Culture

A delegate at the Supporting Syria conference checks out an immersive story - Clouds Over Sidra - following the life of one young Syrian refugee living in Za'atari Camp in Jordan. Source: UK Department for International Development

The proliferation of social media and smart technology has helped not only raise awareness of refugee’s plight around the world but also to assist refugees by facilitating communication between family members as well as sending remittances. It has also proven to be an invaluable tool in helping refugees navigate their way through countries and to determine displaced population sizes. Recent technological advances have changed the way we view and experience videos and movies. But so-called “new technology” like Virtual Reality and Drones also plays a part in humanitarian issues. It is able to provide an important layer to humanitarian assistance; Virtual Reality and 360 movies, for example, are known as the “Empathy Machines,” as they are able to transform a mere 2D movie into an all-encompassing experience. The hope is that by doing so, policy makers and audiences are more aware of the often-lost nuances of displaced populations and focus not on providing more aid but more effective aid.

With approximately 4.7 million registered Syrian refugees in the world and millions more displaced, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has developed a unique and efficient way of registering the Syrians. Registering people is a necessary means to understanding who’s entering the country and who’s leaving, especially in the current climate with Syria when so many are choosing to leave neighboring host states and leave for Syria or other parts of the world. Until registered, the asylum seekers are not refugees and thus not entitled to any protection or services and assistance, like shelter, food, healthcare and education.  Instead of using photos and pieces of paper that are often lost or damaged, UNHCR has started to employ iris scans, similar to those seen at airports. More than one million Syrians have already been registered using this technology. Only taking 2-3 minutes compared to half an hour for more conventional methods, electronic registering uses a database can help NGOs and other international bodies involved in the response to monitor aid and personnel more efficiently. Using this technology is certainly an improvement from certain past practices, like that of Czech Republic, when officials wrote numbers on the refugees’ arms in order to register them. This was internationally slammed, as it drew comparisons to Nazis registering Jews in concentration camps during World War II.

Zach Ingrasci, Co-Founder of the company Living on One, explained in a phone interview that using biometric registration methods stems from realization by the United Nations that after registering displaced populations in Pakistan, “[the agency] was missing a large part of the population.” However, problems still persist, as diasporas can be not only afraid of the technology but also uncomfortable of the people doing the registration. Therefore, Ingrasci clarified, it is vital that the process has to be culturally sensitive.

“[Virtual Reality] is not a video game peripheral,” declared Chris Milk, the founder of VRSE, a production company that specializes in Virtual Reality spherical filmmaking, during his TED Talk entitled “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine” in 2015. “It connects humans to other humans in a profound way [that has never been seen before] in any other form of media.” In his talk, Milk also describes his work with the United Nations on developing a movie called “Clouds Over Sidra,” about a 12 year-old girl from Southern Syria named Sidra who now lives in Za’atari Refugee Camp in Northern Jordan. The movie documents her life from studying in her caravan, eating with her family and her journey through the camp to school. Milk emphasizes that by viewing this movie through Virtual Reality, it does not just allow you to watch Sidra’s daily life and her struggle, it transports you to her world; you are sitting there with her in her school, in her room and with her family. It is, as Ingrasci explained, “the most immersive experience we see out there.”

Ingrasci and his co-director on “Salam Neighbor” (available on iTunes now), Chris Temple, have also recognized the importance of new technology in refugee situations. Together with the HuffPost RYOT, they created the documentary “For My Son” and a six part series called “Jordan’s Refugee Crisis,” both of which are shot and can be viewed in 360 degrees. They realized that it is important not only to raise awareness of the plight of refugees in camps but also to humanize the extreme journeys people make from their home towns to urban host communities, where approximately 80 percent of the Syrian refugee population live.

By bringing an Oculus Virtual Reality headset on their nationwide tour of the acclaimed “Salam Neighbor,” Temple and Ingrasci have allowed thousands of people to not just learn about the Syrian refugee crisis from watching the news and reading about it but also to experience it. “For My Son” tells the story of Firas, a Syrian from Dara’a, and his escape from the country, his reunification with his family in Za’atari and the birth of his now two-year-old son, Mohamed. Audiences that have watched the movie using the Oculus Virtual Reality are able to feel what it’s like to be in Aleppo that is now a desolate city, filled with concrete buildings destroyed beyond recognition with sniper shots audible in the background (using footage shot by HuffPost RYOT), as well as walking through the bustling main street of “Champs Elysées” in Za’atari Camp.

It can often be easy to forget the normalcy that the refugees faced before the conflict, especially for policy makers and given recent rhetoric. But instead of just producing these films for the wider public, Milk, who has started projects using VR in Liberia and elsewhere around the world, brought “Clouds Over Sidra” to the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. By letting those who can really change someone’s life (for example the United Nations) see how people are impacted, the hope is that policy makers are not as disconnected and can gain a more nuanced understanding of the plight of refugees, especially if they are not accustomed to being on the ground helping with the implementation of policies and aid.

So, if people are aware of the positive impact that Virtual Reality and biometric registration can have on humanitarian situations, what is stopping their wider implementation? First, cost. The three pillars of humanitarian assistance are food, shelter and healthcare. Getting people basic necessities to as many people as possible to ensure daily livelihood in an effective way should be at the forefront of every actor in the international refugee regime. While drones can be used to deliver aid into besieged areas of Syria without having to force a ceasefire or bribing officials, the cost of developing sufficient drones should not be the priority. Furthermore, this technology is still new; it is still developing. Ingrasci explicates that, especially when shooting in 360, there can be problems carrying around six Go-Pros and stitching the different videos together. However, the novelty of the technology also makes it exciting; it means that there is so much more experimenting to be done and that the boundaries of storytelling can be pushed even further.

