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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Racism, Alliances, and Misery: A STATUS/الوضع Conversation between Moe Ali Nayel and Bassam Haddad
Moe Ali Nayel, a freelance journalist, fixer, and translator based in Beirut, Lebanon, discusses the question of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and how the landscape of Lebanon receives them. In addition to his insights and observations, Moe Ali provides signs, posters, warnings, and maps from Beirut.
Please find the transcript of the interview below the player.
The interview includes three parts that you can click on separately.
Moe Ali writes for Lebanese-based and International English publications. In 2010, he decided to change his tools from fixer to writer and published his first critique. Later in 2011, Nayel began his reporting on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon for Electronic Intifada. To read more by Moe Ali Nayel, most of his work can be found on his blog. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeAliN.
Transcribed by Samantha Brotman
Bassam Haddad (BH): Good Morning, Moe. We are very happy that you are able to join us. We are going to discuss the question of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and we would like to start with an overall view on the status of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the landscape within Lebanon that receives Syrian refugees, and how that already complex landscape in Lebanon affects the distribution of Syrian refugees across different regions in Lebanon.
Moe Ali Nayel (MA): Good morning, Bassam. Thank you for having me over on your show. It is definitely an important topic. I would like to go back just a tiny bit to the beginning, when the militant conflict in Syria started and Syrian refugees start fleeing into Lebanon. It started by Lebanon having an open border policy as a strategy, and it stopped—the Lebanese state did not have a managing policy or a strategy to deal with the influx of people that were coming into Lebanon. And so, three years later, we are with 1.3 million Syrian refugee[s] who are who are chaotically spread in Lebanon. The Lebanese government cannot make its mind to creating camps, to send them in, or have an actual strategy to manage the distribution of Syrian refugees.
So what happened, many refugees from certain sects ended up going to the areas that are known in Lebanon to belonging to a certain sect, feeling that maybe they have families there or relatives. The vast majority of the refugees who come from impoverished areas in Syria already, so they come with a very low [economic] status, and they usually fled with nothing on them. They ended up settling in impoverished areas in Lebanon, because it suited their [economic] status. And so, that [is] mainly what has been creating a kind of resentment from the Lebanese who are already impoverished and neglected in [those] areas, feeling that now there [are] more people competing [with] them [for] their jobs, and [for] their living, also receiving aid. But it is not a realistic feeling, in a sense. Because Syrian refugees in impoverished were not competing [with] the Lebanese. They just kept doing the jobs that Syrians usually do in Lebanon, which [are] menial jobs. This time they were being taken advantage of by Lebanese business men, and hired for very low day-pay, which also increased the economic problem in the region. If you look, for instance, into Mount Lebanon-the region of 'Aley particularly, the wife of Walid Jumblat [has] set up a committee and a managing body to deal with Druze refugees who are coming from Syria and settle them inside houses and look after them. This is something that was unprecedented in all of Lebanon. Only in some Christian areas that the Catholic church and the Maronite church looked after some Christian refugees that were coming from Syria with low economical situations. The rest of the refugees were spread out across the country chaotically, and so today what we see is that there is two kinds resentments against the refugees: there is the socio-economic resentment by the poor who are realizing that we have not been getting anything from the state or anyone, but the Syrian refugees are getting some sort of aid. And now some aid agencies are aiding Lebanese families and Syrian families at the time in poor areas. And there is the other fold, which is the middle-class Syrians, the professional Syrians, who could do technical jobs, were taken in by Lebanese bosses on the account of the Lebanese employees who were fired because this Syrian labor was cheaper and the Lebanese would hire two Syrians instead of one Lebanese. That also created an extra resentment amongst the Lebanese who occupied these jobs.
And then, at the moment, it got all mixed up, because there is the-obviously-the fights that are going on on the border, and the Lebanese army is being involved, and there [are] some soldiers kidnapped. And, at the moment, the attacks against Syrian refugees are not necessarily sectarian, but rather because of the dysfunctional situation of the Lebanese state. Because the Lebanese now are feeling burned. They are just choosing their boogeyman of choice, which is the Syrian refugees.
BH: This is something that recalls another era, where another group was also considered the boogeyman, irrespective of the fact that there were some serious differences. Of course, I am talking about the question of...
