Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 22 Dec 2014 06:18:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Anthony Bourdain on Iran and Beirut (Bisley Interview) Mon, 22 Dec 2014 06:03:04 +0000 By Alexander Bisley | (Special to Informed Comment) —

 “By the end of this hour I will be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse,” the inimitable Anthony Bourdain introduced his vital Gaza/West Bank episode

Bourdain’s take on the Middle East for his television travel programmes is learned and dynamic, nuanced and empathetic. While the big-hearted New Yorker was on assignment in Madagascar, I interviewed him about his recent, lovely episode and his formative Beirut experience. Bourdain speaks about Iran’s exhilarations and complexities, imprisoned Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian, and falling in love with the Middle East in Lebanon during 2006.


Bourdain: “What makes Iran special is the sheer difficulty of experiencing it as an American and of understanding the complexities, the history, the context, the contradictionsand the ever changing political realities. It is a beautiful country, with an ancient and very rich culture that seems often to be at odds with its religious leadership. The people you meet in the street are overwhelmingly welcoming.

“Nowhere else I’ve been has the disconnect been so extreme between what one sees and feels from the people and what one sees and hears from the government. Iranians, however they feel about their government, tend to be proud, and opinionated. And their food is extraordinary. Fesenjan, Persian Pomegranate Chicken, is but one example.

“Iranian food is hearty and unpretentious. Food is expensive in Iran. Sanctions have bitten deep. Everyday Iranians feel it, not least in what they can put on their table. This in a culture where custom demands you always prepare and offer more good food than can possibly be consumed.

“Iran is deeply conflicted, exhilarating, heartbreaking. One of the exhilarations is Iranians’ eagerness to communicate, to express themselves, to show the world more about themselves than what we see on the news. An eagerness to be proud, to have fun is something you feel palpably in Tehran. The hospitality from strangers is extraordinary.

“I asked one host what he thought Americans would think of the episode. “They will start coming,” he laughed. I think simply seeing a few ordinary Iranians, doing ordinary things, is a departure from the usual footage of angry ayatollahs.  That alone will shock many. Shamefully, many, many people labour under the most simplistic of misimpressions: Iranians are not Arabs. Iran is not a desert. Not everyone is a fundamentalist. Iran even looks much different than how it does in films.

“Iran was a blank slate for us. We expected our expectations to be upended at every turn. So, unusually for us, we did not have a design or film style or pre-existing reference in mind. I always think about George Orwell. His essays are an inspiration.

“People everywhere I go, I have found, are overwhelmingly, good people, usually doing the best they can, often under very difficult circumstances. It’s worth remembering, never forgetting, that in Iran, there is no freedom of speech. That access to the Internet is restricted, and that having an opinionor even appearing to have an opinioncan put you in jail. The reality of Iran is that what is permitted yesterday might very well be an offense today. The limits of permissible everyday behaviour, dress, expression, are being tested every minute.

“Iran’s contradictions and its’ perils are extraordinary, too. You can, as our friend, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian found out, find yourself in prison for absolutely no reason at all. Total innocence is no assurance of safety. What we can do to help Jason is to keep his name and his situation in the public eye.  Beyond that, I am open to suggestion.  It is a very delicate line to walk.

“The Milad Tower, 1000 ft high, provides a good vantage point for looking over Tehran, considering it in all its complexity.

“Isfahan is also well worth a trip. Iran’s third largest city is about 200 miles south of the capital.  Its Islamic architecture is beautiful.

“Going to Lebanon in 2006 was when I first fell in love with the Middle East. Everyone should be required to spend time in Beirut before running their mouth about the Middle East. Until you spend time navigating those waters, you really don’t know anything.

 “Beirut is as different from Tehran as anyplace could be. Talk about contradictions? You can be rousted by Hezbollah one minute and be drinking Mojitos by a pool surrounded by girls in bikinis ten minutes later. It’s everything good and bad in the world in one gorgeous, mixed up, beleaguered, effortlessly cool, endlessly afflicted city.  Our whole crew, even those of us stuck there during the 2006 war, love the place. It even smells magical. Deeper, more intractable problems can hardly be imagined. But Beirut and Beirutis stand alone as must be experienced.

“Experiencing Beirut and Iran makes me hope we can do episodes on Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

Anthony Bourdain hosts the wonderful travel programme Parts Unknown on CNN. Alexander Bisley is a political and cultural freelancer for publications including the Guardian


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CNN: “Anthony Bourdain on Iran: Not what I expected”

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Kurds inflict first Major Defeat on Daesh/ ISIL, Rescue Yezidis of Sinjar Sun, 21 Dec 2014 08:56:31 +0000 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

The pan-Arab London daily, Al-Hayat [Life] reports that the Iraqi Kurdistan paramilitary, the Peshmerga, have taken Mt. Sinjar from Daesh (what Arabs call ISIL or ISIS). They have therefore saved several thousand members of the Yezidi (Izadi) Kurdish religious minority, who have been besieged and sometimes enslaved or massacred in the thousands by Daesh fighters, in an Iraqi humanitarian catastrophe (see this recent posting at Informed Comment). Its author, Patrick Ball, wrote, “Most Yezidis are native Kurdish speakers, while others speak Arabic, and many speak both languages. They practice an ancient religion known as Yazidism, which is neither Christian nor Muslim. They have struggled for centuries against pressure from their neighbors to convert to Islam.”

