Interview: The Story Behind ‘Poetry of the Taliban’

[Originally published on Asia Society Blog]

A young Afghan boy smells a flower in the Oshay Bazaar, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, April 26, 2011. (DVIDSHUB/Flickr)

Poetry of the Taliban is an English-language anthology of poems written by the Afghan Taliban that give an insight into the lyrical souls of the members of this miltant group. Kandahar-based researchers and writers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have translated and edited more than 250 poems, sourced mainly from contemporary media — specifically, the Taliban’s official website. The collection also includes samples of older poetic works that date back to the 1980s and 1990s.

Rather than presenting a cohesive ideology, the poems represent a melange of voices. Going beyond political and militant propaganda, these poems reflect a diversity of emotions such as “unrequited love, bloody vengeance and the thrill of battle, religion and nationalism, even a desire for non-violence,” that are expressed through “images of wine, powerful women, song, legend and pastoral beauty.” This anthology presents a complex image of the Taliban that stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream media’s over-simplified and uniform image of the group, which is disconnected from the group’s rich sociocultural history. “It was refreshing to be able to think about Afghanistan outside the usual tropes and patterns,” say the editors.

Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn have lived and worked in Afghanistan since 2006. Together they founded AfghanWire, a network for researching and monitoring Afghan media. Poetry of the Taliban is on sale in the United Kingdom and will be available in the United States on July 17, 2012.

Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn responded to Asia Blog from Kandahar via email.

Afghanistan has a rich tradition of oral storytelling, poetry and music. Why do you think this aspect of Afghan culture has generally been overlooked by the West when trying to understand the Taliban?

A certain narrative of the war in Afghanistan, or of the country itself, has existed for a few years now. The groundwork was laid long before the events of September 11, 2001, in part by journalists who travelled in the country during the 1980s. But the main themes became very clear from 2001 onwards. As part of this, the focus has been on the foreign involvement in Afghanistan, rather than on Afghanistan itself (i.e. on its own terms). Literature, or the cultural heritage of the country, has always been a hard sell to editors back in the United States or in Europe, especially when these more marginal stories have to compete with events that strike closer to home such as dead or injured servicemen and women. That said, there have been people working in this field for many years, regardless of whether they’ve been covered in the media or not. Their efforts are available online to browse through, from Afghan women’s short story writing and poetry to paintings and music.

What kind of experiences do these poems speak about? 

As you might expect from a collection of over 250 songs, there is a diversity of themes covered. We split it into five individual sections, covering love and pastoral themes, religion, politics and social discontent, the battlefield, and the costs of war in human terms. You will probably find all the things you might expect to be here, but sometimes not in the form you had imagined. In “Hunter,” for example, the poet imagines that he is a deer in a forest, and thinks of the relationship between the foreign soldiers trying to kill him as if they are hunters trying to bag a deer. Or there is a poem written by a woman chastising the men around her for failing to fight properly.

What were your criteria for selecting the poems in the anthology? Were you trying to encompass a certain range of subject matter and styles, as well as a historical span?

We had two separate selection methods for this volume. The poems written pre–2001 were chosen to represent the thematic and authorial diversity of the period. The poems written post–2001 are an almost complete collection of everything published on the Taliban’s website between December 2006 and February 2009. In this respect, it’s a representative sample for that time period. We felt it was important to include the earlier (pre–2001) examples to show some of the context out of which this emerged; we could have gone back even further to examples of talibs writing poems in the 19th century, of course.

The anthology has already been criticized for promoting sympathy for the Taliban. How do you respond to such commentary?

We understand where these criticisms are coming from. Troops from 50 different countries are currently fighting in Afghanistan, and each week brings news of more injured and dead. At the same time, though, we would make a distinction between sympathy and empathy. This collection was not complied to garner sympathy for the Taliban. What it does give the reader is a new window on an amorphous group, possibly allowing one to empathize with the particular author of a poem, letting one see the world through their eyes, should one want to do so. For this collection, we felt these songs brought something new to the discussion, and added a perspective on where those who associate themselves with the movement are coming from. From our own experience, we knew how important and resonant these songs were for people living in Afghanistan, and we thought it would be useful to present these to a broader community of scholars, poets and the general public.

The average reader in the West probably regards the Taliban as being profoundly hostile to culture. How do we reconcile incidents like the destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan with the outpouring of poetic sentiment documented in your book?

There is a difference between the formal pronouncements or edicts of the Taliban’s leadership and the fighters on the ground. That is as true for the Taliban as it is true for the British Army. In our introduction we also note the contradiction between the formal edicts issued by Mullah Mohammad Omar (banning most kinds of music) and his private consumption of those same songs that he had banned. This is to be expected. The Taliban are not a monolithic movement, with fixed and unchanging attitudes. In many ways, our difficulties understanding the movement say more about us than it does about the Taliban.

What implications, if any, does this anthology have for seeing an end to the war in Afghanistan? 

This collection was not conceived or published with a political agenda. In fact, it was refreshing to be able to think about Afghanistan outside the usual tropes and patterns. If there is any wider point to be made, it is simply that this is not a conflict that has a military solution. The war will end when the political conflict is tackled, which possibly must begin by challenging and questioning our stereotypes about the Afghan Taliban as well as Afghanistan as a whole.


Multimedia: Pakistani Artists Explore Myth, Reality and Identity

[Originally published on Asia Society Blog.]

Mohammad Ahsan Masood Anwari, Hot Forehead, 2011, acrylic on mixed media, 3 x 4 feet.

