional Tutankhamun exhibit for 2018 that will have stops in several major European capitals, culminating in a major celebra­tion in Cairo in 2022 for the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Hawass is perhaps better known for his campaign to return stolen artefacts to Egypt. It is a cam­paign that remains close to his heart. “What has been stolen from Egypt is known and clear. Many museums are still utilising imperialism until today. They are buying stolen artefacts,” he said.

“We don’t have any account of how many artefacts have been stolen after the revolution. I believe that there is only one-third of our artefacts left in the country. Many artefacts are being sold without the proper docu­mentation. I insist that all auctions require such documen­tation before they sell any artefact.”

Egypt has recovered some historical items stolen since 2011, including an ancient Egyptian artefact carved in glass that was looted from museum storehouses in the Nile Delta city of el- Qantara. It was recently handed over to the Egyptian embassy in London. Artefacts taken out of the country before the revolution are slowly being returned to Egypt in a campaign started by Hawass.

Seated behind a desk overflow­ing with books and papers and his signature Stetson hat, Hawass said he does not look back at his career in government, but forward to more archaeological discoveries.

“There is a lot more to come,” he said. “Personally, I believe that the imperial chamber of Khufu is still undiscovered in the Great Pyramid. There is also the scanning of the Valley of the Kings, where the tomb of Amen­hotep I has not been found yet. The tombs of Thutmose II, Ramses VIII, all the queens of the 18th dynasty, I feel that this will be the most important archaeo­logical project of 2018 and I am very much looking forward to it.”

 This article was originally published here.

Arab League’s Hossam Zaki says much depends on ‘gathering of Arab will’

Interviews

Cairo, The Arab Weekly – The Arab world is facing unprec­edented chal­lenges — from the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) to conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen — and the Arab League has done what it can, even as it has not been able to take a leading role in addressing these crises, the organisation’s assistant secretary-general Hossam Zaki said.

Speaking to The Arab Weekly at the headquarters of the 22-mem­ber Arab League in Cairo, the vet­eran Egyptian diplomat said Arabs must be realistic and acknowledge that the solution to regional crises may lie beyond the Middle East but the Arab League must, never­theless, play a stronger role.

“It’s complicated because we are trying to do some work in this area whereas we know that we are not the only players in the game,” Zaki said. “On the contrary, you can say the Arab League is kind of a latecomer to many of these crises. We have not had an uninterrupted role in any of those conflicts since the beginning.”

“In the Syrian situation, in the Libyan situation, in the Yemeni situation — just to pick those three examples — we have not been consistent in dealing with them. At the beginning of any specific crisis, we deal with it, then somehow the whole file gets transferred to the international peace and security organs, meaning the UN Security Council,” he said.

“So, I feel that the Arab League has abdicated its role or it has been sidelined, whichever you would like to choose.”

The Syrian conflict has been go­ing on for nearly six years with no end in sight. The situation in Libya became more complicated after the 2011 “Arab spring” revolts, with competing governments and a dangerous ISIS presence.

As for international organs, whether the Arab League or the United Nations, they have shown themselves to be incapable of resolving the various crises that have beset the Middle East since the “Arab spring”.

“Listen, there is a sort of fatigue in the Arab general public opinion and also most certainly among the government vis-à-vis the continu­ation of these crises… [but] what I can tell you is that the Arab League, under the leadership of Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, will definitely do its best to be there and to bring as much Arab input as possible into the solution of those crises based upon our resolutions,” Zaki said.

“We are going to try and do that but it is an uphill battle. It’s not an easy thing.”

Aboul Gheit, a former Egyptian Foreign minister, was elected Arab League secretary-general last March, although the election of a 74-year-old Mubarak-era official was not welcomed by all members, with some questioning his age and previous comments.

Despite this, Aboul Gheit has taken the initiative to increase coordination and cooperation between the Arab League and the United Nations with the aim of involving the Arab League more in resolving regional challenges.

“As we speak, we have been working to push for complete coordination with complete trans­parency between the Arab League and UN on all these issues,” Zaki said. “We are receiving the UN envoys here in the Arab League to speak with them about their efforts and about how they are working in order to reach a solu­tion to these crises.”

“The next step, as we see it, is to be part of the solution, not only for the Arab League to be briefed but for the Arab League to be part of the solution. For that, we need much more than just the goodwill of the secretary-general. We also need the active engagement and support of our member states, and I think we have that. So it is a matter of time but I think we are heading in the right direction.”

Critics of the Arab League point to a clear shortage of “goodwill” between the Arab League and its members, with the Arab League preoccupied with a number of major internal issues, particularly questions over the lack of payment by several members to the organi­sation’s budget. There have also been attempts to modernise and reform the Arab League, some­thing observers say is desperately needed.

When asked to pick a “dream” professional objective that he wished could be fulfilled, Zaki considered the internal workings of the Arab League.

“There are a number of admin­istrative and financial issues in the Arab League that have been lagging behind for a number of years,” he said.” I think we can resolve them. I have a good vibe about that, par­ticularly as this issue has soured the relationship between the mem­ber states and the Arab League secretariat for a number of years. I think if we can resolve that, we will be able to go back to the initial goodwill relationship between the member states and the secretariat and that is what we need.”

