The Mumbai attacks

The scale of the attacks is incredible: the Taj, the Oberoi Trident, a major train station (CST), a major hospital (Cama), a cafe that’s favoured by tourists (Cafe Leopold), the Jewish centre, all in different parts of the city. Some attackers came by sea, others set off bombs, others just entered buildings or public areas and started shooting. The people of India’s cities, like Pakistan’s and many others, have suffered many bombings in recent months and years. There have also been major raids against targets in India, like the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. But so many simultaneous attacks on so many different parts of the city, with gunmen taking hostages in some places, setting off bombs in others, settling in to fight commandos for days in others, is something new, and terrifying. The death toll is already well over 100, and will probably be higher before the end.

The military sophistication is matched by political incomprehensibility. Very little that is credible is known about who the attackers are and what their motivations could be. This will continue to be the case for some time, and it is still the case for many of the attacks and bombings of civilians that have occurred in India in recent years. But if the “Deccan Mujahadeen” whose emails have been released to the public are a real group and are responsible, they will not win themselves any political points with India’s Muslims, who are moving in the opposite direction. Delhi-based commentator (and friend of mine) Badri Raina earlier this week contrasted the changes happening in the Indian Muslim community with the posture of India’s Hindu chauvinists in the Sangh Parivar:

“A remarkable dynamic counter to the re-centralizing, purity-oriented turmoil within the Sangh Parivar is currently at work among India’s Muslims. A dynamic that I venture bears the promise of defeating the renewed fascistic call of the Parivar more conclusively than anything else in view.”

That dynamic, Raina says, has two parts. On the one hand, a questioning of “social practices supposedly ordained by one clerical authority or the other”, a “condemning the killing of innocents especially as un-Islamic”, and on the other, the participation of Muslims “increasingly and in great numbers” in “civil rights activities that seek… to reinforce the non-discriminatory exercise of the rule of law.”

While India’s Muslims may be trying to move in one direction, what follows this attack could be dangerous for that community. After the February 2002 Gujarat pogroms and Godhra massacre, Arundhati Roy wrote about what could happen to India’s Muslims:

“Under this relentless pressure, what will most likely happen is that the majority of the Muslim community will resign itself to living in ghettos as second-class citizens, in constant fear, with no civil rights and no recourse to justice. What will daily life be like for them? Any little thing, an altercation in a cinema queue or a fracas at a traffic light, could turn lethal. So they will learn to keep very quiet, to accept their lot, to creep around the edges of the society in which they live. Their fear will transmit itself to other minorities. Many, particularly the young, will probably turn to militancy. They will do terrible things. Civil society will be called upon to condemn them.”

During those Gujarat massacres of 2002, people resisted the police and the mobs that were doing the killing. In 2004, the BJP were out of power nationally because people did not vote on chauvinist lines. Some citizens of Mumbai have already said that they will stay together and not allow these attacks to destroy their community. The political forces that will seek to benefit from this are those who want violence between India and Pakistan and between Hindus and Muslims in India. The trap these forces have set will fail if these attacks fail to derail the positive movement in South Asia for detente between India and Pakistan, and fail to strengthen communalism in India. That Pakistan is publicly cooperating with India will help, as will the fact that the BJP is not in power today.

Moises Naim’s scary world

I picked up Moises Naim’s book “Illicit” (2005), as the book of record on illegal trade (or, what I call, following my friend Manuel Rozental, “illegal capital”). I wanted to read it because I’m trying to figure out how much of the global economy flows into these different niches. You can understand the economy one way by following energy flows, another by following money, another by following technology (like the story of stuff), another by following arms, another by following illicit trade. And each of these has some relationship with the others. And the whole picture is, well, a little beyond me. What I am wondering about is what the relationship between this kind of trade is and the aboveground economy of employment, incomes, the state, investment, and so on. What happens to this economy during a financial meltdown? When is it better for a kind of economic activity to be legal and when illegal? My answer to that, as someone who is against prohibition, is different from most. But I’m all for learning whatever can be learned from whatever sources there are. Including, if it comes to that, the editor of Foreign Affairs, who is also an opponent of the Venezuelan Bolivarian proceso (a process I support).