Pakistan has a rich cultural and sociopolitical history which is often overshadowed by its political instability. On one hand Pakistani society is confronted with seemingly intractable class, gender and human rights issues, and on the other hand it has a thriving art, media and high-end fashion industry.

Asia Blog caught up with three young artists — Mohammad Ahsan Masood Anwari, Maria Khan and Mohsin Shafi — who spoke to us about their artwork and practice in the extremely contradictory social, political and economic context of Pakistan. The gallery above showcases some of their artwork, and following are individual interviews conducted through email.

Ahsan Masood (right) completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore in 2008 and in 2011 completed his first international artist’s residency in Cape Town, South Africa. Masood has been producing work in acrylics, water paints, conceptual photography, photo transfers and sculptures made from found objects.

“I view sexuality as the ultimate form of defiance and hence a revolution in itself,” says Masood, whose work revolves around a highly politicized sexuality. He draws his inspiration directly from how his religious, social and political context engages with this sexuality, which in turn determines how he deals with issues like arranged marriages between homosexual men, or Section 377 of Pakistan’s penal code, which criminalizes any sexual conduct between two consenting adults who may be of the same gender.

Masood is equally interested in the ethics of producing art and art’s relevance in a country struggling on multiple social and political fronts. Although reluctant to label his art as traditional, he doesn’t believe that it fits within the Pakistani modern art movement. “I have taken a long time to understand what art is. I believe I may require an equal, if not more, amount of time to understand what modern art is.”

While he doesn’t follow a particular aesthetic school, the works of Ali Kazim, Asim Butt and Anwar Syed have been a great influence.

Masood notes that while Pakistan doesn’t have a wide audience for contemporary art, modern art originating from Pakistan has attracted a much wider audience and market in the West.

“Amidst snickering journalists and red-faced young adults,” he says, “I don’t think that my work has been received with open arms by the Pakistani public. About a year ago, one of my male nudes was taken off of a group show in a reputed gallery in Islamabad only a couple of hours before the opening of the show, because a handful of journalists objected.”

He reckons that the challenges of working in the Pakistani art industry are perhaps very similar to those experienced elsewhere in the world. For him, one of the biggest of those challenges is finding a viable space willing to showcase his work. “I am quickly beginning to believe that it is not what you make, but who you know, that can make or break your career. This also posed its own set of obstacles for a self-professed introvert artist,” he concludes.

Mohammas Ahsan Masood Anwari, “Rossie,” 2011, acrylic on canvas, 6.5 x 6 feet.

Maria Khan (right) completed her Masters with Honors in Visual Arts from NCA, Lahore, with a distinction in studio practice, in 2011 and was given the best young artist award in 2010 and 2012 by the Punjab Arts Council. She is skilled in oil painting and drawing. Her work revolves around deformityshowcasing larger-than-life, monstrous characters like the big-bosomed mature Women of the Night (#5 in the gallery above), who sit comfortably in their corpulent flesh and fancy clothes, every smile showing off a beautifully crooked set of teeth. A childlike ribbon, a golden tooth, pet birds…something is delightfully wrong about them.

Borderline feminist, Khan’s work celebrates the idea of being who you are. It is about a woman’s inner nature and visualizing the more disturbing aspects of the self, which are normally kept locked in our heads away from public scrutiny. “I paint women in savage forms,” says Khan.

Khan sees her work as intensely personal and influenced by her immediate surroundings, but not by the country’s economic and political conditions. “We all have stories and secrets that we want to share with the world,” she comments, “and in my case painting was my medium to share those stories.”

Although she works with traditional media and techniques, Khan engages with her subject from a modern perspective that frequently baffles viewers in Pakistan. “They think any surface painted is a painting,” says Khan, “or anyone who can paint is an artist! People expect artists to create only images of beautifully painted women with roses. They are not ready to see a big fat woman with a bleeding rose in their living rooms because that is not ‘beautiful’ by their standards. People are not ready to accept change in artistic expression or see the brutal reality recreated in art.”

At Khan’s thesis show at National College of Arts, she met a woman doctor who was interested in buying one of her paintings. However, the potential buyer wanted Khan to make some changes in the piece, such as cropping the woman figure, changing the background of the painting from yellow to pink (as she felt the yellow was too bright), and finally, adding some sky blue so that the painting would match her pink, white and blue living room. The woman claimed that other than these details, she liked the painting. Khan admits that she was offendedbut at the same time concedes that there are some people who actually understand her work.

“I guess no one should try to understand art,” she remarks, “it’s a visual treat and a person should be able to just enjoy it.”

Maria Khan, “Craving for Love”, 2012, charcoal on canvas, 4.5 x 3 feet.

Mohsin Shafi (right) received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Visual Communication in 2007 and a Masters Degree in Visual Arts in January 2012, both from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore. He lives and works in Lahore. His collages combine many different types of printing into one work. He uses raw sketches, printmaking, photography, cutouts and text all together on one canvas to create vivid imagery. Shafi has also been integrating drawing, printmaking, photography, collage and text, video simultaneously.

Shafi’s densely layered work is rooted in everyday aspects of life and regularly explores the social constructions of race, gender, desire, identity, religion, sexuality and spirituality. “Each art piece is a cathartic release, an artistic expression or both,” he comments. “They document the varied emotional and psychological energies co-existing within my embodied experiences.”

