Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jon Stewart, You've Done It Again: Thanks for Interviewing Mustafa Barghouti and Anna Baltzer

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Anna Baltzer & Mustafa Barghouti Extended Interview Pt. 1
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Anna Baltzer & Mustafa Barghouti Extended Interview Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

The edited version is here.

Jon Stewart, you've done it again. I've been watching you since day 1 of your version of the Daily Show; you've helped me laugh at our falsehoods and fates, and even survive the Bush Administration. That you interviewed these two nonviolent activists--no doubt, to the outcry of many--shows you have brass cojones, my man.

There is some talk that the TV version edited out some crucial information; in Baltzer's words, "Many of you who watched the show on TV noticed that everything of real substance that I said was edited out. The major issues cut out were (1) the US role in aiding Israel, (2) the lack of adequate coverage in mainstream US media, and (3) the Palestinian-led movement for Boycott / Divestment / Sanctions (BDS) to nonviolently pressure Israel to comply with international law."

You can check it out for yourself. The unedited versions are here, and edited version is at the link above.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ali Abunimah, on "Why I Disrupted Olmert"

I've known Ali Abunimah since the mid-1990s, when his activism was principally media-criticism of U.S. representations of the Palestinians, Arabs, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has an acid and bitter wit that befits someone whose side of the argument is not always heard. Given his largely internet-based interventions, Ali's recent act of civil disobedience took me a little by surprise. Here is why he did what he did.
Why I disrupted Olmert
Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 23 October 2009

Protesters demonstrated in the rain outside of the University of Chicago lecture hall where activists inside disrupted Olmert's speech, 15 October 2009. (Maureen Clare Murphy)

If former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had merely been a diplomat or an academic offering a controversial viewpoint, then interrupting his 15 October speech at University of Chicago's Mandel Hall would certainly have been an attempt to stifle debate (Noah Moskowitz, Meredyth Richards and Lee Solomon, "The importance of open dialogue," Chicago Maroon, 19 October 2009). Indeed, I experienced exactly such attempts when my own appearance at Mandel Hall last January, with Professor John Mearsheimer and Norman Finkelstein, was constantly interrupted by hecklers.

But confronting a political leader suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot be viewed the same way.

The report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict last winter, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, found that Israel engaged in willful, widespread and wanton destruction of civilian property and infrastructure, causing deliberate suffering to the civilian population. It found "that the incidents and patterns of events considered in the report are the result of deliberate planning and policy decisions" and that many may amount to "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity." If that proves true, then the individual with primary responsibility is Ehud Olmert, who, as prime minister and the top civilian commander of Israel's armed forces, was involved in virtually every aspect of planning and execution.

The killings of more than 3,000 Palestinians and Lebanese during Olmert's three years in office are not mere differences of opinion to be challenged with a polite question written on a pre-screened note card. They are crimes for which Olmert is accountable before international law and public opinion.

Israel, unlike Hamas (also accused of war crimes by Goldstone), completely refused to cooperate with the Goldstone Mission. Instead of accountability, Olmert is, obscenely, traveling around the United States offering justifications for these appalling crimes, collecting large speaking fees, and being feted as a "courageous" statesman.

In their 20 October email to the University of Chicago community, President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum condemned the "disruptions" during Olmert's speech. "Any stifling of debate," they wrote, "runs counter to the primary values of the University of Chicago and to our long-standing position as an exemplar of academic freedom."

Was it in order to promote debate that the University insisted on pre-screening questions and imposed a recording ban for students and media? In the name of promoting debate, will the University now invite Hamas leader Khaled Meshal -- perhaps by video link -- to lecture on leadership to its students, and offer him a large honorarium? Can we soon expect Sudan's President Omar Bashir to make an appearance at Mandel Hall?

When I and others verbally confronted Olmert, we stood for academic freedom, human rights, and justice, especially for hundreds of thousands of students deprived of those same rights by Olmert's actions.

During Israel's attack on Gaza last winter, schools and universities were among the primary targets. According to the Goldstone report, Israeli military attacks destroyed or damaged at least 280 schools and kindergartens. In total, 164 pupils and 12 teachers were killed, and 454 pupils and five teachers injured.

After the bombing, Olmert and Israel continued their attack on academic freedom, blocking educational supplies from reaching Gaza. Textbooks, notebooks, stationery and computers are among the forbidden items. In September, Chris Gunness, spokesman for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, publicly appealed to Israel to lift its ban on books and other supplies from reaching Gaza's traumatized students.

Israel destroyed buildings at the Islamic University and other universities. According to the Goldstone report, these "were civilian, educational buildings and the Mission did not find any information about their use as a military facility or their contribution to a military effort that might have made them a legitimate target in the eyes of the Israeli armed forces."

Gaza's university students -- 60 percent of them women -- study all the things that students do at the University of Chicago. Their motivations, aspirations, and abilities are just as high, but their lives are suffocated by unimaginable violence, trauma, and Israel's blockade, itself a war crime. Olmert is the person who ordered these acts and must be held accountable.

Crimes against humanity are defined as "crimes that shock the conscience." When the institutions with the moral and legal responsibility to punish and prevent the crimes choose complicit silence -- or, worse, harbor a suspected war criminal, already on trial for corruption in Israel, and present him to students as a paragon of "leadership" -- then disobedience, if that is what it takes to break the silence, is an ethical duty. Instead of condemning them, the University should be proud that its students were among those who had the courage to stand up.

For the first time in recorded history, an Israeli prime minister was publicly confronted with the names of his victims. It was a symbolic crack in the wall of impunity and a foretaste of the public justice victims have a right to receive when Olmert is tried in a court of law.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. This article was originally published in the University of Chicago's Chicago Maroon newspaper and is republished with permission.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Philip Metres & Master Poets' class at Avon Lake Library

Poet and teacher Phil Metres will present a Master Poets’ Class at the Library on Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. Adults and high school students interested in listening to, writing and reading poetry are welcome to participate.

Phil is a much-published poet and associate professor of English at John Carroll University. His teaching interests include creative writing, poetry, American poetry and the poetry of war and peace.

Phil writes poetry about poetry:

If you are sitting in an exit row & you cannot understand
this poem, or cannot see well enough to follow
these instructions, please tell a literary critic. Poems are
heavy, awkward to lift, push, pull, and maneuver.
Because of this, and for the safety of all
Harold Bloom requires that we seat qualified readers
next to poems. If a poem loses pressure, an idea
will be released from the overhead compartment.
Make sure to write down the idea before
you attempt to assist others with their ideas. Once again,
thank you for reading this poem. I know you have
many choices and appreciate your choosing this one.

(used by permission of the poet)

More of Phil’s poetry can be enjoyed at or by coming to the Nov. 4 Master Class.

Chicago Youth Poets Rage Against the Dying of the Light

I read Dawn Turner Trice's article about the spoken word performances of two Chicago student-poets, confronting the murders of classmates in a particularly violent year. Merging elegy and protest, these poets are raging against the violence of the our inner city streets, where war is not an abstraction somewhere "over there."
Video captures poetry slam performance of tribute
Dawn Turner Trice

October 26, 2009
They are performing "Lost Count: A Love Story," a spoken word poem (which they wrote with another student, Deja Taylor) that's an homage to the Chicago Public Schools children who were murdered that year.

