Archive for July 11, 2014

Elisa Oddone

July 1, 2014

RUWEISHED, Jordan — Scores of armored vehicles and Humvees with mounted machine guns have replaced the swarm of truck convoys on the gritty Jordanian desert border with Iraq after Sunni insurgents reportedly captured key crossings to Jordan and Syria earlier in June.

At least 10 tanks were seen dotting the border town of Karameh after Jordanian army units had been put on a state of alert in recent weeks along the country’s 200-kilometer (120-mile) eastern border, one of the Middle East’s busiest trade arteries.

Officials said rebels took over two key crossings in the predominantly Sunni Anbar governorate in western Iraq, the Treibel crossing with Jordan and the Walid crossing with Syria after Iraqi government forces had pulled out.

Initial reports suggested that fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had taken over the Iraqi-Jordanian border crossing. However, Jordanian military personnel, speaking anonymously at the border, dismissed the claim, telling Al-Monitor that Iraqi troops loyal to the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were officially still holding the crossing point, though they suspected Sunni tribes were in control of the surrounding area.

“The border is the most important link in the national security chain,” commander Maj. Gen. Saber al-Mahayrah told reporters at the headquarters of Jordan’s border guard ahead of a visit to the border area.

“National interests go as far as securing the borders so that radical groups do not infiltrate neighboring countries. Our duty is to protect the kingdom’s border from illegal crossings.”

Despite possible threats, the border remains open.

“Those who want to travel from and to Jordan cross via legal areas can do it. Outside of these we would not allow anyone to come in or leave Jordan,” added Mahayrah.

Jordan, the most stable country in a region in turmoil and one of the closest US allies in the Middle East, faces threats on two of its four borders. The army has beefed up defenses on the kingdom’s 370-kilometer (230-mile) northern border with Syria, fearing the return of Jordanian Islamist fighters now seen as a direct national security threat to the country.

To the east, there is fear that ISIS fighters might try to cross into Jordan to expand their medieval-esque Islamic caliphate, wiping out the colonial borders they refuse to recognize.

ISIS has declared a caliphate in the territories it has seized across Iraq and Syria, renaming itself the “Islamic State” and proclaiming its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph of the Muslim world.

Jordanian Interior Minister Hussein Majali shrugged off the ISIS threat to the kingdom after the ISIS proclamation in a cabinet meeting behind closed doors June 30, the local media reported. The minister referred to a security buffer zone of around 400 kilometers (250 miles) separating Jordan’s border from the military operations inside Iraq.

The minister said he was confident about the kingdom’s capacity to deal with any attempt to target its borders from Iraq or Syria.

Since June 17, the army has boosted its ability to protect the Karameh border, 360 kilometers (220 miles) east of Amman, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the nearest civilian center and 560 kilometers (350 miles) from the Iraqi capital, after sweeping gains by the Sunni Islamist fighters inside Iraq.

“The border guards are living in a 24/7 state of caution supported by the Jordanian armed forces because of what is happening in Iraq. Our borders are safe and secure,” Mahayrah told reporters.

While armored vehicles were stationed at the Karameh border crossing, scores of open-topped Humvees, heavy machine-gun platforms able to carry anything from fully armed troops to anti-aircraft missiles, were seen on the road heading toward Karameh. Troops in battle dress uniform were seen patrolling the border outpost.

Officers refused to state the exact number of troops deployed, but told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that security had stepped up its presence along the long desert border, deploying dozens of British-manufactured tanks, rocket launchers and mortar guns.

“We are strengthening the presence of the forces on the border with both land and air units in case anything happens. But nothing has happened so far. We have not witnessed any clash,” a military officer told Al-Monitor at the border.

Traffic through the crossing is lighter than normal, but still flowing. Two single-engine Cobra attack helicopters hover low overhead to ward off any threat from across the border.

About 70 trucks could be seen crossing from Iraq in two hours, while less than 20 went the other way, Al-Monitor estimated. One driver said most truck drivers in Iraq were not working due to security concerns.

Ismail Kaoud, a truck driver arriving from the Iraqi town of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar governorate partly controlled by the militants since January, said he had not seen clashes or ISIS fighters on the road to Jordan.

“There is no ISIS. There were only tribal Sunni militias. Fallujah and Mosul are in the hands of militants. Maliki is inventing ISIS. The Treibel crossing is held by Iraqi forces and everything is normal. The Iraqi army is present on the border outpost with tanks and artillery. There is no ISIS on the border,” Kaoud said, indicating support for the Sunni rebellion.

No Iraqi has so far sought refuge in Jordan, said the officers. They said they were prepared in case refugees attempted to cross into the kingdom, citing concerns about a deluge of Iraqi refugees. The largely desert country with little natural resources has already been straining under the burden of some 600,000 Syrians fleeing the over three-year-old conflict, UN figures show.

Truck driver Obeid Mallah, from Baghdad, said the Iraqi police were in control of the crossing and that the highway between Baghdad and Amman was open. He sees no possibility of route closures.

“Crossing points were closed inside Iraq only for a couple of hours last week. Everything is back to normal now, except that it is very difficult to find fuel and prices surged inside the country. Work is fine. No one has threatened or attacked me on the road over the past weeks. Tribal militants are in control of the territory 150 kilometers [90 miles] from the border.”

Despite the threats from across the borders, military personnel showed little fear of the jihadist war entering their kingdom, saying, “There is no danger inside Jordan. Everyone loves [Jordan] and would step up to defend his country.”

But the military buildup along its border shows Jordan is not about to take any chances.

Source: al-Monitor.


Aaron Magid

July 8, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s leaders regularly highlight the country’s assistance to refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. Jordan’s minister of planning and international cooperation, Ibrahim Sarif, told The New York Times that the presence of so many refugees from Syria in Jordan is equivalent to “the United States absorbing the entire population of Canada.”

Jordan’s embassy in Washington consistently posts self-complimentary messages from its Twitter account, such as a July 2 tweet: “#UNHCR’s @And_Harper praises #Jordan for its continued aid to #Syrian #refugees despite hurdles.” Yet the Jordanian government’s discrimination against Palestinian refugees fleeing the war in Syria — both at the border and inside Jordan — presents an alternative narrative.

At the beginning of the conflict in 2011, Jordanian authorities permitted Palestinian refugees from Syria to enter the country. However, the situation soon changed in the fall of 2012. Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Amman, explained to Al-Monitor that the organization received reports at that time of Jordanian border guards refusing to admit Palestinian refugees from Syria. When the organization first approached the Ministry of Interior with its reports, the authorities denied the practice, Coogle said.

However, by January 2013 Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour finally confessed to the non-admittance policy toward Palestinian refugees from Syria, telling Al-Hayat, “Jordan has made a clear and explicit sovereign decision to not allow the crossing to Jordan by our Palestinian brothers who hold Syrian documents.” Discussing Jordan’s regional challenges, Ensour added, “They should stay in Syria until the end of the crisis.”

Even for those who do manage to enter Jordan, Palestinian refugees from Syria face a precarious existence. Since many Palestinians are forced to assume a false identity to enter Jordan or cross into the country through unofficial routes, Palestinian refugees from Syria are not able to attain legal residency. United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) spokesman Christopher Gunness told Al-Monitor, “UNRWA has received reports that [Palestinian refugees from Syria] have had their Jordanian documents confiscated when they approached government offices and when refouled (expelled or returned) to Syria.” Gunness noted that UNRWA has learned of over 100 such cases since the policy of non-admission began.

Jordanian parliament member Tarek Khoury expressed his frustration with the government’s handling of the Palestinian refugees from Syria. Given the danger that Palestinians face returning to Syria, he exclaimed in an interview with Al-Monitor, “They don’t care. They are telling him: ‘Go and die!’”

Rami, a Palestinian refugee from Syria, expressed similar disillusion with the Jordanian policies toward his fellow refugees. Rami requested that his full name not be disclosed due to the sensitivity of the issue. He crossed into Jordan in 2012, during the early period when Palestinians were still permitted entry. However, while his Syrian counterparts soon moved out of the temporary holding facility, Rami remained stuck in those crowded confinements. “[The Jordanian authorities] treated me like a war criminal,” Rami told Al-Monitor. “I did not know that being born to a Palestinian-Syrian father was a transgression.” He also noted that with the new non-admittance policy, his family remains endangered in Syria and unable to join him in Jordan.

In forcibly repatriating Palestinian refugees back to Syria, the Jordanian authorities “are in violation of the principle of non-refoulement,” emphasized Coogle. They are sending back refugees to a “place [where] they face persecution.”

Coogle also suggested that by refusing to admit Palestinian refugees from Syria, Jordan was in violation of its obligations as a signee of the International Convention against Torture. The treaty prohibits countries from sending individuals back to a place where they face a high likelihood of torture. Since torture is so “widespread and rampant” in Syria, Jordan’s insistence on returning Palestinian refugees appears to fit this scenario.

The 3-year-old civil war in Syria has significantly impacted all of its neighbors, especially Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom has absorbed approximately 600,000 refugees, of which 14,200 Palestinian refugees from Syria have asked for assistance from UNRWA, the UN agency that works only with Palestinian refugees. However, many more Palestinian refugees likely live in Jordan, as registering with UNRWA is not mandatory.

Although countless Syrians have faced dreadful conditions throughout the war, the Syrian government’s treatment of Palestinians has been especially gruesome. Syrian authorities have sporadically besieged the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, leaving the 18,000 inhabitants without food for days at a time. People living in the camp have been forced to eat animal feed to survive.

While many Palestinian refugees from Syria are living precariously in Amman, 190 of them are currently confined to a closed facility near the border town of Ramtha, also known as “Cyber City.” Gunness said that most of these refugees entered Jordan in 2012. They have remained confined here since the government ended its policy of allowing Jordanians to vouch for Palestinian refugees, as is the case with all other asylum seekers from Syria. Even when families are separated, the Jordanian authorities are unwilling to allow the refugees to reunite with their loved ones.

If refusing to admit Palestinian refugees from Syria causes such a humanitarian crisis, why does the Jordanian government continue with this practice? Jordanian society is divided between those of Palestinian origin and the so-called East Bankers. By absorbing another wave of Palestinians from Syria, this “piles onto the problem and makes it even worse,” Musa Shteiwi, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, told Al-Monitor. “Jordanians are worried about an influx of Palestinians because this will change the balance of power, demographics and the structure of the country.”

Despite receiving repeated inquiries, the Jordanian Ministry of Interior declined to comment for this article.

Noting the precarious treatment of Palestinian refugees from Syria, Gunness explained, “Palestinian refugees have fled the conflict in Syria for the same reasons as other civilians. UNRWA has appealed to the government of Jordan to provide Palestinian refugees from Syria the same humanitarian consideration provided to other refugees and allow them to enter and remain in Jordan without discrimination.”

Source: al-Monitor.


By Monia Ghanmi in Tunis and Siham Ali in Rabat for Magharebia


Ramadan television dramas are drawing a large audience in Tunisia, a success that many attribute to the shows’ bold take on modern social ills.

The series “Naourat al Hawa” and “Maktoub” shed light on several social issues experienced by Tunisian society, including the exploitation of street children, trade in human organs, organized prostitution networks, torture in prisons, as well as the promotion and consumption of drugs and alcohol among young people.

For 50-year-old housewife Aicha Ben Sassia, the topics are taboo despite the fact they are at the heart of the Tunisian reality and affect different groups and social circles.

“We do not disagree with the directors of these productions,” she said. “All topics that are addressed are rampant in our society, especially with the increasing crime in the country. We remain hopeful that these series and what they reveal will help push to reduce these problems and address them.”

Her husband Ahmed Souri, a bric-a-brac dealer, said, “I think that the series this year expressed the hidden social reality of Tunisia or what Tunisia wants to hide.”

“We need such purposeful work to reveal our truths that we should not be ashamed to address in public. This leads us to think about how to find solutions to our issues,” he added.

For his part, Majdi Jaouadi, a 27-year-old-doctoral student, commented that what was portrayed in the Ramadan dramas was the essence of the truth.

“The scenes of corruption, moral decay and suffering that have been filmed in the slums and high-end places, are manifestations of present in Tunisian society,” he stated.

“I wish these issues would be taken seriously and that attention would be drawn to them before further tragedies are caused,” Jaouadi said.

Despite these dramas’ positive reception by the majority of Tunisians, some scenes aired by the series “Maktoub” from inside prisons, which depicted the living conditions of the detainees and ill-treatment by agents, were subjected to criticism by the prison’s union.

The series gave an inaccurate picture of what is happening in prison, according to Makrem Chahbani, the assistant secretary-general of the Union of Prisons and Reform. He said that the content had nothing to do with reality.

Moroccan Ramadan TV lambasted by viewers

Ramadan is also the high season for Moroccan television production. Although the public criticizes the mediocrity of the new programs aired by Moroccan channels every time, they are still excited to watch the home-made shows broadcast during the holy month.

“The artists who mess things up and present a mediocre series or soap to the public must revise their working methods,” remarked Hicham Salmi, a public sector worker. “Their careers are at stake. It’s a big disappointment for us. But we mustn’t generalize. The TV films that have been shown so far have been of good quality.”

However, Communications Minister Mustapha El Khalfi has given repeated assurances about the quality of national programs broadcast during the holy month. During his most recent speech before MPs on June 24th, he explained that the ministry was gradually introducing competition to encourage an improvement in quality.

When contacted by Magharebia, some Moroccans said they watched Arab channels and shunned local ones.

“Why should I keep on watching mediocre Moroccan programs when Arab television channels offer me a whole range of things? And then there are the football matches that are broadcast by international channels, which many people love,” said Karima Sikhi, an accountant.

Source: Magharebia.


Cajsa Wikstrom

07 Jul 2014

Kiruna, Sweden – During this year’s holy month of Ramadan, when consumption of food and water is prohibited between dawn and dusk, how do Muslims observing the fast manage in the far north of Scandinavia, where the sun never sets?

An estimated 700 Muslims are spending Ramadan in the mining town of Kiruna, located 145km north of the Arctic Circle and surrounded by snowcapped mountains throughout the summer. Many of them are recent asylum seekers, sent to Kiruna while their claims are processed.

The sun stays up around the clock from May 28-July 16, which constitutes half of the fasting period this year.

“I started Ramadan by having suhoor with the sun shining in my eyes at 3:30 in the morning,” said Ghassan Alankar from Syria, referring to the meal just before dawn.

“I put double curtains in my room and still, there’s light when I’m going to sleep.”

Since there is no central authority in Sunni Islam that could issue a definite religious ruling, or fatwa, Muslims in the north are using at least four different timetables to break the fast.

Alankar sticks to Mecca time, Saudi Arabia, “because it’s the birthplace of Islam”. But he is worried about whether his fast will be accepted by God.

“I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing,” said Alankar, who arrived in Kiruna seven months ago after a hazardous journey via Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece. “Only when I’m in God’s house, if I make it to heaven, I will know.”

No dusk, no dawn

The start of Ramadan is determined by the sighting of the new moon, which  moves about 11 days back in the Gregorian calendar each year. About every 33 years, Ramadan falls at the same time.

A majority of those who fast in Kiruna follow the timings of the capital Stockholm, 1,240km further south, after being advised by the European Council of Fatwa and Research (ECFR), a Dublin-based private foundation composed of Islamic clerics.

“In Stockholm, there’s day and night,” Hussein Halawa, secretary-general of the council, told Al Jazeera, explaining the decision. He was personally invited to northern Sweden from Dublin this year to experience the lengthy daylight and give advice.

Idris Abdulwhab, from Eritrea, follows the ECFR fatwa, which means his longest period of fasting will be 20 hours.

“Zero, 15, 25 or 45 hours, it doesn’t matter as long as you believe in what you’re doing,” he said. “But we’re human beings; of course it’s hard sometimes.”

One of those who has chosen to fast according to the local prayer times listed online is Fatima Kaniz. In a homely apartment overlooking mountains and mining facilities, she prepares a Pakistani fast-breaking dinner, or Iftar, for 8:30pm as the persistent sun penetrates the window blinds. Oil sizzles in a pan as she drops in pakoras, a vegetable snack made with chickpea flour.

She recalls her first day in Kiruna five years ago, in June.

“I waited for the sun to go down so I could pray maghreb,” she said, referring to the sunset prayer. “I waited until 3am, until my Chinese roommate at the asylum centre found me and explained it was pointless to wait. I thought, ‘What kind of strange place is this?'”

The fare of the day consists of the Pakistani Ramadan staples chapati and pakoras served with raita, with the addition of Swedish fish fingers and lentil stew.

During two-thirds of Ramadan, following the Kiruna prayer times means that Kaniz fasts for about 18 hours. But due to the sun’s movements, she will fast for a whole 23 hours during one of those days.

“I live in Kiruna, and I pray according to Kiruna time all year round. Why should I change this during Ramadan and suddenly follow Stockholm?” she asked.

She followed the same system during four previous Ramadans – the last one also at the height of summer.

“Sometimes I got tired and took the bus home from work instead of walking, but otherwise, I felt fine,” she said. “But I looked at the clock many times.”

The weather in Kiruna varies widely during the summer months. Within a day, 25 degrees Celsius and sunshine can turn into 10 degrees and pouring rain.

December Ramadan: Perpetual darkness

When Ramadan falls in December, however, Muslims will face the opposite of midnight sun: polar night. For two weeks, the sun does not rise above the horizon.

“Why don’t they come to me to ask about Ramadan then?” asks Halawa of the ECFR. He said a conference will be held later this year to issue a winter timetable for both fasting and prayers.

Muslim prayer times also follow the sun – which means that during winter, all five prayers can fall within a time span of two hours.

Abdulnasser Mohammed, of Somali origin, was new to Sweden and Kiruna the last time Ramadan fell under the Midwinter night, in 2000.

“There was no really established Islamic organization at the time, or information on the internet. I had to make up my own rules”, he said. “I fasted for about five hours.”

Mohammed, who is now the chairman of the Islamic association in Kiruna, follows the fasting times of Istanbul in the summer, since Turkey is the Muslim country closest to Sweden.

But he explains, in his view, everyone is free to choose.

“Islam isn’t rigorous,” he said. “Ramadan is not about starvation or about inflicting injury on yourself. People must choose what works for them.”

Apart from the Syrians, who have fled the war in their homeland, Eritreans form the largest Muslim community in Kiruna.

Hawa Fidel and Alia Hassen host a plentiful Iftar at Stockholm’s fast-breaking time, 10:10pm, in the apartment they share. They have prepared seating on the floor and filled trays with sponge-like injera flatbread, spicy beef stew, pastries, and other traditional Eritrean food.

The men chatting in the living room are already planning their next communal meal. They have set up a system to share the costs fairly, with participants paying different amounts depending on their incomes. Some have jobs. Others, whose applications for asylum have been rejected, get by on a monthly $200 grant provided by the government.

“Eating together with friends remind me of Eritrea,” said Fidel, who is still waiting for permanent residency after living in Kiruna for three years. But she misses going to a mosque for tarawih, the special prayers at night during which long portions of the Quran are recited.

The Muslim community in Kiruna is using a hall in an apartment block as a mosque, but so far it is only open for Friday prayers.

On the first Friday of Ramadan, as the rain trickled down, about 40 men and four women, including Fidel, gathered there at Stockholm’s dhuhr prayer time.

Safwaan al-Taieb, who used to do the call to prayer in his neighborhood mosque in Syria’s Deraa before he fled the country last year, recited a melodious adhan.

Al-Taieb’s sister came with him to Sweden, but because she fasts according to Mecca timings and he Stockholm, they do not eat together.

Besides the rest of the family, he said the social nature of Syrian society is what he misses the most – during Ramadan and the rest of the year.

“In Syria, you don’t eat only with your family. Everyone is welcome, we bring plates of food to our neighbors, we invite others. If you do that with Swedish people, they think you’re crazy.”

“Next Ramadan, God willing, I’ll be back in Syria.”

Source: al-Jazeera.