With the next Arab League sum­mit set for in Amman in March, Zaki said he was “optimistic” that the Arab League would play a greater role in resolving Middle East crises but only after resolving its own.

“Yes, I think we have a good chance but that is, of course, conditioned upon many things, whether we will be able to put all [Arab] hands together,” he said. “Whether we will be able to have a gathering of Arab will.”

This article was originally published here.

British Muslim architect Shahed Saleem takes on the British Mosque

Interviews

London, The Arab Weekly – The story of the mosque in Britain goes back to the 1880s, further than in any other Western coun­try. For British Muslim architect Shahed Saleem, who has designed two mosques, this area of architecture lacks exposure. His book The British Mosque: An Archi­tectural and Social History, to be published this year, seeks to shed light on the subject.

There are approximately 1,500 mosques in Britain, serving the country’s 3 million Muslims. The majority of the mosques are con­verted spaces — former houses, shops or even pubs — with about 200 originally designed as places of Islamic worship.

“There has been a lot of archi­tectural and design criticism of mosques [in Britain] that they are not very sophisticated in terms of design or that they are quite pas­tiche and tacky,” Saleem said.

“Many of them are nothing more than converted buildings with a dome or minaret attached. So there is this slightly schizophrenic visual language that is almost uncomfort­able with itself… These mosques don’t really know what they are trying to be. Are they a traditional building or a local mosque?”

Many newly built mosques in Britain bear little resemblance to traditional mosques in their de­signs, leading Saleem to say: “The alternative is to have an avant-garde response but the people who use that mosque think, ‘Well, I don’t really connect to this build­ing.’ It’s a whole different architec­tural language, from a whole differ­ent culture.”

Saleem said he envisions a hap­py middle between these two ex­tremes: An architectural design that embraces and adapts on the past but exists in the present, rep­resenting a religious identity that is both modern and contemporary and uniquely British.

“Muslims in this country have been determined to create a Muslim infrastructure for themselves and have really struggled and battled to create the mosque, changing the nature of England’s townscapes. So I think it’s important that we don’t now create buildings that are com­pletely Western,” Saleem said.

“What I’m interested in is chart­ing a course between the two. I don’t want to disregard all the ar­chitecture that has already been built and say we need to start from scratch. What I’m interested in is looking at what people have built in this country, in these converted ad hoc-type buildings and almost draw a new visual language from that.”

It is important for Saleem that local mosques tie into their com­munities. “Yes, both the local in­digenous communities but also the local Muslim history of mak­ing buildings in this country,” he said. “The Muslim history of mak­ing mosques in England is that it’s a very self-built, ad hoc process in which the communities are very connected to the buildings because they fund and design them them­selves and I think it is important to draw from that.”

Saleem said he sought to bring those aspects together in the two mosques — the Shahporan Masjid on London’s Hackney Road and Ab­erdeen’s Masjid Alhikmah in Scot­land — he has designed. However, the most striking thing about Sal­eem’s two mosques is that neither utilises the architectural features that have come to define mosques — the dome and the minaret.

“Well, it’s not dogmatic,” he said.” If it’s appropriate and it works and it has a role in that particular situation, then I would look at us­ing minarets, probably even more so than domes. The usefulness of the dome is that it helps you feel the space internally but there are very few opportunities to use that because of the size that’s required while you don’t need it for acous­tics nowadays because of micro­phones and so on.

“As for the minaret, it has now become a visual symbol. The mean­ing of an object can change over time. If it started off as a practical device [to issue the call to prayer] it has turned into a visual symbol. The question is how do you now best use that visual symbol?”

His mosques also marry a blend of traditionalism — referring spe­cifically to British mosque-building — and more modern styles. Shahpo­ran Masjid, for example, includes a mashrabiya screen that is a nod to one from the first purpose-built mosque in Britain, Shah Jahan mosque in Woking. “So that’s kind of an English reference, if you like,” Saleem said.

His Aberdeen mosque includes hand-made ceramics as well as a vast granite block that refers to the local stone industry. “While there is a series of different things happen­ing, they are all working together,” he said.

The most important thing is to look to the future, even while keep­ing hold to the past, Saleem said. “A mosque should challenge your per­ceptions. Designing a mosque is an internal dialogue, a dialogue about British culture, a reference to our own history.”

This article was originally published here.

Amr Moussa: The Arabs will never say ‘Yes, sir’ to Turkey or Iran

Interviews

Cairo, The Arab Weekly – Former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa remains a busy man. A veteran of Middle East politics — he was Egyptian Foreign minister from 1991-2001 — Moussa is keeping a weather eye on the national, regional and interna­tional situation, including attending the World Economic Forum in January in Switzer­land.

Moussa, speaking at his office in Cairo one day after the anniversary of the January 25th, 2011, Egyptian revolution, addressed many of the unprecedented challenges the Mid­dle East is facing.

“Yes, it was a real revolution and as a reaction to bad governance but it was also hijacked very quickly and it didn’t last long,” Moussa told The Arab Weekly. “Still, the effect is deep. The change has started. Egypt will never go back to how it was before and I believe the reac­tion will take a long time but there will be a new Egypt at the end of the road.