MA: [Ali Interrupts] The Palestinians.
BH: Palestinians in Lebanon.
MA: Of course.
BH: And perhaps this is a bit different, because they were actually quite equipped and quite armed, and so on and so forth, and organized as such. Before we go on, can you tell us a little bit about your own background and how you are able to conduct your research in Lebanon within this context? And what is it that you are actually doing in terms of your own objectives as a journalist?
MA: I started out eight years ago as a fixer, working with international journalists. Because I wanted to learn journalism, and when I went to the Lebanese university, the guy simply told me, "Go get the wasta in order to study journalism." So I decided to teach myself and I started working for the journalists as a fixer and translator. And through that, I started discovering stories and areas in Lebanon that I had not personally discovered. That was a shock to me, especially discovering Palestinian camps, discovering the reality-the hidden reality from the Lebanese society as a whole-and that opened my eyes on the situation in Lebanon, how it is on the ground, and how it is reported in Western media and in foreign media. My experience as well, and my urge, comes from my experience in the United States. I lived there for a few years, and that was after September eleventh. I kind of felt some sort of misleading conduct of my identity, of where I come from, among many Americans—whether at college or outside of college. There was a lot of misrepresentation. And there is a lot of wrong portrayal of where I come from. And so, when I came back to Lebanon, not liking the American dream that I went for, I realized I would like to contribute to the international scene about stories and narratives that are happening directly, from my own eyes, and not from the eyes of foreign journalists who usually end up reducing the whole narrative to his or her own personal motivations. So, since eight years ago, I got into this business. Forty years ago, I started writing after I gained confidence, and I felt like I am [at] a good point where I can start advocating my own stories. And so, I tried to stay as a freelancer because I like to focus on the things that do not take much attention. I like to dig deep into stories and look beyond the obvious. And because I speak the language, I understand the culture and I am not strictly tied to one bubble-whether a secular bubble or a sectarian bubble-in Lebanon, I have this access. I have this access with the people, and I am not there to fool anyone. I am there to try to deliver to their voice, to try to deliver the message as clear as possible. And so, my passion comes from the love of writing and the love of advocating.
BH: I wanted to ask you about the situation in ‘Irsal in Lebanon and the conflict there between militant groups on the one hand and the Lebanese army and Hizballah on the other. Are we looking at a microcosm of what might come later? Is this something that you have looked into?
MA: Of course, I have been saying [this] for the last two years, since I started going to ‘Irsal more often than the past. I discovered ‘Irsal in 2007-2008, during the Fath al-Islam war, and I found ties from ‘Irsal to Nahr al-Bared, but that is something else. And the last two years, it has been becoming obvious that ‘Irsal will be the entrance into a bigger conflict towards Lebanon. The reason is ‘Irsal is a neglected, marginalized town in Lebanon. The economy there is very much dependent on the work of stone breaking from the mountains surrounding [it], and so that is the main economy of the town. People in ‘Irsal have made money because of that. The ones who left ‘Irsal either went to Beirut, took professional jobs, or left Lebanon. But the majority of the people in ‘Irsal live on the mountain that they crush and the agriculture that they used to import to Syria, actually, and they could not in the past two years. There has been a massive influx of refugees toward ‘Irsal and there has been very little attention or intervention from the Lebanese government. Also, ‘Irsal being a Sunni area in this sea of Shi'a tribes and Shi'a villages has created some sort of resentment because of the division with and against the Syrian regime from the beginning. And so, recently, the whole thing has been deteriorated following the kidnap[ping] of the Lebanese soldiers in ‘Irsal, and following the resentment from the surrounding villages accusing people in ‘Irsal of being collaborators with the Islamic militant groups.
The thing is that, in ‘Irsal, also people there have been deceived by the leadership, by the political leadership, which was embodied by the Future Party to a certain extent. In the last three years they have lost faith in Saad al-Hariri and the Future Party and they have [taken] the Syrian Revolution as their own cause for many reasons. For economic reasons-whether smuggling, which flourished a lot in the last three years-or whether brotherly ties with their Sunni brothers across the border. Because ‘Irsal also historically has suffered from the Syrian regime. Hafiz al-Asad bombed ‘Irsal a few times in the 1980s. And during the Syrian military occupation, ‘Irsal actually suffered especially more than the rest of the towns around it.
