Yemenity2010's Blog

Dangerous Year for International Reporters

Posted in Blog Entry in English by yemenity2010 on 27/12/2014

International reporters faced many risks – as usual – this year. Maybe even more so than recent years, judging from a recent report from CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists). Worst place to be? Not surprisingly, Syria.

As a rule, CPJ states, nine out of ten killed in the line of duty are ”local peopl covering local stories”. In 2014, almost one out of four journalists killed were foreign correspondents. All in all, 60 journalists or more died in 2014 while on assignment. Some of the most well-known cases were Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff, kidnapped and executed by the so-called Islamic State, operating in Iraq and Syria. In Syria alone, 17 reporters were killed. In Iraq there were five, four in Israel/Palestine, five in Ukraine and three in Pakistan. Most of these countries are already considered dangerous places for journalists because of prolonged armed conflicts, while the three murdered reporters in Paraguay was unusual.

Other trends emerging in the report: Half of the killings happened in the Middle East. More than 40 precent of the journalists killed were targeted. Some of them had received threats before. The most dangerous topics to cover are – also not unexpected – politics, war and human rights issues. CPJ, an organisation that’s been doing these investigations for over 20 years, emphasizes their strict criteria for determining whether or not a reporter or photographer really was killed ”in relation to his or her work”. Other similar organizations might use ”different criteria” and ”cite higher numbers of deaths”.

For more details, visit the CPJ homepage.

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The MO of ISIS according to PBS

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Tema: Politik by yemenity2010 on 12/11/2014

– These guys are crazy. But there’s method to the madness.

Ali Soufan, representing something called The Soufan Group, interviewed in the documentary ”The Rise of ISIS”, published on October 28 by American Public Service Broadcaster PBS, available online here on the other side of the Atlantic as well.

– They’re trying to create a real state, not some postmodern virtual, al-Qaeda style thing that only exist in your head. They’re trying to create something that looks like a real state. It’s a very different model.

David Kilcullen, American military advisor according to the show, describing the MO (or modus operandi) of ISIS or the Islamic State and comparing them to al-Qaeda. They’re not exactly the same thing… Well, we’ve heard that before, right? We’re all learning. Much have been said and written about ISIS, ISIL or IS or whatever the official acronym eventually will be. Everyone everywhere involved in international politics seems to have an opinion about the group, or army, or band of brutal brothers, or… take your pick. And a lot of what’s being said is about ventilating thoughts on how and when everyone else in a position to do something about it, should have done something about it, before it came to this place. Where we are now. Or at least where the people in the affected region find themselves.

ISIS have experienced military staff in their ranks, and captured American weapons as an added bonus. They know how to organize their troops, plan ahead, use sophisticated military equipment and also how to improvise. Syria and Iraq are their main battle field right now, but at least according to what we are told by experts (real or purported ones) it’s not going to end there. This recent documentary probably isn’t the definitive account of what has led to this development, but it does provide quite a lot of background information and analysis into roughly one hour. It obviously has a strong US perspective on the matter, and does contain some pretty graphic footage from the war zones where ISIS has moved forward, including short but effective sequences showing mass executions of enemy soldiers. For your information.

The images are effective. While the interviewed people are close to 100 percent either military, intelligence or political analysts, mostly from the US (and a few Iraqi ones) as far as I could tell. Also, nearly all of them are men, middle-aged or older. That seems like a norm in these kinds of strategic policy-minded, sort of in-depth documentaries. And it begs the simple question: Why?

One important point the documentary makes is the need for the sunni and shia muslims in Iraq to reach an agreement, see eye to eye to avoid a disaster. But there’s a long and complicated relationship history there, and obviously a bumpy road ahead…

Yemen Still Cause for Concern, According to UK Report

Posted in Blog Entry in English by yemenity2010 on 01/05/2014

kullarostadbearb”Widespread violations of human rights in Yemen continued during 2013, with the government showing limited capacity to improve the situation.” 

The very first sentence of a new report from the UK government.

So, what’s new? The government of the United Kingdom recently published a report on human rights and democracy around the world, including a chapter on Yemen, titled ”Yemen – Country of Concern”. Hardly unexpected, since that country always seems to be a source of concern for many concerned people inside and outside its borders. I stumbled on the current report thanks to a mention on another blog called The Wadi.