Will they ever call your death beautiful/Your life a sacrifice/Will the meeting of blood and bullet ever be called romantic/A love story to be jealous of

The young men and women in the audience are from all over the country, but, for too many, their lives have been touched in some way by violence. Soon the audience members are overcome with grief and begin shaking their heads and sobbing. A few snap their fingers.

I recently saw the video and contacted Marshall, who's now 20 and a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, and Amparan, 19, a sophomore at Valparaiso University. Although their performance is solid, it's their message that's absolutely breathtaking.

The creative place from which Marshall draws has roots in the West Pullman neighborhood, where he grew up not far from the troubled Fenger High School.

He would have gone there if he hadn't been accepted at Whitney Young.

Though Marshall's mother worried about his long commute to Whitney Young, it was the walk through his own neighborhood that frightened her the most. One day, during his junior year, four thugs jumped him at 115th and Halsted streets as he was getting off the bus on his way home from school.

"I was fine physically, but my mother panicked and wanted to restrict where I went," Marshall told me. "She wanted my father to pick me up from the bus stop. I couldn't live like that, afraid."

But the fear was something he couldn't escape completely. Weeks after Marshall was attacked, the bludgeoned body of his friend and Whitney Young classmate Christopher Pineda, 17, was found in the Cal-Sag Channel. From "Lost Count," Marshall recites:

I remember you wearing Guatemalan green matching your flag on your Independence Day/Your hair was a black puff of curl and confidence/ ... I couldn't sleep for a week/When you washed up water logged in the Calumet River/Puffed and purple like violets before bloom

The students began writing "Lost Count" when Young Chicago Authors, a group that provides workshops on artistic expression for teens, asked students to prepare for local and national contests.

Initially, Marshall and Amparan were only going to write about friends who had died. But they began to pore over local newspapers culling information about all the students who were dying that year. Eventually their names were added to the performance and you can hear someone in the background reciting the names.

"We started with 12 and over a two-year span ended with over 60 kids who were killed," said Amparan.

He said writing the poem became an obsession. Marshall and Amparan met with a group of students four days a week after school at the Young Chicago Authors facility. But sometimes the two collaborated at a distance. Although they lived nearby -- Amparan's family lives in the Morgan Park neighborhood -- they could never walk to each other's house.

"Morgan Park is a tricky place to live in," said Amparan. "One block in the wrong direction and you're in the wrong place. We both lived on good blocks but the distance between us was just too dangerous."

Marshall and Amparan worry about their family members who remain in those communities. Their parents worry about them when they come home for visits.

Marshall is majoring in English and African-American studies; Amparan is studying sociology. They told me they want their rhymes and life work to mean something in a city where too many teens continue to struggle.

In Chicago, anyone under age 20 is a target/And I don't know how to do more than be afraid/That an age allowing me to be on this stage/Might have me murdered by Monday/I'm 18 and I play pick-up basketball games with ghosts/Is there a reason, I'm making it out of a community that has martyred young men I might be mistaken for

You can view the performance -- which won third place and aired on HBO in May -- on YouTube by searching for "Lost Count: A Love Story."

I challenge you to view it and not feel something.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A J Street Poetry Reading Cancelled: More on Poetry and the Politics of Israel/Palestine in the U.S

According to recent stories, a poetry reading as part of a J-Street conference, has been dropped because it was deemed to be too controversial. Reading the list of speakers at this conference, I see some familiar names and some not so familiar, of the peace and justice movements in Israel and Palestine, but none of the Arab/Palestinian or Jewish/Israeli poets in the U.S. who are writing and contributing to trying to bring about a just peace (Naomi Shihab Nye, most famously, among many others--see the anthology Inclined to Speak).

A bit of information about J Street, from their website, which is an attempt to move away from the AIPAC-centered model of Jewish activism in support of Israel, to represent more moderate voices of Jewish and pro-Israeli Americans:
J Street is the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.

J Street was founded to promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. We support a new direction for American policy in the Middle East and a broad public and policy debate about the U.S. role in the region.

J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own - two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, and the region as a whole.

J Street supports diplomatic solutions over military ones, including in Iran; multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution; and dialogue over confrontation with a wide range of countries and actors when conflicts do arise. For more on our policy positions, click here.

J Street will advocate forcefully in the policy process, in Congress, in the media, and in the Jewish community to make sure public officials and community leaders clearly see the depth and breadth of support for our views on Middle East policy among voters and supporters in their states and districts. We seek to complement the work of existing organizations and individuals that share our agenda. In our lobbying and advocacy efforts, we will enlist individual supporters of other efforts as partners.

While J Street has a laudable and moderate goal, I am not feeling sanguine about Obama's approach to the Middle East, which may look different to Bush's in terms of its level of engagement (which is good), but is rehashing the familiar "peace process" mantra which has gone nowhere in years, and which essentially means that Israel will make further steps in erasing any future Palestinian state. In particular, there is little discussion within the charter for other than the "two-state solution," which seems almost moribund, given the nature of Israeli settlement of the West Bank.

This latest controversy is suggestive of the power of political poetry--and, perhaps, its dangers. What is so difficult, in peacework, is to balance the need to tell a truth, to bring the news, AND to articulate some way forward, to create bridges to some common future.

Here is the poet that brought about the furor, who was dropped from the conference; Kevin Coval's work is confrontational but articulated from a standpoint of a Jewish dissent from the policies of Israel toward Palestinians, and resembles much of performance poetry's agit-prop directness and righteous rage. This is the first I've heard of him, but reading a bit about his poetry, I'm a little surprised that I hadn't, since he appears on HBO's Def Comedy Jam and also has had poems in literary journals.

This is from's Ben Smith:

The Weekly Standard, still dogging J Street, notes that the author of "Queer Intifada" has been dropped from the schedule of the group's conference.

Also missing, the speaker above, Kevin Coval, who appears on a cached schedule, but has apparently, quietly, been deemed a bit off-key for the conference, now headlined by Jim Jones.

The video above is worth watching, casting Israel as, in a litany of metaphors, a "whore." And who knew people still performed spoken-word art about "imperialist warheads"?

UPDATE: A J Street spokeswoman emails over a statement from executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami:

"Over the weekend, J Street canceled the poetry session scheduled as part of the “Culture as a Tool for Change” track at its upcoming National Conference.

As a matter of principle, J Street respects the dissenting voice that poetry can represent in society and politics. We acknowledge that expression and language are used differently in the arts and artistic expression when compared to their use in political argumentation.

Nevertheless, as J Street is critical of the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery and metaphors by politicians and pundits on the right, it would be inappropriate for us to feature poets at our Conference whose poetry has used such imagery in the past and might also be offensive to some conference participants.

We are sorry for any distraction that this issue may cause for those interested in working with us to advance the cause of peace and security for Israel and the Middle East."

In short, poetry still has power, particularly poetry which deals with the painful realities of Israel/Palestine, and particularly when it employs imagery of the holocaust. But not only poetry. Another story in The Weekly Standard about another contributor to the J Street Conference, Helena Cobban, suggests that she, too, is beyond the pale in her use of Holocaust allusion.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Creating a Culture of Peace (workshop)

Creating a Culture of Peace
20-hour Workshop November 14-16

Creating a Culture of Peace, a 20 hour training workshop will be held on November 14, noon to 6 pm, November 15, noon to 6 pm and November 16, 8 am to 4:00. Location: Calvary Presbyterian Church, 2020 E. 79th Street (at Euclid Ave.) Cleveland, OH 44103.

