INDEPENDENT
Independent is a multi-platform online news publication and educational resource focusing on the wider Middle Eastern region. Independent was founded in 2013 and is stationed in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Geopolitics

Is Russia Also Headed For A Reality TV Presidential Campaign?

Television presenter Ksenia Sobchak’s surprise candidacy gives the democratic camp a second chance, as long as it is not a Kremlin ploy to attract younger voters.

MOSCOW — The drab presidential campaign in Russia has taken an unexpected and dramatic turn with the announced candidacy of a former reality TV star and daughter of an old mentor of President Vladimir Putin.

Ksenia Sobchak, 35, a journalist, entrepreneur and icon of Moscow's liberal bourgeoisie, strikes a sharp and colorful contrast with the other presidential candidates, who have not changed much since the 1990s.

When she announced her candidacy last month, Sobchak said she intended to break through by "voting against everything."

In a subsequent news conference, she presented a largely liberal program, in which she criticized the legitimacy of the elections, called for the release of political prisoners and even took a strong stand against Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. "From the point of view of international law, Crimea is Ukrainian, full stop," she was quoted as saying by The Independent.

A controversial and multifaceted personality, Sobchak hosts a political TV program on an independent cable network, directs the Russian version of the magazine L'Officiel and runs several businesses that have made her a multimillionaire. She is also the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of Saint Petersburg who launched Vladimir Putin's political career more than two decades ago. That means that Ksenia Sobchack has direct access to the chief of state, who remains a close family friend.

Sobchak's challenge will be to convince voters that her campaign is legitimate

Before she can officially enter the race for the Kremlin, the central electoral commission has to approve her candidacy. For this she must present 300,000 signatures from at least 40 Russian regions. Fundraising takes a significant financial toll and allows the Kremlin to weed out candidates. In the past, candidates out of favor with the authorities were rejected for providing "false signatures." Passing this test will confirm whether or not Putin approves of Sobchak's candidacy.

Sobchak's other challenge is to convince voters that her campaign is actually legitimate. As soon as the possibility of her candidacy first came up in September, she was suspected of being under the control of Putin's administration, which de facto controls nearly the entire Russian political landscape, from the media to the choice of candidates via the electoral commission and parliament.

At last week's news conference, Sobchak said she would not engage in "personal insults' against Putin. "For a few people, Putin is a tyrant and a dictator. For others he is a strong leader. For me, Putin is someone who in very difficult circumstances helped my father, saved his life even. I'm not going to insult him," The Independent quoted her as saying.

The announcement of her candidacy came a day after the electoral commission rejected the candidacy of the democratic opposition's apparently natural candidate, Alexei Navalny, over a suspended five-year prison sentence for fraud. The European Court of Human Rights has denounced Navalny's exclusion as "unfounded" and "politically motivated."

Sobchak's chances of preventing Putin's reelection for a fourth term in March are nonexistent. But she has driven Navalny into a ditch and could help the Kremlin raise the participation rate of young voters. Navalny supporters are stunned by their former ally's initiative, but the dynamic of their rivalry is both unprecedented and unpredictable.

It is not impossible that the two might form a team: Navalny at the heart of the system and Sobchak the outsider, in a position of radical confrontation with the government. While they won't be able to push Putin out of the Kremlin, careful coordination could shatter his claim to unanimous power and sabotage his legitimacy in the long run — both with the elite and the masses.

Society

A Young Palestinian's Literary Dream: The First English Library In Gaza

GAZA CITY — Escaping the besieged Gaza Strip, often described as "the world's largest open-air prison," is a nearly impossible dream for many of its two million residents. But 24-year-old Mosab Abu Toha has found a way to free himself — through books.

"Freedom is a state of mind. With books, you're liberating yourself by living in an imaginary world where there are no boundaries. If I choose to be free, I can be free through my writing, through speaking," Abu Toha says.

As an English literature graduate, he has a thirst for books that has been difficult to quench in Gaza, where new English books are hard to find. Downloading PDF files is not a great alternative as Gaza suffers from frequent, lengthy power cuts.

"Whenever I go to a bookshop or library, I rarely see English books especially books by Edward Said, Noam Chomsky — these intellectuals who write in English," Abu Toha said, noting that translations into Arabic take about three years.

By relying on friends from abroad to send him books over the years, he has amassed a substantial collection on the shelves of his third-floor apartment in Beit Lahia.

By delving into the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Paine, Orwell, Hemingway, Huxley, Finkelstein, Chomsky and Said — and by writing stories and poems of his own — Abu Toha can, at least for a little while, escape the confines of Gaza.

