I watched 4.1 Miles a few weeks ago, courtesy of the College of International Studies. Although it has faded somewhat recently in favor of the French election and the decisions of President Trump, the Syrian refugee crisis still populates the headlines as the international community argues over responsibility and delegation. 4.1 Miles focuses on a Greek Coast Guard captain responsible for fishing refugees from the water when their boat collapses. Far too often, smugglers will pack boats to the bursting and travel in terrible conditions. Almost every day the Coast Guard gets called out to rescue soaked refugees from overcrowded lifeboats. The documentary was very well done, but difficult to watch. As the panel discussed after the showing, the documentary did an excellent job humanizing the refugees. When discussing where these thousands and thousands of people are going, it is important to remember that they are indeed people.
At the beginning of October, I went as a guest of the Honors College to a Syrian music concert hosted in Sharp Concert Hall here on campus. There were two musicians, Kenan Adnawi, who played the oud, and Tareq Rantisi, who played percussion. While I have seen an oud in person, as well as depicted in media and entertainment, this was my first time hearing one played in person.
It was nothing short of amazing.
At first, it reminded me of the stereotypical Middle-Eastern music you hear in movies and TV shows, that short song played to transition our adventurers from their western local to a place more “foreign”. As I kept listening, however, I realized two things. First, Hollywood soundtracks fall far short in comparison. Second, I understand why such music is used to set the scene. Sitting there, in an auditorium chair in the middle of Oklahoma, USA, I was both entranced and transported. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The skill with which the musicians handled their instruments was apparent, even though their manner of playing was unique in my eyes. Mr. Adnawi tuned his oud anew for every song, and sometimes in the middle of a song. Mr. Rantisi, the percussionist, wore an ankle of bells, which he did not shake, but which would shiver and ring ever so quietly from the vibrations of his playing. The passion of both musicians was undeniable. Mr. Adnawi grew up in Syria and would give the title of every song, along with a short explanation of the meaning behind the title and behind the piece itself.
I am sad to say that I probably would have walked away from the concert, having enjoyed it but giving it no more thought, were it not for a song played near the end. As usual, Mr. Adnawi announced the title, and this time, he welcomed the audience to sing along. The reaction was near palpable. I was sitting in the balcony section, off to the side but still close to the stage. Below me, most of the audience was clustered in the first five or six rows, with the rest scattered around the auditorium. When this particular song was announced, a wave of excitement rippled through those first few rows. This was not a song he had written, but a classic, one well know. It irks me that I am unable to recall the title, I would have loved to learn more about the piece. As the song flowed forth, those rows clapped with the rhythm and sang along where they could. I could not recognize the language, although I would guess Arabic. Some knew more words than others, but most would join in for the chorus at least. It was strange to see a group of strangers, united in their appreciation for one song, a song that rang with tradition and history. Furthermore, it was strange to realize that I could not relate it to a potential example in American culture. A group of US students might unite in Europe after turning on “Cha Cha Slide” or some similar piece of pop culture, but that is hardly comparable. Aside from “The Star Spangled Banner” and the like, what music carries the culture of the United States? A few hundred years from now, will parents play today’s pop and rap and country for their children to connect them with the past? What will be the US’ musical legacy?
Friday, Spetember 30 I attended the Music from Syria and Beyond workshop with Kenan Adnawi and Tareq Rantisi. Prior to the official starting time at 4pm there was an interactive question and answer session conducted in Arabic. Students form the Arabic flagship, as well as native speakers, introduced themselves in Arabic and asked the performers questions about the backgrounds, inspiration, and technique.
Kenan Adnawi is from Syria and has been playing the oud since the age of 7. He is passionate about incorporating new techniques and improvisational methods into classical rhythmic structures. Tarek Rantisi is from Palestine and specializes in percussion. He plays a whole host of percussive instruments and explained the structure of traditional rhythmic patterns in music originating from the Arab world. Both performers described the importance of collaboration in their work as well as their desire to express Arab unity through their performances and composition of original pieces.