So, what’s the state of affairs in Yemen right now or at least during 2013, according to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Here are some excerpts: The minimum legal age for marriage has been an issue for some time now, since Yemen is one of the countries where a significant number of – yes, mostly girls – end up being married at a very early age. A so-called National Dialogue Conference has recommended changes, such as implementing av minimum legal age in this case, but really making it happen could take some time.

DSC06122Freedom of expression is said to have improved. Slightly, at least. The troubled nation is still parked among the lowest-rated in the World Press Freedom Index, currently 169 out of 179. Human rights defenders are still reported to suffer perscution. Yemen is presently ruled by what is called a transitional government as a result of the protests and upheavals that started in 2011 and which made long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh resign and leave the country. There is room for improvement when it comes to the justice system, according to the new report. Evidence-based convictions are not as common as they should be, apparently. No surprise there either. My personal impression, based on the few things I managed to learn during my one year in Yemen in 2010 was that the justice system is arbitrary, to say the least.

The death penalty is still used. A lot, probably. Earlier it has been sort of an official secret that many of the executions are carried out in secret, ‘off the record’ and all statistics on the matter are highly unreliable. The UK report specifically comments on the use of capital punishment for juvenile offenders, which is in fact ”prohibited under Yemeni law”. It is also claimed that African migrants have been captured on arrival and tortured to ”extort their family details”. Who’s doing this? The report does not accuse the government of being perpetrators (as far as I can see) but criticizes authorities for not doing enough about it. Furthermore, some 300 000 people could be displaced in the country, following armed conflicts going on there.

gitarrtriobearb1Women’s rights… Always an issue here. The report claims that Yemen is currently ranked at number 148 out of 148 nations in a UNDP Gender Inequality Index. (Note: I have tried to find that exact statistic at UNDP:s website, but so far I’ve got a little lost among their tables and hope to be able to explore the topic more later on, sometime). While there are progress in some areas, in others the trend is arguably going backwards. Women are, at least on the surface, getting more influence in politics, but some of the female activists are being ”co-opted by political parties”. There is also an important difference between educated women and the majority; poor, uneducated women who still remain outside any real sphere of influence. What springs to my mind is the gap between men and women concerning literacy rate. Although the situation seems to improve slightly, the majority of men are considered literate while the majority of women are not, according to all available statistics. And I suspect there is still a big difference between urban and rural areas when it comes to girls’ possibilities to get even basic schooling.

Economically, Yemen as a whole ”remains the poorest country in the Middle East” according to the report, suffering from ”high levels of poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition”. Some cold, hard numbers:

– Approximately ten million Yemenis do not get enough food each day

– 13 million lack access to safe water or sanitation

– 7,7 million don’t have access to health care

These were some ‘highlights’ from the corporate report ”Yemen – Country of Concern”, published by the United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 10 April 2014.

Intriguing ‘Game’ Seen from Different Perspectives

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Tema: Kultur by yemenity2010 on 16/07/2013

It might seem like everyone is watching it. Obviously, it’s just a minority of the population on this planet. Still, if you get caught up in the machinations of ”Game of Thrones”, it might be difficult to leave… So, I couldn’t resist writing a few sentences myself and adding some comments from different perspectives about the HBO fantasy show. You can find it on one of my other forums, Cast Against Hype.

Some basic issues:

What are the core ingredients in most dramatical storytelling?

How do you create an interesting podcast about TV shows like this?

Is ”Game of Thrones” a great way of describing human history through metaphors and fictitious characters? One historian seems to think so.

Or is it, like one writer suggests, too grim for its own good?

Read more at Cast Against Hype.

There is also a version in Swedish available at Fair Slave Trade.

Somewhat related stuff: ”I’m a rebellious woman. I’m against traditions, stereotypes, and society rules that are imposed on us under no basis or logical ground.” Yemeni filmmaker Alaa Al-Eryani speaks up, interviewed by Yemen Times recently. Film producing, writing and human rights activism seem to be equally important to this up-and-coming talent, according to the newspaper.

