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Shahada x Shadia: bearing witness

October 18, 2010 2 comments

I’m often asked, “What value does Hip Hop have in the realm of cultural diplomacy?” A film review I read today in the New York Times about the new German film, “Shahada” (a thesis project by Burhan Qurbani that has been selected for next year’s  Berlinale ) struck a chord along that theme. Having not seen the film yet, I can’t comment on its merit as a work of art. However, the title and synopsis alone remind me that the word  shahada , from the Arabic for ‘to bear witness/testify’, evokes not only the Muslim profession of faith, but an expression of personal knowledge and belief, which can also take the form of art. This brings me back to Hip Hop, a multi-faceted form of personal expression that serves to bear witness to one’s unique view of the world. It is also a profession of one’s belief that such expression can inspire others, and, in numbers, lead to change.

This explains how the same theme, shahada , can be used by both Hip Hop artists, such as American rap stars Mos Def and Freeway, who have openly discussed their conversion to Islam, and by jihadists, such as American-born Al Qaeda recruiter, Abu Mansour al-Amriki, who invokes shahada in his Youtube propaganda videos .

In response to those who ask me, “Why Hip Hop?”, I would offer that Hip Hop, in its true form, represents an artistic expression of shahada, not necessarily in a religious sense, but in a personal one, and, moreover, in a peaceful one. It is for that reason that I continue to advocate the support of Hip Hop-related programming by cultural diplomacy organizations, as well as others seeking to “engage the hearts and minds of Muslim youth”. One such organization that seems to get it is the British Council , who co-sponsored an event this past weekend at the Dash Arts center in London that featured Arab Hip Hop all-stars from Palestine ( Tamer Nafar ), Lebanon ( Rayess Bek ), Jordan ( MC Samm ), Algeria (Rabah Donquishoot), and London’s own Palestinian queen MC, Shadia Mansour , and US legend Talib Kweli. The event challenged the artists (many of whom had never met before) to take themes from the 6th century Arabian poems, the Mu’allaqat , and riff off of them to create new music in workshops, culminating in a tour throughout Europe. I’m excited to see and hear what these pioneers of the Arab Hip Hop movement came up with but I have no doubt that it will be an honest account of the world as they’ve seen it, just like the original Mu’allaqat, which described in great detail and poetry the world of pre-Islamic Bedouins. Shadia describes the feeling of reconnecting with that legacy in this quote from an article on Mondomix :

“The Mu’Allaqat poems… I thought I knew a lot about that era but after reading the poems, I learned a lot about my culture. The poems are about Bedouin life but the crazy thing is nothing much has changed… the traditions, the customs, our mannerisms… even the mentality, the conservative nature of that time is still alive in certain parts of the Arab world. To be honest, being Palestinian, being Arab and coming from a very cultural background I have taken my experience, my upbringing and what I feel and put that into all the songs we’re performing at the Roundhouse. Obviously we are all from different Arab regions and have different upbringings, but what I’ve learned from the poems is relative to how we are brought up and live as Arabs. I think it all made sense in the end.”

What other medium could so meaningfully connect young Arabs with their cultural heritage and at the same time allow them to connect with one another, and with other young people around the world, to bear witness, faithfully and creatively, to their lives at the turbulent dawn of the 21st century? Only Hip Hop, where followers make their own form of  shahada, expressing belief in the power of music and poetry to affect change.

 


Shadia Mansour wins back the Arab Kufiya

Photo Credit: Ridz Design (via Illuminarcy Blog )

Last month, Palestinian Hip Hop star, Shadia Mansour , released the much-anticipated first single from her forthcoming debut album, “ El Kofeye 3arabeye ”/”The Kofeyye is Arabic”, featuring M-1 from the pro-Palestinian US rap group, Dead Prez . Prior to the release of the single, Shadia posted the following teaser video on Youtube, with this message about the song:

“In this song, I am claiming back its historical, political and revolutionary purpose. As you are aware, the ‘Kofeyye’ has been tastelessly commercialized and economically exploited worldwide. I feel that it is only right to give the people a thorough introduction and understanding of its symbolic existence.”

