Tag Archives: arab spring

The Sectarian Myth: Iraq Ambassador Lukman Faily Speaks On The Situation In Iraq

My article
“The reality in Iraq is very different from that portrayed in the international media,” affirmed the Iraq Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily in a talk at American University on February 18th. The focus on violence and the identification of sectarianism as the root cause of Iraq’s violence creates what he called a “sectarian meta-narrative,” that is far too simplistic of a paradigm and one that has plagued not just Western media portrayal of the region but also Arab media rhetoric as well. “It is easier to define a country in binary terms; to find simple, sellable elements to hone in on in the media. Violence has long stopped being sectarian in nature since about 2006-2007.” Ambassador Faily defied all the conventions of a typical “ambassador speech,” electing to speak frankly on the many misconceptions surrounding Iraq’s democratic transformation.
“Dictatorship changes the fabric of society.” Upon my request to further expound on this, the Ambassador stated that, “the longer and more ruthless the dictatorship, the longer it takes to shake off that coat, if you will. The state is there for the needs of the dictator so the people no longer associate themselves with the state. In a sense, people dislodge themselves from the state, which is why, for example, we saw the looters when the regime collapsed. The years under Saddam were detrimental to the Iraqi society. People began to associate the sanctions with the US because they were so removed from the state as a concept.” Psychologically, he explained, there is a need for cleansing after living so long in those circumstances. “Dictatorship demoralizes people, it makes for a more inward-looking, self-centered community and the longer it lasts, the more adverse the effect.” Placing Iraq more in the context of the Arab Spring movement, Ambassador Faily described the mindset of the people as “I want change, but I am not sure what the new social contract should look like.” People are after a new social contract, he suggested, but the weak civil society institutions in place, and the total dearth of NGOs and other community organizations, mean that the foundations are still not there and the role of the citizens is still unclear. “This is a young democracy and more people participation is needed.” This also necessitates the need not just political reforms but for social and economic ones as well.

Iraq Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily and AU Professor Dr. Abdul Aziz Said in a talk at American University on February 18th. ©Toni Ti

Ambassador Faily then offered a very theoretically-rich construct to apply to the state of Iraq—the dichotomy of nation building vs. state building. “People often conflate nation with state, but this is a bit more complicated in Iraq. The state as a concept is very clear, but the definition of what it means to be an Iraqi is evolving.” What is the nation, he asked, especially in a society as heterogeneous as Iraq, where people can define themselves by a plethora of factors such as region/province, religious, or ethnic identity. He outlined several questions, including, “Do we rebuild the national character or the state institutions?” and “Do citizens have a stake in the nation or in the state?”
In addressing the current economic climate in Iraq, the Ambassador stated that the adverse impact of past sanctions was severe damage to the economic infrastructure. The current rate of economic growth is 9-11%, with steady increases in oil production and income levels. Unemployment, however, remains the same due to an over-reliance on oil production. Since oil as an industry is not very labor-intensive, he explained, it employs less than 1% of the population. “The core structure of the economy has to be managed better, with less reliance on subsidizing certain sectors.” Iraq also hopes to maintain a long-term investment relationship with the United States.

Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts 2014

My coverage of the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts 2014

Facing Fear, directed by Jason Cohen

Facing Fear recounts of tale of crossed paths, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance staffer Matthew Boger meets reformed neo-Nazi Tim Zaal to discuss a talk by Zaal. In the process of comparing notes about their days in LA, when Matthew was a homeless street kid, they realize that Zaal was the neo-Nazi who kicked Matthew in the face and left him for dead. The film is not only an examination of forgiveness, but a rare glimpse into the psychology of hate. “Violence made me feel big, elated. It was like a drug, the adrenaline of it.” And like a drug, it stopped working, Zaal explains. In a particularly poignant scene, he recounts how seeing one of his own kids talking like a racist made him feel profoundly ashamed and disgusted. It was the epiphany that turned him away from the movement he lived in for decades. He is humbled by Matthew’s ability to forgive him and recounts the flip-side as well, which is how difficult it was for him to forgive himself.

Cave Digger, directed by Jeffrey Karoff
There is a fine line between madness and genius, the story goes, and Ra Paulette is the epitome of the ardent, borderline maniacal zeal that burns inside many artists. Ra digs cathedral-like art caves into the sandstone cliffs of New Mexico.The labor is grinding and physically arduous beyond measure: he toils for years on each one. The patrons who commission his work  do not share in his obsession and there is ensuing friction, a wry commentary on the push-and-pull between art and business. They want to have input; Ra says he is not a “paintbrush.” Valid points on both ends, indeed. Tired of taking commissions, Ra starts a massive self-funded 10-year cave project. Cave Digger could have been the live action version of the Bhagavad Gita, with Ra’s insistence on not being tied to the results but just enjoying the process of creation.

