Shia Girls Singing Christmas Carols in Lebanese Church

A message from this past Christmas, from Lebanon: here’s a video of Shia orphan girls performing Christmas carols in the Saint-Elie church in Beirut.

Happy coexistence everyone, enjoy the music!

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.” 

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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

Swedish Muslim Students Responds to Hate With Baklava

In Malmö University in the city of Malmö, Sweden, a university that prides itself of being very mixed and with students from many different countries and backgrounds, a Muslim student discovered someone having posted a print of one of the Muhammed caricatures on the public notice board. These news was shared with me by Swedish journalist Nizar Keblawi, who made a news coverage about the incident in Swedish public TV, and then e-mailed me the news. The student who saw it, Lina Abu Zarour, snapped a photo, removed the print and gave it to the Students Union, who handed it over to the university’s administration. It turned out more pictures of the same kind were posted at the university, about four or five. The university reportedly took the matter seriously and launched an investigation. In media, university staff said they encourage all students to report such offences and pointed out that students from all backgrounds are welcome at the  university.

Then following the incident, Lina herself did something different. She and her friends decided to respond to the caricature by hosting an event where they handed out baklava (typical Middle Eastern sweet) wrapped in hadiths, teachings from the Quran. To Nizar Keblawi, Lina said:

“The event became a success, you can say.”

Her take on the postings of the caricatures is that people are usually scared to know of new things.

“It is lack of knowledge that’s behind these things”, she said. “People are afraid of learning about for example Islam. But you can’t judge the book just because of it’s cover.”

By sharing baklava with hadith quotes, she wanted to teach the other students more about her religion in a friendly way. And many students showed up, some of them wanting to show their support to the Muslim students at the university. Lina Abu Zarour made headlines in Swedish media with her response, and was among many things invited to an in-dept interview in Swedish radio. What more is, she was able to show the whole country a way to respond to hate and ignorance: with kindness.

Dina – Women’s Rights Activist in Iraq

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Dina Najem became an activist after finishing her degree in French at the university in Baghdad, when she started blogging and became active in social media and realized how invisible the women were in Iraqi media.

“Iraq has always been a closed society,” she says. “Even before the US invasion the society was controlling towards women, and after 2003 there was no security at all. Women couldn’t even walk outside alone.”

Dina, now 24, decided she wanted to work for women to be able to participate more in the society.

“I have myself no support from the society” she says. “It’s my husband and my family that supports me. The government has the ability to improve the lives for Iraq’s women, they have the financial resources, but they are not doing anything.”

After a few years as an activist within local NGOs and social media Dina applied in 2012 to the Swedish Institute’s academic program for human rights activists from the Middle East and North Africa, “Social Innovation in a digital context”. She was accepted as one of 15 participants, and so was her husband Hayder, who is also an activist.

“I wanted to focus on women” she says. “Men are already dominating trainings, the political life, everything.”

She believes many women have not been fighting for their own rights.

“The war made so many stay at home, they were prevented from educating themselves. Women don´t have the knowledge to demand their rights.The one that does are not a big number.”

Lack of technical skills is another reason for the absence of women in Iraqi media according to Dina.This makes them unable to compete with men who are in the same business. With the knowledge gained on digital media from the Swedish Institutes program Dina was able to start training others.

After the six months long course she returned in April this year to Baghdad and started the photography project “Rights Without Words” for young women in the ages of 20 to 30. She went herself to look for a sponsor and got International Media Support to fund the project. By publishing information about the course online she received an overwhelming number of applications. There are obviously many young Iraqi women that want to make their spot on the media scene.

Finally Dina chose to include 22 participants instead of 15 as originally planned. The training was divided into three courses: human rights, photography and social media.

“I want to promote human rights in a creative way in my project. The participants have learned how to express themselves by photography, and how to illustrate the declaration of human rights without using any words.”