Already, the response has been remarkable, from impassioned messages of solidarity, to debates over the true origin of the so-called ‘Palestinian scarf’, to criticism of the attempt to reclaim as ‘Arab’ what has become an international symbol of resistance. Anthropologist and Hip Hop scholar Ted Swedenburg, in his recent lecture on the history of the kufiya at the Palestine Center, argues, “To try to reclaim the kufiya as simply Arab would be analogous to trying to reclaim rap music as African-American.”)

Closer examination of the lyrics, however, reveals a flaw in Dr. Swedenburg’s argument (which he, himself, admitted in a recent email). Shadia is not, in fact, trying to reclaim the kufiya from commercialization as a fashion accessory for hipsters and celebrities. Rather, she is trying to reclaim it from a more dangerous group of kufiya appropriators, the creators of the “ Israeli Keffiyeh ”, embroidered with blue Stars of David and the words “Long Live the People Israel” stitched across the top. The scarf was designed by a  Brooklyn-based Jewish Hip Hop promoter (I know, I know, it takes one to know one) who claims that his ancestors were wearing variations on the kufiya in ancient Yemen. In response to the “offense” taken by his “Arab friends”, Erez Safar offers this defense:

“I as a Jew am not offended by the Pope who wears a “kippah” and in the same respect, I don’t feel there is any reason for anyone taking offense to a Jewish person wearing a version of the Keffiyah which they identify with; especially considering the significance of this article of clothing in both of all of our histories.”

I, also as a Jew, am not buying this argument (nor the scarf) and feel compelled to call Mr. Safar and his supporters to task. First off, they have broken the first rule of Hip Hop: Be Original. Changing the color of the scarf and adding stars and a Zionist slogan does not make it a “remix”, just a shameless imitation. Furthermore, the claim of historical overlap does not supersede the fact that the kufiya has been recognized as a symbol of Arab/Palestinian pride for close to a century and appropriating it as a Zionist symbol is an inherently antagonistic act, especially given the present political context.

That said, I offer here a translation of Shadia’s lyrics, which win, hands down, this battle of symbols and language. Just ask the nearly 14,000 viewers who’ve watched & commented on her promo video (versus the 52 who’ve watched “ Israeli Keffiyeh & DeScribe Live ”), or the 500+ that showed up last night at Brooklyn’s Southpaw for an Arab Hip Hop showcase featuring  DAM , The Narcicyst , Lowkey , and, of course, Shadia Mansour , with over 50 rockin the black and white checks, by my kufiya kount . As Jay-Z might put it to the creators of the Israeli kufiya, “We don’t believe you, you need more people.”

Translation by Ouassim Addoula (aka. Big Moor)

Verse 1

Good morning cousins, y’all welcome, come in

What would you like us to serve you, Arab blood or tears from our eyes?

I think that’s how they expected us to receive them

That’s why they got embarrassed when they realized their mistake

That’s why we rocked the kuffiyeh, the white and black

Now these dogs are startin to wear it as a trend

No matter how they design it, no matter how they change its color

The kuffiyeh is Arabic, and it will stay Arabic

The gear we rock, they want it; our culture, they want it

Our dignity, they want it; everything that’s ours, they want it

Half your country, half your home; why, why? No, I tell em

Stealin’ something that ain’t theirs, I can’t allow it

They imitatin us in what we wear, wear; from this land enough, what else do you want?

About Jerusalem, Jerusalem, would they be worried, how can you humans?

Before y’all ever rocked a kuffiyeh, we here to remind em who we are

And whether they like it or not, this is our clothing style

Chorus

That’s why we rock the kuffiyeh, cuz it’s patriotic

The kuffiyeh, the kuffiyeh is Arabic

That’s why we rock the kuffiyeh, our essential identity

The kuffiyeh, the kuffiyeh is Arabic

Come on, throw up the kuffiyeh (throw that kuffiyeh up for me)

The kuffiyeh, the kuffiyeh is Arabic

Throw it up, come on “Bilad Al Sham” (Greater Syria)

The kuffiyeh is Arabic, and it will stay Arabic

Verse 2

There’s none yet like the Arab people

Show me which other nation in the world was more influential

The picture is clear, we are the cradle of civilization

Our history and cultural heritage testify to our existence

That’s why I rocked the Palestinian gear

From Haifa, Jenin, Jabal al Nar to Ramallah

Let me see the kuffiyeh, the white and red

Let me throw it up in the sky; I’m

Arab, and my tongue creates earthquakes

I shake the words of war

Listen, I’m Shadia Mansour, and the gear I’m rockin is my identity

Since the day I was born raisin people’s awareness been my responsibility

But I was raised between fear and evil; between two areas

Between the grudging and the poor, I seen life from both sides

God bless the kuffiyeh; however you rock me, wherever you see me

I stay true to my origins, Palestinian

My name is Khan (or Hussain)… (pt. 2)

