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Mohammad Assaf has won Arab Idol.

I wrote about the Palestinian refugee from Gaza in an earlier diary.

I think what makes him so special, and why he has galvanized the Arab world into supporting him, is, quite simply, the incredible beauty of his voice. He has a mastery of tone and pitch as well as the intricacies of the techniques of Arabic music such as the maqam and mawwal and he has incredible range both vocally and in terms of musical styles. He can sing classical Arabic music, folk music from different regions of the Arab world, he can sing in different accents and dialects and he layers onto all that the capacity to give a unique and personal interpretation to songs that he is covering which is the mark of true artist and performer.

But what makes him most special, in my view, is his ability to evoke tarab. Tarab is a concept that does not have an English translation and the creation and experience of tarab is something that is unique to music from the former Ottoman lands. Tarab is related to the concept of koinonia or communion found in Byzantine music. It is the ecstatic, transcendent, emotional and spiritual communion between a performer and his listeners. Tarab leaves you in a state where time and space cease to be felt. But what is essential is a performer who has a voice and style that can evoke tarab. Mohammad Assaf has the talent and capacity to evoke tarab and that is why so many of us in the Arab world, and fans of Arabic music, are mesmerised and captivated by his performance.

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Lebanese television station Al-Jadeed has broken the story (in Arabic) that Senator McCain, in his recent jaunt to Syria, has met with rebels who were involved in the kidnapping of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in May 2012.

The reporter, Nawal Birri, claims that she met two of the men in the picture - Mohammad Nour and Abu Yousef - when they were escorting her television crew when  she visited the Lebanese hostages last year.

A picture posted on facebook of Sen. McCain was the give-away and the news has been creating a scandal in the Middle East and is seen as evidence that the US is friendly with kidnappers and terrorists. The picture can be seen here in a photo taken in Azaz, near the Turkish border, where Senator McCain visited briefly.

According to a recent story in Al-Akhbar English, the Obama administration was aware of the trip:

"We were aware, of course, that Senator McCain was going to make this trip," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "And we look forward to speaking with Senator McCain upon his return to learn more about the trip."

At the State Department, spokesman Patrick Ventrell noted that members of Congress often travel abroad and make their policy positions known. "I don't have a particular reaction to the trip one way or another," Ventrell said.

Yes, I'm sure the administration wants to meet with Sen. McCain when he returns.

Senator McCain's office said that his trip was organised by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a pro-opposition group based in the US:

McCain saw General Salim Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army coalition of rebel groups, as well as 18 commanders of Free Syrian Army battalions from all of Syria, the SETF website said.

"While meeting with Senator McCain, General Idris and FSA commanders asked that the United States increase its aid to the Free Syrian Army in the form of heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and air strikes on Hezbollah," the SETF website said, referring to the Lebanese resistance group backing Assad.

Senator McCain's blundering has put the US in the same camp as kidnappers in the minds of millions in the Middle East. Like America needs more bad PR in the Middle East. Way to win hearts and minds, Senator Clueless.

The news out of the Middle East has been uniformly depressing recently so I'm giving myself a break with some news about the Arab Idol sensation Mohammed Assaf. He has become an instant star and household name throughout the Arab world with many Arabs watching him on MBC or LBCI from Beirut via satellite and over the internet. He is so popular that even western media are taking notice.

His journey to the Arab Idol auditions in Cairo begins with a two-day delay at the Gaza/Egypt border, being late for the auditions, having to scale the hotel walls where the auditions are being held, finding out he missed getting a place and then a fellow Palestinian giving up his place in the auditions so that Mohammad can perform for the judges. This is his audition:

Singing without accompaniment, he wows the judges with the beauty of his voice and his range. The first judge says that he has heard many voices these last few days and he soon forgets them but that Mohammed's voice is one that he will remember and that Mohammed is a 'big yes' (said in English) for entry to the competition. We've got a hint already of just how Mohammed is going to affect the audience and judges of Arab Idol.

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On Saturday, Israel bombed a Syrian military installation outside Damascus called Jamraya in Mt Qassioun, about 15 kms (10 miles) east of the border with Lebanon, in the mountains near Damascus. In previous days, reported violations of Lebanese airspace had increased and it’s most likely Israel attacked while its planes were still in Lebanese airspace. The purported reason for the attack was to prevent movement of missiles to Hezbollah.

