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Shock to the System

In the June Issue of Dazed & Confused, Ben White chatted to the young activists across the Middle East who are speaking up in the fight for a new tomorrow

It can be easy to forget that as you read this, the struggle for human dignity and basic rights is continuing all over the world. For many brave men and women, fighting for freedom – to be free to speak your mind, to be free from want, from humiliation, or occupation – will mean significant sacrifice. In recent months, people across the Middle East have taken to the streets and demanded freedom, and the activists profiled here are a sample of the young people pushing for change. Their battles are different – yet also connected. That connection extends to you and me, since all of us can have an impact on the struggle for freedoms at home and abroad. Read, be inspired, then act.

PALESTINE:

Mohammad Othman
Mohammad Othman, 31, is a Palestinian from Jayyous in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He became involved in activism when his village was hit hard by the route of Israel’s Separation Wall, a barrier that the International Court of Justice at The Hague described as illegal in 2004. Becoming part of a network of grassroots activists across the West Bank, Mohammad helped organise nonviolent demonstrations in Jayyous and other villages that were losing land. He was returning from a speaking engagement in Norway in September 2009 when he was arrested by Israeli soldiers. He spent 113 days in jail, without charge or trial, before he was released. Mohammad organises tours in the West Bank for those wanting to learn about the politics past and present of the region. He also continues his activism through participation in the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign, a call from Palestinians for international solidarity in the struggle for justice.

Dazed & Confused: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Palestinian non-violent resistance?
Mohammad Othman: Firstly, my people’s fight is something sacred, since we are fighting for our rights. I don’t like to call it ‘non-violent resistance’. Palestinians have been struggling for over 60 years, and the primary violence comes from the daily humiliations and killings perpetrated by Israel. The weakness of our fight is that we are not united – something encouraged by the international community – and that our leaders want the youth under control.

How did you cope in jail?
While I was in jail, I felt, ‘I am fighting for my rights.’ They did not have anything on me, though they did all they could to keep me there. I wasn’t feeling well, and I had a hard time – but that belief in my rights and the right of my people to be free made
me strong.

EGYPT:

Hossam el-Hamalawy
Hossam el-Hamalawy, 33, is a journalist, photographer and labour organiser with the Egyptian Socialist movement. Hossam had been blogging and using social media long before the people’s uprising earlier this year, and became a key source for updates and analysis as the revolt spread. Interviewed frequently by international journalists, Hossam could link the wave of “cyber activism” to the less-heralded and long-fought struggles of the Egyptian working class – Facebook and Twitter meet strikes and factory occupations. Hossam’s activism throughout the Egyptian uprising has been characterised by an appreciation of the people’s achievements combined with realism about the tasks ahead. He tweeted his tearful joy on the day of Mubarak’s departure, yet immediately returned to focussing on achieving a genuinely radical transformation of the economic and political infrastructure.

Dazed & Confused: How did you first become involved in political activity?
Hossam el-Hamalawy:
I was politicised at an early age, thanks to my father who used to encourage me to read, but I got politically organised in the ranks of the left while I was an undergraduate student.

Is it possible to overestimate the role of the youth in the Egyptian uprising?
The youth are the foot soldiers of any revolution. Did you hear about mass strikes and insurrections by seniors? But it’s important to note which youth took part. They were mainly the middle-class youth and the working-class youth.

What do people in the west need to be keeping an eye on, in terms of how events in Egypt are unfolding?
They need to keep an eye on the ongoing labour strike wave, which constitutes phase two of the Egyptian revolution.

What was the significance of the labour movement in Egypt during recent months?
Starting from December 2006, the Egyptian working-class has already been engaged in the longest, strongest wave of strike action this country has witnessed since 1946. And it’s the mass strikes that took place on the 7th, 8th, and 9th of February that forced Mubarak to step down.

ISRAEL:

Matan Cohen
Matan Cohen, 22, is a co-founder of Israeli group Anarchists Against The Wall, and a national USA Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) coordinator with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Matan has been active for some years as a dissident Jewish Israeli, committed to equality for occupied, dispossessed Palestinians.

Dazed & Confused: What motivates you to do what you do?
Matan Cohen: A drive to respond to and undo injustice, as well as to foster a positive vision of a future. For me, standing together with Palestinians is itself a break with apartheid.

