11 August 2014

Who are the tribesmen standing up to the Islamic State in Syria?

Members of the Shaitat tribe celebrate after expelling the IS from their town

As the extremist group known as the Islamic State (IS) consolidates its astonishing advances through Iraq and Syria, a tribe in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zor province is leading an armed insurrection against the group.

Their rebellion appeared to be all but crushed when pictures surfaced last week showing the heads of the decapitated instigators, but over a week later the unrest that began in a handful of towns has spread through the key oil region, threatening a valuable chunk of the self-declared caliphate.
IS has controlled most of the province since July, following a months-long offensive to force out the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria and an IS rival, after IS itself broke off from Al Qaeda earlier this year.

The territory it captured included the heartland of the 83,000-strong Shaitat tribe: the towns of Abu Hamam, Al-Kishkieh and Graniej. In exchange for peace, the tribe’s leaders agreed not to take up arms against IS, but that truce was shattered on July 30 when the jihadists arrested three Shaitat members in Kishkieh, allegedly for refusing to collect money to support the caliphate. Haian Dukhan, a doctoral student at the University of St. Andrews researching tribes in contemporary Syria, said the arrests violated fundamental tribal conventions, sparking the revolt. “It’s part of the clan traditions — taking revenge on those who would do harm to any of their members,” he said.

At least nine IS fighters were killed in the surprise rout, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-government monitoring group. Word quickly spread as videos emerged showing tribesmen riding motorbikes through the streets in celebration, withcaptured IS fighters in tow, and decrying the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The IS response was swift and brutal. It declared the tribal towns a “military zone,” and returned with reinforcements to round up and behead the men it claimed were responsible. Pictures later surfaced showing many bodies on crosses in a public square. One IS fighter wrote on Twitter: “We are not afraid to slaughter all of deir [al-Zor] and turn its ground red if required.”

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3 August 2014

Amman: Urban Archipelago

Detail from King and Lock's 1955 plan for Amman
Article for Cairobserver. The piece will be translated into Arabic and included in their Spring print edition.

Amman has just got a new city centre. Rising from a former military base, its 384,000 square metres are, in the words of the brochure, an “exceptional synergy of residential, commercial, hospitality and retail outlets in one vibrant and prestigious address.”[i]Whilst the branding pitches it as “The new downtown” and executives call it “a new centre”, the Abdali Project is decidedly weighted toward the already more affluent, suburban west side of the Jordanian capital – which developed on the back of remittances sent back by citizens who had followed the oil boom to the Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s – from the historically overcrowded and neglected east, where most of the hundreds of thousands of refugees whose arrival dominates the city’s modern history have settled.

The project brochure bears uncanny traces of the city’s establishment. Just as today’s developers eye Amman’s “strategic location … in the heart of the Middle East,” in 1921, when the first king of Transjordan Abdullah I was choosing a capital to anchor his arbitrary kingdom, keen to actualise the authority bestowed on him by the British, he opted for Amman over other more likely candidates because of its place on a strategic Ottoman railway that brought traders and Hajj pilgrims from Damascus to Madina. While the palace-less Abdullah I ruled for several years from a train carriage, the incumbent king, his great-grandson Abdullah II, hopes to assert his power through a fledgling “mixed-use” financial centre.

The promise of a new Downtown contains within it the myth that there is one to replace – something hasn’t been the case for decades. The cash-strapped Abdullah I lacked the resources to erect the monuments or grand civic buildings that would demarcate such an area, and instead built his state through spectacle, drawing crowds to parades and speeches in public spaces. When it did begin to take shape in a triangle known popularly as al-Jazira (The Island), it did so at the cost of intolerable congestion, and the second half of the 20th Century saw the creation of multiple, overlapping “masterplans” to tackle the problem – each one succeeding the vested authority of the last. In the name of mobile modernity, the central markets were relocated to the city’s southern periphery in 1966, and around the same time the old souq next to the al-Husaini al-Kabir mosque was torn down to clear space for a transport hub for taxis and buses. Government departments and services – from ministries to the police and post office – were moved to the surrounding hills. The center was deliberately drained of its destinations, and filled with the means to visit other places instead. The car is still venerated today in the only public museum dedicated specifically to the city – the Royal Automobile Museum.

9 June 2014

Is Lebanon's new policy about to punish Syrian refugees?

Article for GlobalPost

Over a week after Lebanon announced radical changes in its approach to the Syrian refugee crisis, questions about the policy remain: Is the government about to enact a policy, in compliance with international law, that helps it to identify and better assist the most needy among the displaced? Or has the ground been laid for legitimate refugees — people fleeing falling bombs, summary killings, torture, and more — to be forcibly returned to the very dangers they fled?

