American Jewish Women in Support of Middle Eastern Refugees

After Donald Trump’s horrifying statements regarding Muslim refugees, tensions have been high in social media, and therefore I was happily surprised to see a different kind of action.

A Jewish women’s group in US decided to start a movement under the hashtag #welcomethestranger, with this aim in mind:

“…to counter the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and corresponding legislative action recently taken by Congress (HR 4038) that would keep refugees in limbo until they are “certified” as not being a security threat. People who are fleeing for their lives. We must not let this come to pass in the Senate. please join us in this action of writing your representatives, and share additional actions you are taking. Now is the time.” 

12376013_1021312397889103_829198249871583650_n

12346458_1021312377889105_1815293464324691171_n

It will be interesting to see how far this campaign can reach. In this polarised and intolerant times, I decided to share this small, but for humanity so necessary action, with you.

Photo copyrights: Leah Katz Ahmadi

Advertisements

Aim Higher – Coexist. The persons behind Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies

jews and arabs front pic

Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies Facebookpage was started after the Israeli attack on Gaza and popped up on Facebook on July 10 – 16 day ago. In these 16 days the page has literally exploded with followers and people posting their own photos and comments, promoting friendship and love in a time of war. The page took many people by surprise, I included. Who were the people behind the page? I just had to find out, and the initiators were happy to share about themselves.

Abraham Gutman from Israel and Dania Darwish from Syria were classmates at Hunter College in New York and took a class in National Model United Nations together. They were both enjoying discussions about Middle Eastern politics even though they not always shared the same views.

“(We) don’t always agree but we never felt that our different opinions changed our friendship or caused any contingency between us”, Abraham says when I get in touch with them by e-mail.

They tell me that the goal of the page is to diffuse some of the hate and tension on social media platforms:

In addition, this initiative aims to create a space for civil discourse between people who identify with divergent political ideas.

I ask about how the page is a response to the current Israeli attacks on Gaza.

We feel that the escalation between Israel and Gaza caused an escalation in the language that people use on social media. In regards to the conflict, political commentary became more hateful and more violent. Unfortunately, it is easy to hide behind a keyboard and say extreme statements. Although on some things we disagree, we both believe that it is important to support a cease fire and non-violent resistance.

And how has the feedback been so far?

We got a lot of criticism from various sides of the political spectrum but we were lucky that all the criticism was civil and respectful. We did get a lot of positive feedback from Israelis, Palestinians, and many types of people that fit into different ethnic and religious groups.”

Well, not everyone likes the page. After my e-mail exchange with Abraham and Dania, there have been a few hateful messages and photos posted by others on the page. Someone has written:

Don’t tell me love between us… Love don’t exist between Arabs and Terroriste fuck you Isra-bitch”.

The same person ha uploaded a drawing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahi butchering Palestinians, receiving an anti-comment from someone saying:

Aww poor Hamas, everyone is against you… stop crying, stop exploding your silly weak bombs, and Israel will stop defending Israel. It will save you some poor civilians.

But among the overwhelming photos, comments and followers on the page – 31.450 at today’s date, – probably more when you read this – those are an absolute minority. The photos consist of people of different religions and ethnicities, most Jews and Muslims, who in one way or another are doing what the states on an international level are failing to do: coexisting. Photos showing couples kissing each other; mixed families with their children; people with one Jewish and one Muslim parent; best friends hugging each other. Most are holding up sheets with hand-written statements: “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies”; “Jew, Arab, both Semitic. Most importantly, both human”; “Mother Jewish, Father Palestinian, whatever we suffer hate makes it worse”.

With the announcement of today’s ceasefire of Israel’s attack on Gaza, the Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies page uploaded the following statement:

With nearly 900 devastating deaths, a 12 hour humanitarian cease-fire is now in effect. We hope that our leaders can implement a solution in the Middle East that results in a permanent cease-fire in Israel/Palestine and an end to the siege in Gaza. The lives of all innocent civilians are too precious to be compromised by the reprehensible political nature of this conflict.

