ARABICA: Mandela And Poet Mourned, Reindeer Meat, Adoption Death

Your weekly shot of what the Arab world is saying, hearing and sharing.

In Tunis
In Tunis
Laura Thompson

Mandela's meaning in the Arab world
Mourned by leaders and ordinary people around the world, South African leader Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, held particular meaning in certain quarters of the Arab world. "Free, Forever" headlined Egypt's Al Akhbar daily:

Mandela was remembered for resisting the forces of oppression in his own country, and specifically speaking out on behalf of the Palestinian struggle for independence after his release from prison. "The Palestinian people will never forget his historic statement that the South African revolution will not have achieved its goals as long as the Palestinians are not free," Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority said.

The outpouring carried across Arabic social media as well:

ليس العالم فقط من أصبح يتيما بعد #مانديلا،بل أيضا التاريخ.كان مانديلا آخر آبائه..رَحل وترك لنا مُهمة تربية أبنائه"الزعماء" القُصّر والعاقين.

— مُحمّد الرَّفÙ"رافي (@RAFRAFI_MED) December 5, 2013

"Mandela’s passing orphaned not only our world, but also history - of which he was the last of its forbears. He moved on and left us the task of rearing his adolescent and recalcitrant children, today’s "leaders.""

Egypt mourns its "revolutionary poet"
Revered Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm died on Dec. 3 at the age of 84, a reminder of both changing linguistic and social landscape in the country.

Negm gained widespread recognition for his colloquial poetry, written in Egyptian Arabic. Up until then, most of Arabic-language poetry had been written in formal Arabic — which is rarely spoken in everyday life.

Born into a agricultural family, Negm had 17 brothers and sisters. Following his father's death, he was temporarily placed in an orphanage, returning to his village later on to work as a shepherd. Imprisoned briefly in his youth, he wrote his first poems from jail. Social issues and the suffering of the poor and oppressed were themes that would continue to occupy him for the rest of his life.

Translations of some of his Arabic poetry can be found here, including his "Who Are They, And Who Are We?" poem.

Negm's words were put to music by the famous blind Egyptian composer and singer, Sheikh Imam, whom he met in the 1960s in one of Cairo's poorest neighborhoods. This video, produced after the revolution, shows images of the poem's "we" — suffering Egyptians, unemployed, laboring, revolting — as well as the "they" — the country's corrupt ruling class. Several images of deposed President Hosni Mubarak are shown.

Egyptian cleric suddenly resigns
Sheikh al-Qaradawi, famous for his Al Jazeera religious TV show as well as his contentious fatwas (religious rulings), has resigned from Egypt's highest religious organization, Al-Azhar, accusing it of supporting the military-backed government responsible for ousting former President Mohamed Morsi.

The response was swift and severe, reflecting the absolute intolerance for any type of criticism in this hyper-nationalist moment of transition in Egypt, following the June 30 military takeover. A Sheikh of Al-Azhar retorted described Al-Qaradawi as a "terrorist who is estranged from Al-Azhar and from Egypt."

Twitter users speculated about the reasons why Al-Qaradawi's chose to resign now, months after the military coup. A Saudi Twitter user suggested that the resignation potentially pointed to a new role for Al-Qaradawi in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, to whom he has long been linked and whose leaders are increasingly winding up in jail.

#القرضاوي_يستقيل إستقالة يوسف قرضاوي من هيئة كبار العلماء بالأزهر يشير لأمر خفي يخطط له الحزب الإخواني.

— عبدالعزيز الموسى (@A_aziz_almosa) December 2, 2013

Al-Qaradawi has recently been in the spotlight for his support of the Syrian resistance. A YouTube video of one of his declarations describing resistance as an "obligation" has been repurposed to encourage the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Qaradawi was stripped of his Egyptian citizenship and has been denied entry into several western nations, including the United States, due to his often controversial writings and fatwas. One of his more controversial fatwas called the killing of Israeli civilians acceptable, describing them as occupiers along with their government; another called for the execution of novelist Salman Rushdie.

Some supporters argue that Al-Qaradawi's views are overly simplified by critics who portray him as an unrelenting extremist.They point out, for example, that after 9/11, Al-Qaradawi urged Muslims to donate blood urgently to help victims, declaring "the attack against innocent human beings a grave sin." He cited the verse 5:32 from the Koran, which reads in part: "Whoever kills a human being — unless for murder or for corruption done in the land — it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one — it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." Al-Qaradawi also famously denounced sectarianism between Sunnis and Shia in the wake of the Iraq war, a problem that still plagues the country today, and argued for moderation in permitting Muslims to consume minute amounts of alcohol (such as that present in energy drinks).

His sometimes ultra-conservative positions on women's rights — such as his insistence that "light" wife-beating could be permissible, and his support for female circumcision — seem to clash with the fact that his daughter Ilham is a world-famous nuclear scientist.

Adoption death in Qatar
The death of an adopted Ghanian child in Qatar has sparked discussion about cultural and religious differences over adoption. Eight-year-old Gloria, adopted by an American couple working in Qatar on preparations for the 2022 World Cup, mysteriously died in January of this year. Qatari prosecutors claimed the couple, Matthew and Grace Huang, had starved the child, while the parents maintained that Gloria had erratic eating habits, including binging and self-starvation. An Arabic language outlet reported that the charges were based on the testimony of one of the Huangs' other adopted children.