“Of course, it could be better but this is the beginning.”

Six years after the revolution, Egypt finds itself confronted with a region in flux and is backing dif­ferent sides in conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya. This is a precari­ous state that is raising tensions between Cairo and traditional stal­wart supporter Saudi Arabia. Many Egyptian officials deny any tension between Riyadh and Cairo but the signs of strain are clear.

“Egyptian-Arab relations have their own life,” Moussa said. “There are pushes and pulls — positives and negatives — but all of us feel that, in the final analysis, we all belong to the Arab nation. We all belong to the Arab world and the differences will be dealt with as we go.”

He added: “This is not the first time that Egypt and other Arab countries [have had problems]. You remember after Camp David? That was a total boycott. And then you see what happened thereafter. So, I hope, I trust, that this tense situation will not continue for long.

“I agree with you, of course it is a tense situation. Of course, relations are not what they should be among Arab countries.”

Moussa said the region has com­pletely changed and that change requires Arab countries to work together to build a more stable future.

“With the developments that are taking place we have to discuss the future regional arrangement, particularly following the advent of two regional powers — Iran and Turkey — which are after all from the region but are not Arab,” he said.

“So, I believe that the solution to the Syrian issue and with it the Iraqi issue and with it the Kurd­ish issue and with it the Iranian ambitions and [safeguarding] Arab rights is for all of this to be dealt with in one pot. We must all sit and talk about the future of the region. And this is the constructive thing I am calling everybody to do.”

Moussa warned that, unless it worked together to put forward a clear vision for the future of the region, the Arab world could see the United States and Russia try to impose a vision that would lead to disaster.

“Should they [Moscow and Washington] commission Iran and Turkey to take care of the region? They can’t. They just can’t,” Mous­sa said. “They [Iran and Turkey] are not Arab. The majority [of the Middle East] is Arab and the Arabs will never say ‘Yes, sir’ to Turkey or Iran. But if there are leaders from among our own ranks, like the Saudis and Egyptians, so I believe this is the way to solve the problems.”

As for whether Egypt, which has been preoccupied with domestic concerns over regional ones since the 2011 revolution, has returned to its regional role after the revolu­tion, Moussa was clear.

“No, not yet but we are on the way,” he said. “It will take time and sound policies but the Arab world is in need of Egypt. Wher­ever you go, you will hear talks that ‘We cannot do it without Egypt. We want Egypt back’. This, in itself, is essential for Egypt to assist the situation. As the Arabs need Egypt, Egypt also needs the Arabs and altogether we can do the game. Separately we can’t.”

Egypt must play a larger role in resolving regional crises, Moussa said, particularly the political and security crises next door in Libya.

“We witness active politics. Yes, Egypt is playing a role there, particularly as the situation in Libya is a threat to Egypt if it is left to the terrorists. They were eyeing Egypt [from Libya], especially [the Islamic State] ISIS. So, the role of neighbouring countries, and par­ticularly Egypt, is to bring together all of the parties in the Libyan conflict to sit together and chart the route forward. I can see some glimpse of hope now.”

Speaking less than one week after the inauguration of Don­ald Trump as the US president, Moussa struck a note of caution. “Well, the beginning has not been very encouraging but let us wait and see how things will develop. In the United States, it is not just the personage of the president himself; there are the rest of the institutions as well. So, let us give him the first 100 days, or even the first six months,” he said.

“Let us give him a chance. Provided, of course, that he does not embark on something that will confuse the whole issue,” he added, speaking before Trump’s controversial decree to ban citi­zens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States.

This article was originally published here.

‘Lack of critical introspection’ a problem in Islam today, says Quilliam’s Adam Deen

Interviews

London, The Arab Weekly – Adam Deen is an ex-Islamic extremist seeking to fight Islamic extremism. After being promoted to managing direc­tor of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think-tank, Deen finds himself confronting an increasingly polarised discourse about Islam in the West.

“I think my new role is more to build on the success of Quilliam, not so much to change what they’ve been doing but to complement it. One area we particularly need to focus on is claiming more of the ground in the Islamic intellectual space, putting forward a more moder­ate and pluralistic reading of Islam,” Deen told The Arab Weekly in an interview.

Deen is a former senior member of the banned al- Muhajiroun group, which was led by infamous British preacher Anjem Choudary, who has been sentenced to more than five years in prison after being convicted on charges of inciting support for the Islamic State (ISIS).

The son of Turkish immi­grants, Deen had a keen interest in learning about Islam as a young man and became radical­ised while attending university. After becoming disillusioned with radical Islam over a period of years, he left al-Muhajiroun in the mid-2000s to pursue a more tolerant vision of Islam. He joined Quilliam in November 2015 as head of outreach and in September was promoted to managing director.

“Being a former extremist, we have an insight into the inner workings of the extremist mindset and the ideas they hold on to,” Deen said. “I think extremism cannot be totally grasped unless you were one before. As much as it is to do with ideas, it’s also experiential.”

For organisations such as the Quilliam Foundation, perhaps the biggest problem is that it is ploughing a lonely furrow regarding the popular discourse about Islam in the West.

