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Stuck between Iraq and a Hard Place | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 28, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Published on GNN – Wed, 28 Mar 2007 12:32:31

Location: Dubai, U.A.E.

Ah Dubai with all its glitz and glam, looming cranes dance across the horizon and skyscrapers puncture the heavens with Babel-esque ambition. I’ve been living here for just over 4 years now and I’ve watched the population swell dramatically: The city is being developed so quickly that it can’t seem to keep up with all the young professionals and masses of Indian labor workers it’s luring in.  Educated Arabs and Westerners from across the globe are flocking to the Paris Hilton of the Middle East to build this desert dream and benefit from the lucrative opportunities and liberal lifestyle. While the foundations of many buildings are still setting, the Russian mafia have already bought out the penthouses. Almost anyone is invited to get a piece of the Dubai pie… But for Iraqi passport holders, it’s persona non-grata.

As you may know, there are no real career opportunities for the people of Iraq in their own country. The security situation is so fucked that people are fleeing in droves. We know by now that over a million have fled to Syria, and around 800 000 are in Jordan. Hundreds of thousands more have sought refuge in other countries. Just a few months ago the UN put out a startling statistic: 1 in every 8 Iraqis is now displaced, which has resulted in the largest population movement on Earth.

Gulf countries are taking a shameful stance: Saudi Arabia and Qatar refuse all Iraqi passport holders. The UAE is beginning to develop a stricter line  as well. And this is where it hit home.

My cousin Ahmed graduated university and fled Baghdad last year to Dubai to join his mother and sister in an attempt to build a future. Although he quickly found work at a local factory out here, he’s had to stay in nearby Oman for11 days waiting for a new visit visa to come through, granting him a legal two-month stay. Visit visas in Dubai last 2-3 months for everyone. Certain nationalities (North America and Europe) can just hit up any nearby border, get stamped and return to the UAE within a couple of hours. They call it the “visa hop”. For educated Iraqis trying to escape the chaos and to work in the UAE, it’s a drawn –out and nerve wracking process.

For reasons that are unclear, his company is having serious trouble sponsoring him to get residency status and so he’s been sent to the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Musandam, to wait for his visit visa application to be approved. Over the past 6 months, it’s becoming increasingly difficult and his waits in this picturesque province of Oman, are becoming longer and longer. After two visa rejections this time around, his mother – who has residency status here- was finally able to get him back in Dubai… For another two months that is. And the process repeats itself until one day, he might not be able to come back at all.

I’ve been hearing about this problem from family, friends and acquaintances for months now. Educated young Iraqis who are desperate for work are being rejected form entering the United Arab Emirates without explanation. Ahmed’s case, it seems, is one in thousands.

“I’m not the only one,” he told me on the phone from Oman last week “ There’s a group of 20 guys like me in my motel. Some of them have been waiting here for months…” I was told that there were almost 200 people with similar stories to Ahmed’s.

His sister and I drove for 3 hours to the border to see him and satisfy his craving for a Pizza Hut all-dressed thick cruster. I took my video camera along and intended to shoot interviews for a story with the other young men stranded there.

Upon our arrival, Ahmed tried to persuade the other guys to meet me. They were all understandably fearful of my videocamera (a lot of Iraqis avoid media for fear of reprisals on their relatives by fundies back home). In the end I was able to interview about 7 of them under anonymity. Their stories were utterly shocking. Here were a group of well-spoken and respectable young men between the ages of 25-30 who all had certified university degrees (one of them even had a Masters) suffering the same fate: although they had found work in Dubai within a matter of weeks, their companies could not sponsor them and their visit visas were getting increasingly difficult to approve because of their Iraqi passports. They are engineers, pharmacists, computer programmers and one architect. All of them have reached the end of the line; their visit visas to the UAE having been rejected after a period of waiting in this remote – albeit scenic- purgatory in Oman. All of them were left with no option but to pack up and go back to where they came from. The message is clear: Iraqis can (literally) ‘go to hell’.

