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Middle East

Israel’s Eurovision Song Contest won

Sunday, 19 May, 2019

The Netherlands’ Duncan Laurence won last night’s Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv with his song Arcade, which topped the leader-board with 492 points in the public vote. Italy finished second with 465 points and Russia third with 369 points. Madonna also sang but most viewers regarded her performance as flat, musically and artistically. Iceland’s heavy metal act Hatari displayed Palestinian flags. Inevitably, this act of pubertal thickness was hailed and highlighted in the “popular” press.

Bob Dylan’s song Neighborhood Bully appeared on the album Infidels, which was released in October 1983. In the song, Dylan deployed sarcasm to defend Israel’s right to exist and the lyrics included references, some direct, some oblique, to history, near and far. The Six-Day War and Operation Opera, Israel’s bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981 are in there, as is the enslavement of the Israelites by the Romans. The shadows of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union loom as well.

Neighborhood Bully

Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighborhood bully

The neighborhood bully just lives to survive
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in
He’s the neighborhood bully

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized
Old women condemned him, said he should apologize.
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad
The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, the chances are against it and the odds are slim
That he’ll live by the rules that the world makes for him
’Cause there’s a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac
He’s the neighborhood bully

He got no allies to really speak of
What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love
He buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease
Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep
He’s the neighborhood bully

Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon
He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand
In bed with nobody, under no one’s command
He’s the neighborhood bully

Now his holiest books have been trampled upon
No contract he signed was worth what it was written on
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health
He’s the neighborhood bully

What’s anybody indebted to him for?
Nothin’, they say. He just likes to cause war
Pride and prejudice and superstition indeed
They wait for this bully like a dog waits to feed
He’s the neighborhood bully

What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers? Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill
Running out the clock, time standing still
Neighborhood bully


Obama, Carter, Iran and the endless apology

Wednesday, 13 January, 2016 2 Comments

“As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war.” So declared President Obama last night in his 2016 State of the Union Address. Hot on the heels of that bold statement came the news that Iran had detained two US navy boats for “violating” Gulf waters. The BBC reported (gleefully?): “US apologises for Iran naval incursion — Revolutionary Guards.” Back in November, Reuters headlined a story thus: “Rouhani says U.S.-Iran ties could be restored but U.S. must apologize.”

Since the days of Jimmy Carter, the Washington-Tehran relationship seems to trapped in the aspic of permanent disunion, with one side claiming constant improvement and the other wallowing in abiding victimization. As Gaddis Smith put it: “President Carter inherited an impossible situation — and he and his advisers made the worst of it.” And it’s not much better today. With that in mind, the next occupant of the White House might consider reading some P.G. Wodehouse: “It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.” The Man Upstairs and Other Stories.


Pot luck at the Iranian souk in Abu Dhabi

Tuesday, 5 January, 2016 0 Comments

The coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stretches for more than 650 km along the southern shore of the Persian Gulf. It’s a tough neighbourhood, as current headlines prove, but despite their Sunni/Shi’a differences, the UAE and Iran have a working relationship because of their economic ties across the Strait of Hormuz.

One can see this cross-border trade in action in the “Iranian souk” at Mina Port in Abu Dhabi. Here, the bargain hunter will find carpets (frequently from Pakistan), pottery, plastic stuff (mostly from China) and kitchen utensils, especially pots. Some of these could hold a sheep, comfortably, and they evoke visions of meals for families where “extended” takes on a completely new meaning. Two rules: Shoppers are expected to haggle before buying and women should not visit on their own.

The Iranian souk in Abu Dhabi


Israel and the Kurds

Friday, 29 August, 2014 0 Comments

The complexities and the absurdities of the Middle East are such that the very admission of a relationship might terminate that same relationship. Consider this: “Kurds are apprehensive of the reaction of the Iraqi government and fellow Iraqi citizens who might label them as traitors while Israel is cautious not to embarrass them or to appear to be inciting Kurds against the Iraqi government. Practically speaking, both parties have been reluctant to admit the existence of any kind of relations.” So writes Ofra Bengio in the most recent issue of the Middle East Quarterly. Bengio is a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and the author of The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State. For the Kurds, the Islamic State (IS) is now an existential threat, but whether this will see the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) seeking public support from Israel depends on the region’s countless variables. Bengio writes:

“Looking to the near future, it appears that relations between Israel and the Kurds are doomed to continue in the shadows. However, should the KRG declare independence, this might change the picture on both sides. Jerusalem might be one of the first governments to recognize Kurdistan as it was with South Sudan. A Kurdish state would in turn like to have Israel’s support. After all, besides the affinity between the two nations, they have common interests in the continued existence of each other.”


