Beauty and Islamic Theology: interview

I translated questions written by Dr. Bilal Badat and interviewed Prof. José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, Professor of Art History at Granada University. The interview forms part of a documentary series that explores “Beauty and Islamic Theology” from multiple angles, a joint research program of the Centre for Islamic Theology at the Eberhard-Karls-University Tübingen and the Chair of Islamic Religious Studies at the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg.

The interview relates to Professor Vilchez’ 2017 publication ‘Aesthetics in Arabic Thought; From Pre-Islamic Arabic Through Al-Andalus’, published by Brill.

As stated by Dr. Bilal Badat, the questions explored in the video (in Spanish, with English subtitles) include: “What is the nature and significance of beauty in Islamic theology and intellectual thought? To what extent did theological, philosophical, and mystical ideas inform the production and reception of Islamic material culture?”

Conference – PUBLIC JEWISHNESS: CONTEXTS, MOTIVES, POLITICS, MEANING

This was a three-day participant-only workshop bringing PhD candidate ethnographers and established scholars whose work partially explores open representations or inhabitations of Jewishness, particularly in the presence of non-Jews. The symposium discussions focused on public/private distinctions, political and civic engagement, local and state heritagization processes and Jewish enactments of peoplehood. The past and forthcoming ethnographic projects we explored spanned the globe, whether São Paolo Jews and their relation to Brazil’s shift to Bolsonaro’s hard-right politics, Kochin’s Jewish community who are grappling with diminishing populations and Hassidic Jewish individuals who are creatively responding to Netflix documentaries through Yiddish theatre in Canada.

Anthropologists have noted how Jewish socialities have shifted across global contexts since the 1960s to become more public-facing and embedded within socially diverse spaces. The combination of growing socioeconomic infrastructures, such as the global boom of the heritage industry in the 1990s, liberal democratic state-led processes that encourage minority representation and participation within the wider democratic body and shifting Judaic ethical discourses around peoplehood and universalism, have been seen to contribute to the growth of spaces and practices which foster forms of Jewish communal life that play out in more public-facing forms. This symposium aimed to understand public and private Jewishness from a range of angles and contexts, teasing out surprising theoretical intersections between geographically diverse case studies.

The conference, hosted by the Anthropology Department of SOAS University, was designed to provide engagement and guidance to doctoral candidates about to begin ethnographic research, as well as to generate productive conversations across generations of scholars. The workshop was co-organised by Dr.Naomi Leite and myself.

Q&A: The Feeling of History

Through the Jewish-Muslim research Network, I spoke to Associate Professor Charles Hirschkind about his new book, ‘The Feeling of History: Islam, Romanticism and Andalusia’ (see video below).

Read about the book here:

‘In today’s world, the lines between Europe and the Middle East, between Christian Europeans and Muslim immigrants in their midst, seem to be hardening. Alarmist editorials compare the arrival of Muslim refugees with the “Muslim conquest of 711,” warning that Europe will be called on to defend its borders. Violence and paranoia are alive and well in Fortress Europe.

Against this xenophobic tendency, The Feeling of History examines the idea of Andalucismo—a modern tradition founded on the principle that contemporary Andalusia is connected in vitally important ways with medieval Islamic Iberia. Charles Hirschkind explores the works and lives of writers, thinkers, poets, artists, and activists, and he shows how, taken together, they constitute an Andalusian sensorium. Hirschkind also carefully traces the various itineraries of Andalucismo, from colonial and anticolonial efforts to contemporary movements supporting immigrant rights. The Feeling of History offers a nuanced view into the way people experience their own past, while also bearing witness to a philosophy of engaging the Middle East that experiments with alternative futures.’

Charles Hirschkind is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests concern religious practice, media technologies, and emergent forms of political community in the urban Middle East and Europe. His published works include, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Columbia 2006), Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and his Interlocutors (co-edited with David Scott, Stanford 2005), and The Feeling for History: Islam, Romanticism, and Andalusia (Chicago 2020).

Q&A: ‘The Converso’s return’

The Converso’s Return: Conversion and Sephardi History
in Contemporary Literature and Culture

by Professor Dalia Kandiyoti 

I spoke to Dalia Kandiyoti about her new book, The Converso’s Return.

Q & A for the Jewish-Muslim Research Network (JMRN)

December 2, 2020

Co-sponsored by the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center
(MEMEAC) at the Graduate Center, CUNY

Five centuries after the forced conversion of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to Catholicism, stories of these conversos‘ descendants uncovering long-hidden Jewish roots have come to light and taken hold of the literary and popular imagination. This seemingly remote history has inspired a wave of contemporary writing involving hidden artifacts, familial whispers and secrets, and clandestine Jewish ritual practices pointing to a past that had been presumed dead and buried. The Converso’s Return explores the cultural politics and literary impact of this reawakened interest in converso and crypto-Jewish history, ancestry, and identity, and asks what this fascination with lost-and-found heritage can tell us about how we relate to and make use of the past.

Dalia Kandiyoti’s latest book offers nuanced interpretations of contemporary fictional and autobiographical texts about crypto-Jews in Cuba, Mexico, New Mexico, Spain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey. These works not only imagine what might be missing from the historical archive but also suggest an alternative historical consciousness that underscores uncommon convergences of and solidarities within Sephardi, Christian, Muslim, converso, and Sabbatean histories. Steeped in diaspora, Sephardi, transamerican, Iberian, and world literature studies, The Converso’s Return illuminates how the converso narrative can enrich our understanding of history, genealogy, and collective memory.

Dalia Kandiyoti is Professor of English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Kandiyoti researches and teaches comparative diaspora studies, American Studies, and world literature.  Her research has focused on Latina/o/x literature, global Sephardi Studies, and comparative studies of migration in the Americas. Prof. Kandiyoti’s current work includes an oral history project  and an edited volume about Sephardi Jews and the citizenship laws in Spain and Portugal, both with Dr. Rina Benmayor. This work has received support for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Jewish and Muslim Memories of Morocco

Estas entrevistas forma parte de una colección de historias orales que tratan del pasado Judío de Marruecos. La iniciativa, que conduje como un miembro del grupo Salam Shalom Barcelona, intenta preservar las memorias de personas Judías Sefarditas Marroquíes y Musulmanes Marroquíes quien solían vivir en Marruecos. Específicamente, su memorias de la comunidad judía en Marruecos durante el siglo veinte. Salam Shalom es una iniciativa que se explora la cultura Judia y musulmana en Barcelona.

Para ver el resto de los videos:

These interviews are part of a collection of oral hisotires exploring Morocco’s 20th century Jewish history. The initiative, which I led as a member of the group Salam Shalom Barcelona, aims to preserve and compare the memories of Moroccan-Sephardic Jews and Moroccan Muslims who used to live in Morocco, and may still visit there. The interviews focus on their recollections of the Jewish community in Morocco throughout the twentieth century, and their memories of Jewish-Muslim relations. The vast majority of Jews and Muslims in Spain originate from Morocco. Salam Shalom is an NGO exploring Jewish and Muslim culture and history within Barcelona

To see the rest of the videos. Si sabes de un archivo que sería interesado en tener estas entrevistas, enviarnos un correo.

Locación de las entrevistas: Barcelona / Período de coger estas entrevistas: April – August 2019

Una initiativa de Salam Shalom. Supported by Mozaika and Screenshot 2020-05-27 at 10.50.33

Entrevistadora/Interviewer: Flora Hastings

 

 

Moises Israel Benasayag

(Interview in Spanish)

 

 

 

Abdul and Fatimah

(Interview in English)

 

 

Salam Shalom organizó un evento de seguimiento, en asociación con Euroarab and TolDot. Moisés, originario de Tetuán, fue entrevistado por Med Ahsissene y Zouhair El Hairan (también originario de Tetuán) sobre sus recuerdos de su crecimiento y eventualmente huyendo de Tetuán. Luego Toldot nos sirvieron comida marroquí-sefardí.

Salam Shalom organised a follow up event, in partnership with Euroarab and TolDot. Moises, originally from Tétouan, was interviewed by Med Ahsissene and Zouhair El Hairan (also originally from Tétouan) about his memories of growing up and eventually fleeing Tétouan. We were then served Moroccan-Sephardic food cooked by Toldot.

 

 

Photos by Federico Szarfer Barenblit

 

Clips from the event (In Spanish):

 

 

Anthropology Is: Bendy Minds

The best anthropologists make their minds bendy – they try to warp their perspective of the world (how it works, how ‘society’ is organised, what ‘culture’ is) and explore these questions from another perspective (and in doing so, may allow their questions to radically change) Saba Mahmood had the bendiest of minds. She showed up white liberal neo-imperialist feminists and anthropologists who went into Middle Eastern nations and placed Muslim women (from a diverse range of locations) within their white, liberal conceptual frameworks. From their perspectives – if a Muslim woman was observant, she was oppressed. Accordingly, the less Islamic they were, the more ‘liberated’.

What’s the point of anthropology – understanding cultures and societies in their diversity – if you already know what’s good and bad for groups/individuals before hand? if you can just slot them into an oppression/liberation narrative? So Mahmood made her mind bendy – she went and researched a group of Muslim women in the ‘Women’s Mosque Movement’ in Cairo after the Egyptian Revolution. Mahmood saw how the way white liberal feminists understood ‘submission’ was, for this mosque movement, irrelevant. For the practitioners of this all women’s Mosque movement, ‘submission’ to Islamic values was not a oppressive, passive, docile and dogmatic act. Submission meant an active, intellectual and bodily moulding of the self in order to internalise Islamic values and practises until they emerged from the self and body without conscious effort. Submission was a form of empowerment. To understand this, Mahmood had to deconstruct dominant European conceptions of agency, the body and freedom and in turn see how such concepts, applied to the Mosque movement, concealed as opposed to revealed something of the culture which Mahmood was studying. Much Euro-American academia (and especially anthropology), if it doesn’t question itself (and its political agendas), can violently assimilate sociocultural difference to its own terms, hierarchies and views of the world.

The best anthropologists, like Saba Mahmood, endlessly question the terms through which they understand different social and cultural groups. Many Egyptian Islamic feminists disagreed with the Women’s Mosque Movement relation to submission, although that doesn’t discount the need to understand a multitude of perspectives on the matter of women’s diverse experiences of freedom and oppression.

Read Mahmood Cairo ethnography in her 2004 Politics of Piety.

A Century of Women Who Changed Literature: the 1930s

 

Commissioned by Ponder journal

 

Hurston, a prolific folklorist and novelist who documented the African American culture of the rural South, died penniless in 1960. Her writings were tossed into a fire outside her house after her death, left to burn until a passing friend salvaged them from the flames. 15 years later, the renowned novelist Alice Walker would stoke a different kind of fire when her essay ‘Looking for Zora’ led to widespread recognition of Hurston’s talents.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel, is as politically relevant today as it was in the 1930s. The novel’s controversial use of language brings the voices of those who are often silenced into centre-stage. The novel follows the tales of its protagonist, Janie Crawford, as she relays her life to her friend, Phoeby. Janie leads Phoeby through stories of her domineering husbands, the claustrophobic micro-politics of porch-side gossip, the Okeechobee hurricane and eventually, to her final love and partner, Tea Cake. The story is part set in Eatonville, an all African American town in Southern Florida where Hurston herself grew up.