“Dolfie”, 27, is a soft-spoken Basrawi with a Bachelors and a Masters in Electrical Engineering from the University of Basra. His latest ‘visa hop’ has had him stuck in Musandam for 50 days. He came to Dubai in September last year and soon found a job in his field. His company can’t find a way to sponsor him because of his Iraqi passport and although he was granted entry several times before, his visit visa is not being renewed, again, with no justification. The rejection has taken its toll: “I am so upset… I told my contacts in Dubai to not bother anymore. If they don’t want me or welcome me, I don’t want to live in their country either.” He’s being shipped back to Basra this week.

“Dolfie” and the other men had their degrees certified by the Iraqi foreign Ministry as well as the Iraqi Consulate in Dubai. He even showed me the documents. “Is this not enough?” he urged. Certified degrees are vital to granting residency in Dubai- or so the officials say- but for some strange reason, it didn’t help his case. “Do I have to get a PhD too?”

How is it that all of these young men- these educated young Iraqis- are being denied any sort of future in neighboring countries like the UAE? This is especially baffling to me when Dubai is still in the process of development and needs skilled labor in all sectors. The locals aren’t going to build the dream (they are a minority in the UAE), the expats are.

“Yazan” is an articulate 29 year-old with the same story. He was working at a pharmaceutical firm in Dubai for a few months, living in limbo between visas. He told me about his case, his tired blue eyes pleading for some kind of explanation: “We just don’t understand why this is happening. Is there some kind of official policy against us?” Yazan’s efforts to save his young family in Baghdad from living in constant fear and insecurity have been in vain. “I am so depressed. Sometimes I try to cry but I can’t… We are left with no solutions, no choices…” He has no choice but to return to Baghdad.

Are Iraqis being blacklisted? Is the US/puppet Iraqi government putting pressure on the UAE to deny these youth visas?  I went to the Interior Ministry of Dubai to try to get some answers. As I suspected, my investigation didn’t go very far. An Emirati lady in the PR department was kind enough to talk to me for a while. She told me that as far as she knew, the UAE government had issued a new law banning Iraqis who hadn’t entered the country prior to 2004. When I asked her why this was happening, she said she didn’t know and that they just followed orders. For more details I would have to talk to her director, who was conveniently out of the office and never available when I called to inquire afterwards.

Just when I thought my heart couldn’t handle anymore bad news about Iraq, more proof of how Iraqis not only get the short end of the stick, they get beaten into a bloody pulp with it.

“It’s like slow [social] asphyxiation,”  said Saad, a 29 year-old architecture graduate who’s also stuck between Iraq and a hard place in Oman, “ the Iraqi people are being strangled to death.”

“The Other Iraq” | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Published on GNN – Mon, 18 Jun 2007 14:53:29

Location: Slemaniya, Iraq.

The terrain in Northern Iraq.

Beige mountains, colossal and sage, sit quietly on the horizon, their peaks sprinkled with pine trees and patches of green. Nevermind the Barzanis and Talabinis, Kurdistan’s mountains are in charge.

So here I am, 29 years of age and my feet firmly planted on Iraqi soil for the first time in my adult life- or are they? I flew from Dubai to Slemaniya’s modest ‘Porta-Potty’ style airport with anticipation. I’ve traveled across to Irbil and PKK strongholds in the Qandeel mountains over the past week. Car bombings aside, this doesn’t feel like Iraq. Most Kurds don’t speak Arabic, especially the younger generation of the 90s, and the men roam the streets in high-waist grey sherwals, bright worry beads in hand. Despite the relative stability in the northern provinces of Iraq, there’s still a lot to worry about. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) are acting up and sporadic violence is just a car ride way, in Kirkuk and Mosul. The Kurdish government has succeeded in keeping extremists out thanks to their tremendous security apparatus and the Kurdish community’s deep sense of unity and cooperation. However, some of the locals I spoke to are still concerned about the influx of Arab refugees from the center and the south, and the violent fundy vibes they might bring with them. The internal refugee crisis in Iraq is visible, but more on that later…