I did some reading on “cyber crime” (mainly identity theft and credit card theft), for example, before this, and one of the causes of the increase in cyber crime was the huge number of technically skilled people in Russia thrown out of work by the neoliberal restructuring of the 1990s (it was not put in these terms exactly, but that was the upshot). Other things being equal, people would rather work in the licit than in the illicit economy. So under what circumstances does the illicit economy grow, and shrink? To the extent it is bad for people, how to stop it or minimize its harms?

Unfortunately, I didn’t find Naim’s book very useful on these questions. His basic argument is that technology and globalization have made illicit trade blossom. He doesn’t differentiate enough between crimes that shouldn’t be crimes, like software ‘piracy’ (see the views of Richard Stallman, who I follow in this, for an explanation of information freedom), and crimes that should be, such as human trafficking and sexual slavery. Even the latter crimes might be better stopped through legalization of prostitution and giving sex workers the protection of the law from violence rather than forcing them into the underworld. Naim acknowledges the possibility of demand reduction measures, including decriminalization, but having thoroughly frightened his readers with the spectre of massive illicit trade, he suggests a crazy dystopia of technological surveillance and state power as a solution. Starting on page 243, he advocates digital fingerprinting of products, biometrics, detection devices, surveillance (everywhere, including online), GPS tracking of people, and the increased use of biotechnology and DNA!

For people looking to think sensibly about security issues, please try Bruce Schneier instead. His “Beyond Fear” was an excellent book. It might be the thing to read after Naim, if you need to clear your mind a little.

The world ain’t changed yet

I believe the outcome of the US elections provide more openings and more possibilities for positive changes. I don’t think such changes will happen unless those openings are exploited. And such changes are certainly not happening yet. Not for Palestinians anyway. Not for Gaza. Instead, Israel has stepped up its ongoing bloodbath there, in the interest of its own moral degradation and that of us all. 70% of Gaza is in darkness tonight. The power plants for the 1.5 million people run on petrol that can only get in if the Israelis allow it. And the Israelis, instead, feel like letting hundreds of thousands of people freeze in the dark. And starve. And drink dirty water. And get shelled and bombed.

Palestinians live at the mercy of a genocidal regime and an indifferent or intimidated world. Above all, at the mercy of the US. This situation is one test of how much hope and change will come from the US.

The Toronto Palestine Film Festival

I spent the week Oct 25-Nov 1 at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF). Because a friend of mine gets the occasional free ticket, I have attended the Toronto International Film Festival a few times – just for one film, usually. But I have never thrown myself into a film festival the way I did this one, with possibly one exception – the London (that’s London, Ontario) Palestine Film Festival, which I attended as part of a panel in 2005, when I discovered that I love Palestine film festivals. The TPFF was huge, dazzling, and amazingly impressive. I was not involved in organizing it at all, though the organizers are friends and people I respect. It was very nice to attend as an audience member and enjoy all of their work, as well as that of the filmmakers, many of whom were around for the screenings.

Even though I bought the TPFF 10 and wanted to attend every single film, I ended up coming in at around 10 programs (“programs” instead of “films” because each feature was accompanied by one or more shorts). Walk through my journey with me.

On Saturday October 25 the festival opened with Salt of This Sea by Annemarie Jacir. It is a story of a Palestinian from Brooklyn who goes to Palestine to discover her roots and retrace the steps of her grandparents who were displaced from Jaffa. The main character, Soraya, is played by Suheir Hammad – a Palestinian-American poet who brought to the screen the same magnetic presence she brings to her poetry readings (I saw her perform years before closing the “Made in Palestine” exhibit in New York). It was her first movie, but perhaps because the character’s journey has so many important similarities to her own, there was not a false note in her performance. Her co-star, Saleh Bakri, who, if I was half as handsome as I would not complain, is the son of Mohammad Bakri, director of Jenin Jenin (on whom more later). While Soraya is trying to connect to Palestine and finds Israel’s occupation blocking her at (almost) every turn, Saleh Bakri’s character, Emad, has never known anything but the brutality of apartheid locking him in, and he wants out. In the end, apartheid keeps them apart, but it can’t stop them from making a connection. As for the director, Jacir, she’s been banned from travel to Palestine by the Israelis – but they can’t stop you from watching the film. It was a beautiful way to open the festival, through Soraya and Suheir’s eyes – someone a little more knowledgeable than the audience, but making her own way and bringing you along with her, to see the realities of how people survive and live and love despite the walls that are stacked between them.