Dear Prime Minister, Iraq and IS

Sunday, 17 August, 2014 0 Comments

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nicholas Baines, writes to Prime Minister David Cameron. Snippet:

2. The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?

The inaction of Cameron and Obama in the face of Islamic extremism is very disturbing, and their apparent embarrassment in addressing the plight of persecuted Christians is alarming. Once again, the West is sleepwalking towards a catastrophe.


The Afghan Girl of our time is a Yazidi

Thursday, 14 August, 2014 0 Comments

At the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Afghanistan in 1984, National Geographic Society photographer Steve McCurry captured an image of Sharbat Gula that became known as “the First World’s Third World Mona Lisa.”

Afghan Girl

Today’s Afghan Girl is a young member of persecuted Yazidi sect. Youssef Boudlal of Reuters found her at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour. The wheel turns, but the refugees keep filling those camps.

Yazidi girl


The Arab Spring isn’t any one thing

Wednesday, 16 July, 2014 0 Comments

Both the optimists and the pessimists got the Arab Spring wrong says Michael J. Totten in World Affairs. Now that some of the sand has settled, so to speak, “Libya needs state-building. Egypt needs gradual reform. Morocco needs as much diplomatic support from the US as possible. Syria, at this point, needs a miracle. Tunisia doesn’t need much of anything.”

But Totten isn’t offering any easy answers: “There was no other way to get rid of Muammar el-Qaddafi, nor is there any other way to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. You want them out of their palaces? You’re going to have to shoot them out of their palaces. Whether that’s worth the cost is a question with no easy answer.”


Shia and Sunni and the Thirty Years scenario

Monday, 27 January, 2014 0 Comments

“This is a conflict which is not only bigger than al-Qa’eda and similar groups, but far bigger than any of us. It is one which will re-align not only the Middle East, but the religion of Islam.” So writes Douglas Murray in the current issue of The Spectator in a piece titled “Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East’s 30 year war.” Murray contends that the slaughter in Syria is, in reality, a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, between the Shia and Sunni factions of Islam. “There are those who think that the region as a whole may be starting to go through something similar to what Europe went through in the early 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War, when Protestant and Catholic states battled it out,” he says, warning that the current savagery will be exceeded in barbarity when the “gloves come off.”

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is sounding a similar alarm. “Religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century’s epic battles” he claimed in yesterday’s Observer. Citing a “ghastly roll call of terror attacks” in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia, Burma, Thailand and the Philippines, he declares that these “are perpetrated by people motivated by an abuse of religion. It is a perversion of faith. But there is no doubt that those who commit the violence often do so by reference to their faith and the sectarian nature of the conflict is a sectarianism based on religion.”

If there is to be peace, we need to study faith and globalisation and agree on the place of religion in modern society. With this in mind, in collaboration with Harvard Divinity School, Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation, will launch a website later this year that will provide “up-to-date analysis of what is happening in the field of religion and conflict; in-depth analysis of religion and its impact on countries where this is a major challenge; and basic facts about the religious make-up and trends in every country worldwide.” It’s not a solution, but it is a sign and it’s a necessary sign because the latest Pew report on global religious Hostilities doesn’t make for pretty reading. “The sharpest increase was in the Middle East and North Africa, which still is feeling the effects of the 2010-11 political uprisings known as the Arab Spring.”

Meanwhile, a glance at the devastating history of the original Thirty Years’ War should encourage everyone to work to prevent a modern-day re-enactment.

War


Advent appeal for Syria’s refugees

Friday, 29 November, 2013 0 Comments

The numbers coming out of Syria are numbing. The latest UN report warns of “a generation of damaged children” because more than half of the 2.2 million Syrian war refugees are, in fact, children. Up to 300,000 Syrian children living in Lebanon and Jordan could be without schooling by the end of this year, and the suffering of Syrian refugee children in Turkey is appalling. “Under rain and without shoes, Syrian refugee kids fight for lives in Istanbul” reports Today’s Zaman. Snippet:

“The biggest ethnic group among those who leave for Turkey are Sunni Arabs, who cannot speak Turkish to find a job.On Tuesday, heavy rain hit Istanbul, making it impossible for Syrian refugees to remain in parks. In Istanbul’s Şirinevler neighborhood, for instance, an IHA correspondent photographed several Syrian children, some of whom even lacked shoes and were living under a small tent made of plastic bags.”