But as much as we should work to use technology to humanize issues, we also have to temper our moral duty to help with mutual respect. As with registration, it is important to be sensitive. Without cultural understanding or approval by the communities we hope to understand, filmmakers could give the impression of being invasive, selfish and merely going into camps for the sake of “refugee tourism.” Ingrasci and Temple have recognized this importance and brought the final version of “Salam Neighbor,” along with VR technology, to the refugees in Za’atari to ensure that everyone involved approves and is comfortable with the product. Rauf – a Syrian boy featured in “Salam Neighbor” – as Ingrasci explains, loved being transported to and exploring areas beyond the confines of Za’atari Camp.

The aim of using new technology in humanitarian situations is to remind everyone that refugees are neither mere statistics, animals in a zoo nor chess pieces whom higher powers determine the future for. Refugees are human beings just like you and me whose lives have been turned upside down because of, most often, political conflict. Rhetoric can sometimes contradict and blur these notions and I believe it is the job and obligation of humanity to remind people that we are all the same. It is our duty to break down the boundaries and obstacles preventing delivery and implementation of effective aid, to tear past the fake preconceptions that refugees are poor and terrorists, to show compassion, to act, to serve and to ensure that nobody has to endure unnecessary hardship and discrimination and using new technology can only help in the process.

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By Benjamin Lutz

Artist rendition of the al-Wakrah Stadium, designed by the late Zaha Hadid. Source: Zaha Hadid Architects

On December 2, 2010, the global community was shocked at the announcement of the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup – Qatar. Its extremely hot temperatures make Qatar a surprising choice to host this international event, with many alluding to corruption from FIFA and Qatar. Furthermore, Qatar is the smallest country in terms of landmass to host this international event, another concern due to the huge crowd that comes to enjoy the World Cup. Apart from the logistics of hosting the World Cup, many more have condemned Qatar for the ghastly conditions that migrant laborers face as they build the twelve stadiums, as well as a new airport, roads, hotels, and other infrastructural changes to prepare for 2022, billed at over $140 billion. Well before the 2010 announcement, human rights groups advocated for a change to Qatar’s system for employing migrants. The name of the current system is kafala, a system forcing all migrants to be sponsored and subsequently tied to an employer. This employer controls housing, wages, travel, and the well being of each employee. The kafala system has been frequently described as modern day slavery due to its exploitative nature. Forced labor, unpaid work, confiscation of documents, and withholding food and water to the migrants are a few of the mechanisms of control the employers enact over the migrants under the kafala system.

Workers mainly from South and Southeast Asia travel to Qatar with the hope of a securing a job in order to send remittances back to their families, but the kafala system traps them under the purview of their employer. The 2022 World Cup announcement has seen a significant rise in migrant workers coming to Qatar, creating a larger humanitarian crisis for the living and working conditions of the laborers. Qatar has not changed its policy of the kafala system since it became host of the 2022 World Cup, even with the additional international scrutiny towards its government. If Qatar does not change its policy before 2022, an estimated 4,000 migrant workers will die, making this event the deadliest in sporting history.

Qatar does not view the kafala system as harmful or exploitative. It continues using it because it is an efficient way to have cheap labor in many economic sectors of their country, especially construction. Consequentially, Qatar has a lopsided population; only about 10% of the population is made up of Qatari citizens. The other 90% are expatriate migrant workers with temporary residency status, which accounts for 94% of the workforce in Qatar. Overall, the living and working conditions for migrant laborers are deplorable, and with the announcement of the 2022 World Cup, the situation has only worsened, contrary to Qatar’s claims that it has altered its laws to accommodate the wishes of the international community.

In preparation for global sporting events, migrant workers are frequently exploited through stealing of wages, excessively long working hours, potentially deadly working and living conditions, and the restriction of free movement. Qatar’s unquenchable ambition to dazzle the world with modern stadiums and infrastructure leads to an increase in migrant workers, succumbing them to systemized exploitation under the kafala system. The conditions to house the migrants working on these new projects are filthy, cramped, and dangerous, and even without the pressure of the World Cup, hundreds of workers die each year from work accidents. In perspective, one death in preparation for a sporting event is a tremendous disappointment for the host country; according to some sources, 1,200 migrant workers in Qatar have already died as a part of the 2022 World Cup preparation. This figure is presumed to be much higher, although the Qatari government is adamant that no workers have died in the various construction projects. Without pressure from FIFA, Qatar is under no pressure to alter its policy. In terms of World Cup logistics, FIFA has been extremely proactive to enable Qatar to host the World Cup, especially taking the unprecedented step of moving the tournament from summer to winter. FIFA’s overall lack of a direct response to the violations occurring in Qatar, allows the kafala system to continue to thrive and exploit thousands of vulnerable migrant workers each year.

Death toll up until March 6, 2013. Source: Huffington Post UK
Death toll up until March 6, 2013. Source: Huffington Post UK

With the 2022 World Cup preparation currently ongoing, now is the time to advocate for a policy change to labor laws in Qatar. The 2022 World Cup is six years away, and with no immediate plans to relocate to a country with less human rights violations, more migrant laborers will travel to Qatar to construct the infrastructure needed to host this large event. However, the number of deaths from the December 2, 2010, announcement until today is growing, highlighting the fact that international sporting events have a higher cost than just the financial burden. Minimum wages, transparency, an increase in both the quantity and quality of labor inspectors, and free movement are all rights granted to migrant workers. Qatar must stop exploiting these vulnerable populations simply to make a profit, regardless of their status as the host of the 2022 World Cup. The kafala system is not only in Qatar, and these recommendations must be duplicated to any other country violating the rights of migrant laborers. Hopefully, the 2022 World Cup will not be “built on the bones” of 4,000 vulnerable people.

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By Patrick Lim

We’ve all seen the pictures of the mass exodus of Syrian refugees fleeing across the Middle East and washing up on the shores in Europe; we’ve all read about their stories, their losses and their struggle to hold onto a modicum of hope; and we’ve watched and listened to videos of refugees stuck in camps, who wonder day after day what tomorrow will bring and if they will ever return to their home country. Yet, these are not the only media through which the world can only begin to try and to understand the plight of Syrian refugees, or even refugees for that matter. Art and culture can be a way of understanding the different nuances to the conflict and to the sentiments of the people. In particular, it may be a way for them not only to survive the situation but also to voice their true opinions that have been stifled by authoritarian regimes for decades and to challenge the current conflict situation.