“One of the biggest challenges in this field is that we have two kinds of polarised views. One that says that it [extremism] has nothing to do with Islam… and the other side that says it’s everything to do with Islam and Islam is the problem. Quilliam is the middle ground, the voice of reason, to balance these two out,” he said.

“We represent the silent majority [of Muslims] that want a more inclusive and tolerant Islam. I think we speak for that majority who have been silent for some time and we want to take someone who is at the crossroads and help him.”

Deen has little time for those Muslims who refuse to acknowl­edge the problems that Islam is facing, particularly the rise of Islamic extremism. “If we understand Islam to be our scholarly tradition, our interpre­tation, then we have to say ‘Yes, there is a problem.’”

“The challenge is to say ‘Yes, some of our great scholars in the past got it wrong.’ And that takes courage. There is a lack of critical introspection [by Muslims]. We are being held back by a [schol­arly] tradition that is unques­tioningly revered. That needs to change,” Deen said.

It is views such as this that have led Deen and the Quilliam Foundation to being accused of being in the government’s pocket, particularly their backing of the government’s counterterrorism Prevent strategy, which is strongly opposed by some sections of society. Horror stories of teach­ers referring students to the authorities for donning the hijab or discussing religion have been widely reported in the media after the Prevent Order went into effect earlier this year.

“In principle, Prevent makes perfect sense. It is about safe­guarding children in the same way we would try to safeguard children from any other kind of toxic view,” Deen said. “But it has had some problems and what it fundamentally comes down to is a training gap. That training gap has resulted in Prevent being misapplied.

“I don’t always think it is malicious. I think there is a kind of agenda that is driven by certain Islamist organisations that want to spin it that way,” he said.

Quilliam is seeking to provide teachers with training to help them spot genuine signs of radicalisation and deal with this phenomenon.

“The overall response [from teachers] is one that is quite anxious, sometimes even hostile but by the end of the training… there’s a sense of relief actually that now they understand and have the confidence to tackle these issues,” Deen said.

In addition to its domestic operations, Quilliam has set its sights on new horizons, includ­ing North America where the think-tank is preparing to open a branch in the United States at a time when discourse about Islam and Muslims has been a major feature of a divisive presidential election campaign season.

“There is a place for Quilliam in the US and I think it’s going to be even more important given the heightened tensions now,” Deen said.

 This article was originally published here.

Sofia Samatar: In Egypt, ‘I got to experience Arabic as a living language’

Interviews

London, The Arab Weekly – Somali-American writer So­fia Samatar is renowned for her rich language and complex world-building. She is known for her poet­ry and short stories but particular­ly for her fantasy fiction. A finalist for Nebula and Hugo awards and winner of the British Fantasy and World Fantasy awards, her novels look at how culture and language shape their bearers.

The daughter of a Somali father and Swiss-German Mennonite mother, Samatar lived in Egypt for nine years — three years in Cairo, three years in Alexandria and three years in Beni Suef. Her experiences in Egypt, particularly with the Ara­bic language, infuse her writing. The Winged Histories, published in February 2016 to critical acclaim, and its predecessor, A Stranger in Olondria, deal in difficult ques­tions of identity and culture.

In an era in which fantasy nov­els have become more mainstream and millions are watching George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones se­ries on television, Samatar’s Olon­dria duology offers a nuanced take on the genre.

“In Egypt I got to experience Ar­abic as a living language,” Samatar told The Arab Weekly. “I became closer to its tones, its humour, its pathos. This powerful process of learning and then living a foreign language went into A Stranger in Olondria, where it informs the main character’s experience as a language student.”

The Winged Histories tells of four women — a soldier, a scholar, a poet and a socialite — caught up on dif­ferent sides of a violent rebellion. Told in four different voices, it is an earthy and intriguing offering that looks at how history is written, or unwritten.

“My background has greatly in­fluenced my work,” Samatar said. “I imagine this will always be so, though maybe it will happen in dif­ferent ways. Right now, I’m sort of preoccupied with the idea of dis­appearance: How a person might cease to have a background or fade into a background completely so that there’s no longer a difference between background and fore­ground.”

Samatar’s novels deal with dif­ferent cultures and how those cul­tures interact. The Winged Histories introduces readers to the feredhai, a nomadic culture with clear links to the Bedouin. “The feredhai are absolutely similar to the Bedouins and to Somali nomads as well. It’s a pastoral culture, a desert culture, with strictly defined gender roles. That influence is very important in the Olondria books,” she said.

“Other real-world elements that found their way into the books in­clude ancient Greek culture, espe­cially the religion; the landscape around Yambio, South Sudan; and the literary culture and at­mosphere of Cairo, from medieval times to the present.”

Despite her interest in language and linguistics — she is an assistant professor of English at California State University Channel Islands — and her obvious love of words, Samatar said she does not describe herself as a translator.

“I find translation fascinating and have huge respect for trans­lators, even when I disagree with them,” she said. “I’d love to trans­late something myself but it’s too intimidating.

“I’m too anxious about what the words mean, when the best trans­lators, it seems to me, are translat­ing mood and atmosphere rather than individual words. They’re like painters. I’d love to be like that but I’m just not. I have huge anxi­eties around language and this is probably why the theme of cross-cultural communication so preoc­cupies me…It makes sense to say: These novels are written by a failed translator.”