I’m staying with a Christian family in Slemaniya and in typical Iraqi style, their home is inhabited by 4 generations, from a giggly newborn baby boy to his feisty 83 year-old great grandmother. The nucleus of the family are Mr. Jamal, a Christian man from Basra, and his wife Alya, a prominent architect in the Slemaniya community, who designed their home after she graduated from the University of Baghdad in the late 70s. The hallmarks of that era’s structural design is clear from the outside.

As soon as I finish unpacking we move into the kitchen and I watched her prepare lunch. Alya is a towering lady with piercing wide-set eyes. Her tough stance and sharp features conjured up images of a past life as a fierce warrior woman.  We talk politics (of course): “Even though I’m Kurdish and although I despised Saddam, I hate the Americans. They’ve destroyed Iraq”, she tells me sternly as the electricity goes out for the fourth time since the morning. “Khaled! The generator!” she yells to her son upstairs. She’s laboriously preparing a feast of ‘dolma’ (vine leaves stuffed with rice, meat and herbs) in her colorful overcrowded kitchen and she’s worried that the civil war will spill over to Kurdistan.

A common sight in Iraq: A technicolor tangled mess of cables wrapped around an electricity pole in a Kurdish neighborhood. Each wire leads to a different house.

Later, her youngest daughter, 25 year-old Dalia, joins me on the rooftop as I smoke a cigarette and we watch in the dusk sky blanket the mountains in the distance. “We used to go down to Baghdad all the time. It used to be the trip we’d all look forward to, Baghdad was the center of the world for us,” she tells me as she adjusts the rollers in her cherry red hair. “The shops, the restaurants, the scenery, the people. We’d take boat rides on the Tigris at night and all you’d see is the oil lamps from other boats floating by… music everywhere. We’re all so sad about what’s happening.”

Mr. Jamal is sitting on the couch watching the movie Gladiator, for the 5th time he says, on Dubai’s satellite channel. He changes the channel and we watch the news. The minarets of the Mosque in Samarra have been blown up. Another day in the new Iraq. We both shake our heads. He tells me about the good old days and how Iraqis were considered the most cultured people in the Middle East up to just a couple of decades ago- almost 95% literacy rate at one point. He pushes a sigh: “You know, there was a saying: ‘Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads’… Look at where we are now.”

After lunch, the family prepares to go to church for Sunday mass and I tag along. They introduce me to some of their friends there, many of them Christians who fled Baghdad. The priest begins his sermon in Arabic and everyone stands up. Although I was born Muslim, I bow my head down as the worshippers cross their hearts, and pray for peace… for my country to be free.

A nun I met at the Chaldean Church.

A nun I met at the Chaldean Church.

The Dirty South | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Published on GNN- Sat, 30 Sep 2006 15:40:48

Location: South Lebanon.

Southern Lebanon is: Dirt and dust, unexploded minefields, lush banana plantations lining the coast, UN convoys, ubiquitous martyr placards and green and yellow Hezbollah banners that declare: “This is your democracy”. Add to that some more dirt and dust and a tons of rubble in villages all over. Last but not least, if Hassan Nasrallah’s face isn’t smiling down on you from billboards and posters, his voice echoes through loud speakers from one destroyed village to the next. But mostly Nasrallah’s sermons were blaring from the CD player of our fixer’s car.

Video Still: A portrait of Hassan Nasrallah eerily stands out in the middle of a minefield in the south.

