Playing Soldiers

Yesterday I went to watch a demonstration in the camp. It was the anniversary of the foundation of the Arab Liberation Front (a Ba’athist-associated minor faction within the PLO) and another significant date associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (another political faction – this time closely associated with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah – with a particularly dark past that has included attacks on school children), and so two parades had been organised through the streets and alleyways of Beddawi Camp.

The residents are, understandably, very cautious of foreigners taking photos, especially when they are kitted up with guns and demonstrating. Luckily, I went with a colleague who wanted to borrow my camera to take some photos for a website. Some of the shots are quite remarkable, and the things that I saw yesterday have been playing through my mind ever since. Among the standard armed militiamen in fatigues and carrying Kalashnikovs, and the local Sheikhs and members of the Popular Committees (all old men – the de facto political leadership in the camps), were a startling number of children.

Some of these kids were members of the Palestinian Scout Association. They looked smart, in neat uniforms, playing drums and bagpipes, waving flags, and with obvious pride at being in the parade. Others were in replica military uniforms, some as young as 6-7, either holding replica weapons or real guns. There’s something really quite overwhelming about seeing a young boy carrying an assault rifle, struggling under the weight of it while he marches along with his father. One can’t call them child soldiers as this was just a march and not a battle. But it makes me wonder where, in the event of a conflict, would the community draw the age line? When I asked a colleague about this he said simply that, if these Palestinians are attacked, everyone in the community would be involved in fighting back.

The photoset from the parades leaves me in a real quandary. Firstly, I wasn’t the one behind the lens so they strictly speaking aren’t my photos to share. What is more, they contain faces of people who would not want me to share them, and the faces of children who deserve protection and anonymity. Nevertheless, I desperately want to show people what I saw, and for them to be shocked as I was. I’ll not publish the photos (except the one above as it contains no faces), but I will describe one of them.

The highlight of the set was a picture of a young boy, no older than 9-10, at the front of one of the parades. He was wearing military fatigues, a beret, and had a floral wreath around his neck to be laid at a monument in the centre of the camp. His face was ruddy-cheeked, open, and with truly startling eyes – one bright, icy blue, one dark brown. I’ve been trying not to get carried away in florid metaphor, but in this case it’s possibly forgivable. Everything about the child, about the community, seemed to be contained in those heterochromatic eyes. One eye held the brightness of hope, innocence, pride, and the possibility of a better tomorrow that is embodied by children. The other seemed to contain the darkness of violence, fear, anger and despair that has been this community’s past, and may still yet be their future.

(I’ve just been told that the ribbon on the wreath around the boy’s neck bears the name of the ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command’. Given their history of targeting children, that’s pretty chilling too.)

For me, the most troubling aspect of seeing armed children is not just the immorality of placing children at risk, but the fact that it saps away all hope for a better future for a community. If children are made to feel proud to be armed, and if this is the only way they are taught to resist or seek change, then it closes down the possibility that they will find their own, peaceful way to pursue the justice and freedoms they will want in their lives.

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Photos: From two trips to Nahr el Bared Camp

This group were taken from two trips to NBC (and apologies for the poor quality of the ones taken from the car – these were taken on ‘that’ car journey…). I’ve had more of a chance to get an understanding of the area and the scale of the destruction recently – the camp really was flattened in the 2007 conflict, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single older building without damage. The camp is situated right on the Mediterranean, and the waterfront apparently used to contain park areas and cafes for people. Now that entire area is refuse and rubble. I guess the rebuilding of leisure areas is pretty far down on the priorities list.

One thing I’m going to try and get more photos of is the murals. The number of these is astounding, if not surprising. Every street seems to have a painting with any number of significant symbols: doves, walls, keys, keffiyeh scarves, blood, fists, guns, chains… And the quality of the painting is often amazing.

In my last trip I sat in on a meeting between UNRWA funders from different organisations and embassies touring the camp, and members of the community and local Popular Committee (the authority within the camp). It was a bit of a strange affair – rushed, and with everything going through a translator. There was a bit of an audience (funders) and performer (community members) dynamic, and very limited actual conversation between the two. Not a great empathy-building exercise (it was more an airing of grievances and a plea for vitally-needed assistance) but at least the two groups do meet.