Samatar has said that The Winged Histories would be her last foray into fantasy fiction and that she intends to focus more on other endeavours.

As for what she is working on next, Samatar said: “I’m working on a very different book. It’s a hy­brid text involving fiction, history and memoir based on a 19th-cen­tury migration of Mennonites from southern Russia to what’s now Uz­bekistan. It’s not a total departure, as my work, especially in the short stories, has gotten closer to es­say writing over the last couple of years but it will be my first major nonfiction work.”

 This article was originally published here.

Kawczynski: British media getting it wrong on Saudi Arabia

Interviews

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London, The Arab Weekly – Engagement is the watchword for MP Daniel Kawczynski, famously, or perhaps infa­mously, one of the most pro- Saudi British parliamentarians in recent history.

A member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and chairman of the All Party Committee on Saudi Arabia, Kawczynski has consist­ently taken positions in support of the kingdom. Speaking to The Arab Weekly in his office in Westmin­ster, he acknowledged the criticism he has received for his pro-Saudi stances but said this would not stop him from speaking out.

“I think it’s very fashionable to be anti-Saudi. A lot of politicians get a lot of accolades for denigrat­ing Saudi Arabia and challenging the way they do things but my concern is British national stra­tegic interests. We have a very longstanding relationship with Saudi Arabia and a huge amount of cooperation in terms of energy, in­dustry and jobs,” said Kawczynski, a member of the ruling Conserva­tive party.

“We also cooperate a great deal in terms of counterterrorism. Brit­ish lives have been saved because of the information that Saudi Arabia has given us.”

That message is not one that the British media is interested in hear­ing, he said, pointing to the cover­age of the January 2nd execution of 47 Saudi nationals convicted on terror-related charges as an ex­ample, with media furore swirling almost exclusively around just one name: Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

“What is wrong is how lazy the British media are in terms of not challenging, probing and scrutinis­ing the court process and the Saudi judiciary system as to why this man was actually put to death,” Kawczynski said.

He acknowledges that Saudi Arabia could do a better job of getting its message out, saying: “I hope, for their sake, they will be more proactive in engaging with the media to explain why Nimr al-Nimr was put to death even if it means releasing the transcripts of the court proceedings… I think that is eminently sensible.”

Nimr was executed along with 46 other Saudis, most of them al-Qaeda members convicted on terrorism-related charges. Nimr had been found guilty of a number of terrorism-related allegations, including instigating sedition. He was arrested after firing on police.

“I think they even actually need help,” Kawczynski said. “What they need is a proper public relations company to proactively engage on their behalf to the me­dia because at the moment their message is not getting across.”

The issue goes beyond UK-Saudi relations to encompass a Mid­dle East that is more chaotic and divided than at any other time in recent years, with Saudi Arabia and Iran in the midst of a region-wide proxy war and the spectre of the Islamic State (ISIS) rising.

“I think relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are the worst they have been in the last 25 years. And they are getting worse,” Kawczyn­ski said.

He seemed to tacitly acknowl­edge that much of the fault lies with Iran, which Saudi Arabia accuses of fomenting unrest in the Middle East through its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Assad regime in Syria.

The P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran has been roundly praised inter­nationally but Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states remain sceptical of Iran’s intentions. Kawczynski concedes that it was ill-advised not to involve the Saudis in the P5+1 talks.

“I think that was a big mistake because the discussions with the Iranians focused primarily on the nuclear issue and there were no assurances given, nor sought, to my knowledge, that as part of this agreement to bring Iran in from the cold that they would stop funding terrorist organisations,” he said.

“The Saudis have been very good allies to us but at the last minute we just ignored their plea [to participate in the talks] and got this agreement with Iran while Iran is continuing to create insta­bility in the region. That’s wrong.”

Using the new UK government designation and Arabic acronym for ISIS, he said this is one area in which Saudi Arabia and Iran can cooperate, even amid deep suspi­cions and infighting elsewhere.

“Daesh poses just as much a threat to Iran as it does to Saudi Arabia. It is in both countries’ interests to set their differences aside and at least in the interim, in the short term, collaborate on helping to eliminate this mutual threat,” he said.

Kawczynski says there is room, even among the latest diplomatic crisis, to manoeuvre.

“If we can get Saudi Arabia and Iran around the same table to come to some sort of understand­ing, which is sustainable, this will benefit not just those two coun­tries but the world,” he said.

“It would be very difficult. The talks would be tortuous and they would be prolonged and they would stall and there would be a lot of tension, concern, fear and exasperation, maybe over weeks, months or years… But I do know that if we don’t attempt this, then we will be letting the next gen­eration down and the problems that exist at the moment would continue and be exasperated.”

Perhaps Kawczynski, the only parliamentarian born under Com­munism (he was born in Warsaw, under the Polish People’s Repub­lic), has a unique view and belief in the power of diplomacy.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. This is something that has happened since modern diploma­cy has been devised and I’m sure a formula acceptable to both Riyadh and Tehran could be facilitated,” he said.

“Senior politicians from both countries have expressed a willingness to engage with their counterparts. Once they finish in­sulting the other side, they admit that they would be prepared to sit down and negotiate. Let’s put that to the test.”

This article was originally published here.

