Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ali Ferzat: Cartooning for freedom

Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat (photo by AFP)
The world tipped its hat twice this month in honor of Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat.
The first time was on December 8 at the Le Monde auditorium in Paris. The second was on December 14 at the European Union Parliament in Strasbourg.
In Paris, Reporters Without Borders and Le Monde, with the support of TV5MONDE, awarded Ferzat the 2011 Press Freedom Prize, naming him the 2011 Journalist of the year. The 2011 Media of the Year prize went to the Burmese publication, Weekly Eleven News.
The second was on December 14, when at a formal sitting in Strasbourg the European Union Parliament conferred the 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on Ferzat and four other Arab Spring activists – two men and two women.
The two men are Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia, whose death in January helped spark the Arab Spring, and Libyan dissident Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Senussi who spent 31 years in prison for opposing the Gaddafi regime.
The two women are Egypt's Asma Mahfouz, a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, and Razan Zeitouneh, a lawyer, writer and human rights activist who documented human rights abuses on her website “Syrian Human Rights Information Link.”
Pen and paper have been Ali Ferzat’s armory since his teens. A political satirist and head of the Arab Cartoonists' Association, his works have been published in countless Syrian, Arab and international publications. His more than 15,000 comic strips have been reviling injustice, repression, despotism, violence, and corruption for decades. Arab governments, including in his native country, repeatedly banned his creations, which are typically without captions. But Ferzat never stopped censuring the abuse of power or championing freedom and democracy in Arab countries and at home. So when the Arab Spring reached Syria last March, he quickly put his shoulder to its wheel.
Ferzat after his August 25 beating
Five months into the Arab Spring in Syria, masked men seized Ferzat in Umayyad Square in Old Damascus while he was heading home in the early hours of August 25. The “spooks” beat him up badly, breaking two of his left fingers and maiming his right arm and one of his eyes. They then bundled him out of their van by the side of the airport road and drove off with his attaché case.
The attack came days after Ferzat published a cartoon depicting Bashar Assad thumbing a ride with Moammar Gaddafi, who is shown driving a getaway car.
When working as a journalist alongside two renowned Arab cartoonists -- the late Imad Shehadeh and the late Mahmoud Kahil – I realized that, much as a picture, a cartoon is worth a thousand words.
To me, breaking a cartoonist’s fingers or hand is like smashing a runner’s legs or impairing a surgeon’s vision.

The 60-year-old Syrian cartoonist rose to prominence in the 1980s with his satirical yet nondescript images of bureaucrats, bullies and Big Brother. His first professional drawings appeared, when he was 14, on the front pages of al-Ayyam newspaper, shortly before the ruling Baath Party banned it. In 1969, he started drawing comic strips for the state-run daily al-Thawra. In the mid-1970s he moved to another government-controlled newspaper, Tishreen.

International recognition followed in 1980, when Ferzat won the first prize at the Intergraphic International Festival in Berlin and his caricatures started featuring in France’s prestigious Le Monde. His 1989 exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris set off a death threat from Saddam Hussein.
Ferzat launched his own satirical newspaper – al-Domari or the Lamplighter – in 2000. Styled like the French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, it was the first independent publication in Syria since the Baath Party takeover in 1963. The 50,000 copies of the first print run of its first edition in February 2001 sold out in less than four hours. By 2003, however, frequent government restrictions, censorship and lack of funds forced Ferzat to close down al-Domari.