I missed “This Land Speaks Arabic” by Maryse Gargour, the second show of opening night, because I went to the reception instead, and got to congratulate the organizers and tell Suheir herself how impressed I was. If Suheir wasn’t enough to make a fella a little starstruck, there was also Bashar Da’as, star of Driving to Zigzigland by Nicole Ballivian. Zigzigland was playing on the 26th and 27th but I missed both screenings, unfortunately.

On Day 2 (Sunday Oct 26), I did watch “The Olive Harvest”, by Hanna Elias, though. It is a love triangle: older brother Mazen has been in Israeli prison for years and comes home. Younger brother Taher, who’d been trying to take care of things in the village while also working as a lawyer and activist against Israel’s colony expansion into the West Bank, has also fallen in love with childhood friend and neighbour Raeda. Raeda loves Taher, too, but tradition dictates that the older brother has to marry first. Taher doesn’t tell Mazen about Raeda, and Mazen ends up falling for Raeda too. Meanwhile Raeda’s father is sick and his dying wish is that she marry a man who cares about the land and will hold it. Raeda’s father (played by Mohammad Bakri) has a point, but underrates the importance of the struggle in the city. The film takes place against the backdrop of the olive harvest in Palestine, which has to happen under the continuously expanding colonies of Israeli settlers. The story highlights some impossible dilemmas: the duty of a peasant to the land, the duty of an activist to the struggle, the duty of someone in love to the beloved. How can one of these take priority over the others? How can they be reconciled? Maybe they can’t – and maybe that’s why the movie ends the way it does.

A little frustrated by the ending of The Olive Harvest (which, admittedly, might have been the intent) I did the only sensible thing – turned around and watched another film! We took a break, had some ice cream in the cold, and watched “Telling Strings”, by Anne Marie Haller. The movie is about the Jubran family, master musicians, their instrument (the Oudh), and their music. While I was astounded by the older Jubrans, I was more entranced when the younger Jubran, Kamilya, was on the screen. Listening to her sing is like watching an acrobat from the Cirque du Soleil or Usain Bolt running the 100m dash. You’re watching the very heights of what humans can do, and it makes you proud on behalf of humanity.

Day 3 was in the suburbs, to reach a different audience, and I missed it.

On Day 4, I watched Simone Bitton’s commemoration of Mahmoud Darwich, Palestine’s national poet. I wrote about Darwich when he died months ago, saying that he was one of those who reminds me of the power of words. I had never heard his voice, or his poems in Arabic, and since I’m trying to learn Arabic listening to Darwish’s poetry with an excellent translation is about as good as it gets. I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that the poets I know are all extremely clever in conversation, but Darwish’s interviews were as dazzling as the poems he narrated. At one point he’s asked why he is alone. He says something like, while life is not worth living without a partner, a tragedy closed that door for him so he won’t pursue it. And in any case, he needs absolute quiet in the morning without interruptions! He said it so straight-faced that I wasn’t sure if he was trying to lighten something that was obviously incredibly heavy. But that was the effect. And given his power as a poet, it’s hard to believe that if you’re feeling something in a conversation with him, it’s not something he wants you to feel.