The population here is primarily Shiite and it surrounds pockets of mostly unscathed Christian towns. The South is also where Hezbollah communities are concentrated- and they are communities, not some covert groups of ninja-styled militiamen as the Western media likes to portray them. Hezbollah members are teachers, mothers, doctors, town mayors, taxi drivers and so on. I traveled all over the south in about 10 days, witnessing the extent of the destruction on the infrastructure and the effect on the community and it was clear the Israelis were trying to wipe out every Shiite village on the Lebanese map. Like I said, Hezbollah members / followers are also civilians, so all this talk from the Israeli side about the party using civilians as shields is, to me and a heck of a lot of people, bullshit. Seeing how this war helped Hezbollah’s popularity soar, if the Israeli government tries to annihilate them again, it would mean nuking most of Lebanon off the face of the Earth.

Video Still: A bombed out mosque in Bint Jbeil.

Bint Jbeil, one of the most battered towns, also with a heavy Hezbollah presence, was a heartbreaking experience to say the least…. Buildings and homes are crumbling and those left standing have been riddled with bullet holes from fierce ground battles between the Israelis and Hezbollah fighters. The Mayor took us on a walking tour with an EU delegation sent to assess the damage and the scenery was surreal. As we ventured onto a winding road, clumsily trying to make our way across the rubble, we passed a crumbling mosque, a flattened shoe factory and homes and shops reduced to mounds of concrete chunks. The Mayor and residents lambasted the government and its neglect of the area. Even the Ambassador of the EU delegation admitted that they were going ahead with reconstruction plans without the cooperation of the government because ‘it would be less complicated’.

Another home destroyed. The banner, part of Hezbollah's campaign, was strategically placed to get their message across in the foreign press.

And more disapproval about the foreign troops: Locals I’ve talked to during the daily treks across the South have their obvious reservations about the UNIFIL troops UNIfiling in. The Lebanese army couldn’t even fight back when the IDF attacked so in their minds, only Hezbollah can protect them. I don’t need to tell you how they feel about Israel nowadays. The anger is more than palpable.

Video Still: A residential building damaged from clashes with Israeli soldiers.

When I talked to our fixer about Israelis who protested against the war, the Refusenik movement and countless other Jews around the world who are against the occupation of Palestine, he looked at me as though I had told him the Qur’an was written by a woman. He and so many others in the Arab world can’t wrap their heads around the concept of a non-Zionist Jew. Decades of aggression perpetrated by the Jewish State, (Arabs do not see Israeli military maneuvers as virtuous acts of ‘self-defense’) coupled with Islamist propaganda, has put “anti-semitism” in the Arab World at an all time high. Is this what the Israeli government wanted all along?

I’ve never been more worried about what’s happening in the Middle East than now. Lebanon’s government and autonomy is falling apart… Dozens of dismembered bodies have been found in Baghdad over the past weeks, with Iraq diving into an even deeper bottomless well of despair… And the Palestinian problem looks farther away from a solution than ever before. And Bush still has the audacity to make like America’s invasion campaigns are successfully spreading democracy in the Middle East at his address during the UN’s General Assembly. “The Birth of the New Middle East” looks more like “The Murder of Arab Self-Determination”… We are so screwed. Not only by the US but also by our own deluded self-serving heads of states.

Forget about perceived divine victories. What we need now is divine intervention.

Hezbollah’s Victory Rally | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 10, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Published on GNN – Sat, 23 Sep 2006 15:59:36

Location: Beirut, Lebanon.

Nasrallah fans, young and old.

Got back to Beirut Wednesday… just in time Hezbolla’s post-war festivities!  My colleague and I braved the traffic to check out the “Victory Rally” in Dahieh on the 22nd.

People were pouring in by the hundreds, wrapped in Hezbollah flags and Nasrallah t-shirts. As I took photos, the crowd multiplied to what seemed like the size of a small nation-state (or a Madonna concert?).   We hung around the area for about 2 hours just taking it all in: Hundreds of thousands of men, women  and children chanting for Lebanon, Hezbollah and Hassan Nasrallah. The love for the man is clear, and above all, there’s a sense of deep respect.

I’ve watched interviews and listened to some speeches. Nasrallah’s charisma is undeniable (not to mention an adorable speech impediment that prevents him from prounouncing words like “Israel” properly – he says “Iswa’eel”). Despite the religious garb, his universal ideas of resistance and self-empowerment really resonate. When his eldest son died in combat against the Israelis in 1997, he declined an offer to have his corpse returned instead of living Lebanese prisoners. The legend goes that he felt his son’s body was not worth more than anyone else’s, for he was a son of the resitance.  The man has a proven track record: He says what he means and means what he says and that has won over supporters of various religious backgrounds and nationalities across the Arab World. Maybe even beyond.

Female supporters were everywhere.

When my colleague and I realized it would be impossible to get a glimpse of the Hezbollah leader, and maybe even difficult to hear his speech properly from the spot we found, we decided to leave and watch it live on Al Manar TV from the office. People were saying that Arabs from all over the Middle East had flown in to attend the event; This was Nasrallah’s first public appearance since the Syrian pullout last year.

Regardless of what his detractors say, one thing is for sure: Hassan Nasrallah has become the most captivating Arab figure of our times. That alone is a victory for Hezbollah.

Brand Power: Another defiant billboard from Hezbollah's slick "victory" ad campaign. (Yes, they hired an agency to produce it.) That's a photo of IDF soldiers crying.

Sick and Tyred | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 10, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Published on GNN – Sat, 16 Sep 2006 12:18:51

Location: Tyre, Lebanon.

Video Still: A Lebanese soldier stands by as Spanish troops arrive in Tyre, looking rather confused...

I’ve been in Tyre for almost a week now and my arrival was…well… anti-climactic. On the road from Beirut I was expecting Kabul when really I was in a Lebanese Sharm El Sheikh: One of the oldest port cities in the World, Tyre is a modest resort town with postcard perfect beachfront views and colorful seafood restaurants. It’s quite small though, our fixer drove me around when I first got here and pointed out a couple of buildings that had been deleted by the Israelis, but overall the city is alive and well with residents driving around in motorbikes and tourists (or UN officials / journalists who look like tourists) lazing about on the beach. However, the damage here is in the numbers, Tyre’s most lucrative season was out the window as of the 12th of July… taking with it millions of dollars. It’ll take quite some time for them to recover.

It’s been a bit boring working out of here, I’m getting more and more impatient with the urgency of covering ‘world news stories’ as opposed to more meaningful human interest pieces. But such is the nature of the news agency beast. The priority for us right now is European foreign troops coming in to reinforce UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon). Loud choppers and boxy armored vehicles zooming across the horizon everyday.

A lot of people here are happy that these so-called peacekeeping forces (note that they are armed to the teeth) are pouring into Lebanon, presumably to protect them, but many are dubious and sense that their presence here is purely in Israel’s defense. And I don’t blame them- a whopping 15 000 troops from various countries will be stationed in Southern Lebanon and from what I’ve seen so far, none of them are parking at the border: Their bases are mainly scattered below the Litani River.

Video Still: "Hola!" An amphibious Spanish tank emerges at the beach in Tyre.

The Spaniards made a bizarrely dramatic entrance yesterday right on the beach outside our hotel: Picture sun burnt ladies in bright bikinis and children frolicking in the waves. It’s high noon and all of a sudden these monstrous amphibious tanks adorned with machine guns emerge from the water in a convoy and cruise along the sandy shoreline in single file. Nearby a Lebanese dude in bermuda shorts gives the finger to the sky as Israeli jets crisscross above the clouds. Crazy shit!

Video Still: "Is this for real?" Two Lebanese kids look on as Spanish UNIFIL troops arrive.

I’ve been traveling around almost everyday to villages around Tyre and near the Israeli border (where there was a bizarre standoff between me, my Sony videocamera and two Merkava tanks across the valley in Markaba). It’s fucking heartbreaking. A more extensive look at the brutal destruction of Bint Jbeil in my next post.