When I was blogging last night about the film “My Name is Khan” , and its intersection with President Obama, it did not yet occur to me that the greatest irony of the film is not the Muslim Indian actor named Khan playing a Muslim Indian hero named Khan, who must tell the president that he’s “not a terrorist”. Oh no, not by far. It took the photo above to remind me that the greatest irony here is that Khan, both the actor and the character, had to make this confession to a man who is also considered a terrorist because of his Muslim surname, which, in this case, happens to be Hussain.

And here’s the kicker: the photo was not taken in some distant, “anti-American” land. It wasn’t even taken in some racist, redneck boondock. It was taken on West 123rd Street, in the heart of Harlem, at the Atlah World Missionary Church. I felt compelled to find out what else the good Pastor James David Manning had to say, so I visited the church’s website and boy, did I find out. From what I can tell, Atlah is a predominately Black, evangelical church, school, and would-be media producer that counts among its ministries :

  • Exploring the lies taught by our “leaders” who have used slavery as the means to incite hatred of white people to perpetuate the lies.
  • Exposing the ill effects of the media moguls of Jay-z, 50 Cent, and others upon Black youth.
  • Exposing the Magnificent Seven – Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton, T.D. Jakes, Louis Farrakan, Don King, and Cornell West, as the American witch doctors.

And here’s a taste of the Pastor’s rhetoric, as it concerns President Obama’s decision to send Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Haiti after the earthquake.

In the end, I’m still not quite sure what this says about America and Obama and Muslims but I do see just how closely our struggle with race (which, contrary to stupid opinion, did not “end” with the election of Mr. Obama) and our struggle with religion are linked in this country, making the identity (and authority) of Obama doubly controversial. What is also clear is the power of visual storytelling, specifically in the form of film and video, in manipulating that identity for the purposes of communicating either love or hate. We’re yet to see many Obama portrayals in film but I suspect we’ll yet see many more, and especially from the rest of the world, who is just as busy as we trying to figure out how the land of opportunity could become the land of paranoia.

My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist

“My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist” . This is the leitmotif of the new film from acclaimed Bollywood director, Karan Johar, and it is one that bears repeating, especially in the United States. The main character, a Muslim Indian with a severe case of Asperger’s syndrome (played by Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan, who is also Muslim), first utters these words at the very beginning of the film, as he is being roughly searched at the San Francisco Airport. This sets up the primary theme of the film (which Khan’s grandmother whispers to him before he sets out for America), that “there are two kinds of people in the world, good and bad”. What she doesn’t explain to him, however, is that most people tend to extend this judgement over entire groups and have difficulty making exceptions to their deeply-ingrained prejudices. Such is the painful truth that Khan is forced to learn in post-9/11 America, as a series of anti-Muslim attacks unfold, including one that results in the death of his wife’s son, who isn’t even Muslim. Khan sets out on a Gump-esque mission to tell as many people as he can that he is “not a terrorist”, including President Bush, to whom he shouts those very words at a rally and is promptly tackled by Secret Service and sent to an FBI detention center for interrogation. Khan is eventually released when 2 young Indian journalists come across video footage of the rally to corroborate Khan’s story but the point has been made: In the US, if you’re name is Khan, you will be treated like a terrorist.

And, in the great tradition of art imitating life, this point proved true last summer when Shah Rukh Khan, the actor who plays Khan in the film, was detained at Newark Airport for over an hour of “secondary questioning”. Khan, one of the biggest film stars in India and the developing world, was on his way to New York to promote “My Name is Khan” when this tragically ironic twist of fate occurred. Below is a news report from CNN-IBN.

By the end of the 2.5hr film, Khan has also journeyed to a poor village in the deep South and helped save a Black church after a Katrina-esque hurricane, establishing an interesting link between Muslims and African-Americans and setting up the requisite happy ending (a natural law in Bollywood) in which the newly-elected President Obama awards Khan for his heroism and says to him, “Your name is Khan and you are not a terrorist!”. Then everyone in the crowd joins hands to sing “We Shall Overcome”  and we all live tolerantly ever after.