"Down with Bashar"
“Down with Bashar”

Specifically in the context of Syrian art, the audience is able to gather an insight into what the population thinks of the regime. According to the book Syria Speaks, at the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria, the people thought that their revolution would be different to other countries’ and embarked on portraying their feelings in songs, posters, performances and videos, which shied away from using words such as “conflict” and “civil war.” The artists believed that art is a tool of resistance, which is vital for social justice, something that they had lived without since before Bashar’s reign. Some recent graffiti depicts Assad’s face with the captions “Step here” or “Down with the dictator.” Syrians have also resorted to expressing their opinions of Assad, his regime and the revolution in the form of tiny puppets in the video series Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, produced by an anonymous group of Syrian artists known as Masasit Mati. Available on YouTube, the episodes show Assad or “Beesu” to be at the mercy of his shabih or military commander, as he blubbers like a child with multiple swipes being taken at his lisp and the incompetency of his cabinet. Although the series employs dark humor to voice the anger of the people at Assad’s nonchalance about killing people in the episode Who Wants to Kill a Million?, Masasit Mati is able to portray the importance of women and how this revolution is not just about Muslims against Assad but for all sects, religions and genders.

Syria Speaks also talks about the role of children or young people as recurring motifs in revolutionary art, such as those that we see now. Their prominence may demonstrate the extent to which they have been affected by the conflict. However, it may also be a way that this art form remembers and relates to the past. Youth played a role in other uprisings, notably in the first Intifada. A recent Syrian poster shows a double image of a young man throwing a stone with the caption reading: “The Palestinian spirit is in every revolutionary;” thus, linking the displacements of the Syrians and Palestinians. The former group has even been known to have publicly stated that they are now experiencing what their relatives went through several decades ago and, in an act of solidarity, understanding their relatives’ plight. But not all the art relates to past similar experiences. Syrian art also depicts the people’s perpetual frustration under both Assad regimes, going as far back the 1982 Hama uprising with several other pieces showing how the people have grown up in a militarized society. Furthermore, whenever they believe that they have escaped, they find that they are actually still stuck living under a dictator.

Yet, revolutionary art is not only a way for us to understand current attitudes and as a means for the people to remember the past but also to express their future. Groups such as Lens Young Homsi, Lens Young Dimashqi and Lens Young Idlib, are a group of young men and teenagers who have captured life in Syria through photographs taken on mobile phones or cameras. Their pictures show the destruction of cemeteries, homes, and lives and graffiti in Homs that says: “We were forced to leave, but we leave our hearts here…We will return.”

"Homs, we'll be back." Source: Freedom House
“Homs, we’ll be back.” Source: Freedom House

Creativememory.org is a unique database that has collected hundreds of videos, paintings, comics and graffiti created by Syrians during the revolution, and which aims to “preserve the Syrian memory, a duty because of its total consideration of historical accounts of all Syrian people.” In addition, last week, the 2nd Annual Art in Exile Festival at the Goethe-Instiut in Washington DC featured artists, photographers and filmmakers from the Middle East who will narrate the story of generations of refugees in the region. Called “Art in Exile: Voices from the Middle East,” this three-day long event included movies such as We Cannot Go There Now, which focuses on Palestinians who have fled Syria to seek refuge in Lebanon and Our Terrible Country, which tells the story of an academic’s journey through Syria, even into Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State’s operations.

While we read and watch stories of the Syrian refugees in the media, we must remember that these only present a limited picture. We have to look at various forms of art and their rhetoric – from photographs, graffiti, songs and videos – to truly understand how these frustrations are not only because of the revolution but have been building up over decades due to the authoritarian Assad regimes. We are able to further gain an insight into what these refugees are thinking by seeing how they relate the past of their relatives from Palestine to their current experience and how they express their hopes for the future.

By Kate Moran

Photo Credit: Flickr/GlobalPanorama

If you’re like millions of Americans, you were anxiously anticipating the Season 5 premiere of Homeland, which aired last night on Showtime. I too, couldn’t wait to tune in. For months, I’d been looking forward to Carrie Matheson’s return to primetime with her motley crew of CIA agents and agency assets.

But despite my love for the show, I’ve always been rather uncomfortable with Homeland’s portrayal of the Muslim world—from Arabs to Iranians and Pakistanis, the show’s most ubiquitous archetypes consist of angry, radicalized, bushy-browed men with hooked noses, and beautiful, veiled women who seem desperate to break free of the bondage of their fathers and brothers. It’s assumed that these caricatures are synonymous with Muslim culture at large.

And with the Season 5 premiere opening in predictable fashion—an ominous-looking man of clearly Middle Eastern descent skulks through a German train station and finds his way to a brothel—it got me thinking about the ways in which Western media and entertainment demonize minorities and perpetuate the cycle of marginalization that has led to a rise in Islamic extremist attacks in Europe.

Almost every crime and drama show produced in the post-9/11 era has contained some form of ethnic demonization—often blurring the lines between religion, culture, and nationality to forge a grotesque stereotype of “Muslim.” To those seeking to make a profit, misrepresentation of Muslims and an ever-increasing portrayal of a singular storyline—namely Muslim terrorist—is of no consequence. But what producers and screenwriters and even the actors themselves don’t realize—the vast majority of whom are not of Muslim heritage—is that the continued demonization and marginalization of Muslims in entertainment fuels extremist ideology and perpetuates a culture of “otherness” that is a main reason for the lone wolf attacks we’ve seen in recent months carried out by Islamist militants. Studies as early as 2007 show the negative effects of such social marginalization in EU member states; in every instance, increased marginalization was linked with upticks in violence by members of marginalized communities.