Now he is trying to take that further and share these works throughout the besieged territory. After the 2014 war, as he was rummaging through the rubble of his university's bombed arts department, he found a survivor — the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and an idea was born.

Abu Toha realized that Gaza needed a safe home for English books and a space where people could come to read and socialize rather than hang out in cafes or watch TV. He decided to open Gaza's first public library of English books.

He set up a Facebook page last spring calling for people worldwide to donate books. So far, he has collected more than 100, including a few autographed books by Chomsky himself. He is also collecting donations to rent out a space for the library, where he hopes to host lectures by international guests.

"With books, you're liberating yourself by living in an imaginary world" — Photo: Library & Bookshop for Gaza

"It's a wonderful idea," Chomsky told reporters via email. "I did send several books … I am now collecting others."

The Israeli postal service suspended its service to Gaza from June to December but it's now running again. Although it takes a while, the books eventually reach their destination in Beit Lahia.

Leroi O'Picasso, a history teacher from Chicago, said that he mailed some books to Abu Toha after seeing a photograph of him holding a book in the midst of a bombed-out library.

"The image reminded me of others I had seen that depicted a Nazi book burning, only on a scale of our current time," O'Picasso said.

"Mosab's request also struck me as an extremely urgent one, especially after reading reports of kids in Gaza suffering from PTSD. I am not a doctor; I cannot prescribe pills or therapy. I can send books because some contain ideas of hope or share narratives of the struggles in life. It's a way to tell a kid that in no way are you alone."

Supporters can send their purchased books with free shipping through the website Better World Books, or via snail mail, which can often cost around $100.

The goodwill of strangers is what amazes Abu Toha the most.

"It's expensive to send. I wonder how these people can afford to send their books to Palestine, even though they don't know me personally nor do they know Palestinians. So they're good people — I respect them," he said.

Palestinians browse through books on a stand at a book fair, in Gaza city — Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images/ZUMA

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Palestinian Museum, 21 libraries of the 41 that initially stood in Gaza closed over the years and seven others were destroyed in the 2014 Israeli assault.

The Shujayea Club Library lost all of its 6,000 books during the war, while 10,000 books were destroyed at Beit Hanoun's library in northeastern Gaza.

In the libraries that are still functioning, the books are mostly outdated and opening hours are usually only until 3 pm.

University libraries also struggle to provide updated books to their students. The Islamic University of Gaza has not been able to import any new books in Arabic since the Egyptian military took over in 2013.

"For 10 years, we were going to Cairo to purchase books but for the past five years we can't go because of the security situation and because of the bad relations between Hamas and the Egyptian government," said the university's library director, Mamdouh Firwana.

When books in Arabic are ordered online through the Nile and Euphrates website, the Arabic equivalent of Amazon, the books never arrive, Firwana said. English books purchased on Amazon eventually arrive, but owing to financial difficulties the number they can afford is limited.

Abu Toha is determined to keep the books coming, noting that they serve as a vital lifeline to the outside world and a way to connect with others.

"Books are very important. We can learn about other cultures, how other people think, how we can communicate with them, how we can understand them," Abu Toha said.

"Language is what makes us all human. We all have languages; we use our mouths, our minds to communicate, so there is something common between us. It's books."

Society
Malik Al ash-Shaykh

Hip Hop Wannabes, All The Way In Abu Dhabi

-Essay-

ABU DHABI — For many of us, hip hop has always been more than just another music genre, a passing trend or temporary lifestyle. It's a cultural movement with deep roots that highlight socio-economic disadvantages, an accreditation to the advancement of civil rights progress, and, in sociological terms, an ongoing challenge to the status quo.

In order to fully appreciate and understand this ever-growing sensation, one has to know and analyze the contemporary in historical context. Hip hop is a movement that includes various elements: rapping, poetry, graffiti, DJing, several forms of dancing and, perhaps most importantly, knowledge. Historically, it was a voice for the voiceless and an art form for oppressed and disenfranchised people wanting to evoke change in their communities and the world around them.

It started with major influences in the South Bronx, New York City, during the early 1970s. In the late 1980s, its popularity spread beyond the African-American community. And by the 1990s, hip-hop grew into an international phenomenon, bringing people from diverse backgrounds onto one common platform.

Fair weather fans

Hip hop has no color, race, religion or gender. It's an inclusive form of art, expressed either lyrically or physically, open to anyone and everyone who is willing to respect the cultural importance associated with it. But in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where I currently live, I see a problem with that.