A Tense and Turbulent Testament – For Better or Worse

Posted in Blog Entry in English by yemenity2010 on 29/03/2013

At least they seem to have had a decent special effects budget. The new dramatized Bible series, produced for History Channel by Mark Burnett and Roma ”Touched by an Angel” Downey is otherwise struggling with a certain turbulence of its own. And I’m not sure it could be characterized as a consistently well-structured drama, judging from the first 90-minute episode, shown on Swedish Television yesterday. But it does make these old stories, familiar for many of us, come alive again.

To begin with, we are transported without warning into the raging seas, where Mr Noah relates the highlights of World history thus far, from the Garden of Eden until the start of the Flood. The story of Adam and Eve and their lack of proper clothing does often seem to present a dilemma for not least overtly Christian filmmakers, but now they’re able to deal with that little incident with the forbidden fruit in a few quick cuts and then move on rapidly, well, rush, really – to other supposedly more edifying stuff. Such as jealousy, rage and revenge, massacres of enemies and… you know the drill. Large swaths of the Old Testament are by definition, not entirely appropriate for children, but they’re also fascinating stories that tell us a great deal about the delicate art of being human, interpreted again and again by generation after generation in a significant percentage of the world as we know it.

This time the focus first really aims at Abraham and his younger relative Lot, including the destruction of Sodom, here presented with an added bonus in the shape of Mature Mutant Ninja Angels of Death. I thought I might have missed something last time I read the story, and as it turns out the series creators have (surprisingly enough) taken some certain dramatic licence here and there. I double-checked with Genesis chapter 19 and indeed the angels are there, and they do turn some Sodomite sinners blind, but they’re not explicitly armed and up for a swordfight in the Desert City of Doom. Just so you know. In the case of Abraham, his anguish over having to split up a family, being the father of two sons with two different mothers, is rather well and vividly portrayed in my opinion. although it ends too abruptly and less satisfying, considering the resonance the tale of Isaac and Ishmael still contains in today’s world.

The Lion’s share of high-pitched drama and climactic sequences is reserved for Moses. He’s not played by Charlton Heston this time around, but he’s still a pretty impressive presence (even if I can’t find the actor’s name either on Internet Movie Database nor anywhere else at the moment). The Exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, have been strategically placed shortly before the end of the first episode and the following ‘previews of coming attractions’ such as King Saul and his off-and-on protegé David, Samson the hairy heavy-lifting guy and a certain Jesus. The budget seems overall to have been decent and production values convincing as a whole. The acting is a somewhat uneven thing, with some especially impressing performances that do stand out in the crowd. But remember it’s a cast with precious few household names involved.

And so, the decisive question: how often will Satan himself keep lurking around in the background, you know the guy some people in the blogosphere have identified as suspiciously resembling Barack Obama? I am quite sure I saw him somewhere already in the first part. The Evil One in his incarnation, by the way, is played by a Mr Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni who is not new to Biblical dramas, according to IMDb. And, if the producers of the show are to be believed, he’s not at all meant to make people think of the current US president, regardless of the speculations.

All in all, to be continued…

Note: This short review can also be found on russin.nu in a Swedish-language version.

Official site for the History Channel’s Bible series

Romance and Rhythm from Three Female Singers with Yemeni Roots

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Tema: Kultur by yemenity2010 on 13/08/2012

Yemeni singers. Male ones – well, they tend to appear at wedding parties and such, I learnt during my time in Taiz. Female ones seem to be a rare sort of bird. But they do exist, at least according to a recent blog entry from Afrah Nasser, Yemeni writer currently living in Sweden.

 

Recently I stumbled across a list that caught my attention, not least because of my fascination for  topics such as culture in general and music in particular. I spent a fair amount of time in Yemen trying to figure out what kind of music people (predominantly students and young adults) listen to on a daily basis, why and for what purpose, what they can learn to appreciate and what they spontaneously dislike. The final outcome of these little investigations are still an unfinished project, that I hope will be presented some time in the future. I published some reflections in the entry  ”Music On My Mind – Part 1” (december 2010).