Devastated Dahieh | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 8, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Published on GNN – Tue, 12 Sep 2006 04:41:19

Location: Beirut, Lebanon.

A local man takes a break from sifting through the rubble in search of his family's possessions.

What a week. I’ve been meaning to post something about Dahieh, the Shiite southern suburb in Beirut that’s the hardest hit place in the capital, but I’ve been working long ass hours ‘shooting’ reactions and useless pressers by useless political figures, scripting, editing. I’m also developing an advanced stage of lung cancer thanks to all the second-hand smoke in the office as well as my own addiction.

Dahieh was targeted because of Hezbollah’s heavy presence there: It’s the base for Al Manar (Hezbolla’s TV channel) and the party’s nerve center. Someone showed me what used to be Hassan Nasrallah’s home; now a knotted mess of concrete and steel cables. It’s only about 10 minutes away from the flashy cosmopolitan atmosphere of downtown Beirut. The drive down in itself is a remarkable journey of urban transformation, the closer you get the more spread out and “third world” the setting gets. You see less Barbie doll look-alikes and more women with veils. And gigantic red green and white Hezbollah billboards jut out of the horizon, towering over highways and underpasses declaring ” Ja’a nasr Allah” – which literally means “Allah’s victory has arrived’.

The campaign is so slick it seems as though the Hezb may have hired and ad agency to do the work. It’s interesting to see that they are using the colors of the Lebanese flag and not that of the party (green and yellow). But Nasrallah’s cherub-like face appears in every corner of Beirut, in dark alleys and on building facades, be it in the form of posters, stickers on cars and buses or t-shirts. In Dahieh he’s almost a prophet. Every interview I did with the residents began with heavenly praises for the leader- no matter what my questions were. But I digress… Dahieh is what I want to write about.

First off I have to say that I’ve never stood on land destroyed by modern warfare before aside from Iraq in the 80s- but I was a child then and all I remember is the gargantuan palm trees and the train rides between Basrah and Baghdad. Oh yeah, and the sirens at night.

I’ve been to Dahieh three times this week and neither these pictures nor the news items you see on TV can convey the enormity of the aftermath of the war… I’m talking mountains of gray wreckage and dust and broken buildings with exposed interiors of charred bedrooms and kitchens as far as the eye can see, and from all angles. It’s overwhelming. Most of the residents have been displaced in their own country. People are still sifting through the rubble almost a month after the ceasefire looking for their valuables. One of my colleagues, a French producer, was saying how shooting footage there is frustrating as you could never really show the world precisely how insane and extensive it all is when you have to frame it in a box. It’s so true and I would add necessary brevity as a major fault. The TV news format is so limited and disposable. And we all know how numb we become to images repeated on the news over and over again.

I will never be able to get my head around the idea of a country sending monstrous aircrafts into the skies of another country in the middle of the night to annihilate and destroy as many places and people below as possible. Collateral damage? How does that happen? How on earth is it acceptable to mankind?

Reconstruction is already underway though, as tractors and bulldozers loudly make their way around Dahieh. The initiative began with Hezbollah and I spotted a couple of Iranian flags flapping from some of the vehicles. More proof of Hezbollah’s Persian immersion.

The war was so blatantly disproportionate. I remember the TV stories that were coming out of Haifa and other northern Israeli towns and the Katyusha’s were like goddamn firecrackers compared to what the Israelis were dropping on Lebanon. And the panic and urgency beamed from CNN et al. just seems absolutely ridiculous when weighed against what thousands of Lebanese have lived and died through.

I interviewed a feisty veiled granny who was hobbling around a mound of debris and twisted wires. She was looking for her belongings with younger members of the family. When I asked her how she was feeling she fiercely replied: “This is the third time they destroy my home! I swear to God although I’m an old woman I’m ready to strap bombs around my waist and explode in Israel!”

What's left of a low-rise residential building...