Sure, Homeland (and the dozens of shows like it) might make great television. But if these shows are also sowing seeds of extremism, is it worth it? A recent study published by Pew reveals that by 2050, Muslims will make up 30% of the global population, with 2.8 billion adherents. This number will essentially be on par with the global Christian population, which will comprise 2.9 billion followers at 31% of the population. By 2070, the world’s Muslim population will eclipse that of Christians. And in places like Europe, where birthrates have been rapidly dropping (and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future), these demographic shifts will appear even more drastic. By 2050, the Muslim population on the Continent will have doubled—to almost 10%; that’s 7.8 million believers.

Practically speaking, these numbers mean that continued marginalization and demonization of Muslim communities is a bad idea. This is neither new nor revolutionary information, but it seems to be the case that it must be reiterated nonetheless. Simply put, we are directly and significantly contributing to a culture of Islamic extremism in Europe and the United States by continuing to endorse and financially support the marginalization, discrimination, and misrepresentation of Muslims in our media and entertainment.

We cannot escape the implications of our actions; by watching television shows and movies that seek to portray Islam in a negative light and by failing to take a stand against blatant Islamophobia in our culture, we are paving the way for increased attacks—not just abroad, but in our own communities. By refusing to educate ourselves and provide a better path forward for the generations who will come after us, we are perpetuating a world order in which ignorance will fuel greater discrimination and greater violence. And this is why, despite my love and devotion to the first four seasons of Homeland, I won’t be tuning in to Season 5. Sorry, Carrie, but Islamophobia’s not cool. Instead, I’ll be putting my money (and my Netflix binge sessions) to better use by supporting filmmakers and arts projects that promote cross-cultural dialogue, not division, and who refuse to take the easy way out by relying on old, tired tropes that were never relevant in the first place.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Turkish Coffee. Source: Justin Schler/Flickr.

“There’s a woman in a long, flowing gown waiting. You are about to meet someone who is about to change your life for the better.”

“Clouds line near the rim of your cup. But I see that they bring showers of good fortune that should revitalize your life.”

“Ah! You will have many people around you supporting you in your life’s journey. The coffee grains at the base of your cup are really concentrated.”

These were just some of the things that were said as we practiced the art of fortune-telling after drinking our Turkish coffee. I was attending a short workshop last weekend on this centuries-old tradition organized by ATA-DC, the American-Turkish Association of Washington, D.C., in the run-up to the 11th Annual Washington DC Turkish Festival that they will be hosting later this month. In a span of an hour, we were taught some basic ways to interpret the shapes of the remaining coffee grains after someone has drank his or her cup of Turkish coffee.

Indeed, drinking Turkish coffee and fortune-telling are virtually inseparable activities in Turkey. Although there are some who pursue this art of fortune-telling from coffee cups professionally, many Turks often do it casually between friends as a means—in the words of this Al-Monitor article—“to extend conversation and intimacy.” In fact, there is a Turkish proverb, “Bir fincan kahvenin 40 yıl hatırı vardır,” which can be loosely translated to mean “a single cup of coffee being worth forty years of friendship!”

The “Turkish” in Turkish coffee derives from the method of preparing the coffee, rather than the origin of the coffee beans used to make the coffee. As a matter of fact, coffee has never been grown in Turkey. The practice of coffee drinking first originated in Ethiopia, which then spread to Yemen, and subsequently throughout the Ottoman Empire. It was during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire that the specific method of preparing what is today known as Turkish coffee was perfected.

Turkish coffee is prepared first by grinding freshly roasted coffee beans into a fine powder, before mixing it with water and sugar, and then brewing the mixture slowly over a low flame. This is traditionally done in a cezve, a copper pot with a long handle. The indication of a good brew of Turkish coffee lies in the presence of foam, and many often spoon the foam directly into the cups as the coffee is slowly brewed.

In Turkish marriage custom, a prospective bride is expected to prepare and serve Turkish coffee to the groom’s family. At the same time, however, the prospective bride may also add salt instead of sugar to the groom’s coffee to gauge his reaction. If the groom does not complain, he would be deemed by the bride as good-tempered and patient, and hence, suitable for marriage.

The tiny cup of Turkish coffee has also not been immune to the vagaries of politics. Its name itself is a site where larger political tensions have manifested. For instance, in Armenia, where the memory of the mass killings of Armenians that occurred in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire still looms large, there is no Turkish coffee, only Armenian coffee—although the two coffees share essentially the same method of preparation. As the author of this Roads and Kingdoms article quipped about ordering coffee in Armenia, “I am triply careful to stress the drink’s fundamental Armenian-ness—Shat haykakan Soorj, Hayastanum, Hayastaneets (very Armenian coffee, in Armenia, from Armenia).”

In Greece, where Turkish coffee is widely consumed, the name “Turkish coffee” became heavily politicized after the Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974. What was essentially Turkish coffee acquired a new name, Greek coffee, in the upsurge of nationalism and anti-Turkish sentiments that followed Greece’s fallout with Turkey over the Cyprus issue. For one, the Greek coffee company Bravo started a successful advertising campaign titled Emeis ton leme Elliniko (We Call It Greek) following the Turkish invasion.

The name of Turkish coffee aside, the place of coffee in Ottoman society had been politicized too. As drinking coffee being increasingly popular in the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century, the ulema, the body of Muslim scholars, sought to ban coffee on the basis that it was an intoxicant prohibited by God. That said, it was more probable that the ulema felt their authority threatened by the growing spread of coffeehouses in the empire, the first of which opened in Istanbul in 1555. As Antoine Galland, a French Orientalist, wrote in an 1827 essay titled “On the Introduction of Coffee into Europe,”:

“The number of coffee-houses increasing prodigiously in Constantinople and their attractions also with the habit of frequenting them, it was soon found that the imams and expounders of the law were left to keep company with their beards, the mosques remaining nearly empty to answer in learned echoes to the declamations of the doctors. Though rigid predestinarians, it was not to be expected that these [Muslim] parsons would come readily into the notion that Providence had decreed they should preach to empty benches; on the contrary, seeing the mortifying success of their rival jugglers of the coffee-houses, they instinctively thought, as their craft always do, of the strong arm of power, and vehemently invoked its aid against the Arabian berry.”