A holistic approach is used to empower participants in the spirituality and practice of active peacemaking in their daily lives. Activities include small group sharing, exercises, video, brainstorming, presentations, discussions, role-plays, movement, music, meditation and journaling. This training is an incubator for participants to raise the issues which most concern them and to plan projects that respond. Read more - download flyer.

Cost: $200.00. Advance registration required by no later than October 23. A limited number of scholarships are available for those who cannot afford the entire fee. Sponsored by The Network of Spiritual Peace Activists. For more information contact: Rev. Doug Horner, 216-651-6250,

Check our website for the latest news you won't find in the mainstream media, local events, current legislation, media contact information.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Afghanistan: The Haunted House Telling Us to Get Out

I wish I had some easy answers about Afghanistan; the idea of stopping terrorism by helping Afghanistan build a strong central government and civil society (through schools, roads, fair elections, etc.) sounds good. There are some morally compelling arguments that would suggest that "abandoning Afghanistan" could be catastrophic for certain sectors of the population (young girls, for instance, who under a Taliban rule likely would not have access to public education).

Yet the very presence of U.S. forces, who appear to be propping up an unpopular and corrupt central government, cannot but resemble the old narrative so familiar during the Cold War; we are attempting to get security without democracy, win a war without adequate troop levels and using remote technologies (thus losing "hearts and minds"), and polarizing by our very presence. They don't call Afghanistan "the graveyard of empires" just because it sounds poetic.

Here's an article about CODEPINK's intervention in Obama's thought-process:
Code Pink Delivers Afghan Petition To President
SAN FRANCISCO -- Using a meet-and-greet at a Democratic fundraiser Thursday night, Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans hand delivered a petition to President Barack Obama allegedly signed by Afghani women who want an end to the war in their country.

Jodie Evans of Code Pink delivers petition from Afghani women to President Obama in San Francisco Thursday night, October 15, 2009.Evans was among those attending a sold-out Democratic Party fundraiser at San Francisco's Westin St. Francis Hotel, with a Code Pink supporter paying $30,400 for a pair of tickets to the dinner. The tickets included a photo opportunity with the President.

She said she had collected signatures of Afghani women during a trip there last week on a petition that asked for a role in the peace process and demanding that the U.S. abandon plans to send in additional troops.

"The women there are really upset that they are not at the negotiating table," said Evans, who was wearing a pink shirt with "End The Afghan Quagmire" stenciled on it. "He said: ‘What do you mean, I have (Secretary of State) Hilliary (Clinton)?'... I said no the Afghan women want to be at the negotiating table. He looked at me and said: ‘Oh.'"

Evans also said she showed Obama the message her t-shirt.

"I showed the President my shirt," she said. "I had a pink ribbon around my finger and I am here to remind you to keep your promises for peace...He said: ‘You know we are not going to end the problem in Afghanistan any time soon.' I said actually you're not going to solve the problem, they are."

There was no word from the White House on Obama's reaction to the impromptu meeting.

And here's David Cortright's take, for a civilian surge:
Alternatives to war in Afghanistan
The discussion so far has been mostly about troop levels
National Catholic Reporter
Oct. 13, 2009
By David Cortright

The problems in Afghanistan cannot be solved by military means alone. Even General David Petraeus agrees with that. But what are the alternatives? The Obama administration has been re-evaluating U.S. policy in the region, but the discussion so far has been mostly about troop levels and military options. If the president is serious about developing more effective strategies, he needs to de-militarize the mission and prioritize political reconciliation efforts.

Rather than attempting to fight a prolonged counterinsurgency war against the Taliban, the United States should focus on countering global terrorism and attempt to separate the Taliban from al-Qaeda. It was al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, that attacked the United States on 9/11. True, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are closely intertwined, but important distinctions exist between the two movements. The Taliban is a network of disparate Pashtun militia groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda, by contrast, is an Arab-based network with a global agenda of attacking Western interests.

As former Washington Post reporter Selig Harrison observes in “Pakistan: The State of the Union,” an April report from the Center for International Policy, the Taliban movement transcends the Afghan-Pakistan border. Local tribal leaders have never accepted the 1893 Durand Line demarcated by the British that divides the Pashtun region. Many reject the authority of both Kabul and Islamabad. The Taliban is not a unified organization but a complex, diverse movement encompassing more than a dozen separate insurgent organizations in Afghanistan and dozens of Islamist groups in Pakistan. “In contrast to al-Qaeda,” writes Harrison, “most of the Taliban factions focus primarily on local objectives in Afghanistan and [northern Pakistan] and do not pose a direct threat to the United States.” The various Taliban elements are divided by ideology and purpose, but they are united now by one overriding objective: to rid their region of foreign forces.

The presence of foreign troops is the principal factor motivating armed resistance and insurgency in the region. A recent report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observed, “The more military pressure is put on a fragmented society like Afghanistan, the more a coalition against the invader becomes the likely outcome.” The presence of foreign troops is “the most important factor in mobilizing support for the Taliban,” said the January report, “Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War,” by Gilles Dorronso.

Counterinsurgency specialist and Pentagon adviser David Kilcullen makes a similar point in his new book, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (Oxford University Press). The foot soldiers of the Afghan insurgency are fighting to drive out foreign military invaders, not to reinstate the caliphate or advance al-Qaeda’s globalist agenda. The more foreign forces arrayed against them, the more intense the armed resistance.

In Pakistan as well, writes Harrison, U.S. military policies and air strikes are radicalizing the population “and driving more and more Pashtuns into the arms of al-Qaeda and its jihadi allies.”

Women count ballots after the close of polling stations in Herat, Afghanistan, Aug. 20. (CNS/Reuters/Raheb Homavandi)Policies of waging war in Muslim countries have the inadvertent effect of validating Osama bin Laden’s warped ideology of “saving Islam from foreign infidels.” When the United States invades and launches military operations in Muslim countries, this tends to validate the false image of America waging war on Islam. Polls in Muslim countries have shown 80 percent agreement with bin Laden’s contention that American policy is intended to weaken and divide the Islamic world. The presence of such attitudes creates fertile ground for jihadi recruiters.

Rather than waging war against the Pashtuns and stoking the fires of extremism, the United States and its allies should pursue policies of co-option and reconciliation. Harrison urges American leaders to seek “peace arrangements with Taliban and Taliban-related Islamist factions.”

South Asia experts Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid proposed in Foreign Affairs last year a “grand bargain” strategy of luring reconcilable Taliban elements into political accommodation and power-sharing arrangements as a means of peeling away support from al-Qaeda -related groups. They called for “a political solution with as much of the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies as possible, offering political inclusion … and an end to hostile action by international troops in return for cooperation against al-Qaeda.”

Elements of the Afghan and Pakistani governments have supported reconciliation efforts. A February 2009 opinion poll in Afghanistan found 64 percent of respondents support a policy of negotiating with the Taliban and allowing its members to hold public office if they agree to stop fighting.