The rest of the photos can be seen on my Flickr account, here.

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Photos: Mawlid 2012, Jabal Beddawi

Mawlid 2012 1 by rohantalbot
Mawlid 2012 1, a photo by rohantalbot on Flickr.

Quick post today, I’m going to start uploading some of the photos from my Flickr feed to here rather than spamming Facebook with all of them.

This batch were taken from the balcony of my office/home in Jabal Beddawi during Mawlid (Prophet Mohammed’s birthday) celebrations back in February. As you can see, there were a number of sheep butchered in the road for the occasion, along with music from some really huge speakers (sadly didn’t manage to get a photo!), and food being handed out to passers by. Note the Free Syria flag there too – these are dotted liberally around the area by opposition groups, as are photos of Assad himself put up by his supporters. I’ll hopefully get around to posting something about the fighting between the pro/anti Assad supporters that happened here in February soon.

Click through for the rest of the photos in this set.

Photo: From a recent trip to Nahr el Bared refugee camp

Bomb-damaged building in Nahr el Bared

(Apologies for poor quality- taken on a slightly shonky cameraphone)

This photo was taken on a recent work visit to Nahr el Bared camp, most of which was destroyed or severely damaged during the Nahr el Bared conflict of 2007, when the Lebanese Army fought militant group Fatah al Islam in a three-month siege. The fighting killed 52 civilians, along with 226 Fatah al-Islam militants and 168 Lebanese soldiers. Some 27,000 refugees were displaced by the crisis (mostly to here in Beddawi, some to Tripoli and other locations), and many of these have still been unable to return five years on. Of those who have returned, many either live in cramped temporary accommodation blocks (think rows of shipping containers, each containing a family and stacked two-high, with a cramped, dark alleyway down the middle) or among the ruins themselves. It’s not uncommon to see a washing line with kids’ clothes hung up over a shrapnel-damaged wall, or children playing in the rubble.

The camp is still under the control of the Lebanese army, so taking lots of photos is not very welcome, but the shot above shows one of severely damaged buildings with families living in the partial-ruins. By chance, UNRWA have a photo of the same building (from the same angle) taken in 2009 on their website. Comparing the two, you can see some of the reconstruction work – breezeblocks to patch up the broken walls, new columns put in – though I’m not sure whether this is official reconstruction or informal work by the residents themselves. Either way, progress is slow right across the camp, largely due to a lack of resources.

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‘No More Heroes’: The death of musical protest

NB: For each artist I’ve mentioned I’ve linked to a YouTube video of one of their political songs (and included a Spotify playlist here:, so you can have a listen while you read, should you be so inclined. All except for Bob Dylan, because apparently he, or Sony Media Entertainment, don’t believe in this whole YouTube thing. They’re right though, you know. YouTube will never catch on…

‘What ever happened to protest songs?’ The thought has stayed with me for a couple of days now, ever since my media player’s shuffle – my eternal nemesis and occasional best friend – threw up ‘Tomorrow is a Highway’ by Pete Seeger. In the UK, amid unemployment, record public spending cuts, NHS reforms and ‘granny taxes’, some people are rather miffed. There have been strikes and street protests, opposition groups such as UK Uncut have formed, and those opposing cuts use media – old and new – to fight their corner. Around the world, from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, people are fighting for rights and justice. But there’s something missing.

Every resistance period in the latter half of the 20th Century had a soundtrack. 1960s to early 70s America, the era of McCarthyism and civil rights and anti-war protest, produced an incredible number of powerful, enduring political songs. Their writers and singers crossed pretty much every genre boundary: Folk and Country (Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens), Soul and R&B (Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Edwin Starr), Rock and Pop (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, The Doors), and even Reggae (Jimmy Cliff, Delroy Wilson).