Most people who listen to hip hop, be it classic, old-school or mainstream, don't know anything about its history and what it stands for. And from my own personal observations, it seems that a lot of people are "ashamed" to admit their admiration for hip hop culture. They openly disassociate themselves from it. I have seen individuals who ordinarily listen to mainstream hip hop on the radio or in their car make fun of and look down on it when in larger crowds.

Emirati DJ Bliss — Photo: Facebook page

Unfortunately, the thought that this versatile music genre only represents crime, vulgar language, homophobia and sexism still exists. This has a lot to do with the way young people are brought up in this part of the world.

Without wanting to profile or generalize, I would say that most people who listen to hip hop in this country/region had relatively comfortable upbringings. Most are educated in private schools, spend a lot of time in malls, and take summer vacations in upper-class areas of Geneva, Paris, London, Milan or New York.

Here is where the distinction between "appreciation" and "appropriation" comes in. In countries such as Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine and Tunisia, the hip hop movement is enormous compared to what exists in the Arab nations in the Gulf. Poverty, inequality, discrimination, and widespread corruption breathes on a large scale across North Africa. This is well-known and well-documented. Artists, as a result, find a voice in hip hop and consumers can genuinely relate to those musicians. And although some of these socioeconomic issues might also exist in the Gulf region, they only represent and affect an absolute minority of residents.

The broad conclusion, therefore, is that because people are well-off, and in most cases rather wealthy in the Gulf countries, there is no need for hip hop culture to become mainstream. This is what leads me to believe that hip hop, as it exists here in the UAE, will never be as big as it is in North Africa, despite the talent that evidently exists in this flourishing land.

Appropriation or appreciation?

In a recent interview with music medium Backspin TV, the Berlin-based German rapper Fler questioned the authenticity of most current artists in the scene. "Fake vs. Real" was the theme of the discussion. Fler, who started off as a graffiti artist and became a successful pioneer in the German hip hop scene, argued that an artist's music should be a product of his/her social circumstances. He stated that while being "fake" may pay off on a commercial level, it is problematic on a cultural level because it ridicules the entire scene.

In Germany, Fler pointed out, most mainstream hip hop artists had comfortable backgrounds. They are university educated and have never suffered from poverty, racial profiling and discrimination. Publicly, however, they come out claiming to be the voice of those that are affected by such issues. As a result, real artists who highlight real issues, faced by real people, are labeled as "clowns' while "outsiders' profit by selling a fake image to the mostly white teenage consumers.

Cover of a Fler album — Source: Aggro Berlin

In a discussion that sparked a nationwide online-debate, most people agreed with Fler. That doesn't mean that hip hop is for the socially disadvantaged only. It simply means that people shouldn't represent themselves as people they're not. They should stick to what they know — to what they've experienced — rather than invent an image for commercial purposes.

Unfortunately, this also results in the creation of privileged young people from upper-class households who start to dress, dance and talk like they are from the Bronx. This kind of behavior can be seen as appropriation rather than appreciation. At present, I can see similar patterns in the UAE. While there is a minority of artists and consumers alike who really stay true to their roots and understand the cultural importance of hip hop, mostly, images and brands are created just to make money.

Positive signs

Having said all of that, there has been some improvements in the past few years. Two events that are making progress in the right direction and certainly caught my attention were the Dubai-based Sole DXB and Slam Fam.

Sole DXB started back in 2010 as a platform for news about footwear, fashion and alternative culture in the Middle East. It also hosts an annual lifestyle fair with hip hop as its main component. Now in its fifth year running, with names such as Moto, Pepsi and Cadillac as official sponsors, it is becoming increasingly important and relevant to the hip hop scene across the region. This year, British grime artist and 2016 Mercury Music Prize Winner Skepta headlined the event and Adidas brought a special guest along, Stormzy.

Slam Fam is slightly different. It's a community-driven project uniting people who have a common love for dance. Their passion for choreography is evident and their aim is to grow the hip hop scene in the Middle East. On its Facebook page, the group says its goal is to organize several annual contests to gather international dancers, graffiti artists, DJs, musicians and freestylers.

A group of us recently covered "Sole DXB" and asked attendees what they think about hip hop in the UAE. Of the more than 50 individuals we spoke with during the two-day event, half said they felt strongly associated with the hip hop movement and culture itself. The other half said they don't know much about hip hop and just enjoy certain components of it.

Clearly, given the equal split in opinion and answers, it's a wider discussion that needs to be held, not only in the UAE but internationally … "for the greater good of hip hop."