An important new book on the subject offers a blueprint for how to pursue dialogue and negotiation with elements of the Taliban. Written by Michael Semple, former deputy to the European Union’s special representative in Afghanistan, Reconciliation in Afghanistan (United States Institute of Peace Press) explores both the perils and promise of attempting to reach a political settlement with insurgent forces.

Reconciliation programs have been part of the new Afghan government since it was first installed. The results of these efforts have been meager, however, because of a lack of sustained commitment from political leaders in Kabul and their Western backers. From years of direct experience and interviews with 200 Afghans who took the initiative to join the process, Semple concludes that U.S., Afghan and international officials have been “singularly ill-equipped and often disinclined to take the needed steps to enable Afghans to reconcile and reintegrate peacefully back into society.”

Taliban groups attempting to reintegrate with the new government have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, seizure of assets and general harassment. The chronology of nearly every regrouped Taliban network, writes Semple, includes the tale of how “their commanders were driven out of southern Afghanistan before they launched the insurgency -- not after.” As the insurgency has grown, Taliban leaders have gained personal and political advantages in continuing the hostilities, and the prospects for reconciliation have dwindled further.

In recent months unofficial talks have occurred, with the support of Saudi Arabia, to facilitate dialogue with Taliban representatives. During these discussions Taliban interlocutors have offered to halt their attacks against foreign and government troops in return for the removal of outside forces. Some have asked for a security agreement, similar to the one negotiated with Iraq, which would establish conditions and a timeline for military withdrawals. They have proposed replacing U.S./NATO troops with an international peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, pledging not to attack such a force. They have also demanded an end to U.S. drone attacks, in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.

U.S. Marines walk around a base in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Sept. 3. (CNS/Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)U.S. officials have rejected these terms and have asserted that official negotiations should occur only after the American military has inflicted greater pain on the Taliban in order to extract better terms, and when the militia groups have agreed to lay down their arms.

Semple argues for direct talks with the Taliban leadership council in Quetta, Pakistan, to seek an agreement on renouncing international terrorism and integrating reconciled insurgents into the Afghan political system. The goal would be to obtain commitments from militia leaders and tribal chiefs to cooperate in isolating al-Qaeda and prevent their territory from being used for global terrorist strikes.

This is a bargain Taliban leaders may be willing to accept. Former Taliban ambassador Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef said in an interview last March, “The United States has a right to guarantee its own security.” Former Taliban foreign minister Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil acknowledged in the same interview that Americans have the right to “ensure there is no danger to them from Afghanistan.” An agreement for local cooperation in preventing global terrorist strikes would “constitute a strategic defeat for al-Qaeda,” according to Rubin and Rashid. It would help to achieve the priority U.S. security objective of countering terrorist threats.

The alternative to prolonged counterinsurgency war is the pursuit of dialogue to achieve negotiated political solutions. This is the approach recommended in the Carnegie Endowment report. It would reverse the logic of current U.S. strategy, using the presence of U.S. and NATO troops not in the pursuit of military victory but as a bargaining chip to induce political agreement and conciliation. In exchange for cooperation in isolating al-Qaeda, U.S. forces would end combat operations against the Taliban and begin a gradual military disengagement. This would undercut extremist propaganda and neutralize appeals for jihad against foreign invaders. Under this scenario the mission of remaining foreign troops would focus more on civilian protection and the training of local security forces. Some military and special forces operations could continue, but these would be narrowly targeted against al-Qaeda.

Demilitarizing U.S. strategy would not mean abandoning the people of Afghanistan. The reduction of military operations should be linked to a greatly increased commitment to development assistance and democracy-building programs for local groups willing to uphold human rights principles.

In March the Obama administration announced a civilian surge for the region, but the resources devoted to these efforts have been inadequate, dwarfed by the enormous expenditures for war. The U.S. and its allies should greatly expand their level of assistance for locally-managed civilian assistance programs that advance social development, education and human rights. These efforts, combined with political reconciliation strategies, are likely to be more effective over the long run in stabilizing the region and reducing insurgency and terrorism.

David Cortright is director of policy studies for the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

White, including Middle Eastern

2. In addition, please select one or more of the following racial categories to describe yourself:

American Indian or Alaska Native (including all Original Peoples of the Americas)
Asian (including Indian Subcontinent and Philippines)
Black or African American (including Africa and Caribbean)
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (Original Peoples)
White (including Middle Eastern)

"White, including Middle Eastern." Only on census forms can this sort of formulation exist. The visibly invisible, my people, or as Aunt Salma would say, the "beeble."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bruce Weigl's "Oh Nature" & Split This Rock information


Today some things worked as they were meant to.
A big spring wind came up and blew down
from the verdant neighborhood trees,
millions of those little spinning things,
with seeds inside, and my heart woke up alive again too,
as if the brain could be erased of its angry hurt;
fat chance of that, yet
things sometimes work as they were meant,
like the torturer who finally can’t sleep,
or the god damn moon
who sees everything we do
and who still comes up behind clouds
spread out like hands to keep the light away.

-Bruce Weigl

From Declension in the Village of Chung Luong (Ausable Press, 2006), used by permission.
Bruce Weigl is the author of thirteen collections of poetry, several translations, and a best-selling memoir The Circle of Hanh. He is Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities at Lorain County Community College.
Weigl will be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, March 10-13, 2010, in Washington, DC. The festival will present readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, film, activism – four days of creative transformation as we imagine a way forward, hone our community and activist skills, and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change. For more information: Split This Rock is co-sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, the country’s oldest multi-issue progressive think tank.

Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem-of-the-Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

Split This Rock;

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

4000 WORDS 4000 DEAD: street performance by Jennifer Karmin

for my Chicago friends:

4000 WORDS 4000 DEAD
street performance by Jennifer Karmin

Saturday, October 10th

in front of the Epiphany Church
201 S. Ashland Avenue
Chicago, IL

"I want to start with the milestone today of 4,000 dead in Iraq. Americans. And just what effect do you think it has on the country?"
-- Martha Raddatz, ABC News' White House correspondent to Dick Cheney

Jennifer Karmin has been collecting 4000 WORDS for the 4000 DEAD Americans in Iraq. All words are being used to create a public poem. During street performances, she gives away these words to passing pedestrians. Submissions are ongoing as the Iraq War continues and the number of dead grows. Send 1-10 words with subject 4000 WORDS to

Participants include:
Emily Abendroth, Harold Abramowitz, Amanda Ackerman, Manan Ahmed, Charles Alexander, mIEKAL aND, David Baratier, Michael Basinski, Cara Benson, Charles Bernstein, Anselm Berrigan, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Laynie Browne, Lee Ann Brown, Amina Cain, Teresa Carmody, Maxine Chernoff, Catherine Daly, Patrick Durgin, Annie Finch, Daniel Godston, Arielle Greenberg, Kate Greenstreet, Roberto Harrison, Carla Harryman, David Hernandez, Jen Hofer, Lisa Janssen, Pierre Joris, John Keene, Matthew Klane, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Joyelle McSweeney, Miranda Mellis, Philip Metres, Vanessa Place, Kristin Prevallet, Lisa Samuels, Susan Schultz, Laura Sims, Juliana Spahr, Christopher Stackhouse, Chuck Stebelton, Stacy Szymaszek, Tony Trigilio, Eric Unger, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Andrew Zawacki, and many more.

