Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Maikel Nabil and Peaceful Resistance

First published at HANNAH ARENDT CENTER

Maikel Nabil and Peaceful Resistance

What if the meaning of peaceful resistance had to be revisited for the 21st century? Where would you turn to then?

Though examples of civil disobedience, conscientious objectors and peaceful protests are by no means rare nowadays, it is necessary to turn to extraordinary events of the kind that attach new meanings to historical circumstances; the meanings are never new but what remains is the novelty of the event.

Revolution is of course the event par excellence in which history is interrupted and something is begun anew. In the 21st century even though the word revolution is constantly heard, there is no more salient example than the Egyptian revolution.

Inspired by Tunisia, on January 25, 2011 thousands of Egyptians took to the streets and assembled at the now iconic Tahrir Square to demand the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. On February 11 2011 the long-time president departed from office after the Egyptian army took the protesters’ side and apparently helped to complete the revolution.

A slogan – was coined then: “The Army and the People are one hand”. After weeks during which the same army brutalized the demonstrators and killed hundreds of them, the sudden change of heart was welcome and the power vacuum left by regime was quickly filled by the army, with the promise implied that a transition to civilian rule would happen eventually.

The rest of the story of the Egyptian revolution is now known all over the world: Military trials, virginity tests, NGO raids, constant clashes – often violent – between demonstrators and the security apparatus, massacres, and more than anything a power vacuum that has left the country sliding into a fierce slope of violence and counter-violence, as it was aptly put by Egyptian businessman Hany Ghoraba in his article “Egypt: The Wild Wild East”.

What happened to the Egyptian revolution and to the peaceful protests that in theory overthrew a regime? The question here for political theory (an expression not free from irony) doesn’t have to do necessarily with the particulars of Egypt – the rise of Islamism, the weakness of liberalism and the fact that leftovers of the deposed regime remain intact in office.

One has to ask himself the question whether a revolution is possible nowadays and under which conditions. It is clear by now that the concept of revolution is challenged today by a variety of circumstances that should bring us to examine briefly two aspects of revolution: The distinction between power and violence and the nature of non-violent resistance.

In his reading of Kant, Foucault tells us what it is that Kant considers significant in revolution: “What is significant is the manner in which the Revolution turns into a spectacle, it is the way in which it is received all around by spectators who do not participate in it but who watch it, who attend the show and who, for better or worse, let themselves by dragged along by it.”

This might well lead us to a very basic insight of Hannah Arendt: “Revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and then they can pick it up”. What is then this power that Arendt is trying to grasp? There is almost unanimous agreement among her readers that the distinction between power and violence is the most crucial and yet difficult aspect of her political theory.

Power is the human ability to act not as an individual but in agreement within a group and this power remains alive only for as long as the group is bound together; it can disappear anytime and temporary as it might be, it is the only cure known to the fragility and meaninglessness of human affairs.

Violence is the opposite of power that has been for long glorified as its exact equivalent, turning power into an instrument that needs justification to pursue its own ends but is always at risk of outgrowing the means and remaining at the level of instrument only – means without an end. In her words: “And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything”.

Then we assume that power can become violent and violence but power can never grow out of violence and is fact destroyed by it. Power – that unmediated action that grows out of common agreement in action between men – is the only thing that can destroy violence and tyranny as it is exemplified in Gandhi, but whatever the reality and success of this non-violent resistance as power is put to test in the modern world often with tragic results.

Arendt is no idealist at this point and she expresses herself with clarity about her reservation on the effectiveness of non-violent resistance after fascism:  “In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of non-violent resistance had met with a different enemy –Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England, the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission. However, England in India and France in Algeria had good reasons for their restraint.” Needless to say this has been the outcome of each and every Arab revolution where power hasn’t been enough to defeat violence.

What is required from non-violent resistance to generate the quantity and quality of power that can effectively defeat violence? Here it is obvious that an association with the military and with militarism in general can never be the answer, and while there are no definite answers to draw from tradition or otherwise, there are always singular examples one can meditate on.

On March 28, 2011 an Egyptian blogger, Maikel Nabil, was arrested by the military police and sentenced to three years imprisonment on charges of insulting the military in a long blog post from March 8 2011, titled “The Army and the People Were Never One Hand”

In his blog, Maikel Nabil provided sound evidence of how activists had been tortured and killed by the army, during and after the revolution and expressed in different words an insight that was already known to Toynbee in his studies of world history: One of the patterns in the breakdown of civilizations is the suicidalness of militarism and its intoxication with victory, out of which periods of freedom have never emerged.

This simple insight proved very dangerous at a time when the power of the people had become a monolithic whole, aptly expressed by Maikel in one fragment written from prison: “Maybe there are many who don’t know the simple distinction between seeking unity and seeking tolerance, but we saw the core difference between the two things and how unity leads to failure while tolerance earns you strength and pushes you to succeed.”