Three Yemeni singers. As I said, female ones. Now, these three artists all have roots in Yemen, but none of them actually lives there.And it has to be said, for a woman making a career as a singer or an artist of any kind will probably have to counter a number of obstacles in the Yemeni society. I find it difficult to interpret my own impressions of this intriguing country any other way.

Balqees Ahmed Fathi is the daughter of a famous Yemeni singer, Ahmed Fathi, apparently a big star during the 1990’s. Balqees herself seems to have been living mostly in the United Arab Emirates and has been recognized as a great talent by a French fashion magazine. Rana al-Haddad also has a famous singing father and has landed a contract with a leading Saudi Arabian music company. Finally, Arwa is not only a pop star but also a TV show host, born in Kuwait by a Yemeni father and and an Egyptian mother. She also seems to have spent most of her life outside of Yemen.

Judging from some attached video clips, Balqees is directed towards a romantic and rhythmic sort of pop music and she does have a more than adequate voice for the purpose. Rana delivers an anthem that could have been sponsored by the Yemeni ministry of tourism, providing some nice views of the old town in Sana’a and other national attractions. The editing, however, is not the smoothest I’ve seen and the presentation as a whole borders on kitsch, though not without its charm. Her own voice is a strength and the genre could be defined as a more traditional form of oriental pop. Arwa works more in the same vein as Balqees with an obvious emphasis on romance and glamour. Pretty nice and well produced, though not exceptionally original or visionary. All in all – three faces (and voices) completely new to me, and definitely worth checking out if you have the slightest interest in what kind of popular music gets created in the Middle East.

Source: ”Let me Present To You Three Dazzling Yemeni Singers” by Afrah Nasser / July 15, 2012

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Intelligent Designs in an Age of Terror?

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Tema: Kultur, Tema: Politik by yemenity2010 on 14/02/2012

The international film festival in Gothenburg took place again recently. I had the privilege to see the British political thriller ”Page Eight”, which was… OK, maybe not great, but definitely good. And as a bonus, the director David Hare took some questions from the audience afterwards. The theme is terrorism, or more exactly, how to respond to it from the perspective of the British intelligence agency MI5. They’ve had a hard time since 9/11 according to Mr Hare, partly because they refused to produce evidence of weapons of mass destruction when the Prime minister needed a case to go to war in Iraq along with the US.

MI5 is, by the way, the branch of British Intelligence that operates within British shores, as opposed to MI6 (where James Bond would have been employed, had he existed in real life). The latter branch was more willing to provide the ‘intel’ that Tony Blair was asking for, than MI5.

– Both have had difficult years, says David Hare who thought the time was ripe for a film on the topic, just like John le Carré wrote novels about the Cold War.

The people in ”Page Eight”, especially the leading character, MI5 investigator Johnny is portrayed in a rather sympathetic way, as played by the veteran Bill Nighy (”Love Actually”, ”The Constant Gardener”) whom Hare has worked with on several occasions.

– I didn’t write the part for him, but when I’d written 30 pages it was obvious it was him. And he wanted to play this part; he’s very mysterious and very attractive to women. Two things that all actors dream of playing…

Hare also got the Australian actress Judy Davis to play a part, but it didn’t come easy.

– I struggled to get her. In Australia she’s regarded as such a great actress that she hardly acts at all! But her agent said to her: if you don’t do this, what will you ever do?

All in all, the cast was made up of mostly experienced and skilled actors (like Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes) who together formed ”a nauseatingly happy family” in Hare’s words. And he admits he needed it, since the film was made principally for British TV with a five-week shooting schedule and a very modest budget. Not like when Hare was involved in making films like ”The Hours ” and ”The Reader”.

– You won’t believe how long we went on filming those…

Now everyone had to be on top of their game, with no time to ‘hang around’.

– I would hate to do it with actors less good than this lot. But these are all actors that can do anything, says Hare who considers the chance to visit film festivals is a nice bonus considering the circumstances while making ”Page Eight”.

But he also notes the fact that many of the best writers in America now works in television, such as Aaron Sorkin.