Today, there is three-times the amount of refugees in ‘Irsal. And following the war in Qalamun, a lot of warriors have sent their families into ‘Irsal itself. I published an article with Jadaliyya earlier this year. While I was investigating the story, I was in ‘Irsal, and I was approached by a few bearded men in a Syrian refugee camp, [who] took me aside and said, "Look, man. We want to go fight in Syria but we cannot fight, we have to come back and protect our women. Because we are coming back and finding them pregnant." So, there was this sort of resentment between the Syrian refugees as a whole and the people of ‘Irsal as well. It all got complicated when the Lebanese army entered the town and sort of besieged it, as people from ‘Irsal like to call it. The people from ‘Irsal saw the Lebanese army as an enemy fighting them. It did not see the Lebanese army as a liberator, because of the conduct the Lebanese army did. Also, the people there believe that the army is a tool in the hands of Hizballah, that is their own vision about the Lebanese army. There is this common thing that you see in ‘Irsal, you see in a lot of interior areas, in the mountainside, and in the villages of Lebanon, that the army is not there to protect them, but there to actually keep them under control, there to enforce the law on them, in times where the Lebanese government does not really exist. So what we are seeing at the moment is really crucial. There has been some kidnap[ping]s in the last few days from people from ‘Irsal following the killing of the third soldier, [Muhammad] Hamiyyah. And there has been direct accusations towards ‘Irsal as a village, who is calling it responsible for the blood of the soldiers that are being kidnapped. This could hold only for so much, because ‘Irsal has been highly militarized. At the moment, by infiltration from fighters group, like Abu-Hassan al-Filistini, who is actually a Lebanese guy who went forth in Syria and then came back to the region of Qalamun, opened up his own shop, and gave allegiances to ISIS and then finally, he recruited another man from ‘Irsal. Because he was actually involved in [the] smuggling business and racketeering. He was providing power and a sort of economy, a sort of income to a lot of jobless men in ‘Irsal that used to work in the mounting, breaking stone and selling it. That business right now has stopped. And so, adding to the resentment that ‘Irsal has already with Hizballah, with the Lebanese army, the people in ‘Irsal are kind of in a situation where they feel they are confronted by everyone at this point, which can only lead to an unprecedented explosion in that region between ‘Irsal and its surrounding [areas].
BH: Can you tell us a little bit about ‘Irsal in terms of its demographic conditions, its location, just a brief note about what ‘Irsal is for those who not quite aware of this area.
MA: If you go into Beq‘a and you pass Baalbek, you go through a al-Labwe area, and then you suddenly make a right and go up the mountain, and then go down the mountain and you are in a town that is completely isolated from its surrounding[s]. It is actually closer to Syria than it is to Lebanon, demographically and geographically. The people in ‘Irsal have, historically, [gone] to Syria for education, for medical care, and for shopping in many cases. They have less relations with Beirut or Lebanon, as much [as] they have relations with Syria. And so, today ‘Irsal is being asked to show its patriotism and nationalism as a Lebanese town, while, in reality, the town does not really feel so Lebanese, as much as it feels that it is closer to a Syrian region. If you look at it on the map, it even looks a bit separated from the Lebanese. It is like it is an extension towards Syria. It is an area of 35,000 residents. And it has, at the moment, over 100,000 Syrian refugees.
BH: Let us move to another sensitive topic. And it relates to the feelings and attitudes of the many in Lebanon towards Syrian refugees. And there has been an escalation in violence, an escalation in tension, and many attribute that to racism or classism, and we are likely to see more of this chauvinistic kind of attitude at the level of the public and at the level of the state as well. Can you tell us a little bit about the situation? And what might actually happen the more refugees are received into Lebanon and the more the tension grows? What are the risks there, that we have not seen yet?