But only in the movies. In the real world, President Obama has fallen well short of the promise he made last April, in Cairo , “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Doha last month, at the US-Islamic World Forum , conceding that the Obama administration had not yet fulfilled many of the policy changes it had promised and pleading for patience. The Secretary spoke of “shared responsibility” but the general consensus across the Arab World is that the US commitment has been “insufficient and insincere”. One need only look at the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and ongoing occupation of Gaza, the still-open detention center at Guantanamo, the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, diplomatic deadlock with Iran, and a lack of cultural engagement to see why Muslims the world over are feeling disappointed and deceived.

Meanwhile, the White House recently announced the appointment of a new “special envoy” to the Organization of the Islamic Conference , a group of 57 states that considers itself the collective voice of Muslims around the world. And, guess what… the special envoy is a Muslim! But, luckily for him, perhaps, his name is not Khan. It’s Rashad Hussain, a deputy White House counsel who helped prepare the Cairo speech last year. The White House touted this appointment (which comes less than 1 year after the State Dept.’s appointment of a ‘special representative’ to the Muslim world, Farah Pandith ) as “an important part of the president’s commitment to engaging Muslims around the world based on mutual respect and mutual interest”.

In honor of all the Khans in the US and abroad who are not terrorists, I will withhold my applause until Mr. Obama and his special representatives actually get on the stage and start singing the song they promised us all we would hear. They may not know the exact words yet, but it couldn’t hurt to take a cue from one very hopeful Hindi film and just start humming “We Shall Overcome”.

Here’s a teaser from the official website with a familiar melody…

And here’s the full trailer with English subtitles

Doc X Narrative: “Ajami”

My first two tweets coming out of seeing “ Ajami “, the Oscar-nominated Arab-Israeli film, praised its rare, “portrayal of Arab & Israeli male aggression AND vulnerability” as well as the decentered, interweaving narrative structure. The more I’ve thought about the film (and seen it again), the more I’ve come to appreciate the way that the 1st time directors, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, made such portrayals possible through their brave fusion of documentary and narrative forms. To begin with, they shot most of the film on location in the rough neighborhood of Ajami, in the city of Jaffa, after which the film is named. Those two decisions alone, location and title, ground the film in an environment that actually exists and call it by its name. This removes any doubt about where we are and how constructed the story is going to be. It’s as if the directors are saying, from the outset, “This is not a true story but it might as well be.”

With their world already set, Copti and Shani chose to cast mostly non-professional actors from the neighborhood of Ajami. This is a hugely ballsy move, especially for first-time directors, but it pays off in spades as the characters in the film consistently behave and speak in ways that are not at all ‘larger than life’ but rather completely life-like. The directors spent a year in workshops with the cast, placing them in dramatic situations and encouraging them to act exactly as they would in real life, using language that they would use in real life.  For the film itself, they often worked without a script or without telling the actors what was going to happen next, so as to elicit the most pure, gut reactions. That is exactly what they got and it makes for some of the most gripping emotional performances I’ve ever seen on the big screen.

Naturally, an authentic location and authentic neighborhood cast call for an authentic shooting style, which “ Ajami “ delivers through the lensing of Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov. The roving, handheld style places the viewer squarely in the middle of the action, never quite certain what’s coming next or from which direction. Mr. Yaacov is an excellent student of the cinema-verité school and takes it to another level, becoming almost an extension of the raw, unpredictable action of the characters.

But perhaps the most impressive (or, at least, notable) meta-narrative operating within “ Ajami ” is that of the film’s creators, Copti and Shani, whose own collaboration creates an aura of hope around an otherwise tragic tale. Copti, an Arab Christian who was raised in the Ajami neighborhood and followed in his father’s footsteps to become an engineer, discovered a passion for filmmaking when a friend asked him to collaborate on a short film about their neighborhood. He later met Shani, an Israeli Jew, who had attended film school in Tel Aviv and ran a student film festival, for which he encouraged local youths to make films about their environment. The two found in eachother a creative soul mate and embarked on writing the screenplay that would become “ Ajami “. They worked on the project for four years, while holding down day jobs, and eventually cobbled together financing from German and French film finance companies, as well as a grant from the Israeli Film Fund, just enough to shoot for 3 weeks.