– After ”Social Network” he’s the most admired screenwriter in America and what is he doing? An HBO series. And why? Because that’s where the intelligent people are and also where the writer is the person who drives the medium. The writer’s the most important person in the room. Well, that is never true in Hollywood – on the contrary…

One question from the audience considered the less flattering portrayal of politicians. Hare agrees, even if the thinks his own creation, the Prime minister played by Ralph Fiennes is more ”formidable, intelligent, resolute and strong” than real politicians usually are. But Hare’s experience with world leaders he ”occasionally has bumped into” are different from other people.

– One thing that western world leaders think is that our civilization is under attack from muslim fundamentalists, who are coming to destroy us. This is what they believe and they believe that everything they do is justified by this threat, Hare explains, while adding briefly that Barack Obama is cleverer than the rest and doesn’t necessarily sees the world the same way.

But the themes in the film are not only what kind of information is passed on to politicians, but also in what way it is obtained. Such as torture, which has been illegal within Britain for more than 400 years.

– There may be a threat, but obviously the film is about the means by which we fight that threat. And obviously a lot of people in MI5 have been very squeamish and disapproving of some of the methods that have been too easily adopted by politicians.

Also, a number of films from the Arab world was shown in Gothenburg. Sad to say, I only saw two of them, of which the Egyptian ”Cairo 678”, about sexual harrassments in society, really impressed me. Three women confronts abuses in different ways, while their destinies begin to converge. The Palestinian drama ”Habibi” had an interesting theme; love in times of conflict and against the odds, but it still felt a bit unfinished and less involving than it should have. Partly because of the male protagonist who was a lot less vivid and intriguing than the female one; i.e. the love of his life.

(More film festival reviews in Swedish are available at russin.nu)

Speaking of films: Not as good as the book – or will it be? ”Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” by Paul Torday was a treat, and soon the film is about to open, as it happens directed by a Swede.

Somewhat related topics: Al Jazeera English has covered a lot of what’s happening in the Middle East lately and here’s a page with an overview of the coverage.

The International Food Policy Research Institute recently released a report titled ”Beyond the Arab Awakening”. Haven’t read much of it yet, but the researchers point out that ”Results suggest that poverty and income inequality in the Arab world are likely higher than official numbers have long suggested.”

The Yemeni water crisis isn’t going away anytime soon, it seems. Could it even lead to wars? Here’s an update from a news channel and the blog The Wadi. I wrote on this topic about 1,5 years ago here.

Why Visit Yemen? The Gospel According to some Yemenites.

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Tema: Vatten by yemenity2010 on 25/07/2011

Ancient history, spectacular nature and friendly people. Those are some of the main attractions in Yemen, according to young Yemeni people I consulted when I was about to leave the country last winter. Right now the situation might not be the most welcoming or secure for visitors, but as people there like to point out – this civilization have been around a long time, and this is not the first time it has experienced dramatic events. 

– Every place in Yemen is attractive.

It’s december 2010 and I am about to finish one of the very last writing courses I have been teaching in Taiz. As a final exercise the participants get to promote their own country, ”selling it” and emphasizing all the good things they themselves see, and which could also benefit the tourist business. It hasn’t been easy attracting tourists during the last decade, mainly due to security, or rather lack thereof. A shame, considering all the historical landmarks and memorable views the area has to offer. At this time, when we’re discussing the issue, the so called ”Arab Spring” hasn’t really initiated. Actually it seemed to take off a week or so after I left Yemen in early January 2011.

During the year I spent there I gathered quite a lot of information that I still haven’t explored fully. This is one example that I think might be worth sharing, sooner or later, even if the current situation in that nation at present seems even more volatile and less tourist-friendly. One way or the other things will keep changing. Exactly how and in what direction is another matter. Any predictions about what will come out of the changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen are bound to be uncertain, so for now I am going back to what these young people, most of them between 20 and 30 years of age, thought could show their country in a more positive light.

