Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘Arabic’

Muslims, Words and Dr. King

A Muslim Reflection on Dr. King’s Legacy of Peace Through Words
by Najeeba Syeed-Miller. Posted 1/21/2013.
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The shaykh with whom I studied ethics would speak nearly perfect Arabic throughout the day and address everyone in his path with great respect, even in the grammar of his speech. I asked him why he put such care into his choice of words, he would say, “Najeeba, most importantly, in the form of our words, we should pursue beauty and elevate discourse.”

His words and monumental effort in expressing himself in a way that was sublime has always stayed with me. In essence, he was establishing a confluence between the choice of words he used, their elegant arrangement, his affect and the cognitive functions of communicating. He rounded these together in every utterance so that each sound he made was calibrated to increase beauty in the world and create a relational quality in the way he spoke with others.

As I reflect on why Dr. King so profoundly affected my journey as a peacemaker, it is because he also exemplified that capacity to elevate discourse by harnessing the resources of language to move the level of discussion deeper and higher. In this process, his prose and speeches resonated particularly with those who knew his context. At the same time, they echo in ways that are illuminating with a universal radiance because they appeal to the heart, mind and soul at the very same time.


As a Muslim, I have been taught the Qur’anic principles of engagement: To speak with the best words and with words of goodness when I am in a state of difference with another. Often in the past, I thought of this injunction as emphasizing the idea of persuasiveness. I have since found that there are other important aspects to these teachings that emphasize generosity and respect for the other in exchanges.

In thinking about the language of my teachers and Dr. King, I have come to recognize that one major element of constructing conversations that are beautiful in both form and process is this encompassing eloquence that can integrate emotional and cognitive approaches to social change.

It is easy to separate thought and emotion, to parse out the heart from the head. What makes Dr. King’s words drum in our hearts and minds far after we’ve first read them or heard them is the genius of his understanding that social justice is not merely an externally focused pursuit of rights;it is a rearrangement of the interior human landscape in how we see and feel about ourselves, the world and one another.

There is an element of slowing down, appreciating his text and speeches because of their sheer beauty. It causes me to listen both to the content and the orchestration of his language. I am engaged with the ideas and the emotional quality. He speaks of the greatest ugliness manifested by humanity in ways that push me to see that internally, I too, may be capable of such monstrosity if not for the vigilance necessary to keep my heart, mind and actions intertwined to actualize dignity and peace. He behooves us to respond with an ethical approach not just in action, but also in insuring that even (or especially) an enemy is never demonized nor dehumanized in our depiction of them.

So perhaps one lesson to glean from our celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is how we can move beyond competitive modes of talking, into a state of communal conversation that solemnizes an oath to speak with such careful thoughtfulness, so that the very act of forming a word is a sacred exertion of our highest sense of self.

Non-violence In Syria

From Nation of Change and Yes! Magazine
by Michael Nagler
31 July 2012

Syria: Lamp in the Storm

During the climactic “Quit India” campaign launched by Gandhi in 1942, there were outbreaks of violence. Earlier, in 1922, similar outbreaks had led him to suspend the non-cooperation movement. This time, however, he said, “let our lamp stay lit in the midst of this hurricane.”

This is very much the precarious situation of nonviolence in Syria today. A bit of background:

In the Quranic version of Cain and Abel, Abel says to his jealous brother,: “If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee, for I do fear God, the cherisher of the worlds.” (Quran 5:28) In other words, the first murder is accompanied by the first act of nonviolence, a refusal to kill, even in self-defense, through mindfulness of a God who stands far above partisan conflict.

Islamic scholar Sheik Jawdat Said based his book, The Doctrine Of The First Son Of Adam, apparently the first book in modern Arabic to proffer nonviolent solutions to the region’s problems, on this verse. Said’s ideas were well received in some intellectual circles in Syria but did not lead visibly to any appreciable change the political or social environment. The wave of agitations touched off by the Iranian revolution (though it itself had, and still has, some nonviolent character)—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, to a limited extent Syria itself—were in one way or another nationalistic but not particularly nonviolent. But a group of young men (shebab) who had fallen under the influence of an open-minded teacher at a school that was soon closed by the regime were receptive to the ideas of the distinguished sheik. With the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2001 they began to take some modest actions that were, particularly in one case, provocative to the regime. They began to clean up the streets of their respective neighborhoods. This may not seem very revolutionary to us, but in Syria people did not feel that they owned their country. Inside they lived in clean, orderly houses, but the public streets belonged to the state—which did nothing about them. In other words, while it’s doubtful any of them knew this, it was a perfect example of a Gandhian “Constructive Programme:” taking matters into your own hands in a way that puts the regime in a bad light if, as often, they interfere. Which they did. There were arrests. The regime knew these shebab were giving the people back ownership of their country.

