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The Common Ground News Service (CGNews) aims to promote constructive perspectives and dialogue on a broad range of issues affecting Arab-Israeli & Muslim-Western relations. CGNews is available in Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Indonesian and Urdu. To subscribe, click here. For an archive of past CGNews articles, please visit our website at www.commongroundnews.org.
Inside this edition  
23 - 29 March 2010
Synagogue in Lebanon rises from the ashes
by Pierre Sawaya
Pierre Sawaya of the French-edition of the Beirut daily Al Balad considers some of the frequently asked questions surrounding the renovation of Beirut's synagogue.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 March 2010)
Two Israeli and Jordanian journalists tell the story no one else will
by Ruth Eglash and Hani Hazaimeh
An unlikely duo, Jerusalem Post senior reporter Ruth Eglash and Jordan Times editor and reporter Hani Hazaimeh teamed up to report on what Israeli and Jordanian students are learning about each other in their respective school systems, but instead found themselves sharing their own story of friendship.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 March 2010)
Rock & Roll Jihad
by Naazish Yarkhan
An anthem for youth straddling two worlds, two cultures or competing expectations, writer and editor Naazish YarKhan reviews Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad's new memoir, Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star's Revolution.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 March 2010)
The fourth cup of tea
by Rafia Zakaria
Rafia Zakaria, a US-based attorney, explains why humanitarian Greg Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea should be seen as only the beginning in American-Pakistani understanding, and policy-making.
(Source: Dawn.com, 17 March 2010)
Amplifying the voice of Muslim women
by Anisa Mehdi
Filmmaker Anisa Mehdi highlights a new documentary, Veiled Voices, which sheds light onto the diverse lives lived by Muslim women through stories of the woman next door: Huda Al Hasbash from Syria, Suad Saleh in Egypt and Ghina Hammoud of Lebanon.
(Source: Letters from Amman, 18 March 2010)
Synagogue in Lebanon rises from the ashes
Pierre Sawaya
Beirut - The Magen Abraham synagogue, in the heart of downtown Beirut, is bustling with renovations. Workmen are busy returning this 80-year-old place of worship to its former splendour, although the local Jewish community has dwindled dramatically - from over 22,000 prior to 1958 to less than 300 by the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

None of the political parties, not even Hizbullah, has objected to the reconstruction of the synagogue.

Why this sudden show of interest for a Jewish symbol, given the terms "Jew" and "Israeli" are often (mis)used interchangeably in Lebanon, and the country is still technically at war with Israel? Who is funding the reconstruction of the building? And what is the situation of the Jewish community in Lebanon?

Most Lebanese Jews left the country due to fear of reprisals from their Muslim and Christian compatriots after the Israeli invasion of 1982, yet the Jewish religion remains one of the 18 recognised confessions in the country.

The renovation of the synagogue comes as a sign of hope for Lebanon's Jewish community. Some members contemplate not only a return of those Jews who left the country, but also a return to Jewish representation in Parliament. "It's only a start, but the Lebanese authorities seem to express renewed interest in our community," volunteered David, a 40-year-old French teacher in a private school in the capital, who prefers not to reveal his surname. David saw the bulk of his family take refuge in Europe to flee abuses of power during the war.

"The end of the war did not restore our rights. It is high time the Lebanese realise that a Jew is not necessarily Israeli," added David, echoing the sentiments of many other Lebanese Jews.

"No doubt the rehabilitation of the synagogue is an important step for the Jewish community of Lebanon, but we are far from the time when all Lebanese, irrespective of religious affiliation, lived in harmony," emphasises political analyst Ziad Khoury.

"The reconstruction should rather be viewed as part of the overall downtown rehabilitation project," he reflects. "Lebanon wishes to give the image of a multicultural country where the different communities live in peace, and that is the main reason why the synagogue is being renovated."

The bulk of the funding will be handled by the Jewish Community Council. A call for donations has been made to raise over $1 million to cover renovation costs. Some expatriate Lebanese Jews are contributing as well.

Other synagogues in the country are also slated for renovation, such as the ones in Sidon, in southern Lebanon, or in Aley, southeast of Beirut, where the oldest temple - built in 1870 - still stands. However, renovation will commence on these only after the overhaul of the Beirut synagogue has been completed.

From the arches engraved with the Star of David to the Hebrew inscriptions buried in rubble for 30 years, every single item in Beirut's synagogue must be scrubbed and carefully reworked. Everything was plundered during the war: benches, windowpanes, floor slabs, columns and even the majestic altar in the centre of the synagogue. Political slogans written on the arches and on the porch by militias during the civil war testify to the period when the temple was caught in the crossfire of violent fighting in downtown Beirut.

Despite the current state of the synagogue, it is stunningly beautiful.

To summarise the words of Pope John Paul II in his 10 February 2000 address to the Maronite community who had come to Rome: Lebanon is more than a nation; it a message for mankind. Viewed in that context, the reconstruction work might be the first step towards full recognition of the fundamental rights of all the communities of Lebanon.


* Pierre Sawaya is currently Head of Sections of the Beirut daily Al Balad's French-language edition. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 March 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Two Israeli and Jordanian journalists tell the story no one else will
Ruth Eglash and Hani Hazaimeh
Jerusalem/Amman - It was supposed to be an exercise in cross-cultural reporting: find a story that would highlight the common humanity shared by all nations and peoples.

As a Jordanian and an Israeli we were a logical pairing. Our countries are neighbours supposedly at peace, yet both are part of a regional conflict that has raged for so long. As such, we felt there would be many areas of potential cooperation we could highlight.

We discussed writing on environment, water, human trafficking, arms smuggling and refugees before settling upon the younger generation in each of our nations, focusing specifically on education. We began to wonder, what are our children learning about the people on the other side of our shared border?

When the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed in 1994 there was an emphasis on normalising ties in all areas - social, cultural and economic - not just political. However, the focus has remained on politics at the expense of all other issues. Unfortunately, this emphasis has led to the deterioration of relations to the point where they are now arguably worse than before the treaty was signed.

For this article, we interviewed school children, university students, teachers, Education Ministry officials and various experts in both countries. What we found was shocking, and both of us were ashamed to admit that the stereotypes and myths held by our fellow citizens about our neighbours are certainly not the beliefs that would allow peace to move in a positive direction.

In Israel, we learned that the education system is surprisingly in favour of teaching children Arabic and Islamic studies. Every Israeli student is obligated to learn spoken Arabic, and Islamic studies is optional. However, out of the 1.5 million students in any one of Israel's three Jewish school systems - secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox - only 500 study Islam until high school graduation, according to the Education Ministry.

In Jordan, the situation is even more disheartening. Students are not offered the chance to study Judaism, let alone Hebrew or any of the positive aspects of Israeli life or culture. Moreover, younger children are often told by their teachers that Israel is "the enemy".

With these discoveries it seemed that writing this article would not succeed in crossing any borders or reaching out to people. In fact, if Israelis or Jordanians got wind of how the other nation perceived them or what children were learning, it could serve to further fuel existing hatred.

We were also not sure who would be brave enough to run such a story, risking social censure in Jordan or Israel and, in the West, reinforcing what many already believe about Israelis and Arabs - that they will never find peace.

Instead, we listened to the voice of humanity and decided not to write the full story about what children in both countries are learning about each other, but to focus instead on the other lessons learned from this joint project, namely our story of finding common ground between two people from different countries, cultures and religions.

For both of us the friendship we have formed is our first real interaction with a person from "the other country". We both worked hard to break down the pre-existing notions that we were brought up with. We even visited each other's countries, meeting friends and families. We both quickly realised that human beings are all the same whether they are Jewish or Muslim, Israeli or Jordanian.

We both grew up under the shadow of mistrust, but at the end of the day we all just want to live and enjoy our basic human rights - a common humanity that is stronger than any propaganda.

While we cannot write the full story for you, we do urge others in this region to follow our example, we urge young people to come together under formal or non-formal programmes in order to learn that "the others" are human beings like themselves. Only interactions and personal connections will allow peace to flourish.

Of course we are under no illusion that moving beyond stereotypes and standing up against what has been ingrained in one's brain from an early age is an easy task. However, if the two of us can come together in a united voice speaking for peace, friendship, trust and humanity, then anyone can.


* British-born Ruth Eglash is a senior reporter at The Jerusalem Post and has lived in Israel for 15 years. Hani Hazaimeh has been a reporter and editor at The Jordan Times since 2000. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 March 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Rock & Roll Jihad
Naazish Yarkhan
Chicago, Illinois - A bearer of hope, Pakistani American rock star Salman Ahmad's recent memoir, Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star's Revolution, is suffused with the warmth of spirituality and the author's deep-rooted faith in God. "We can only wake up each day and go out and plough the fields, armed with our God-consciousness and a clear awareness of the purpose of our individual life," he writes.

With fans including the pop group U2's lead singer Bono and former US Vice President Al Gore, Ahmad is among the first rock stars to use music to build bridges between feuding neighbours India and Pakistan and between the West and the Muslim world, exposing Western audiences to a different side of Islam through music.

Rock & Roll Jihad chronicles Ahmad's journey from the first flickers of his passion for rock to his rise as the founder of South Asia's best known band, Junoon, with world peace as his mandate. His memoir's title aptly includes the term jihad, which in Islam refers more to striving for self-improvement, but is commonly associated in the West with violence. Ahmad's personal jihad is bridging global chasms and playing his music freely.

Ahmad deftly captures the pangs of being an immigrant child in the United States and his journey as a musician dedicated to interfaith understanding and peace, in the context of what ails Pakistan: corruption, "extreme poverty, extreme despair, and extreme injustice."

His father's job brought the family from Lahore to New York, where Ahmad spent his middle and high school years. At this point, life was about struggling to fit in, learning to play guitar, looking to the musical groups Led Zeppelin and the Beatles for inspiration and dreaming of being a rock star.

Another of his father's career moves took the family back to Pakistan where Ahmad succumbed to parental pressure and decided to attend medical school. Despite studying to become a doctor, Ahmad never let his real dream die: to bring his style of rock music to a new audience in South Asia and beyond. The memoir is a must-read - especially for young adults caught between two worlds, whether they are straddling two cultures or caught between personal dreams and parental expectations.

Even though Ahmad graduated from medical school, he never went on to practice. He started a traveling guitar club that met in private spaces in Lahore. There the musicians mixed Urdu love poems with Casio synthesisers, tablas (drum-like instruments) with Fender Stratocasters, and ragas (melodies in classical Indian music based on five or more notes) with power chords, finally blossoming into the band Junoon.

Ahmad also describes the struggle to hold on to Pakistan's historic romance with the arts and music in the face of angry conservatives and oppressive dictators who wanted to dress Pakistan in grey. He criticised politicians for their corruption, which eventually led to a nationwide ban on his music on the airwaves. Meanwhile, religious fanatics targeted him for being a negative influence.

But for most Pakistanis, music is an integral part of their lives and Ahmad's brand of music has become a "rainbow bridge", linking them to the rest of the world.

Despite the troubles Ahmad has faced because of religious conservatives and politicians in his home country, he rocketed to the top of the country's music charts, bringing Western-style Pakistani rock and pop to Pakistani teenagers.

Junoon quickly became the U2 of Asia, a Sufi-style rock group crossing boundaries and selling a record 30 million albums. The lyrics of his song, "Ab Tu Jaag", meaning "awaken now," is a call to action for all people to change their environment for the better: "Awake traveler, move on, Trailing its star, the night is gone, Do what you have to, today, You will never be back this way, Companions are calling. Let's go, Awake traveller, move on."

Nothing has stopped Ahmad's star from rising. He continues to tour with his band, teach and travel the world as a UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador. The lessons he has learnt as a musician building bridges, whether within South Asia or between the Muslim world and West, he shares with his readers in Rock & Roll Jihad.


* Naazish YarKhan is a writer, editor, public speaker and NPR commentator. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 March 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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The fourth cup of tea
Rafia Zakaria
Bloomington, Indiana - Greg Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea is the story of a failed American mountain climber's humanitarian project to build schools in the most underprivileged parts of Pakistan's northern areas.

The book now has a sequel, Stones into Schools, which narrates Mortenson's ongoing efforts to build schools in the region.

So successful has Mortenson's narrative proved that free copies of the book are being distributed among lawmakers on Capitol Hill in an effort to direct them toward the "right" focus on Pakistan. Presumably, those behind this effort hope that reading Mortenson's tale - his friendly collaboration with the villagers in Korphe in northeast Pakistan, his marked lack of condescension while confronting obstacles in the path of the construction of schools and his perseverance in bringing education to remote areas - would provide US congressmen with some much-needed perspective on the troubled region.

Such intentions are unquestionably meritorious. No Pakistani could object to the refreshing nature of Mortenson's story and the courage with which he refuses to be daunted by cultural, religious and linguistic differences compounded by an array of naysayers. Indeed, Pakistanis are grateful for Mortensen's ability to sidestep the perpetual narrative of the Taliban, terror and the exploding radical-Muslim time bomb that routinely defines discussions about Pakistan, particularly on Capitol Hill.

To consider Mortenson's story of initiative and resolve as solely a project to redeem Pakistan in the eyes of the West would be an error. Several narratives penned with equal inventiveness and with the deliberate aim of delivering Pakistan from the burden of its reputation have been denied such publicity. Similarly, enterprising non-governmental organisations that have built schools in rural Sindh and Punjab - two of Pakistan's provinces - have failed to catch the international imagination with the level of intensity garnered by Mortenson's project.

The villagers of Korphe are able to see Mortenson as a person and vice versa; bonds are built and relationships created that evade political differences and historical contexts. The author's humility is a foil against the hubris of the US President George W. Bush era, his ability to overcome barriers with kindness and yet a firmness of purpose a drastic departure from the bombs and drones that define American officialdom. The cowboy of the Wild West, the risk-taking entrepreneur, the buccaneering explorer are all wrapped into one peaceful package in the person of Mortenson, who manages to construct alone what the governments of both the United States and Pakistan wrote off as impossible.

This recent introduction to Pakistan's baffling complexities of history, enmities between Islamic political groups, ethnic differences and civilian-military relations can prove daunting, not to mention time-consuming, particularly to American lawmakers looking to coin nifty sound bites on the "AfPak" question.

While education is one of Pakistan's needs and Mortenson's efforts are laudable, they do not present a thorough investigation into Pakistan's structural problems and should not be taken as a stand-in for a deeper understanding of the country. In addition, there are Pakistanis such as philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi who do not have Mortenson's international fame but who have, with even fewer resources, managed to deliver their communities from poverty and build schools or small industries without the intervention of a foreign saviour.

Undoubtedly, Mortenson is under no obligation to include mention of such people in his own narrative. However, it must be recognised that the uncritical acceptance of his story as the story on saving Pakistan suggests that no local heroes have taken the initiative of improving their own nation. For a post-colonial nation, such omissions of agency can be damning in a historical context where the celebrated hero is rarely one of their own.

The point of this article is not to belittle or criticise the incredible courage and sincerity of a man who chose to fulfil a promise made to a forsaken village that had little hope. Instead, the aim is to encourage those Westerners that have consumed three cups of tea in their encounter with Pakistan to perhaps partake of a few more. For Pakistanis, particularly Pakistani Americans, the message is to know that while we may be overjoyed with just a little understanding, we can hope for more, and that we must venerate our own little-known heroes just as much as we venerate Greg Mortenson.

* Rafia Zakaria (rafia.zakaria@gmail.com) is a US-based attorney and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Dawn.com. The full text can be found at www.dawn.com.

Source: Dawn.com, 17 March 2010, www.dawn.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Amplifying the voice of Muslim women
Anisa Mehdi
Amman - Veiled Voices is a film filled with loud, bright stories that enlighten an audience in need of authenticity about Islam in general and the lives of Muslim women in particular. Brigid Maher, a director, cinematographer and editor who teaches in the Film and Media Arts Division at American University in Washington, DC, shows sensitivity and skill in bringing these critical yet simple stories to light.

Simple? Yes. They are stories of the woman next door: a neighbour who is a mother and wife; a professional who teaches and travels; an individual facing challenges and disappointments who does not yield to inaction but rather overcomes and inspires.

Maher profiles three women: Huda Al Hasbash from Syria, Suad Saleh in Egypt and Ghina Hammoud of Lebanon. We meet them first as professionals, then as wives or divorcées, then as mothers and cooks, balancing the many duties women have worldwide. We meet their husbands, mothers and children.
Syrian mother and educator Al Hasbash defends wearing a headscarf and goes on to demonstrate that there need be no conflict between wearing a scarf and living a modern life. She teaches dozens of women not only to read the Qur'an, but to know their rights. And she sizzles up a fine looking meal for her family while she's describing her views to the camera.

Dr. Saleh is a very public person, teaching at Cairo's Al Azhar University and appearing on television call-in programmes. "We have reduced Islam to a veil and a beard," she laments, when there is so much more.

Hammoud bravely sticks with her career in spite of betrayal by her husband. She keeps the affection and respect of her daughters, who lived with their father after the parents divorced.

Relationships between women and men are good examples of ongoing stereotypes. Due in part to mainstream media, pop culture and general ignorance, there is a prevailing view in the West that Muslim women are oppressed. We read of "honour" killings, of girls forbidden to go to school, and women prevented from divorce in unacceptable situations. None of these is permitted in Islamic law, even if culture in some Muslim-majority countries turns a blind eye. Showing the diversity of Muslim women's experiences, the film demonstrates that Muslim women are not a monolith.

We feel for Hammoud who suffered years in an abusive marriage. In contrast, Al Hasbash's husband Samir Khalidi is the picture of an ideal partner. He appreciates and supports her calling and is helpful at home, clearing the table and going over homework with one of their sons. Dr. Saleh notes that while she may be qualified to do so, the reality is that she has been unable to obtain the necessary votes to serve on the Islamic Research Council, the most prominent body of Al-Azhar.

American viewers of Veiled Voices will remember that the well-known US abolitionist and women's suffragist Susan B. Anthony had to struggle, too.

Without a cudgel, Maher hammers home the point that Muslim women have rights, express themselves and, like their sisters around the world, must overcome hurdles in their lives to accomplish their goals - even if that means redefining their goals along the way.

Some of the footage in this hour-long documentary will surprise viewers. Cameras reveal rooms full of women studying Islamic law and leadership. They refer regularly to early examples of female leadership in the Muslim community, including the example of Aisha, youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad. At the age of 17 she was already an acknowledged scholar and teacher.

The filmmaker does not impose heavy control on situations, allowing the natural interruptions of life to play out on videotape. A child fussing off camera is not quieted and the interview continues; when a particularly personal question is posed and the subject cries, the crew cries too. This is noted and we - the audience - are privy to a behind-the-scenes moment.

Muslim and non-Muslim women from Malaysia to America are actively engaged in educating themselves and others, leaning on religion as the primary tool in an unwavering call for equality and opportunity. The women in Veiled Voices are part of a necessary and natural movement to amplify understanding of Islam in the 21st century.


* Anisa Mehdi (www.anisamehdi.com) is a Fulbright Scholar in Jordan, journalist and filmmaker. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.

Source: Letters from Amman, 18 March 2010, anisaammanjournal.blogspot.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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