 

The book caused a literary backlash after its publication for its extensive use of African-American dialect. Across a 1930s America still plagued with the racist ideology that had legitimised slavery just decades earlier, “serious” literature was equated with standardised English (the language of the media, universities, the “educated”). The judgements given to certain styles of speech and writing were often steeped in racist and classist hierarchies as white supremacist ideology had influenced the mainstream to see African-American dialect as proof of a lack of education and “non-seriousness”.

Despite pressures from the literary world to do so, Hurston refused to translate the African-American dialect of the novel’s characters into standardised English. Such a move would have culturally misrepresented the groups within the novel. Beyond this ideological choice, Hurston artfully plays around with the voice of the book’s narrator*. While the novel’s narrator begins by using standardised English, as the story progresses and Janie rids herself of her misogynistic husbands, the narrator progressively picks up Janie’s dialect. By the end of the novel, Janie’s voice seeps into the narrator’s: ‘‘Janie fooled around outside awhile to try and it wasn’t so”. Janie’s increasing control over the book’s narrative is symbolised by her emboldening refusals to speak at the behest of others. As Janie sat in court at the novel’s close: “She didn’t plead to anybody”.

Janie’s growing empowerment is mirrored by Hurston’s as a novelist – both women refused to mould their speech or writing to the racist and patriarchal hierarchies of early 20th century America; predictably, the novel yielded little success after its publication in 1937.

As a doctoral student in Anthropology, Hurston’s work forms a guide for how I aim to write. Anthropology, which Hurston trained in, is about understanding how groups and individuals comprehend the world from their given perspectives. Within anthropology, language is seen as a crucial way through which individual or group identity is formed – it’s integral to how people organise and comprehend their reality. Unlike many anthropologists at the time, Hurston refused to speak over those she researched and wrote about, allowing her to thrust the voices of communities into a domain which often relied on representations of such groups by others, which were misinformed at best and unequivocally racist at worst.

Taking Hurston’s example beyond 1930s America and anthropology, how would present-day European xenophobia be different if people listened to migrants’ voices more than their representation by right-wing papers like the Daily Mail?

 

*the term used by the literary critics Barbara Johnson and Henry Louis Gates

*the narrator of many of Hurston’s novels is often a non-personal voice which narrates the main events of the novel, distinguished from speaking characters (who are identified by speech marks).

Remembering the anti-fascist Jewish radicals of the ’40s

commissioned by Huck magazine

I’ve always wondered how my grandparents ended up getting married. My grandmother loved going to classical music concerts, while my grandad loved jazz nights. My grandmother would drag him to the opera where he would invariably fall asleep; while my grandad would try and get her to go car racing, which she would always refuse (it messed up her hair). It’s even more strange to think that, not long before they met in the ’50s, my grandad John Wimborne was punching fascists and being arrested for attempted murder.

I was completely unaware of my grandad’s anti-fascist activism as a child. I only learnt about his history with The 43 Group a decade later, after he’d passed away, when my grandmother handed me a heavy folder of newspaper clippings. It was his homemade archive, filled with newspaper articles documenting the groups’ controversial political activism.

The 43 Group were a grassroots initiative, predominantly made up of Jewish ex-soldiers, who fought the rising wave of fascism in ’40s Britain. Their main tactic, for which they were notorious across the UK, was using their World War II military training to shut down fascist rallies.

70 years later, as far-right voices become louder and more influential in modern politics, the group’s legacy of direct political action could not be more relevant.

Along with the rest of Europe, the UK experienced a rapid growth in fascism in the ’30s. Britain’s pin-up fascist was Oswald Mosely, who founded the British Union of Fascists. Mosely’s political speeches were filled with antisemitic vitriol. The ultra-nationalistic, upper-class demagogue pinned the nation’s perceived decline on the thousands of Jewish immigrants in the UK, many of whom had fled the pogroms of the Russian empire.

Amongst them were my grandad’s parents. Depending on which uncle you ask, they either came to the UK from Poland or Ukraine in 1918 or 1890, with the family name of the Bumchicks or the Weinbergs. After arriving, they opted instead for the British-sounding surname ‘Wimborne’  – a word that was apparently glimpsed on a road sign to Wimborne Minster.

The ‘Wimbornes’ arrived to an east London divided between the British working class and Jewish Eastern European immigrants. Poverty reports from the early 20th century note the dark-bearded men in Russian-Polish dress, the wigs of orthodox Jewish woman, and their unplaceable Yiddish tongue. From the perspective of the ‘native’ East Londoners, the spike in Jewish refugees pushed up rent prices and increased unemployment.

Mosely became a beacon of hope to many struggling working-class families, angry at a lack of state support. He offered a vision of Britain for the British, partly gained through deporting a large number of Jewish immigrants. Mosely’s fascist rallies would incite the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues, the chanting of Nazi anthems and ‘Jew-beating’ on East London’s streets.

Even after the decisive defeat of Europe’s fascist forces by the end of World War II, around 1,000 loyal fans gathered to greet Mosely in his first re-appearance after the war in 1946. “They screamed and raised their arms to give the old fascist salute,” described BBC journalist Trevor Grundy, who witnessed the event. Before long, the old tune of “The Yids, the Yids, we’ve got to get rid of the Yids” soon returned to London’s streets.

The 43 Group formed in 1946 as a defiant response to the mounting fascist threat. With the government refusing to ban the fascist rallies, despite the desperate petitions of the Jewish community, a group of Jewish men and women saw violence and espionage as the only means through which to confront Mosely and his footmen. “It started again, this ‘keep quiet’ business, but we were not going to keep quiet,” ex-43 Group member Stanley Mocks recalled.

Mainly formed by Jewish ex-servicemen and women, The 43 Group translated the skills they had learnt on the battlefields of World War II to the streets of London.  The violence involved was justified – it was seen as an extension of their objective during the war: defeat the fascists.

Speaking in a London History Group documentary, 43 Group co-founder Morris Beckman recalled “flying wedges of hard-cased men” knocking down the podiums of fascist rallies. Knuckle dusters, potatoes stuffed with razor blades, and tightly wound newspapers were tools to attack the fascists in bloody street-brawls. There were no logged fatalities from the fights, but hospitalisation was not unheard of. Many 43-Groupers, women and men, would train weekly in a West End gym. Non-Jews were recruited to infiltrate fascist groups, enabling secret lists of forthcoming rally locations to be shared. The 43 Group slowly expanded, with four offices in London and nearly 1,000 members.

Despite the group’s palpable curbing of fascism, they were denounced by representatives of the Anglo-Jewish community such as The Board of Deputies of British Jews. The 43 Group’s violent tactics raised fears that they would tarnish the public reputation of Anglo-Jewry.

My grandad was only 18 when he helped found the group. Having gained two years of military training in the Royal Navy, he split his time between working at his father’s West End hat shop and fighting violent antisemites. Just one year later, in 1947, both the group and my grandfather were catapulted into the public sphere.

On the night of December 22, 1947, Charles Preen, a prominent fascist, claimed that he had been shot at. In a clipping preserved in my grandfather’s archive, Preen told the Evening Standard that “there was a bang and something whizzed past my face”. A few days after the shooting, he would single out my grandfather in a police line-up. “Preen came forward, looked straight at me and pointed me out,” reads Wimborne’s alibi, also stored in his archive.

In a show of solidarity, fellow 43 Group co-founder Gerry Flamberg – who had not been singled out in the same identity parade – stepped forward and commanded to be charged alongside my grandfather. Like that, the pair were both put on trial with attempted murder.

The enduring battle between fascists and anti-fascists was suddenly brought into a high-profile court case, and the nation was watching. The 43 Group anxiously sought a defence lawyer: Sir Maxwell Fyfe, one of the principal prosecutors for Britain at the Nuremberg Trials. His steep legal fees were paid for by the donations which flooded into The 43 Group from across the UK.

With Preen’s history of antisemitic acts and his tenuous court evidence, the magistrate described him as a witness he could not believe. After a brief trial, Wimborne and Flamberg were acquitted as not guilty. It was a clear setup. The trial would become a symbol of anti-fascist triumph for years to come. (In a 43 Group reunion 50 years after the event, Flamberg denied the charge with his characteristic bravado: “I’m supposed to be a crack shot, I wouldn’t have missed it!”)

During the three years following the trial, fascism in the UK slowly declined. With little need for the 43 Group to be on the prowl, the group officially disbanded in 1950. In a ritualistic end, confidential documents were burnt to impede potential investigations into their illegal shenanigans, such as allegedly being helped by the infamous Jewish East End gangster Jack “Spot”.

My grandad’s confrontation of fascists has influenced my involvement with Jewish groups who are committed to meeting the enemy face-to-face – minus the tactics of hardcore violence. Militant anti-fascist Jewish fronts in the UK no longer exist. However, Jewish groups such as Jewdas are often first in the counter-demonstrations of far-right marches, raising funds for anti-fascist organisations through debauched Jewish themed parties.

Many of Jewdas’ members – I am now one myself – can be seen wearing anti-fascist badges, and disrupting neo-fascist rallies with jeers and signs. And with the rise of the far-right across Europe today, the importance of these kinds of groups is paramount. Marches such as Tommy Robinson’s ‘Brexit Betrayal March last year, which gathered between 3000 to 5000 supporters in central London, prove the emboldening of those with deeply xenophobic and racist views. The surge in far-right support no doubt correlates to the rise in antisemitic attacks measured in the UK, with 16 per cent more anti-Jewish hate incidents in 2018, not to mention the steep climb in Islamophobic attacks.

As with The 43 Group in the 1940s, Jewdas’ radical, anti-establishment ethos leads to frequent denunciations from both The Board of Deputies and the mainstream press. However, this just shows that we should never forget the history that came before us. The 43 Group may have used questionable tactics, but we can take lessons from their boldness, spirit, and willingness to take action – our futures may depend on it.

A couple of thoughts about anti-Semitism and Labour

 

1) I’m going to vote Labour and from my perspective as a non-Zionist Jew, I do not synonymies anti-semitism with criticism of Israel (I acknowledge the latter can tip easily into the former). I think though, as Leftist Jews try to make sense of the Right-wing media’s stronghold over accusations of anti-semitism via Zionist Jews and figures like the ‘Chief Rabbi’, we can’t just say ‘criticism of Israel is not anti-semitism’ or the chief Rabbi is making things up when he states many British Jews are anxious at the thought of a Corbyn government.

To deny these statements assumes there’s one definition of anti-semitism, there isn’t. Anti-semitism, like most terms and categories, is constructed through one’s sociocultural perspective. As Jews come from different sociocultural perspectives/ positions, they will have distinct notions of anti-semitism. They will also have different fears and hopes for Jewish life. I assume that for many Zionist jews, they see critique of Israel as anti-semitism, as Israel it very important, if not central, to their Jewish identity and they see Israel as central to the posterity/ safety of the Jewish people. A leftwing government which criticises Israel/ supports Palestine will accordingly threaten their identity and feeling of security. Their fear is real to them, as if enough governments which are pro-Palestine get into power then Israel could be threatened via things like trade sanctions. Secondly, Corbyn is anti-semitic via their definitions and threatens the existence of Israel.

As much as I disagree with this Zionist perspective, the intense polarisation and miscommunication between Left and Right jews will only grow without genuine acknowledgments of our different sociocultural positions and the different ways we construct and define concepts – such as anti-semitism – through our own cultural logics. When you shout at each other ‘this is’ or ‘is not’ anti-semitism, we may use the same term but we’re talking about two entirely different things. To simply say this or that is not anti-semitism, this or that is not real fear, will not get us any where.

