Day 2, the group travels to some of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And meets with a very special Palestinian group called Encounter.
Day 2, the group travels to some of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And meets with a very special Palestinian group called Encounter.
Our Travel Study group just spent their first day in Israel. Janessa and Rick talk about their meeting with members of Combatants for Peace– former militants fighting on both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
President Obama addressed the nation with a short speech announcing his intent to destroy ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—the organization that recently beheaded two American journalists.
Stressing the threat the terrorist organization posed to American and Allied interests, Obama stated that he would ramp up airstrikes and send in additional troops. Though he promised that the US would not get involved with another ground war in Iraq, the President made it clear that he would pursue ISIL forces into Syria, where they are firmly entrenched.
The President also said that a coalition of neighboring and allied states would aid the effort to destroy ISIL—providing financial, military and humanitarian assistance. US Secretary of State John Kerry is gathering support for the coalition in the Middle East.
Urging congress to approve arms and training for moderate Syrian militants he said, “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL, but I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Obama has been heavily criticized for his seeming hesitancy to engage ISIL, but his decision to act has been met with acclaim from both sides of the aisle in Congress.
The Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team getting ready for training in Bamiyan. Photo: Mountain2Mountain
When you think of Afghanistan, what image comes to mind? We’re willing to be it’s not that of a woman on a bicycle. Regularly ranked as one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman, Afghanistan faces tremendous barriers in the way of social change and gender parity. While not technically illegal, riding a bike–among many other activities–is a taboo for women, and is not accepted by the vast majority of Afghan society.
But three years after becoming the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan in 2009, Mountain2Mountain founder Shannon Galpin discovered that alongside the Afghan Men’s National Cycling team, there were women and girls who were riding bikes too. Named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year, Shannon has been working in Afghanistan for seven years now with her non-profit Mountain2Mountain, which works to empower women and girls through biking in conflict zones where they have little or no voice. It was there that she and Let Media began producing Afghan Cycles, the incredible and inspiring story of Afghanistan’s National Cycling team. The feature-length documentary focuses on 4 of the 12 team members, how cycling has changed their lives, and how they are in turn changing Afghanistan.
“These girls aren’t just racers. It’s not about competing–it’s how do you use the bike to make change. And these girls in Afghanistan are proving with every pedal stroke that change is possible,” Shannon says of her work in this short video from Let Media. Independence and mobility, particularly in the form of athleticism, has been practically nonexistant for women in Afghanistan as deep-seated traditional and religious beliefs designate women to a specific place in society. But by giving women the means to ride bicycles, Afghan Cycles and its sponsor, Liv Cycling, are enabling them to create possibilities for themselves and to become more empowered than ever before. For Miriam, one of the team’s cyclists, she is pushing her society’s boundaries because she loves the freedom that the bike gives her; “the bike equals freedom.”
“These girls aren’t trying to be revolutionary,” says Shannon. “They’re riding the bikes because they feel they have the right to.”
Do the girls face danger or opposition? Absolutely. The girls and their families have been taunted, threatened, and harrassed by conservative elements of their communities who do not see their behavior as appropriate for a woman. But the girls are not swayed–they remain as dedicated to their passion as ever. “Biking with fear and trembling doesn’t work. When getting on a bike, one must throw these feelings to the wind,” Miriam tells the camera. With the encouragement of their families and coaches, as well as support from Liv Cycling, which has been providing bicycles and equipment to the team ever since it discovered Shannon’s program, Afghanistan’s female cyclists have started to spread their movement organically. “This culture does not exist here, but we want to bring it to Afghanistan”, one team member says.Their team is Afghan-born and Afghan-led, and has been pivotal in empowering girls around the country to embrace their right to get on a bike and ride.
“Bikes can be used as a vehicle for social justice–through the sport of cycling, these girls are going to normalize bikes for the rest of the country, enabling young girls to go to school on bikes, midwives to access rural parts of the community on bikes… bikes literally can change lives.” Five days ago, on August 30th, Mountain2Mountain held its first Global Solidarity Ride, where people around the world cycled in solidarity with the women defying the rules in Afghanistan. Over 70 rides took place in 19 countries, raising thousands of dollars for the women’s team. Among the international cyclists was 4-time Ironman winner Chrissie Wellington, who rocked the Afghanistan jersey while dedicating her Alps cycle to the Global Solidarity Ride!
It’s hard for us to imagine not being able to do something like riding a bicycle simply because of our gender. So to recognize the bravery of these women and their resilience in the face of adversity is to celebrate their growing sense of pride and empowerment. “Working with these women is so inspiring because they are literally risking their lives for the joy of riding a bike,” one Afghan Cycles filmmaker said. “These girls are sparking a revolution.”