The following day I attended their concert at 8pm along with a cohort of my friends. People of all backgrounds filled the concert hall at Catlet to experience the performance. I had listened to oud music before on my own, mostly via youtube videos of recorded performances by popular oud players and trios. It was an entirely new experience to see the oud being played live along with the incredible drumming of Mr. Rantisi. Several of the pieces played were original compositions. A large Lebanese family sat in front of us and one of the women began to cry when the duo performed an old Lebanese song called Bint a-Shalabiyya.
I was extremely happy to have attended the workshop that preceded the concert because I had gained a deeper understanding of and appreciatiation for the complex factors that affect the improvisation and style of these pieces.
Here is an original composition by Kenan Adawi.
If you’d like to hear some more oud music being played here is a trio of oud musicians from Palestine that perform all around the world. This performance is interlaced with poems by the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Human Cargo & The Crossing
This semester, I participated in an honors reading group about the refugee crisis. In order to get a multifaceted view of the extremely complex and nuanced problem, we read two books: Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees and The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria.
(Caroline Moorehead) Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees:
“Traveling for nearly two years and across four continents, Caroline Moorehead takes readers on a journey to understand why millions of people are forced to abandon their homes, possessions, and families in order to find a place where they may, quite literally, be allowed to live. Moorehead’s experience living and working with refugees puts a human face on the news, providing unforgettable portraits of the refugees she meets in Cairo, Guinea, Sicily, Lebanon, England, Australia, Finland, and at the U.S.-Mexico border. Human Cargo changes our understanding of what it means to have and lose a place in the world, and reveals how the refugee “problem” is on a par with global crises such as terrorism and world hunger.”
“Human smuggling is now said to have an annual turnover of over $7 billion — more than revenue from smuggling drugs. Caroline Moorehead’s important new book looks at ‘human cargo’ from Afghanistan, Liberia, Palestine and many other places. She has visited war zones, camps, prisons — and the black Dinka families from the Sudan who were re-settled north of the Arctic Circle in Finland.
She follows the fate of 57 young member of the Mandingo tribe, who fled ethnic cleansing and ended up happily in America via Egypt. She is shown the graves in Sicily of drowned boat people, and examines the fence that has been built across Texas and into the sea to keep migrants out of America. She has interviewed emigration officials in Australia and members of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Geneva. Is there a valid distinction between ‘good’ asylum seekers and ‘bad’ economic migrants?
What happens to those whose applications are turned down? The difficult questions are asked, the horrible issues faced. But, above all, Human Cargo celebrates the courage, cheerfulness and will to survive of ordinary human beings.”
This book was very well-written, and gave a depressingly candid (but necessary) view into the lives of refugees. One would have to be heartless to not be touched by their stories. The prologue was particularly poignant and tried to give the reader a fragment of an idea about the pain and suffering, both physical and mental, that so, so many refugees have to go through. It also gave an insightful look into the UN refugee policies.
(Samar Yazbek) The Crossing: My Journey to the Sacred Heart of Syria:
“Samar Yazbek was well-known in her native Syria as a writer and a journalist but, in 2011, she fell foul of the Assad regime and was forced to flee. Since then, determined to bear witness to the suffering of her people, she revisited her homeland by squeezing through a hole in the fence on the Turkish border. Here she testifies to the appalling reality that is Syria today. From the first innocent demonstrations for democracy, through the beginnings of the Free Syrian Army, to the arrival of ISIS, she offers remarkable snapshots of soldiers, children, ordinary men and women simply trying to stay alive. Some of these stories are of hardship and brutality that is hard to bear, but she also gives testimony to touches of humanity along the way: how people live under the gaze of a sniper, how principled young men try to resist orders from their military superiors, how children cope in bunkers. Yazbek’s portraits of life in Syria are very real, and her prose, luminous. The Crossing is undoubtedly both an important historical document and a work of literature.”
“The Crossing is a powerful testament to the reality of Syria today. From the first innocent demonstrations for democracy, through the beginnings of the Free Syrian Army, to the arrival of ISIS, here are the daily lives of soldiers, children, ordinary men and women struggling to survive. In heartfelt, luminous prose, Yazbek shares their stories of unbearable brutality, and the humanity that can flower even in the most terrible of circumstances.”