Presenting the 2011 Journalist of the Year award in absentia to Ferzat at the Le Monde auditorium in Paris on December 8, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said:
“This year we are honoring a courageous journalist who has been the victim of brutal repression by an obsolete government. Ali Ferzat fully deserves this award. His cartoons target the abuses of a desperate regime with its back to the wall and encourage Syrians to demand their rights and to express themselves freely.”
“I would have liked to have been with you this evening to take part in this beautiful event,” Ferzat said in a letter read out by the French cartoonist Plantu. “I dedicate this award to the martyrs, to those who have been injured and to those who struggle for freedom. May thanks be given to all those who have turned the Arab Spring into a victory over darkness and repression… I salute all those who take to the streets, everywhere in the world, searching for freedom, democracy and dignity.”
The European Parliament in turn honored the five Arab Spring recipients of its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought at an award ceremony held in Strasburg six days later, on December 14.
The Sakharov Prize is named after Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. The European Parliament established it in December 1988 to honor individuals or organizations committed to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought. Past winners include South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela, and former UN chief Kofi Annan.
Speaker Jerzy Buzek told lawmakers, “2011 will go down in history as the year of the Arab Spring. The European Parliament recognizes the efforts of all those who struggle for dignity, basic freedoms and political change in the Arab world.”
Ferzat thanked the EU parliamentarians for his Sakharov Prize through a video message, saying he felt “extremely bitter and very sad” about the mounting death toll in Syria. “People are demonstrating in the streets at the moment. They don’t fear death... They are telling us liberty is beyond price.”
Syrian lawyer and blogger Razan Zeitouneh was also honored, but could not attend the award ceremony because she had gone into hiding after being accused by the regime of being a foreign agent.
“It is not possible to stop the march of this people to freedom and dignity,” Zeitouneh wrote in a letter to the EU lawmakers, dedicating the prize to “Little Ghiyath,” the newborn son of an activist who was killed by Syrian security forces in September.
You can view the jam-packed archive of Ferzat’s cartoons on his website.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all my family, friends and readers.

I wish you good health, peace of mind and happiness on this glorious day.

If Santa didn't pass by, maybe he's stuck on a beach in Dubai! The weather is so nice and sunny here, he might have decided to sit it out on the beach.

But no worries. Christmas is all about giving  and there are so many worthy causes to share the goodwill of the season with:

-- Samar Maree, a 10-year-old little girl in Ramallah on the West Bank, needs an urgent, life-saving operation by January 19, 2012. To help her get to Florence in time, please check all the links at It’s Christmas, let’s save a life.

-- My friend George Elkhabbaz is raising funds for children fighting cancer. For his 32nd birthday tomorrow (December 26), George (@UXSoup), has launched an appeal for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Lebanon. To contribute to his birthday wish, please visit George Elkhabbaz's Birthday Wish.

Thank you for your generosity, enjoy the day and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's Christmas, let’s save a life!

Help save Samar Maree's life this Christmas

It’s the season of goodwill. It’s Christmas in three days. What better way to celebrate the birth of Christ than by helping to save the life of a little 10-year-old girl.

Samar Maree is dying. She needs life-saving brain surgery. She will not live to see the New Year if she is not operated on within a month.

Samar lives in Ramallah on the West Bank where the operation cannot be performed. She has to be flown to Florence, Italy, where pediatric neurosurgeons at the Meyer Children's Hospital can treat her.

The problem is that Samar needs around $21,000 to receive the treatment that will save her life. And what better Christmas present can we contribute to?
Add caption
Donations as at Thursday (22 Dec.) morning
The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) has set up a dedicated emergency giving page to receive donations. They have already raised around $6,600, thanks to your generosity. But they still need $15,000 by January 19, 2012.

Please help make Samar’s Christmas and include her in your presents. Every donation, big or small, counts. Thank you.

Related posts:
Save Samar at A Naboulsi Story
Dying at Fake Plastic Souks
Help by buying one of Gerald D's prints here

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sansour art: Alligator bites olive tree

“So that alligator bites after all!” That’s what my friend Nadine Toukan exclaimed on Facebook Tuesday night, December 20.

Larissa Sansour "too pro-Palestinian" for Lacoste
The alligator in question is the French clothing brand Lacoste that has demanded the removal of Jerusalem-born Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour from a major photographic competition for being “too pro-Palestinian.”

How, I wonder, can you be “too pro” your nationality? Would an American be labeled “too pro-American,” or a Venezuelan “too pro-Venezuelan…? Would a Canadian depicting a Maple tree be dubbed “too pro-Canadian?” Would an English person be called “too pro-English” for drawing the Tower of London or St. Paul’s?