Cartel Land: An interview with director Matthew Heineman

Interviews

cartel-land

Cartel Land is a powerful documentary looking at vigilante justice in the never-ending fighting against drug cartel violence in Mexico and the US border region. The documentary charts the rise and fall of the popular vigilante Autodefensas movement in the southern Mexican state of Michoacan, providing an intimate portrait of leader Dr Jose Mireles. It also looks at the vigilante paramilitary group, Arizona Border Recon, and leader Tim “Nailer” Foley whose goal is to halt Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across the border. The Upcoming caught up with director Matthew Heineman to ask him some burning questions.

Where did the idea for Cartel Land come from?

I literally got the idea while riding the subway in New York, reading an article in Rolling Stone magazine called Border Madness about the Arizona vigilantes. It was a world I knew nothing about. I knew nothing about the border, I knew nothing about vigilantism, I knew nothing about the drug war, [but] it was a world that fascinated me. I spent many months speaking to Nailer and gaining his trust. I spent about three to four months filming with him over the summer of 2013, and then my father sent me an article about the Autodefensas and right when I read that article, I knew I wanted to create this sort of parallel story about vigilantism on both sides of the border. I think on an intellectual level what fascinated me was [asking] what happens when institutions fail, what happens when citizens feel like they are forced to take the law into their own hands. And then the ramifications of what happens when they do so.

How did you get such unfettered access to the Autodefensas and Dr Mireles?

After reading that article that my father sent to me, and it should be noted that he didn’t send me that article as if to say I should go there. It was more like “hey, here’s something interesting,” and then I made the connection, and it took a couple of weeks for my mom to start talking to my dad after that. So I read that article, and then I read a few more articles, one of them was a profile piece of Dr Mireles in the Washington Post, so I reached out to the journalist and asked her about him. She said: “he’s the single most interesting person I’ve ever written about,” and as a filmmaker those are nice words to hear. So she introduced me over email to the doctor and I think the next day I was on the phone with him and he said “come on down.” Two weeks later I was in Mexico filming.

I think there are several things that allowed me to get the access that I was able to get. Firstly, being very honest and truthful with my intentions. I didn’t have an agenda or goal in mind. I wanted to tell a story through the eyes of Dr Mireles, and the eyes of the people on the ground. And I think they responded to my openness and that I wasn’t coming in with a preconceived notion about who they were. There was also the time factor. I didn’t just parachute in and out for two or three days, I was there for almost nine months, on and off, so I was able to develop really deep relationships with the doctor and others, develop storylines and character arcs, and these relationships helped me to get into places that I could never have gotten access to if I was only there for a day or two. Lastly, they were risking their lives for what they believed in, and I was dumb enough to tag along with them so there was a level of respect that my crew and I were risking our lives to tell their story as well.

You document the rise of the Autodefensas, and then subsequently what happens with the movement. Was the intention to chronicle this kind of arc, or was it more a case of “we’re going to go and see what happens?”

“We’re going to go and see what happens.” There’s nothing scripted or preordained about the film. The film unfolded and unravelled in a way that I never could have imagined. At first I thought I was telling the story of good vs evil, or good guys vs bad guys, but over time the lines between good and evil became quite blurry, and that fascinated me. I almost became obsessed with trying to understand who these guys were and what was really happening.

You filmed gun battles between the Autodefensas and the cartels, you witnessed torture, and you visited a drug lab in the middle of the desert which was guarded by armed men – did you ever feel like your life was in danger?

I’m not a war reporter, so I’ve never been in any situation like this before in my life. My last film was about healthcare in the US which is a different type of battle, so yes it was absolutely terrifying. There were countless times when I feared for my life, but I felt like it was a very important story to tell and I felt a huge duty and obligation to tell this story.

Did you feel like you were in danger from one side or another particularly? Filming the Autodefensas, you would have been constantly surrounded by heavily armed men operating, effectively, outside of the law?

It was more from the situations I was in. When you’re in a shootout, it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a flak jacket, if one bullet is going in the direction of your head then it’s game over. So there was a very imminent danger and fear. And then obviously there’s the fear of kidnapping, or people turning against you, or people not wanting you to do things, or people threatening you. There are countless times…when we were surrounded and people were trying to take my camera away from me, or where people threatened or tried to intimidate me. But thankfully nothing ever happened. Knock on wood.

You say you filmed for months and months with the Autodefensas, what was the most interesting thing that didn’t make the edit?

We included the most important information to tell the story, but what we didn’t include were some characters who we just didn’t have time to develop. In the end, it really became a character portrait of Nailer and Dr Mireles, which is what I originally intended. There were also certain scenes that we couldn’t include. There was a very dramatic scene after the shootout between the Autodefensas and the cartels in which they capture two cartel assassins. They are then taken to this local police station and all the family members came and identified them and beat them up. That was a very dramatic and emotional scene.

You managed to get access to the crucial Autodefensas leadership meeting where they discussed their response to the Mexican government’s offer to either join the Ministry of Defence or face arrest. You include an audio of that meeting in the documentary, but you did not film it. Did they know you were recording?

No. I tried to get in to film it with the camera, but they wouldn’t let me in with my camera so I recorded audio. It was extraordinarily important. That scene was integral to the film, to see the breakdown of the Autodefensas and to see that final crumbling.