Sponsored by:
the 4th annual Chicago Calling Festival,
& Chicago Artists Month 2009,

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Where are the Mekons of Yesteryear? Rock and Commodification Edition

Hey Mekons, commodification never sounded so raucous, so bittersweet.
Sincerely yours, P.

"Memphis, Egypt"

destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late,
the battles we fought were long and hard,
just not to be consumed by rock n' roll...

capitalismos, favorite boy child, we must apologise,
up in the rafters a rope is danglin',
spots before the eyes of rock n' roll...

we know the devil and we have shaken him by the hand,
embraced him and thought his foul (stinking) breath was fine perfume
just like rock n' roll...

east berlin can't buy a thing, there's nothing they can sell me,
walk through the wall no pain at all
i'm born inside the belly of rock n' roll...

it's something to sell your labor for when hair sprouts out below,
i'm a microscope on that secret place where
we all want to go, it's rock n' roll.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"In a Beautiful Country": Prufer on Love in a Time of Imperial War

In a Beautiful Country (Kevin Prufer)

A good way to fall in love
is to turn off the headlights
and drive very fast down dark roads.

Another way to fall in love
is to say they are only mints
and swallow them with a strong drink.

Then it is autumn in the body.
Your hands are cold.
Then it is winter and we are still at war.

The gold-haired girl is singing into your ear
about how we live in a beautiful country.
Snow sifts from the clouds

into your drink. It doesn't matter about the war.
A good way to fall in love
is to close up the garage and turn the engine on,

then down you'll fall through lovely mists
as a body might fall early one morning
from a high window into love. Love,

the broken glass. Love, the scissors
and the water basin. A good way to fall
is with a rope to catch you.

A good way is with something to drink
to help you march forward.
The gold-haired girl says, Don't worry

about the armies, says, We live in a time
full of love. You're thinking about this too much.
Slow down. Nothing bad will happen.

Kevin Prufer
(c) POETRY, Oct. 2009
Thanks POETRY!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Can the Muppets Make Friends in Ramallah? by Samantha M. Shapiro

Can the Muppets Make Friends in Ramallah? by Samantha M. Shapiro
(c)The New York Times, September 30, 2009.

This season’s episodes of “Shara’a Simsim,” the Palestinian version of the global “Sesame Street” franchise, were filmed in a satellite campus of Al-Quds University, a ramshackle four-story concrete structure that houses the school’s media department and a small local television station. The building sits in an upscale neighborhood on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah, not far from the edge of the Israeli settlement Psagot. Like many structures on the West Bank, the Al-Quds building seems to be simultaneously under construction and decaying into a ruin. Some walls are pocked with bullet holes, from when the Israeli Army occupied the building for 19 days in 2001, during the second intifada. In another life, the building was a hotel, and the balconies out front where TV crews and students take smoking breaks overlook the crumbling shell of its swimming pool.

The TV station at Al-Quds, called Al-Quds Educational Television, was started a decade ago by Daoud Kuttab, a 54-year-old Palestinian journalist who is also the executive producer of “Shara’a Simsim.” Kuttab (who wrote a dispatch for The New York Times Magazine in 2003 on the way Arab TV covered the outbreak of the Iraq war) lives in Amman and works both in Jordan and in the Palestinian territories. He started the channel — one of dozens of tiny mom-and-pop-style microbroadcast operations in the West Bank — in part so that he would have a venue, however small, from which to broadcast “Shara’a Simsim.” At the time, in the late 1990s, the official Palestinian TV station was unwilling to show “Shara’a Simsim” because it was produced jointly with “Rechov Sumsum,” the Israeli version of “Sesame Street.”

Since the inception of “Sesame Street” in the United States 40 years ago, the nonprofit New York City-based organization that produces the show, which is now called Sesame Workshop, has created 25 international co-productions. Each country’s show has its own identity: a distinctive streetscape, live-action segments featuring local kids and a unique crew of Muppets. Bangladesh’s “Sisimpur” uses some traditional Bangladeshi puppets, and South Africa’s “Takalani Sesame” features Kami, an orphaned H.I.V.-positive Muppet. But in each co-production, at least in its early years, every detail — every character, every scene and every line of script — must be approved by executives in the Sesame Workshop office, near Lincoln Center. This requires a delicate balance: how to promote the “core values” of Sesame Street, like optimism and tolerance, while at the same time portraying a version of local life realistic enough that broadcasters will show it and parents will let their kids watch. The Palestinian territories have been, not surprisingly, a tough place to strike this balance, Sesame executives say, rivaled only by Kosovo.

One Tuesday last spring, I attended a writers’ meeting for the coming season of “Shara’a Simsim,” held at the show’s production offices in a quiet apartment complex across the street from the Al-Quds studio. The meeting was scheduled to start at 1 p.m., but the writers lived all over the West Bank, where travel times are unpredictable because of Israeli Army checkpoints. They drifted in one by one and eventually gathered around the conference table.

Palestinian TV is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the Oslo accords in 1993, Israel controlled the airwaves in the territories, and most of the major Palestinian channels that have emerged since then are mouthpieces for one political faction or another, broadcasting mostly news and talk shows. Palestinian-produced media for the sake of entertainment are virtually nonexistent. The “Simsim” meeting reflected this. Kuttab, the show’s producer, is a journalist, and his deputy producer, Layla Sayegh, is a lifelong P.L.O. activist. For the most part, the writers at the table didn’t have much experience; they had been hired only part time, and most of them worked other jobs. A central premise of each “Sesame Street” co-production is that the show should be apolitical, but few of the writers seemed to think that made sense in a Palestinian context.

Taha Awadallah, a 28-year-old rookie “Simsim” writer, spent part of his adolescence serving two terms in Israeli prison for throwing stones at Israeli cars when he was a teenager. A serious young man with a neat crew cut, Awadallah told me he viewed his early years in prison as the best, most edifying period of his life. He met leaders of all the Palestinian factions there and followed their jailhouse regimens of reading and lectures. After his release, he was expelled from high school and spent six years illegally crossing into Israel to work in construction. Then last year, Awadallah enrolled in a Christian-run film school in Bethlehem with the hope of someday working for Al-Jazeera. Because he excelled in his screenwriting class, a teacher sent Awadallah’s writing to “Simsim,” requesting that he be considered for a position on the show.

Awadallah was still struggling to find a way to express himself within the parameters of the “Sesame Street” universe. His first idea for a “Simsim” segment, which he sketched out at a meeting a few weeks earlier, was a series of disturbing vignettes based on the Israeli siege in Gaza last December. In one scene he proposed, Haneen, a girl Muppet, would cower under a table while bats, which Awadallah said represented Israeli fighter jets, swarmed around her. In another, a dove would be shot as it tried to fly to Gaza.

Kuttab, a big, gentle man whose suit pants are perpetually rumpled, told me he specifically wanted to work with untrained writers like Awadallah. He knew that his head writer, Nada Al-Yassir, who was raised in Canada and has produced some short films, could on her own churn out enough Sesame-appropriate scripts, but he was pursuing a bigger goal. Developing an independent television and film industry, he said, was a crucial step in building a Palestinian state, and he told me he thought that if his writers could learn to write hopeful, engaging stories for kids, it would benefit them as much as the viewers.