The Crossing: My Journey to the Sacred Heart of Syria was written as a series of “crossings” into Syria. This book gives stunning insight into the daily lives of Syrians. Like Human Cargo, The Crossing is a heartbreaking but worth-while read. While Human Cargo looked at the lives of refugees away from their country of origin, The Crossing is written by a refugee about the country she left. As the description shows, the book details many of the reasons that Syrians have left/are leaving their homes. In a very different way than Human Cargo, The Crossing accomplishes the same thing: giving the reader a new perspective on the refugee crisis and (hopefully) urging the reader to educate themselves further and fight for refugee rights in their countries.
I deeply enjoyed this reading group, as both the moderators and members of the group were fantastic. It has most definitely made me want to continue to join honors reading groups in the future. In fact, I’m even moderating one this coming semester!
Thanks for reading!
OU recently hosted a talk by Dr. Joshua Landis on Syria, its future, and our involvement there. It was an OU Presidential event, with an introduction by the university’s president, David Boren. Since my area of interest is the Middle East, I of course had to go! Dr. Landis’ talk focused on the causes of the conflict in Syria, a murky subject that very few can wade through or even begin to understand. Luckily, Dr. Landis is one of the foremost experts on Syria and regularly consults various world governments on the subject. In his opinion, one of the main causes of the conflict is demographics. When the European powers drew their arbitrary boundaries after World War I, they put several groups of disparate peoples into one country. To make matters more complicated, they then gave power to the weaker, smaller groups, increasing the animosity felt in the newly created protectorates. Dr. Landis cited this conflict as the starting point of Syria’s troubles. The majority of Syrians follow Sunni Islam, but a fringe sect, the Alawites, controlled the government. This led to growing resentments that eventually culminated in the Syrian Civil War.
He likened the events in Syria to post-WWII Europe, with their “Great Sorting Out.” Essentially, after WWII several groups of people migrated (intentionally or forcefully) to countries where they constituted the majority. These movements turned Europe into the collection of nation-states that it is today. According to Dr. Landis, the Middle East might be witnessing its own “Sorting Out” today. Thanks to the civil war and various other conflicts in the region, there has been an unprecedented movement of peoples and changes in government. In Iraq, for example, the minority Sunni government under Saddam Hussein’s Baath party was replaced with Shi’ite members (the majority) after the United States invaded. With Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to step down from power and cede the government to the majority, Syria’s “Sorting Out” has taken a violent turn. In Dr. Landis’ view, it will be a long time before we hear much good news from Syria.
Last month I attended a discussion with Joshua Landis, a widely-recognized expert on the Middle East and Syria, and conveniently, an Honors professor here at OU. His presentation helped fill in a lot of gaps that I didn’t understand about ISIS and the situation in Syria. Landis described the puzzling dilemma of who the United States should support when none of the options seem good. Every major world power has a pitch in the Middle East and interests they’re trying to defend. It made me think more deeply about what is going on in the Middle East, and as a result, what is happening around the world. I felt I understood the situation in the Middle East fairly well after Landis’ discussion, and, according to his “Great Sorting Out” thesis, anticipated that Syria would go through a lot more bloodshed before one ethnicity eventually “sorted out” the other. I felt sorry for the people of Syria and hoped the millions of refugees could find a new, safe, life somewhere in the West.
But on Friday, November the 13th, which unfortunately happened to be my roommate’s birthday, I was stunned at the news of Paris’ terrorist attacks. As I sat in my room clicking through pictures capturing the carnage, reading articles detailing the gruesome acts of terror, I was sobered with the dark realization that the chaos in the Middle East is not confined to the Middle East. ISIS’ influence reaches around the world.
I also began to consider the millions of Syrian refugees whom the rest of the world is afraid of taking in because of the risk that some terrorists are mixed among the sheep.
I find myself torn between different views of people that are close to me. My mom is afraid of allowing Syrians (and terrorists) into the country, while my uncle is actively involved in a charity to help them. Where are all these people supposed to go, and how should the United States respond? What can be done to stop ISIS?