Day 5: A double header. First, Memory of the Cactus, by Hannah Musleh. An important film for Canadians to watch, it’s about three villages that were erased in 1967 to make way for “Canada Park”, so called because the funds for the park were raised by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Canada. It includes some fantastic footage of a very smart guide taking Israeli students on a tour of the Canada Park to show them all of the physical remnants of the villages that were destroyed. Three young lawyers from an advocacy organization called Al Haq were present to answer some questions at the end. They were a clever and engaging trio as well. Most fascinating about the film, for me, was the tour guide showing how Israelis are the main targets of so much of this propaganda. I’ve always thought about propaganda of this kind as fairly complex. It works, but partly it works because it falls on receptive ears. Recent events in the US make me wonder what happens when that receptivity changes. A few years ago it seemed impossible to me that it could change in the US, and it seems to have, a little. It seems impossible to me that it could happen in Israel, but it could, too.

The second film of Day 5 was, “All that Remains” by Nada El-Yassir. It is a documentary about Israel’s attempts to concentrate Bedouins of the Negev into townships by destroying their crops and homes and cutting them off of services. Like so much else in the TPFF, it showed some of the beauty of Bedouin culture and peasant life while inevitably exposing the apartheid regime that is trying to wipe it out.

I had thought to skip Day 6 in order to get some work done so that I could settle in for the long haul on the closing weekend. But I finished my work in time to catch the late show on Thursday October 30, “Since You Left” by Mohammad Bakri. For me, with the opening and closing films, this was the film of the festival. What a fascinating person Bakri is, an artist, fluent in Hebrew, spending a life actually trying to work towards coexistence, and watching a life of work unravel as Israel tightens the noose around the Palestinians one turn at a time after 2001. A nephew of his becomes a suicide bomber, and in the apartheid philosophy of mass reprisal, the entire family is attacked for it. After the massacre in Jenin, Bakri sneaks into Jenin and makes a film (Jenin Jenin) which is then banned in Israel for 2 years (an interesting point here: why do try so hard to prevent Israelis from watching such a film? Why are they afraid when Israelis ought to automatically be on side with what their army did in Jenin?) The film is about Bakri’s life, but he writes it as a letter to his dead friend and mentor, novelist Emile Habibi. The scenes of him at the grave of his friend, the way he laments directly to his friend, alternately wishing he was there and being glad he didn’t live through what Bakri had to, is heartbreaking and beautiful.

On Day 7 (Halloween) I watched “Untitled” by Jayce Salloum, a long interview with Soha Bechara, a Lebanese resistance fighter who was detained and tortured for years by the Israelis in Lebanon. Salloum just gets out of the way and lets Soha Bechara speak for 40 minutes, and the result is an amazing document. In form, it reminds me a little of The Fog of War, with Robert McNamara, but I hated the Fog of War and loved Untitled, probably because of who the interview subjects in both films were.

I also watched “Snow White and the Ambassador” by Thomas Nordanstad and Erik Pauser, which was a fantastic movie about Zvi Mazel, the Israeli Ambassador to Sweden’s destruction of an art exhibit on Palestine. It is a document of an amazing little piece of history. The co-artist whose exhibit was destroyed, Dror Feiler, was clever. Some Israeli artist said he overreacted to Mazel’s destruction of his exhibit and called him mentally ill. Feiler responded by saying – oh, so now we let artists diagnose mental illness and politicians decide what is art! If the Israeli ambassador’s destruction of an art exhibit was not surprising, perhaps the Swedish museum director’s response was: he kicked the vandal out. The Israeli co-director of Route 181 said this was the right response, and should show the way for others: Israel should be treated like any other vandal.

Closing night was all about Slingshot Hip Hop by Jackie Salloum. But not before I got to see a PEN Canada commissioned film on two Toronto poets, Rafeef Ziadah and Boonaa Muhammad. The film is called Sedition, it’s by Minsook Lee (who I also respect immensely) and features music by Toronto group LAL. The 12-minute film featured little snippets of the poets’ lives, what moves them to write, and snippets of their poetry as well. Best of all, Minsook, Rafeef, and Boonaa all took the stage after the film and the poets dropped their poems to a packed and revved up audience of 850.