The Lacoste-sponsored competition is for the prestigious €25,000 ($33,000) Lacoste Elysée Prize, which is now in its second edition and is awarded by the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée.

Sansour was one of the eight artists shortlisted for the 2011 award.

Last November 9, she wrote on her website: “Very excited to be nominated for the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011.”

But in a press release dated December 20, the artist reveals that Lacoste has demanded her nomination be revoked. The French brand justified their refusal
 to support Sansour’s work by tagging it “too pro-Palestinian.” The winner is to be selected by a special jury in January 2012.

Sansour’s work is immersed in the current political dialogue and she brings into play video art, photography, experimental documentary, the book form and the Internet.

The artist, who studied Fine Art in Copenhagen, London and New York, borrows heavily from film and pop culture. Sansour describes her work as “approximating the nature, reality and complexity of life in Palestine and the Middle East to visual forms normally associated with entertainment and televised pastime.”

Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour
Her grandiose and often humorous schemes clash with the gravity expected from works commenting on the region. So why then was she named then shortlisted for the award, when it was obvious what her work was about?

As a nominee, Sansour was granted a bursary of €4,000 ($5,200) and given a free hand to produce a portfolio of images for the final ruling. In November, three photos for Sansour’s Nation Estate project were accepted. The prize administrators also congratulated her on her work and professionalism.

Sansour’s name featured on all the literature relating to the prize and on the website as an official nominee. Her name has since been removed, just as her project has been withdrawn from an upcoming issue of contemporary art magazine ArtReview introducing the nominated artists.

Sansour says an attempt was made to mask the reason for her dismissal, when she was asked to approve a statement saying she was pulling out from the competition “in order to pursue other opportunities.” She refused.

She adds: “I am very sad and shocked by this development. This year Palestine was officially admitted to UNESCO, yet we are still being silenced. As a politically involved artist I am no stranger to opposition, but never before have I been censored by the very same people who nominated me in the first place. Lacoste’s prejudice and censorship puts a major dent in the idea of corporate involvement in the arts. It is deeply worrying.”

Sansour's Nation Estate: The lobby of the Palestinian state skyscraper
Sansour’s shortlisted work, Nation Estate, is conceived in the wake of Palestine’s bid for UN membership. Nation Estate depicts a science fiction-style Palestinian state in the form of a single skyscraper housing the entire Palestinian population.

Sansour describes the project “as set within a grim piece of high-tech architecture where the narrative photo series envisions la joie de vivre of a Palestinian state rising from the ashes of the peace process.

In this dystopian vision, Palestinians have their nation-state in the form of a single skyscraper -- The Nation Estate. Surrounded by a concrete wall, the colossal hi-rise houses the entire Palestinian population – finally living the high life. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem on 3, Ramallah on 4, Sansour’s own hometown of Bethlehem on 5, etc. Traveling between cities, previously marred by checkpoints, is now by elevator!

The elevator doors on Jerusalem floor 3 open onto the Dome of the Rock
Another floor has an olive tree
Aiming for a sense of belonging, Sansour has the lobby of each floor reenacting iconic squares and landmarks. The elevator doors on the Jerusalem floor open onto a full-scale Dome of the Rock, for example.
Regretting Lacoste’s decision to censor Sansour’s work, the Lausanne-based Musée de l’Elysée has offered to exhibit the Nation Estate project outside the confines of the Lacoste sponsorship.

Sansour's work features in galleries, museums, film festivals and art publications worldwide. Recent solo shows include exhibitions at Kulturhuset in Stockholm, Galerie La B.A.N.K in Paris, DEPO in Istanbul and Jack the Pelican in New York.

She shared in the biennials in Istanbul, Busan and Liverpool. Her work has appeared at the Third Guangzhou Triennial in China, LOOP in Seoul, South Korea, Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and PhotoCairo4 in Egypt.

Her short film A Space Exodus was put up in the Best Short category at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Among the exhibitions of 2011 are LIVING at Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark and the Incheon Women Artists' Biennial in South Korea.

Never before did anyone in the art world consider Sansour’s work “too pro-Palestinian.” So what happens when the alligator bites an olive tree?