Why do you feel solidarity with Palestinians?
My family is half Jews from Iraq, half European Jews post-Holocaust. To me the joint history of displacement is what we bring to the fore in standing in solidarity with stateless Palestinians. Solidarity with Palestine, as an Israeli Jew, means recognition of a shared
past and an attempt at a shared future.   

BAHRAIN:

Maryam Al-Khawaja
Maryam Al-Khawaja, 23, is the head of the foreign relations office for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. The small Gulf kingdom of Bahrain was rocked by protests that began in February. The BCHR has been a vital source of information for the outside world, despite it being an “outlawed” organisation.

Maryam’s role has been crucial – her Twitter account has been a “go to” place for the latest news as well as a means of making sure that when Bahraini protesters, activists and bloggers are targeted by security forces, the word gets out. Maryam has experienced weeks of sleepless nights and risk to her own safety, yet has kept focused on the task at hand: helping Bahrainis win their freedoms.

Dazed & Confused: How did your involvement in activism develop?
Maryam al-Khawaja:
My father is a human rights activist and both my parents preached human rights. My family lived in political exile from when I was born until I was 14, so I grew up learning about what that meant.

How can connect young people in the west and those in countries like Bahrain?
The best way to connect different worlds is when people can relate. It is more difficult to not care about Bahrain, for example, if you have a friend who lives there and whose relatives have been arrested. Raising awareness is very important.

Social media has been discussed in the context of the Middle East uprisings...
The popular idea at the beginning was that social media caused the uprisings. I would disagree. Social media was a very important tool, but it was the youth who started the uprisings. The best proof of this is in Egypt; even when there was an internet blackout the youth still managed to work around it. Nonetheless, social media is very important.

What is the importance of your role?
My job is to get the information out there. I document violations committed by the regime in Bahrain, write reports and send them to human rights organisations, governments and the UN.

How do you cope with things that horrify?
My work hours are more or less 24/7, except when I take breaks to sleep. Keeping busy is one way to block out horrifying images I witnessed in Bahrain. The work needs to be done. Whenever I’m exhausted, I think of what my people are going through, and that I am lucky to have gotten out – otherwise I would most likely be in prison right now.

IRAN:

Hana Makhmalbaf
Iranian filmmaker Hana Makhmalbaf still had her milk teeth when she wrapped her first short, aged eight. By 18, she had made the award-winning feature Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame, the tale of an Afghani girl determined to go to school despite the influence of strict Taliban rule. Her latest is  Green Days, mixing a fictional story with documentary footage of the 2009 protests against electoral fraud in Iran, and the violent crackdown by Ahmadinejad’s government on those demanding democracy. As a result of her film, the now 23-year-old has had to flee Iran.

Dazed & Confused: Tell us about Green Days?
Hana Makhmalbaf: I started making it one month before the election, wondering what would happen with all this hope – Iranian people didn’t just go and vote, like in Europe where it is so ordinary.

What state is the Green movement in?
Democracy is not something you forget about – a hungry person can’t forget their hunger. All dictatorships – Hitler, Franco, Saddam – go one day. Ahmadinejad will have to run away too.

Why did you leave Iran?
I had to flee two days after the election – they were searching for me, they knew I had footage of the protests. Later, I was supposed to show my movie in Lebanon at a film festival, but the Iranian government got it removed. They are so afraid of people, even me. I was a 21-year-old girl – they are such losers they are afraid of a movie! I said on Al Arabiya TV at the time, if you believe in yourself Mr Ahmadinejad, why don’t you come and watch this movie? Because you are afraid; because you are censoring what you have done. But you can’t censor everyone forever.

Text by Hannah Lack

MOROCCO: Abdellah Taïa

One of the most talented and controverstial authors of his generation, 37-year-old Moroccan-born writer Abdellah Taïa lives in self-imposed exile in Paris. He is the first Moroccan and Arab writer to openly declare his homosexuality, and has become an iconic figure for younger protesters and outsiders in his homeland.

Dazed & Confused: You’re Moroccan, muslim, and in 2006, you openly declared your homosexuality. What was the political impact of that?
Abdellah Taïa
: In my mind, it was all primarily about unveiling my inner, sexual, and more importantly, literary truth; about expressing my bare Arabic, muslim self, describing it in its crudeness, in its scandal; bringing it to the centre of my first poor world, where people have been abandoned for too long by the rich and the powerful; initiating a deep individual shift and thereby starting a new era for me and for Moroccan, Arabic youth. Homosexuality is nothing but revolt for real and not in order to build a fake, empty, trendy image.