I find the reasons given by Israel to be purely for propaganda and insufficient to explain what drove the attacks. It’s an open secret in the region that Hezbollah has far more missiles In Lebanon right now that in 2006 and those that are stockpiled in Syria for Hezbollah’s use would not significantly change the situation. Hezbollah controls much of the cargo coming in and out of the airport in Beirut and most of its weapons shipments from Iran have been coming in via that route, particularly since the movement of equipment through Syria has become quite dangerous in the last few years as the conflict in Syria has raged. It is true that Syria stockpiles some rather advanced and accurate missiles for Hezbollah but Hezbollah already has inside Lebanon some of the Scud D missiles that were purportedly destroyed by the Israeli raid on Jamraya. Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that Syria was thinking of moving those missiles into Hezbollah’s hands. Therefore, it is necessary to look at why the attacks occurred at this point in time.

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During Obama’s visit to Israel/Palestine, the President spent a very little time in Palestine, going to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and meeting with Palestinian President Abbas in Ramallah.

Weather conditions did not allow President Obama to fly by helicopter to Bethlehem (the Khamsin winds were blowing) so he made his way on segregated roads through checkpoints cleared for him and got a glimpse of the Wall Israel has built in and around Bethlehem. President Obama met with Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, an Orthodox Christian, who gave him a letter:

The letter, according to Baboun, is of special importance because it was from the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

"Bethlehem isn't living in peace despite the fact that the city was a source of peace to the whole world," the letter read, according to the mayor of Bethlehem.

She explained that the letter was enclosed with a gift to Obama from the Bethlehem city council -- a sculpture of the birth of Jesus on an olive branch.

Baboun told Ma'an that her letter tackled the issue of Israel's separation wall which surrounds Bethlehem, and Israeli restrictions on construction and development in the small city.

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Egypt’s President Morsi, flushed from international praise after brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, granted himself and bodies dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood sweeping powers this week, excluding himself from any form of judicial review:

Morsi decreed immunity for the panel drafting a new constitution from any possible court decisions to dissolve it. He has also granted the same protection to the upper chamber of parliament. Both bodies are dominated by Morsi's Islamist allies.

Several courts are looking into cases demanding the dissolution of both bodies. Parliament's lower chamber, also dominated by Islamists, was dissolved in June by a court decision on the grounds that the rules governing its election were illegal.

Morsi also decreed that all the decisions he has made since taking office in June and until a new constitution is adopted are not subject to appeal in court or by any other authority, a move that places Morsi above oversight of any kind. He already has legislative powers after the lower chamber was dissolved days before he took office on
30 June.

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Below is a country-by-country round-up of events in the MENA region


Bahrain has continued to repress protests in the capital Manama. Bahraini protesters requested international activists to help them commemorate the first anniversary of protests on February 14. Witness Bahrain reports that two American protesters were deported and several arrested. Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy reported in an earlier Daily Kos diary that he was one of many people prevented from entering Bahrain.

In better news from Bahrain, two prominent protesters, former MP Mattar Ebrahim was acquitted by a Bahrain court on charges of unlawful assembly. Also released was blogger Zainab Alkhawaja, better known as angry arabiya after she was arrested for taking part in the protests earlier this month. These are better strategic moves on the part of the Bahraini government but the protests show little sign of going away.

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Thu Jul 14, 2011 at 07:00 AM PDT

Reading Palestine

by Fire bad tree pretty

As an advocate of Palestinian rights, I read a lot of books about Palestine. The problem is, I rarely finish reading them. (It's not just when the topic is Palestine but right now my focus in terms of advocacy is Palestine so I will describe my experience through that lens.) I can read articles on the internet or magazines but reading anything book-length will usually mean another book about Palestine on shelf that remains half read. There are about 8 books right now, the first one being 'Out of Place' by Edward Said, a memoir of a life lived in exile. The current book I can't finish reading is Saree Makdisi's 'Palestine Inside Out, An Everyday Occupation'.

Why can't I finish reading this book? Well, it's hard for me to get through the relentless stories of misery and suffering, which is basically the Palestinian experience for the last 63 years. In the first chapter, 'Outsides', we have the Wall expropriating Palestinians land in the OPT, farmers who can't reach their crops and their subsequent impoverishment, Israel refusal of permits to reach one's land/job/school, Ottoman laws used to expropriate Palesinian land, 40% of the land in the OPT is taken up by Israeli infrastructure including settlements, roads and military outposts and how all this is in violation of the Geneva Convention.

Skipping forward, there are lists of checkpoints and roadblocks, Israeli soldiers quoted as saying 'I was ashamed of myself the day I realized that I simply enjoy the feeling of power' (p.53) to show the abusiveness of the treatment of Palestinians. There's a recounting of the economic impact of the checkpoints and the closure system, how farmers are being impoverished and people in larger towns don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables within the West Bank because permits are too hard to get, land is too hard to get to. How everything needs permits - people, cars, donkeys.  The 2004 World Bank report states poverty levels are rising and 16% of the population cannot afford basic necessities for subsistence (p 61). There are more lists, one of them showing that the annual cost of a permit is $454 but the per capita income in the OPT is $1200 (p63). There's more about the problems faced by Jersusalem residents and how Israel attempts to gain a demographic advantage there through a myriad of policies. and how a Jewish foothold in Hebron is maintained at the expense of the local population. And there's a bit about the 2000 peace talks, about how Israel wants the land but not the people.

And so it goes.

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President Saleh has left Yemen and is currently being treated in a Saudi hospital. Many observers feel that this is the end for Salih but all that is certain is that a power vacuum remains. The Vice-President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has become acting President. In the tradition of Arab vice-presidents, Hadi was chosen for his weakness and lack of capacity/willingness to built his own power base. This has been confirmed by the fact that Hadi is not operating from the Presidential Palace - Saleh's son Ahmad who is the Commander of the Republican Guard has moved in. Meanwhile:

The official opposition meanwhile is hurrying to throw its support behind Hadi, calling for him to be named acting president, in an effort to start the clock on the 60 days and as a first step towards new elections.  It seems the opposition is hoping that this can short circuit any potential return by Salih from Riyadh, leaving him with a fait acomplii - we'll see.

However, the government has rejected the possibility of talks inspiring thousands of demonstrators to protest outside Hadi's residence demanding a transitional council and calling for a million-man march to keep Salih in Saudi Arabia. Violent clashes continue throughout the country, leading some observers to believe that a civil war has already begun.

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I’ve written before about the thousands of Palestinians who are held as political prisoners or prisoners of conscience in Israeli jails. On April 21st, Ahmad Qatamsheh joined the approximately 7000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. He is an academic , writer and activist. He has been arrested before, tortured and interrogated and spent 6 years in administrative detention, which means that he was held without charge. He was released in 1998, the longest serving administrative detainee. His current arrest happened in the usual way that Palestinians are arrested: his home was invaded in the middle of the night by armed Israeli occupation soldiers, carrying American-made weapons. He is currently in Ofer prison, waiting for another administrative detention order. Once again, there will be no charges and under current Israeli law, 6-month administrative detention orders can be renewed indefinitely.

There was no need for legal niceties such as a subpoena signed by a judge, the necessity to have evidence as a basis for the subpoena etc. This was not even a police action but a military one, driving the point home that Palestinians live under martial law with a military commander who can make arbitrary changes to laws without notice for Palestinians who don’t have the rights of the Israelis who occupy them. Three women – his wife, daughter and niece, have given interviews and written articles talking about their experiences.

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The Arab uprisings of 2011 started out with a great deal of hope that old structures and institutions and mindsets were being cleared away and the revolutionaries have continued to struggle to ensure that their aspirations become part of the new structures. Dictators in Egypt and Tunisia have been dragged out of power, inspiring Arabs across the region to rise up against their leaders. So far, the monarchies of the region and Libya, Syria and Yemen are pushing back against the protesters, often using deadly force. In Libya, Syria and Bahrain, events have taken an interesting turn as we see quite different responses to the situation in each of these countries. In Libya, an alliance of US/EU and Arab League countries are supporting a military intervention to prevent civilian deaths under the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. In Bahrain, the GCC countries led by Saudi Arabia have agreed to occupy Bahrain to restore stability. In Syria, President Assad is being coaxed by a variety of sources to implement reforms to meet protesters demands.

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While protests erupt across the Middle East and North Africa (see the latest Tahrir Mothership and Liveblog for full details as well as weasel’s country by country roundup) protesters are meeting with various levels of success. Crucial to the success of the protests is the appetite for regimes and military and security authorities to inflict violence on their own people. In Tunisia and Egypt, where those authorities did not have the appetite for violence, concessions were made and it appears the momentum for change is unstoppable. In Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, and Algeria, the authorities are more willing to use violence against their people in a marked display of autocratic deafness.

Palestinians face many of the same problems as other in the region. They are subject to a regime that is deaf to their demands and is willing to use violence. Within the Green Line, Palestinians are discriminated against in a range of ways from lower funding by government for education and a range of services including housing, marriage and immigration. In the occupied territories (OPT), they are occupied militarily or under siege, subject to arbitrary arrest and detention due to the criminalisation of political action and speech, constrained by checkpoints and Jewish-only roads and settlements, subject to land expropriation and home demolition and all the problems associated with being Palestinian and living under a regime prepared to use violence against them to quell their aspirations.

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