Then came Arab Spring. Protests began in Syria in late January of 2011. In the early months Opposition forces were creating defections among military and government—critical for the success of non-violent insurrections—but many of the defectors and others turned to armed struggle in the face of the repression. According to Erica Chenoweth, the author, with Maria Stefan, of the highly influential study, Why Civil Resistance Works, such movements usually require two and a half to three years to take hold. There have been cases of nonviolent campaigns persisting in the midst of armed elements on both sides, and sometimes even rising to capture the legitimacy of the opposition from those armed elements, usually with some international recognition behind them, and going on to win the struggle: South Africa, the Philippines, and at some point (inshallah) maybe Palestine. This is crucial because, as Chenoweth and Stefan point out, nonviolent insurrections are twice as likely to succeed and vastly more likely to lead to conditions of real liberty (yet to happen in Egypt). In Syria, however, the fledgling movement was rather quickly overwhelmed. Extreme violence creates mobilization challenges that fledgling movements may find difficult to overcome. Some movements manage to maintain—or even increase—participation in the face of extreme violence (the Pashtun Khudai Kidmatgars in 1931, Iran in 1977-9), whereas others find themselves in disarray.” As Bsher Said (Jawdat’s son) informed me, when people are arrested and questioned they generally tell their captors what they want to hear—“Oh, yes, it was armed gangs that did the killing.” It has prompted Bsher to comment, pointedly, that “If we could stop the lying we wouldn’t need a revolution.” So far the wall of fear has not cracked, so we are lacking the sine qua non of successful insurrection—or successful almost anything.

Yet, as Donatella Rivera posts in her recent blog, “The young people I met—including those who had been injured—said they have no intention of stopping their protests.” And while the state actors of the “international community,” even if they resolve their differences, feel that they can do nothing, or worse, global civil society is not so inhibited. There is more going on than I am free to describe here, unfortunately, because of security concerns and the delicacy of some issues, but nonviolence training, badly needed visioning of a future for Syria, reconciliation work, and weekly discussion groups across borders are all going forward. As for higher level operations, we all know that the UN has sent in some 300 monitors, the so-called “blue berets” (joined by a smaller number from the Arab League). But this is the main point.

Summing up the failure of the nonviolent movement of Syria so far, Bsher succinctly says, “we were not ready.” Well, neither were we—the watching world. Three hundred monitors? When it comes to blue helmets the UN is ready to field 16,000. These unarmed monitors are a great step in the right direction, but they should have been at least ten times more numerous and ‘armed’ with a more robust mandate. As Mel Duncan, founding director of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, shared, they must be ready to protect Alawites as well as Sunnis: anyone under threat. They should set up cross-sectarian teams who can call in international help to forestall retaliatory violence when the transition takes place. Duncan should know. Nonviolent Peaceforce and other Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping groups have been doing this successfully, and with almost no casualties to speak of, around the world since the 1980s, and have recently made highly successful contacts with offices of the UN.

Read entire Op-Ed at Nation of Change or Yes! Magazine.

The Calligrapher’s Secret

Review by Gabriel Constans for The New York Journal of Books

The Calligrapher’s Secret by Rafik Schami

Suspenseful, spectacular, and searing are not adjectives one would use to describe The Calligrapher’s Secret. Intriguing, intelligent, and multifaceted are far more accurate to convey what readers can expect from this well written story about love, art, family and Syrian culture.

The primary characters in this historical, yet contemporary novel are Hamid Farsi (the calligrapher), Noura (his wife), Nasri Abbani (wealthy philanderer) and Salman (the calligrapher’s apprentice). The detail Mr. Schami provides for these men and women is quite astounding, as it is for the minor players as well. Each of their personalities, characteristics, family life, childhood experiences, and cultural and political influences that shape and affect them is presented with precision, empathy, and nuance. The beauty of these descriptions is both a blessing and a curse, as some of the back story and pages devoted to such, become a little tedious and occasionally divert attention from the protagonists.

The author is quite adept at setting a scene and taking you for the ride. It’s as if you are peeking inside your neighbor’s kitchen or bedroom and seeing and hearing every intimate detail of what is happening through their eyes. Place, time, and events are also highlighted with powerful metaphors. When a mason hears of his son Jirji being beaten by a teacher at school, his anger and fury is described as, “He closed his eyes for a second, and saw a fine rain of burning needles against a dark sky.” After falling in love, it is said of Noura that, “From that day on, time flew past as if it were made of pure ether.”