Mireles is a complex figure. He wants the best for his people, you show some scenes of him with his family, but he is also seen having what is effectively an affair and ordering violence. What was the Autodefensas’ response to this?

Dr Mireles has been unable to see the film for reasons that you can surmise [Mireles is currently in prison in Mexico on charges relating to his role with the Autodefensas]. I think it’s easier to judge from the luxurious confines of a club in London, but this is a war. War is dirty. War is complicated. War is messy. I tried not to shy away from that. I didn’t want to put these characters, or this movement, in a nice neat little box. He’s good. He’s bad. This is good. This is bad. I wanted to show the complexity of vigilantism.

Are you afraid that the Mexican government could use scenes from your documentary against Mireles?

It’s something that we thought about a lot. We consulted a lot of different people about it: journalists, lawyers. We didn’t just haphazardly throw it into the film. Every single frame, every single moment, was meticulously thought through, and especially those moments that you are referring to. Ultimately we decided that they couldn’t use that against him and so we felt comfortable including it. It was something that we captured and something that happened so we also had a responsibility to show it as well. We didn’t want to be haphazard and reckless with what we showed [in the documentary], we were very conscientious in what we showed and didn’t show.

You said that the documentary is a character portrait of Nailer and Mireles. Do you equate between them and their causes?

I think the differences [between them] are stark. And the similarities are too. On a basic level, Nailer and Dr Mireles are both 55-year old men, they both believe that the government has failed them, they both have taken the law into their own hands to fight for what they believe in, but the circumstances are quite different. In Mexico, the violence is visceral. It’s real. More than 80,000 people have been killed since 2007, more than 20,000 people have disappeared since 2007, whereas in Arizona that violence has not happened. That violence, that fight, is much more theoretical, it’s much more a paranoia that these Mexican drug wars will seep their way across our border, and I hope that those differences are quite obvious in the documentary.

Did you feel equal sympathy for both men and their causes? Or more sympathy for Mireles over Nailer, for example?

I think my sympathy is irrelevant. Some filmmakers put themselves in their film, either on camera or off camera. Some film makers use voiceover. Some filmmakers write scripts. That’s just not my style. I don’t find myself that interesting. I believe in the type of filmmaking where you let the story dictate where you go, where you tell the story through the eyes and words of the characters themselves.

Cartel Land has received great critical and popular attention, including winning Best Director and Best Cinematography for the US documentary categories at the Sundance Film Festival. Were you expecting this kind of response?

You make these films, you go off to corners of the world and shoot films like this and then put yourself in a dark room with a screen and try to make sense of it and you never know how people are going to react. I knew we had a special story. I knew we had great scenes and great characters. It was very humbling to get into the festival and to receive those two awards, so we’re very grateful and humbled by the response the film has had, both critically and by audiences.

What’s next for you? Any projects upcoming, or are you just focusing on promoting the film?

I’ve been travelling with the film and promoting; it has been a bit of a full time job. I’m developing a few films as well but for right now I’m really focusing on getting Cartel Land out in the world.

This article was originally published here.

Comedian Maz Jobrani: From Tehran to LA

Interviews

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London, The Arab Weekly – Iran-American comedian and actor Maz Jobrani has come a long way. From playing an Afghan terrorist in a made-for-TV movie starring Chuck Norris (Chuck Norris kills him, naturally) to international recogni­tion, appearing on US talk shows and selling out venues in Dubai.

He has also come a long way geo­graphically. Born in Iran, Jobrani moved to the United States after the Islamic revolution when he was 6 years old, eventually settling in Los Angeles, sometimes dubbed Los Tehrangeles because of its large and thriving Persian commu­nity.

This has been no ordinary year for Jobrani; he wrote and pub­lished a book, I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV, which has been warmly received, and he is set to appear in a forthcoming Showtime cable television special of the same name. But Jobrani laughs off suggestions that he has now “made it”.

“I don’t think I will ever think I’ve made it. I love what I do and I hope to keep doing it till I die. It’s funny because you’ll do a project and finish it and feel good about yourself but then you realise that promoting the project has just be­gun,” he said. “Half the work is do­ing the work. The other half is beg­ging people to read it or watch it or listen to it. It’s been a great year but I plan to keep on going.”

Jobrani is now the man who for­merly played terrorists on televi­sion, having famously sworn off playing roles that contribute to the Hollywood stereotype of “Iranians and Middle Easterners as members of an evil cabal”, he wrote in his book.

After being killed by Chuck Nor­ris (who pauses while defusing a bomb to shoot Jobrani’s character, who is wearing a ridiculous turban in 2002’s The President’s Man: A Line in the Sand), Jobrani has sunk his teeth into meatier roles such as a US Secret Service agent in Syd­ney Pollack’s The Interpreter and last year he played wannabe pri­vate investigator Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero.

As for whether he could ever see himself taking up the turban – the favourite identifier of Hollywood terrorists everywhere — once more, Jobrani laughed. “I guess if I got to beat up Chuck Norris then maybe,” he joked.

“But seriously, I don’t imagine I would do a part like that unless it were written so well that it really showed the guy as more than just a terrorist.