For a whole generation, you are a key figure of freedom and creativity. How do you feel about being the "older brother"?
I feel the need to intervene regularly, to write articles everywhere in order to urge people to shout louder and louder.

Your last book, The Day Of The King, is about the Moroccan sovereign. What lead you to write this novel?
I come from a very poor world. I don’t even know how I’ve survived – to write, to have my books published… To speak. The Day Oof The King goes back to the very first injustice and follows this political evolution: it dares to represent King Hassan II, who has scared me so deeply for years, naked. It is about looking at him straight in the eyes.

Text by Donatien Grau

ENGLAND: Jody McIntyre

Jody McIntyre is best known for the infamous interview on the BBC after video footage emerged of him being pushed out of his wheelchair during the student protests  – and for the cartoon of him drawn as Andy from Little Britain that subsequently appeared in The Daily Mail. He’s also a seasoned blogger: he started Life On Wheels back in 2008, writing about the bad treatment wheelchair users received on public transports. The blog soon became a campaigning vehicle for the young south Londoner, especially as he became more and more involved with Palestine, living in the occupied territories for months at a time. These days 20-year-old McIntyre is a leading youth activist, occupying Millbank and writing about political injustice around the world.

Dazed & Confused: You’re young and at the prime of your life, why have you bothered with becoming a political activist
Jody McIntyre
: Personally, I don’t think you choose to become a political activist – you see injustice and oppression then you fight against it.

Young people are starting to get into politics more. What needs to happen to keep this going?
We need to try and take those beliefs and desires to do something and turn it into concrete action. We need to show people that there is something to hope for. You’re saying that I’m interested in politics but I’ve never voted, so really, why aren’t young people voting? Because the three major political parties have the same agenda and they are all liars. Why are we even listening to these doughnuts in parliament? Honestly, I don’t have time for any of them.

What do you think about the current uprisings going on in other countries?
If you look at what is happening in certain countries in Latin America now for example Venezuela and Ecuador; the political movements that have grown have made millions of people vote who have never voted before. They have made millions that never went to school before learn how to read and write, they have lifted people out of poverty. This is something that has happened in these countries all because people have said enough is enough and we don’t want to be dominated by mere liberal capitalism anymore. You can’t stop the will of millions of people once they get their voices heard.

Now that University fees are being cut, young people are questioning the government more than ever. Why do you think they haven’t questioned the government before about issues that don’t apply to them directly?
Obviously when things are cut there is more resistant, but we need to have an end product for that resistant, anger and frustration and that’s what we have to work on now against the bad things what the Conservatives and Democrats are doing.

Were you not scared of getting on top of Milbank?
I considered the government HQ to be a legitimate target and that’s what we did, we occupied the HQ: simple.

Do think people believe the protests are making a difference?
Well, I think that the reason why people don’t do anything about injustice is because they do not feel empowered to make a change. For example, there were half a million during the protest against cuts back in March . However, you didn’t see a lot of people from poorer areas or from ethnic minorities. If you’re living in Brixton, Peckham or Hackney and you don’t have a lot of money then why are you going to make the cost, effort and time of travelling into central London just to not really make a difference.

What is going on with the police investigation into you being dragged out of your chair during the student protests?
It’s still an ongoing case, but it’s clear that the police will be keen to say that they did nothing wrong. Really, my issue is quite minor. I got pushed out of my wheelchair, but look how many people have died in police custody.

How did you react to the cartoon of you in The Daily Mail? You made the big time!
I just laughed when I saw it. Obviously, they think it’s wrong that someone can walk and be disabled. It’s just ignorance, and I feel sorry for people who think like that because they can’t be happy with their lives.

It was an attack on a young person, don’t you think?
The media love portraying young people in a negative light because they know we have better ideas than them.

What do you get up to when you are not talking about the uprising in Egypt or justice for Smiley Culture?
I’m trying to write a book about my experiences in Palestine and starting this new project with C4. In my spare time, I hang out with friends, read some books and listen to hip hop.

Text by Celeste Houlker