An additional delight of The Calligrapher’s Secret, as well as interesting history and insight into calligraphy, the wearing of the veil and the Arabic alphabet, are the glimpses into Damascene and Syrian life in the 1950s and some of the customs, undercurrents and unspoken realities of the time (and today). “Faizeh told Mahmoud the butcher and her neighbor Samira in confidence that Salman was working as a chef in Kuwait for a good salary. ‘But that is strictly between our selves’ said Faizeh in conspiratorial tones. In Damascus, that was as good as a request to spread the news with great speed, and Mahmoud the butcher and Samira did valiantly.”

Mr. Schami’s writing shines with characters that embody and are shaped by gossip, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, secrets, and truths layered individually and collectively to create a story that should be savored and taken in at a leisurely pace. The end of the story is also a beginning—and includes a touching surprise. MORE

Specters by Radwa Ashour

My review of Specters by Radwa Ashour, for The New York Journal of Books.

If Specters were as good as its opening line “The valley was full of ghosts” it could have been intriguing, but it is not. The remaining story is a mishmash that moves from first person to third, past to present, young to old, and fiction to nonfiction. Rather than adding depth and nuance to the book, these devices distract from the flow, storyline, and telling of the tale or tales, as the case may be.

Egyptian born and American educated author Radwa Ashour begins by stating that the book is about two women born on the same day: herself and another woman she calls Shagar. Shagar’s life is summarized in the first five pages, with more details interspersed throughout.

One of the more enlivened and affecting scenes is when Shagar meets a new teacher in sixth grade, Fawzi, who tells them to “Ask and think.” He disappears suddenly, and Shagar learns from his family that he was arrested, most certainly for having such revolutionary ideas as to tell his class to question and think about what they are taught or believe. MORE

Begging in Tel Aviv

Years ago, I went to Israel to interview Leah Rabin, wife of the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for my book Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. The following events took place after I’d been thoroughly searched by Ms. Rabin’s security guards, completed our conversation and had some free time before going back to the funky one-light hotel room I was staying in until the morning flight home.

In the middle of modern, bustling, downtown Tel Aviv, a man in worn clothes meanders along on the back of a long, horse-drawn cart, yelling out in broken Arabic German, “Old stuff. Anybody got old stuff?” Behind his tall dark body, with the stubble face, is a pile of books that look as if they’ve been in someone’s basement since Moses parted the Red Sea.

The gentlemen sitting next to me at the sidewalk cafe, in his meticulous three piece suit and tie, explains, “He’ll get whatever used stuff he can find and sell it at the flea market in Jaffa.” He takes a breath, lifts his nose and chin skyward and says, “Scavengers. Human scavengers.”

It seems as if every third person walking by has a cell phone stuck to their ear in some private, yet public, conversation with a friend, business partner, alien or God. Who knows what lurks on the infinite satellite waves pouring into their heads?

Four out of every five women seem to have gone to identical fashion and fitness training with shapely bodies, tight black pants, one inch high heels, dark black hair and eyes to match. The other most popular outfit is army fatigues, with coordinating boots, cap and automatic weapon.

Across the street, under the Hebrew letters for The Grand Hotel, a life-size wooden cutout of Barney, yes THAT Barney, leans happily against the wall, waving merrily with his outstretched purple clubbed hand, inviting all within sight to enter the small boutique at the corner of Ben Yehuda and Fischman.

A tall, vacant-eyed man, approaches three smartly dressed elderly women sitting on the other side of me and asks them for change. I’ve never heard someone beg in Hebrew before. One of the women scrounges in her purse as the others look away and hands him some Shekels. Without a word he walks on. The women move closer and whisper with raised eyebrows as he moves down the street, shuffling from one person to the next.

I get up quickly, follow him down a side street and hand him the equivalent of about ten US dollars and say “Shalom”. His eyes come to life and a smile adorns his face from ear to ear.

He tries to hand the money back and says, “Too much. Too much.” but I insist and tell him to keep it. As I’m trying to figure out if he’s Arab, Jewish or some other nationality, he says, “Come. Come with me.” I hesitate, then follow him around the corner.

As we turn the bend a woman in a long robe and a child meet him. He says something in Arabic and turns my way. “This is my wife, Jehan and my son Ahmad.” He rubs the boys head lovingly. “Come,” he says, motioning for me to follow. “Come to our home for dinner.”

“No,” I say, sure they have little for themselves as is. “I couldn’t impose, but thank you.”

I turned and started to walk away, but he grabbed me gently by the arm and turned me around.

“It will be our blessing to have you as our guest.” He bowed slightly. “Please.”

I could have stayed put at the sidewalk cafe, ordered a big meal and sat around to enjoy the rest of the evening, but then I would never have met Omar and his family. Meeting them was by far a vast improvement to staring at women in black pants, soldiers with guns and people talking grimly into their cell phones.

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