Later periods of protest similarly saw politicised music. The late 70s – early 80’s saw a wave of ska and punk bands who railed against the politics of the day (The Clash, The Specials, The Beat, and the Sex Pistols being the most obvious). As the decade progressed and Thatcherism hit full-swing in the UK, so did musical opposition, with Folk once again all playing its part in popular resistance against Thatcherism (Rory McLeod, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg). International political events were covered too, with songs about South African apartheid, the Iranian Revolution and the Cold War. Similarly the late 80s to early 90s saw the renaissance of Hip-Hop-as-activism, highlighting popular anger against police brutality and social injustices affecting black communities in the US (N.W.A., Public Enemy, 2Pac, KRS-One)

So, given the many problems and crises of the 21st century so far – two disastrous wars easily comparable with Vietnam, the global recession, climate change – where is the soundtrack? Why are there no popular songs dedicated to the Occupy movement? Or songs from Western musicians about the Arab Spring? The only political music since the millennium that comes easily to mind are the pro-American country singers in America such as Toby Keith, and the admittedly long list of songs about 9/11. Though there were some protest songs in the 00’s, and taking into account the powerful effects of nostalgia on memory, none can be said to have the achieved mass-popularity or enduring status of previous eras.

In fact, what political music the decade did produce tended instead tended to come from older artists, filling a gap left by the politically apathetic or uncertain current generation of artists (Billy Bragg again, UB40). Those songs made by our generation’s musicians that are ostensibly political (e.g. Muse) are self-consciously presented by artists without discussion of context or agenda, meaning that any political message comes through as confused and oblique.

A possible reason for the lack of political music is the increasing commercialisation of the industry. The argument goes that, as record companies want to increase their profits as much as possible, they aren’t going to risk allowing bands to make overtly political statements which could divide their audience. Commercialisation is not new to music, however. After all, the most successful song of the Woodstock summer of 1969 was ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by manufactured bubblegum-pop band ‘The Archies’. The availability of modern non-commercial outlets (including YouTube) and the ease of self-publicity and promulgation through social media mean that the opportunity is there for artists to break away from commercial interests and create political anthems for our age. But why is this not being used? There are notable exceptions, such as the ‘Andrew Lansley Rap’ which protested NHS reforms last year and the work of occasional Rap-Satirist Dan Bull, but these are few and far between.

There are also examples of bands which try to promote a political perspective, but their artists now tend to use their celebrity to carry the message more than their music. Those who try, such as Bono or Chris Martin, have been successful in many of their aims, but are often sneered at and attacked for perceived excesses of piety and holier-than-thou attitudes. Our society loves to hate celebrities, and so the inevitable outcome of trying to use fame to promote a political viewpoint is now that people will thrill to find a way to discredit and point out inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

Maybe this can help explain why protest music has died. Having seen cycles of protest and disaffection for so many years, maybe society has simply stopped believing that things will be different. Perhaps we are also more selfish than at any point in our history. In the UK, the most powerful civil disobedience of the last 10 years has not been a protest or a demonstration – it has been a riot. And though the UK riots of last year had manifold subtle political and social causes, the ultimate direction behind it was not to change the status quo, or even to vent anger and frustration. Instead, the protest centred on ownership: trainers, televisions and trolleys full of food from Lidl.

Music is important to protest. It carries messages, speaks our minds, and motivates us to action by activating our emotions. Perhaps in some ways political music has been usurped by technology, with social media now the main vector for popular political communication. But there is more to it than that, and I suspect that the same cultural and psychosocial processes that are dampening directed political mass-protest in the West also inhibit its musical representation. Local and global political struggles mean that the ground is furrowed, ready for a new musical movement. Will we see one? Only time will tell.

PS: Clearly this article only really focuses on protest in the West. There is a significant musical component to the message of the ‘Arab Spring’, with the MENA region rising to a mixture of traditional political and religious songs with Rap and Hip-Hop. Sadly my Arabic and knowledge of local music isn’t good enough to delve deeply into this, but I can at least attest that every protest I have seen in my time here (usually pro- or anti-Assad) has involved demonstrators hooking up huge amps and blaring out chants and songs. It appears that the soundtrack of resistance is not silent everywhere.