As we prepare to celebrate the onset of Advent on Sunday, our thoughts should turn to these most vulnerable victims of the Syrian conflict. Those doing incredible work for Syria’s war refugees include The International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, The International Medical Corps and The International Orthodox Christian Charities. They deserve our support at the time of year when thoughts are meant to turn to “Peace on the earth, good will to men.”

Syrian refugees


That Syrian, er, surrender. Whose idea was it?

Monday, 16 September, 2013 0 Comments

“This is a victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends.” Who speaks there? None other than Ali Haidar, leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, whose business card is embossed with the surreal title of “Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs”.

Speaking about the Kerry-Obama diplomatic triumph in Geneva, Haidar told the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti that it was “the achievement of the Russian diplomacy and the Russian leadership.” Given that Syria is now a Russian protectorate, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But a less partisan observer might be disinclined to agree. Rainy Day has identified three non-Russian contenders for the “Syrian surrender” prize. Let’s start with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Last Monday in London, Kerry was asked by a reporter whether there was anything the Assad regime could do to avoid a US military strike. “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting [of it], but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done,” said Kerry.

“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, gleefully running with the Kerry remark, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem toadfully piped up that his government “agreed to the Russian initiative,” adding that Syria did so to “uproot US aggression.”

Clearly, the Russians were playing opportunist here and Kerry was speaking off-the-cuff so the prize goes to neither. Step up, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and cue Twitter:

Sikorski told reporters that he had “proposed the ultimatum” to John Kerry after getting the support of the European People’s Party during a meeting in Vilnius, and he had also tweeted at the end of August that “Russia can possibly prevent war be declaring that she will secure Syria’s chemical arsenal, which the USSR created.”

Our final contender for the Syrian-surrender prize is The Economist. In its leader of 31 August, Hit him hard, it concluded: “Mr Obama must give Mr Assad one last chance: a clear ultimatum to hand over his chemical weapons entirely within a very short period. The time for inspections is over.” This was read, no doubt, by Kerry, Lavrov, Sikorski, Mr al-Moallem and Mrs al-Assad. The result was a carefully planted “gaffe” in London, an instant follow-up in Moscow, pre-programmed agreement in Damascus and a “breakthrough” in Geneva. Coincidence? Unlikely.

Finally, let’s return to Ali Haidar, the Syrian “Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs”. How’s that working out? In today’s Washington Post, Liz Sly writes, “At close of a week hailed as diplomatic triumph, more than 1,000 die in Syria.”


Understanding Syria’s first family: like father, like son

Wednesday, 28 August, 2013 0 Comments

“To many people Syria is an object not just of suspicion but of mystery, and Asad’s moves are often seen as both malevolent and impenetrable. In the United States in particular, there is a certain incredulity that a small country with a population of under twelve million should have the effrontery to stand up for itself. Certainly, in defending Arab interests as he sees them, Asad has used skill, stealth and brute force to challenge the interests of others — Israel, its Western backers, and even those Arabs who do not endorse his strategy. Yet there is a poignancy about his story in that the task he assumed twenty years ago was larger than the means at his disposal. As the head of a relatively poor and underdeveloped country, he has had a basically weak hand, forcing him to play his cards close to his chest, a style which does not make comprehending Syria any simpler.”

Asad That’s an excerpt from Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East by Patrick Seale. Since it was first published in 1988, the population of Syria has grown to 21 million but the country is still ruled by the same family, although the favoured spelling is now “Assad”. It’s worth noting, incidentally, that a lot of what Patrick Seale wrote about Hafiz al-Asad a quarter of a century ago applies to his son, Bashar al-Assad. Consider this:

“Asad’s sense of limited resources and permanent siege have undoubtedly had an impact on the way he runs his country and conducts his diplomacy. His regime is a very personal one. He insists on controlling everything and in particular foreign affairs and information because, unlike more powerful leaders who walk away from their blunders, he can ill afford to make a mistake. At every stage he risks being knocked out of the game altogether, and that remains the main hope of his enemies.”

When the old butcher died in June 2000, control of Syria passed to his son, who has made some major mistakes of late and now risks being knocked out of the game altogether.

By the way, does anyone know what Patrick Seale is up to these days? His last column syndicated by Agence Global is dated 30 April. Since then, nothing. That April column is titled, typically, “How Israel Manipulates US Policy in the Middle East.” Like the elder Asad, Seale is obsessed by Israel and this fixation has deformed his writing on the Middle East. Still, he’s an expert on the region and, despite our differences, Rainy Day wishes him well and we hope that he’ll soon be adding his experienced voice to the Syria debate.