The Qatari police were reportedly suspicious of the Huangs' reasons for wanting a child who did not bear their "hereditary traits" and were "not good-looking." They allegedly speculated that Gloria could have been the victim of a trafficking scheme linked to organ harvesting. The payments they had made to an adoption agency apparently also aroused officials' suspicion. The California Innocence project has taken on the Huangs' case, calling it "wrongful incarceration."

The couple's two other adopted children have returned to the U.S. to live with their extended family during their parents' trial, who could face the death penalty if convicted.

Adoption as it is known in the West is not widely practiced in the Gulf, particularly in light of Islam's treatment of an adopted child as primarily linked to his or her biological family. An adopted child cannot officially inherit alongside his/her adoptive family's biological children and frequently does not take his/her adoptive family's last name.

Tips for Iraqi café owners: how to stop a suicide bomber
In the midst of the worst wave of violence since 2008, Baghdad's security command center is moving in to help owners of one of suicide bombers' most frequent targets: coffee shops.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry suggested to café owners that they hire security guards and allow only one entrance to their establishments, which makes incoming clients easier to monitor. They also urged the use of cameras.

In the month of November, nearly 1,000 people were killed in Iraqi attacks, almost all of them civilians.

After Al Jazeera English, "Hello" Al Arabiya With Subtitles
English and Arabic branches of the same news organization often report independently with different angels and even using different sources, leaving Arabic reporting impenetrable to the anglophone viewer. Al Arabiya has announced it is attempting to bridge that gap, allowing English-speaking viewers access to their Arabic news site through subtitles.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya was founded in 2003 in response to the rapid rise of Qatar-owned Al Jazeera, and it has been described by some as a vehicle of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy. According to Andrew Hammon, Al Arabiya was intended to present a more moderate vision of the Arab world, dismissing "Al Jazeera's hip rejectionism when it came to the massive Western political influence in the region."

Perhaps to counter Al Jazeera English's increasing presence in the U.S. and European market, Al Arabiya has announced plans to offer English speakers access to its popular news broadcast.

The new subtitled broadcast is available here.

Norwegian halal reindeer meat
Following falling sales in Norway, a slaughterhouse in the north of the country has decided to offer halal reindeer meat for sale domestically and abroad.

The Islamic Council of Norway visited the abattoir and reportedly gave their seal of approval. As many have pointed out, "tis the season! Reindeer is a very popular meat for Christmas dinner in Scandinavia.

Tunisian president's "black book"
The information services of Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki have published a "black book" of all the journalists, artists, businessmen and businesswomen who allegedly collaborated with the former dictator, Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Debates have persisted over what to do with those who had participated in Ben Ali's party — which in 2008, three years before the revolution that would oust the government, claimed over 2 millions members in a country with a population of about 10.5 million. The national assembly's efforts to ban members of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party have thus far received lots of press, but have been unsuccessful. Despite Marzouki's party's efforts alongside the ruling Islamist party and other allies, members of the RCD still remain present on the political scene, including Ben Ali's relative by marriage Kamel Morjane.

Current President Marzouki hasn't had the most successful of presidencies, either, and his latest move — the "black book" publication — has earned him the ire of well-known public figures and avid Twitter users alike.

Progressive Islamic thinker Olfa Youssef lashed out at Marzouki on her Facebook account after she was named as a collaborator in the Ben Ali propaganda machine, for helping to "polish Ben Ali's image." After many other disappointments, she writes, "we discover today that you are a liar, that you accuse without evidence and fabricate charges." She continues, "I dare you to come up with even one piece of evidence to support these accusations … I am not a liar, and I do not fear you nor your rabid dogs."

Another Twitter user tweeted a cartoon portraying the Tunisian press as spineless, ready to relentlessly criticize those in power but unable to respond to any criticism of them.

The cartoon portrays Tunisian journalists harassing Marzouki and calling him names, including
! ("you puppet!") and ya muaqat ("you're only temporary!").

However, when Marzouki lashes back with his "black book," the journalists all run away, yelling, "We've been found out!"

Similarly, a Twitter user declared, "So this is a "puppet"? May we have more puppets then!"

فطق ترشيح الزبيدي و النابلي خرجلهم كتاب اسود و واقف سد منيع ضد الانقلاب و ضد الانبطاح.. طرطور ماو ؟ اللهم طرطره اكثر #Marzouki #Tunisie

— tounssi7orr (@tounssi7orr) November 29, 2013

The strangeness of the entire spectacle in the midst of Tunisia's political statement prompted one young Twitter user to declare: "Marzouki is like the white pencil in the box of colored pencils. You always find it there but you don't know what to do which it or what it's useful for. #Marzouki"

المرزوقي يفكّرني في القلم الأبيض في باكو أقلام التلوين ... تلقاه ديما موجود امّا ما تعرفش آش يعملو بيه والا لشنوّة يصلح ! #Marzouki

— Emir Ben Ayed (@Emir_BA) November 29, 2013

Another Tunisian journalist added a dose of humor:

Finally someone managed to beat the #Bieber hash-tag; this is by far #Marzouki "s greatest accomplishment #Tunisia #Tunisie

— Asma Smad (@AsmaSmad) December 2, 2013

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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