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Harshtags: #Kony12 and moral cognitive dissonance

The dust has started to settle following the ‘Kony 2012’ social media bomb. Over the space of 2-3 days it exploded over social media sites and almost as swiftly as it arrived it dissipated, with Jason Russell’s breakdown seemingly providing a tragic full-stop to the public part of the campaign. To be clear: I don’t wish to debate the merits of Kony12 as a campaign, but instead want to look at the nature of the debate and what it means for well-meaning people who do not work in the political or development sector.

The most interesting part of the ‘Kony 2012’ charity meme has certainly not been the expert/academic moral debate itself. This has followed the standard patterns of polarisation among commentators. The video has its supporters, including the creators themselves who have earnestly stood up for their message and sought to spread it far and wide. Others have sought to attack it, citing inconsistencies or picking apart the campaign’s aims with almost gleeful relish. Media, too, have enjoyed stoking the fires on this one. I have lost count of the number of articles or news channels who have interviewed ‘real Ugandans’ to show how confused and outraged they are by the video. The media’s insensitivity regarding Jason Russell’s breakdown has perhaps been the nadir of this whole thing.

Neither has the spread of the video itself been that remarkable. It has propagated like a meme, similar to the Red Cross’ social media-heavy post-Haiti earthquake donation campaign, or any number of Avaaz initiatives. These so-called ‘slacktivism’ campaigns have also been the subject of an increasingly dreary debate, often from rival NGOs and their supporters, about whether they are ‘real’ activism and whether they can produce ‘real’ results. Let’s be clear on that – charity social media campaigns are not the same as physical activism, but that doesn’t make them all as offensively useless as many like to argue. There can be few more competitive industries than the charity sector, and certainly no group of people more concerned with feeling superior than those who work in it.

Instead, the most interesting part of #Kony12 must be the ever-increasing uncertainty of the public caught in the crossfire. The speed at which the debates now run means that people cannot afford to pin their support to a social media campaign, because they can be sure that a vehement, devastating critique will be spreading with equal virulence within a day. I’ve witnessed a number of people do a 180° about-face, first posting their “Stop Kony!!” support, and then posting one of any number of articles questioning Invisible Children’s dealings a day later. Many more simply hedged their bets, posting the video or articles with “I don’t know what I think of this” comments, stuck in an ever-deepening hole of moral cognitive dissonance. I’m a guilty-as-charged member of this latter group, partly because I couldn’t get the video to work on the not-exactly-win-ternet here in Lebanon. But it seems like an ever-increasing number of people are just waiting for someone to tell them what to believe, and the rabid competitiveness and self-righteousness of commentators is particularly unconstructive when trying to engage the general public. The danger is that people will  stop wanting to join campaigns, because they know that within minutes someone will turn up and try to make them feel stupid for doing so.

Here’s something we don’t like to think: people only engage in charity because it makes them feel good, and altruism is a myth. Agreed? Good. So if we want to engage non-‘charity people’ in our efforts to make the world a better place, we have to give them something in return, even if that thing is just a warm, fuzzy feeling of having done a ‘good thing’. Campaign organisers such as Invisible Children have a responsibility to ensure that their initiatives are open to challenge. Debate is vital for ensuring that initiatives are helpful and accountable. But the pompous glee with which some people publically attack campaigns (and I’m certainly not just talking about Kony12 here) goes well beyond reasonable critical debate, serving the critic’s ego but stripping away the positive kick other people get from being involved in something they feel is meaningful. An ever-increasing culture of cynicism and pessimism is perhaps the greatest common enemy of campaigners everywhere. We must be careful that the feelings of ‘righteousness’ that serve as our own reward for working in this sector do not come at the expense of other people’s attempts to change the world for the better.

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Debates on Syria – a view from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon

It can be hard as an outsider to see what keeps people killing. Our news channels are filled with images of death and destruction from Homs and Idlib, with estimates that as many as 7,500-8,000 civilians have died in the whole of Syria so far. We see protests – students and fighters, men and women – crying out for freedom. Yet the government continues the oppression with impunity, now seeming to move from town to town, making no distinction between civilian and combatant.