The Ottoman authorities did ban coffeehouses on a number of occasions on the grounds that the coffeehouses encouraged not just vice and religious negligence, but more importantly, political dissension. Since coffeehouses were meeting places where men from different sections of Ottoman society could gather and exchange ideas, the authorities feared that the coffeehouses might be avenues through which political opposition to the Sultan could effectively grow and spread.

Nevertheless, given how entrenched the practice of drinking coffee was in Ottoman society, the authorities could never completely shut down the Ottoman coffeehouses. Many coffeehouses simply operated clandestinely, while at the same time, public pressure often forced the reopening of the coffeehouses after a ban.

As a testament to its enduring place in Ottoman and Turkish culture, the institution of the coffeehouse still survives today—even after the upheavals of the early 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire fell apart and the Republic of Turkey took its place. In fact, there are even Turkish coffee machines in the market today that pours the coffee, complete with foam and all, automatically into cups.

Perhaps, as you enjoy some Turkish coffee at one of the Turkish restaurants around Washington, D.C., or even better, in Turkey, you might want to think about the long history of the tiny cup of coffee in front you, within which lies the marks of broader political and social events. Indeed, many of the little things we consume in our everyday life are relics of the myriad confluences of culture and politics that have occurred through history. If you open your eyes to these histories, even the quotidian might just become so much more interesting!

By Kate West

https://www.flickr.com/photos/imsbildarkiv/11086351844/
Source: INDIVIDUELL MÄNNISKOHJÄLP/Flickr.

More often than not, disability rights and issues of accessibility for persons with disabilities (PWDs) are excluded from conversations on peacebuilding and peacekeeping in the Middle East. Perhaps this is because it is a less conventional “frame” through which to view the concept of peacebuilding; nevertheless, these are critical issues to consider if we are to facilitate lasting, sustainable models of peace and development. Efforts to mainstream issues pertaining to people with disability are relatively recent (World Institute on Disability 2014).

Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens comprise 20.7% of the total population of the country; of this number, nearly a quarter (25%) lives with a moderate to severe disability (Jerusalem Post 2013). That’s 425,000 individuals who often lack the knowledge, resources, and legal recourse to advocate for themselves.

Although PWDs in every country face challenges, disability in the Arab world is particularly problematic. This is because for the most part, these societies have not yet moved beyond the medical definition of disability to embrace a social one. Whereas the medical definition perceives disability as a problem to be fixed, the social model understands disability as a neutral condition. In this model, disabled individuals are designated by their physical and or mental difference, but this difference is neither a positive nor negative; it is simply distinct. While the medical model designates “normalization” of the disabled as a remedy, the social model advocates changes in the interaction between the individual and society.

Despite nominal improvements in Middle Eastern governments’ policies toward disabled individuals, social and institutional barriers still largely deny them fair and compassionate treatment. This is where grassroots civil society organizations (CSOs) have come to play a critical role for the Arab society in Israel. Exclusion for one is exclusion for all, and perhaps it is persons with disabilities living in Israel’s Arab communities that understand this best. This is why Arab CSOs lobby at the local and national levels to ensure that Israel, a signatory on the UN’s Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is enforcing the Convention to the fullest extent in employment, education, and the social sphere.

While it is not a common approach, framing disability rights as human rights, particularly in the context of Israel/Palestine, has succeeded in building a broad coalition of stakeholders, invested in civil society sustainability, peacebuilding, and cross-cultural community collaboration.

According to the Center for Disability Studies (2010), approximately 16% of all disabilities are war and conflict related. In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, such disabilities can be made more difficult by increasingly complicated and rapidly changing political circumstances. In the West Bank, road closures, the subsequent restriction of movement of people and goods, tensions with Jewish settlements, and the continued presence of the separation wall along the Israeli/Palestinian are all cited by CSO Diakonia as contributors to a decline in the quality of daily life for residents (2013). When used as leverage for facilitating dialogue between actors on both sides of the Green Line, however, disability advocacy can be used to increase peacebuilding efficacy and authenticity.

The benefit of using disability advocacy in such a way is that disability itself is universal; regardless of how narrowly or widely an individual chooses to define the term, disability touches every community and country in the world. When disability rights are promoted and respected, these conversations can facilitate space for broader dialogue about human rights in general. Social inclusion and accessibility are issues that all sides—Israeli, Palestinian, and international bodies mediating the Conflict—can get behind.

If peacebuilding is defined as a process that facilitates the establishment of durable peace and tries to prevent the recurrence of violence by addressing root causes and effects of conflict through reconciliation, institution building, and political as well as economic transformation (Alliance for Peacebuilding 2013), then disability advocacy is a more effective, inclusive model for peacebuilding.

A principal reason for the continued conflict in Israel/Palestine is social inequity. Usually, however, social inequity is defined in strict terms: Jewish and Arab. Organizations and governments, by overlooking disability rights as a building block for peace negotiations, are missing out on a golden opportunity to facilitate dialogue and increase cooperation. Social equity must mean equity for all—Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, persons with disabilities and those without. In the currency of peacebuilding, disability advocacy has buying power.

Historically, disability is an issue that has been relegated to the margins, not just in the Middle East, but globally. However, it is this very marginalization in peacebuilding spheres that creates an opportunity for robust human rights work to be undertaken with minimal threat of the issue becoming politically charged. It is this marginalization that can pave the way to a durable peace by introducing social inclusion and addressing social exclusion.

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will by no means be solved through disability advocacy alone, it can nevertheless serve as an important and innovative tool to promote cross-border communication and collaboration, and to facilitate meaningful relationships with a broad spectrum of government and non-government actors in pursuit of equity and access for all.

“Discussing Life in Afghanistan” A Psychologist and Department of Defense civilian deployed to Afghanistan as members of the Human Terrain System interview local residents in April 2009. Source: U.S. Army/Flickr.