After the ceasefire, maybe the world leaders could follow the path given of the success of a simple Facebook page, the path of coexistence?

Photo credit: Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies Facebook page

Ruth Benyamin – The Real Miss Iraq 2013

Getting hold of Ruth Benyamin, the 67th Miss Iraq and winner of this year’s Miss Iraq competition, is not easy. The competition is no longer accepted by everyone, why in recent years Iraq’s beauty queens has stepped down one after another after death threats from hardcore religious groups, the competition had to move abroad – and Talat model agency that are handling the contest are careful. Over the course of a few months I exchange e-mails with the agency and upon request e-mail the questions that I want to ask in advance. Then all of a sudden I am in touch with the current Miss Iraq of 2013, or, as she boldly calls herself on Twitter and other social media: The Real Miss Iraq.

Ruth Benyamin was chosen in June this year after the first winner stepped down, but not due to death threats this time, according to Ruth it is because she wanted to get married – there seem to be many reasons for the Iraqi beauty queens not being able to hold on to their title. Ruth tells me that she in general is discouraged from giving interviews for security reasons, but she takes her time and writes me several e-mails with long replies to the questions. Born to an Iraqi father and a Hungarian mother, Ruth is actually one of the few Iraqis winning the last years’ competition.

“Miss Iraq is an old competition, being a titleholder is a great honor” she says. “I am the 67th titleholder, 66 previous amazing women have worn the crown, and they have represented different Iraqi ethnic backgrounds and have done well in their lives.”

This year’s competition was held in private and not advertised, why Ruth was officially crowned in a private cocktail party in Heidelberg, Germany. She explains that not many people know about the contest since the organizers keep a low profile due to the threats, and because of this, holding the crown doesn’t give her as much media attention as it could:

“The pageant itself is not a televised competition so it doesn’t get much exposure. There were attempts by organizers to sell air rights to various Iraqi TV satellite stations, but the deal were rejected as TV stations had their own reservations, plus they didn’t want to be attacked by Iraq’s hard line Shiite government.”

Her guess is that this will remain the conditions for the competition, citing the dependency on the country’s security but also the fact the modelling industry in Iraq is very limited and that there is no Iraqi fashion magazines.

Although born and raised in UK, Ruth has visited Iraq several times and have ideas about the potential development of the country. She points out that she believes the situation in Iraq will remain the same unless a three state solution is adopted; this means that apart from the already existing autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Southern/Central Iraq should be divided into two states, in order to curb the ethnic violence. She seems well acquainted with this political idea:

“Part of my work as Miss Iraq is promoting such a plan, a peaceful three-state solution. There is already a Miss Kurdistan which is treated as a contest that represents an independent country, and it’s not called Iraqi Kurdistan, for example.” Later on, when explaining why she would recommend another young Iraqi woman to participate in the competition, she adds: “You become nationalistic once you compete. We were 16 girls who competed in the 2013 edition in Mombasa-Kenya, each representing a city state. I represented Lagash (state in South-Eastern Iraq, author’s comment), we did not win local pageants, because there are no local pageants, but each candidate wears a banner of a city state and it was an amazing experience to learn about our heritage, culture and history.”

Ruth was modelling part time before being crowned Miss Iraq and is all positive about the sudden change in her life that the title has brought her:

“Talat Models has kept me busy travelling from one place to another. I have been to Dubai (where I am based, I am provided a luxury furnished apartment which I share with Miss Teen Iraq, Lina Ovadia), I have been invited by the Iraqi community in Brazil, Germany, I visited Frankfurt, Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Budapest, Rome, and I will visit Sydney and Auckland later in December… The advantages are that I get public relations training, etiquette classes, a model portfolio, public speaking.”

She hopes for a career in hotel management and believes that the work experiences she gets as Miss Iraq is beneficial for the future. As for her personal experience, she says:

“The title has shaped my personality and my perspective on life, it definitely boosted my confidence as young lady.”