Children make up the majority of the population in the Palestinian territories, and they have played an iconic role in the Palestinian national struggle. But there is very little programming created with them in mind. More than 90 percent of Palestinian families in the West Bank have a satellite dish, so most kids are able to watch Spacetoon, a Dubai-based channel, popular throughout the Arab world, that shows Japanese anime and American cartoons like “The Flintstones” and “Power Rangers” dubbed or subtitled in classical Arabic rather than local dialects, to minimize distribution costs.

On the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, the Palestinian Authority’s official channel, the longest-running children’s program is a slow-moving talk show hosted by a young woman who sometimes reads storybooks aloud into the camera or watches, in real time, as an artist painstakingly paints a parrot. The official Hamas channel, Al-Aqsa television, has several children’s shows, and Al-Aqsa’s director of children’s programming, Abu Amr, told me the network is considering starting a station devoted entirely to children. Al-Aqsa TV’s most famous (and infamous) children’s program is “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” in which Saraa, a Palestinian girl, and several animal characters teach ideological lessons: why it is bad to speak English and good to memorize the whole Koran; how the Danes are infidels who should be killed. Occasionally an animal character will die as a martyr for Palestine.

At the story meeting that Tuesday in Ramallah, Kuttab introduced the novice writers to the concept of pitching, and one by one, hesitantly, they began trying to sell one another on the handwritten scripts each of them brought to the meeting. Some ideas immediately ran afoul of basic “Sesame Street” guidelines — child Muppets couldn’t be seen cooking without an adult, for instance. Other writers’ pitches pushed the conversation toward larger existential questions. Dalia Othman, the 25-year-old daughter of the show’s production manager, proposed a segment in which one Muppet meets a Bedouin, a nomad who herds cattle around the Middle East. Othman said that the segment would help kids “learn about members of the Palestinian people that no one knows about, myself included.”

“Are Bedouins considered Palestinian?” asked Osama Malhas, a writer in his late 40s who was wearing the logo sweater from the boys’ school in Nablus where he teaches science.

“I actually don’t know,” Othman said, fiddling with a slice of mushroom pizza. “I am bringing up this idea partly to ask if it makes sense.”

Al-Yassir shook her head. “They don’t recognize borders, Israeli or Palestinian,” she said.

Each season, in each country, Sesame productions are built around a few particular curriculum items, like cooperation or numbers. For the coming season of “Simsim,” respect was one chosen theme. When it came time for Taha Awadallah, the young film student, to share his pitch, he explained, “I focused on the theme of respecting myself and respecting others.” Awadallah had been working on revising his Gaza segments. The new script began with Saleem, the handyman character on the show, watching the Gaza coverage on TV. “Saleem is sad and worried, so he calls his sister in Gaza,” Awadallah said. “She is O.K., but her friend Tariq is missing.” In the next scene, Awadallah explained, the Muppets Karim and Haneen would encounter Saleem while playing hide-and-seek. “He is still sad,” Awadallah continued, “so they do funny things to make him forget he is sad.” He acknowledged that so far he was stumped as to what those things could be. “I need some help in coming up with funny scenes and jokes,” he said. “But they will go on until the conclusion, where Saleem says: ‘You made me laugh! Thank you for making me forget that Tariq is missing.’ ”

No one said anything. Then Othman said, in a quiet voice, that she wasn’t sure that “Simsim” could really address the Gaza issue so directly.

Malhas, the teacher, turned to Awadallah: “Will Saleem find Tariq?”

Awadallah nodded. “Yes, I want him to find his friend at the end of the episode,” he said. “It will turn out that Tariq was missing for an unexpected reason.”

Maha Atmawi, a 30-year-old teacher from Qalqilya, objected. “You can’t lie to children,” she said. “Most people in Gaza who are missing will not be found. This can’t be a trick. We have to show reality.”

IN 1994, PRODUCTION EXECUTIVES at Sesame Workshop first approached Kuttab about creating a Palestinian version of the show. Kuttab was a founder of the Jerusalem Film Institute, which trained Palestinians in television journalism. During the 1980s, Sesame Workshop produced three seasons of “Rechov Sumsum,” the popular Israeli version of “Sesame Street,” in collaboration with Israeli Educational TV, or IETV, a government-financed public network. The producers had secured financing for a new batch of shows, and one backer of “Sumsum” suggested that they should include a Palestinian “street” that could model peaceful co-existence for a new generation of Israelis and Palestinians. The executives in New York and at IETV liked the idea.

Kuttab was unenthusiastic. “We are looking for a divorce from the Israelis, not a marriage,” he recalls telling the Sesame Workshop executives who first approached him. Palestinians had strong taboos against what they called “normalization” — working with or even openly acknowledging Israel before a peace settlement was reached. But the opportunity to build up Palestinian television capability and benefit from American and Israeli expertise and money proved irresistible to Kuttab.

Although most people I talked to who worked on the joint production, which was broadcast in 1998, spoke fondly of it, they said the process of reaching consensus on even small details was arduous. The Palestinians didn’t want to show Israel’s flag or state colors or kids wearing yarmulkes. The Israelis didn’t want to see the Palestinian flag or Muppets wearing kaffiyehs. Khalil Abu Arafeh, the head writer for the Palestinian show at the time, gravely recalled that “the issue of hummus and falafel was very heated.” (Both sides considered the dishes to be “their” food.) The most contentious segments were the ones in which the Israeli and Palestinian Muppets interacted. Each set of Muppets lived on their own set — so where would they meet? An American adviser from Sesame Workshop proposed the Muppets meet at a neutral third location on the border of their sets, perhaps a park, but the Palestinians weren’t comfortable with that idea — they wanted to know who owned the park. Dolly Wolbrum, the show’s producer at IETV, told me she thought that wasn’t a question that 3-to-6-year-olds would wonder about, but Kuttab said he felt Palestinian children would assume it was an Israeli park. He proposed dividing the park by a low wall, an idea Wolbrum said was a deal breaker. They finally agreed that the Muppets would visit one another’s streets rather than meet in a park. But again, controversy arose: the Israelis were in favor of spontaneous Muppet drop-bys, but the Palestinians insisted the visits had to be by invitation only. “The only Israelis who come to Palestinian neighborhoods uninvited are settlers,” Kuttab explained to me.

The Israelis told me they were trying to emulate the philosophy of “Sesame Street,” to portray the world they wished for, more than the world that was. The Israeli segments from this era have a giddy euphoria about them, already anachronistic. One segment featured an Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli boy skipping, swinging, hugging and napping side by side, while singing a song about the number two: “You can always be alone, but together is more fun, two by two!” For Kuttab, the Israeli idea that Palestinian and Israelis on the show would be best buddies who casually drop in on each other was absurd. In real life, the Israeli production staff refused to travel to Ramallah even for informal visits — they feared for their safety — and many of the Palestinian crew didn’t have permits to enter Jerusalem. “There was no wall yet,” Kuttab told me, referring to the concrete boundary that the Israeli government began constructing in 2002 to separate Israel and some settlements from the Palestinian territories, “but there was an invisible wall between us, and we didn’t want to give kids a false impression that everything was happy.”