“As far as politics and support from galleries, it can be very frustrating when all you want is to get your work out there to an audience and you are confronted with obstacles that have nothing to do with artistic freedom and more to do with people’s agendas,” he explains. Despite his disappointing experience in dealing with Pakistani galleries, Shafi is hesitant to reach out to Western galleries that showcase Pakistani art, as he feels that most of them are looking for exotic art with a “third world” visual narrative or very minimalistic sophisticated imagery, which he doesn’t produce. However, he stays optimistic by continuing to create and present wherever he can, even if it’s on the streets.

“There is [the] feeling we live in a global village these days and have greater access,” observes Shafi. “This is true to a certain extent, but it also comes at a price. My resources are limited and [I] rely on support and perseverance. I think this is also a reflection of the general contemporary art scene here. It exists, but it has many contradictions and is limited to a chosen few.”

With regard to subject matter, “There is no getting away from local and global social and political tensions,” the artist says, adding that “the important thing is to be aware of these issues and to explore them through art.”

In the video below, Shafi explores the myth of making taweez, a kind of talisman bearing a written Quranic verse or certain numerals that supposedly protects the bearer from misfortune. Shafi is shown making his own taweez on which he tries to inscribe the perfect verse, the perfect word, the perfect digit. After writing something that he thinks will finally work for him, he puts the taweez around his neck with the faith that his troubles will disappear. Each time he enacts the ritual, he writes a different line on the talisman, which is revealed only at the end when the taweez is opened and displayed next to the video installation.

Video: Mohsin Shafi, The Chorus of Hollow Souls, 2012. (3 min., 49 sec.)

Interview (and Photos): Asheer Akram on His Pakistani Cargo Truck Initiative

[Originally published on Asia Society Blog]

Cargo trucks painted in bright colors, with an extremely intricate level of detail, are a common sight on the the highways of Pakistan. The paintings often coupled with lines of poetry, religious calligraphy or common phrases represent the truck driver’s identity and regional background. The images on the trucks embody a wide range of themes, including landscapes, celebrities, beautiful women, mythical creatures, religious imagery and national heroes.

While these fully functional trucks are used only for transporting goods in South Asia, Asheer Akram, a young American artist from Kansas City, Missouri has embarked on the project of building a Pakistani cargo truck with a Midwestern twist in the hope of mixing venerable South Asian traditions with modern American culture. 

“Why can’t I bring this art form to the States to help educate people and promote cultural awareness and understanding,” asks Akram. “I can — but not without proper funding help from everyday people who would like to see this idea manifest itself in reality,” he explains. Currently, Akram and his team are attempting to raise funds for the Pakistani Cargo Truck Initiative through Kickstarter, where the project has managed to raise a little less than half of their $30,000 goal with 19 more days to go.

Asia Blog spoke with Akram via email. Here’s what he had to say:

Can you tell us a little bit about the Pakistani Cargo Truck Initiative, and your collaborators in this project?

The basis of our project is the visual aesthetic of the cargo trucks of Pakistan and the ideas that surround their use. We are building a cargo truck in the traditional Pakistani style with a Midwestern twist and a new function.

After coming up with the idea we started applying for grants, both locally and nationally. We had little luck. So when we caught wind of Kickstarter, we were more than thrilled, since Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects that will allow us to gain the support we need as well as present it to a wide audience. We are hoping our project will be rolling through towns and cities across the U.S. thanks to the support of the public rather than donations and grants from large art organizations with their own agendas.

Our collaborators are mainly artists and artisans from the Kansas City, MO area and other Midwestern cities. After I had announced publicly that I was undertaking the project, people just started getting on board. Most of them I know personally and professionally. They are all extremely focused, talented individuals.

Brock Deboer and Linda Lighton are local ceramicists, each of whom is involved with many of the ceramic details we have planned for the truck. Lighton has already produced several pieces for the interior knobs and panels in the truck, and DeBoer will make ceramic aspects of the back body of the shell of the truck, including panel work.

Bill Heineken will be making the truck bling, with custom spinners for the wheels.

Jorge Calvo is heavily involved in the production of planking and exterior woodwork for the truck, of which there’s quite a bit since the truck’s grill, doors and bed are all wood-intensive.

A few years ago, Jesse McAfee together with Will Burnip developed The Print Factory, a mobile woodblock printing studio which travels the country giving handmade prints away and selling custom versions of their printing press. McAfee will build a compact printing press that will ride around as the cargo in our truck. Burnip will also be working on the hand-carved detail work we’ve envisioned for our truck’s door.

Kathy Bernard will create stained-glass-like elements for the top of the cab and cargo bed. The glass will elegantly illuminate the interior of the vehicle, providing a gorgeous multicolored display of natural light.

Two members of your team, native Pakistani artists Haider Ali and Rahim Akbar, have both exhibited their work internationally. How were you able to enlist their help with the PCTI?

I read about Haider Ali‘s internationally acclaimed truck-painting skills as soon as I started working on this project. I had never thought or meant to contact him; however, I saw a man named “Truck Artist” on Facebook, friended him and everything fell into place. Haider was very interested in our idea, and if we are able to raise enough funding on Kickstarter, we intend to bring him to the U.S. to collaborate with our artists on certain aspects of the truck.

Haider is one of Pakistan’s finest truck artists and has exhibited his work in multiple international festivals and exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. He also painted a truck in Luton, United Kingdom for a special Truck Art exhibition at the Stockwood Discovery Center in 2011. The truck, now a part of the Center’s transport collection, is the only one of its kind in the U.K., possibly Europe.

Rahim Akbar happened upon our project via his Kickstarter support. Rahim offered up his masterful woodworking skills and became a part of the team instantly. He has been instrumental in gaining support, via press and funding, and is an integral part of our team.