Human action and power – its plural version – can only unfold in plurality and the fact that such was no longer the case attests to the extent to which the suicidalness and intoxication of militarism had already infinitely weakened the power of the revolution. In an entirely un-revolutionary fashion, the sentence delivered on the blogger was celebrated by many and at best met with difference because of his rather unpopular ideas: Peace with the State of Israel and the end of compulsory military conscription.

Nevertheless, the consensus fostered by militarism and the price paid by the search for unity at the expense of plurality and tolerance was levied on Maikel Nabil not because of a failed analysis but by simple exclusion in a battle of opinions from which truth as a public power – to use the metaphor of Philip Goodchild – was absent; what of course places power in the status of refugee and violence as the supreme ruler.

Arendt insisted always that the truths of any age must be always challenged for every generation and it is in this challenge that the power of non-violent struggle resides. It was she who popularized the Austrian adage “there’s no discussion as heated as that on a book no one had read” in reference to the controversy sparked by her book about the Eichmann Trial.

Maikel Nabil wrote from jail that people who supported him should support him for his thoughts and not for his personality because it was his thoughts what put him in jail. It was his thoughts that led him to a hunger strike that lasted over a hundred days. And even after he ultimately was released after a long legal battle of ten months with a clearly illegitimate authority, most of the people who supported him—and those who did not—still don't know much about his thoughts.

Thinking becomes the keyword here: Roger Berkowitz writes of Hannah Arendt that reasoning and thinking are not the same and that thinking for Arendt constitutes a form of action and the basis of all political life and experience – nothing to do with political philosophy or Realpolitik but with our appearance in the world among others.

Thinking and the ability to take responsibility for the consequences of our thoughts is the building block of our ability to appear in the world and as such is the most effective form of resistance under totalitarianism and forms of tyranny in which truth – the material out of which power is made – is absent from the common world.

In an interview of 1974 with Roger Errera, Arendt concluded by saying:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only a lie – a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days – but yet get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such people you can then do what you please.

This cynicism is precisely the risk that unthinking unity poses – that thinking, plurality and truth might disappear altogether, and with them power as well. For Arendt, plurality demands the courage for plural individuals to enter the public sphere, which is why courage, she writes, is the first virtue of politics.
Was Maikel Nabil courageous? The answer to this question is obvious but I disagree with Arendt about the political nature of courage as a virtue.

Susan Sontag writes that courage and resistance have no intrinsic value in themselves unless they are coupled with an adjective – for there is amoral courage and resistance too – by means of which it is qualified. The value of courage and resistance depends on the specific content of whatever it is that is being defended. Heroism isn’t what is stake here, for it is something that always comes in hand with tragedy and pathos and it is precisely heroism what the political consequences of thinking mean to dispose of.

Sandra Lehmann writes: “If heroism is to overcome, it can also dispense pathos and vanity. It needs no reward, not even that of great importance and meaning. Probably only heroism without reward is true heroism. It is a matter of the moment and of a far off future.”

What Maikel Nabil was defending was the life of the mind, and in this crusade against those who want to terrorize the life of the mind lies the true nature of non-violent resistance and the potential of every action that might attain revolutionary power – it begins in the solitude of our thoughts one good day and yet, it can unmake the world. All thinking is dangerous.

Jewish silver craft preserved alive in Yemen

First published on BIKYAMASR

It is said that the numbers of the once prominent Jewish community in Yemen are dwindling fast, especially after the revolution during which a number of Jews had to flee from hostility in the northern province of Sa’ada. The number of Jews left in the country isn’t known with precision but government sources estimate it at 450 and Jewish organizations in the United States estimate at slightly over a hundred.  

Jewish history in Yemen however, goes back to the year 1451 BC as reported by Arab historians from medieval times and legends still circulate that they settled in the Arabian Peninsula around the times of King Solomon. What was once a prosperous community, heirs to unique cultural traditions, is today an impoverished and rather marginal group among others in the complex map of Yemen’s multilayered cultural landscape.

From the cultural legacy of Yemeni Jewry it seems that there is one part that stood the test of time, migrations and revolutions: The craft of hand-made silver jewelry. Last year in December, Yemeni silversmith Kamal Rubaih and retired American diplomat Marjorie Ransom presented a selection of Yemeni jewelry at the Library of the Congress in Washington, focusing on Jewish designs.

In his shop “World Friend” located in the old silver market in Sana’a, Rubaih collects jewelry in both traditional Jewish and Muslim designs. According to Rubaih, from the great variety of traditional jewelry made in the country the most exquisite was done by the Jewish silversmiths in the northern mountains and in the large cities, alongside Muslim jewelry from Tihama, the Hadramaut and Mahra, where Indian influence was felt strongly.

Yemeni brides always felt a strong preference for the Jewish jewelry that is considered an icon of wealth and beauty and it is said that until the 1960’s, it was a deep-seated tradition for Muslims to give a dowry in Jewish jewelry. At the silver market in Sana’a both Jewish and Muslim silversmiths worked alongside and their relations were always cordial and peaceful. However, the ancient Jewish craft has declined progressively as more and more Jews left the country or no longer practiced the craft. On the Muslim side, only a few silversmiths remain but some of them are working on the recreating the traditional Jewish practice.