Shannon shares in the team’s pride, and focuses on the resonating effects of their accomplishments on a much larger scale. “That feeling of freedom when we ride bikes is at the core of creating change, at the core of women’s rights. And so for me, and the work I do with these women, it constantly comes back to freedom.”
Afghanistan has a long way to go before reaching anything that approaches gender equality or an infrastructure capable of providing opportunities for women. But some of the biggest changes start small, with focused determination and passion. And the girls pedaling across Afghanistan are the voices of that change. “To get my country out of this darkness, I want to raise my country’s flag through my sport and show that Afghanistan has people like this living here,” one rider says. “We cannot become a hero by sitting at home.”
Want more female heroes? Read our stories and interviews with the first Saudi woman to climb Mt. Everest, Afghanistan’s first female street artist, the first captain of Palestine’s Women’s soccer team, and the founder of Iraq’s National Youth Orchestra.
Watch the Afghan Cycles documentary trailer here on Vimeo!
Find out about Strength in Numbers, Mountain2Mountain’s first domestic program focused on empowering at-risk women, survivors of violence, and female military veterans in the US.
Love cycling? Visit Liv Cycling, the women-specific cycling brand providing equipment, apparel, and bikes to the Afghan Cycles project.
Watch Shannon talk about her new role as a Liv ambassador and her work with Afghanistan’s female riders in this short video.
Check out Let Media, the production company behind Afghan Cycles, whose focus is social justice, engagement, and authentic storytelling.
Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers after recapturing Mosul dam from ISIS fighters overnight. Photo: Andrew Quilty, FP
***The Euphrates Institute is deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic killing of American journalist James Foley, who dedicated his life to exposing the suffering of the Syrian people. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, and may he rest in peace.***
The crisis in Iraq has grown deeper and more complex since the sweeping incursion of ISIS militants through nearly a third of the country over the last eight months. Recently, however, we have witnessed some positive developments in the form of military and humanitarian aid and high-level international cooperation to bolster local forces and save the lives of those at risk. Amid the myriad religious sects, alliances, charged narratives, and rapidly-shifting combat climate, it’s hard to stay up-to-date and accurate–so we’ve outlined the basics for you.
What is ISIS?
ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), is a former Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda that in April 2013 splintered off and expanded thanks to the crisis in Syria, spilling over the Iraqi border and recruiting thousands of Syrian rebels. Estimates number them at anywhere between 10,000 and 17,000 fighters. The group adheres to a hardline interpretation of Islam influenced by the Salafi movement, attacking, threatening, and murdering religious minorities and those who do not conform to their ideals.
Now estimated to have around $1.4 billion in money and assets, the Sunni fighters have been called the world’s “richest terror organization”, having obtained their funds from extortion, smuggling, looting, capturing oilfields, robbing banks, and seizing American military equipment given to the Iraqi army. This money helped their sweeping takeover of several Syrian cities from Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as well as the Iraqi cities of Fallujah last winter and Mosul—Iraq’s second-largest city—in June. Amid the chaos, the Iraqi army fled Mosul and its residents were left to run or face ISIS’s brutality.
ISIS has killed thousands of innocent people already, and continues to gain strength as it pursues its goal of an Islamic emirate comprised of Syria and Iraq. The group has not only defied the demands of Al Qaeda’s leadership to focus on Iraq and leave Syria to the extremist Al-Nusra front, it has also taken up fighting against Al-Nusra itself and other rebel groups. In the latest developments, ISIS has captured territory surrounding Mt. Sinjar in Iraq’s north, where it trapped thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority. Evidence has revealed brutal killings of Yazidis as well as Christians and Shi’a Muslims. These groups are in grave danger, and as of recent months, the international community is mobilizing in efforts to rescue these threatened communities and prevent more killings.
Who are the Yazidis?
The Yazidis are one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities, founded in the 11th century by an Ummayyad sheikh. Predominantly ethnic Kurds, there are about 700,000 Yazidis worldwide, and those in Iraq are concentrated in the north. Their religion takes on elements of Christianity, Islam, and ancient Zoroastrianism (the world’s first monotheistic faith), yet they are regarded as heretics and labeled “devil-worshippers” by Al Qaeda and ISIS, who call for their indiscriminate killing. The Yazidis have been subject to persecution for centuries, suffering numerous massacres while under Ottoman rule. Yet they have always been a peaceful people, isolated from their neighbors and tenacious in keeping their faith alive against repression and threatened extermination.
Iraq’s religious and ethnic composition is incredibly rich and diverse, and underlies the loyalties, rifts, and complex alliances and conflicts we see determining Iraq’s politics today.
What is at stake?