Different environments like seas, deserts and islands as well as historical places are what Donia, Sarah and Samah want to point out to begin with. For practical purposes I have divided the class into smaller groups and given them ten minutes or so, to come up with their priorities. I might add that many of them are students or in some cases teachers themselves. Concrete examples this trio of young women like to mention are Saber Mountain, which rises above the city of Taiz. Also Bab al-Yemen (the entrance to the Old City in the capital Sana’a, where 1000-year-old houses constitute one of UNESCO:s world heritage sites), Socotra Island (home to a fauna sometimes compared to Galápagos Islands for its uniqueness). This also reminds me of the somewhat embarrassing fact that I have managed to work both in Ecuador and Yemen without paying a visit to either of these very special islands. Well, it is a little expensive (especially Galápagos) so that will be my excuse for now, at least…

– To see the essence of the Yemeni people. We are the most good-hearted people in the peninsula, says Adel, one of the few men in the group, when motivating presumtive visitors.

The amiable nature of the Yemeni is supposedly stated already by the prophet Muhammad (whose name seldom is mentioned in this country without adding ”peace be upon him”).  Yemen is an old civilization, that’s something Adel (and one or two other guys, whose names now escape me) emphasizes. Older than Saudiarabia, Oman and Bahrein and comparable to Egypt and Iraq, I’m told by my students. The most important places? Provinces like Marib, Hadramaout and the northernmost parts of the country come up. Unfortunately Marib, supposedly home to the legendary Queen of Sheba (mostly known as Bilquis) and home to some ancient monuments, is more or less off limits for foreigners nowadays. There has been a number of kidnappings there, and also attacks on power stations which has a debilitating effect on the country as a whole. The northern parts close to the border of Saudi Arabia have also been increasingly dangerous, including a civil war between the government and rebels from the Houthi tribe.

– The people in Yemen are friendly, generous and hospitable.

There it is again. This time proudly presented by Fayrouz, Shaima, Nuria and Amani; four women who also choose to bring up the climate as an argument:

– If you want to see the world, come to Yemen. We have all seasons.

But not snow?

– If you go to Sana’a and north to Saada, it’s frozen. If you sleep in the night you can get your bottle of water icy in the morning. In the north you can get winter, if you want heat you go to Aden. If you want normal you can stay in Taiz.

Mountains, islands and wadis (valleys or occasionally dried-up riverbeds)  are others of nature’s gifts to inhabitants and visitors.

– I think Ibb is enough for foreigners to visit. It’s a wonderful city, claims one of the women who says she grew up in a village near Ibb, roughly an hour an a half north of Taiz on the road to Sana’a if you’re travelling by car or bus.

It’s not the first time I hear someone praising that city, one of the more populated in the country but not as crowded as Taiz. It’s generally greener than most other places in a region where arid, brownish landscapes and long dry spells without any rain are common. On other occasions I’ve also heard Ibb being described as home to the richest people in Yemen, the ones with the best connections to government and ruling classes, but that’s another story. Water is normally scarce in the country and the problem is increasing (something I’ve brought up earlier), but the group likes to remind me that once upon a time there were magnificent dams in Marib and a well-functioning system for supplying water.

– Yemen is the source of all Arab countries, Fayrouz & co would like to point out.

History again. The awareness of their descendance is a source of pride for many Yemeni people, that much I’ve learned.

– There would be no country in the world without Yemen, they add, and even if it seems slightly exaggerated and not entirely meant to be taken seriously, it is true that people from this area have been moving around and emigrating a lot through history.

Someone spontaneously mentions the Libyan leader Muammar Khadaffi (who’s been a lot in the news since then as you probably know, and whose name apparently can be spelled approximately 749, 5 different ways) and suggests, with a wry smile, that I should ask Mr Khadaffi.

Ask him what?

– About Lockerbie… No, about his origins.

Music On My Mind – Part 1

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Direkt från Jemen by yemenity2010 on 13/12/2010

– It sounds like Arabic music.

A Yemeni student commenting on ”Viva la Vida” performed by the somewhat famous British band Coldplay, which appears to be completely unknown in this country. Anyway, most of the students in the group who listened to it, seemed to like the song which basically is a catchy pop tune with sweeping string arrangements and and an obvious melancholy atmosphere.

Music has often been described as a force that can break barriers and open doors. Sounds like a cliché, but sometimes these contain a lot of truth. During my regular courses with creative exercises, I’ve tried to make some experiments in the classroom, to find out kind of music they like – and not so much, respectively. The idea is simple; once or twice in each lesson, I let them listen to a song and write down their personal thoughts, associations, opinions and possible imagery that arises from the tune. I sometimes combine that with homeworks, where they write about musical themes, not least to find out what can they tell me about the musical landscape of the Middle East. It’s been educational, at least for me, and I hope, sometimes even for the groups I’m teaching and interacting with.