In 2005, Montgomery McFate, a former defense consultant for the Rand Corporation, and Andrea Jackson, the Director of Research and Training at the Lincoln Group, published a paper entitled: “An Organizational Solution for DOD’s Cultural Knowledge Needs.” In it, they outlined the goals, needs, and cost for the development of a “specialized organization within the Department of Defense to produce, collect, and centralize cultural knowledge, which will have the utility for policy development and military operations.” The article in Military Review was published at a time when policy makers recognized the need to have cultural knowledge of their enemy, especially during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It went on to suggest the establishment of regional combatant commanders (RCC) and regional offices to supplement teams on the ground and to maintain close relationships with local forces and possible other sources of intelligence.  From this paper, the Human Terrain System (HTS), a United States Army, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) support unit costing $726 million, was born.

Units in HTS, known as Human Training Teams (HTT), were supposed to deploy people with social-science backgrounds, such as anthropologists and linguists, to provide military commanders and staff with an understanding of the local population in the area. In 2007, the program was critiqued by the American Anthropological Association, which called the collaboration of social scientists and combat units “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise,” as there existed a moral conflict between studying, for example, Iraqis, and advising troops who might end up killing them. However, the criticisms did not stop there; taxpayers were upset, as were military personnel, who felt that there already existed units that carried out the same function and that HTS was draining resources away from other priorities. The program also came under close scrutiny in 2009, when Staff Sergeant Paula Lloyd, a member of HTT in Afghanistan, was doused with petrol and set alight by a local Afghan. Her death went unreported, despite it being the third researcher with HTT to die on that deployment.

The need to thoroughly understand our enemies and associates is something that has been recognized for a long time. Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” And the need still exists today; General Odierno, the 38th Chief of Staff of the Army and former Commander General, United States Forces – Iraq, acknowledged its necessity during the war. While in Iraq, he recruited Emma Sky, a non-military British expert on the Middle East and who had lived in Kirkuk and dealt with the Iraqi-Kurdistan disputes after the Fall of Saddam and the war, to be his political advisor.

In late June of this year, the press got word that HTS had been terminated quietly in September 2014, as “there was no longer a requirement for HTS teams in theater.” But why was there such a long delay in announcing the end of the program? Many believe that HTS had the potential to change humanitarian missions and reconstruction efforts. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even praised the program and its “alternative thinking” that was key to success for a military that has a reputation of being heavy handed, something that was only emphasized around the world. Secretary Gates expressed how HTS led to less violence, citing a commander in Afghanistan who had worked with Human Terrain Teams and, as a result, had to carry out 60% fewer armed strikes.

So what does the military do now that HTS has been terminated? Major Adam Martin doesn’t believe HTS’s termination left any void for his operations. His fellow soldiers are from diverse backgrounds and are trained in the same way and can, therefore, carry out the same functions as HTS personnel did; he works with reserve soldiers who are anthropologists, state troopers, civil engineers, and environmental engineers to name a few. Maj. Martin has been with Civil Affairs since 2010 and is the HQ Company Commander for the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade based in Philadelphia. His unit is part of the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) (USACAPOC(A)) which was founded in 1985, is comprised of mostly U.S. Army Reserve soldiers and which is meant to carry out five functions: civil information management, population resource control, support to civil administration, foreign humanitarian assistance and nation assistance. I met Maj. Martin when I worked at the International Rescue Committee’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy this year in New York where he was visiting to research how to engage youth in post-conflict areas through creative arts programs, such as the dance and music classes the Academy ran.

He too thinks that understanding your enemy is vital, as you cannot do your job (in this field) without understanding the culture. He added that this applies more to Civil Affairs soldiers who are “expected to understand and to know a lot more than anybody else.” For example, when examining the next Area of Operations (AO), he explained how there are two systems the unit uses to assess various factors: PMESCII – political, military, economic, social, cultural, informational and infrastructure – and ASCOPE – areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people and events. Every minute detail, such as the location of power plants and natural resources, are plotted, analyzed and discussed.

U.S. Army Reserve Officers from 418th Civil Affairs Brigade work with locals in the Horn of Africa in 2010. Source: U.S. Army Africa/Flickr.
U.S. Army Reserve Officers from 418th Civil Affairs Brigade work with locals in the Horn of Africa in 2010. Source: U.S. Army Africa/Flickr.

Despite being civilians, HTS personnel wore uniform when deployed, like those in Civil Affairs. Wearing uniform might seem imposing and threatening but Maj. Martin assured that it “can be helpful as it opens doors. There is credibility.” He even mentioned that local interpreters would also wear military uniform but would be covered, as they would not want to be seen, as this may endanger their families – something that the army would try and prevent at all costs. Maj. Martin did explain that Civil Affairs does differ from HTS in its operations, which include advising on infrastructure development projects, water distribution centers, and school and bridge refurbishment – known as Engineering Civil Action Programs or ENCAP – such as those he carried out in the Philippines. Moreover, Civil Affairs personnel can carry out a wide range of programs: Veterinarian Civil Action Programs (VETCAP), Educational Civil Action Programs (EDCAP), and Medical Civil Action Programs (MEDCAP) – Maj. Martin disclosed that through this last set of programs, he has had to carry out circumcision operations with a local doctor.

Understanding our enemies and foreign populations beyond what their military capabilities are, where they could be deployed, what history says and what their tactics are can only tell us so much. It is vital to comprehend and to follow cultural practices to add credibility to the incoming force and to not aggravate what is likely to be an already complex, volatile environment. The United States has, unfortunately, only emphasized its controversial approach to reconstruction efforts in recent history. The Human Terrain System was established to help with this. Although marred in controversy, the program also received much praise so it does not seem to make sense that its termination was abrupt, hushed and muted. However, there is no rush for the country to consider finding and funding another similar program for it seems as if there already exists a unit to help military forces without the assistance of HTS.

Civil Affairs appears to overlap with HTS in many aspects but surpasses it in its capacity with regard to personnel and operations, which beckons the questions: did we really need the Human Terrain System? What would have happened if it were never established?