Update, Thursday 22 December

Larissa Sansour announced “amazing news” on her Facebook page on Thursday 22 December: “The Musée de l'Elysée has decided to cancel the prize and side with the artist instead of the big corporate sponsor.”

A press release announced that the Musée de l’Elysée has decided to suspend the organization of the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011.

“The Musée de l’Elysée based its decision on the private partner’s wish to exclude Larissa Sansour, one of the prize nominees.

“We reaffirm our support to Larissa Sansour for the artistic quality of her work and her dedication. The Musée de l’Elysée has already proposed to her to present at the museum the series of photographs “Nation Estate,” which she submitted in the framework of the contest.

“For 25 years, the Musée de l’Elysée has defended with strength artists, their work, freedom of the arts and of speech. With the decision it has taken today, the Musée de l’Elysée repeats its commitment to its fundamental values.”


Thursday, December 15, 2011

“O Little Town of Bethlehem”

The birthplace of Christ (Wikipedia)
There are only 10 days left to Christmas. Having given up on the commercial side of the holy day, my thoughts at this time of year often turn to the birthplace and Bethlehem…
It is like going back in time, when the merriment was simple and all about rejoicing in prayer and the birth of Christ. It was a time when we visited my paternal grandmother, Teta Rose, and my paternal relatives in the town where Jesus was born.

With Asma and Mom at the Grotto of the Nativity
This year the memories came flooding back when my sister Asma sent me our picture standing with mom Vicky at the entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity. By coincidence, my cousin Peter Hazou emailed me a set of pictures of Teta Rose (taken a couple of years before her death in 1979) and my Aunt Mary, with whom he spent Christmas in 1986 at the family home in Bethlehem. So many snapshots to share...

Teta Rose
Built over the birthplace of Jesus, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously open churches in the world.

To assimilate this as a child was magical. Visiting my grandmother and the extended family in Bethlehem was like a life-size, unbroken reunion of relatives and friends to the backdrop of this biblical site.

Aunt Mary at the stone house in Bethlehem..
...and her teapot
Aunt Mary making Shish Barak
Granny’s stone house was on the second floor. It had a roof extension where we had breakfast in spring and summertime while waiting for farmers to pass by with basket-loads of whatever fresh produce was in season and was just picked from the fields.

Running around the old and winding alleyways of Bethlehem was like playing hide-and-seek. When I got lost, which happened so often, I would stop at one of the bijou grocery or retail shops, tell them my name and wait for someone to guide me back home.

My cousin Peter Hazou
On our last trip before the 1967 Six-Day War, it was as though my parents knew that it might be our last vacation there for a while. So we toured all the landmarks in the Holy Land, among them the Church of the Nativity.

The church, on Manger Square, is about eight kilometers (five miles) from Jerusalem. It is built over a grotto where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. 

Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine I, started the groundbreaking work on the first basilica. Construction went ahead in 327 under the supervision of Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem in 327 and was completed in 333.

The large fortress-like exterior of the church stands as a testament to its turbulent history. For centuries, it was one of the most fought over holy places, seized and defended by a succession of armies -- including Muslim and Crusader forces. It is now controlled jointly by three Christian denominations: the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.

The present building, the oldest church in Palestine, was reconstructed in the 6th Century by Emperor Justinian (527-565) and further repaired by the Crusaders.

The Door of Humility
You enter the church through a small rectangular entrance known as the Door of Humility. For a child it was fun to have a door your size and watch all the grown-ups bend over to enter. It was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitors to dismount from their horse as they entered the holy place. The doorway was reduced from an earlier Crusader doorway, the pointed arch of which can still be seen above the current door. 

The Silver Star: Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est
The Altar of the Nativity sits below a silver and gold chandelier. Stairways on either side of the main altar lead to a grotto. A fourteen-point Silver Star embedded in white marble marks the birthplace of Christ. An inscription reads, Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est ("Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary"). Fifteen lamps burn around the spot -- six belong to the Greeks, five to the Armenians and four to the Latins. It is hard not to be touched by the view of the Silver Star and let your mind travel to those ancient times. And that is where our picture was taken.

