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Marcel Khalife comes to Denver/Dinner with Kathy Kelly/Talking In Evergreen about Iran With Ibrahim

October 18, 2007

 1.

Marcel Khalife gave a concert tonight in Denver at the Oriental Theater not far from our home. Although we were both tired from an intense week of work and extra curricular activities (see below), we went. Khalife might not be a household name in Colorado but is throughout the Arab world, where he is, as was mentioned in Ida Audeh’s introduction, seen like Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger (but with a better voice than either). Son of a Lebanese Maronite fisherman and flutist, he was drawn both to music and left politics early in life. Professionally trained and recognized as a master technician, composer and performer, his music blends classical Arabic themes with jazz, Spanish flamenco music and other western themes in a unique fashion. The result is a stunningly beautiful blend, cosmopolitan in one sense, but in another, one that never strays far from its Arabic roots. One doesn’t need to know the words (although it does help needless to say) to feel the power, sophistication and utter mastery of his art. I kept thinking Nancy might like to leave, not because of the music but because she has to get up at 6 am in the morning. She insisted on staying until the end.

It was mostly a cultural program, and although the music itself putting the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish (great Palestinian poet) to song suggests a tradition in which culture, politics and jazz fused into one. Khalife spoke about being hassled at US immigration because of his skin color and language, and then dedicated a song to the customs officer who tried to intimidate him and his ensemble. I heard a similar story from a Spanish friend who came to teach not long ago. Toward the end Khalife commented upon how he respected the American people but opposed the policies of the Bush Administration – to cheers from the audience – but it was all of a two liner and a prelude to his final number. I thought to myself – yes, that is the way to package a political message: give a fine cultural program – don’t beat people over the head with long speeches (as I tend to do), give a spiffy little punch line and move on.

More, Khalife brought out a community that has been rather quiet, subdued of late – in part because of 9-11 and the repressive atmosphere toward Muslims and Arabs, in part, I suspect anyway, because of the sorry state of the Palestinian movement rife with splits and facing another imminent international charade, posing as a peace conference. Hard not to be cynical about all that. For Khalife they came out, because they love his music which is extraodinary as is the man himself. He represents more than music, but hope, healing, Christian-Moslem solidarity, `a serious and sincere work for those tormented by this [the 1975-1990 Civil War in Lebanon] war as he himself explained. His music was `a sort of balm for these wounds’. Put simply, they love him and that love and his presence here just might help regenerate some local activism.

It is not just in the USA that he adds a political line or two. He and his music have been barred from singing in Tunisia since 2005. In August of that year at a concert in Carthage (where 40 years ago I spent many a fine evening – there and in neighboring Sidi Bou Said), he dedicated a song to the `Arabs imprisoned in Israel and in Arab countries. Tunisia, a US ally in the war on terrorism, has been run by a president, a thug and dictator for nearly 20 years now, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. In a country where criticizing the head thug is a no-no, the press is muzzled and political activists are thrown in jail, mistreated and tortured, they took Khalife’s comment personally. In a like manner, he has through the years expressed his support and profound sympathy for the plight and struggle of the Palestinians, many of whom he knew from the camps in Lebanon near his childhood home.

Although some Christians in Lebanon for a variety of reasons too complicated to discuss here (but I will in the future), moved sharply to the right during the 1960s and 1970s, some went the other way – toward the left – to marxist movements including Lebanon’s Communist Party. A similar phenomenon took place among the Palestinians with Palestinian Christians, those that were radicalized in any case, embracing either the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or the Palestinian Communist Party (the wing of the Jordanian CP that broke off after Israel occuped the West Bank and Gaza in 1967). Palestinian Christians envisioned their future in a democratic and secular movement that would ensure their rights as a cultural minority in countries that are predominantly Muslim. Khalife was a part of this historic trend that sees in a secular nationalism a future for, in the case of Lebanon, all of its constituent groups. Still not a bad idea but it’s lost a good deal of appeal in recent years. Still.

The evening was special in other ways. It was not simply that one of the great musicans and humanists of the Arab world was in little Denver, and in our neighborhood to boot, but that his presence brought out the Arab Community of Colorado in larger numbers than I have seen for some time, including and especially a very large contingent of young Palestinians and Lebanese. At first I was a little disappointed that more people from the broader peace movement did not show up, but it turned out that many came, especially people connected in one way or another with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder. One curious pair was Sergio Atallah and Amy Stein. Stein, a new organizer for the Anti Defamation League in Boulder invited Atallah, Palestinian activist (and a personal friend of long standing) to an ADL meeting in Boulder. In return Sergio invited Amy to the Khalife concert. Nice evening.