The Sinjar campaign began last Wednesday, and has benefited from extensive bombing and close air support for the Peshmerga (literally ‘one who stands before death’). Yezidi Kurds chanted in favor of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani. Peshmerga sources said that having taken the area of Mt. Sinjar, they expect momentarily to clear completely the Daesh from the town of Sinjar.

Alarabiya is reporting that Peshmerga convoys are already in downtown Sinjar (the city).

The flag of Kurdistan now waves over Mt.Sinjar. It remains to be seen if this means Kurdistan has annexed the far north of Iraq’s Ninewah Province, which abuts the Kurdish area of Syria. Keeping Sinjar may also be a logistical challenge, since it is three hours drive from the Kurdistan capital of Erbil, but much closer and more accessible to Mosul, which allied with Daesh on June 9 to expel the Shiite Iraqi government. Iraq’s parts– Kurdistan and “Sunni Arabistan” are now at war with one another, and territory is changing hands. The contested province of Kirkuk, claimed both by Kurds and Arabs, has fallen to the Kurds since the Iraqi army ran away from it, and it appears unlikely that the Kurds will relinquish it.

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Thirty-two trucks full of food and other aid arrived at Mt. Sinjar on Saturday from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Yezidi fighter Hasso Mishko Hasso explained that the people of Sinjar have been under siege for three months, and lived on raw flour and barley.

The radical fundamentalist Daesh defenders in the town of Sinjar are said by Yezidi Kurds to lack heavy weaponry, having only sniping and suicide bombing for tactics.

The Peshmerga now plan to liberate Talafar from Daesh.


Related video:

AJE: “Kurds battle ISIL to secure Iraq’s Sinjar”


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GOP Denialism to Sink Capital: 150 Tidal Floods a Year for Washington DC by 2045 Sun, 21 Dec 2014 07:41:25 +0000 Link TV | —

“The eastern coast of the United States– from the Gulf of Mexico to New England — has one of the highest rates of sea level rise in the world. As a result of climate change, 5 to 11 inches of sea level rise is expected by 2045 leaving communities like Norfolk, Virginia, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Annapolis, Maryland essentially inundated. Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union of Concerned Scientists speaks to Earth Focus about what’s at stake for major U.S. coastal cities and local communities and the choices they need to make to adapt to this imminent threat.”

Link TV: “Encroaching Tides: What’s at Stake for the US”

For more see Union of Concerned Scientists, “Encroaching Tide”:

“Using a mid-range scenario for future sea level rise, we find that, by 2030, more than half of the 52 communities we analyzed on the East and Gulf Coasts can expect to average more than two dozen tidal floods per year. Importantly, the rise in the frequency of tidal flooding represents an extremely steep increase for many of these communities. In the next 15 years alone, two-thirds of these communities could see a tripling or more in the number of high-tide floods each year. The mid-Atlantic coast is expected to see some of the greatest increases in flood frequency. Because many communities are already coping with tidal floods, a tripling in their frequency means that, by 2030, such floods could occur more than once a week…

Because communities are already coping with tidal floods, a tripling in their frequency means that, by 2030, such floods could occur more than once a week. Places such as Annapolis, MD, and Washington, DC, for example, can expect more than 150 tidal floods a year, on average, and several locations in New Jersey could see 80 tidal floods or more. By 2045—within the lifetime of a 30-year mortgage— many coastal communities are expected to see roughly one foot of sea level rise.”

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Leftist Jordanians protest expected gas deal with Israel Sun, 21 Dec 2014 06:27:15 +0000 BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Dozens of protesters marched in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Friday to denounce a gas deal with Israel that is expected to be passed by the end of the year.

Protesters held signs against the Israeli diplomatic mission in Jordan and against normalization with Israel during the rally, bearing messages such as: “The gas of the enemy is occupation,” “The people of Jordan are not collaborators,” and various other messages calling for a revocation of the 1994 deal that normalized relations between Israel and Jordan after decades of hostility.

308930_345x230 Courtesy Ma’an Images

The head of the youth office of the Jordanian Democratic Popular Unity Party, Fakher Da’as, said the march aimed to send a message to the parliament and the government in order to pressure them to take real steps against the agreement.

The march was called for by the youth offices of the six leftist and nationalistic parties in Jordan as well as the Ahrar al-Asima group.

Although the 1994 Wadi Araba agreement officially ended decades of conflict between Israel and Jordan, many Jordanians opposed and continued to oppose the agreement, which ended Jordanian claims of sovereignty to the West Bank.