The above way of looking at things threatens liberalism and cultural relativism to the extent of political inaction, I don’t agree with this, but I think inter-group discussion and intervention should come from a place of cultural understanding (but not in the historical European colonial ‘lets understand to conquer’ way, but lets understand to talk and change things way (also a problematic stance but less so))

2) As a left, non-Zionist Jews I feel like my voice, and my loosely bound community’s voice, have been erased and misrepresented by the right wing media. I find it sad that the majority of journalists either don’t care enough about (mis)representation of minorities to do enough research about Judaism to know that the ‘Chief Rabbi’ does not represent all Jews. Of course, it benefits the right wing press to show Jews as a homogenous block as it adds weight to Corbyn anti-semitism claims.

People write about cultures (entirely different from their own) far too easily and with barely any research (I know this is also because of poor working conditions for journalists etc). For most minority groups, they watch themselves be (mis)represented by majority groups, instead of being given mainstream platforms to represent themselves.

(I’m not disavowing anti semitism in the Labour Party / I know both Zionist and non-Zionist jews dont vote for labour solely on their Israel stance but other instances of anti semitism. I do think the anti semitism in Labour has been inflated and taken out of context of the anti semitism manifest in wider society)

The Unsung Savior of Cairo’s Jewish Community

commissioned by Haaretz

 

At first glance, the 92-year-old man sitting in a Parisian apartment and clutching a book to his chest does not look in the least bit like the hero at the center of a tale of a high-stakes escape.

However, this is exactly who Clement Behar was: The unsung savior of Cairo’s Jews, who risked his own life to rescue members of the community from persecution in the 1940s and 1950s.

Clement Behar recounts his story of saving Cairo’s JewsFlora Hastings / Haaretz

Forty-six years later, his story is still emerging from obscurity – Behar, formerly known as Chehata, has published a memoir in which he revealed how he helped release scores of Jews from Cairo’s prisons. The self-published oeuvre, titled “A Story of a Life with a Difference,” came out in 2003.

Born in 1925, Behar grew up in the Egyptian capital at a time when the city was a Jewish, Muslim and Christian cosmopolis. Joining his father’s prospering electrical business at 15, he was propelled to Egypt’s elite social circles. As a teen, he saw anti-colonial movements gain more traction shortly after the British Empire granted nominal independence to his homeland in 1922.

His family, much like many other Egyptian Jews, enjoyed financial and social success. But in 1948 matters took a turn for the worse: Israel was established as an independent state after Jewish militants defeated the British Mandate of Palestine. A day later, on May 15, the War of Independence broke out. The young country survived the invasion of five Arab nations which opposed Jews taking over Arab lands. It even gained control over more territories, sparking a deep anti-Jewish sentiment in the region.

A portrait of Clement Behar aged 28, taken in 1953.
Flora Hastings

At the time, Egypt was home to 80,000 Jews who resided there for three millennia, with some immigrating from Europe since the late 19th century. Despite their stature, the country’s Jews were put in a precarious position over their alleged loyalty to Israel. Many of them perceived themselves as more Egyptian than Jewish, and rejected calls by Egypt’s growing ethnonationalist circle to leave.

The calls quickly escalated into violence. One infamous incident is the Balfour Day riots, which took place in November 1945. They began as anti-Jewish demonstrations on the 28th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, but quickly turned into altercations in which five Egyptian Jews were killed and hundreds were injured. In 1948, the riots worsened. Hundreds were murdered, Jewish synagogues were burned down and Jewish areas in the country were bombed. Many Jews were jailed, often on suspicion that they had spied for Israel.

This is when Behar’s operation was set in motion. “Every day, officers arrested young Jewish people, and their families came to see me and enlist my help,” he wrote in his memoir. 

‘Obliged to help the Jews’

In 1953 the Egpytian Republic was born, and gave rise to a national socialist president – Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt was finally freed from the British occupation, but the Jewish community only suffered from these developments. The Pan-Arabist movement continued to grow under Nasser, and Jews were seen as an obstacle to its goal: Uniting all Arab nations into a single state. By 1950, 40 percent of Egyptian Jews fled. “I felt morally obliged to help the Jews,” Behar told Haaretz.

He began to do so, using his close friendship with a high-ranking police officer named El Hamichari. Behar negotiated the release of imprisoned Jews through “gifts and bribes.” Dressed neatly and wearing a traditional fez, the young Behar easily entered and left Cairo’s police stations, where he was often mistaken for an officer thanks to his command of Egyptian Arabic.

The Jewish community continued to shrink. 14,000 Jews had escaped to Israel, while others sought refuge in different countries. Egypt’s chief rabbi also became a target. In his memoir, Behar wrote that in 1954 President Nasser sent Rabbi Nahoum Effendi a “poisoned invitation.”

To mobilize anti-Israel sentiment, Effendi was called on to give a speech publicly denouncing the Jewish state. The rabbi “prayed that he would be spared the ordeal,” Behar wrote, but was powerless to decline the invitation.

Cairo's former chief rabbi, Nahoum Effendi (second from the left) with Behar (furthest to the right).
Flora Hastings

Behar decided to save the rabbi. He enlisted the help of a daring Jewish hospital manager, Dr. Bensimmon, who prescribed medication for the rabbi as well as “a very strict diet which made him actually unwell.” The national papers reported that Effendi was very ill and could not attend the event. Behar wrote about the chief rabbi’s gratitude. “May God keep you near me to have you by my side in difficult times,” he told Behar.

The prison escape  

Behar continued his operations to aid the Jewish community in its plight, but eventually his luck ran out. Egyptian police caught him smuggling money out of the country for the chief rabbi’s son. As he waited for his trial, Behar wrote a letter to his wife Dorette and their four children. He begged them to flee Egypt immediately. After he was sentenced to six years of hard labor behind bars, Behar “decided to escape there and then.”

In his memoir, Behar wrote that he wore civilian clothing prior to his trial. Exploiting his attire and the prison’s shortage of guards, he made his big escape. “I went downstairs, I walked to the prison gates and just walked out of prison,” he recollected.

Clement Behar's false Lebanese identity card.
Flora Hastings

From there, Behar bolted to a Christian monastery where he sought cover with the help of a monk he befriended when the latter paid visits to the prison. Behar wrote that for 18 months he was on the run. “I shaved my moustache. I work dark glasses and started running in all directions, incognito, to find a way of escape. I would return to the monastery at night,” he wrote.

After close to two years at large, Behar acquired a false Lebanese identity card under the name Sami Refaat Abdul Hadi. His cover story was that he was Muslim businessman. “I knew Arabic perfectly well. No one would have suspected that I was Jewish,” Behar wrote. Later, he was aided by a high-ranking police officer named Captain Said Nached, who sheltered him in his home until he was finally able to board a flight to Damascus.

Longing for Egypt

In 1956, Behar moved on from Syria to Lebanon. He was able to seek shelter there because Beirut and Cairo were political enemies at the time – then-Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, a Christian Maronite, was seriously opposed to Nasser’s Pan Arabism.

As a political refugee, Behar resided in the magisterial mansion of the president’s secretary for several months. He also managed to obtain a Lebanese passport. “After being sheltered in a monastery, I was familiar with all the prayers and Christian traditions. I was very much in need of that in the circle I was mixing in at that time,” he related in the memoir.

Later, Baher was able to secure a visa from Switzerland and made his way to France, where his wife and sons were living. In 1958 he arrived in a northern suburb of Paris as an illegal refugee, where at long last he reunited with his family. “‘They are all here! In the twinkling of an eye, I had forgotten everything: Jail, my walkabout, my nightmares.”

Speaking to Haaretz decades after his fugitive journey ended, Behar teared up when he talked about Egypt. Asked how he felt about his exile from his native land, Behar responded: “I spent at least 25 years locked up inside myself because of leaving Egypt, my roots and identity. It took me that long to accept that I live in Europe.” Despite the many years he spent in France, Behar said that he still felt more “Egyptian and Arab than Jewish.”

Six months after our interview, Behar passed away in October 2017. He did not hear of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s surprising recent overture in which he offered to build synagogues in Egypt should members of the Jewish community choose to return. Behar himself only went back to Egypt once in 1980. In his memoir he wrote of a walk along Cairo’s Jewish quarter, where he found “the synagogue which had fallen to pieces… All I had was a blow to the heart.” He told Haaretz that his feeling was that he “returned as a tourist.”

Writing the memoir helped Behar accept his journey, but he remained ambivalent about his homeland until his death. His is a tale of triumph; it is also a story of bitterness and longing, which linger with may other Jews who were forced to flee their Middle Eastern homes a century ago.

The New Spanish Islamophobia

 

Published by The New Internationalist 

 

Tanned, muscular men ride stallions across a rural landscape. Plaintive piano plays in the background. Where are these men? The title of Vox’s political campaign video tells you: ‘The Reconquista will begin in the lands of Andalusia’.

This controversial slogan is part of a strategy that helped secure the rising far-right party twelve seats in Andalusia’s regional election last year. Next week, Vox are one of five main contenders in Spain’s general elections, signalling the party’s unanticipated growth. It is expected to receive 29-37 per cent of the vote.

The Reconquista, meaning the ‘reconquering’, draws on the history of the Iberian Christian conquest of Muslim Spain, which ended in 1492. Vox’s proposed political reforms make the relevance of this history clear: if elected, the party claims it will deliver an end to supposed uncurbed migration, placate the ‘threat’ to Spain’s national identity from the growth of Islam, end state-funded abortion and repeal gay marriage laws.

Spectres of the past

The history of medieval Christian-Muslim conflict forms this far-right party’s repertoire of symbolism. For eight centuries, Spain was governed by Islamic rulers, known as the Moors. In 711 CE, the governing Umayyad dynasty travelled from Syria to Spain and eventually conquered the then Visigothic lands, renaming them ‘al-Andalus’. Contemporary Spain is replete with vestiges of this past, from Moorish architecture to the many Arabic-origin words in the Spanish language.

With the end of the Reconquista in 1492, a Spanish national identity began to emerge. The newly reigning Catholic monarchs took violent measures to forge it. Those who were not Catholic would not be considered Spanish in this new social order. This process would eventually lead to the expulsion of the peninsula’s vast Jewish and Muslim populations.

Spanish ethno-nationalism continued well into the 20th century. Spain’s former dictator, General Franco, granted the Catholic Church immense power, prohibited any religion save Catholicism and enforced the standardisation of ‘core’ Spanish culture, from the Castilian language to bullfighting. Francoist Spanish nationalism was defined against the nation’s former Jewish and Muslim subjects, such as through the dictator’s heavy use of Spanish Reconquista symbolism in his propaganda. Francoist rhetoric even blended the myth of the ever-present ‘Moorish threat’ to Spain with the ‘menace’ of Eastern European communism.

With the death of Franco in 1975, Spain officially disbanded its explicitly authoritarian structure. However, its ethno-nationalist past still haunts the public sphere.

‘Spanishness’

Moroccans are Spain’s second largest minority. Many within Spain’s Moroccan community are ancestrally related to Spain’s historic Muslim population. At a market in Cordoba, pejoratively called ‘Morro’s Mercado’ by locals, Tariq, a Moroccan vendor tells me about the strong anti-Muslim prejudice he recognises in Andalusia: ‘They think in Morocco there are only camels and the desert,’ he says. Beyond the perception of Morocco as an excessively ‘backwards’ country, some Spaniards even perceive the influx of Moroccan immigrants to Spain since the 1970s as posing a ‘re-Islamization’ of the country.

