Free Shaza Barakat—the only Syrian woman onboard the Freedom Flotilla

Free Shaza Barakat—the only Syrian woman onboard the Freedom Flotilla

 By Forward Magazine, Syria

The only woman onboard the Freedom Flotilla, Shaza Barakat, has been arrested by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and taken to a prison within Israel. She happens to be the only Syrian woman among the hundreds of activists who were attacked by the IDF at 4 am on Monday, where 20 civilians were killed, 15 of whom were Turkish citizens.

Shaza, aged 45, was born in the northern city of Idlib in 1965. She is an amateur scriptwriter who currently works as manager of a computer systems academy in Damascus and had formerly served as an instructor of Arabic at the Pakistani International School of Damascus (PISOD). Shaza, a mother of three, dreams of writing a 30-episode drama about the life of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Her husband said that he had last spoken to her more than 24-hours ago, before the Freedom Flotilla was stormed by the IDF on May 31.

Forward Magazine calls for international solidarity with Shaza Barakat. She needs to be treated in a human and dignified manner, since she was illegally arrested by the Israelis, having committed no crime except help channel humanitarian aid to Gaza. She needs to be released from Israeli captivity and justice needs to be done to the thousands of those who were terrorized by the IDF earlier this week. Our prayers go out to the 20 civilians killed on Monday.

To Barack Obama from a Syrian citizen

Damascus, 13 December 2008

Mr. Barack Obama
President-elect of the United States of America
c/o President Jimmy Carter

Dear Barack, 

You certainly want to know more about Syria, and I will volunteer —even uninvited— to share some information that can be useful until you manage to see for yourself.

This is a time of festivity in Syria. The end of Eid Aladha is marked by the joyous return of pilgrims from Mecca, each of them celebrating the completion of a journey of a lifetime to live peace with God, with themselves and with one another. It’s also Christmas, when bells of some the world’s oldest churches ring in unison with the carols’ sweet repeat of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And it is the end of a year, an opportunity to reflect on the time bygone and to embark on new beginnings. Beginnings have in them the promise of a miracle that still happens in abundance every day: a new birth.

My letter comes to you from Damascus, an ancient city where many civilizations have seen their beginnings. I hear from visitors often that in Damascus they feel at home. Much of that is due to a fact that I find amusing: any visitor will find a Syrian that looks like them!  I will show you when you are here. This is because our people are not the product of today, or of the turbulent 20th century.  We are a blend of cultures that have triumphed over their ethnic or religious identities to form one nation. Our Arab identity is flavored with a rich Islamic culture, a Mediterranean character, a proximity to Europe, and a nucleus location that connects the East to the West. The contributions to humanity by people that called Syria home through the ages are too many to count. And above all, we have a double-edged blessing; the overwhelming majority of youth in our population holds the keys to both, the crisis and the solution.

Those young men and women will arrive at a crossroad as they enter the ‘real life.’ What they decide to do today determine how our tomorrow is going to look like.  The two easier choices are to accept the status quo and fuel it, or to quit in pursuit of ready-made opportunities elsewhere. The more difficult choice is to challenge the status quo and become an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are inspired by their emancipation, and driven by their ability to take charge and stop relying on “the other” whether this “other” is a government, a parent, or a friend. It makes them stronger and more determined to achieve great results, all the while maintaining even a stronger attachment to their nation.

Our country today has a vision of what it can be, and has set on course to implement it. Thousands of Syrians, in government, civil society, and the business sector, and “quiet heroes” of ordinary citizens have worked hard to maintain that course despite the immense and unjust pressures that we have endured. Our military is perhaps not as strong as the ‘army’ that is working make available to our worthy young generation a vision of what they need to have as able citizen of Syria and of the world; a vision of how they can be makers of peace —inner peace before anything else— not seekers of peace. When they are at this crossroad, we want them to choose to be positive and assertive in Syria, not be that somewhere else, nor be passive and submissive. We want them to follow in the traditions of their forefathers and become the self-consciences entrepreneurs that are agents of change and progress in all walks of life, from medicine to technology; from music to sports, and from business to philanthropy.

The dynamism and energy of the reforms in Syria today has a global perspective too. The long heritage and cultural accumulation gives confidence that transcends from one generation to the next.  We are an old country that now has new people shaped by the globalization of knowledge and technology. By virtue of that, our people are citizen of the world, just as much as they are citizen of Syria, the ancient nation.  In many ways, Syrians have not thought of their country only as home, but also a meeting place; a refuge for the persecuted and the displaced; and a hub where ideas, resources, and goods can be exchanged in a free and just manner. They have believed in partnership as a means for creating added value, sustainability and growth. They have believed in equality, justice, and solidarity as their social capital—an infinite resource that maintains our social stability in the tides of crises hitting everywhere in the world, and one that will not only reduce financial poverty, but also enlighten the soul, and restore a deserved and much need meaning of human values, often lost in the quest of needs and wants satisfied by money.

More severe probably than the crisis of prosperity today is a “crisis of heroes.” A few of them still exist however. Last night, at Marquand House in the American University of Beirut, I sat at the dinner table with one of them, President Jimmy Carter. Thirty years ago he was where you are today. His hopes had their share of fulfillment and disappointment. But at eighty-four, he seemed as driven and unrelenting in his quest to “wage peace” around the world. Many young people are looking to you, Barack, as they arrive at the crossroad. You have inspired them, but can you be their hero? They think you can, as Abraham Lincoln’s promise of a “new birth of freedom” has been renewed by your election, America’s new –and much needed– triumph.

Peace through justice and equality, and friendship through peace and common human values, are the pillars upon which you can build the foundations not only for a new America, but for a new world. It’s going to be a hideously tricky mission should you decide to take it. But you are an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs are not derailed by obstacles along the way but believe instead that it is only the results that are measured at the end —when the curtain falls— that matter. Your kind of people firmly believes that the smallest of deeds are greater than the biggest of words, and they lead by example to chart new horizons. “Yes, we can”. This is what they have faith in as they strive to leave the world better than they had it.

Congratulations and good luck with the transition and inauguration. I will be watching it, and praying that you succeed where most others have not had enough courage or attitude to try or persist. As you are taking the oath to give the United States of America “the change we need ,” do remember that millions of proud and peace-loving people in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria —and indeed the world— are extending a firm and warm hand of friendship to you.

I hope you can do the same, Barack. I hope you will.

Haykal's signature

 

 

Abdulsalam Haykal

Copy to President Jimmy Carter

List 5 things Obama should do for peace in the Middle East, and 5 challenges he’ll face there.

Obama, SyriaThe popular Barack Obama seemed and sounded very confident as he told the world during the American festival of democracy that the US is “ready to lead once more.” In his inauguration address on 20 January, the new American president said to “all other peoples and governments who are watching” that “America is a friend of each nation … who seeks a future of peace and dignity.”
Obama, whose middle name is Hussain, took oath with his hand on a Bible used by Abraham Lincoln. He addressed the “Muslim world” as such, promising to “seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” At the same time, Obama emphasized his message “to those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

While many saw in Obama’s speech a departure from Bush’s policy, some observers insist that it was not much different from the previous administration’s rhetoric before 9/11. Obama did not address the Middle East crisis, that has added a new bloody chapter to its 60-year-long history after the atrocities in Gaza. He obviously avoided the subject, probably wanting to not commit to a stand before he learns more from his envoy Senator Mitchell. In his first day in office, he phoned four Middle Eastern leaders. The Palestinian president was the first foreign statesman Obama called as president, a step that is highly symbolic as to realising a long ignored fact: the Palestinian-Israeli is the region’s core problem, and that the US has to be an “honest broker.”

On 20 January, the Israelis listened to Obama tell the world that “that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” In a region that is plagued by America’s complete bias for Israel, an occupier and an aggressor, people listened to Barack Obama forthcoming assertion that the US should “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals… to assure the rule of law and the rights of man… [as the] ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.” Can Israel continue with its policies when its biggest supporter, the world’s only super power, is on the other side of the spectrum?

Time will tell. But at this time, and with that background, I ask: what are the top five things Obama should do to bring peace to the Middle East? What are the top five challenges he is going to face there?

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Justice for Gaza: You can make a difference!

Syrian Activism

Forward Magazine January 2009 cover, Syria Make a differnce! E-mail or fax your protest message to U.S senators, congressmen, governors and state legislators! For their contact details visit: fw-magazine.com/gaza

Al-Farah Choir: North American Tour

Music in SyriaMehdi Rifai

During these sad times in Arab history, nothing is more important to emphasize than Arab unity and internal acceptance of our own diversity. No one works harder at this than Father Elias Zahlaoui and the al-Farah Choir (Choir of Joy), promoting tolerance and shared community between Arabs of all faiths and beliefs. As mentioned in the December 2008 issue of Forward Magazine, the choir is preparing for a North American tour involving its adolescent level singers. Those in North America are encouraged to come to the concert, and those elsewhere are encouraged to help them get there. Below are the links to their website and to the Facebook event concerning the choir.

http://www.choirofjoy.org/

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=43493153380#/event.php?eid=43493153380

For those wondering the effect of going to a music concert in the middle of all the turmoil in the region, consider Father Zahlaoui’s words: “For this tour, we will carry Syria and the whole Arab world, so we can say to those who know us or don’t know us, those who love us or don’t love us, who we are, Christians and Muslims, Arabs in a desperate time, when all the hate of the West seems to pour over the Arab world, especially Palestine.”

I would write only for Gaza’s sake…

For Gaza’s Sake

Palestinian Flag
By Dima Abdulhaq*

8.1.2009


If my words could make a difference,
then I would write only for Gaza’s sake.

And if my voice could tear the distance,
then I would shout to make the dead awake.

 

If I could write and the poem becomes an armor
to shield the space above the children’s heads,

I would have written a thousand times more
preventing missiles from touching their peaceful beds.

If I could win the public ears,
I would then speak unveiling the truth
which has been covered over the years
I would then tell who are the Jews,

and who is the innocent murderer
who hides his face behind a lie;
he is the villain slanderer
who turns the facts to mystify

And I would tell whose land it is;
who are the owners and the passers by,
who dug the earth to find evidences,
yet the holy soil refused to lie

The coyotes came to rape our land
chasing every human trace
if they escaped the defending hand,
can they escape God’s Face???


* Dima has newly graduated from the University of Damascus; she obtained a B.A in English Literature. Forward Magazine is proud to have her as one of our newest interns.

Reacting in moderation: How not to let the death of those in Gaza be in vain

Smoke, SyriaBy Mehdi Rifai

First off, an easy confession for me to make is that what is happening in Gaza appalls me, and makes me rethink a lot of my former “moderate” opinions concerning Israel. It has been my opinion for some time that Arab grief over Palestine has been stuck too long in the “anger” and “denial” phases, and that perhaps it is time to move on to some strong bargaining and get what we realistically can out of the whole situation. The recent events, however, while only proving once again the disdain Israel has for the international community and their conventions regarding the rules of war and proportionality, does make me wonder how much we can achieve negotiating with a people that have become so incredibly fascist and over-reactionary. The age of leaders in Israel who, while we might hate them, we can respect is over. Israel has become as tactless and inefficient as the Americans in their recent war efforts, and therefore deserve nothing but contempt.

That said, how we phrase our contempt should be a matter of extreme study. Right now, all eyes are on us, and the international community seems to finally agree that the Israel situation is completely out of hand. It’s therefore a little disturbing for me when I receive, as I had this morning, a mass email falsely claiming to feature quotes from Hollywood stars talking about the situation, fabricating quotes like “Arabs are dirty creatures that must be annihilated.” One of those quoted, Keanu Reeves, was born in the American University Hospital in Beirut and has always been proud of it. Another, Harrison Ford, an Irish Catholic, is quoted as saying that “We the Jewish people are the chosen ones, and therefore need to destroy the Arab stain on Jerusalem.”

These blatant lies only serve to make us look ridiculous in the eyes of the people who can help us overcome this situation with a gain, and who can finally make the Israeli government revise these murderous tactics. You don’t think that these emails are noticed, or they have no effect? I’ll tell you about another forwarded email I got when I was in Canada. These were of a real protest in London, one I had actually seen on the news a few days earlier, and was embarrassed to see what some people had decided to write on the signs. “Behead all the enemies of Islam,” said one, while another claimed that soon, an Islamic wave would wash over Europe, wiping it clean. The caption under all these pictures was “Do you still think the war on terror is not necessary?”

“I wish people would keep Islam out of it,” says one friend of mine, who prefers to remain anonymous. “There are plenty of reasons to be angry with Israel, but when people propagate stories like all Muslims will one day march on Israel and wipe them away, except for those who hide behind sycamore trees, since those were always Jewish trees, people stop taking us seriously. I don’t hate Israel because I’m Muslim. I hate them because they kill indiscriminately, and don’t use the technology and weaponry that they’re so proud of, and claim is so precise, to minimize casualties. I hate them because they cut off aid, and don’t recognize the conventions that allow personnel like UN and Red Cross and Crescent workers safe passage to heal and help the injured and the helpless on both sides. I hate them because they block every agreement that would ban certain weapons, such as WMDs or, on a much smaller but practically deadlier scale, land-mines. I hate them because as a supposedly democratic country, they allow the people that represent them to commit atrocities like this unhindered. It is not my religion that makes me angry with them; it’s my human decency.”

What we say and how we react to these situations is most definitely noticed, which is why our reactions must be studied and educated, not emotional and unbridled. Many I have told this too say, “Well, it’s impossible to control all your reactions, and we need to “Fish Khilq” (blow off steam) somehow.” To this, I say, no, you don’t need to blow off steam; you need to take that steam and use it to power some kind of motion forward. Use your emotions to finally make some headway in a situation that has kept us down as a people for so long. Israel has finally lifted its mask to reveal its true, and ugly, face; now is the time to make progress.