Mrs. Ransom is a long-time collector of Middle Eastern jewelry since she was a graduate student studying Arabic in Damascus, and her collection now amounts to over a thousand pieces collected from every corner of the Middle East in over forty years. A part of her collection was showcased in 2003 in the exhibition “Silver Speaks: The Traditional Silver Jewelry of the Middle East” at the Bead Museum in Washington, D.C.

Over the years of traveling and collecting, she has become an expert on the cultural traditions of the region through studying the jewelry, interviewing people about the usage and reading everything on the topic, learning that way the history and culture of the region like very few, through the traditional crafts.  Ransom and Rubaih have collaborated on the book “The Demise of an Ancient Craft”, to be published this year by the American University in Cairo Press. The book will deal with jewelry from all of Yemen, with particular attention to the now forgotten topic of the Jewish silversmith.

The traditional silversmith of the Middle East – including Turkey and Iran – has been replaced by gold jewelry, much of it imported and not handcrafted, thus, the efforts of Rubaih to keep the ancient craft alive are certainly remarkable. The larger repertory of styles and techniques in Middle Eastern silver jewelry – casting, chasing, embossing, repousse, filigree and granulation among others – has been mostly casted asides to the work of a few artisans and the constant unrest and deteriorating economic situation have chased away most of the potential customers in the Western world that were delighted to collect the pieces in previous decades.

Among the regional styles, however, some are distinctive and unmistakable, such as the Jewish silversmith craft from Yemen, using highly skilled techniques – filigree, granulation and geometric shapes applied to flat surfaces, producing rich layers of adornment. Rubaih has performed an exceptional task in preserving alive in his shop, traditional pieces recreating the ancient Jewish craft that is one among other timeless and important features of the rich and diverse Yemeni heritage.

According to Rubaih, only very few Jewish silversmiths remain in the country and are now in very old age, but that hasn’t deterred Muslim artisans from learning the craft and reproducing contemporary pieces in the traditional style. He says that now Yemeni women prefer to wear gold than silver and thus, there are only very few working in the trade that has mostly tourists as their customers, but with an entire year of unrest and soaring unemployment, this hardly suffices to keep the craft alive.

Unless there is an effort on the part of the Yemeni government to support traditional silversmiths as well as other artisans working with traditional crafts – weaving, embroidery, pottery and the like, Rubaih insists that it is very likely that they will disappear very soon and with them, an ancient heritage spanning sometimes into thousands of years. Mrs. Ransom was able to travel through Yemen for an entire year and met a small number of Yemenis working with traditional techniques and crafts.

It turns out that there are younger artisans, offspring of the elderly silversmiths, who are trained in the craft and said that they would like to take it up if it were possible for them to make a living with it. She even found the son of an indigo dyer – a technique that has been picked up recently in haute couture in Europe – who also would like to take up the craft if an opportunity would arise for him.

In the 1960’s the legendary cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote that “every era has to reinvent the project of spirituality for itself and in the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is art”. Art always comes with a Janus-face, looking always into the past – the great things that men made then – and into the future – keeping whatever it is that is worth keeping, and is hardly strangled by the demands of the hostile present.

In spite of unrest and an entire year of an unfinished revolution, Yemenis are still clinging to the privilege of the heritage and this isn’t only a matter of nostalgia – a sentiment always reactionary and inimical to progress – but a vision of a better future safely anchored in the scandalous strength of the past, or in the words of Virginia Woolf: “The present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper than the present when it presses so close that you feel nothing”.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pro-Assad Rally in Northern Israel

First published on BIKYAMASR

Pro-Assad Rally in Northern Israel

A few weeks after Israelis rallied in support of the Syrian people and against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, first at a rally in Jaffa and then at a candle vigil held in front of the Russian embassy in central Tel Aviv, another rally was held in the northern port city of Haifa.

However this time the rally held at El Midan Theater in Haifa was not in support of the Syrian people but of embattled Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.  It is reported that at least 500 people from Jerusalem and the Golan Heights attended the event, at which were also present representatives of the of Israeli Arab and Druze communities.

The event was planned by the organization “Popular Committee for the Victory of Syria” and was attended among others by Said Nafa, a member of the Knesset for the Arab party Balad, by former Knesset member Issam Mahoul and by the head of the Orthodox church Attalah Hanna.

In spite of the daily reports of shelling, bombing and the state of siege in Homs, Mahoul reportedly said to Israeli media that the event was held with the intention to reject the conspiracy hatched against Syria, led by the United States together with Qatar and Saudi Arabia with the sole intention to sow terror in Syria and blame the regime.

The argument goes that it is Israel, Arab countries and the United States who are behind the bloodshed in neighboring Syria. Mahoul attacked the Friends of Syria Conference held in Tunisia as enemies of the Syrian people. He also added that while he expressed support for need of reforms in Syria, blamed Israel for being a player in the situation and supporting the bloodshed against the Syrian people.