Outside more blatantly Islamophobic cases, there are Spanish traditions which revisit this Christian-Muslim schism. Each year on 2 January, individuals across Spain dress as either ‘Moros’ or ‘Christianos’ and re-enact the last battle of the Reconquista, where the medieval stereotypes of the Moors as violent and religiously fanatic are inflated through carnivalesque caricatures.

Although these cultural rituals are thought to commemorate a strife from a by-gone past, Vox’s dogwhistle calls for a new Reconquista casts these cultural rituals in an even darker light, further entrenching the idea of Muslims as antithetical to ‘Spanishness’.

Acceptable in the mainstream

Appeals to the Reconquista are not a new development in Spanish politics. In an attempt to drum up support for the Iraq War, José Aznar, Spain’s former Conservative prime minister, explicitly linked the medieval Moors to al-Qaeda. He stated in 2004 that ‘the problem of Spain with al-Qaeda began with the invasion of the Moors’, who were repelled thanks to the ‘successful Reconquista’.

Vox is building on this rhetoric. The party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, petitioned for Andalusia’s regional day to celebrate the conclusion of the Reconquista in 1492. At a meeting in Seville, Abascal stated that he wanted the ‘Andalusia of the Catholic Monarchs against that of Blas Infante’. Infante was a libertarian socialist writer known as the father of Andalusian nationalism. In the early 20th century, he strived to turn Spain’s legacy of medieval Jewish, Muslim and Christian co-existence into a contemporary reality.

The language used in the party’s political speeches is rife with Islamophobia. Vox’s secretary general, Javier Ortega Smith, stated in 2016 that ‘the enemy of Europe is called the Islamist invasion’. Santiago Abascal, Vox’s leader, rejoined Smith by stating that Spain’s Muslim community will become a ‘problem’ in an interview last year. The party’s proposed political reforms include banning both Islamic education and halal food in Spanish state schools.

This is all part of a Europe-wide phenomenon. In the week following the New Zealand/Aotearoa mosque shootings on 15 March, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported across Britain increased by 593 per cent. These attacked are fuelled by continent-wide stereotypes, from the perception of Muslims as jihadists to perceiving Muslim immigrants as an unassailable threat to Western values.

Vox’s anti-Muslim stance have helped win the party favour with Europe’s largest far-right political groups. In 2017, Abascal claimed an affinity with France’s ultra-conservative Marine Le Pen for their mutual protection of ‘Christian Europe’. Le Pen, along with the Netherland’s far-right Geert Wilders, have openly supported Vox through expressing hopes that the party will gain seats in May’s European parliamentary elections. The growing coordination between Europe’s far-right parties only threatens to strengthen the institutional legs of a continent-wide Islamophobia. 

Jewish history caught in independence tug-of-war

 

Published for Jewish Renaissance Journal

 

After a 400-year vacuum, Judaism has reappeared on the Iberian Peninsula in unexpected ways. Spanish institutions have proudly united medieval Sephardi identity with a modern Spanish identity. Meanwhile, Catalan institutions recently asserted that their medieval Jewish communities had a separate Catalan identity.

In the 1990s the Spanish government revived an interest in Sephardi history and formed La Red de Juderias, a multi-million-euro Jewish tourism network. Spain’s Jewish archaeological sites were renovated and archives digitised to rediscover this unknown legacy. ‘Spanish’ and ‘Sephardi’ became interchangeable terms in the Red’s publications.

The pluralism of the medieval La Convivencia – an era of intellectual symbiosis between Muslims, Jews and Christians – was reimagined as being the foundation of Spain’s current progressive identity. The act of connecting modern Spain with the past was a precursor to the 2015 Law of Return for Sephardi Jews. The introduction of the law can be seen as an attempt to diversify Spain’s national image.

But which Spain? Medieval Spain was built by Jews, Muslims and Christians who coexisted under La Convivencia. The Catholic, Castilian Spain that followed, whose foundations support today’s nation, has little to do with this history. The Law of Return requires proof of the applicant’s ‘special connection’ to Spain through a Spanish language and culture test. Most Right of Return laws, such as those of Germany or Poland, do not require this.

Alfons Aragoneses, head of law at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, questions the historical accuracy of Spain’s identification with Sephardi Jews: “Spain did not exist before 1492, but the law supposes that the Sephardim were conscious of belonging to Spain and that they were always nostalgic for Spain. Spain did not exist until the 19th century!” At least, the Spain that formed after the 1492 union of the Castilian and Aragonese Crown did not exist when the Sephardim lived on the Peninsula.

Catalonia too has been weaving nationalistic threads into its Jewish past. Tessa Calders, the daughter of the renowned Republican exile Pere Calders, has been calling for the current interpretation of Jewish medieval history to be revised and the adapted version to be recognised in any representation of Jewish history. “The Jews were kicked out of Spain and lost memory of their Catalan identity. Now Spain has reinvented their past,” says Calders, who is a lecturer in Hebrew at the University of Barcelona. She believes the Jews living in northern Spain before the expulsion were not Sephardi but were Catalonian.

This pro-Catalan understanding of history has been embraced by Catalonia’s regional governments: in 2016, five municipalities split from the Red de Juderias to create a new tourism network, the Xarxa de Calls. Jusep Boya is the head of Museums for Catalonia and the manager of this new organisation. In his office off Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, he envisaged the new network as a vehicle for Catalonia’s reconnection with its Jewish history. “We cannot comprehend Catalonia without the Jewish culture which is attached to the very soul of Catalonia,” he said.

Pancracio Celdrán, a former professor of medieval history at Haifa University, disputes that there was a conscious 15th-century Catalan identity. “These medieval ‘Catalan Jewries’ were really the Jews of the Kingdom of Aragon, not of Catalonia.” Others say that Catalonian nationhood only developed in the 19th century.

With only 40,000 Jews in Spain today, the groups who should have a platform to challenge these revisions of history have no representational power. Most of those involved in the departments for Jewish tourism in both governments are not Jewish and have little specialisation in the history of Jews living in Spain. The situation needs addressing: Spain was ranked the third most antisemitic country in Europe in a 2014 survey. Instead of politicising Sephardi identity for their own narratives, isn’t it time for both sides to let the Sephardim delineate their own ancestral past?

Kings In The Alhambra, Tanks In Barcelona

 

 

Published by Novara Media

Re-published by Edge of Humanity Magazine (abridged version)

 

The latest independence referendum in Catalonia has been declared illegal and central government has offered the region a simple choice; abandon the plans for the referendum or lose all their budgetary powers. This battle for Catalonian independence is among the latest in a long history of cultural struggles in Spain, where individual cultural, religious and ethnic groups find themselves at odds with authorities wishing to impose a monolithic, centralised vision of Spanish history. 

Decapitating history in Barcelona.

Judging by the decapitation of the late Spanish dictator last October, the past is still contentious between Spain and Catalonia. The assailant, and Franco’s head, was never found. The headless statue remained stationed outside El Born’s Cultural Centre of Memory, housing 18th century archeological remains from Barcelona. The centre’s objective: “to promote the memory and reflection of local and national events“.

Franco’s caste-iron silhouette atop his horse, stood close to the door leading to the hundreds of Catalan artefacts uncovered 27 years ago. The ceramics and metal-work evidence Catalonia’s artisan history. The fragments disrupt Franco’s myth of Spain having a unified national identity. Under the dictator’s 36 year rule, Catalonia’s cultural identity was strangled.

Cultural difference was erased in the many distinct areas of Spain, namely the Catalonian and Basque regions. Catalan was banned, spoken largely only in closed quarters, while ancient Catalan traditions, from Correfoc to Els Castells, were made illegal. Camp Nou, Barcelona’s football stadium, was one of the only places where Catalonians could speak their language. Even now, the crowds at the games are peppered with independence flags.

 

cat1A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

 

To see the placing of the two statues of Franco so close to the centre’s doors as a provocative statement is only my reading. The figures were part of an exhibition entitled, Franco: Victory, Republic and Impunity in Urban Spaces. Their stated purpose was to encourage a re-interpretation of Spain’s Francoist history.

During the Spanish Civil war of 1936-9, Franco’s Nationalists forcefully took power from the Republican party, ending the country’s democratic rule. The death toll proliferated when Franco invited Hitler to test his bombs on Republican civilians. Barcelona was the centre of Catalonia’s historically Republican population.

The city’s current mayor, Ada Colau, gained her political experience in street protests and city activism, not in parliament. Barcelona has a long history of revolutionary anarchism, further evidenced by the controversy of the exhibition’s gesture. Civilians passing through El Born would have parents who were on the Nationalist or Republican side during the regime, with these divisions still kept alive in many families.

The responses to the statues materialised not in introspective meditations but in physical acts of violence: the decapitation, the eggs and graffiti decorating his body like farcical war-ribbons, the pig-head placed on the severed neck. A Catalonian, whose family had been Republican under Franco, had to be restrained when he tried to punch a worker installing the statue. The figures were removed after only 48 hours of their showing.

On October 1, the Regional Catalan government will hold a de facto independence referendum whose results could see an immediate split from Spain, despite a lack of national government sanctioning. The question on the draft legislations is simple: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state that is independent from Spain?”

Many Catalonians want independence not simply to re-affirm their separateness and explore their recent history without the censorship of central government, but to distance themselves from the way that this past still lingers within Spain’s current government, the conservative Christian-Democratic Partido Popular (PP), which was founded by a former minister under Franco’s regime. This past haunts the party, sewing historical devisions that the PP have not addressed, and leading to efforts to control the way this past is remembered.

 

dog2A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

 

The ‘Pact of Forgetting’.

The PP is not the pioneer of Spain’s historic stitching up of the past – rather, it’s a faithful heir. This official approach to the past began in 1977, with the passing of the ‘Pact of Forgetting’to facilitate the move into a fledging democracy. This law made it illegal to persecute any of Franco’s officials. Investigation or official condemnation of their crimes were also prohibited, unlike the rest of Europe who’s fallen dictatorships saw extensive trials. As a result of this law, still in place today, the way that the history of the regime and civil war can be officially taught is highly controlled in state syllabuses.

The current Spanish government’s website echoes the centralised version of the nation’s historical memory, claiming that the transition to democracy in the 1970s showed that “all the wounds from the civil war had been healed”. History textbooks today still refuse to indict Franco’s Nationalists for shedding more blood than the Republicans, stating that both sides are equally culpable: “In a graveyard far off there is a corpse, who has moaned for three years.”

 

span4A Spanish patriot in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain.

The Pact has more tangible effects than how history is recalled. The law limits the allowance of families to exhume the mass graves within Spain where their relatives are buried. Federico Garcia Lorca, a renowned Spanish poet rumoured to be one of artist Salvador Dali’s lovers, lies beneath the country’s soil. Killed by a firing squad in 1939, Lorca was buried in a mass grave, alongside thousands of other Republicans. Since 2008, Baltasar Garzon, one of Spain’s most renowned jurists, has unsuccessfully called for a repeal of the Pact three times. Garzon had tried to call for the exhumation of 19 graves, one which may have hidden the poet.

Fiscal controls over historical memory.