The right mood was created for the closing film of the night, Jackie Salloum’s Slingshot Hip Hop. It chronicles the growth of the Palestinian hip hop scene over the past few years, and the growth of a group of rappers, mainly DAM, the first group on the scene, as they developed and sparked rappers from other parts of occupied Palestine. Watching these young people build relationships with each other across apartheid walls would have been inspiring enough had they not been gifted musicians. DAM describes their music as 30% (American) hip hop, 30% (Arab and Palestinian) literature, and 40% reality (they describe this by pointing out the window at their occupied neighbourhood). The film features female rappers and male ones, and like Darwish, is another testament to the power of words. They are an amusing bunch as well. When their car breaks down on the way to a concert, one of the rappers tells the camera: “Now you know why we’re rappers. Cause we can’t do anything else, we’ll be here for hours because none of us knows how to fix a car.”

When Jackie Salloum came out on stage after the film, the standing ovation was several minutes long. She said, with 850 people, it was the biggest opening for the film outside of Ramallah.

Now it was a full, emotional, and powerful week, and there are many things that can be said about it. It was a cultural event above all, not a political one. But in an apartheid situation, it’s not always possible to separate the two. Art is true to reality, after all, and the reality is one of apartheid.

So here’s one somewhat political point, for me: it’s been three generations of Israel trying very deliberately and systematically to destroy Palestinian life and culture. We don’t know how much the world has missed out on because of all this destruction. But we do know this, anyone who went to the TPFF knows this: that after 60 years, after walls and massacres and assassinations, after every bureaucratic humiliation available, after the theft of land and water, after the bombing of civilians and the destruction of homes, the targeting of cultural centers and the destruction of archives, apartheid has, in the quest to stifle Palestinian creativity and culture, totally, spectacularly, utterly, failed. The words of Palestinians can reach us, if we’re listening. Perhaps in Israel’s attempts to isolate them, it may end up isolating itself, like what happened in miniature in Sweden. If that happens, the world might before too long be able to share in a Palestinian culture that’s not under siege.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.

Third World Story

by Badri Raina
first published in The Hindu November 7, 2008

VIJAY PRASHAD’S new book, The Darker Nations, is history enumerated not just by a scholar but by an anguished participant in the destiny of the world’s oppressed who scrutinises the collapse of a promising world-idea in order to understand better how new ways may be found to resurrect a humanist order.

Continue reading “Third World Story”


Hi folks. This is not a substantive post. I wanted to explain my absence and a few things that I hope to do here in the next few days.

I have had a few weeks in a row that have been busy, one of which is well worth writing about here (the others are not for this blog). The week in question is Oct 25-Nov 1, the week of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, which was an amazing experience. I will do a detailed review here.

Much has been happening in Colombia as well that I need to report on. President Uribe met with the indigenous who’d been mobilizing, but didn’t listen and missed the point. He fired some military personnel who’d been involved in shooting civilians, and General Montoya – the very general who planned the operation that freed Ingrid Betancourt – stepped down amid scandals. These are important events that aren’t getting much attention, like the election night invasion of Gaza that the Israelis conducted.

On the election, I’ll also see if I have anything to add to the unbelievable flood of material. One of the most forwarded pieces I have written was one I wrote just after the 2004 election called “the morning after”. The point of that one was something that my friend Robert Jensen would argue in Pakistan sometimes. People would say, “it’s not the American people we have a problem with, it’s the government”. Jensen would point out that the government isn’t a dictatorship and the people have responsibility, to the degree that they have power, which is to some degree. So, if the 2004 election was cause for despair, even though the election didn’t change the structure of power within the US or between the US and the rest of the world, then perhaps the 2008 election is cause for – don’t make me say it, please. I can say that I couldn’t disagree more with Mickey Z. He mocks leftists for trying to be strategic (I think they should be). He mocks the idea that leftists can pressure Democratic administrations based on a list of bad things that Democrats did (that doesn’t prove an absence of pressure, Mickey, just that there wasn’t enough pressure or that it was canceled out by stronger pressures). He mocks liberal shows like Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s (I think these shows made a big difference in the past few years and positive influences on the culture in various ways). Since I’ve said more than once that I don’t really think there’s something called “the left” in North America, I don’t think it’s fair game to mock that entity – I would rather think through some suggestions about how to bring such an entity into existence than read mockery of something that doesn’t exist (and needs to).

More writing (actual articles) soon…