MA: Well, for starters, what is happening at the moment in Lebanon is a very classic, Lebanese thing that we have seen many times in the past, actually. It is ironic that, after three years of the Syrian conflict and Syrian refugees in Lebanon, that the whole thing went into different scenarios. At the moment, while Lebanon does not have water-hotels in Hamra, for instance, are filling up their tanks from the sea. In Hamra it is all salt water, any restaurant you go to, you wash, it is salt water-there is no electricity, there is very [scarce] electricity. Power cuts in Beirut [are] up to fourteen hours a day sometimes. And so, the security situation is deteriorating, everybody is buying guns, there is no security on the street. And all of this has been packaged by Lebanese politicians as the result of the Syrian refugees. Of course, Lebanon has been like that. And this year, I would like to touch on one point that we see a lot in the media, that the Syrian conflict is spilling into Lebanon. I am a bit against that analogy. I think Lebanon has spilled into Syria from the beginning. Because Lebanon [has] been dysfunctional, been divided on sectarian lines, been a country without a state for the last thirty-five years, at least. So, today, all of this is being dumped on the Syrian refugees. The socioeconomic situation in the country is ridiculous as well. It is very bad at the moment, with a high price of living. And so today, what we see on the streets are two-folds: There is the agitation against the Syrians that is driven by the work and the speeches of politicians and their media departments; Also, there is the fact that now there [are] Lebanese soldiers who are kidnapped by groups who came from Syria originally, who originated in Syria. And suddenly it created this Lebanese ultra-nationalism, all of the sudden, against the Syrians. Even amongst communities who were extremely supportive of the Syrian refugees and the Syrian revolution, right now they are turning against them. What we see today is calls, for example, in Sin al-Fil, saying, "Let us remove Suq al-Ahad because it is a scene that is collecting a lot of Syrians, a lot of unwanted habitats.” So, there [are] attacks on this kind of lifestyle. There are thuggish attacks every night on, for instance, delivery workers who happen to be Syrians. So, you have this outburst of chaos right now that is completely directed at Syrians. And it is not being countered by the Lebanese state or by any political narrative that tells otherwise. So, it is very dangerous, because the kind of-I would say-not racist, but rather classist, chauvinistic Lebanese expressions, violent expressions, against impoverished Syrians at the moment is dangerous because it is happening from the level of the state and the level of the citizens.
The Syrians can only take so much until they become radicalized for revenge, basically, for purposes of revenge. And when they become radicalized, some other impoverished, poor Sunnis, who have been showing resentment in the last two years, today feel that they are completely impatient. This could be [an] emerging force. This could be something that the mindless-like you said in the beginning, as the Palestinians, as Fatah was used in the past by the Sunnis to fight the Maronite-today, the Syrians could be, their resentments, could be galvanized by opportunists, in order to use them as foot soldiers. But I think we are at a point where something serious has to happen to prevent that. Otherwise, what we could see in Lebanon is the continuation of the long fifteen-year civil war that right now is taking shape on the streets. You have to think that in Beirut, for instance, the neighborhood leader is coming back again, and is coming back with vengeance, and is recruiting unemployed men, Syrian and Lebanese. So that can only lead toward a massive explosion at a time where Lebanon is not in good shape to hold its state together, or to hold its communities together. There [are] neighborhood watches everywhere outside the Beirut that are precisely targeting Syrians. And neighborhood watches [are] completely done by citizens.
So, today Lebanon is not in a situation where it could reverse the situation to three years ago. I am worried because what I saw recently on the streets in Beirut was something really, really dangerous. For instance, lining up Syrians on the streets, beating up Syrians, all these things are making Syrians now stay at home. Poor and middle-upper-class Syrians as well, who have been investing their money in the Lebanese economy, they have deposited their monies in Lebanese banks, they have been filling up the hotels that usually the tourists do. Those are feeling threatened in the country, and they are feeling that, “Any country actually would wish that we go take our investment and money and put them there.” So, there is that fold as well.
In the end, it is the law of the street. In the end it is the resentments of the families of the kidnapped soldiers, they are kidnapping Syrians. And so, all that combined together is a very negative equation that can only lead into further chaos, and further targeting of Syrians.
BH: Wow, this is of course intense and unfortunate and I also see vestiges of an old time repeating again.