According to another attendee to the event: “The world needs to understand that it cannot be that the Syrian regime will murder its own people, and it is necessary to support Syria until the killings stop.” According to another participant, it is not possible for them to remain silent about the situation in Syria and that the Syrian regime is not responsible for the killing.

They also added that there is another state that smuggles weapons into Syria with the only aim to incite people against the regime and killing people; probably blaming the State of Israel, whom they accused of “enjoying the killings”.

This might have been the largest rally in support of Assad held by Israeli Arabs since the beginning of the unrest in neighboring Syria, even though similar but smaller rallies have been spotted in the Golan Heights, joined mostly by members of the Druze community.

A number of activists also arrived at the event to chant against the Syrian president and causing minor clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad. A similar event took place earlier in the week in Ramallah and there was also a confrontation between supporters and opponents that ended up in a fist-fight.
In the meantime, while Arab Israeli politicians deny the extent of the crimes perpetuated by the Syrian regime, pro-Palestine activists have kept silent on the stance of prominent members of the Arab community in Israel.

It remains true however that the position of the Druze community in Israel vis-à-vis Syria remains a complex question, as it is that of all the ethnic and religious minorities in Syria, whose fate remains uncertain in the case that the regime will be finally overthrown.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Maikel Nabil and Peaceful Resistance

Preliminary Notes: This essay is based on notes from a talk already given, so I am not expecting it to be fully consistent since it was intended as a brief (spoken) introduction, and still doesn't read like an essay. In the coming months I plan to expand the essay into a book chapter adding more footnotes and references on particular authors such as Thoreau, Marx, Hegel, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, etc. The translations of Maikel Nabil's fragments were substantially altered to be readable to native English speakers; any mistakes in them, are entirely my responsibility.

Maikel Nabil and Peaceful Resistance[1]

 No greater antinomy exists in the realm of politics than the common belief that violence and wars are necessary for the establishment of peace, in line with the thesis promulgated by Clausewitz in the 19th century, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This notion is partly anchored in the equation of political power with domination and violence; what is not only the result of political history but that goes back to the origin itself of the Western tradition of politics, history and philosophy.

Freedom occupied no place in the world of Greek philosophy where political freedoms were taken for the granted, and only began to concern philosophy at a time when Greek civilization – together with its celebrated political freedom – was on the verge of decline[2]. Inner freedom or what the Christian tradition calls free will, was unknown to the Greeks and it is safe to assume that it had no political relevance, since one of the basic conditions of being a free man was being free with others in the public space so that politics and the world could happen and arise in between men and from them[3].

Modern notions of sovereignty are derived from this confusion: When free will – impotent as it is to generate power or human relationships – is made tantamount to political freedom – liberty, that is – the will of the lone individual is placed atop the free association between a plurality of men and ideas, the immediate form that power and action takes, is one of non-spontaneity in which dominance and oppression is the natural consequence[4]. Therefore violence is understood as a political means par excellence to achieve political ends.

But violence by its very nature lacks the spontaneity and plurality inherent in human action. Political power grows in between men whereas violence is possessed by one man alone, and once power is seized by violent means, politics and political power is destroyed and only violence is left. Violence is measurable and calculable while power is imponderable and incalculable. Violence is objective and identical with the means it utilizes, but power comes to life only momentarily and through pure unmediated action[5]. It could be said that in a way violence is the antithesis of politics.

Surprisingly, it was in the turbulence of the violent 20th century the time in which an unprecedented social and political response arose to tackle this difficulty, in the form of organized nonviolent resistance. What this social invention proposed was not an impotence of the Christian kind – like that impotence inherent in the realization of the free will as freedom that nearly all political philosophy adopted – but the use of mass power to destroy violence as exemplified by Ghandi: He thought that the power of the masses was the only thing that could bring violence to an end[6].

The role of violence in politics could be said to be an extraordinary situation under conditions of stability, but it is imminently present during revolutions and shifts in power balance that might have revolutionary momenta but not necessarily translate into a revolution. While it has been demonstrated that short-term violence might have a positive long-term effect, it is unlikely that a form of power so critically embodied in specific groups and persons and without the openness necessary for a plurality of men to appear in public, might sustain the conditions necessary for the kind of political freedom that enables full political participation to all men without depriving them of their essential differences, and thus, turning them superfluous.

The course that the Egyptian revolution took was one of deep ambivalence between the monism of unity – unmistakably associated with the impotent will – and the human condition of plurality, expressed in tolerance: “Maybe there are many who don’t know the simple distinction between seeking unity and seeking tolerance, but we saw the core difference between the two things and how unity leads to failure while tolerance earns you strength and pushes you to succeed.[7]

The right of free association exercised by the revolutionary momentum translated into a moment of isonomy out of which no freedom could be produced, except under conditions of peaceful resistance out of which power would arise naturally as the consequence of men and women appearing for the first time in the public sphere, as their own objective personalities.

In a world of pluralities, unity is not possible except at the expense of being seduced by nostalgia or by the restoration of an ancient past in lieu of a promise of the future in which unity is destroyed by the mere fact of essential differences that have to be negotiated through plurality again.

From all the actors involved in the revolution, very few exemplified the necessity of politics through difference rather than through sovereignty as did the political prisoner Maikel Nabil, who spent ten months in jail on charges of insulting the military institution and who was turned by the military institution – a powerhouse of nostalgia and reactionary sentiments in every country of the world – into an example of how a revolutionary momentum can be syncopated into reactionary nostalgia by pinpointing a common enemy to highlight the unity of the past instead of fostering the plurality and tolerance implied in the promise of the future made by the revolutionary momentum itself.

Singled out for his pacifist views that included the call for a friendly relation with the neighboring State of Israel and an anti-militarist stance going as far as to actively promote the idea of making military service non-compulsory and atheism. While there was nothing necessarily extraordinary in his views, the practical application in the realm of politics dealt a deadly blow to a comatose authority. The case of Nabil not only exploited reactionary sentiments among the public but also exposed the background against which the notion of unity was fostered: Anti-Semitism, militarism, Islamism and the cult of the authoritarian personality, all of which apparently had been debunked by the emergence of the revolution itself and that ultimately became the stumbling block of the process itself.

During his imprisonment Nabil writes: “I’ve always believed that I was a writer and my role is to present the analysis for my readers and now after my imprisonment I became unable to participate in any other role (in spite of the high price tag I am paying because of that role). Now I don’t have anything but to advise the revolutionaries to know exactly who wants the counter-revolution? Who mobilizes it? Also, to realize that the revolution wasn’t completed yet and it is inadequate for us to be divided on ourselves while we are still in the middle of the battle…

It’s a call for tolerance, for accepting difference, overcoming the differences and the collective work under the banner of the homeland until we reach the civilian democratic state which martyrs died and victims were injured for, the missing people that disappeared and the revolutionaries that went to prisons. Our strength is our cohesion, our tolerance and our collective work. The future will decide, are we going to win or lose in completing our revolution?[8]

In the aftermath of the revolution, Nabil was vocal in criticizing the newly self-appointed military rule that had committed extensive human rights violations during and the after the revolutionary momentum. In spite of the fact that his analyses had been proven right time and again, the prejudice exercised by the counter-revolutionary mood that included not only the old authorities but also many of the new revolutionaries; the focus was solely on his views on religion and the State of Israel that while defied older notions of sovereignty, little had to do with the process of the revolution itself.

Even after egregious incidents such as virginity tests performed by military personnel on women and the Maspero massacre in which several Copts were murdered at the hand of the military authorities, little changed in the perception about Nabil even though he had issued the warning months in advance, prior to his arrest, before anyone else had and while it was a matter of pride that the leadership of the revolution had been handed out to the military institution, even though it had been proven time and again that we were dealing with a corrupt and criminal institution.

The peaceful struggle of Nabil to bring to an end his detention led him to enter an extended hunger strike that put his life at risk countless times and that lasted over one hundred days, in one of the most extreme forms of political resistance we have witnessed in the contemporary scenario.

In his own words: “The idea of the strike in general is objecting and resisting injustice, it is one of the means of non-violence struggle… Instead of resisting injustice with violence, resisting by peaceful means, one of which is the hunger strike.  The strike’s significance is that the person is ready to die but he won’t continue living under injustice…

Of course, the implicit message is that if the person on a strike does he didn’t commit suicide, but was killed, because the person on a hunger strike would have stopped had he been released from injustice, but the unjust continued injustice, the result of which is death by hunger strike; therefore the one who is considered responsible for the injustice is the killer of the person on hunger strike.[9]

The continued strike did not succeed for a long time in raising alarm calls in the international community or among the Egyptian public itself, and even though minority voices were loud in campaigning for his release, that had seemed to be not enough to put an end to the suffering he himself described: “My suffering: I can’t describe my suffering in prison… Imagine someone made a surgery without anesthesia, no matter how much he described his suffering, no one will understand his pains… I’m also like that, no matter how much I described, no one will feel how much I suffer here![10]

However, his suffering – indescribable as it might have been – never took on the pathos of a tragedy and he expressed himself with certain cheerfulness: “Until now, I didn’t eat or taste any food for 28 days. From my point of view, this is not a heroic act, but it’s the only thing I can do from my confinement to resist military rule[11]”.

In the essay where he articulates his defense of hunger strike as means of peaceful resistance he makes a case for criticizing religious authority in general when religious authorities might have condemned his means of resistance as suicide, in which he invoked the sacrifices of Christian saints, Muslim prophets and secular heroes and concludes by saying: “Unfortunately, this kind of religious thought produced a jurisprudence which grew in a climate of political tyranny, by clerics by who interpret religion for the liking of unjust authoritarianism, so they made religion a means for oppressing the people[12]”.

The same thinking strains are detected in a sharp criticism of how the means-ends relations promoted by the teleological nature of monotheistic theology in the expectation of rewards, cuts across the specter of Egyptian society:

“The ethical problem in Egypt is because the people have become used to go good in order to receive good in return. The reason for this is the philosophy of reward and punishment that exists in religions, so that people have grown used to do good only in order to receive a reward and an acquittal in the afterlife. I personally do good because it’s good and I do the righteous because it’s right, I’m not waiting for any return on anything good I do. I discover that when someone thanks me for something I did, I don’t deserve it because I wasn’t even able to do wrong. If people would become used to right because it’s right, we would get rid of the state of ethical decline existing in Egypt.

People have been used to the idea that anyone expressing an opinion must have a personal benefit in expressing that opinion, so they imagine that anyone defending Bahai rights, he is doing it because he’s Bahai, that anyone defending Christian rights, he is doing it because he’s secretly Christened, that anyone defending homosexual rights is homosexual himself but afraid to say so, that anyone defending peace receives a profit from Israel… Hey you! It’s not because you are an opportunities and wouldn’t do anything except if you levy a payment and benefit everyone who is like yourself. There are many people who have principles defending certain rights for no reward and sacrifice their lives and happiness for those rights.[13]

Hereby Maikel Nabil is – perhaps unknowingly – picking up a thread of thought that is older than the Western tradition of political thought and that goes back to Socrates himself: When Socrates said “it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong” he inaugurated what we understand today as moral philosophy, however, unlike the entire Western tradition – and the failure of moral philosophy – he didn’t try to go on and prove this rationally or subscribe it to a confession of faith, that many philosophers – even secular – have professed through the ages.

The Socratic opinion was based on the assumption that if I do wrong, I still have to live with myself, and I wouldn’t like to have to live with a murderer or a slanderer, because I shouldn’t allow to contradict myself since I would no longer coincide in my appearance in the world with my inner being and therefore would be unable to live with myself. According to Socrates, whoever is not able to live with himself, cannot either live with or among others. This simple principle is the foundation of all secular worldviews and is not indebted to the Enlightenment and rationalist principles but rather precedes them all by over two thousand years.

It was but the trial of Socrates, the event that divorced political common sense from philosophical curiosity, what led Plato to turn inwards, condemn the political realm and seek avidly to escape the realm of human affairs into absolute truths, so vastly distant from the plurality of opinions and truths that were promoted by Socrates himself. This anti-political bias can be detected in the entire Western tradition of political thought, and the instrumentality with which morality and ethics are performed today, attest to the fact that this bias is more alive today than ever. What Maikel Nabil is offering in these fragments written during his time in prison is not only autonomy and freedom of the personal kind, but also an augmented sense of decency which is necessary to partake in the public realm.

It is only necessary to look carefully into his writings – simple as they might be – to make up one’s mind about the nature of his ideas and the peaceful nature of the worldview that he is advocating without naïveté or romanticism. The struggle of Maikel Nabil can be summed up with an Austrian adage popularized by Hannah Arendt: “There’s no discussion as heated as that on a book that no one has read”, which he articulates in another fragment:

“I feel it’s strange that people defend me without having read my articles. How come you defend someone without knowing what did he say? I also feel it’s strange that people attack me and curse me without having read anything I wrote. How come you attack me and criticize me without knowing what did I say? Isn’t it possible that when you read me you might be persuaded by what I say…? A nation that doesn’t read is a disgusting nation.[14]

The peaceful resistance of Nabil and his staunch criticism of militarism together with his humanist worldview – in the tradition of an old Socrates, forgotten today to the analytical impetus of public administration and policy passed as politics – gives us a stern warning about the side-effects of violence in a revolution: The centralist implication of militarism and the bureaucratic economy that supports this system, as well as hatred and intolerance, sexism, the undermining of a peaceful and democratic society. Any practice of violence, is likely to change the world, but not under the aegis of a revolutionary vision; it is only likely to change it into an even more violent world[15].

[1] This essay is dedicated to my friend E., for his love of both freedom and the life of the mind.
[2] Hannah Arendt, “The Promise of Politics”, Shocken, 2005, pp. 5
[3] Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?”, in “The Portable Hannah Arendt”, Penguin, 2000, pp. 438-461
[4] Ibid
[5] Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Vol. 1, 1950-1973, Piper, 2002. Notebook 12, §5, November 1952 (translation is mine) 
[6] Ibid
[7] Maikel Nabil, Between Unity and Tolerance – A Plan to Fragment the Egyptian Revolution, 2011/06/08 
[8] Ibid
[9] Maikel Nabil, Hunger Strike isn’t Suicide, October 2011
[10] Maikel Nabil, Fragments, I’m Going Crazy in El Marg Prison – 2012/01/22
[11] Maikel Nabil, Message from Maikel Nabil, El Marg Prison, September 19 2011
[12] Maikel Nabil, Hunger Strike isn’t Suicide, October 2011
[13] Maikel Nabil, Fragments, I’m Going Crazy in El Marg Prison – 9, 2011/9/28
[14] Maikel Nabil, Fragments, I am Going Crazy in El Marg Prison – 26,  2011/12/23
[15] Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”, pp. 80 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Malek Jandali – From Ugarit to Homs