Entering the contest was not only a daring decision for a young Iraqi woman, living outside Iraq is not necessarily a guarantee for safety; Ruth is also Jewish, an Iraqi minority that left the country en masse due to suppression, especially during the 1940s and 50s but also after. So what was the response from the Iraqi community on her participation?

“I guess some people like me, some don’t, so far the twitter feedbacks have been positive. Some feel because I’m Jewish that I don’t represent Iraq” she says, then adding, diplomatically: “But those are a minority.”

And diplomacy is definitely a much needed skill, when being in the sometimes dangerous position of the Iraqi beauty queen, that many of her predecessors have left in advance. The Real Miss Iraq seems to hold it up very well so far.

Photocredit: http://iraqibeauties.blogspot.com/

We are All Losers – Some Thoughts After the Nairobi Attacks

Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this post in my blog as the terrorist attacks in Nairobi has nothing to do with neither the Middle East nor Sweden, but I as I have a huge interest for tolerance and intolerance I decided to give myself the freedom to do so.

When the news broke on how one or more British converts were involved, I felt my spirit drop down low. Not again. Some confused, troubled Westerners who gets involved with outcast groups in deprived areas where they incite each other against a common enemy, and puts each other on a derailed train track, heading for disaster where they selfishly are pulling masses of people with them: not only the direct victims of terrorist attacks and their families, but us normal, regular people who are trying to live our everyday lives side by side; Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists and other religions alike.

Do these people even read Arabic? Did they open the holy book of the religion they claim to follow or did they listen to same tape-recorded message by one of the underground group fanatic leaders who probably didn’t read the book himself but was happy to call himself a Muslim since he wore short jeans over the ankles and refused to sit next to a woman on the public subway? In all religions there are numerous of books discussing the different aspects of this religion, new publications are printed each year, seminars are being held among people who wants to discuss religions on an intellectual level, and Islam is not an exception. But the converts are happy with their downsized watery version boiled down to hate.

These people should be charged with crimes against humanity, because whatever was difficult before the attack will be much worse after. In my country I know what will happen. Our national pride and joy Sverigedemokraterna will gain more votes in next year’s election. My veiled neighbor will be surprised I help her up the stairs with her baby and stroller. People will ask how I can invite both my Jewish and Muslim friends to one of my dinner parties.

When reading blogs under the tags of tolerance and intolerance you find the most horrible people out there, hating from all sides. With the ending of this post I would like to target a subcategory within this category, the one of fanatics in line with the Nairobi bombers:

Even if you don’t care about the importance of coexistence, you just made life a little more impossible for your fellow Muslims in the West. Congratulations. Or if you can read Arabic: مبروك

First Civil Marriage Registered in Lebanon

mixed loveSo this week all Middle Eastern-freaks like me noticed that the first couple ever were able to register their marriage as a civil marriage in Lebanon – something that mixed couples have been advocating for ages. Cyprus have been the choice for many mixed Lebanese couples if they had the money – otherwise one of them had to resign to marry under their partner’s religion (usually the man’s).

I meet people that says “it’s not possible” about interfaith marriages. Why? Some religions don’t accept it; sometimes the two religions clash when it comes to the childrens’ religion (in Judaism the children inherits the mother’s reigion and in Islam the father’s – so what happens if a Jewish woman marries a Muslim man?); sometimes it’s simply the society and family that says “it’s not possible”.

Well I have come across so many mixed marriages that I can conclude one thing in this messy discussion: you can’t make people stay away from each other. As often as societies puts up rules for love, there’s always someone that will break them.

A Swedish-Lebanese family that I know were so determined to stay together that they married in the midst of the civil war, despite the danger of being a mixed Christan-Muslim couple. During the first years of their small children’s lives they were living in hiding from militias, until finally being able to escape to Sweden. They now have three children that has been raised celebrating Christmas and Ramadan, learning about both religions, and they take pride in their mixed background. Sometimes maybe a mixed marriage is the best way of preventing a civil war? Unfortunately Lebanon is still a place where such an effort is extremely difficult to carry out.