The PP’s support of this law, which they claim prevents groups with historical Nationalist and Republican roots from re-sewing divisions, embodies their desire to protect the memory of Francoist Spain. This desire manifests through the wider measures the party takes to limit the self-scrutinising excavation of history. The PP have little political incentive to disturb the allegedly still waters of Spain’s historical memory.

Conservative values consolidated under Franco’s regime survived its collapse. To this day, public institutions lean heavily on Castilian language and culture, traditional Catholic church values and the symbolic power of the monarchy – values which play well with the party’s  large conservative votership.

Manuel Fraga’s role as senator of the PP until 2011 was a prologue to the party’s multiplying efforts to protect the legacy of the Francoist past. Fraga was the Tourism and Foreign Affairs minister under Franco. He ordered the execution of the Communist leader Julian Grimau by gun shot. After Franco’s death, he earned the epithet “¡La calle es mía!” (The streets are mine), due to his ardent repression of street protests through police violence. When he died in 2012, the El Pais newspaper awkwardly proffered the following take: “He was famous for his seemingly endless energy” – delicately skirting around his violent past and keeping to his political achievements of the 21st century. Their retelling of Fraga’s history, through euphemisms and polite omissions, reflects the government’s own approach. In 2009, the European Parliament wanted to include Francoism as part of their day recalling European totalitarianism. The PP refused to join the discussions, while the Conservative Spanish MEP, Jaime Mayor Oreja claimed that “it would be historically foolish” to disrupt the fabled peace of Spain’s transition to democracy. The past’s physical remnants are also guarded. Public funds still pay for the maintenance of The Valley of the Fallen – a vast mausoleum in Madrid that houses Franco’s body with a public mass each year held to commemorate his death.

In 2004, José Zapatero’s left-wing government stood to challenge . With less stake than the PP detoxification of public memories of the Franco regime, the party took the first legal steps to begin dredging up the crimes of the country’s past. Zapatero introduced The Historical Memory law in 2006.  For the first time, the law funded the exhumation of mass graves of Republicans, awarded rights to Franco’s victims and removed hundreds of Francoist monuments. The law also allowed for Spain’s different regions to advance their own understanding of history in school textbooks, shattering the centralised version of previous education administrations.

However, with the PP elected to power in 2011, the need for such a law was openly denied by its leader, Mariano Rajoy. The past was back in the hands of the right. “I would eliminate all the articles in the historical memory law that mention using public funds to recover the past. I wouldn’t give even a single euro of public funds for that”, he told Spanish media, following his election as president. Withdrawing all government funding to the program was one of the first things he did in his ascent to power in 2011; the offices involved were closed.

 

 

IMG_0942A political pero in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain (Pro-Spanish unity march)

 

Spain’s unstable foundations.

The PP’s control over the way history is remembered, should be read in the wider context of their handling over how Spain’s national identity is understood. The PP is the natural heir to five centuries of governmental efforts to centralise and homogenise the question of what – and indeed who – counts as properly Spanish. Diverse groups who might disagree with this monolith vision of Spanish identity have historically been silenced, and still are today; from geographical and cultural groupings of the Catalonians, Basques to religious and ethnic groups such as Muslims and Sephardim.

We must understand contemporary wranglings over Catalonian independence as part of a longer historical struggle, even if this articulation of separatist groups only mobilised in the early 20th century. Equally, this tradition of control inherited from Franco by the PP, stretches back from the first rulers that pioneered the formation of modern Spain.  To look at the formation of the nation itself contextualises current devisions over the proper answer to the question of who is Spanish.

The Alhambra is a palatial fortress sitting on the hills of Granada in Southern Spain. Before Spain claimed this region, it sat within the lands of the Iberian Peninsula, and was part of the regional Moorish kingdom of the 13th century.  The building’s geometrical patterns and Arabesque aesthetics were constructed by Muslim, Jewish and Christian craftsmen. These religions lived in the Iberian Peninsula in a complex, pluralistic society: three cultures under Muslim and Christian rule. Conflict existed between the groups, but there were no forced conversions. When the Catholic crowns of Aragon and Castile united in 1492, the compound identity of the Iberian Peninsula became Catholic. The monarchs had been slowly claiming the lands of the Peninsula from its Muslim rulers, until the inquisition of the 15th century when the remaining Moors fled. The Catholics had demanded conversion, or expulsion. With the clearing of the peninsula, the process of the formation of Spain’s nation-state identity began. Isabelle and Ferdinand eventually made the Alhambra their royal court, and its symbolic power as a testament to a multicultural society was co-opted. Spain’s identity formalised with the union of the Catholic crowns of Aragon and Castile in 1492.

The Castilian’s gradual imposition of a national identity expanded to its neighbours. The laws of Castile were eventually imposed on Catalonia in 1716. Castilian, one of the many languages spoken within Spain, came to mean Spanish. Spanishness became synonymous with being white, Castilian and Catholic. After two short-lived republics, and a long line of Catholic monarchs, Franco intended to continue writing this story into the 20th century:

The costs of not being considered ‘Spanish’ were steep, when these characteristics became pre-requisites to being incorporated into the nation’s corpus. I spoke to Victor Sorrenson, in his office in the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Barcelona, about post-Inquisition Spain: “It is not surprising that in the period after the expulsion the notion of “blood cleansing” appeared, where forced conversoes with a Jewish past were ‘stained’.”

This act, lead by the Catholic church, entailed the systematic torture and interrogation of suspected Jews up to the 18th century:

In the twentieth century, the discourse of pure blood especially nourishes the undemocratic right, like the Falange española

Franco brought the propagandistic discourse of Castille’s pure blood and a rigid cultural prototype into the 20th century. During and after the Civil War, large-scale concentration camps housed ex-Republican servicemen and political dissidents. Those seen as ‘un-recoverable’ were shot.

 

cat3A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

 

In a history where race, religion, ethnicity and cultural-geographic groupings overlap with each other, we shouldn’t attempt to map Catalonia’s marginalisation onto patterns of racial and ethnic oppression. But they do offer us a glimpse into how profoundly committed the Spanish central government is to maintaining a unitary identity by using force and sanction to bring to heel all those seen to deviate. A unitary identity becomes a powerful way of exercising control over a population; a false idol of monolithic so-called Spanishness to unify a population in a time where many have staked their political and economic futures on a unified Spain. Catalonia is one of the nation’s wealthiest regions, and independence might threaten to plunge the remainder of Spain into economic chaos. In these circumstances, a tool as urgent and powerful as a sense of unified Spanishness is one worth defending at a high cost. Though it has shocked many in the international community, Spain’s move to starve Catalonia’s budget into de facto submission is by no means beyond the pale of this logic.

Plastic national identities.

That the state remains invested in heavily policing Jewish and Muslim life in Spain chimes to the same anxiety; that repressing certain groups has proved so politically and economically useful, any identity which granted them full Spanishness threatens to undermine a project of exclusion. To guard Spanishness, white Catalonians must be forcibly brought in, whilst racial and ethnic ‘Others’ are cast out. Under the PP today, the ease with which groups can be included, or excluded, from Spain’s national identity evokes the power of Spain’s historic leaders to manipulate at will the concept of Spanishness.

Last year, Spain offered a Law of Return to the many expelled Sephardic Jews, officially claiming they were a crucial component of Spanish identity. The law is designed to make the naturalising process highly expensive and complicated, despite it being a Law of Return, which many see as a way to filter out less affluent Sephardim. It is important to note that this same definition of Spanishness was not expanded to include the many Muslims expelled from the land in the 15th and 16th century.

 

Bayi Loubaris, the president of the Association for Historical Legacy of Al-Andalus, took offence at this double-standard: “The Spanish state should grant the same rights to all those who were expelled, otherwise their decision is selective, if not racist”. The rigid definitions of Spain’s identity were felt more recently in Catalonia. In Place de Jaume of Barcelona, there is a man ensangrado(bloodied) most days of the week (or to use the Catalan for bloodied, ple de sang). He stands with posters of mauled bulls, slaughtered by a matadores. Catalonia’s regional government passed a law in 2010 which banned bull-fighting in the region. But Spain’s government annulled the ban in October of last year, deeming bull fighting a “national heritage”.

 

span5A Spanish patriot in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain.

 

These cultural battles become the shibboleths for grander – and altogether more violent – battles over which kinds of government have the right to make and enforce laws on the territories of Spain. What can be seen as a paranoid enforcement of a unified, centralised identity fuelled the notorious Basque separatist terrorist group, ETA, standing for “Basque Homeland and Liberty”. Between 1986 and 2010 they killed 829 people, both politicians to civilians.

Just as laws prevent history textbooks from teaching diverse understandings of the 20th century, the will to limit a pluralist understanding of Spain’s national identity can be seen in the academic field. I spoke to a recent PhD graduate, Angy Cohen, from Madrid University. She specialises in Sephardic Jewish identity, through which she explores the historically shifting identities of Spanishness. She is frustrated at a culture still hostile to deconstructing definitions of Spain’s identity, reflected through funding restrictions:

It’s interesting that Spain has some of the best historians I’ve ever seen, the level is extremely high but Spain’s national identity is blocked – so if you trying to re-define Spain’s national identity – it will be a struggle. It’s all bound up because these questions lead to the claim of certain regions of Spain for self-determination. Its a very complex question that has to do with this inability – this very long history of persecution and repression of Spain’s national identity.

Tanks in Barcelona?

Under the PP, a centralised identity enforced through multiple legal and institutional formations has become a conduit for re-articulating deeply conservative values; the heritage of Franco’s reactionary governance. Thus, it is unsurprising that the fight for independence is seen by many Catalonians as the fight for a more progressive, democratic Spain. Spain’s current constitution states that for any regional law in Catalonia to be changed, the Spanish parliament must vote. Catalonia, with a small minority of representational seats in the national government, will side-step legality to ensure a referendum goes forward this October 1. Its draft legislation is clear:

If the Spanish state effectively impedes the holding of a referendum, this law will enter into effect in a complete and immediate manner when the [regional] parliament has verified such an impediment.

Catalonian’s are far from unified in their opinion on independence. Reasons for wanting national autonomy vary widely; from the primarily economic, to those of a more cultural or historical nature as discussed above. But many Catalonia’s are uncomfortable with voting for an independence that has no clear independence plan. To anyone spectating the fallout from Brexit, this may seem hauntingly familiar.

Though Carles Puigdemont does not have the unanimous support for the illegal vote that he claims, Catalonians are largely unified in their belief that they are entitled to a vote. Despite the fact that the vote is unlikely to swing the way of independence at this stage, the very fact of the referendum re-articulates lines of division and in declaring autonomy and difference, even as it looks to re-sign up to the uneasy contract at the heart of the modern Spanish state, a detente between the unified state and its fractious regions.

If the vote goes ahead, Spanish tanks have been promised on the streets of Catalonia during the voting period. Once again, central state power has failed to fully realise itself through a monolithic cultural identity and so has resorted to the old reliables; money and guns. Catalonian independence is no guarantee of prosperity or liberty for Catalonians, many of whom would likely face just the same ethnic or religious discrimination as is handed down by governments past and present. But the simple fact of holding the referendum tests the limits of what states will do to protect their territorial integrity. A firm fist on the national wallet and tanks on the streets of Barcelona.

 

catA Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

The Clash of Barcelona’s Jewish leaders

 

Published by Jewdas

   Re-published by the Jewish Renaissance 

 

The Israeli Times was the site of a less-public conflict in the aftermath of Barcelona’s attack last week. Its pages perpetuated a time-worn pattern: In times of conflict, Jewish communities’ relations to their diaspora are challenged un-constructively by Jewish leaders.