MA: You know what is funny, Bassam, is that on local channels right now, even those who [are] considered liberal, the casual racist joke has been so acceptable that it becomes normalized. For instance, there was a show on Al Jadid TV that the anchor went to the street and he was speaking to Lebanese saying, "How do you feel about the Syrians? Are they bothering us?" It is a satirical show, by the way. And people were expressing their resentments in the most unflattering ways. And he picked up on a Syrian woman and asked her, "How is Lebanon?" She said, "Look the Lebanese have not been nice to us. We have not done anything wrong to them. We took them inside our houses." And the guy bursted on her. He said, "I cannot believe you are saying that. We are hosting you. Shame on you. We opened our houses, where do you think you are? This is Lebanon, this is not Syria." And, the thing is supposed to be funny. It was not funny at all, actually. It was really depressing. The public narrative right now towards the Syrians, it is actually galvanizing a lot of people towards viewing, now, the Syrian as the ultimate person who came and took everything we had, knowing that we had nothing in the past.
I would like to add one small incident that is funny. I have a friend of mine who comes from an upper-class family. He really never worked, he goes hunting, he lives from his family's money. I was speaking to him recently. I said, "Ahmed, how are you doing? What is going on?" He said, "Ya Zalameh there is no jobs. The Syrians took all the jobs. I cannot find a job." He made me laugh. I said, "Ahmed, you never worked even before the Syrians came to Lebanon. How dare you blame your inequities right now on the Syrians. How come you can do that?" And he basically was speechless, because that is the reality. But it is becoming a trend right now. If you fight with your wife, blame the Syrians. Your tummy aches, blame the Syrians.
BH: Not just to play devil's advocate, but also to look at the sheer numbers, given the sheer number of Syrians in Lebanon and given the fact that Lebanon and the Lebanese state has been unable to provide to its public, and of course always unevenly so. Even under other conditions, where a public is not ready or prone to any this kind of bias-you will be hard-pressed to find a public to find a public that is like that-but isn't this influx a very serious development that will actually produce its own tensions, almost legitimately? If you could, tell us a little bit about the demographics, and-I know you mentioned it in the beginning-but the number of Syrian refugees and Syrians, because they are not all "refugees."
MA: Of course. To start with the number of refugees, according to the UNHCR [(United Nations High Commission on Refugees)], there [are] 1.3 million refugees. The number, as a whole, with Syrians is 1.5-1.6, estimates vary. But, you know, you are completely right to think that, yes, it is a huge burden, let us say, on such a dysfunctional state, to actually deal with. But there is something that we are completely overlooking as well, which is the good things, in a sense, that the Syrian refugees brought into Lebanon that is not being recognized. Do not forget that under the Syrian refugees, there has been billions of dollars being spent in Lebanon, hundreds and hundreds of Lebanese are now working in international NGOs, various professions, from security guards all the way up to general managers. On top of all that, small-time Lebanese mini-markets and businesses have been contracted by the UNHCR and, in some cases, there are shops who are today selling up to $30 thousand per month, just out of the contracts the UNHCR has provided them. And so there is a lot of currency and a lot of employment that the Syrian refugees provided, knowing that the Syrian refugees get a small portion of all this portion that comes under their name. Also, there is a huge influx of labor that has been filling all the construction sites that are taking over Lebanon at the moment. Three years ago, four years ago, Syrian labor day-pay was twenty to twenty-five thousand. That is between thirteen and seventeen dollars. Today, it is five thousand to ten thousand. That is three to seven dollars per day for a construction worker. So, you see how this Syrian refugees issue has also benefitted Lebanon on many aspects. The problem is that there, now it is more visible. There has not been a strategy, like I said in the beginning, to manage the Syrian refugees, to create camps, to actually take care of them, by the Lebanese state.