Maybe a film where it starts by saying the guy is a terrorist but then it shows that he’s a freedom fighter and why he’s doing what he’s doing,” he said.

Despite his acting success, Job­rani is perhaps best known for his stand-up comedy and his role as a founding member of the Axis of Evil comedy troupe.

Critically acclaimed at home and across the Middle East, the Axis of Evil troupe includes Middle East­ern-American comedians who try to break down stereotypes through humour.

It is an approach that has met both success and critical acclaim, particularly as it takes on subject matter not particularly ripe for laughter.

While Jobrani does take on sub­jects such as identity (“Iranians don’t say they’re Iranians. We say we are Persian. It sounds nicer and friendlier… ‘Persian’, like the cat. Meow.”) and his mother’s ac­cent (“Iranians cannot pronounce words that have back-to-back con­sonants.”), he also takes on more difficult subjects such as terrorism.

“If I ever take on a serious sub­ject, I try to make fun of those causing the problems. I never make fun of the victims. Making fun of things like ISIS takes power away from them and makes people realise we’re not all [Islamic State] ISIS or al-Qaeda,” he said.

Jobrani’s acting career and com­edy have attempted to show the West a different, lighter side to Middle Easterners — and that is a mission he is calling on others to join.

“[The stereotype] changes as more people from Iran and the Middle East become writers, direc­tors and filmmakers. We need to have more people from that part of the world tell our stories,” he said.

This article was originally published here.

UK government lacks counter-extremism strategy: Maajid Nawaz

Interviews

maajid-nawaz

London – The UK government needs a counter-extremism strategy to complement its counterterrorism strat­egy, Maajid Nawaz, chair­man of the UK-based think-tank Quilliam, says.

Speaking to The Arab Weekly on the sidelines of the release of a re­port looking at the spread of jihad­ism into South Asia, Nawaz said: “There is a gap in the government policy at the moment which I’ve been advocating to be filled. That gap is what I call a counter-extremism strategy. The government has a counterterrorism strat­egy but what it hasn’t got is a strategy to deal with non-violent ex­tremism.”

British-born Nawaz was jailed in Egypt in 2005 for being a member of radi­cal Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation outlawed in Egypt. He grew disenchanted with politi­cal Islam after more than four years in Egyptian prisons and co-founded Quilliam — the world’s first coun­ter-extremism think-tank — with other former extremists when he returned to the United Kingdom.

After failing to secure a seat for the Liberal Democrats in the lat­est parliamentary elections, Nawaz said he was focusing his efforts on expanding Quilliam beyond the United Kingdom.

“What the government is lacking is a kind of civil society-based, non-violent extremism-based strategy. Hopefully, by the end of this year, the government will adopt such a strategy,” Nawaz said.

With the Islamic State (ISIS) holding an increasingly strong sway over some young British Mus­lims, Nawaz said the government, non-governmental organisations and think-tanks such as Quilliam must do more to counter extrem­ist ideology and expose ISIS’s true nature.

More than 1,600 Britons are be­lieved to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, including 17-year-old Yorkshire resident Talha Asmal, who be­came the United King­dom’s youngest suicide bomber in an attack near an oil refinery south of the Iraqi city of Baiji, and Moham­med Emzawi — better known as Jihadi John — who has brutally killed at least seven foreign hostages over the past year while spouting hateful ISIS rhetoric.

“What I’m really enthused by is some of the outreach work that we’re planning to do like taking members of families of foreign fighters and those who have lost their loved ones [to] schools and speaking directly to students as a warning,” Nawaz said.

For example, he said, “Take a mother who is in grief, who has lost her son, to meet [British Mus­lim] kids as a warning and saying ‘This is what happens if you go out there [to fight]‘.”

He called on British Muslim re­ligious leaders to do more to pro­mote a counter-narrative to ISIS’s hateful ideology. “We need reli­gious leaders to come out, not just against the violence but, against the ideological underpinning of the violence, against some of the geo­political constructs that ISIS sup­ports, such as the idea of resurrect­ing the caliphate. We need religious leaders to come out and debunk some of these myths,” Nawaz said.

Nawaz said the responsibil­ity for counter-extremism goes be­yond British Muslim leaders and is something that must take place at a grass-roots level.

“We’ve had some help from the British Muslim community, but I wish we had more,” he said. “We need more help [to counter extrem­ism], not just support in terms of fi­nancial donations, but more moral support.” Unfortunately, Nawaz said: “Sometimes Muslim commu­nities in Britain can take a reaction­ary position because they’re defen­sive and because they’re worried about speaking about such things and that makes them insular. I en­courage them to be out in the open so everyone speaks about this [ex­tremism]. We can no longer be in denial about the extent of the prob­lem within our communities.”

Despite criticism regarding the paucity and disorganised nature of British Muslim communities’ coun­terterrorism response, Nawaz said the key was to hear more voices raised against ISIS and extremism, even if they were not necessarily in accord.

“I think the way forward is to let a thousand flowers bloom. Let eve­ryone contribute to the civil society discussion towards a more pluralis­tic democratic future.

“One hopes that if everyone does that together, even if they’re not working in tandem, you’ll see a re­sult,” he added.

This article was originally published here.