An engineer and naval architect by profession, Rahim is a third-generation traditional woodworking artist. He is interested in reintroducing centuries-old art forms from the Middle East and South Asia using modern tools and technology. He hails from the Mughal family with a rich history in architectural design, woodworking, iron smithing and masonry. Naqashkari (decorative masonry scroll work) by his grandfather adorns mosques from Punjab to Sind in Pakistan. Following his grandfather’s footsteps, Rahim has made intricate carved wooden mehrabs (interior niches) for mosques in the U.S. He was recently commissioned to do the largest carved solid wood mehrab in the U.S. at the Institute of Knowledge in Los Angeles, which also houses his carved dome calligraphy in 23-karat gold leaf.

Last year you explained to the Kansas City Star that the inspiration for this project came during your 2010 visit to Pakistan. Was there a particular moment when the idea came to you?

My last trip to Pakistan inspired me to begin dreaming about this project. These vehicles stick out on the open road against a backdrop of neutral landscape and cityscape. Being a fine artist and craftsman, I was astonished to have never heard of the existence of these trucks. To be honest, I was a little upset that I had to travel all the way to Pakistan to find them.

That’s when the ideas started rolling in. Why can’t I bring this art form to the States to help educate people and promote cultural awareness and understanding? I can — but not without proper funding help from everyday people who would like to see this idea manifest itself in reality. I knew this project needed to be a collaborative effort, and the support we have found from local and international artist and artisans has been overwhelming.

What is the significance of decorated trucks in Pakistan? And what kind of themes and imagery do they generally portray?

The visual component of these vehicles creates a hierarchical system of value and class; the more ornate and beautiful the truck is, the more valuable the goods it will be carrying. The tradition comes from the era of crafts and craftsmen from the Mughal empire. These vehicles take hordes of Pakistani craftsmen and many months to complete. Extreme attention is paid to the intricate details in every aspect of these trucks, from the paint job to the finely hand-carved wooden doors.

This elaborate style stems from the old style of palace decor employed during the Mughal era. The themes usually employed in the decoration of these trucks vary from the drivers’ favorite actors or sports stars all the way to aspects of traditional local culture in the Pakistani provinces that they hail from. More than anything the drivers of these trucks use the decorations to define who they are and what they are proud of. Our truck is intended to do the same.

What’s the purpose behind creating this visually elaborate truck in the U.S.?

For this project we have selected a 1952 Chevrolet grain truck as a shell. This style of truck is distinctly American and has been a longstanding staple in the farming industry of the Midwest. We will be tasking Midwestern fine artists and artisans with taking the basic format of the traditional Pakistani cargo truck and breeding it with an American aesthetic to create a completely original, functional and culturally mixed final product. The truck will be displayed as a piece of fine art and used as a tool for social and cultural enrichment. We intend for this truck to travel from one coast to the other, bringing a visual aesthetic not seen by the majority of the population, to teach sculpture workshops and raise awareness of the importance of cultural enrichment and understanding.

Egypt: Social Movement Amplified through Social Media

This photo by Nasser Nouri shows protesters clashing with Mubarak’s security forces in Mahalla, about 110 km (68miles) north of Cairo on 7 April 2008. The police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannon and live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators. The latter blocked the railway lines by rocks and wooden logs. Hossam_el-Hamalawy/Flickr

In January 2011, Egypt witnessed the largest anti-government protests responsible for overthrowing a dictatorial regime. Within eighteen days, Hosni Mubarak forcibly stepped down from the presidency after having ruled for thirty years. “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world”, tweeted one Egyptian activist in the early days of the nation’s uprising. Following is an attempt at mapping out the digital media landscape of Egypt prior to the 2011 uprising.

Immediately after President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in neighbouring Tunisia, Egyptian activists called for mass protests against unemployment, poverty, government corruption and lack of political freedom. The protesters demanded that President Mubarak step down, that the government repeal the emergency law and that presidential terms be limited. As thousands of people gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011, protests broke out countrywide within hours in other cities, including Suez and Alexandria.

During the mass uprising, mobile phones, social networks and digital media technologies played a significant role in organising and coordinating the protests, bearing witness to abuses by security forces and garnering international support. It is critical to note that despite the importance of digital tools in political mobilisation, the movement was successful in deposing Mubarak because of the people on the streets risking their safety to face rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, batons and arrests.

Under Mubarak’s regime, Egypt turned into an aggressive police state. The Emergency Law, first enacted in 1958, allowed the suspension of citizens’ constitutional rights, legitimised censorship, restricted non-governmental political activity and permitted indefinite imprisonment of individuals without charge. The Emergency Law has remained consistently in effect since 1967, except for a brief period of 18 months in 1980.

In addition to the Press Law and penal code provisions that govern Egyptian media, the Emergency Law continues to curb the constitutional freedom of the media in the post-Mubarak era. The Press Law, amended in 2006, removes limitations on the media in reporting private and public financial dealings of national political figures, however it continues to mandate criminal penalties for criticizing the president or foreign leaders. Human Rights Watch stated that the “vague and broadly worded provisions in Egypt’s Press Law invite abuse and contravene international standards of freedom of expression”.

Over the past decade, the Egyptian government has made considerable progress in building the state’s information and communications technology infrastructure. The proliferation of cheap mobile phones and computers in the last decade allowed these technologies to quickly gain popularity among the Egyptian population. New media technologies have played a significant role in the recent uprisings in Egypt where more than half of the population is under 25 years of age. The disenchanted youth population applied their knowledge of digital tools including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and text messages to organise protests, meetings and to generate political dialogue under an authoritarian regime. In 2009, the Berkman Center for Internet & Security identified that the highest number of blogs from the Arab world were Egyptian with the highest proportion of female bloggers found among the Egyptian youth sub-cluster .