After a van plunged into the teeming Las Ramblas, killing 16 and injuring 100, two pillars of the community clashed in their public response to the attack, amplified by the paper.

Barcelona’s Chief Rabbi Ben-Har, portended Europe’s ‘doom’ and asserted that ‘Jews are not here permanently’. The Rabbi called for Spain’s 40,000 Jews to ‘buy property in Israel’, as their home was a ‘hub of Islamist terror for all of Europe’.

After The Israel Times published the Rabbi’s statement, Victor Sorrenson, a spokesman for the Jewish community, sent a loaded email to the paper’s inbox.

‘Barcelona is not afraid, its Jews join them in this stance’. His definitive message was ‘social action’ from Barcelona’s community, not departure.

I spoke to Victor from his office in Barcelona, to find out how two community figures can have such a polarised reaction to the event, and his view on the future of the diaspora in Europe.

Victor opened by explaining that the Rabbi’s view was not ‘representative’ of the community, unfortunate considering that the newspaper had jumped to publish his response:

‘The Rabbi should not have attended the media the same day of the attack. Beyond the fact that the media may have exaggerated their position, I think it is a mistake for a religious leader to take sides that way. He has been in Barcelona for six years, the community, one hundred’

Victor expanded on the logistics of the post-attack community response, as there had been a an elected ‘crisis committee’, and Victor was appointed as the ‘spokesperson’:

‘The message was very clear: Condemn the terrorist attacks, give all our support for the authorities and participate in the social fabric of Barcelona to show our commitment to the city’.

The Rabbi’s response, siting the imperative for the community to move away from the diaspora as opposed to solidarity, is a tired motif. Such soothsaying undermine the diasporas’ efforts, and success, in re-inscribing their identity into Europe.

European leaders heaped critique on the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, following his response after the Paris Kosher-supermarket and Copenhagen attacks last year. His message was clear: ‘Israel is waiting for you with open arms’.

Accusations of Netanyahu’s strategically-timed damning of the future of Europe rippled across the media’s international waters.

Chief Rabbi Bar-Hen, echoing the view of many vocal zionist Jewish leaders, claimed that the community in Barcelona was ‘not permanent’. Victor counter-acted this pessimism:

‘There is a growing interest in the general Catalan population in Jewish matters, an interest that we see translating into spiritual, historical and intellectual curiosity. In short, there is a vibrancy to Jewish life in Barcelona. This will be the trend for the future. I do not know anyone, either before or after the attack, to consider leaving for security reasons’

The Rabbi, ignoring Spain’s sociocultural specificity, had warned Jews not to ‘repeat the mistake of Algerian Jews, of Venezuelan Jews. Better [get out] early than late’. Outside of drawing parallels with other continents, he claimed that ‘Europe is lost’.

Victor, when this was re-sited to him, argued that: ‘Each country has a different history. To encompass all on the same label “Europe”, is reductionistic and shows an ignorance of the reality that is being lived politically’.

Despite its pervasive anti-semitism, Spain has not had a violent attack against Jews for years, unlike France. Victor suggests that in the face of new terror threats rising in Spain, the Jewish community feels supported:

‘What I can say is that our relationship with the security forces is excellent. We work with them on a regular basis, since as in so many other places, Jewish spaces had been targeted before the terrorist threat.’

The disregarding of Barcelona’s place-specific security-levels forms part of a mind set that undermines diasporic identity by homogenising it within Europe. The diasporas’ sociocultural idiosyncrasies are a distraction to Israel, seen as the only true Jewish homeland.

The Rabbi seemed impervious to the irony that thousands of Israeli’s had been trying to pass Spain’s Law of Return of 2015. If an applicant can prove their ancestor’s Sephardic origins they can be nationalised as Spanish. A writer from Haaretz evokes the reaction in Israel:

‘Normal countries, with normal people, don’t go crazy just because an economically-challenged country offered them citizenship. But Israel did’

The Chaplin-esque image of these paradoxical movements sites the insecurity of Jewish life, where is safe? Israel certainly isn’t.

However, expanding on the future of the diaspora within Europe as a whole, Victor has a restless energy:

‘One of the projects I coordinate is the European Days of Jewish Culture, where 324 cities from all over Europe participated simultaneously last year. I think it is representative that Judaism in Europe goes beyond anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

We Jews are an active part of European society, we are not a museum object.’

 

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A light shines on a hole marking where the Mezuzah stood 500 years ago in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, until the Inquisition sent Spain’s Sephardim from Cairo to Amsterdam. Since the late 19th century, Sephardim have returned to re-build their identity into Sepharad

 

 

Victor’s vision for the role of the diaspora within Europe is one of social activism and building more presence for Jews in public spaces.

He co-runs the Berlin-born initiative Salaam-Shalom in Barcelona, organising workshops between the cities’ Jews and Muslims. Victor also founded Mozaika, a journal publishing academic papers and pioneering archival research on Jewish history and culture in Catalonia.

What one sees as an offering of support, others see as a strategically placed call to Israel when a community is vulnerable. The reconstruction of the diaspora’s identity into post-Shoah Europe is advanced by their show of solidarity in events such as the Barcelona attacks. Such responses ensure a reciprocation from their neighbours in the likely event of their own targeting.

Culture Cuts: Sri Lankan Tamils

Culture Cuts: Sri Lankan Tamils

 

*All names have been changed, and photos obscured, to secure the subjects’ anonymity. There are no facial photos of the interviewees. Place names and specific information are included to the degree that the interviewee was comfortable with..

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“I want to show you a cemetery”, an unexpected endnote to an interview about teaching the Tamil language in the borough of Newham. Lashani pushes open the door of a disused room, three flights up. Light enters from a window yawning over a communal space, encased by a block of houses. Our viewpoint is through the back of the London Tamil Sangam of which Lashani is the head teacher.

“Its a disused Jewish cemetery from before the 2nd world war, you can only see it from these houses,” Lashani tells me. She points to the dignified epitaphs and faded Hebrew script. The cemetery’s gates have been closed to the public since 2003, after 386 of its tombstones were defaced. Their crumbling facades recall the bombs that swept across London.   

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.            The Sangam center, founded in 1936, is one of the oldest Tamil organisations in London.

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The centre teaches the Tamil language to second-generation Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, many of which are Newham residents. A small proportion of Lashini’s student’s parents came to the UK during the course of Sri Lanka’s 26 year civil war. The economic reasons for immigration in the 70’s became the seeking of asylum in the 80’s following the country’s growing instability.

Today, there are close to 200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils in England, with the majority living in London.

Although Sri Lankan Tamils have found employment in financial and medical fields since the 70s, many refugee and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka seek emotional and practical support from community centres. Offering financial advice, legal aid, free meals, English lessons and counselling, these centres are fuelled by donations, volunteers and council grant schemes.

However, councils across London are drastically reducing their funding to the centres that support this diasporic group, despite growing demands for their services under the last five years of the Conservative’s austerity measures. In London’s most deprived communities, social care has fallen by £65 per head since 2010, while charities have lost over £3.8 bn from Government funding over the last decade.

Before travelling to Newham to find out about how local government cuts are affecting London’s Tamil community, I went to Murugan Temple in Highgate to learn about Sri Lanka’s past.

26 Years of Civil War

Bali sighs. This conversation is at best recycled. New revelations are not unearthed. He treads with expert feet along the timeline of Sri Lanka’s past violence. He is a Tamil, and left Sri Lanka in 1976 following the country’s civil unrest.

Nearing his 80’s, he tends to circumvent political discussion, volunteering every weekend at Highgate’s Murugan Temple. “As long as your heart is clear you can come to this temple. We ingrain no politics – God can punish those who are bad, that is my philosophy.”

We walk along the 12 inward facing shrines of the temple’s body. Worshipers perform parikrama: making circles around the statues of Gods. “We bought the deities over from Southern India”, he whispers, not to disturb the Sanskrit chants emerging from the temple’s inner sanctum. He ushers me to the ticket office, our conversation interrupted when he gives me a placard displaying the Tamil alphabet. 

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The Tamil language is spoken from Southern India to Malaysia, and by Tamil diasporic communities across the globe. Online forums contest whether the language is older than Sanskrit.

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In 1948, Britain’s colonial rule of Sri Lanka ended. During their regime, ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil population   emerged, exacerbated by Britain’s unfair advantaging of the Tamil minority. The Sinhalese, mainly Buddhist and Sinhala speaking, make up roughly 75% of Sri Lanka’s population, while the Tamils, mainly Hindu and Tamil speaking, make up just under 12%.

“The Tamils were in the top posts during Britain’s rule. When the Sinhalese came into power following Independence, they wanted to stop the Tamils from going to university”, explains Bali.

Over the course of the following few decades, a series of reforms were implemented by the Sinhalese to disadvantage the Tamils, beginning with education. “The Tamil’s entrance marks were made higher than theirs, making it very difficult for them to get into higher education”. In 1956, Sinhalese was made the country’s only official language.

After nearly three decades of Tamil oppression under Sinhalese rule, 1976 saw the formation of the Tamil Tigers. Prabakaran, who led and founded the military group, became the unfiltered microphone that amplified thousands of disillusioned Tamil voices. The group’s main objective was to secure a separatist state for the Tamils, within Sri Lanka’s borders.

A few months following the Tiger’s formation, The Tamil United Liberation Front, a Pro-Tamil rights parties, entered their first general election. Bali started to cry as he told me about the democratic party, holding its biography. With 70% of the electorate being Sinhalese, the party stood little chance of instigating reforms.

With the chances of peaceful political reform for the Tamils minimal, the Tigers became the vanguards of Independence. They attacked both Sinhalese and Tamils to secure this title. Freedom fighters quickly morphed into terrorists on the international podium.

“They slipped a letter warning that they would kill my father if he remained in Northern Sri Lanka in 1985. He was a District Chairman for the government. While he was sleeping, they came and shot him in the head. They didn’t have a plan, they just shot”.

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.Hindu Priests are traditionally Brahmins, the highest caste within the Hindu System. The Tamil Tigers fought to dissolve the caste system, advocating for an egalitarian and Communistic mode of governance.

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.The main duty of the Pujari is to act as an intermediate between the worshiper and God. They traditionally wear a Janaeu, or white thread around the body. The knot symbolises the priests’ pledge to to be pious.

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The Tigers’ Separatist nation was gradually secured in the North and East of the country, with its own functioning government, bank and television station.

The perfecting of the suicide bomber. Massacres of Sinhalese Civilians. The utilisation of child soldiers. The murder of Tamil defectors. It was not easy for the Tiger’s to retain the core ideals of their manifesto while preventing the government’s forces from defeating their de facto state.

Sri Lanka’s majority-Sinhalese military were guilty of numerous human right’s abuses during their combat with the Tigers. Notorious for their high levels of sexual assault of woman civilians and Tiger fighters, this problem has far from disappeared. During the war, thousands of Tamil civilians disappeared. White vans would remove suspected Tiger sympathisers to faceless detention centres.

The civil war clawed itself into the 21st century. The fighting picked up speed, and international recognition, until its culmination in 2009. In the last year of fighting, the accusatory fingers of foreign governments pointed at Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former president:

During the defeat of the Tamil Tiger’s in 2009, thousands of Tamil civilians were shelled in “safe zones”. These zones had been allocated by the Sri Lankan government in the final phase of the war. The casualties proliferated on both sides. Up to 20,000 Sinhalese and Tamils were killed in the last 4 months of combat.

Ethnic cleansing! Genocide! Protests in Parliament Square surged. Calls for foreign intervention were unanswered. The final surrender of the Tigers came a day before Prabakaran’s body was found floating in mangroves.

Today, Sri Lanka’s recovery from the war is slow. Improvements of Tamil rights under the new president Sirisena lack momentum. Military camps and detentions centres are still rooted on Northern Sri Lanka’s soil. War crime allegations have not been assessed by an external judiciary. The newly elected army chief lead a key division of the military during the last two months of the war.

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The Temple’s priests, or pujaris, conduct the daily puja, a Sanskrit word for worship. There are up to 16 main steps in the worship, from washing the deity’s feet to offering them a seat.

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Bali traces invisible lines over his open palm. At the end of our conversation, he returns to the 80s:

“They burnt our library in Jaffna in 1981. There were Tamil scriptures, manuscripts. They were written on Palmera leaves – they are all gone..the whole collection was kept in the library”. Jaffna library was burnt during civilian riots. A similar dent was felt in the cultural archives of Mao’s China and Nazi Germany – the burning of books always ignites a greater fire.

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The Tamil Language – Culture Cuts

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Bali’s regret of the offensive against Tamil cultural artefacts, reverberates in Selvan’s concerns about the state of the Tamil culture under the current Sri Lankan government. I met Selvan, a Tamil refugee of the 80’s, in a Hare Krishna temple in East Croyden.

He promotes the teaching of the Tamil language in London, fuelled through his fears of its increasingly marginalised status in Sri Lanka. FreedomHouse reports that ‘the status of Sinhala as the official language puts Tamils and other non-Sinhala speakers at a disadvantage’.

Sinhala is spoken predominantly in the South, the region with the most economic growth and governmental departments, while the North, with high levels of poverty and unemployment, is majority Tamil speaking.

In the North today, efforts to improve an economy failing through the infrastructural damages of the war are minimal. Sirisena’s lack of initiative is felt by Selvan: The school of his Tamil-majority village was bombed 7 years ago. Today, the rubble has been cleared, but there are no efforts to reconstruct the building.

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After negotiating with locals MPs and gaining approval from the region’s military commander, Selvan’s charity, Sinnathurai Children Foundation was registered. We built the old school again and now it’s an afternoon school for children. When it rains they are living in huts still!” (pictured above).

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Selvan sees London’s community centres as crucial for fostering Tamil culture outside of Sri Lanka’s borders. “We are distributed everywhere now, all over the world. We have to show our children what our culture is, our religion – to teach them the language…A lot of things have been lost but even if we move to another country we still have our culture”.

However, Lashani, from the London Tamil Sangam, has had to start charging a small fee for lessons following local government cuts.

Lashani prepares her students for the Tamil language GCSE, enabling many 2nd generation refugees to speak to family members in Sri Lankan that do not speak English.

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The Sangam centre’s library houses current Sri Lankan and Southern Indian Tamil newspapers, as well as poems originating from 300 BCE.

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“Many of the elder generation are lonely and can only speak Tamil here,” Lashani explains. “People are suffering in silence.. I lost my husband a couple of months ago..I can share my sorrow with people, and speak about them in my own language”. With a further £20m cuts this year to resources teaching the English language, the center works to prevent language barriers from isolating refugees.

The cuts faced by the Sangam center are marginal in comparison to the nearby Upton and Hartley centres. Following a withdrawal of fundings from NewHam’s shrinking grant scheme, both centres closed last year. The charities hosted lessons in Hindu culture, English classes and events for the elderly.

Newham council, despite being the 6 most deprived area in England, will receive £284 less for every home in the borough as of 2017, while Richmond, a substantially wealthier area, will have its grants cuts by just £57 per home.

The effects of these cuts reverberate in North London, with New Barnet’s Sangam Centre’s facing depleting council funds, a charity providing advice to Sri Lankan Tamil women. With charity grants predicted to have disappeared by the next 4 years, this decline in funding can only sharpen.

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                 London’s Community spaces – Frontiers to Censorship

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“The Tigers are freedom fighters”, Ravi asserts. ‘Ravi’, a fake name, agreed to talk to me after I assured him that the interview would be anonymous. Community spaces encourage the sharing of sorrow, the dispersion of loneliness. They also become places where frustration can be shared without fear of censorship.

Ravi taps his hand on his knee. His gold chains vibrate with the movement. The emblems are obscured as they disappear into his white t-shirt. We sit on a soft carpet in a temple in Wembley. He is a second-generation refugee. “I know nothing, only what my Mum tells me”. His proviso dissolves as we begin talking about censorship in Sri Lanka.

“I have friends here with bullet wounds, I can give you their number”. The offer was never followed up. What’s in it for him? To publicly discuss or protest for Tamil rights in London could place yourself on Sri Lanka’s watch list:

Under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, suspected Tiger sympathisers are detained on return to the capital’s airport. This can result in interrogation and torture without trial.

“If you put my name or my picture in a magazine, then I can’t go back to Sri Lanka..I protested in 2009 during the civil war, there were photos of me in Parliament Square – there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be caught if I went back”.

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“It is not a catch-penny book, with life like that of a mushroom”. An excerpt from the Preface of the Bhavitha Gita, the main text of the Hindu and Hare Krishna faith.

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The Home Offices August Report on Sri Lanka disclosed that family members have been questioned in Sri Lanka, following the participation of relatives in anti-government protests abroad.

Ravi has family in Sri Lanka. For many in the same position, it is fear for their protection that dictates how politically active they are in their places of asylum, meaning community centres and temples often become substitutions for street protests.

Wembley’s Hindu temples will have to shoulder increasing council tax following Brent’s growing cuts, despite the fact that many of them relieve the pressure of food banks by providing free meals on a daily basis. The council recognises this financial reality as a pattern spanning across the UK’s borroughs: ‘We are not alone, as around 86 per cent of councils are planning to increase council tax’, their website states.

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The UK’s Closing Borders

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Beyond the shrinking resources that help the Sri Lankan’s who have been granted asylum in the UK, it is also the routes for potential refugees that are threatened under the UK’s tightening borders.

Newham’s Tamil Welfare Association has been supporting asylum seekers coming to the UK from Sri Lanka since 1985. The center is a 10 minute walk from the Sangam Tamil Language School. Along High Street North, connecting the two centres, the walk of Hindus to their daily puja (worship) is soundtracked by the sound of saluhs (prayers) in the borough’s local mosques. 

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The centre’s building is small, its outreach extensive: Asylum seekers with no legal representation and stuck in detention centres while their claim is reviewed, or refugees seeking legal advice, often call Pradeep, one of the founders.

A woman in her 50’s cries in the centre’s waiting room, she is handed a letter by one of the volunteers. I question whether I should be there, taking up an hour of Pradeep’s time. The center has about 30 walk-ins a day. During our interview, he would run to retrieve a yellow legal file and deposit it on the desk of his colleagues, talking on the phone in Tamil.

The UK’s toughening asylum seeking process highlights the importance of the center. Since 2005, the majority of refugees are granted access to the UK for only 5 years, while over a half of asylum seekers are detained during their application review.

Pradeep knows the UK’s border control process intimately – he was part of the surge of Tamil refugees seeking asylum in England in the 1980’s during the build-up to the civil war.

He’s laughing. Pradeep’s response to my question of whether he thought conditions for asylum seekers had improved significantly since his arrival, which he recounts to me:

“I left on my own. Afterwards my family came here, one by one. Actually my father was shot by the Sinhalese and he survived. When I arrived here, I was detained with 58 other Tamils in the Ashford Remand center in 1985, but we started to fight. With the help of Jeremy Corbyn, the detainees were released. We initially formed this organisation as a self-help group, with a group of refugees putting money in”.

Pradeep is not overawed with Jacques Audiard’s recent film Dheepan, depicting the struggles of a Tamil refugee following his arrival in Europe. The film ends with an angelic choir. They infuse a shot of Dheepan, the protagonist, as a black-cab driver parking in his suburban driveway.

He see’s the blockbuster as symptomatic of a lack of understanding surrounding the reality facing many refugees on arrival to their places of asylum. Perhaps the recent Ken Loach film I am Daniel Blake, with its benefit freezes and food banks, is a more accurate depiction of life following the granting of refugee status.

The UK’s shrinking support for incoming asylum seekers and refugees, renders the future of Pradeep’s charity unstable. Despite the centre’s popularity, it increasingly relies on volunteers, and donations from local residents.

After its near collapse in 1994 following a withdrawal of government funding, its continuation is testament to the associations’s importance in alleviating the suffering of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee, and asylum seekers, that reach out to it from across the UK. However, Pradeep, remains concerned for his centre’s future:

“There is bad media coverage of the situation and funders are withdrawing. Policy wise the government is not giving grants for asylum seekers.. the general public is a bit scared of refugees. It’s very hard to run a refugee charity..normal charities don’t face hatred”.

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Refugee centres provided advice to Sri Lankan Tamils in South-East London are also facing cuts. An employee from Lewisham’s Refugee and Migrant Network reports that ‘our charity has had to absorb the clients affected by centres that have closed down due to funding cuts’.

These centres, supporting London’s multiple diasporic communities, have experienced increasing demand: the Red Cross reports that over 3,000 asylum seekers have been living in ‘destitution’ this year.

After an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, the government grants them 28 days before their financial support is cut, despite the fact that finding a job often extends far beyond a month. As a direct result of this law, the Red Cross measured a 10% rise in refugees seeking food parcels or emergency cash from them since 2015.

  

Autumn Statement

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In 2013, David Cameron broke official protocol by visiting a camp for displaced Tamils in Northern Sri Lanka. His cameo appearance intending to draw attention to Sri Lanka’s lack of investigation into alleged war crimes. Cameron left, the news moved on but the cutting of resources that support Sri Lankan refugees in the UK continued.

Cameron’s stunt echoes Theresa May’s first series of speeches as Prime Minister, broadcasting solidarity with the working families of England. Encouraging words, often unsubstantiated.

Change, however, is forthcoming in the Home Office. As of 2016, only 14 out of 147 asylum applications were accepted from Sri Lanka. This is a distinct fall from 2015’s 45% acceptance rate of appeals.

The decrease in asylum granting is not so much a reaction to some of the ‘improvements’ marked in Sri Lanka, but to the influx of refugees to European and UK borders. With the UK gaining more control over its borders in the wake of Brexit, this decrease is set to continue.

The futures’ of Sri Lankan Tamils with rejected asylum applications are unstable – they are sent back to a country they initially left over concerns for their safety. Jasmine Pilbrow, a student who refused to sit down on a flight instrumental in the deportation of a Sri Lankan Tamil in Melbourne last year, draws media attention to a process seldom reported on.

The ongoing problems in Sri Lanka should make the obstacles faced by Tamils refugees harder to ignore: the censors on freedom of speech, the difficulty of Tamils resettling in the North following their removal during the war and the threat of torture and detention are proving slow to improve.

Once asylum seekers arrive to the UK’s borders, the support of these community centres are crucial. Many asylum seekers’ visa applications are stretched from months to years, with the UK having the longest wait for a work permit in Europe. With social welfare continuously decreasing, the practical and emotional support of these centres for Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees grow in importance.

The livelihoods of these centres will be measured in Phillip Hammond’s upcoming autumn statement. As it stands, the UK’s austerity measures are set to continue into the 2020s, although Hammond has hinted at a divergence from Osborne’s long-term budget. However, the new Chancellor’s recent assurance that ‘we remain committed to fiscal discipline’ renders any substantial reversal of the Conservative’s ongoing cuts doubtful.

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Breaking earthen pots filled with curd to celebrate the legend of Krishna, the child-god, from stealing butter. Locals hang their butter in pots from the ceiling to ward against the deities theft. 

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Held every month at Sivananda Ashram, thousands of locals travel from the surrounding area to this health camp – gaining a free consultation and meal and leaving with a bag of Ayurvedic medicine. The Ashram is volunteer run and not profit driven, all of its proceeds go towards funding the registered medical charity.

 

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The Performers of  BrainChild Festival 2016

(official festival photographer – 8th-10th July)

Click here to see the Brainchildren and here to see my Utopias series

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King Nommo

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United Vibrations

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The Dead of Night in the Middle of Nowhere 

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The Cinema

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Brainchild(ren)

Details & Portraits of 2016 BrainChild Festival 2016

(official festival photographer – 8th-10th July)

Click here to see the Performers and here to see Utopia series

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Brain Child Utopias

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Portraits of 2016 BrainChild festival goers 

(official festival photographer – 8th-10th July)

Click here to see the BrainChildren and here to see the Performers

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Black Lives Matter

Power

 ..

The difference between poetry and rhetoric

is being ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.
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I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
.
.
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
.
.
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
.
.
I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”
 .
.
By Audre Lorde
(also known as Gamba Adisa – “Warrior-She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.”)
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The Difference Between Poetry and Rhetoric

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Rhetoric is violent action far before it is a dialectical tool. These actions are guided through narratives written long before you, and yet are about you. Poetry is something that originates from the speaker, rhetoric is something imposed on the speaker from the outside. Rhetoric is always political, poetry is granted the right to be non-partisan. Rhetoric trawls, obdurate through the shifting attitudes of time, feeding on the detritus of the past.

A Racist mentality understands the other through rhetoric that subjugates individuality to narratives written from the colour of skin, the way you dress, where you live. Rhetoric is the ally to defining one’s identity through their social demographic, the ally to simply causality. Subject x was born in y and therefore equals z. White privilege is being allowed to manipulate, play with, dodge expectation – x was born in y but maybe that doesn’t equal z ?

Rhetoric pulled the trigger that shot Philando Castile in Minnesota – the cop had read the sign of him pulling out his ID as him pulling out a gun because Castile had already lost his right to individuality, he had become a collection of visual associations leading  to the cop predicting the next action according to a narrative that provided a simple causality. Castile (x) is an African American (y) = he is about to attack me with his gun (z).

White privilege would have added 10 seconds of delay. The situation would have been ambiguous for the policeman, through the more complex cause and effect – relaxing the agitated arm and the twitching finger on the trigger of his gun. “They took a good man, a hard-working man” Castile’s mother tells the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Castile’s mother was granted the platform to define her son through her knowledge of his individual character too late: rhetoric is the fastest form of meaning. The pulling of the trigger is the signified of hateful jargon.

“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else

only the colour”

The cop from Audre Lord’s poem explains. ‘Only the colour’ –  this is the meaning of being colour blind in America.

The judges do not remove the filters over the eyes of racist cops, their acquittal darkens their vision. The allowance for this colour blindness accepts a system that makes black skin and violence synonymous. The system that ignores the correlation between (racist, socialised) ‘instinct’ and (pre-meditated) ’self defense’.

The primacy of meaning is placed on the need to protect the self, on the 2nd amendment – not socialising the ‘self’ through viewing it within the context of the larger social reality, and seeing an isolated moment as symptomatic of a larger problem. To view the ‘self’ as a sacred entity in isolation permits the dissipated morality, the anachronistic engagement of self-defence. All acts of self-preservation are permitted in the battle between life and death that has always fuelled the myth of American Exceptionalism. Is the perpetuation and advocation of these battles between different social demographics surprising in a country that carved its identity through the genocide of the Native Americans? No, it’s America’s Manifest Destiny.

‘I have not touched the destruction within me’. The speaker of ‘Power’ has to learn not to respond to the shooting of the 10 year old boy with more violence, as this will not mean justice, this will mean further death to black children. White privilege is being able to fight violence with violence, but for the causality of the provoked violence to be taken into account as a cause. The privilege for the situation to be rarefied through contextualisation. A Racist mentality is seeing the response of violence as a dialogue in continuum with other acts of unrelated violence that cumulate to form the mentality that the law will use to denounce the offender. Rhetoric always lift an act and an individual out of their specific context.

The white cop, acquitted, will have the freedom to wield their destruction again in the name of the law. In Lorde’s ‘Power’, poetry paradoxically becomes an effacement of self, a mode of metaphorical self-murder. Why ? Within the violence of the society the poem springs from, the desire to use language removed from the social realm becomes tainted by the deficit of action this entails against those that impose rhetoric on the verbally and physically oppressed. It is using a foam sword against the metal baton of a policemen. It is rhetoric, action, that supersedes poetry in an environment that will read someone’s skin tone over listening to their words.

“Let me tell you first about what it was like being a Black woman poet in the ‘60s, from jump. It meant being invisible. It meant being really invisible. It meant being doubly invisible as a Black feminist woman and it meant being triply invisible as a Black lesbian and feminist”.

Lorde, In A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, battled with her poetry against the system that imposed rhetoric over her, that tried and failed to efface her individuality. In the Black Lives Matter protest on the 11th of July, thousands of protesters listened to the poetry of ‘Power’, thousands saw her words and responded with more words, shouting out the rhetoric.

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,

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,A reading of ‘Power’ 

Black Lives Matter Protest

12/07/2016

A(enable HD viewing >)

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Sharene

(from Tennessee)

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blacklivesmatter

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#IBIM

(I’m Black I Matter)

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The Fists of Brexit

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‘It really annoys me when people intellectualise this and start talking about figures and polls..when we tell you racism isn’t an academic thing its a lived experience..why are we not listening to the visible minorities in this country, Polish people are being attacked, they’ve said so so I can not see why people are denying it’

– Comedian Ava Vidal on Channel 4 news

‘In its purest form, a newspaper consists of a collection of facts which, in controlled circumstances, can actively improve knowledge. Unfortunately, facts are expensive, so to save costs and drive up sales, unscrupulous dealers often “cut” the basic contents with cheaper material, such as wild opinion, bullshit, empty hysteria’

– Charlie Brooker for the Guardian

‘migrants have been weaponised to stoke fear and get out the vote for the leave campaign’

– Akwugo Emejulu, Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh

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A faith in the images painted by Leave campaigners lead to the championing of faulty statistics, silencing the reality they worked to stifle. The pressures on the public sector were placed on the shoulders of immigrants, allowing the impacts of the Conservatives’ austerity cuts to hide behind misrepresented figures. Murdoch’s Sun failed to mention what Britain gains in return for its ‘350m’ weekly EU fee. The false promise to redirect this fee into the NHS circulated around Britain faster than Farages’ UKIP campaign bus could. The picture of Britain forged by the Leave campaigners was erected through the muting of the points of view that the movement worked to attack.

To move through shock at the vote to Leave and accept that Britain’s identity is inseparable from its racist, homophobic and xenophobic past is to address the challenges of the present. Within national crisis it is people of colour, the LGBTQ and migrant community that suffer the most. The rapid succession of headlines deflect from the testimonies of those who have suffered attacks. Attention is easily tethered to the broader political spectrum. Leadership resignations, the revelation of lies, the fluctuation of the economic market distract from the need to openly condemn and show solidarity against the rise of fascist sentiments in real time. The ‘Go Home’ message scrawled on the Polish Social and Cultural Association and the petrol bomb destroying the Kashmir Meat and Poultry in Walsall happened within 3 days of one another.

The momentum of the Leave vote was fuelled by a black and white monologue – headlines clenching fists and providing the rhetorical ammunition for racist attacks. Marches, protests, conversations, questions and as Ava Vidal stresses, listening, will form a voice to counter the shouts of Britain’s rising fascists.

..

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.March for Europe 2/7/’16

Parliament Square

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Pride

*cropped = Logos of corporations that, outside of their self-promotion in Pride, have contributed nothing to the furthering of lgbtq rights

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Peckham Powder

I shot Kevin powder (Jason Attar) for his latest intergalactic venture into Peckham. Powder roams the streets enlisting pedestrian astronauts to endeavour into space (on a small budget, mainly using imagination) seeking the strongholds of South London’s idiosyncrasies. Peckham Powder is still being filmed.  

His last 2013 film, shot by Danny Wimborne, was centred in Dalston. Hercules’ trials look trivial compared to Powder’s sweeping vision of hosting the biggest night in east London’s living memory. One Night in Powder was shot in 30 days, with the help of such street mavericks as Garey Dolphin, the self-proclaimed Vice President of Canada.

powder

One Night In Powder won Best Comedy London Independent film festival and Best Micro Budget Film London Independent film festival in 2013. Powder brings urban dimensions to otherworldly fantasies built through the kindness of strangers. 

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El Rocio

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El Rocio Pilgrimage 

Andalucia 

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Day One – The Cathedral

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Day Two

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Blue Milk

Blue Milk Journal (link)

Commission

Issue: Dawn

Ali (5.20 am)

 

alieyes

 

 

alidark

‘I’m from Afghanistan.. Near by the Dead Sea, It’s all green there lovely. But it’s not a big city like here. I travelled around Italia..Roma..Torino just to see. I have to move, can’t stay in one place. Otherwise it’s work sleep work sleep work. 2015 was a bad year. 2016 will be change and better. I had a girlfriend not anymore. There’s trouble in Afghanistan.. Iraq so I came here. There was trouble here three guys from England, Birmingham come and touch everything thing tried to rob me’

 

Amelia (4.45 am)

 

ameliafoggy

 

ameliablackbackground

 

‘I would change my life. You know what you are going to do and make it better. I will get better.’

 

Michael (6.20am)

 

paranew

 

‘We just started.. we’re working for 12 and a half hours, 13 hours. We’re based in Waterloo but they’re stations every five miles. I’ve been in Waterloo since I moved here from Australia five years ago. I came from the countryside so this is a bit busy for me… I come from 100 acres in the middle of nowhere, kangaroos and koalas…I used to be a ski patrol in Canada and wanted to do more..It’s so unpredictable, that’s the only thing that could get me up at four in the morning, as soon as you miss a day that will be the best day..the scary ones are the ones you don’t know enough about, we are like jack-of-all-trades – we know a bit of everything and not a lot of anything in particular, that’s when your hands start to sweat..I wish there was no ignorance I wish people were not ignorant, I wish it didn’t exist.. It’s weird we chose a job that deals with it all the time, I guess that’s why. I think I would change people’s attitudes to each other, you see some horrendous behaviour here’

 

Zoe Jordan

Jumpers Studio Flat Shots

 

 

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 23.38.03

 

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Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 23.39.29

Layers II

layersfabirc.jpg

 

empanadachurch

Penelope Chilvers – Old Shoes Campaign

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Argentina


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Salta > Cafayate

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Cafayate > Salta

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Ecuador

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Quilotoa > Chugchilan

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