Kuttab told me he felt that trying to recreate the let’s-get-along diversity of the American show was the wrong approach for the Middle East. The idyllic images of racial harmony on “Sesame Street” may have helped African-American children feel more a part of American culture, he said, but that tactic wasn’t useful in the context of a two-state solution. “Israel wants to be a Jewish state, and Palestinians want to have an Arab state,” Kuttab explained. In the end, “Rechov Sumsum” showed vastly more Palestinian content than “Shara’a Simsim” showed Israeli content. Follow-up studies commissioned by Sesame Workshop found that Israeli kids’ attitudes about Palestinian kids improved after viewing the show, but Palestinian kids didn’t change their perceptions of Israelis.

The outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 and the tumult that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, convinced everyone involved with the production that it no longer made sense to try to create segments featuring Israeli and Palestinian characters interacting. Executives from Sesame Workshop recruited Jordan TV, a government-run network, to act as a third partner. The plan for the new round of shows was that Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli crews would independently shoot their own programs but each would agree to show about 10 segments from each of the other two productions, redubbed into either Hebrew or Arabic. The show was renamed “Sesame Stories” (“Sippuray Sumsum” in Hebrew; “Hikayat Simsim” in Arabic), as there was no longer an actual Sesame Street where the characters met. When “Sesame Stories” appeared in 2003, the Israeli version featured 10 segments each from the Palestinians and Jordanians, but the Palestinians showed only a handful of Israeli segments. (The Jordanians didn’t broadcast any.)

As Layla Sayegh, who supervises the day-to-day operations of “Simsim,” explained it to me, “We tried to show only segments that didn’t have anything recognizably Israeli in them.” She said she selected Israeli segments with animals or Arab-Israelis. Sayegh lamented that this meant passing over some great material. “The Israelis did one about recycling, and it was absolutely fantastic, but at the end they showed a truck with Hebrew lettering,” she said.

Sayegh, who is 54, came to the show in 2001, after three decades’ working for the Palestine Liberation Organization. She spent her 20s and 30s following Yasir Arafat through Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and then to North Africa and Cyprus, and her last job before “Simsim” was working in the prime minister’s office for the Palestinian Authority. The second intifada started not long before Sayegh arrived at “Simsim,” and she told me that it was a very difficult time to be working on a program connected to Israel. Several of the show’s writers quit to protest the connection with Israel. Students at Al-Quds University cursed “Simsim” staff members when they saw them. Sayegh, who had worked for the Palestinian cause her entire adult life, said she was hurt by these attacks. “I was a P.L.O. revolutionary all my life,” she told me indignantly. “And no way will I let anybody call me a traitor.”

THE CURRENT INCARNATION of the show, which began production in 2006, has no Israeli participation at all. (The title has reverted to “Shara’a Simsim.”) A first batch of 15 shows was broadcast in 2007, and Kuttab and his staff, when I was there, were gearing up for a second round. During one visit to the studio, the “Shara’a Simsim” crew was taping a set of public-service announcements that would be shown throughout the day on Palestinian TV channels to help promote the coming season. They had just completed a series that used the terminology of news updates — playing on the words for “independence” or “resistance” — to encourage kids to tie their shoelaces and pick up trash, and now they were working on a spoof of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” called “Who Wants to Win a Balloon?” In one corner, a balloon artist was inflating blue and yellow balloons. Layla Sayegh patted down the yarn hair of a Muppet who was looking disheveled, and cameramen were duct-taping plastic bars to the floor to set up a track for the camera. Shaden Salem, a young actress from Ramallah who was wearing a kaffiyeh and gray leggings, was practicing the accent for the Muppet she was controlling, “Elias, from Al Funduq,” she said, tentatively, to a cameraman from the region Al Funduq is located in.

“No, it’s more guttural,” the cameraman said, correcting her. “El-YOS, not El-yas.”

Rajai Sandouka, the puppeteer who has controlled Karim, the main Muppet on “Simsim,” since the show’s inception, crouched with Salem below the set, each of them perched atop a rolling dolly. The director, George Kheliefi, counted down from the control room: ‘‘Tallatah, itnain, wahed, action!” Kheliefi, a Belgian-trained Palestinian filmmaker with Israeli citizenship, has worked on several highly regarded art-house movies by Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers, and he co-wrote a book about Palestinian film. He, along with Kuttab, was a founder of the Jerusalem Film Institute in the 1990s. In the scene being taped, the Muppet Elias had to answer a question about where to put a banana peel in order to win a balloon (correct answer: the trash). A minute or so into the dialogue, Kheliefi stopped the scene. “The characters are dead,” he said with gravity. “It’s boring. It’s not funny.” He turned to Salem. “We want him to be a kid, not a man.”

Filming resumed, and Salem’s Muppet introduced himself to Karim as “Elyos from Al Funduq, a village near Tulkarm.” A cameraman interrupted the action to ask Sayegh if she was sure Al Funduq was closer to Tulkarm than Qalqilya; she was not. Sayegh put in a call to her husband, who works for the Palestinian Parliament. He checked with Tulkarm’s representative. Al Funduq was, in fact, closer to Qalqilya. The script was adjusted.

When the shoot was over, I sat down in the office across the street with Saed Andoni, 37, the show’s line producer, who moved back to the Palestinian territories from London after completing film school largely for the opportunity to work on “Simsim.” Andoni said the issue of livening up the Muppets is an ongoing one with a crew whose TV experience is mostly with news broadcasts. “It’s very hard here to ask writers to write something silly, because they are very worried about realism,” he told me. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, the way he is dressed doesn’t reflect the area he’s from.’ ” Andoni laughed. “But for God’s sake, it’s a rooster doing ‘Who Wants to Win a Balloon?’! It doesn’t have to be realistic!”

Andoni said he tried to explain to the crew that they didn’t have to show Muppets doing everything in real time. “Muppets don’t have to walk from here to there in 10 seconds,” Andoni explained. “They can zoom, they can fly. If you watch American ‘Sesame,’ it’s more lively and funny. The puppets aren’t angry, and they sometimes do weird things, while we are more focused on realism, like Italian cinema in the 1950s.”

It’s not just the writers who have trouble getting silly, Andoni said. During one episode last season that was shot on location in the old city of Jerusalem, Andoni recalled, the crowds were difficult to manage. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “We attracted huge crowds, and no one is used to puppets. The religious people were offended. They were making cynical remarks: ‘We are in a sad situation! Why are you bringing puppets here?’ ”

When I spoke to Naila Farouky, the Sesame Workshop producer who oversees all Arabic-language productions from Sesame headquarters in New York, she said it was also hard to film segments with Palestinian kids talking to Muppets. “It’s impossible to get them to loosen up,” she explained. “There isn’t this freedom of kids allowing themselves to act silly with puppets or dolls.”

One afternoon in the production office, Layla Sayegh sat down next to me, opened her laptop and, with a great sigh, showed me a design for an outreach poster. It was meant to be distributed to Palestinian preschools to promote “Simsim.” The illustration — families picnicking on a grassy hill by the sea — looked pretty standard to me. But Sayegh was distraught. “It’s a disaster,” she muttered. “This is our eighth draft.”