A lot of these images come to us through Arab media outlets like Al Jazeera. With ever-decreasing trust in British media and a growing public understanding of cultural distortion and bias, there is a thirst for something ‘real’. When we see Al Jazeera, Qatari-owned and serving largely-Muslim populations, it seems to be the best way to access ‘reality’ amidst the drama of the Arab Spring. That trust is not always shared by people in the Middle East, however, who are wary of an entirely different set of biases.

Sat in a barber’s shop in one of the oft-forgotten Palestinian refugee camps here in Lebanon, I got talking to a friend who told me why he supports Assad. It is his firm belief that the Syrian rebels are being armed by Gulf States who sought influence in Syria. He switched on the TV in the shop, and showed me Syrian state news, at that moment showing an apparently peaceful Homs and interviews with locals who said such things as “God praise the army” and “Now we are free from the terrorists”. The segment ended on a light-hearted scene, with the reporter signing off from inside the scoop of a digger helping to repair some of the damage. Quite different from the panicked scenes we are used to from the media we access back home.

He also told me of another report that had been showing on Syrian news the last few days, purportedly showing Al Jazeera reporters adding drama to their reports by timing them to coincide with the sound of bombs, and even bandaging children in hospitals and telling them what to say in interviews. It’s hardly surprising that the mouthpiece media of a violently oppressive regime would to seek to manipulate opinion and discredit rivals, but it did serve as a reminder that, for people here, Al Jazeera is seen as a pro-Gulf propaganda voice in a sea of many competing accounts. The diverse array of news outlets means that people can, and will, choose the narrative that best fits what they already believe.

On civilian deaths his response was troublingly blasé, regarding them as unavoidable collateral damage in a legitimate urban war against insurgency, something all the more chilling as a reminder of the official Western line in Iraq and Afghanistan. His final point though was something I couldn’t escape easily. How can Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar demand democracy and representation in Syria when their own people do not have such privileges? And why do they pursue to a violent solution, seeking to arm the rebels, rather than pressuring for dialogue and reform?

My friend’s opinions were surprising – he’s a kind, calm and thoughtful guy, and not the deranged fanaticist we may expect from a vehement Assad supporter. By contrast one fierce opponent of the Syrian regime I spoke to was much more violent in his language when asked his opinion: “[Assad] has to go. When they catch him, they should do what they did to Gaddafi and kill him. But before they kill him, they should fuck him. I should be there when that happens.”

It can be confusing living in the Middle East. The sheer number of narratives, identities and competing power interests mean it is difficult to settle on a firm understanding of events. I have no doubt where my sympathies instinctively lie in Syria – empathy for people’s suffering and belief in self-determination and democracy mean I hope for change in what is undoubtedly a brutal regime, though I don’t necessarily trust the intentions of all the rebels – but it is increasingly unclear how best to get to a solution that would bring long-term peace. The case for intervention seems strong, but the nature of power, identity and influence in the region means we run the risk of replacing one type of oppression for another. Alternatively, the slow transition to reform the Assad has offered seems disingenuous and unlikely to lead to the sorts of freedom so desired by his opponents.

Ultimately, it is fear that keeps people killing. For soldiers on the ground, it may be fear that defection would be suicide. For those seeking revolution, it is fear of destruction and continued oppression. But the supporters of the regime, many of them ordinary men and women inside and outside of Syria, have fears too. They fear violent retribution at the hands of the rebels should the regime fall. They fear the ulterior motives of foreign powers (Gulf States, Israel, the West), perhaps no surprise given the history of external control that has determined so much of people’s lives in the region. As the difficult rebirths of Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt show, finding a solution that can allay everyone’s fears will be very difficult indeed.

PS: For anyone interested in what I consider to be the best hope for Syria, and there’s no reason you should be, I would recommend ICG’s briefing paper on the topic. The field is too divided for a military solution but the status quo is hardly acceptable and will probably lead the state to fail in the long-term. I think ICG over-state the centrality of Russia in this, as the regime is probably too strong for the rebels to effectively overcome even without Russian support, but getting them onside with a genuine all-party negotiated solution would definitely be a huge step. Russia have today started to change the tone of their usual embuggerance stance on Syria and said they would support Annan’s peace plan, but how much difference this makes remains to be seen.

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