So when the news about the registered marriage broke, I hurried to get online. What kind of groundbreaking couple was it that decided to make a point out of not register in one religion? Maybe a Muslim-Christian couple? If not, could it be Druze-Christian? No, it was a Sunni-Shia couple – two branches within one religion. Not accepted by everyone, but not the major breakthrough that I had hoped for. If it was, I’m not sure that they would have been able to have the marriage registered.

But let’s hope it’s a first step for Lebanon to heal from it’s intolerant past and the horrifying events that took place under the excuse of sectarian divisions. If Lebanon really wants to move on, there’s only one way, the way forward.

Photo credit: www.biculturalmom.com

Iraqi Beauty Queens

If I say Iraq, what comes to your mind? Most people might not associate it with the Miss Iraq Beauty Competition. This competition started in 1947 with Renee Dangoor as Miss Iraq and has since been held annually and was preceded by the Miss Baghdad competition that started as early as 1934.

Renee was Jewish, and scrolling through the winners the differences reveal a society that hosted plural religions and ethnicities, where a certain  name or background didn’t hold you back from public achievements.

During the centuries the competition developed accordingly with the surrounding world; it became a scholarship program; in the 70s the swimming suit part was removed in response to the feminist movement (although reintroduced later on); and in 2002 an attempt was being made to merge it with an Iraqi Eurovision song context. As time had it’s influence – in 2003 when the society started to collapse and extremist groups began their ruling by fear, it became impossible to hold the competitions inside Iraq. Since then it has been staged abroad: in Kenya, France and Turkey. Wealthy liberal Iraqis outside the country set up the competition and young Iraqi women in exile participated. Iraqis I know often speak about the good old times, when Iraq was a dynamic and rich society, not the sad and messy country we are so used to from the news today. The struggle for the Iraqi beauty competitions might be a reminder for people whos country no longer is.

In the last years, the circumstances around the competition has taken a new turn: the participants consists of less and less women of Iraqi descents. In 2006 the newly crowned miss Iraq Tamar Goregian resigned after four days – she had been threatened by an extremist group calling her “the queen of infidels”. Before taking the decision to step down, when still hopeful, Tamara bravely said: Maybe beauty is the final step to end violence and preach world peace after all. The power of beauty surpasses the ugly face of politics and greed.” Other participants pulled out after her. Even though being outside, they didn’t feel safe. Now white women from former Yugoslavia and Spain have taken the places of the Iraqis.

No matter what one might think about beauty pageants, in a free world everyone should have the right to join one or demonstrate against it. I hope the Iraqi women will come back one day and claim their rightsome place.

Party with the Different

Party

Last weekend me and some friends threw a party at my place to celebrate an achievement, it was real fun thanks to my friends bringing foods and hookah (water pipe), even a small baby that everyone could grab and cuddle with, so that I could focus on trying to wear my new heels and look good (hey, I’m being honest). I happen to have ended up with friends and acquintances that ranges from very liberal to very conservative and I invite them all. Someone who believes in the clash of civilizations probably wouldn’t think my parties was a great idea.

But not all of my friends drink alcohol and they show up anyways, the hookah keeping them busy. Not everyone eat pork so we skip that, just so that noone will eat it by mistake. I also have friends from different religions and people sometimes hold biases, but I can’t let that come between an invitation. Very few are free from prejudices (including myself) and I just let people meet and figure out who that other person is for themselves. Ofcourse I don’t put up with everything: if you are too judgemental on a woman wearing the hijab and therefore is surpressed; being a Jew and therefore hate Arabs; being an ignorant Swede who doesn’t like foreigners – I get exhausted. But I’ve also seen persons change and reconsider their stereotypes – it’s sometimes painful to realize what you have been thinking, but it can also be a wonderful feeling to let go of your prejudices (sometimes prejudices contains a lot of anger).

I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s sometimes a mine field and many times I become sad by the force in how much some dislike each other and try to convince others to follow. But so far I haven’t caved in when it comes to the parties at my place. I believe in people.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog