Monday, May 16, 2011

Finally . . . Al Jazeera Picks Up the Story

It's about time. Al Jazeera English is finally telling the story of the crackdown from the perspective of detainees' families (similar to our friends Shubbar and Hajar).

Check out this story, which includes footage of the crackdown and an interview with the wife of an abducted man.

AJE also ran some of the first video confirming reports that the government of Bahrain has destroyed over a dozen Shia mosques:

Interestingly, someone in Qatar has decided to start pressing the Obama Administration to protect human rights. We'll see if this shift convinces the Obama team to press their allies in Manama a bit harder. There may be a voice for the voiceless Shia in Bahrain after all.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Human Rights Abuses in Bahrain on Al Jazeera?

The Washington Post published a story on Friday that mostly supports the view that the Al Jazeera TV network is largely ignoring the crackdown in Bahrain. After their extensive coverage of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, their relative silence on Bahrain has been deafening. 

Perhaps in response, Al Jazeera English ran this story on Friday's hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights (a non-legislative committee):

Three things are striking about this story. First, CNN interviewed all three of the same witnesses quite some time ago (see earlier posts on this blog). Second, the CNN stories, reported by Amber Lyon, carried some gruesome video and eyewitness accounts, but this one was confined to footage of the U.S. Capitol building: hard-hitting vs. dry, academic policy debate. Third, the CNN stories made the Bahraini government look bad, but this one makes the U.S. government look indifferent or hypocritical. Either way, Al Jazeera's approach is quite tepid and its target misplaced.

While the Post story suggests that Al Jazeera English has been tougher than the Arabic version, a quick comparison with CNN demonstrates that even the English version has avoided criticizing the Bahraini regime.

Al Jazeera's motto is "a voice for the voiceless." But that should be amended to read, "--except for the voiceless in the Arabian Gulf."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Prison Time and Liturgical Time

Review of Avi Steinberg, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (New York: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2010)

As our friend Shubbar sits in his sixth week of arbitrary detention, I've just finished reading Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg. Steinberg's and Shubbar's stories raise two common questions: What does it mean to be deprived of one's freedom? And how does one experience time in captivity?

Steinberg grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Cleveland and Boston. After graduating from Harvard a few years back, he was adrift from the community of his youth and adrift in his career ambitions (like so many young college graduates these days). But when he applied, and got hired, for a job as a prison librarian in a Boston jail, he found his voice and his story. He tells that story with self-deprecating humor, bittersweet pathos, street smarts, and quiet literary elegance. This is a coming-of-age story with unusual depth and richness.

As a blogger and author concerned with how liturgical time can transform our engagement with the world, I found the most eloquent passage in the book in a meditation on the experience of holiday times in jail.
Time has its own peculiar meaning in prison . . . . Although a person in prison always has countless hours, he has no access to time's attendant meanings. When it comes to time, most inmates are like the tragic mariner: water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. There's endless time but not the nourishing kind, no seasons, no holiday cycles. At least, nothing that can be shared with others.
When snow collects in the yard--it is winter. When your cellmate smells particularly rank--it is summer. But these things don't imply anything beyond themselves. Snow doesn't mean sledding with your children, or skiing, or playing football or going to concerts for Christmas. It means snow.
The closest approximations of seasons in prison are the gambling seasons. When the Super Bowl gambling crunch hits, it is winter; when the NCAA basketball tourney happens, it is spring. These are the Christmas and Easter of prison. Aside from these sad interludes, prison time is neither marked nor shared by a community. It is personal and moves toward one holiday: the end of one's sentence. Each individual follows his own private eschatological calendar, which has only one holiday, the Last Day, the End of Days.
This is a very practical matter for those who work in prison. When you leave before a holiday, a well-meaning caseworker instructed me, you don't say "Merry Christmas" to the inmates. It doesn't make sense and, as she added, "It's kind of a slap in the face." In prison, seasons are best left unmarked and unremarked upon (pp. 375-76).
Imprisonment, then, expresses both literally and figuratively what it means to live flat, secular time. There are no seasons and only one holiday: escape. One lives in a private, solitary world, sharing no common times. It's truly hell.

In the meantime, living out of liturgical time, I am praying for an end to Shubbar's current ordeal: for his return to the many festivals and celebrations of the Shiite calendar among the bosom of his family. In this Easter season, surely we can hope in the One who broke down the gates of hell and liberated the first prisoners.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bin Laden and the Word of the Day: Simulacrum

It struck me today that part of what troubles me about the proliferation of multiple social media (see my previous post) is what the French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard described as the free play of simulacra (the plural of simulacrum, which can be defined as "something that replaces reality with its representation").

In other words, as Baudrillard feared, we are so busy looking at representations of reality--representations that are separated by several degrees from reality--that we lose sight of reality itself. In other words, we are trapped in Plato's cave, watching images dance on a wall.

Case in point: you can watch on your computer screen a video of Osama bin Laden watching himself on television--a video snatched by the Navy SEAL teams last week but now being broadcast all over the world. So what's real here?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Media Convergence or Confusion?

Watching Al Jazeera English today on their live Internet feed, I discovered their new program, The Stream, which they tout as 

a social media community that just happens to have a television programme on Al Jazeera English.

Being rather old-school, and not knowing what a "social media community" is, I was watching the television program. 

But here I was watching this television program on an Arab network based in Qatar that broadcasts in English, over the Internet. During the show, the hosts cued up Internet videos on their laptops, live. While conducting interviews with two guests, they also took comments from Facebook and Twitter and interviewed a Yemeni and a Chinese blogger via Skype. 

So . . . just to keep all the media straight:
  1. I'm watching TV on my computer over the Internet.
  2. They are broadcasting the show from a studio inside the Newseum in Washington, DC.
  3. The headquarters of the television network, however, is based in Doha, Qatar.
  4. The hosts interview their guests live in the studio about the role of social media.
  5. They also interrupt occasionally to check their Twitter feed for comments or stories that are trending.
  6. They pull video of a car accident in China off the Internet, click play, and maximize it to full screen, live. So now I am watching via TV cameras filming them watching a video hosted on the Internet. (Wouldn't it be more efficient to have the studio run it firsthand?)
  7. They also interview the Yemeni and Chinese bloggers live, via Skype video chat. So I'm watching TV on the Internet, watching TV cameras filming them chatting via video on the Internet. (Wouldn't it be better quality if they could have TV cameras film each side of the conversation?)
  8. Once their time us up, they continue the filmed conversation on their website, separate from the network's live feed. (I kept watching the network news feed.)
Lost in all my confusion over the media of transmission was much of a sense of message. While we can now connect and micro-blog instantaneously across multiple media technologies, I wonder if we are losing coherent narratives. If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan said, then what is being communicated here?

Don't get me wrong: this is fascinating stuff, but the fascination is focused upon the novelty of means of communication rather than the substance of the stories. These technologies haven't changed the fact that powerful state authorities retain the upper hand to repress their populations in Bahrain, China, Syria, Yemen, and many other places.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Update on Our Friend

As Americans were getting excited last night over the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I received an email from Shubbar's wife saying that her father and two brothers were arrested yesterday in Bahrain. Her father is Sheikh Mohammed al Mahfoodh, the religious leader of the Islamic Action Society, or Amal (right). 

Needless to say, this leaves his daughter upset, since her husband has already been detained for one month, and now she is without father and brothers. Today, she asked me to convey the following message to President Obama:
Dear Mr President,
I am writing to you from Bahrain. First, I would like to congratulate you concerning Bin Ladin. However, I am writing to you concerning my country Bahrain. I am the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed Ali Almahfoodh, the chairman of Amal Islamic Society. I would like to tell you that yesterday he was detained with my two brothers to an unknown destination. A month ago, my husband was arrested as a hostage.
Mr President, this action is your full responsibility, since your policy is to spread democracy. Your administration condemned the dissolving of the societies, and therefore, you have the upper hand to release my father and brothers, and husband. My mother has collapsed as to the news. 
I beseech your help and protection, and whatever happens to my detained family is under your responsibility. 
Finally, I strongly urge your administration to prove to the world that the US respects their values and morals, and not double standards as many people are pointing out currently. I always looked at the US constitution as my aspiration to a better world.
I want to thank you for your time, and I hope something happens to reunite my family again.
Best wishes,
Hajar Mahfoodh