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Economy Outranks Gay Rights in Serbia

KÖNIGSWINTER, Germany — Johannes Rueger personifies the values of progressive Europe today, particularly its youth. But as the young German discovered after relocating to the Serbian capital of Belgrade two years ago, certain western norms, like LGBT rights, have yet to be embraced, much less prioritized, by many in the Balkans with other bread-and-butter issues in mind.

Rueger, 30, has followed political and social developments in Serbia as part of his work for a German peace-and-reconciliation program in Belgrade. Based on his observations, he doesn’t have high hopes for the country’s impending EU accession talks

According to Rueger, who also contributes regularly to German blogs moe-kompetenz and ntropy, Serbia’s last-minute cancellation of the gay pride march in Belgrade last month (for the third year in a row) speaks to a lack of enthusiasm for certain EU values. Some in Brussels were not impressed.

Asylum Seekers on Hunger Strike in Berlin

BERLIN — Sometimes I tell people I had trouble getting my visa for Germany, but it’s not really true. I rolled up to the Ausländerbehörde (foreigner’s registration office) here carrying a bunch of homemade cookies, and emerged triumphant shortly thereafter. 

Had I been seeking asylum, however, I might have starved by now.

That’s what 28 refugees are doing in front of the Brandenburg Gate right now. When I went to see them on Monday, on the sixth straight day of their hunger strike, I was shocked to learn that not a single representative of any German political party had come to see them. 

Germany’s new coalition might still be getting organized, but as the protest leader pointed out, it’s not as if the government is shut down, American-style. Institutions are functioning as usual, forms are still being filed, and asylum applications are presumably being rejected. “They don’t want to look,” he said, referring to the politicians. “This is the reality.”

For Syrian Artist, a War for the Heart

Syrian artist Wissam al-Jazairy got his degree right in the nick of time—for a revolution.

The Damascus-born artist graduated from New Bulgarian University in Sofia in October 2011, seven months after the nonviolent protest movement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started gaining strength in his homeland.

The young artist returned home and got involved immediately, producing political works that joined a number of international exhibitions in support of the anti-Assad movement.

Things were looking up for anti-government activists at the time. Two long-running dictators had fallen from power in Egypt and Tunisia. But in Syria, the regime crackdown gave rise to an armed rebellion—spawning a terrible conflict that has taken tens of thousands of lives over the past two-plus years. 

Much of Jazairy’s work reflects the brutality of that experience.

Communicating over Facebook from Jordan, Jazairy said the conflict in Syria has two sides—a political side and a more humanitarian side. “What really matters to the artist is the human part,” he said, describing it as the “metaphysical” component of the conflict.

In War, Syria's Revolutionary Art Speaks for Itself

Untitled
Artist: Tammam Azzam 

 

With over 120,000 people killed in Syria in under three years, sometimes it seems like there’s no words to describe the brutality of the war — which may be why Syrians are turning to other forms of expression.

The Facebook page “Syrian Revolutionary Art” is dedicated to collecting Syrian works that engage the conflict in their homeland, which began as a peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. I touched base with the people running the page, and they let me show you some of the pieces. All of the artists are Syrian, although only two of those included below are still in the country.

"Causes may vary, but the Syrian citizen is the same."
(This is a play on words from the old Arabic saying:
"Causes may vary, but death is the same.)

Artist: Wissam Al Jazairy

Resisting Oppression, Tasting Tear Gas in Turkey

While hanging out at a bar in Istanbul after five straight days of demonstrations there recently, I finally set my wine down, turned to the table at large, and asked the question journalists are supposed to ask—the most obvious one. “So, what’s the deal with these protests?”

The demonstrations, sparked by the death of a protester in the country’s south, were the latest resurgence in protest activity after the government’s plans to revamp Istanbul’s cherished Gezi Park set off rallies nationwide several months ago.

Clearly, some level of dissatisfaction continues to seethe under the surface here. So what is this all about? I asked. Are these demonstrations held together by something deeper, or are they just a cool way to make a point about freedom of expression?

A Child Refugee in Syria's War

REYHANLI, Turkey — Journalists are banned from Atmeh, Syria’s largest refugee camp of 22,000 people, so I had to pose as a social studies student when I went on Friday. 

While there, I encountered a remarkable little girl. 

Standing outside a tent in the blistering heat, she looked at me, and I looked at her. Then, all of a sudden—how do these things happen?—we’d stumbled beyond introductions and into something scathingly more real, a deep, secret place that makes vulnerable that easily-bruised nub of being.

You know the place. It’s that soft, piercing place, the place of meditation and of prayer; the place that pulsates painfully in moments of heartbreak, the place capable of being helplessly, inexplicably magnetized by another. 

Mine was dark and surely cobwebbed, so long has it been since anyone’s gained access. I haven’t a clue how a seven-or-eight-year-old Syrian girl broke in. We were staring at one another, but it was more like we’d fallen inside one another. Time stopped, at it does in moments of power that can transform and transcend one’s humanity. 

A Refugee's Forecast for Syria

REYHANLI, Turkey, August 29th — How’s the weather? It’s sweltering here in Reyhanli, a small Turkish village near the Syrian border, home to an increasing number of Syrian refugees. But just over the mountains, across the border, that question means something entirely different, Syrian refugee Mohammad al-Shammary told me over lunch at a windswept Turkish cafe today.

When the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began several years ago, he said activists created a secret code for communicating about political events. Suspecting the state was tapping their phones and fearing the regime’s allegedly wide network of spies, “the weather” became a stand-in for the political climate. If it was “dusty out,” for example, that meant there were demonstrations in the streets. At one point, Shammary said, he got a phone call from a family member in a city that had just been shelled, and when asked how things were with him—“dusty,” he replied—he was told that perhaps he should close the windows and stay indoors. 

The Middle East Time Machine

Moving forward on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t easy, but Yovav Kalifon is actually making progress by going back in time. That’s right. His Tiyul-Rihla, or Project Trip, takes groups of Israelis and Palestinians on educational trips in their respective homelands, revisiting the past in order to challenge to what Kalifon sees as the chief obstacle to peace—history. 

These journeys allow Israelis and Palestinians to examine history quite literally in context. Participants explore the land together, building by building, town by town, many of them revisiting their own culture identity along the way. Donations help keep participation costs low: Hosts pay the equivalent of $15 to $20, guests about $70 to $80 per trip.

“As a scientist, I know how easily people fool themselves into thinking they know their stuff,” Kalifon, a physicist by training, told me by e-mail recently. “Once they know that they don’t know, they become more rational, inquisitive, and more likely to find the clues they missed earlier.”

In Egypt, Political Cartoons Make the Front Page

“Supreme Guide Seeks Guidance,” a cartoon by the Egyptian artist Andeel, depicts the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, in a therapy session. “Sometimes,” he says, “I suspect that I’m a state security agent, implanted inside the Brotherhood to screw it up.” Andeel’s hashtag reads, “Brotherhood Subconscious.”

 

Imagine that you check your mailbox one afternoon and find a postcard that shows a smiling Arab family under the words, “A souvenir postcard of the great Egyptian people.”

Then you notice the card feels a little slimy. All of a sudden, you realize it’s covered in blood.

Such was the image drawn by Egyptian cartoonist Andeel in response to deadly clashes in the wake of President Mohamed Morsi’s ousting earlier this month.

Egypt’s Latest Revolution

I first got the news while rattling down a California mountain on Wednesday. “Oh my gosh, Egypt,” I thought. “You’ve done it again.”

But that’s not what I said. What I said was, turning to my mother: “Did you hear about Egypt? They’ve had a,”—I paused, hesitant about the label favored by the media—“‘coup.’”

“Oh?” said my mother. “Didn’t they just elect a president? Democratically?”

“Yeah,” I said. There was a moment of silence. We let the confusion implicit in her question sink in.

“But you know, not everyone liked him,” I ventured, recalling the Egyptian voters I spoke with last summer in Cairo. I remembered the city’s famous epicenter of protest activity, Tahrir Square, exploding in celebration after the two-day vote. I remember watching long queues of voters snake their way through dusty voting stations. Some held their inked thumbs upright for blocks after walking away from the ballot area, as if unwilling to let the moment pass. The faces of some voters, particularly the elderly, shone with the trustfulness of a very young child. Egypt, it seemed then, was being reborn.

A Young Voice from Cairo on Freedom of Expression and Art

Omar Robert Hamilton is something of a vocational chameleon. A founding member of Egypt’s artistic Mosireen opposition group and a producer of the Palestine Festival of Literature, he’s also a celebrated young filmmaker, an activist, an event organizer, a professional photographer, a film archivist, and a published writer who lives between Cairo and London.

With protests continuing in the wake of the opposition’s June 30th “Tamarod” (Rebel) event calling for new presidential elections in Egypt, Hamilton is well positioned for close questioning on the region.

In Jordan, a Fight for Media Freedom

Jordan’s recent decision to block hundreds of news websites has seen considerable outcry, even giving rise to a new initiative called 7oryanet, roughly translated as “freedom oh Internet.”

This is not to be interpreted in a hand-wringing way. This is not, “oh, freedom”—insert despairing sigh—“oh, Internet.”

On the contrary; when the law passed, the digital activist opposition collective responded by holding a national Internet blackout in protest. “What made the outcry from Amman different this time was the diversity of stakeholders,” observed Katherine Mansfield, writing in the Middle East–focused entrepreneurial publication WAMDA. “Freedom of speech activists were joined by the burgeoning Jordanian startup community in protesting the new laws.”

Voting in Iran—from Canada

Turnout for Iran’s presidential vote this weekend got a boost halfway around the world, as it turns out—in Canada, of all places.

The nation is home to the third-largest Iranian émigré community, but none of them were allowed to vote in their own election back home—Iran does not do absentee ballots, and the Canadian government did not allow polling stations. (Even the United States, no friend of the Iranian government, allowed the Islamic Republic to arrange the voting for Iranians in America.)

This might not have mattered so much if turnout was low, as analysts had predicted—instead, more than 18 million Iranians streamed to the polls on Saturday to elect Hassan Rowhani, who is seen as a reform candidate (relatively speaking).

Iraq’s Emerging Artists

“Are you crazy man? You just left, like, medicine, just to work, like, as an artist?”

Walaa Haddad said he was hammered with questions like that during a recent visit to his hometown of Babylon City, Iraq. The question seems to have dogged him all the way back to his adopted city of San Francisco, where he returned two months ago to continue his studies at the Academy of Art University.

In a war-torn country, being a professional artist can seem a bit daft—like trying to be an opera singer while working a coal mine. Haddad, a conceptual artist who dreams of a job at Pixar, said even his open-minded family back home wasn’t sure how to respond to his “doodling.” (See an example of his work here.)

The Global Classroom

School’s almost out for the summer here in the States, so before classrooms emptied I spent a day with my teen sister at her private Catholic elementary-middle school in an affluent Northern California town. Even though Marin County is notoriously high-income, I was startled when the teacher started things off by saying: OK, kids! Go get your laptops and start working on your power-point presentations!

While the young digital natives busily navigated font sizes on their Web-enabled, 2010 HP laptops (originally listed at $719 a pop), I sat on my eighth-grader-sized chair and tried to close my gaping mouth.

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