Dina has already been able to show the photos in the Iraq National Theatre, when the Iraqi musician Nasser Shamma was hosting a concert, a previously rare but nowadays more frequent happening in the capital.

Dina hopes that the world is interested of the positive development that is taking place in Iraq. She and her husband are not planning to move abroad – they want to continue with their activism despite the insecurity in Iraq. Even though she criticizes the domestic politics she thinks that there is hope in the expanding civil society. The many applicants to her project are a sign of willingness to change.

“I’m hopeful” she says. “I see so many girls that want to study and participate in everything.”

Next up in her work is to focus on women bloggers, and she also wants to work with mixed groups of young women and men. In a country where the sexes often are separated she thinks it’s crucial for women and men to work together and get to know each other.

The struggle for women’s rights is the core of her activism and she openly calls herself a feminist despite the resistance she often encounters. At the same time she is a Muslim and proud of that.

To the ones who question Dina’s commitment to human rights in a country where civilians are killed every day, she usually says:

“Well, but you can’t just sit on your chair. You have to defend your own rights.”

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Participants in “Rights Without Words”

Photos: Copyright Dina Najem

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

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Umayyad Mosque in the heart of Damacus old city, an ancient building completed in year 715. Photos are taken during a Friday evening in June 2013.

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Also an excellent place to spend a Friday night at, for prayers and socializing. Or a playground, with it’s shiny floor perfect for sliding on…

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Let’s hope it will remain throughout the war.

Photos: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

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

But You Need to Wear a Hijab Over There, Right?

The other night I was sitting with a French couple in their 50s and we came to talk about the ban on religious symbols in France. The couple, who I would say are very openminded and also has a son-in-law who’s Muslim, defended the ban and claimed that it was an equal ban for all religions. I don’t agree on this, I think the ban strikes harder on Muslim women wearing hijab, who either has to choose not to cover their hair, or stay away from certain choices in life – important choices such as education and work. The symbols in other religions are not as significant, I argued.

“But you have been to a lot of Middle Eastern countries” the woman then said. “And you have to wear a hijab there, right? So if we have to adapt when we are there, Muslims should adapt when they’re in a Western country!”

A small lesson for everyone that shares this idea: No, in the majority of the Middle Eastern countries women are not legally enforced to wear a hijab. Of the 21 countries in the MENA region (MENA=Middle East and Northern Africa, I am using the term MENA as I want to include also other Arab countries outside the Middle East) a woman is forced only to wear a hijab in Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is a misunderstanding that you are obliged to do so in all Arab countries.

Yes, most countries are conservative and culturally it would be inappropriate in many places to for example display your shoulders as a woman or wear a miniskirt that would expose your thighs. But this also differs from place to place. Even in more conservative countries such as Kuwait, where there is a ban on alcohol, in the private beaches the custom is bikini, and women in such swimwear mix with women who has donned the burkini, an all-covering swimsuit. It depends a lot on the context.

Me and the French couple didn’t get along when discussing this point, even after I explained the no force in most Arab contries on wearing hijab. They argued that hijab was not fit for schools as it is a religious symbol and that also young girls shouldn’t wear a hijab before they can choose for themselves. As I often do when being involved in such discussions, I have to explain myself: no, I’m not religious myself/No, l wouldn’t wear a hijab myself/Yes, also I think girls shouldn’t be made wearing a hijab until they are old enough to choose for themselves/Yes, it should definitely be a choice of their own. But if you want to cover your hair, if it’s a private part of your body for you, how do you think it feels being forced to show it? I myself would feel hurt and violated by the society. And it’s never very good to have a large group of people that feels violated by the society.

Not to boast about my own country but… We have no such ban here, I believe many Muslims feel that they are not as exposed to hate crimes in Sweden as in other societies where they are a minority, and we also have not faced the same level of terrorist crimes such as other European countries, for example France. Why is that?

Whatever one might think of how big role the religion should be allowed to take in a society, the state is creating more problems by preventing its citizens to practise their religion. During my stays in the Middle East I have in general been met with respect for the person I am, and I wish that respect always would work both ways.