2.

An Evening with Kathy Kelly, Voices in the Wilderness (Wednes)

Kathy Kelly, radical Catholic peace activist and pacifist is in Denver. She spoke tonight at Regis University. I missed it because of the Marcel Khalife concert. Tomorrow evening she’ll talk at the First Unitarian Church on Hamden and Colorado Blvd. She has had a long connection with Denver peace activists, most especially those who went on a number of delegations to Iraq in the mid and late 1990s and witnessed the debilitating impact of economic sanctions on the Iraqi people in those years. Sanctions like those placed on Iraq from 1991 to 2003 are nothing less than a slow form of genocide. Perhaps as many as 1,000,000 Iraqis died of starvation, malnutrituion, waste conducted diseases like typhoid – a slow, systematic incredibly cruel choking of a nation, reminescent of the Nazi seige of Leningrad (which had the same goal). Her courage, her humanity add an active quality to her pacifism which it is impossible not to respect.

Most of our discussion centered around the degree to which Iraq has been decimated as a country and on the great unspoken human tragedy – the Iraqi refugee problem, rarely raised in the US media. 4.5 million Iraqis that have fled Iraq to neighboring countries (Syria, Jordan, Iran) plus another 1.5 million internal refugees. But fear not because the USA has come to the rescue! 79 Iraqis have been permitted to enter our country. Kelly has spent a good deal of time in Jordan recently, living in the Iraqi refugee communities where the government there refuses them work visas, health and educational facilities. More and more Iraqis in Jordan are simply shunned. So once again (other time being 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes as Israel was created) a regional war has created a refugee crisis of mammouth proportions, one that will have long standing if not permanent repercussions. This one is a result of a US invasion and occupation that had nothing to do with democracy and national restruction and everything to do with the privatization of oil and the establishment of permanent military bases. John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the UN, and permanent diplomatic embarrassment, just blows it all off: the US has no responsibility for the refugee crisis the war created. This is the same Bolton who would have us nuke Iran.

3. An evening in Evergreen with Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince (Tues)

We were invited by the local peace group and the meeting was at the United Methodist Church just outside of Evergreen. As usual I had a little trouble finding it despite good directions because we were talking too much, but we did get there all the same. We had a division of labor – Ibrahim made the comparisons between the build up before the war with Iraq and the present situation, how the media is playing more or less the same role. I spoke the evolution of the permanent military presence in the region from the Carter Doctrine after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the creation of the floating army – the Rapid Deployment Force, followed by the establishment of permanent ilitary bases first in Saudi Arabia, then in Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq and in the former central Asian Soviet Republics. We both believe that the Bush Administration intends to attack – bomb – Iran sometime before the elections next November – unless we can somehow mobilize to stop this madness – and that although some of the scenarios appear to have been `adjusted’, they are not more dangerous than they were previously precisely because they seem more palatable. And we spoke about how the Dems are no better than the Republicans on this question.

What was more interesting than our talks (which were ok) were the questions that came from the audience after the talk. Although there were 1 or 2 people in the audience that appeared to have steam coming out of their ears in response to our comments, most of the audience was quite receptive. Someone asked about the current campaign to vilifiy Islam. A second, a woman who identified herself as an active Democrat expressed herself rather sharply against AIPAC’s role in the Democratic Party, thus raising the Israeli-Palestinian issue. A third asked about how we can counter all the media stereotyping of Iran. I found the barb against AIPAC particularly interesting as it did not come from Ibrahim or myself but from the floor. I have no easy answer to how to counter this other than to fight within the Democratic Party for a more balanced, humane platform plank on the issue and challenging the party leadership’s slavish obedience to AIPAC policies (on Israel and Iran). This is not the first time such comments have been raised from the floor suggesting that at least in some quarters of the Democratic Party here in Colorado there are people who understand the Israeli-Palestinian issue and are doing what they can hold the party leadership accountable. They’ve got a long fight on their hands to be sure, but still it seems that there are some changes of public opinion on the ground on this issue.

Much discussion centered around the dilemma being discussed nationally in the peace movement. More than 70% of the American people are against the war, yet the peace movement remains, if not marginal, still not particularly big. How can we tap into more of that 70%? How can we broaden our movement and engage more of the mainstream? Some ideas were thrown around – running peace candidates either inside or outside the Democratic Party, trying to involve people on the local level more, etc especially the year ahead when the national focus will be on Colorado because of the upcoming Democratic Party national convention. It’s not a question of `re-creating 68′ so much as activating for 08. I did have the sense though that this is an audience that will, over the months to come, come up with its own creative solutions.

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