Social Media Activism Leading up to the 2011 Uprising

Although the Egyptian people were inspired by the 2010 mass uprisings in Tunisia, the 25 January Movement was a tipping point for Egyptians after a decade of strikes and demonstrations within Egypt expressing social, political and economic discontent. Social media served as an alternative source of information, communication and political expression for the Egyptian people under a repressive authoritarian regime.

Starting in 2004, Egyptian bloggers became increasingly involved in covering anti-government protests and documenting police brutality. Among them, blogger Wael Abbas has become an important source for the Egyptian press in exposing state abuse. Abbas and other citizen journalists faced serious consequences for their success in drawing attention to the government’s misconducts, police abuse, violence against women and coverage of political protests. The Egyptian police responded by subjecting bloggers and reporters to arrests, intimidation and pressure.

When opposition activists held peaceful demonstrations outside the Interior Ministry in May 2005 to protest the public referendum on constitutional changes, the riot police and pro-government armed civilians attacked activists and journalists, and sexually assaulted women at the demonstrations. Bloggers present at the demonstration recorded and uploaded videos and pictures of these attacks to the Internet. The national and international media then used these pictures and videos to report on state violence. As a result of publishing evidence of police misconduct, the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Interior, established units to monitor online content put forward by Egyptian bloggers as well as international coverage of Egypt (Steven Cook in  The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square).

Over the past two decades, due to rising food prices and low wages, Egypt’s working population has staged thousands of protests. Protests became more frequent between 2006 and 2008, when the al-Mahalla al-Kubra, Egypt’s textile industry town, became the hub for demonstrations. In December 2006, close to 27,000 workers went on strike to demand higher wages to be able to afford the rising cost of food and consumer products. Strikes continued through 2007, with thousands of workers including textile workers from al-Mahalla al-Kubra planning another strike for 6 April 2008 over high food prices, low wages and the possible privatisation of state owned factories (Cook).Harsh police crackdown on the strike, however, stopped the protesters from reaching their goal. Nonetheless, the movement proved to be an important event for laying the foundation for social media activism and the subsequent 2011 uprisings.

In solidarity with the al-Mahalla al-Kubra workers, two young volunteers of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour’s El-Ghad opposition party, Ahmed Maher and Israa Abdel-Fattah, came together to create the 6 April Youth Movement group on Facebook.The aim of the movement was to support workers by staging demonstrations in Cairo and encourage a nationwide boycott of consumer goods. Although the protests in Cairo did not gather a large crowd, it showed the importance of social media in generating political dialogue when 70,000 people joined the Facebook group.

The next major event in Egypt’s social media activism campaign took place in June 2010, following the death of Khaled Said, a young businessman. Said was tortured and brutally beaten to death by the Alexandria police on a public street in front of several observers. According to news sources, authorities targeted Said because he possessed video evidence of illegal drug transactions involving members of the police force. The story and images of his brutalised corpse went viral on social media networks, sparking demonstrations by outraged citizens. The street protests against police brutality were a turning point in uniting members of leading opposition groups including Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Ayman Nour.

The deeply flawed parliamentary elections held in 2010 also served as an important catalyst for the 25 January Movement in Egypt. As Mubarak’s regime refused to allow international election monitors, civil society initiatives proved critical in reporting on intimidation, violence, ballot stuffing, removing names of opposition candidates from ballots and closing polling stations. The Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC) and the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA) set up, a crowdsourced digital mapping platform to gather reports on misdemeanours during the elections.

The U-Shahid platform allows citizens to update multimedia content through various social media networks, email and text messaging service. The DISC recruited and trained 130 bloggers and activists from major cities across Egypt to monitor and report on the elections in real-time. Additionally, the organisation worked with Thompson-Reuters to set up specific guidelines for validation of crowdsourced data submitted by other citizens. Prior to the November elections, four other crowdsourced mapping platforms were set up by independent organisations and smaller groups of social media activists for collecting data to increase transparency and democracy.

Within days of Said’s death, Dubai-based Google executive Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said” that gained close to 130,000 followers within weeks. In the aftermath of the Tunisian protests, which were first publicised on social media and then broadcast on international satellite television channels, Ghonim used his page to call for a “Revolution against Torture, Corruption, Unemployment and Injustice” scheduled for 25 January. The date was significant because it was Egypt’s Police Day, a national holiday to commemorate the killing of 50 police officers in 1952 at Ismailia Police Station.

Thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square from all over Cairo, with protesters using their mobile phones and computers to publish updates on social media, videos, audio files and images to tell people in Egypt and around the world about the mass protests. In the beginning, the movement received very little attention in the mainstream media, but once videos and images of the protests flooded social networks, audiences criticized international satellite channels like Al Jazeera for their failure to cover the unrest in Egypt. Soon after, major international news channels began to use reports from citizen journalists and social media activists to tell the story of the Egyptian uprising.

Although digital media technologies help activists and journalists quickly share information and organise, these technologies also allow the governments to easily monitor people’s activities. As the protests acquired more followers and international attention during the 2011 movement, the Egyptian government attempted to block access to social networking sites websites, such as Facebook and Twitter. On 28 January 2011, the Egyptian government ordered major Internet Service providers (ISP) in the country to suspend Internet services, a move that drew immediate criticism from the international community. The government shut down the country’s six largest ISPs, with the exception of the small ISP, Noor. Noor, a company focused on servicing the Egyptian financial sector, continued to operate until 31 January when the Egyptian government ordered the ISP to shut down along with mobile phone services. The country’s Internet and mobile network services remained inactive until restored on 2 February. Activists were able to bypass the Internet block through proxy servers, mesh networks, fax modems, dial-up Internet using international numbers, communicating over amateur radio frequencies and other specially created services. As the world saw a majority of Egyptians losing access to the Internet, engineers from Google, Twitter and SayNow came together to create a service called Speak To Tweet allowing people to send audio tweets by dialling a phone number and recording their messages.

Mobile Technology

With over 90% of the population owning mobile phones, text messaging is an important medium of communication. Prior to the 2005 elections, the Muslim Brotherhood rallied political support through text messaging campaigns and was successful in winning 20% of the parliamentary seats. Seeing the success of effective text messaging campaigning, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) put messaging under heavy regulations leading up to the 2010 elections. Media outlets interested in distributing news via text messaging were required to obtain a separate license.

The license required companies to pay a 3% fee to cover costs of government monitoring of the content disseminated to subscribers. Consequently, opposition groups that did not have an official status such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Association for Change, the Nasserists, the Wasat Party and a number of protest groups were barred from using mass text messaging services (Cook).

Following the Egyptian state’s failed attempt to block the Internet to quiet down the protest, government turned to mobile phones for spreading mass propaganda. Mobile phone subscribers reported receiving messages urging protesters to stay at home and not participate in the movement. Moreover, the Information Ministry forced major mobile-phone carriers including Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat to send out mass text messages to their subscribers urging them to attend pro-Mubarak rallies.

Traditional Media

Despite some freedoms granted to the media under the Mubarak regime, starting in 2004, state-owned and private media outlets still experience heavy regulations, close monitoring and censorship by the government. In preparation for the run-off elections scheduled for December 2010, NTRA cancelled the permits of all broadcast companies that provided live television news feeds in Egypt in an effort to control the flow of information from polling stations around the country. Although these media outlets were asked to apply for new licenses, they were required to use state-owned facilities to broadcast (Cook).

The state controlled media in Egypt refused to broadcast images of thousands of people gathering in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the protests. In order to undermine the legitimacy of the protesters, the state media labelled them thugs, anarchists and foreign representatives. Egyptian television networks such as Al Oula TV, Nile TV and Al Masriya TV, all controlled by the Information Ministry, spread propaganda about alleged plots and “foreign” conspiracies. Despite this, through social media platforms, activists and citizen journalists were able to dispel rumours and propaganda by the state-run media.

Activists and journalists present in Cairo during the uprising reported being explicitly targeted by security forces and armed pro-government civilians. “It genuinely seemed like journalists had indeed been explicitly targeted…those who weren’t attacked by mobs were arrested by police officers or detained — allegedly for their own safety — by the military”, reported Khalil Ashraf.

The Battle for Freedom Continues

In the post-Mubarak era, Egyptian bloggers, social media activists and professional journalists continue to play a crucial role in reporting on misconducts of the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). On-going protests calling for democracy, transparency and accountability on part of the ruling military government often result in violent clashes between activists and security forces. At the same time the ruling military council continues to detain, question, abuse and harass professional and citizen journalists.

International organisations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Project Journalists (CJP) are concerned about the continued crackdown on bloggers, activists and reporters. According to the RSF Press Freedom Index for 2011-2012, Egypt has fallen 39 places from its previous rank of 127 out of 179 countries to 166. Moreover, Arab media studies scholar, Adel Iskandar, notes that while there is a surge in private media and Egyptians are increasingly turning towards satellite channels, the military exercises considerable control over state as well as private media. “Through a sinister combination of compulsion and coercion, the military has both effectively infiltrated most private networks and has an array of options to ensure compliance from station owners, staff and media personalities”, writes Iskandar.

As Egyptians continue to struggle for freedom and democracy, citizens in other Arab nations are rising up against repressive regimes. Digital media allows not just the activists to organise, share information and document violence by the state, it also allows the ruling governments to monitor, censor and intimidate citizens. In light of the crucial role technology has played in mass movements across the Middle East, on 23 April 2012, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Orderto authorise sanctions against entities using information and communication technologies for committing human rights abuses especially in collaboration with the Iranian and Syrian regimes. The sanctions are directed at entities or individuals that have operated or directed the operation of, information and communications technology that facilitates network disruption, monitoring, or tracking that could assist in human rights abuses by or on behalf of the Iranian and Syrian governments.
During the 2011 Egyptian uprising, protesters found evidence of a British technology firm offering to sell digital intelligence software to the Egyptian government for monitoring Internet activity. Moreover, in recent years, a number of Western technology companies have reportedly provided monitoring and censorship technologies to repressive regimes in the Middle East. Although, President Obama’s order does not clarify whether these sanctions will target American firms and individuals, this is a positive first step towards taking global initiatives for creating policies that prevent the utilisation of technologies as tools of oppression.

This week in digital warfare

US Air Force Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) 'Beast of Khandahar'. (james_gordon_los_angeles/Flickr)

A few days ago I was musing about the potential of digital technologies to enable cross-cultural dialogue and lead a global shift in changing how information is created, organized and shared. With the technology becoming increasingly non-hierarchical, there is a surge in multiple voices being amplified through social and digital media. This cacophony could be positive in promoting peace, but at the same time these technologies are being used by those who continue to believe in the power of aggression. Some of the war related news this week has a heavy focus on technology which reveals how technology has become an integral aspect in modern-day conflicts.

Iran Cracks US Stealth Spy Drone’s Secrets, Shows Proof – Gizmodo
Iran claims to have cracked the code on American stealth spy drone RQ-170 Sentinel that the NATO forces lost control of over Iranian territory last December. As proof, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards presented some of the flight records of the drone from 2010. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dismissed Iran’s claims saying that, “Based on my experience I would seriously question their ability to do what they say they’ve done”. There is a possibility that Iran might be overstating it’s ability to crack extensive U.S. military codes as part of leverage in talks about Iran’s nuclear program. However, if the Iranians are actually capable of decoding U.S. military technology, that’s just a whole new chapter in cyber warfare with hazardous consequences that falls outside of international legal order.

Facing Cyberattack, Iranian Officials Disconnect Some Oil Terminals From Internet – The New York Times
The cyber attack seems to have effected only the Oil Ministry’s headquarters and not the oil infrastructure itself.  The Iranian officials played down the threat by claiming no significant damage was done to oil production with minimal data loss. The cyber attack could be part of a strategy to increase pressure on Iran for the upcoming nuclear talks, at the same time, Iran’s energy sector has reportedly been facing an increasing number of cyber attacks in recent years. The Iranian authorities, on the other hand, could have deliberately released information about this most recent cyber attack as a sign of resilience against such tactics.
meanwhile, U.S. tech firms help authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere help censorship. not sure how Obama’s new sanctions will impact American firms.

US Targets IT In New Iran, Syria Sanctions – The Wall Street Journal
On Monday, President Obama signed an Executive Order to authorize sanctions on entities using information and communication technologies for committing human rights abuses in collaboration with the Iranian and Syrian regimes. The fact sheet accompanying the Executive Order outlines that, restrictions will apply to those who “have sold, leased, or otherwise provided, directly or indirectly, goods, services, or technology to Iran or Syria likely to be used to facilitate computer or network disruption, monitoring or tracking that could assist in or enable serious human rights abuses by or on behalf of the Government of Iran or the Government of Syria”. Meanwhile, some U.S. firms are implicated in providing technology to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa for censoring political and social content and from this Executive Order it is not clear if the sanctions will apply to the U.S. firms as well. The U.S. government has to consider that technology sanctions will be effective only if applied uniformly to all entities whether they are based in Syria and Iran or in the West.

Democracy slowly spreads to the margins of Pakistani society

Screen shot of The Guardian's audio sildeshow on hijras by Declan Walsh

[The image above is from: New life beckons for the hijra, Pakistan’s transgender community – The Guardian]

In the state where religious extremism has been endorsed by the state and the military establishment since 1947, and where extremism has been on a consistent sharp rise over the past decade, transgendered people have always been more readily accepted than homosexuals. Although, transgendered people – known in local language as hijra, khawa sira or khusra (catch all terms used for referring to transgenders, transvestites and eunuchs) – have been denied identity and citizenship since the formation of Pakistan, they have been allowed to exist visibly in the margins of the Pakistani society.

In the past sixty years, khawaja siras in Pakistan have faced discrimination and abuse. They have been denied basic human rights, education, health care and respectable job opportunities. “Their story is, or one could easily say ‘was,’ painful until the summer of 2009,” writes Rabail Baig in a recent Foreign Policy article highlighting the recent Supreme Court decisions allowing khawaja siras to register themselves as transgendered on national identity cards and to vote in general elections like other Pakistani citizens. However, the reality of their lives is much harsher than the denial of identity and citizenship by the state.

Rarely accepted by their families, khawaja siras live in their own communities where they create their own families. The “guru” or the master is usually an older, more experienced and influential member of the community who acts as the guardian and sometimes as a mother for her disciples. Not only are they cast out, they are often beaten and humiliated by their families and other people including law officers. Since they are not accepted by the society and often lack education, they rely on dancing, begging and prostitution as the main sources of income.

Following the 2009 Supreme Court ruling to register hijras, the state also offered them a number of government jobs. In order to embarrass people who failed to pay their taxes, khawaja sira were hired as door to door tax collectors who reportedly collected $100,000 of unpaid taxes within nine months of the program. Hiring khawaja siras for their “persuasive skills” and the public embarrassment they may cause the individuals evading taxes highlights the the social stigma that is very deeply connected with the third gender in Pakistan, and offering job positions that exploit this stigma fails to accord any respect to the members of transgender community.

While recognition of their citizenship and reduction in police violence and abuse is an overall positive outcome, the number of individuals claiming their newfound rights to register for national identity card and general election voting lists remain very low among the transgender community whose numbers are thought to be somewhere between 80,000 and 300,000. Among the many reasons for disappointingly low registration is the fact that many khawaja sira who have been ostracized by their families would like to put the name of their guru as their legal guardian, which is not yet possible under the current legal system as the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) asks for documents of biological parents at the time of registration.

A recent documentary following the lives of a few khawaja siras in Pakistan, Chan di Chummi (Kiss the Moon, 2009), expressed the difficulties this community faces on a more basic level in their day to day lives. Watching the individuals featured in the documentary, I realized that not only are the transgender marginalized by the social and legal systems, they seem to have internalized the oppression of the society. One of the khawaja sira, Aini seemed unable to express her own identity and she cannot reconcile her biological and psychological condition with the demands of the social and religious setup around her. They feel that the “right” thing to do is to repress their identity and emotions as according to Islam the life of a transgender person is sinful. Another khawja sira, Sonya points out that most of them don’t have any legal documents or identity cards since they don’t require one as a distinct “clap” (a mark of a South Asian hijra) serves as their ID card. Thus, the khawaja siras have been denied identity in the social as well as the legal system of South Asia.

During the film, a 110 year old khawja sira, Boota, explains that people in South Asia used to treat transgendered people with more respect in older times. In older times, people would listen to their music and appreciate their skill, but now their trade has been cheapened. The film shows how this community struggles with the most simple things like having normal relationships and family lives, and these issues may matter far more to them than being able to vote . One of the individuals comments on the double standards their biological families uphold, the families are not embarrassed when the khawja siras do chores typically associated with women at home, but the family members are appalled by the idea of their sons and daughters openly living a transgender life.

Traditionally, the media has always represented exaggerated stereotypical images of khawaj sira on the television, however a recent news report showed the funeral of a transgender person for the first time in Pakistan’s media history. The reporter explains that in the South Asian culture, there are a number of myth’s surrounding the burial services of khawaja siras, many people believe that the khajwa sira take their dead to the graveyard at night and bury them standing straight up. The report throws light on an important aspect of transgender life that most South Asians fail to even consider: transgender people are normal human beings like everyone else and follow the same religions, rituals and beliefs as the rest of the society around them.

Changes in the legal system are important for helping the transgender persons their rights, but those rights will continue to be denied by the people around them unless they are integrated into the social fabric of Pakistani culture. As long as khawaja siras are pushed to the margins of the society and treated as an alien race, the abuse and humiliation they suffer on a daily basis cannot be mitigated by changing a few laws.

As Pakistan and India work on building trust…

Flag ceremony, a highly dramatized daily ritual at Wagah border. (Joshua Song / Flickr)

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent trip to India has received lots of media attention in both countries since it’s the first visit by a Pakistani head of state to India in the past seven years. Although President Zardari claimed that he was making the trip as a private citizen, his 40 minutes meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is quite symbolic. During this meeting Zardari and Singh discussed some key issues such as normalisation of trade ties, terrorism and Kashmir.

Last year Pakistan decided to grant india the Most Favored Nation status and recent reports show that Pakistan will be importing petrol and energy from India, while India will allow foreign direct investment by Pakistan. The two countries will be collaborating on higher education programs as well. A new checkpost for trade has opened at Wagah border and prisoners, especially fishermen who unknowingly end up in the other country’s waters,  are expected to be released.

After looking at the coverage of these events in South Asian and in Western mainstream media, I realize that there seems to be little analysis of what a normalized India-Pakistan relationship means in context with Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan and the United States. For instance, a New York Times article and a Washington Post article both mention that Zardari’s visit to India came in the aftermath of the $1 million bounty for the arrest of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed of Lashkar-i-Taiba who was allegedly responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. However, it seems as if Pakistan and India’s relations are treated as completely separate from Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and relations the United States. The India trip is also significant as it comes at a time when Pakistan’s parliament unanimously proposed that the U.S. must immediately end all drone strikes and CIA operations in the country if they expect Pakistan to reopen NATO supply routes. On the one side, Pakistan is openly expressing its disapproval of U.S. presence in the region, and on the other side they are looking to improve relations with India.

Some points to keep in mind as India and Pakistan (once more) begin to work towards peace:

– First, while Pakistan’s civilian government has been making consistent moves towards better relations with India, the rapprochement is centered currently on economic relations with the expectation of resolving political disputes. Although the Pakistani military establishment is supportive of reconciliation with their Enemy Number 1, it remains to be seen just how much concession they are willing to make as peace with India shakes the foundations of the military’s raison d’être which is based on the ideology of India posing an existential threat to Pakistan. If India does not continue to pose a real or imagined threat to Pakistan, the Pakistani military cannot justify the large chunks of money that it receives from the country’s budget and foreign sources as well as its extended power over the domestic and foreign policies. It would also mean cutting down on support for the militant organisations that fight the military’s proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and are sometimes involved in small scale attacks in India.

– Second, improvement in Indo-Pak relations are important for stability of the entire region especially in terms of the role Pakistan plays in Afghanistan as international forces prepare to leave. Vali Nasr speaking at Asia Society recently pointed out that the absence of any coherent Pakistan policy by Washington has been a major factor in America’s strategic failure in Afghanistan. Washington’s extremely narrow focus on dealing with Pakistan only  on a military level, has contributed to damaging Pakistan’s domestic political and economic arenas. For a peaceful and stable future of Afghanistan, it’s not enough to just get Pakistani military to support the U.S. in dealing with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Pakistani military’s attitude towards militant jihadis in Afghanistan and western regions of Pakistan is very much connected with Pakistani fears over India’s involvement in Afghanistan.

– Third, over the last 60 years there have been a number of attempts at improving relations between the two countries in-between periods of war and animosity. However, unlike in the past, the move towards peace may actually last longer this time as democracy in Pakistan seems to be gaining more strength, especially since last year when the military faced strong set backs in the aftermath of the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s judiciary and civil society have been gaining more strength recently and the pressure on civilian leadership might finally push them towards more transparency and accountability for taking more charge of the future political, economic and social direction of Pakistan.

[Unrelated note on the image above: Indian and Pakistani officers perform the flag ceremony with exaggerated (and loud) gestures of gate slamming, feet stomping and head shaking expressing hate. However, the Indian and Pakistani military guards can be seen exchanging jokes and smoking cigarets together by the metal gates before and after the ceremony is attended daily by hundreds of spectators on both sides.]