Many young people here listen to music on their cellphones or portable mp3 players. The CD market seems to be mainly ‘piratized’ (which also goes for the distribution of films, by the way). What they call quiet music is often preferred. Although that seems like a paradox when there’s a wedding in the neighbourhood and the party music is anything but quiet, subtle and discreet… Preferrably also played with the volume turned up to eleven (if you’ve seen the spoof ”This Is Spinal Tap” from 1984 you know what I’m referring to). Generally people here – the mostly young people I get in touch with in this city – don’t like it too messy or complex, although music with an effective crosspollination between eastern and western harmonies seem to work pretty well.

In the process I’ve learnt something about famous musicians and artists from this part of the world such as Om Kalthoum, Amr Diab and the legendary Palestinian singstress Fairouz who apparently never smiles in public, out of principle and some lifelong sorrow due to her people’s suffering (at least according to the story I’ve been told here). So called western music is reaching into this hemisphere as well. Celine Dion is overall very well-known and popular (for some reason I am trying to figure out, since I might be one of the few people on earth who find her voice and appearance more annoying than uplifting). Bands like Backstreet Boys, Westlife and some hip hop acts are also frequently mentioned when the topic comes up.

Several times I have heard the comment that they like to understand the message of the music to appreciate it; hence if it’s in Arabic or English it makes it easier. But that’s not always the case. Songs from Latin America with lyrics in Spanish or Portuguese and a somewhat melancholy disposition often get positive responses. And the same goes for entries from my own Nordic home country. Sometimes I’ve chosen instrumental music from films like ”Chariots of Fire” or ”The Mission”; on other occasions progressive rock, pop songs, cross-over in different shapes, Armenian dance tunes, Brazilian soft slightly samba-inspired songs or Indian wedding anthems with powerful vocal performances… The responses are not always predictable – which I appreciate from my perspective.

Examples of comments from the students:

– The song started with a nice quiet music that touched the core of our hearts (about the ballad ”Lay it Down” by Jaci Velasquez).

– The music makes me relax and I dream of another world (about a Christmas tune sung by Carola, a female singer well-known in Scandinavia but not so much in the rest of the world).

– I liked the music. I listened to it before when I saw TV they put the music when they showed some tourist scenery (Vangelis ”Chariots of Fire”).

Transcendence is an interesting word that no one can really explain but almost every creative individual seem to strive for. Then the eternal question for the recipients of music, paintings and other works of art is – how much of your response is emotional and what can sincerely be described as analytical, conscious decisions? Some students have tried to convince me that their opinions are based solely on how much thay understand of the lyrics, and what concrete things they can learn from them. They claim that it’s all logical and not emotional, but the majority seem to react also in a spontaneous, intuitive way like most of us do, whether we are aware of it or not. Yes, music in itself can be a controversial thing in this region, because of traditions and some scholars’ views based on a strict interpretation of religious doctrine, but those opinions rarely come across in the groups I meet. It happens, at least the assessment that music with too many instruments and too loud voices can be deemed not pure enough, but not very often.

So why does all this matter? Because I believe that music really can function as a uniting force, a builder of bridges that shows the similarities that exist between people, the ability to react spontaneously and intuitively. Then of course, we should never stop thinking, not ‘checking our brains at the door’ as the saying goes, but as experienced by someone grown up in a church environment where we sometimes deny that we are trying to ‘create an atmosphere’ I would claim that it’s perfectly alright to search for ways to influence other people emotionally and to make space for other values than just cold calculating logic – if, and that’s an important if, we are honest about it and admit that we are doing just that.

Music is also, I emphasize that again, a means to make people from different backgrounds come together and share experiences as well as a part of their respective cultural baggage. Sometimes we disagree about what really constitutes good art, but there is always room for surprises. And those are generally a healthy experience. People who never get or don’t allow themselves to be really surprised are probably either comatose, emotionally handicapped or downright dangerous to be around…

Ashufaqom, insha’allah.

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