The long-term fear of Western officials is that ISIS will follow Al Qaeda’s trajectory of attacking overseas targets. However, one of the most crucial problems right now is the vast recruitment and eventual return home of tens of thousands of trained jihadists. The Syrian conflict is now host to the largest concentration of foreign fighters of any conflict in the Muslim world’s history, including that of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. An estimated 12,000 people have left their home countries to fight in Syria, and at least 3,000 of them are from Europe or the United States. And like Afghanistan under the Taliban, ISIS-controlled land will be a haven for terrorist activity.
ISIS threatens anyone who opposes its control and religious ideals, but especially Shi’a Muslims and religious minorities like the region’s numerous Christian sects and its ancient Yazidi population. Basic human rights for millions of innocent people are under attack and will continue to be eroded as the chaos spreads. Over 500,000 Iraqis have already been displaced from their homes as they flee ISIS’s terror.
The dissemination of fighters and weapons across Syria and Iraq threatens to dismantle any semblance of structure or government control that remains, culminating in the perfect conditions for ISIS to completely dominate the region. This is a terrifying thought for the international community and especially for the region, as the fighting could easily spill over to neighboring countries, continuing indefinitely and with irreversible damage to future generations.
How is the international community taking action?
While the conflict on the ground is very grim, we’ve seen some positive developments in the push against ISIS on both military and humanitarian fronts. Nearly two weeks ago, President Obama authorized US airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Iraq. Since then, Kurdish and Iraqi military forces have been able to push ISIS out of Mosul, securing the highly strategic Mosul dam and protecting the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
At the same time, thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar in Iraq’s north and surrounded by ISIS fighters managed to escape unharmed thanks to Kurdish Peshmerga forces, American airstrikes, a secret team of Marines and Special Operations forces sent directly to the mountain, and significant humanitarian airdrops. The United Nations just began a four-day airlift of humanitarian supplies like tents, medical aid, and food from Turkey and Jordan to the half-million Iraqi refugees in need. The World Food Program has already delivered over one million meals to people since the offensive against ISIS began.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards called the recent efforts a “very, very serious aid push and one of the largest I can recall in awhile.” Britain and France have agreed to send arms and munitions to the Kurdish forces fighting to protect Iraq’s north from ISIS, and Germany has promised shipments of nonlethal aid like trucks, tents, and bulletproof vests.
Amid all the chaos and killing, Iraqi gains against ISIS and the cooperation of international governments has sent a jolt of motivation to our allies in the region. The likelihood for prolonged involvement is high, but we are grateful for these successes and are hopeful that precise and targeted missions will continue to save innocent lives without slipping into mission creep.
This is not about Muslims versus Christians.
Too many “news” sources out there publish headlines and story titles juxtaposing Islam with Christianity as if the conflict were a simple binary. The narrative of the evil Muslims out to get Christians is simply wrong—to bunch all Muslims together as if they were a monolith is misleading and dangerous. These suggestions are loaded with sectarian sentiment and employed to elicit fear. For one thing, Christians are themselves are comprised of many different sects in Iraq, and they are not the only faith facing danger right now. Furthermore, ISIS is in no way representative of Muslims as a whole.
Is ISIS Muslim? Sohaib N. Sultan says a resounding no, in his article for TIME Magazine, “ISIS is Ignoring Islam’s Teachings on Christians and Yazidis.” He says:
“I join the chorus of Muslims worldwide, Sunnis and Shi‘ites, who oppose al-Baghdadi and ISIS as a whole. The killing and oppression of innocent people and the destruction of land and property is completely antithetical to Islam’s normative teachings. It’s as pure and as simple as that.”
Ramadan, which began June 29th this year and ended July 27th, is the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic calendar. For 30 days, 1.5 billion people around the world fasted and prayed in celebration, a requirement of the Five Pillars of Islam. The days and nights are filled with prayers and family gatherings, and when the sun goes down, the feasting begins.
This summer, I was fortunate enough to be in Tunisia, my current home, to experience the first few days of Ramadan. What I shared with my friends, neighbors, and the city of Tunis was absolutely priceless. For the first night of Ramadan, my landlord invited me for Iftar—the breaking of the fast—with his family. I decided I would fast for the day in solidarity, and man was it hard! But despite the difficulty of fasting for the first time, it gave me a surprising sense of peace and focus, and a greater appreciation for those who fast for much longer, whether by choice or by circumstance.
Just before sunset, the streets of Tunis became empty, and the air was buzzing with a quiet anticipation. I helped my landlord’s wife cook in the kitchen, and when the Azan—the call to prayer—rang from the mosques signalling the end of the fast, we shared dates, typically eaten all over the Muslim world to break the fast. That was followed by Tunisian seafood soup, chorba, a delicious fried pastry filled with eggs and tuna called Brik, lamb, chicken, peppers stuffed with ground beef called felfel mehchi, grilled vegetables, spicy keftaji, Tunisian cucumber salad, ojja, tea, lemonade, and of course, spicy harissa to put on top of just about everything. After the dinner, everyone made their way out onto the streets to meet with friends until the early hours of the morning, when they eat again, just before the sun comes up.
As if celebrating Iftar in Tunis wasn’t amazing enough, one week later I was back in Washington DC and was invited to break the fast with a childhood friend from Sri Lanka. This iftar was unique—everything from the food, the setting, the number of cousins present, and the communal praying was different from my Tunisian experience. There were so many friendly and welcoming faces of cousins, neighbors, aunts, and uncles that I could barely keep track. There was a communal prayer before the fast, with men in one room, and women in the other. We ate the most amazing food—fried pastries like samosas and pakoras, tomato salad, fragrant beef curry with rice, spicey chutneys, stewed lamb, deviled eggs, garlic naan bread, mango lassi, avocado juice, fresh papayas and pineapple, and so, so many desserts, ranging from traditional sweet puddings made from thin noodles and milk to tiramisu and cheesecake. I ate so much I couldn’t move.
Being surrounded by the passion and spirit of Ramadan in America’s capital was something really special, and for me, truly brought out the beauty of having grown up in such a diverse country. I wanted to know more about Ramadan from the people who have been observing it every year of their lives, so I interviewed a few friends. This is what I found.
What is your favorite thing about Ramadan?
“My favorite thing about Ramadan is the fact that we all help prepare the dinner together each night, to each person is their precise role, and after the breaking of the fast the fact that we are always reunited among our friends and family. It’s a wonderful ambiance.” –Sami, Tunis, Tunisia
“My favorite thing about Ramadan is that we eat together as a family every night, and that the medina just resonates with this festive ambiance of people playing traditional music. I love how everyone is busy eating in the areas of Sidi Bou Said, Lac, and Ennasr—this way I can ride my bike in all the other parts of the capital without worrying about traffic!” –Bacem, Tunis, Tunisia
“Ramadan is my favorite thing in the whole year. Everything tastes better, I can’t say just one favorite thing about Ramadan. I love the whole month, everything about it.” -Zeyad, Alexandria, Egypt
What is Eid?
“Eid is a religious event—it’s a Muslim celebration that marks the end of the fast of the holy month of Ramadan. It’s a sacred day in which tolerance, brotherhood, solidarity, and love are called for among people, and it’s a day of forgiveness and friendship.” –Sami, Tunis
What do you do to celebrate Eid?
“The preparations for Eid generally takes place in two stages: before and after the Eid. After getting ready, families go out together and buy Tunisian pastries like baklava, kaak warka, ghraiba… and we buy new clothes for the youngest children in the family. As a family we go and visit our oldest relatives, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and lots and lot of cousins, and we present them with wishes of a happy and peaceful Eid.” –Sami, Tunis
“Eid in Sri Lanka is slightly similar to Eid in the US. In Sri Lanka we have prayers in the morning at the Mosque, followed by a kutbah (sermon). We then spend the day visiting family members and exchanging gifts and money. In the US we also have prayers in the morning. My family, personally, has a huge gift exchange—kind of like Secret Santa. We pick the name of the person we have to get a gift for two weeks before and we exchange it the night of Eid. We still go for prayers in the morning, but my family has had an open house brunch for so many years now. Eid is all about celebrating and spending time with family, as well as being rewarded for our achievement of fasting the whole month.” –Tasnim, Maryland USA/Sri Lanka
What do you like and dislike about celebrating Ramadan in America?
“For an American Ramadan, I love that I have a lot of family here that makes it so fun! We are practically booked almost every night for Iftar (dinner/break fast) at someone’s house. Being with family is so important during Ramadan. In Sri Lanka I do not have as much family. One thing I dislike about Ramadan in the US is longer fasting times during the summer since the sun sets later—it really can make you thirsty!” –Tasnim, Maryland/Sri Lanka
What makes a Tunisian Ramadan unique?
“Tunisia has its own unique Ramadan in the sense that Tunisians have kept their own traditional preparations, their nocturnal festivities, the ambiance in the streets, the concerts, the festivals… But universally, it’s above all the impression of being in a brotherhood that prepares and lives an event together; a unity composed of many souls in different bodies attempting not only to create but also to live this event together.” –Sami, Tunis
With the spirit of Ramadan in mind, what are your sentiments and your hopes for the future?
“On the last day of Ramadan, my sister and I cried while breaking our fast. Not only because the holiest month was over, but because we are so blessed and sat around a table full of food, with all of our family members. A lot of people around the world do not have that blessing. This Ramadan was probably the hardest, with all the violence going on in Palestine. Each day I broke fast with my family, I almost felt guilty that I was happy, because there are so many children who do not have the simple luxury of family anymore.
Ramadan is not only about abstaining from food and drink—it is also about being grateful for what you have, and feeling the pain that people feel who have much less than you. Going through 30 days of feeling hunger pangs for 15+ hours a day is nothing compared to the things Muslims go through in Palestine and everywhere else around the world. While we sit around a table laid out for a king, about to break our fast, we thought about how there are children being killed, orphaned and so many injured, and all we could do was pray for them.
My hopes for the future is for the world to see Muslims for how they truly are and not what the controlled media portrays them to be, for people to not discriminate by the color of one’s skin, or by their religion. Most of all, I pray for the injustice and war crimes to be stopped.”
-Tasnim, Maryland/Sri Lanka
Here at Euphrates, we hope and pray for the same thing, and continuously work to spread the message of peace, of the common bonds between seeming enemies, and of tolerance. Our mission is to amplify the voices of moderation and of progress that the headlines often skip over, because they are numerous and hold unmeasured potential. With continual forward work, solidarity, and hope, we wish everyone around the world Eid Mabrouk, safety, and health.
The devastating headlines coming out of Israel-Gaza these past few weeks have evoked many feelings of hopelessness in, and for, the region. Yet here at Euphrates our aim is to call attention to hope that IS happening amidst this frontline fire. And so we’d like to share with you the examples of our first two “Visionary of the Year” recipients, a Palestinian and Israeli, who are refusing to despair, to give up, or to resort to violence even as they live day to day in the midst of this conflict. They are holding to the everpresent power of hope, and showing a way out of the never-ending cycle of hatred and conflict.
Sami Awad, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, is the Executive Director of Holy Land Trust. Earlier this week, Sami issued a five-point call to action entitled, “Entrapped in a cycle of hatred and the way out,” in which he called for “all acts of violence and aggression” to cease, as well as “the language of incitement and hatred.” He also states that it is time for a nonviolent movement to emerge which includes Palestinians and Israelis working together to address injustice and to “work together in building a new vision and model for peace, justice and equality” along with “a strategy that breaks down all the physical and psychological barriers that perpetuate hatred, anger and thus separation and violence–even if the removal of such barriers challenges the core political assumptions and ideological beliefs we carry and whose existence we think we need for our own survival.” Sami points out that this will require creating the “space for healing and transformation” within each community, and his organization is actively working on this component, in addition to bridge-building between the Israeli and Palestinian communities at the grassroots level.
Ronny Edry is an Israeli graphic designer who started the Facebook phenomenon Israel Loves Iran, which in turn inspired others to create social media groups, such as Palestine Loves Israel, Iran Loves Israel, and more. These pages provide an outlet for communication, humanization, and empathy for the other side in the midst of a climate that emphasizes dehumanization and isolation. Ronny is also spearheading the call for a ceasefire of the Israel-Gaza conflict.
A post on the page last week from a man in Gaza, named Eslam, shows the importance of maintaining these channels for communication and understanding:
“I’m from Gaza, I don’t want to die, I have a dream, I want to finish my university, bombs are everywhere, No place that I can be safe, Where I can be safe? In Israel there is a shelter under the ground in each home that can keep them safe, but here there is no shelter, and even if there is a shelter, f16 rocket can destroy anything. I wish my people could understand the idea of peace, we, the new generation in Gaza knows nothing about the Israeli people, most of us have never seen an Israeli, we just see your planes, bombs and other killing tools, and that’s the hatred language. I just see u in TV and internet and just the pictures of ur soldiers, I don’t know if u r humans have children and have feelings, Do u love and hate? Do u think?, Do u believe? I don’t know even u r human just like us or what?”
And here’s an example of one of the many comments in response to his post, this from Tania from Israel:
“Shalom, Salaam Eslam, I hope for your sake and your family that you are safe and this craziness will end and we can all find peace, we Israelis are told the same thing about palestinians- we are only shown pictures of your children with guns saying ‘kill Israel’ and your soldiers swearing they will die in order to kill us all. That is all we are told. But some of us know the truth that we are all human and most of us no matter where we live want peace and safety for our loved ones and for all people everywhere. We believe in peace. Thank you for sharing on this page.”
For information on other groups working on grassroots peace efforts:
The Parents Circle Families Forum – bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families working together for peace. Watch our interview in Bethlehem with members Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad, (also profiled in the documentary, Encounter Point.)
Combatants for Peace – an organization started jointly by former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who have laid down their guns to “fight for peace.”
Interfaith Encounter Association – dedicated to promoting peace in the Middle East through interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural study. Watch founder Dr. Yehuda Stolov’s Euphrates Summit talk, “Holy Land Peace: Easier than You Think”.
Open House Ramle – a peace education center in Ramle, Israel, founded by Dalia Landau, protagonist in the bestselling book, The Lemon Tree.
Jerusalem Peacemakers - a network of independent interfaith peace-builders dedicated to encouraging understanding and reconciliation in the Holy Land, co-founded by Ibrahim Abu al Hawa, who maintains a peace guest house in Jerusalem open to all and run entirely on donations.
One Voice is an international grassroots movement in support of a two-state solution.
MePeace.org - a network for peace with thousands of peacemakers.
Breaking the Silence - an organization of Israeli veteran combatants who publish testimonies of their service in the Palestinian Territories in order to stimulate debate and expose Israeli citizens to the occupation.
Just Vision uses media to highlight the power and potential of Palestinians and Israelis in the nonviolent action movement.
Join us on our trip to Israel, West Bank, and Jordan this September (15th-28th) to meet some of these groups in person and to support the voices of reason. We have two spots still available!
National Youth Orchestra of Iraq Founder Zuhal Sultan
It’s strange to be in a place of utter stillness and majestic beauty, with my heart filled with gratitude for the multitude of freedoms I’m enjoying this very moment, and yet to be so conscious of those who are suffering simultaneously on the other side of the globe. I spent this past Independence Day weekend in the Alaskan wilderness, hiking and camping with family, and taking opportunities to talk about the freedoms for which we’re most grateful—the right to pursue a dream, to travel at will, to have unrestricted access to information, to practice our religion openly, all while being free from violence and war, free of hunger, free really from want of any basic human need… it was a long list.
Yet all the while, slipping through pined forests, gazing into glacial streams, lifting eyes up to the surrounding mountain peaks, my thought was never far from the tragedies unfolding in Iraq and Israel-Palestine as my iPhone delivered post after discouraging post through social media from friends on the ground in all three places. How could I sit idly by while my Iraqi friends’ country is being taken over by terrorists? How could I ignore the descent of Israelis and Palestinians into yet another violent clash that is resulting in the deaths of many more innocents? How should I deal with the specter of a broader, regional, sectarian warfare that could endanger the wider world?
Not even in the remote and tranquil wilderness of Alaska am I truly unaffected by these problems “over there.” I pondered this as I greeted the young American soldier with two cutie pie little kids in the campsite next to us, and wondered if he would ever have to leave them to serve in another Middle East war. I thought about the petroleum filling our rented RV’s huge gas tank, and our dependence, in part, on the Middle East for its abundant availability. And I reflected on how all of us in today’s world are connected, that it is no longer an option to hope that our world’s problems will just go away, or to think it’s enough to leave their solutions to someone else.
It would be easy to feel hopeless about what’s going wrong in the Middle East; but perhaps what I can do now for a better way forward is to support those things that are going right. (Indeed, this is the whole point of Euphrates Institute!) Yesterday, despite our geographical differences, I was able to speak with Zuhal Sultan, a 22 year-old young woman from Iraq who started the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq when she was just 17. Zuhal is a pianist who had a dream to promote harmony and unity among her country’s youth by making music together. The result was an orchestra comprised of Shia, Sunni, Kurd, and Christian Iraqi young people who have, in most cases, learned their instruments through instructional YouTube videos, in lieu of more formal training options. Not a mainstream move for anyone in their society, the young women in particular face the risk of criticism and other threats since playing an instrument—especially one of the classical (Western) variety—has been deemed un-Islamic by extremists. Yet they have defied the dangers to come together over the past few years for a three-week music workshop to take lessons, receive coaching, play chamber music, and finally, to perform as a full orchestra.
The results are real, not only in terms of their improvement as musicians, but in the way each sees the other as Iraqi. This outcome has “kept me going”, Zuhal told me, especially in the past few weeks as she’s watched the country under siege from militants. “I have been so despondent, just laying in my bed and trying to process everything. Was I wrong to think people in Iraq could get along? Was all this work I’m doing in vain? But then I remembered all the results I have witnessed first-hand with the orchestra—how I have seen Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians all playing together in harmony. They don’t have a problem with each other because they see what they have in common. At first, they see that they are just playing the same music; and then they realize they might as well talk to each other. Then they see how much they have in common as young people, and as young Iraqis.”
Zuhal mentioned several examples of Arab-Kurdish reconciliation, of how a member from the south learned to speak fluent Kurdish because of the Kurdish friends she’d made in orchestra; of when the orchestra members were working to raise funds and there was an opportunity from some members of Kurdish parliament who were only willing to fund the Kurdish orchestra members, but the Kurdish players refused it, saying “No, we could never only get funding for us and not our fellow Iraqis! We are brothers!”
Unfortunately, the orchestra had to cancel its tour to the U.S., scheduled for this August, because the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had to reduce its staff due to recent events, and could not process the orchestra’s visa applications. On the home front, their efforts to hold a local concert were put on hold as well when the orchestra’s manager had to take some leave after his brother was kidnapped and murdered by insurgents. Despite these temporary setbacks, however, Zuhal and the entire orchestra cling to a bigger picture, and remain undeterred. “I will keep trying no matter what, and never give up,” she told me as our Skype call came to a close. “After going through so much, there’s little else you can lose. You have to just go for it and put it all on the line. I don’t mean to make light of the risk and the struggle. It’s not easy, but I feel I have no other choice.”
The latest issue of The Economist magazine caught my eye with its cover article: “The tragedy of the Arabs.” Here’s a snippet from the text: “…Ultimately fanatics devour themselves. Meanwhile, wherever possible, the moderate, secular Sunnis who comprise the majority of Arab Muslims need to make their voices heard. And when their moment comes, they need to cast their minds back to the values that once made the Arab world great. Education underpinned its primacy in medicine, mathematics, architecture and astronomy. Trade paid for its fabulous metropolises and their spices and silks. And, at its best, the Arab world was a cosmopolitan haven for Jews, Christians and Muslims of many sects, where tolerance fostered creativity and invention. Pluralism, education, open markets: these were once Arab values and they could be so again. Today, as Sunnis and Shias tear out each others’ throats in Iraq and Syria and a former general settles onto his new throne in Egypt, they are tragically distant prospects. But for a people for whom so much has gone so wrong, such values still make up a vision of a better future.”
Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of Zuhal and the orchestra, striving to make their voices—and instruments!—of tolerance, creativity, and openness, heard. And how we can work together to support each other in these shared values, even from opposite ends of the earth.
–Janessa Gans Wilder, CEO, Euphrates Institute
For more information about the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq:
If you’d like to help bring Zuhal and the orchestra to the United States, please be in touch with us for ways to help. Also, stay tuned for perspectives on the unfolding conflict in Israel-Palestine in the coming weeks.
Iranian forward Ashkan Dejagah during Monday’s match. Photo: northjersey.com
The World Cup is upon us! After four years of anticipation, the most-watched sporting event in the world is finally underway in Brazil. I’ve been keeping up with the games here in Tunis, and can proudly say I cheered my heart out (in a crowded café, alone) when Team USA won their first match against Ghana. This year, Algeria and Iran, widely considered the Middle East’s two best national soccer teams, are taking part. Algeria went from being ranked 103rd in the world by FIFA World Rankings to 22nd in 2014. Their first game against Belgium was a 2-1 loss, but the squad is optimistic about their next match against Korea on Sunday. Iran, the top-ranked team in Asia, has a particularly interesting story in the 2014 World Cup—its fourth ever—and it is much more closely tied to world politics than you might expect.
Back in November, we wrote about Iran’s recently-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, in our article US-Iran Relations: A New Optimism. While progress has been slow, there has been huge improvement in the nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran, and much greater cooperation and transparency than under the Islamic Republic’s previous president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Nevertheless, the myriad unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed by America and the EU in 2012 because of Iran’s controversial nuclear program have significantly altered Iran’s World Cup experience and prospects.
In the year between qualifying for the World Cup and the start of the competition, a team would typically play 12-15 warm-up games with other countries. Up until one month ago, Iran had played one. This is because the Iranian Football Federation has not been able to collect the funds it should have received from international organizations due to sanctions on several kinds of global financial transactions. There have even been reports that Team Iran was not able to purchase extra jerseys for its players, meaning the athletes could not exchange shirts at the end of games. These disadvantages have a big impact in Iran, where soccer is the most widely watched sport in the country. To give you an idea, when Iran qualified for the World Cup last year, the celebrations in the streets were roughly the same size as those that took place after President Rouhani’s electoral victory. Rouhani is well aware of this; which explains why one of his first high-profile international meetings following his election was with FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
Iran’s soccer team was ranked 1st in Asia and 43rd in the world by FIFA’s 2014 World Rankings. The limits put on the team because of international political dealings and the actions of its government seem very unfair, yet Iranians are still hopeful. Mehdi, a current Washington DC resident originally from Tehran, said, “It’s ridiculous that the team should pay for this. We don’t want political problems, we just want to have a chance and to share this with the world. Our team had less preparation than any other country, but they are still fighting hard. I have faith in them.” Dena, from Shiraz, said, “Iran’s team and all of our fans have nothing to do with the nuclear program. The World Cup is to unite, not to divide. I think Iran will have a great future in soccer when things get better with the talks. This year will be hard, but you never know what could happen!” And why not be hopeful—Iran’s last practice game against Trinidad and Tobago was a morale-boosting 2-0 victory for Iran—its first win in any World Cup warm-up match.
So far, Iran has played one match, against Nigeria. The result was a 0-0 tie. Iranian forward player Ashkan Dejagah said in a recent interview that although they missed two goal opportunities, they defended well. “Of course I am so happy for obtaining our first point in the 2014 World Cup”, he said. Despite the team’s economic and logistical setbacks, the whole country is watching with anticipation and excitement in the hopes that maybe, for the first time, Iran will make it to the competition’s second round. The team will go up against Argentina next, one of the world’s top squads, but Dejagah is optimistic. “It has always been a dream of mine to play in the World Cup, and I am proud to show off our football in Brazil”, he said. “Perhaps we will have a surprise.”
Taking part in the World Cup at all is already so much to be excited about, and Iranians all over the world are celebrating. In my hometown, Bethesda, Maryland, Iranian restaurants and kebab shops airing the games have been packed to the brim. My friend Michael, from Iran, said, “I don’t care about the politics and I don’t care about whether our chances are bad—we made it in and I am proud of my team no matter what! So let’s celebrate it!”
So I’ve been a freelancer of sorts since my arrival in Tunis last January–freelance writer, blogger, editor, teacher–and, as of recently, freelance model. Through friends, I met some people working in Tunisia’s fashion industry, and when I saw a casting call for Tunis Fashion Week a few weeks back, I though to myself… why not? (Actually, my first thought was, “Tunis has a Fashion Week?!)
I went to the casting with a friend, spent about an hour feeling rather intimidated by all the tall gorgeous Tunisian girls around me, but lo and behold, a week later, I got the call! Now, in what many locals here call “typical Tunisian” fashion, the event was scheduled for one week after we were notified of our casting, giving us a nerve-wrackingly short amount of time to rehearse, organize, and travel around the city to go to different designers’ fittings. At the fittings, I got to meet some of Tunisia’s well-established and up-and-coming designers like Ahmed Talfit, Leila Zrrim, and Tunisia’s number one designer, Haythem Bouhamed. Leila and I hit it off so well that she invited me to her family’s house for Ramadan next month! Score.
The week flew by, and suddenly the three days that comprised Fashion Week were upon us. The event was held at the Acropolium of Carthage, one of Tunisia’s most famous tourist sites, home to thousand-year-old
In the hours before the show, backstage was chaotic and exciting, filled with bustling press, cameramen, lights technicians, hair and makeup artists, designers, assistants, and a bevy of models. Most of the girls walking in the show were Tunisian born and raised, along with a few French, Polish, and Ukranian models… and one American,yours truly!
In Pictures: Backstage, Tunis Fashion Week
As the guests began trickling in for Fashion Week Day 1, it hit me that we hadn’t had a single practice walking on the runway… because it was still being built! “Ok, brace yourself Tasha, you can do this!” I told myself. I had walked in a few charity shows in college, but this was different! I started getting nervous–what if I tripped on my dress? What is something goes wrong with my clothes? What if I fall in my heels? Ahhhh!
Hair and makeup was done, we put on our first outfits, took a few selfies (naturally), the lights dimmed… and the show began. I let the music pump me up, and realized what a truly unique oppurtunity this was. “So, Tasha, don’t mess it up!!” I told myself. My walk was a blur–it went by so quickly, hundreds of people watching, cameras flashing–but I made it. And I didn’t even trip once! The adrenaline felt crazy and when I walked off the runway, I couldn’t stop smiling… Even if I did walk off on the wrong side.
In Pictures: Tunis Fashion Week Day 1
Days two and three included more rehearsing, which was great.You can see me walking in Day 2 here–look out for the bright pink pants! And here again in my very American attire repping our makeup artists, Mac Cosmetics. And for day three, BCBG‘s Max Azria–one of the biggest designers in the fashion world today–came to the show to watch his Spring/Summer 2014 line debut on the runway! As it turns out, Max Azria is Tunisian! Tunisia’s Minister of Tourism, Amel Karboul, welcomed him by praising his work and praising the work of all of Tunisia’s budding designers, artists, and models–“Fashion”, she said, “is the democratization of art.” At the show, people came from all over the world and from all backgrounds to celebrate creativity and beauty. No attention was paid to race, religion, or sexual orientation–we were all there to celebrate hard work and ingenuity and to marvel at all the diverse and stunning work that came out of such a tiny country.
In Pictures: Tunis Fashion Week Day 2
Ahmed Talfit, one of Tunisia’s top designers and the sole male designer represented in Muscat Fashion Week 2013 in Oman, said previously, “The most important thing is that we all come together to do something positive for Arab women and regional fashion. To empower and raise the importance of women in society – that’s our collective purpose. I’m committed to making women as beautiful as possible, emphasising their elegance and determination.”
Watch all of the catwalk shows and check out all the designers from Tunis Fashion Week 2014 on the Fashion Week Tunis Facebook page! To all of the designers, models, makeup and hair stylists, photographers, technicians, organizers, stressed-out fashion interns, and press… Bravo, and see you next year!
-Natasha Turak, Euphrates Publications Director