Elvis Presley sings "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

The altar is denominationally neutral, although it features mostly Armenian Apostolic influences. Another altar in the Grotto, which is maintained by the Roman Catholics, marks the site where traditionally Mary laid the newborn Baby Jesus in the manger.

The grotto is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church. The traditional midnight mass celebrated on Christmas Eve is held in St. Catherine's, the Roman Catholic Church next door to the Church of the Nativity. 

It is in Manger Square, a large courtyard in front of the Church, where we would gather alongside the crowds on Christmas Eve to sing carols and await Christmas Midnight Mass.

President Bill Clinton in Bethlehem
On December 15, 1998, then President Bill Clinton, wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea accompanied Palestinian leader Yaser Arafat and his wife Suha on a tour of the Church of the Nativity. They then joined a Palestinian children's choir in singing a hymn in Manger Square against the backdrop of a towering Christmas tree. The Clintons each placed a Christmas ornament -- a heart, a bell and a large gold ball -- on the tree.
Would I recognize Bethlehem after all these years? Santa seems lost!
A UNESCO report in 1997 found that, because of water leaking from the roof, most of the mosaics and paintings, some dating from Byzantine times, had been "damaged beyond repair."

The World Monuments Fund placed the basilica on the 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. It stated: “The present state of the church is worrying. Many roof timbers are rotting, and have not been replaced since the 19th century. The rainwater that seeps into the building not only accelerates the rotting of the wood and damages the structural integrity of the building, but also damages the 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings. The influx of water also means that there is an ever-present chance of an electrical fire…”

Even back in 1461, a visitor wrote: "In the roof the timbers that were constructed in ancient times are rotting, and this structure is falling daily into ruin.”

The memories come flooding back while looking at all these pictures and each time I hear the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – let alone a yearning to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem once again.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

God, Santa, Fr. Paolo and Syria

Father Paolo Dall'Oglio
After promoting interfaith harmony for 30 years, a Jesuit priest is being asked to leave Syria.
He is Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian cleric with a Ph.D. in comparative religion and Islamic studies. He championed Christian-Muslim dialogue for three decades in a region where the line between state and religion is often blurred. He did it from his monastery some 80 kilometers north of Damascus. “I have worked to create a monastic community dedicated to the service of harmony between Islam and Christianity,” he says.
Fr. Paolo lives and works officially under the aegis of the Syriac Catholic church in the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian, or Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi. The monastery has stood at the eastern fringes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains since at least the sixth century. University of Toronto archeologist Robert B. Mason thinks it was built on the remnants of a Roman watchtower. Today it resembles a storybook castle perched on the edge of a steep precipice overlooking the Syrian Desert.
A fortnight ago, Fr. Paolo posted a Christmas message on the monastery’s web site. The message did not go down well in Damascus. According to the Vatican Insider, the Syrian government promptly asked the ecclesiastical authorities to eject Fr. Paolo from the country.
“I suggested to Syrian authorities that I would commit less to politics and culture and more to spiritual matters, to avoid expulsion from the country,” he told Vatican Radio.
What ruffled Damascus’ feathers is Fr. Paolo’s Christmas message, dated November 25 and published on the monastery’s website and by the Society of Jesus’ monthly magazine “Popoli.”
The message is titled “Christmas call 2011.” Here is the essence of what it declares:
…Christ and his family’s sufferings, including persecution and suffering, show us the right way in the current conditions.
Our country is in danger. Some of us have sided with one party, others with another. Let us ask ourselves: where is our duty as a community obeying the Gospel? Is not our role to speak for harmony and reconciliation, now as in the past?
Many predict a rapid end to the current dramatic events through the victory of one side over the other… Others expect a rise in violence and finally a permanent partition of the country...
Whatever the result, we will stay in solidarity with every Syrian, regardless of his or her political, religious, ethnic and native tongue roots. We will stay in solidarity with our neighbors, without discriminating between one neighbor and another, other than in the defense of justice and the oppressed.
It is not the time to apportion blame or judge fellow citizens in conflict. We must tell everyone that we wish to promote reconciliation. There is no way forward other than reconciliation.
In these terrible days full of hope and sadness, fervor and gloom, courage and fear, sacrifice and crime, we don’t know what form our country will finally take. We do not know if the nation will keep its unity, and how. Will citizens gain more freedom, or lose the little they have? Will they achieve a pluralistic, civilian, consensual democracy, where everyone is respected? Or will the opposite happen, with citizens being oppressed by a rigid majority?
We feel our role in this crisis is to encourage dialogue, communication, reconciliation and bridge building… Reconciliation is between enemies, not friends! It can succeed through an agreement that considers the reasonable demands of all sides. This is why we offer, in all humility, our service as Christians, not as a party but as mediators…
Rear banner at Homs demo hails Fr. Paolo's support of justice (via
But reconciliation requires several fundamental conditions. In their absence, it would be tantamount to submission and surrender. The most important of those conditions are to accept pluralism, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, and respect of citizens’ dignity and basic rights…
Our salvation will not come from the mantra of plots. It will come by seeking cooperation with every free individual of goodwill in the region and in the world. This can occur only through access to Arab and international media in all their diversity. Truth springs up from media pluralism and independence. We also suggest cooperation with independent humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross or Red Crescent to help in stopping armed clashes and protecting unarmed civilians.
Dear Christians, the third point comes from the manifesto and teachings of the Oriental Patriarchs, and from the commandments of the Bishops’ Synod for the Middle East, held under the Pope’s direction in 2010. They determine that our existence, side by side with the Muslims in harmony and understanding, is a condition that God wants…
Interfaith collaboration and bridge building is what the six monks and nuns of Deir Mar Musa work for with their assistants. They team up with Muslim leaders to improve opportunities for young people, promote ecological awareness, and arrange theological discussions between religious leaders. And when the call to prayer sounds from the muezzin, a Muslim visiting the monastery’s church, kneels and performs his or her prayers.
Deir Mar Musa (Wikipedia)
Although the monastery’s church was built in 1058 AD, Deir Mar Musa's reputation and restoration is due much to the efforts, resolve and belief of Fr. Paolo. After completing a doctorate in comparative religion and Islamic studies at the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, he single-handedly restored the site, setting the first stone in 1982.
"I came here as a student of Arabic and lived in Lebanon and Syria beginning from the 1970s. I asked a priest in Damascus if he knew of a place where I could go to study and pray. He suggested I come here, and here I am today," the priest explains. He was awarded the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean award for interfaith dialogue on behalf of Deir Mar Musa in 2006.
The 6th century monastery
The monastery was founded by Mar Musa al-Habashi, or Saint Moses the Abyssinian, who, as legend has it, was the son of an Ethiopian king. Refusing to accept his future as laid out before him, Saint Moses decided to become a Christian monk and later travelled to Syria where he lived as a monk in Qara and then as a hermit in the valley of what is today the monastery. Byzantine soldiers martyred him there. The story says his family took his body, but the thumb of his right hand was separated by a miracle, and was left as a relic, now conserved in the Syrian church of Nebek.
The Deir, on fringes of Anti-Lebanon Mountains
Last July, Fr. Paolo also wrote a think piece titled “A Democracy of Consensus for the Sake of National Unity,” which you can read in full here. In it he offered the idea of a “democracy of consensus.” He said that this, “with prayer and fasting, is my contribution to the constructive dialogue, which is necessary to escape from the cycle of bloodshed and revenge.”
Will Fr. Paolo be made to leave his home in the mountains or will he be granted leave to stay and continue championing national reconciliation and interfaith harmony?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent and Burbara herald Christmas

The countdown to Christmas began with the November 27 start of Advent, followed by Eid al-Burbara, or St. Barbara’s Day, on December 4.
Many shops and high streets have been in full swing since October though. When living in London, such early start removed all the magic from the season when everything in town went into Christmas mode three months ahead of time.