Opposition has persisted particularly in light of Israel’s failure to follow through on the various peace accords it has signed with Palestinians, as well as the repeated and ongoing assaults and invasions it has carried out in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Ma’an News Agency

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Iran Honors Its Fallen Jewish Soldiers Sun, 21 Dec 2014 06:12:37 +0000 By Frud Bezhan | (RFE/RL) | —

Iran is well-known for its stinging anti-Israeli rhetoric and refusal to recognize what it calls the “Zionist regime.”

So, it might have come as a surprise when officials in Tehran unveiled a monument honoring Iranian-Jewish soldiers who died in action during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Iranian officials marked the opening of the memorial on December 15 with a public ceremony, part of which was held at the gravesites of the fallen soldiers.

Photos of the ceremony published by Iran’s IRNA news agency showed Iranian officials and members of the Jewish community praying together and placing wreaths on the graves of the soldiers, who were hailed as “martyrs.”

Iran has the Middle East’s second-largest population of Jews, with around 25,000 living there today, mostly in Tehran, Isfahan, and the southern city of Shiraz. Before a mass exodus following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Jews numbered over 100,000 in the country.

There are dozens of active synagogues across Iran that attract large gatherings and Jews, like some other minorities, are guaranteed a fixed number of seats in parliament. But Iranian Jews must also swear allegiance to the supreme leader and accept the state religion.

Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at Birmingham University in Britain and editor of the EA World View website, says the monument allows the Iranian government to uphold its claims that it accepts the country’s religious and ethnic minorities, despite being a strictly Shi’ite Islam country.

“The Iranian regime has always upheld the idea that it has this Jewish community unlike Arab states,” he says. “They want to show that Iran is multireligious.”

Iranian officials have made a clear separation between Iranian Jews and Israel, however.

Mohammad Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard, the vice speaker of the Iranian parliament, made that distinction during a speech at the opening ceremony of the memorial.

“The explicit stances of the Jewish community in supporting the Islamic republic’s establishment and their obedience to the supreme leader of the [Islamic] Revolution demonstrate the bonds that originate from the teachings of divine religions,” he was quoted as saying by Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

But then he went on to condemn the “violent and inhumane” policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Hassan Rohani has exercised a more open policy toward Israel that is in contrast to his predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who gained a reputation as an enemy of Israel after questioning the Holocaust and predicting that what he commonly called the “Zionist” state would not survive. He and others within Iran’s leadership also frequently denied the right of Israel to exist.

Rohani has steered clear of such rhetoric, although other officials in his administration have shown less restraint in their criticism of Israel.

“Rohani wants to sell a much more engaged approach not only with Iran’s friends, but also its enemies,” says Lucas. “So, he has used much more moderate language.”

Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf at rferl dot. org.

Mirrored from

Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wochit: “Once Maligned, Iran’s Jews Find Greater Acceptance”

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Palestinians Under Threat In Jerusalem Sun, 21 Dec 2014 05:47:44 +0000 AJ+ | —

“With tensions rising in Jerusalem, hate crimes against Palestinians have increased in recent months. Mohammed lost his cousin to one such incident a while ago, and now he is one of the newest victims. Like others, he fears for his life. This is the story of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and negotiating their security each day.”

AJ+ “Palestinians Under Threat In Jerusalem”

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“Palestinian State Essential to a Democratic Israel” – Frmr Israeli President Shimon Peres Sat, 20 Dec 2014 18:08:37 +0000 TeleSur | —

“In France, former Israeli President Shimon Peres said that a Palestinian State is necessary in order to have a democratic Jewish state. This statement came the same day that the United States and Israel dismissed the Palestine peace plan that was submitted by Jordan to the UN. teleSUR

TeleSur English: “Peres: Palestinian state necessary in order for a democratic Israel”

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Israeli Squatter Fires on Palestinian Demonstrators near Bethlehem Sat, 20 Dec 2014 08:26:00 +0000 BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Dozens of Palestinians on Friday held a march against the Israeli occupation and settlement policies in the West Bank in the village of al-Masara near Bethlehem.

Organizers from the local Popular Committees Against the Wall and Settlements said that during the rally a Jewish settler opened fire on the marchers, but no injuries were reported as a result of the attack.

The weekly rally took place near a major road also used by Jewish settlers, as the village of al-Masara is ringed by Israeli settlements and large amounts of village lands have been confiscated by Israeli authorities.

Israeli forces later arrived on the scene and dispersed demonstrators by firing tear gas canisters.

Since 2006, the residents of al-Masara have protested on a weekly basis, demanding Israeli authorities return village lands confiscated in order to build the separation wall as it crosses through their town.

Mirrored from Ma’an News Agency



Somewhat related video added by Juan Cole:

Ruptly TV: “State of Palestine: Clashes break out in West Bank at new Ziad Abu Ein memorial”

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