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Two Hui men performing their morning prayers at the Great Mosque of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China. Source: Nagarjun Kandukuru/Flickr.

Interestingly, it was only through reading an essay calling for the construction of a viable Muslim American culture that I got interested in the issue of Chinese Islam. Although this selection of cultural traditions might seem somewhat schizophrenic, I do believe that the essay—by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, chairman of the Nawawi Foundation—made a worthwhile point regarding the intricate dance between cultural unity and cultural diversity from the perspective of Islam.

Asserting that “the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were not at war with the world’s cultures and ethnicities but entertained an honest, accommodating, and generally positive view of the broad social endowments of other peoples and places,” Dr. Abd-Allah brought up the Chinese and East African Muslims as examples of how Islamic culture managed to balance “regional diversity within the overriding framework of the revealed law’s transcendental unity.” It is to this first example that I shall now turn to; if not to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity borne perhaps from my own affiliation with Chinese culture, then to take a potshot at our tendency to conceive of culture through neatly-defined boundaries and categories.

The presence of Islam in China dates all the way back to the Tang dynasty, when Arab and Persian merchants became the first Muslim settlers in China between the seventh and tenth centuries. The Mongol conquest of China in the thirteenth century that established the Yuan dynasty also brought many Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia into China. Over the course of the succeeding centuries (and dynasties) in Chinese history, many of these Muslims and their descendants would gradually integrate into Chinese culture. This process of assimilation was occasionally punctuated by conflict, with some Chinese Muslims going on to instigate rebellions, especially during the Qing dynasty between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

That said, by the time of the Qing period, the literature produced by Chinese Muslim intellectuals already reflected the deep extent of the cultural cross-pollination between Chinese and Islamic cultures in China. This corpus of literature is known as the Han Kitāb, a combination of the Mandarin word for the Chinese language, hàn, with the Arabic word for book, kitāb. According to James Frankel, a scholar on the history of Islam in China, the Han Kitāb was concerned with educating both the Chinese Muslim and non-Muslim literati about Islam and they did so through in the language of Confucianism—one of the most dominant schools of ethical and philosophical thought in Chinese history. Frankel also asserted that the Chinese Muslim intellectuals who were behind the Han Kitāb regarded themselves as “simultaneously Chinese and Muslim” and were thus able to integrate Islamic and Confucian religious and philosophic concepts seamlessly in their work.

In order to understand how this synthesis of Islamic and Confucian thought was achieved, I shall first briefly describe the key tenets of Confucianism. Central to Confucian thought is the notion of the Way (dào), which refers to the ultimate reality that permeates all aspects of the universe. Adherence to the Way is the highest ethical ideal and this can only be realized through the individual cultivation of virtue (). According to the Confucians, respect for tradition, embodied within the rituals () of the ancient Chinese sage-kings, is the principal means of cultivating virtue. Similarly, learning is also highly prized as well. Sages (shèngrén) are those who are able to cultivate their virtue to the highest possible degree and thus play the role of moral exemplars, whose actions ought to be emulated.

The Han Kitāb situates Islam within the Confucian tradition by portraying the Prophet Muhammad as a sage. For instance, the Chinese Muslim scholar, Liu Zhi—the most prolific of the Han Kitāb scholars—asserted in his biography of the Prophet Muhammad (Tiānfāng zhìshèng shílǜ) that the Prophet is the “most sagely” of all types of sages. In doing so, as the historian Zvi Ben-Dor Benite wrote in his book, The Dao of Muhammad, “the quintessential category of the Muslim world—the prophet—is in the Chinese Muslim instance converted into the quintessential category of China’s intellectual elite—the sage.”

This portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad as a sage is important because it effectively legitimized the study of Islam within the Chinese intellectual landscape. If the Prophet Muhammad is indeed a sage, then his teachings—Islam—becomes a valid component of the Way that forms the primary subject of Confucian discourse, and more broadly, Chinese intellectual discourse. According to Benite, this is why the Chinese Muslim scholars have never invoked the hadith—the collection of the reported teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet—as the basis for one’s conduct. Instead, the Prophet Muhammad should be emulated simply because he is a sage.

Another point of convergence in the Han Kitāb between the Islamic and Confucian tradition is in the claim that Islamic rituals and practices are completely in line with those of the ancient Chinese sage-kings. Liu Zhi, in another book on Islamic ritual practice (Tiānfāng diǎnlǐ), stated that “observing and practicing the proprieties of Islam is like observing and practicing the teachings of the ancient sages and kings,” as Sachiko Murata, William Chittick, and Tu Weiming pointed out in their book, The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi. Not surprisingly, given that the various proprieties of Islam are codified under sharia law and that the teachings of the ancient sage-kings form the foundation of Confucian rituals, Liu Zhi also managed to link sharia law to Confucian ritual propriety. As Frankel highlighted, in the Tiānfāng diǎnlǐ, Liu Zhi called sharia the “Vehicle of Ritual […] for the one who is diligent in cultivating virtue.”

On the whole, the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad as the “most sagely” sage and Islam as part of the Way, as well as the framing of sharia as ritual to cultivate virtue, are some examples to showcase how the Han Kitāb could incorporate Islam with Confucianism. Obviously, since the Han Kitāb was the work of “a large group of Chinese Muslim literati” as Benite indicated, there are many more ways in which the synthesis between Islam and Confucianism was undertaken. Nonetheless, the ways that I have indicated above in this essay does provide a good sense of how the broad parameters of each tradition can be aligned with each other.

At a broader level, I would also posit that knowledge about the Han Kitāb and how Chinese Muslims have tried to indigenize Islam does have relevance beyond just trying to impress someone else with esoteric factoids. Learning about the intersections between the Islamic and Chinese cultural traditions and their synthesis provides us with yet another example of the malleability of our cultural traditions. In the same vein, it should also caution us against essentializing any culture—be it Islam, Confucianism, or something else altogether.