When the film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, it brought down the house and was immediately hailed as the film of the year, which it won (as well as Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Editing) at the Israeli version of the Oscars, the Ophir Awards. It has since been nominated for Best Foreign Film for the upcoming Academy Awards.

I’ll resist the urge to wax political about the lessons that can be drawn from the success of this Arab-Israeli, Christian-Jewish, Euro-Israeli collaboration. Suffice it to say that such lessons are abundant, but not nearly as significant, perhaps, as the artistic triumph that was achieved by the brave co-directors. On second thought, “artistic triumph” is far too lofty a description of what they did. Instead, I’d like to qualify their triumph as one of truth and honesty in storytelling. Whether documentary or fiction, scripted or improvised, the boundaries of filmmaking in the Imagination Age are not only expanded by advancements in technology (read: “Avatar”) but, maybe more so, by the filmmakers themselves who are willing to forego the artifices of cinema and lay bare the raw humanity of everyday life on film. For me, this was the true power of “ Ajami “, the willful blurring of that antiquated line between art and reality.

Watch the trailer and then go see the film.

Gov 2.0 x Reality TV: Brick City

If you haven’t already seen the new Sundance channel reality/doc series, “ Brick City ” (Sundays at 9PM EST), then you haven’t experienced one of the best examples of the use of new media to create better, more transparent governance, or what is now popularly referred to as ‘Gov 2.0′. President Obama, in his “Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government” , explains:

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency , public participation , and collaboration . Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

Over months of shooting and 5 hour-long episodes, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark ( @CoryBooker on Twitter, another great example of Booker’s commitment to Gov 2.0) opens up his office, his city, and his own life to the Emmy-deserving cameras of Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin (“The Last Party”, “The Blues”). And not only Booker, the energetic, Ivy league-educated, community organizer (remind you of anyone?) 1st term mayor, who defeated longtime incumbent Sharpe James (see Oscar-nominated doc “Street Fight” ), and has made it his mission to rebrand Newark as a city on the rise. But also the Police Director, who is fighting not only the gangs on the street but his political opponents within the Department; a former gang-member turned women’s activist, who is pregnant with her second child (by her boyfriend from the rival gang) and also facing multiple years in prison for an assault in 2004; the principal of one of the city’s underfunded public high-schools, who is trying to put pressure on the school board to make good on their promise of a new school building; even the governor, former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine, makes a few cameos. So, how does this all add up to a case study of effective use of Gov 2.0 strategies? Not to be a pain in the ass, but you’ll really have to watch to understand. The best I can do is explain that it’s all in the way each character uses the power of the camera to connect with the virtual community that has grown around the show, from its fans, watching live, streaming clips, commenting, tweeting, retweeting, and in other ways multiplying the impact of the show’s content and various change-agenda; the way those characters use the show as part of a multi-platform social media campaign to promote their individual causes. This allows Cory Booker to be tweeting about Newark’s “achievements” as they unfold on the screen and in the online forums and episode guides. It allows  ex-gangmember Jayda to promote her peer group, Nine Strong Women , and provide professional video content to its website. It allows Central Highschool Principal Ras Baraka to make an impassioned speech to his students about the abnormalcy of gang violence and have it reach audiences across the state and country, even the world (see below).

Please notice the posting by a Youtube member (unaffiliated with the school or the show) of Facebook and Twitter links for “OurBrickCity” and “CoryBooker”, as well as the positive comments from actual students and supporters of Principal Baraka. I would call that a very effective partnership between Education, Media, and Government, and the public to rally wide support behind a change-initiative. It’s transparent, it’s open, it’s participatory, it’s collaborative, and it aims to build trust between partners. In fact, the Producers Guild of America recently hosted a panel to discuss “Brick City” as a ‘New Media Marketing Case Study’ .

But more than just the effectiveness of increasing visibility for the show and, ostensibly, support for the various causes that it champions, “Brick City” introduces a whole new way to (literally) look at governance: as a fully transparent, interactive, publicly-accountable system of leadership.

Here’s a little promo reel. Many more clips at the Sundance site.

This post originally appeared on The Imagination Blog.

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