It reminds me, [as a] matter of fact, of Lebanon during the time of the Syrian military hegemony over the country, where there was an estimate back then, if I am not wrong, of 1.2 million Syrians in Lebanon, as a whole. And the Lebanese population was lesser than now, I believe. And back then you would hardly hear any complaint. Yes, the Syrian mukhabarat were extremely oppressive, so nobody dared to complain about Syrians in the country. But it was not perceived on the social level as it is perceived at the moment. And so, I believe-because Lebanon as well is a natural extension to Syria-it was completely foreseeable that Lebanon was going to go toward such [an] influx of refugees. It was completely foreseeable that Lebanon needs a strategy to deal with that. And today three years ago, none of this happened. The problem is becoming out of hand. And, you know, I was thinking the other day, at night, because [of] the many raids that have been happening on the streets, whether by security or by people, the number of Syrian women who sit on the street with their children, or Syrian beggars, or just Syrian families who walk on the corniche, have completely decreased. And I was thinking, "What if we wake up one day and all the Syrians have [gone] away, have disappeared, went back to Syria, whatever." How would we perceive that as Lebanese? I am sure we would miss them, because, I am sure trash will pile the streets, I am sure construction sites will stop working, I am sure all the menial jobs that we do not do in Lebanon-we travel, do [these jobs] in Europe and America-that the Syrians do in Lebanon. We will have to do it ourselves. If that day comes, I think, probably, as Lebanese will probably appreciate the Syrian generosity in that regard. And then, to add to it, some Syrian friends in Lebanon right now have been so demoralized by the actions against them that I know noticed from three years ago until now, they had some sort of good-heartedness that today is being completely eradicated. It has completely been a feeling of defensiveness, a feeling of hatred-I would say-towards the way Lebanon is treating. They always say, "In 2006, we took you inside our houses. How come you do this to us?" And so, it is crucial at the moment that the demographics between and Lebanon and Syria, and the way things will develop in the future. What I can see happening is, what is happening at the moment, and sectarian areas, the Syrian refugees from the sect of the area, are being silent and they are not being attacked as long as they stick to the curfew. The others, who are not from the same sect of the area, are either being taxed up to one-hundred dollars per month in order to stay, or are being pushed away. But Lebanon is too small, so [it will] just be interesting how this will go into the second phase.
BH: Before I let you go, I just wanted to say something about the Lebanese benefitting. I mean, surely, there has been a tremendous benefit, and has been for years and perhaps decades, from the influx and the presence of Syrian workers. But, especially in the past few years, isn't this benefit disproportionately going to shop-keepers and the middle classes, the educated, who could work with NGOs and so on and so forth? And the majority of the Lebanese, demographically, are outside these classes or these groups of people. So, does this not affect the average Lebanese who does not have this kind of access? This is, again, certainly not to justify anything that is going on, but it is a real source of pressure for this demographic.
MA: Of course it does.
BH: Or is it not?
MA: No, no, of course it is, actually. To prove your point, I was in Tripoli the other day and I precisely went with a few NGO workers who have a project right now in the area of Bab al-Tibani, where they aid one Lebanese family as, [at] the same, they aid one Syrian family. It is these kind of communities who have been originally affected by the [neglect] of the Lebanese government. Before this year, the refugees arrived, the increase of population in these impoverished areas obviously created more pressure on the Lebanese who live in these areas. Because, with the Syrians coming in. Keep in mind that prices went up. Rent prices went up. So, you used to rent an apartment in Bab al-Tibani for one-hundred-fifty dollars, a two-bedroom apartment for one-hundred-fifty dollars three years ago. Today it is up to three-hundred and four-hundred dollars because there are new Syrian refugees who came. But again and again, you know, it is not necessarily to blame the Syrians, to put the blame all on the Syrian refugees. It is the responsibility of the Lebanese state. It is the responsibility of the Lebanese state neglecting those impoverished areas. It is the economic policies, it is the rich getting richer, it is the poor being abused and abused over and over again. And today, the Syrians can embody that figure that, "You are taking what was mine, or you are sharing what I used to have with my family," sort of thing. Yes, these communities are mostly affected brutally, and these communities should be taken care of as soon as possible by the Lebanese state because they are at a point where life has become so difficult because of the influx of prices brought by the Syrian refugees, brought by the Lebanese because of the increase of demand from the Syrian refugees. Today, these communities tell you that, "First of all, we do not want the Syrians. Second of all, we want to rule ourselves. We want to run our neighborhoods. We want to run our business. We do not want the Lebanese state anymore. We do not want the Lebanese politicians anymore. We want anybody strong to protect us, and we can give allegiances.” And that is dangerous.
BH: Thank you very much, Moe. This has been quite enlightening. I hope to speak with you again.
MA: Thank you very much. I am honored to be on your show. Thank you for having me, and I hope I will be back with you once again in the future.
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