Santa or Mrs. (Mich) Claus?
December used to be a month I wished I could sleep through to reemerge on January 7. Not only was it the “silly season” of Inebriation and useless spending, but also the time of dark days, when lights had to be switched on as of 2 p.m., and of inclement weather, when you only wanted to hole up.

Luckily in Dubai, the season of spending and gluttony and intoxication is made bearable thanks to the sun and the heat. You can get away with Christmas lunch and then go back to work.

But there are some events in the buildup to Christmas that remain fond memories, such as preparing the Advent calendar and Burbara.

Advent, from the Latin word adventus meaning coming in Latin, is observed in many Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. It is the beginning of the Western liturgical year and commences on the fourth Sunday before December 25, which fell on November 27 this year.

The progression of the season is marked, mostly by children, with an Advent calendar. We used to make these at school and take them home just in time to start opening the little windows and see the holy image and story leading up to the Nativity. 

"The Little Town" Advent Calendar first published in 1946
The origin of the Advent Calendar can be traced back to the 19th century, when religious families made a chalk line for every day in December until Christmas Eve. The first known Advent Calendar was handmade in 1851. The first printed ones were made in 1908 by a Swabian parishioner son, Gerhard Lang (1881-1974). He produced little colored pictures that could be affixed on a cardboard each December day.

The Advent Calendar’s popularity started to spread worldwide, but World War II terminated the success of this German tradition. The cardboard was rationed and it was forbidden to produce calendars with pictures. 

Advent Calendar 44 by Richard Sellmer
The first printed calendars after the war were by Richard Sellmer of Stuttgart in 1946. He resurrected the commercial Advent Calendar and is responsible for its widespread popularity. His company, Richard Sellmer Verlag, today maintains a stock of over 1,000,000 calendars worldwide. Advent Calendars filled with chocolate were already available in 1958.

The second fond memory I have leading up to Christmas is of Eid al-Burbara, or Saint Barbara's Day. It is celebrated on December 4 in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine to honor Saint Barbara, who disguised herself in many different characters to elude the Romans who were persecuting her. Thus children wear masks and go around the neighborhood, much as in Halloween, and are offered a porridge-like delicacy called Burbara.

Burbara awakens all the senses with the smell of spices and smooth hot texture. It is made of boiled wheat grains, pomegranate seeds, raisins, anise and sugar and is offered to the children. It gives off a wonderful warm smell that I still remember.

Eid al-Burbara signals the countdown to Christmas. And although Advent is a period of fasting, Burbara is something that can be eaten during this lent period because it doesn’t include dairy or meat products.

The Eid al-Burbara story tells how Barbara supposedly ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly to magically cover her path. 

St. Barbara (Wikipedia)
Accounts place St. Barbara in the 3rd century. As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, she continues to be recognized as the patron saint of artillerymen, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives because of her old legend's association with lightning. Many of the 13 miracles in a 15th-century French version of her story hinges on the security she offered her devotees, who would not die without making confession and receiving extreme unction.

Various versions differ on the location of St. Barbara’s martyrdom, which is given as Tuscany, Rome, Antioch, Baalbek, and Nicomedia.

According to tradition, Barbara was the daughter of the pagan Dioscurus. On discovering that she became a Christian, her father tried to kill her, but she was miraculously transported out of his reach. Dioscurus denounced her to the authorities. Despite being tortured, she refused to denounce her faith. Her father beheaded her and was immediately struck by lightning and reduced to ashes. As a result of her father's fate, St. Barbara's prayers are especially sought as protection against thunderstorms and fire. 

If you would like to try your hand at Burbara, I found my Mom, Vicky’s recipe. We used to make a lot to share with all the neighbors, so I have cut the ingredients to make a large bowl or six-eight generous servings.