First published at BIKYAMASR

The history of thought and the history of music are not the same. While thoughts always require adjectives to qualify them and yet are immune to the effect of such qualifications; the adjectives that apply to music are in most of the cases pre-ordained: Thoughts might be beautiful, haunting, dazzling, innovative, imperative, and ugly; but music is expected to be always beautiful.
But there are no unifying criteria to judge what beautiful music is today or not, and this beauty often refers to a psychological effect more than to observable aesthetic qualities.
Musical sounds and thoughts do have in common that they are offered in a temporal succession of articulations similar to that of languages, but neither are languages. Sounds however, are not driven by the logic of a concept, and the meaning – if there is one – cannot be inferred from a system of signs alone like alphabets; whatever the music says is not abstracted from music sheets and cannot be experienced, except as the music is being performed.
The minimalist composer Philip Glass expressed it as: “The best music is experienced as one event, without start or end”.
There’s a history of thought – erroneously associated with philosophy, for there are many different types of thoughts – that builds up historically as in stages, but the history of music is an intellectual constellation because the raw material of music, and of the minimal and most abstract musical sign – the beat – is something actually very physical, the sound available in nature and it could be said that it has always existed, in one form or another.
It could be said also that human wisdom was there, albeit unexpressed, since the beginning of time, but the frequent repelling of natural laws and constant state of war, permits here a musical metaphor: Music that is not performed is like no music at all.
The history of music then is not a history of concepts alone but a history of how music was performed throughout the ages – the history of music reception and the criticism of taste came rather late in the modern age –; thus it could be safely assume that traveling in time is easier for musicians than it is for thinkers.
Time travel is precisely what Malek Jandali, a Syrian pianist and composer born in Germany, offers us time and again through his work, but unlike traditionalists embedded with nostalgia and romanticism in a musical style of another age; what Jandali offers us is travel through time into the most distant past and from there, all the way into the present.
Jandali was born in Germany in 1972 and grew up in the now besieged town of Homs, then studying at the Arab Conservatory of Music in Damascus and in the United States. Far from being a classical musician in the strictest sense, his compositions range from solo instruments to ensembles and orchestral works. He has experimented also with a variety of formats, including live and acoustic performances, music for corporate multimedia, video presentations, commercials, film scores, television programs and documentaries.
His career as a composer however begins in the 14th century BC: His album “Echoes from Ugarit” (2009) comprises a variety of original compositions for piano and orchestra recorded with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, arranged in the world’s oldest notation – that of Ugarit.
Ugarit was an ancient port city – roughly located around present Ras Shamra, near Latakia – dating back to the 2nd millennium and first mentioned in the documents of Ebla, home to an ancient civilization that preceded the ancient cultures of the Middle East – in a world of Hittites, Sumerians, Hurrians, Hattians and Urarteans; going back to the 3rd millennium – and that is known to have been a human settlement for over 8000 years, perhaps one of the oldest in the region, with the exception of Jericho.
The city had remained forgotten until the early 20th century when it was accidentally discovered and it is now known about the diplomatic ties between Ugarit and Egypt: In the remains of the city have been found carnelian beads, stelas and statuettes from Pharaoh Senusiet I, Senusiet III and Amenehmet III. The Amarna letters – an ancient Wikileaks, revealing information about Egypt’s diplomacy around 1350 BC – contained also letters from Ugarit kings Ammitamru I and Niqmaddu II.
The imminent destruction of Ugarit resembles not without irony the fate of Jandali’s own nearby Homs as of today: Around the year 1190 BC, Ugarit king Ammurapi sent a letter to the King of Cyprus, stressing the seriousness of a crisis followed by an invasion at the hands mysterious foreign agents called “sea peoples” – “apiru” in the local language, and once linked to the Hebrews but without any scholarly basis – and asked for immediate assistance. The help never arrived and the city was burnt down to ground at the end of the Bronze Age. To this very day, the identity of the “sea peoples” has never been unearthed and conspiracy theories about them have been abundant through the ages.
The work of Jandali from “Echoes of Ugarit” is based and inspired on the “Hurrian Songs”, a collection of music written on cuneiform clay tablets excavated from Ugarit, dating to around 1400 BC. One of these tablets contains a pagan poem, the Hurrian hymn to Nikkal; the oldest surviving work of notated music in the world surviving complete, together with fragments from other hymns. The tablet, found today at the National Museum of Damascus, contains the lyrics for a hymn, instructions for a singer accompanied by a type of lyre and instructions for tuning the harp.
The notation refers to scales on a nine-string lyre with careful detail of intervals. The text remains a matter of debate because the Hurrian language – unrelated to any Semitic tongue and vanished long before the golden periods of Babylon – has never been entirely deciphered, thus different hypothetical versions of the hymns are available and have been performed.
In 2006, a work by “De Organographia” ensemble re-issued the record “Music of the Ancient Sumerians, Egyptians & Greeks”, including a varied repertory of Greek, Egyptian and Sumerian songs considered the oldest in the world, and featuring re-construction of instruments such as long-necked lutes, asymmetrical lyres and bronze bells.