Minorities in the Middle East

jo_ch-ceThe Middle East is a region full of minorities that won’t pass under the ethnicity of Arab, Persian or Turk. If watching Homeland one might think something else – I for example had no idea about the different cultures that coexisted in this region when I started travelling. As social integration is one of my passions I want to share some of my experiences with you, and also let people share their own stories.

A few years back I was invited to a family in one of the bleak, sundrenched suburbs in Amman.
“They are Russians” my friend said who brought me with her. It turned out it was a family of Chechnyan origin, incredibly hospitable, that we spent the afternoon and evening with.

It was a big family, many sisters and brothers came that afternoon with their own families and children, and all of them had married only to other Chechens. They were happy to talk about their background and told me how their relatives had fled Chechnya in the 19th century during the Caucasian war. It had been a long journey to reach Jordan, another Muslim country that they hoped would welcome them when they fled the oppression of the Russian central power.

In Jordan they were able to practise their religion without supression and were offered the Jordanian nationalities, not ending up in the vacuum for generations like many refugees do. They went to the same schools and universities and many became successful business men, like this family that now owned a series of supermarkets all over Amman. A special flag have been designed for the Chechen and Circassian minorities in the country, with the Chechen and Circassian flags merged and Hashemite crown on top, as a tribute to the country that had welcomed them.

But for many years they were completely cut off from their native country and relatives that they had left behind. Mail services didn’t exist and war was raging in Chechnya.

“We had our culture only”, one of the men told me. The original Chechen language became mixed up with Russian, as generations passed and many of the original Chechens were illiterate and couldn’t pass on the writing skills to their children.

Then in the 1990s one of the brothers decided to go. He went on his own and after much research was able to find distant relatives and the village from where they descended. He stayed for months and came back with some possessions from their relatives. A small wooden wheel now was hanging on the wall in the saloon in the Jordanian suburbian house, the tickets he had used travelling framed and decorating the other wall. The family was so proud of having found a part of their heritage. War and oppression may still be tormenting Chechnya, but in Jordan the Chechen minority had preserved their culture and pride.

Photo credit: www.crwflags.com

Muslim – How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?

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Once in a fleemarket, a woman showed me photos from her son’s wedding, proudly telling me that her new daughter-in-law was smart, beautiful and a dentist. The bride looked great, as brides usually do, her black curls spilling down over her chrystal white wedding dress.

“She’s Iranian”, the woman said, apologetically. “But she’s born here in Sweden, and she’s not a fanatic Muslim.” The woman’s friend chimed in: “Oh no, not fanatic at all!”

I always find such comments sad, because for me the bride could have had any religion, she could even have been a fanatic, as long as she respected me for who I am (and shared a fair amount of respect for others in general). I have a friend here in Sweden who supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which I don’t, and there are many things we might never agree on – but we don’t try to change each other. She has never tried to convince me about her belief, and I would never ask her to go with me in a bikini to the beach, or go clubbing. Yes, I have met religious people that have made efforts in making me convert to or gain interest in their religion; but most people I have met during my lifetime have not tried to press their religion on me, and respect work both ways.

Especially being a Muslim or Arab in Europe or US can be such a stigma, discussed in the book “How does it feel to be a problem? Being Young and Arab in America” (Moustafa Bayoumi 2008), and Europe might need a similar study the way intolerance is setting the agenda here. I also believe that by reaffirming that someone being a Muslim is “not a fanatic” reinforces the stereotypes.  What if someone is proud of being a conservative Muslim? Why is it a problem?

If I was the bride in the photos I once saw, I wouldn’t want my mother-in-law to describe me as a not-fanatic-Muslim. And if anyone asked my mother-in-law if I was, I wish she would answer: “Well I don’t know. But she’s still smart, beautiful and a dentist.”

Photo credit: http://www.muslimgirl.net

 

Party with the Different

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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