Sayegh scrolled through the previous drafts her staff proposed, all of which showed the picnicking families framed by the jarring image of Israel’s cement separation barrier. In the draft posters, kids were interacting with the wall — dismantling it with pulleys, banging it down with hammers or simply playing in front of it. But the Sesame Workshop executives in New York were adamant: no wall.

I spoke with the poster’s designer, Mohammed Amous, as we sat in his car, stuck in one of the frequent traffic jams created by the wall — this one at the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. The midday traffic backups there have spawned a bazaar atmosphere, with vendors hawking trinkets and freelance window washers scrubbing windshields and demanding tips. Amous, who is 41, told me he had been trying in the poster to represent creativity and imagination, which was one of the three curriculum goals for this season of “Simsim.” He said he understood the concerns about his first image, of the kids with pulleys; it appeared the kids might be building the wall rather than dismantling it. But he was bewildered about why Sesame Workshop found images of children dismantling the separation wall controversial. He viewed the pictures as a way to stimulate kids’ imaginations. “The political situation is very limited, but kids have to dream,” he said.

But for the folks at Sesame Workshop in New York, excluding these scenes was a no-brainer. Aside from the political ramifications, there are basic safety issues involved in destroying a concrete military border. “It’s a very dangerous position for a kid to be in,” Farouky explained to me. “He could get shot. Just giving a 3-year-old a hammer is something we wouldn’t show.”

Charlotte Cole, who runs international promotion and outreach for Sesame Workshop, told me that the question of whether to show the wall represented the kind of dilemma that Sesame productions in the developing world encounter all the time. “Are you going to film in a ghetto in Bangladesh where kids are living in areas where children shouldn’t live, amid open sewage and impromptu housing made of sharp corrugated metal?” Cole asked. “That’s not what you want people to be aspiring to — but it is reflective of the reality of many, many kids in the world.”

Mona Nuseibeh, 25, who directs outreach projects for “Simsim” at Al-Quds University, told me she saw the removal of the wall as one in a series of compromises that had to be made with the Americans at Sesame Workshop. Nuseibeh recalled a script Sayegh wrote the previous season in which a storm destroys Shara’a Simsim and the characters come together to rebuild it. “The idea was based on attacks in Ramallah by Israeli soldiers,” she said. “But Sesame wouldn’t let us show soldiers, so we had to make it a storm instead.” Nuseibeh said she felt the approach used in the storm episode was better than nothing, but far from ideal.

But Sayegh said she was proud of the storm episode; she didn’t feel that it represented a compromise at all. She compared it with an American “Sesame Street” episode that she had seen recently, addressing kids’ fears after Sept. 11, in which Elmo witnesses a grease fire. With her storm script, she explained, “the episode showed the main point — that when something is destroyed, we can work together and make it better. It’s our duty to make a space for children, to make them feel good and to help them enjoy being kids.”

I was a bit surprised by this reaction. Sayegh had devoted most of her life to Palestinian politics, and she was passionate and intense about the subject — she once mentioned that she had told her parents it would have been better for them to “be raped by the British or Jews” than leave their home in Jaffa, as they did in 1948. I had thought that, like Nuseibeh, Sayegh would want Palestinian kids to be educated early about their political situation. But when I asked Sayegh about this, she said that working at “Simsim,” as apolitical as it tried to be, was a way of serving the Palestinian people as much as her previous job in the prime minister’s office was. “In government, there are issues you can’t change because of which party’s in power,” she said. “But here I feel very effective.”

WHEN I ASKED Sayegh exactly how producing a fledgling puppet show was more effective than working for the prime minister, she told me about Muppet “walkarounds.” Every few months, “Simsim” brings human-size versions of the Palestinian Muppets to schools to publicize the show and to promote early-childhood education. “I sit and I look back at the eyes of the kids,” Sayegh told me. “They suffer a lot, and during the show I can see how happy they get. I would like to do these shows twice a day, every day, in every village in Palestine.”

I went with her one afternoon to a Muppet walkaround held at Al Ahli college, a Catholic school with the largest auditorium in Ramallah. Mini-buses from Ramallah’s preschools pulled into the courtyard and unloaded hundreds of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, clad in sweaters or plaid jumpers emblazoned with their school logo. Their teachers herded them into the auditorium, where an actor and an actress appeared onstage in brightly colored overalls and performed a little skit. Then the actors called for the life-size Muppets to come out, and a wave of excitement swept through the room. Kids who were stuck at the back of the auditorium stood on the arms of their plastic chairs and tables, craning their necks. Andoni, who had taken his daughter out of school for the event, held her up on his shoulders so that she could see.

Sayegh was facing the kids, just as she had described, and I turned around to look at what she found more important than working with the prime minister. The view from where she stood was a bobbing sea of hundreds of preschoolers, their open faces transparent with delight, excited to see what would happen next.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer who frequently reports for the magazine from the Middle East.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

Happy Birthday, Gandhi

It took Google to tell me that Mohandas K. Gandhi was born today. Notwithstanding the important critique of his work by George Orwell and Salman Rushdie, Gandhi remains in the pantheon of great theorists and practitioners of nonviolence and social change.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mary Biddinger at John Carroll: A Reading

Mary Biddinger came through John Carroll on September 9th to give a poetry reading. Here's my introduction:

It’s a pleasure to introduce poet Mary Biddinger to John Carroll as part of our visiting writers series. Mary will read for about a half hour, after which we’ll have time for questions, and then ask her to take us away with one final poem.

Mary Biddinger is the author of Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007) and the forthcoming chapbook, St. Monica. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous splendid journals. She is the editor of the Akron Series in Poetry, co-editor-in-chief of Barn Owl Review, and director of the NEOMFA program. She teaches at the University of Akron, blogs at the Word Cage, and if you friend her on facebook, you’ll see that she’s an early riser. How else can she get so much done? She’s also a great reader and critiquer of poems, as I can personally attest.

Her full-length collection, Prairie Fever, is a taut and dreamlike series of poems that give voice to what I can only describe as the unspeakably confusing feelings of romantic love. In the book, fires abound. I kept wondering, what’s with all the fires?, until I recalled what desire does to us. Biddinger’s skillful use of the fabular underscores the strangeness of every day, where life is impervious to language. All of which to say: the story here is the language, and the emotional landscapes that emerge in it; not witty anecdotes in line breaks.

About her work, Robert Archambeau has written: “Sex, death, those liminal moments when innocence hovers at the edge of experience: all the great themes cross these pages, but not as narrative. Instead, Biddinger arrests them in her delicate gatherings of details. Flypaper, nasturtiums, and dangerous boys at the edge of town are the touchstones of her imagination. Think of Prairie Fever as a Sally Mann photograph in deftly chiseled verses. Or think of the poems as out-takes from a small-town gothic movie Jim Jarmusch should have made. It's as if Biddinger re-spliced them into a dreamy collage starring a cross between To Kill a Mockingbird's Scout Finch and Nabokov's Lolita. You get the idea: delicate, bruised, a little wayward.”

Please welcome Mary Biddinger.

Mary gave a great reading to a packed house, referenced the discomfort of certain family members when she wrote about sex in ways that aren't "scholarly,"(!) and gave these three bits of advice to beginning writers:

1) surprise yourself
2) creep yourself out (i.e. take risks)
3) read things beyond your comfort zone.