After months of growing pressure to curb the number of people entering Lebanon, the interior minister announced on May 31 — days after the area around the Syrian Embassy in Beirut was brought to a standstill when tens of thousands turned out to vote in Syria’s presidential election — that Syrians in Lebanon risked losing their refugee status if they crossed the border back to Syria. Refugee status is required for these individuals to claim basic food, shelter or medical aid from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

The government claims the new powers are in accordance with Article I, Section C of the UN’s 1951 Convention on Refugees, which states that an individual cannot be defined as a refugee if “he has voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality.”

But Latmah Fakih, Lebanon and Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the policy’s broad scope jeopardizes the principle of “non-refoulement,” which the UNHCR describes as “the cornerstone of asylum and of international refugee law.” The principle forbids governments from returning refugees and asylum seekers to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

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3 June 2014

Lebanon claims right to strip Syrians of refugee status

Article for Middle East Monitor

Few people outside Lebanon noticed when the government gave itself the power to strip Syrians of their refugee status. While the world's eyes were trained on the election in Syria, the outcome of which is thought to be a foregone conclusion, the far more uncertain consequences of this quietly radical move began taking shape.

Twenty-four hours notice was all the Interior Ministry thought necessary to give some of the most vulnerable people in its borders when it announced that "All Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR [the UN's refugee agency] are asked to refrain from entering Syria starting June 1, or else they might be stripped of their refugee status." The decision came just two days before June 3, when many refugees would have intended to go to Syria to vote, and two days after the scenes outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut provided a stark demonstration of how many of them felt (whether forced or free) strongly enough to make that trip.

The government justified its move with appeals to security, saying it acted to quell tensions in host communities (not an unfounded fear, as one recent study showed) and to curb what looks like an increasingly unsustainable population influx.

While previously Lebanon has appealed to its state sovereignty in acting against refugee populations on its soil – for example in the military operation against the "state within a state" established in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared – it has now turned to international law, citing a section of the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention that says refugee status can be reneged when the individual concerned "voluntarily re-avail[s] himself of the protection of the country of his nationality". The government says it suspects many Syrians to be economic migrants masquerading under the protections of refugee status, and its policy is ostensibly intended to isolate the former and better protect the latter. That such a clean distinction can or even should be made is questionable in itself.

But rights groups have decried the sweeping scope of the new powers, which do not differentiate between someone with the financial means to make regular trips across the border and someone who simply wants to make a rare visit to the relatives they have left behind.

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7 May 2014

Conrad Shawcross interview

Though an intimidating sixteen feet tall, the industrial robot in Conrad Shawcross's flat doesn't look at all out of place. A flight of steps is all that separates the bustling workshop from the living space above, where the robot silently supervises our conversation through the half-open door to an adjacent room.

The device is the centrepiece of ‘The Ada Project’, Shawcross’s latest work, for which he and his team have ‘choreographed’ an industrial robotic arm, transforming it into a mesmerising sculpture that draws sweeping paths of light in six axes with a thousand-watt bulb fitted to its tip. Named after Ada Lovelace, the Victorian mathematician credited with being the world’s first computer programmer, Ada has recently performed at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and MONA in Tasmania, with live accompaniment by sound artists Holly Herndon, Beatrice Dillon and Rupert Clervaux.

A highlight of his sequence of rope-making machines was ‘Chord’ (2009) – two adjacent, claw-like frames suspending spools of brightly coloured wool, their disparate strands slowly converging into a single length of rope as though magnetised by a central point of symmetry. Ada is the latest in a long series of light works, including ‘Timepiece’ (2013), an installation that saw Camden’s Roundhouse stripped bare and reoriented around a tangle of revolving steel arms. As their orbits marked the passing minutes, hours and days, the interplay between three connected bulbs and a central sundial cast shifting shadows that scanned the space with silhouettes of its own interior architecture.

While most machines stand or fall on their ability to carry out a given task faster, stronger or longer than their human rivals, Shawcross’s are engines of ambivalence, their only common ‘product’ being the alloy of unease and awe they induce in equal measure. His work orbits quantum theory, geometry and bionics, among other fields, but simply to observe that they explore ‘scientific ideas’ obscures their true force: their science is a distinctly human one, driven by an urge to interrogate the ways in which we – often unknown to ourselves – have come to rationalise the world around us, and what might be gained or lost in that process. Just as a photograph exists at the expense of everything its frame excludes, scientific models inflect nature with their own historical or disciplinary biases: scales of measurement present competing languages, and the already slippery terminology called upon to communicate ideas can further corrupt over time.

With each new work surpassing the scale and engineering complexity of the last, Shawcross’s ambition shows no signs of waning. Despite these grand designs, however, he is modest and precise in conversation, hasty only to credit his team, or to draw analogies that bring the abstract to life.

To read the full interview, click here