Burbara (photo)
  • 250g crushed peeled or shelled wheat
  • 250g dried apricots
  • 250g raisins
  • 1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon of cloves
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, ground
  • 2 teaspoons anise seeds, ground
  • 10 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
  • 100g crushed walnuts
  • 100g almonds (peeled, halved, soaked in hot water)
  • 1 pomegranate, seeded
  • Wash wheat and soak overnight. Drain, place in a pot and cover it with cold water just above the wheat. Bring to a boil until the wheat is tender. Drain the wheat and boil again in clean water.
  • When it boils, reduce the heat and add the spices -- cinnamon, fennel, anise and sugar.
  • Wash raisins, dice apricots and add to the boiling mix. Boil for another 10 minutes or until the wheat and raisins puff up.
  • Serve hot with almonds and crushed walnuts and pomegranate seeds on top.
There’s still time to make your own Advent Calendar, if you don’t have one already. And once you’ve tried Burbara, the countdown to Christmas Day is truly on.

Related posts:
Lebanese and Halloween by Elie Fares – October 31, 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Happy 40th to the UAE

My accolade goes to the Dubai Civil Defense
It is the sixth year I celebrate UAE National Day in Dubai.
In the current times of social, political and economic turmoil in the region and the world at large, it is a breath of fresh air to see a country happy, united and supportive of its leaders.

As one of the tens of thousands of expatriates who were lucky to land on the sunny, blissful and safe shores of the United Arab Emirates, I wish the country, its leaders and its people a Happy National Day.

Friday, December 2, marks the formal independence of the UAE from the United Kingdom and the 1971 unification of its seven component emirates – namely, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Al Fujairah.

The seven fellow members of the Federal Supreme Council
The “Spirit of the Union” is derived from the vision and leadership of the father of the nation, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. It now lives on through UAE President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and their five fellow members of the Federal Supreme Council – Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi (ruler Sharjah), Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammad Al Sharqi (ruler of Al Fujairah), Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi (ruler of Ras Al Khaimah), Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla (ruler of Umm Al Quwain), and Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi (ruler of Ajman).

Preparations for this year’s National Day got underway on October 24 and culminated on December 2, when celebratory events across the seven emirates marked the 40th milestone.

My friend Yahya Almarzooqi at National Day celebrations
Villas, apartments, offices, gardens, parks, public roads, cars… practically everything is decked out in the colors of the UAE national flag, under the slogan “Spirit of the Nation.”

An Emirati businesswoman went as far as to customize and decorate her BMW X6 with 150,000 individual Swarovski crystals. She had to get special permission from the RTA (Road Transport Authority to drive it. And she also customized her abaya (full story and pictures in 7Days, 28 November 2011).

The Al Manara Civil Defense Station
My accolade on this 40th National Day goes to the Dubai Civil Defense. I wish to thank them for all they will be doing to keep the city and its residents safe as they celebrate the occasion.

I pass the Al Manara Dubai Civil Defense Station on my way home every night. The sight there of the yellow fire engines and rescue cars, always ready to move, is a great comfort. I couldn’t help but notice the proud display of a giant UAE flag and decorations on the center, all through the countdown to December 2.

Lights all over the Station...
... in the colors of the UAE flag
The Al Manara Civil Defense Station, headed by Air Force Major Othman Mohammad Ahli, was inaugurated by HH Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in November 2010, when Civil Defense teams performed field parades highlighting their readiness to intervene in emergency situations.

The Civil Defense fleet at the ready
Corporal Youssef Hussein shows me the equipment
I was welcomed and given the run of the Civil Defense Station by Corporal Youssef Hussein who spoke with pride of the courage and dedication of the Civil Defense team and its preparedness to answer the dangerous calls it gets. He was also proud to show me the fire engines and other rescue and support vehicles, all fitted with the latest equipment and technology made in the Emirates. (Join me at the Al Manara Civil Defense Station in photos here).

Corporal Hussein says the Station is always pleased to welcome guests, families, children, schools and anyone interested to learn more about the Dubai Civil Defense and its operations. 

The Operations Center van...
... equipped with the latest technology
Among the functions of Civil Defense are to search for victims, rescue and deliver casualties and provide needed help; participate in the rehabilitation of afflicted areas and the resumption of public utilities services; supervise implementation of industrial safety measures in industrial and commercial establishments; and oversee fire preventive measures in private and public institutions.

Happy National Day to the enlightened UAE leadership, to the brave people at Civil Defense and to all my Emirati friends.