As I struggle to answer questions like these, as well as many more, one thing I do realize is that this world does not seem to be getting any better. Terror is prevalent within and without. I don’t know whether I’m being cynical or realistic, but it seems that there is no good solution to this complicated chaos yet.
In a time when it is absolutely vital to understand current world events, I’m grateful that OU’s Honors College provides thoughtful and informative discussions to help us try and sort out world events.
About once a month the Honors College puts organizes a lecture by a distinguished OU faculty member on a wide variety of topics. This time around, it was the Honors/IAS professor Joshua Landis, a really well known professor on campus as well as in Washington D.C. and in national publications. He is considered an expert on the middle east, particularly on Syria, so it was a great opportunity to hear him speak tonight. I’m hoping to take a class of his next spring also, on a side note.
Anyway, tonight he gave a broad overview of the backstory behind the ongoing civil war in Syria and talked about the groups at play and the factors we should consider in the matter. Overall, he posited a “Big Sort” thesis for the development and conflict in the Middle East, giving a parallel story line via the history of central Europe immediately following WWI. Basically, the imposition of nation-state borders and political power is often accompanied by ethnic cleansing, conquering, splitting, and/or civil war in order to create a maximally ethnically homogeneous populace in the new man-made nations. For instance, Turkey was formerly composed of 4 major culturally unique groups: Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Kurds, and Sunni Muslims. During the Armenian genocide, the Turks accused the Armenians of siding with Russia and pushed them out of the country violently (hence, America has the Kardashians today). This created more ethnic homogeneity (easier governing), but it was not enough. Next, the Greeks were pushed out under accusations that they supported the Greek nation most and were not to be trusted. Then there were two. The Kurds were allowed to stay, but even today the relationship is tenuous. The 20% minority of Kurds in Turkey is monitored very closely and the Turkish government is very careful to keep them in check. Thus, countries seek ethnic homogeneity in order to simplify governing- it seems too difficult in most old world countries to accommodate the competing interests of multiple cultural identities because their unity is built so strongly on nationalism. This is unique from immigrant states like the U.S. which is unified by ideas (i.e. the Constitution) and on territorialism (insert joke about so called Anchor babies here).
In Syria, there was a small minority (about 14 % of the population) that held control of the country under the Assad regime: Alawites. The majority of the country and portions of its neighbor, Iraq, were Sunni muslims. Alawites, when faced with protest from the Sunnis demanding more equitable representation in government, reacted with violence, fearing they would lose their tenuous hold on power since they did not have a majority in the population. This led to an outbreak of civil war which escalated when ISIS stepped in, seizing a very large portion of both Syria and Iraq (which had just a decade before been unsettled following U.S. interventions i.e. Saddam Hussein) Additionally, the Kurds have been defending a large chunk of territory in the North, including part of Southern Turkey. Lastly, groups the C.I.A. has termed “moderate rebels” have maintained a formidable presence, especially following multiple U.S. armament attempts.
Altogether, the situation presents a huge foreign policy debocle/disaster for the U.S. government. In some ways, this is our fault – or at the very least our oil consumption has fed into it. The ghosts of colonialism are also playing big role here- would we have such poorly defined borders (physical lines not built on the existing ethnic groupings) if it were not for the colonization and abandonment of centuries past? Lastly, how has our tinkering “in the name of democracy” in countries like Iraq affected this conflict?
Obviously there are no easy answers, which is a serious problem given the enormous violence, death, and refugee crisis mounting as a result of this Civil War.
It was a really great presentation, though. I learned a lot (and now hopefully you have too). It really makes you think about things in a new way. For instance, I wonder about how different ideas of nationalism in the world compare. It seems in some of these countries, it is basically flat out racism that is uniting them. Is it possible to unite a population without isolating the “outsider”? How does that type of racism compare to the U.S.? Does the Big Sort thesis apply to the U.S.? Should America continue with intervention in the middle east to fix what we have effectively helped to break or is it best to just let things sort themselves out?
Definitely food for thought.