Karama Has No Walls, directed by Sara Ishaq
In a similar vein to The Square, Karama Has No Walls explores a tragedy that left 53 people dead at Change Square in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, during the 2011 Arab Spring. The short shines a light on the often-forgotten cost of the peaceful protests. While the protestors themselves were peaceful, they were subjected to incredible violence by a regime refusing to concede defeat. The image of snipers shooting at a crowd from above is a scathing commentary on political oppression and the high cost of liberty.
The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life, directed by Malcolm Clarke
“Music is a dream. Music is God.” The lady is number 6 is Alice Herz Sommer, a 109 year old pianist and Holocaust survivor. A soul-stirring paean to the transformative power of music, the film documents Alice’s unbridled love for it. Her love is unmarred because music literally saved her life as she was spared from the worst fate in the concentration camps (the Nazis exploited her gift). Alice’s natural ebullience make the film thoroughly engrossing.


Facing Fear is the most compelling because of the sheer scope of emotions and human experience it covers: from Matthew’s own feelings about his sexuality, making peace with a family that put him out on the street at 13, and Tim’s acceptance of a life spent living a way that he now finds abhorrent. Facing Fear is true to its title. Skeletons are big and small, monsters hide in the darkest recesses of our hearts, and the ultimate redemption that also lies there as well, if we know how to look for it.
* We were unable to review Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.

The Square Documentary Review

My review of The Square

The Square, a documentary by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (Control Room) is a heady tour-de-force look at the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Initially covering only Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, Noujaim continued filming throughout the summer and the next tumultuous two years, capturing the the Egyptian Army’s removal of the elected President Mohammad Morsi. The theme of the film is unequivocally revolution, a loaded word that has inched its way towards meaningless and obsolescence, yet here comes roaring into vibrancy. The Square is an engrossing look at the lives of several activists who remain doggedly staunch in their quest for change despite increasingly harrowing circumstances and a constantly changing political landscape. Perhaps surprisingly, the film, while grounded in realism, is unapologetic in its idealism. These activists, although fighting for political change, are actually about as soured on politics and politicians as one can be – the change they seek out and their motivations are universally human and refreshingly not power-centered.
The main character in The Square is “the people,” a word referenced many times and one with an actual significance very unlike the cynical, hollow place it holds in Western parlance. Instead of merely a cheap ploy used by grandiloquent politicians to play upon the emotional heartstrings of a vulnerable public, it is something very much of an undeniable reality. The sight of literally millions of people lining Tahrir Square is moving beyond measure and illustrative of what “we are united,” can precipitate. It’s impossible not to wonder why this has yet to happen in the US and makes palpable to the viewer how a dictator in power for over 30 years can be deposed by a mass protest of such unbridled will.

"The Square"
The “star” of the film, if there is one, is 20-something Ahmed Hassan, an impossibly ebullient working-class youth. Facing increasing disillusionment and personal danger, he remains optimistic even as the regimes change but the circumstances of the people do not. The Square eloquently shows how impossibly fraught and elusive that very concept is and how revolution is hard to come by in a world mired in politics. As he poignantly puts it in regard to the Muslim Brotherhood’s maneuvering into power, “while we were dying in the streets, they were making deals.”
The Square also does an excellent job of demystifying the headlines for a Western audience and untangling a very complex political situation without relying on pundits for commentary. Ultimately, it drives home the point that figure heads nary make a country – all the country’s institutions are the regime. It also portrays the strong role that the military plays in Egypt, especially in their ability to turn a revolution into a war, as Ahmed explains. The fact that the protestors all come from really different backgrounds – for example, actor Khaled Abdalla is foreign-born and of an activist background and Magdy is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – serves to underline that divisions were not present during the initial protests against Mubarak. “We were united…one hand.”
Despite what seems to be a political quagmire with nothing immediately positive to offer to the people of Egypt, The Square will leave you feeling uplifted by what “the people” can do to effect change. Ahmed explains that they, ”created a conscience, not a political force. We created a culture of protesting and gave the people ownership of their freedom.” The Square is really about something fundamental inside people that moves them to fight injustice. Tahrir Square remains a symbolic peace of land not because of what circumstances it brought about but because it showed what a people united can do. While this may sound incredibly simplistic, The Square proves that it is still something that can take place.