The work of Jandali however is not merely a performance of ancient song but the first appearance of a modern composer making use of the notation to compose a modern ensemble. The resources available to ancient composers seem very limited today and have to be incorporated into more developed schemes.
As a composer of large works performed in Western style – that is, based on rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, chords and modulation; in half-notes of equal temperament on the chromatic scale – he incorporates also Arabic music: maqam modes that are monophonic modes based on melody, unlike Western music, but that are yet written in Western notation without having a fixed structure or meter, and their modulation is more of a melodic development.
The pieces included in “Echoes from Ugarit” include a rhapsody (“Andalus”), Syrian folklore (“Sulaima”, “Eid”, “Arabesque”), classical pieces in E and G minor and the eccentric, atavistic and reflexive “Echoes from Ugarit”, performing the hymn to Nikkal in the ancient maqam modified to D minor. The latter might well be one of the most creative and original pieces in contemporary classical music.
In 2011, the composer turned his attention to his home city of Homs and the Syrian uprising against Bashar Al-Assad. The city itself also bears an ancient past, geographically and historically close to Ugarit and was known also to the world of the Bible. The city was the site of the battle of Qadesh in 1274 BC, between the Egyptian and the Hittite empire, in what might have been the largest chariot battle in history.
He composed the song “Watani Ana” (I am my homeland) that he was supposed to play at the annual convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in June – a group with strong ties to Washington and to Syrian diplomats – and was finally prevented from performing. Though the reasons were not publicly discussed, the song while not mentioning Syria or Arab Spring, dealt with themes of freedom, martyrdom and suffering.
A month later he performed the song in a protest across the White House and shortly thereafter, his parents were brutally attacked by regime forces back at home in Homs. The song was also made into a dramatic video clip by the Syrian American Council into a sort of montage, including images from all the countries involved in the Arab Spring – including Yemen and Bahrain – as a tribute to the struggle for freedom in the Arab world at large.
Jandali has been a vocal supporter for the freedom of Syria and has been a fierce advocate of the revolution though interviews, performances and also in his work: His most recent work “Emessa” (the Greek name of Homs that the city bore during classical times) dedicated to the Syrian revolution was released on February 5, 2010, and included the masterfully composed and executed “Freedom Qashoush Symphony.”
Ibrahim Qashoush was a Syrian fireman and amateur poet that authored and sang songs mocking Bashar Al-Assad and coined the chant “Come on, Bashar, time to leave”. On July 4, 2011, Qashoush was found dead with his throat slit and his vocal cords ripped out. At the time he became the “nightingale of the revolution” and the chant became widespread among the massive protests and demonstrations that engulfed the country. In this work, Jandali is rendering a tribute to him.
This work of music – a large scale ensemble with brooding but dramatic waves – was presented in a short film produced by Fugo Studios Film; the film while not a documentary deploys in the open all the metaphors of the Syrian revolution: the persecution, the burnt houses, the struggle for freedom, the resistance of the memory and the incredible power of art to reveal meaning without excluding further consideration.
In a strong visual code – hardly metaphoric at that – musical instruments are destroyed by the ruthless authority, as Jandali himself hands instruments to young people to play what would be, hyperbolically speaking, a last performance before either freedom or death.
Susan Sontag wrote that beauty is a part of the history of idealizing which in turn is part of the history of consolation. While art remains powerless before reality, music has a message that is immediate for the audience that is experiencing it, and Theodor Adorno, one of the greatest music theoreticians of the 20th century explains it for us: “What music says is a proposition at once distinct and concealed. Its idea is the form of the name of God. It is demythologized prayer, freed from the magic of making anything happen, the human attempt, futile, as always, to name the name itself, not to communicate meaning.”
The music of Jandali – contemporary classical as it is – is far removed from what we call pure music, or music that expresses nothing and that stands only for itself. The visual, historical and story-telling element in his work is a powerful expression of something beyond mere psycho-acoustic effects. Whoever has seen Jandali play live, wouldn’t hesitate to apply to him the words that Egyptian writer Yahia Lababidi had for his writers of choice:
“Possibly, as master stylists, they wrote too well for their own good, and allowed themselves to be maddened by their own music, or intoxicated with their own eloquence. Highly attuned as they were to the musicality of words, they may at times have permitted their style to dictate content, or eclipse their substance.”
Jandali’s apocalypse is always omnipresent – and can be read against the background of the great classical music of the European Romanticism, but he doesn’t submit to it completely. Music is not only about experience but also about analysis – but this is only available to the composer – and thus, the composer finds his way into the history of sounds by carefully studying and annotating the music the other virtuosos. But the performance of Jandali goes one step beyond, almost through the threshold between what is musical and what is literary and narrative.
His music does not only please the ear and the senses. It also asks the question of Ugarit king Ammurapi to the King of Cyprus; he asks the world whether Homs will be burnt down, buried and forgotten the same way that once, the glorious Ugarit was.