Indeed, the story of Islam and Confucianism, and how they came together, forms just a single trajectory in the very messy bundle of histories that make up the human condition. By considering—even just for a little bit—the myriad ways in which cultural traditions have been integrated, dissected, or even invented, we might perhaps better appreciate the remarkable messiness that underlies the human condition. After all, the fact that we each draw upon different bits of this gigantic mess to make sense of our lives does make this world a little more fun to learn about, doesn’t it?

By Tyler Abboud

Protestors march in Oakland on May Day, 2015 in solidarity with those protesting the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

In a vicious cyclical example of what constitutes news in this country, the tragic Nepalese earthquake is now out and the events in Baltimore are now in. The typical reactions associated with any circumstance involving sour Black-American and police relations have now arisen from their temporary and ugly slumber. A plea for the rights of property, appeals to Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, and then the more denigrating racial dog whistles. All of this is so expected as to follow script at this point. But what are its origins? The Atlantic journalist and social commentary writer Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in this brilliant essay why the calls for non-violence are quite absurd given the circumstances of the situation in Baltimore. However, even he did not fully address what I feel is the missing theme within these calls and others like them. Implicit is the assumption, and a dangerous one I might add, that the State is superior and wholly above frivolous concerns like rights.

To see this I urge you to scroll no further than the nearest Facebook feed or cable news program. Those condemning the rioters generally lob up a recently Google-searched MLK quote on non-violence, conveniently forgetting for a moment that were it not for 620,000 dead in the Civil War then there would be no MLK; or they will ask rhetorically “what is wrong with these people?” (Emphasis added). They assume that the State’s violence is somehow more legitimate than that of the bottle and brick throwing of the protestors. They plea for non-violence, but only in one direction; in Baltimore that was after a man’s spinal cord was snapped in State custody. However, their condemnations and protestations are not limited to this, in fact it is a theme that dominates American political thinking at all ends. Its lessons in foreign policy, where some of the most barbarous of State violence occur, are even more apparent.

In light of that I have to wonder, where are you, beloved sharer of MLK quotes? After all he said that the US is the great purveyor of violence in the world. Surely you cannot feel that way when only the state can save you form those angry black faces. I suffice it to say that you probably just did not care what the state does, because the state in your mind is infallible when its violence is directed towards them. If it happens to do wrong you circumvent this with easily applied “bad apple theories” that require no recourse. Of those calls for non-violence, did they not apply to the lives of 500,000 Iraqi children massacred by US sanctioned starvation? Or what of the weddings, parties, social events, or just plain lives in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan? Innocent bodies incinerated from a hellish blaze, the State high up above. Let us not pretend that the State has no discriminatory excuse too, it just executed two of its citizens in Yemen. Oh yes, all that property lost too, destroyed by the State, here or there, most of it forever. Yet you remained silent.

Could it possibly be that you care not about the ubiquitous value of property and instead care only that the state remains above the law and general morality? Like a pig feeding from a trough you eat up the propaganda on “just war” and “collateral damage,” ideas that never apply to the people the state deems unworthy. As long as it is they and not you, you so callously figure. Your positions on government, whatever ideology you desperately cling to, are no different than the statists of old. That is the state, in all its wisdom, has more rights then the individual and is not bound by law: more rights to utilize force against innocents with impunity, more rights to desecrate property, and more rights to evade responsibility. All of this creates an immoral situation that makes it hard to listen to those angrily posting on Facebook or complaining on the street about how much they hate those people. Until their frustrations are pointed at the larger of two evils, and the one they actually have some control over, my sympathies will lie with those protesting instead.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Program booklet for Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage. Source: Author's own photo.

What is home? Is it just a structure, a shelter over our heads? Or can it be something more? For most of us, home is a treasure trove of trust and love. It is the site of our most cherished relationships, the place we ground our memories and our sense of self. Yet, it can also be the cradle we have always wanted to run away from; suffocating, and at times, utterly dysfunctional. Try as we might, however, home may not be a place we can easily escape from either. After all, home can be entirely divorced from geography; a state of mind that we carry even after crossing multiple borders. Perhaps, it is simply a latent sentiment we all share: similar in spirit, but different in form—wherever we come from.

I had the tremendous privilege of spending last Friday evening watching Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices On Stagean interactive, multi-media performance based on year-long engagements and interviews between Georgetown University students and youth from all around the world, but primarily from the Middle East. Held at the Davis Performing Arts Center in Georgetown University, Generation (Wh)Y is the third of four events that constitute Myriad Voices: A Cross-Cultural Performance Festival. Through compelling performances, the festival seeks to present the varied and textured experiences of Muslim individuals and communities, humanizing them and thus rendering them all the more familiar.

Generation (Wh)Y began with a chorus of words related to the idea of home, all in different languages. The dynamic movements of the ensemble and the cascade of voices echoing throughout the intimate space of the theater evoked a certain immersive quality: home as a feeling, as a sentiment, flowed all around us. Naturally, I did not know most of the non-English words that were said, but the mystique of these foreign words that permeated through the sonic landscape only reinforced my gut instinct: not all human sentiments could, or even should, be expressed literally. After all, as some of the featured interview excerpts expressed, there is always the risk that labels and names might obscure other facets of our identities: we are not just Muslims, nor are we just someone from X country.

Following this moving exploration of the different meanings of home, the audience was split up and led to separate parts of the Performing Arts Center for three different “Encounters,” each centered on the themes of Discovery, Risk, and Laughter respectively. In “Discovery,” two live dancers were juxtaposed against the silhouettes of human figures projected onto the backdrop of the stage. As excerpts from the interviews were narrated, the shadows of the dancers swept gracefully around the talking silhouettes, simulating the ebb and flow of conversation. Indeed, dialogue is a wonderful avenue for us to discover ourselves and our place in the world. Regardless of where we are from, there will always be common ground that underlies our shared humanity.

In “Risk,” excerpts from the interviews were interspersed with poems by Palestinian and Sudanese poets. As the cast members paced around the room and recounted stories laden not only with anxieties and uncertainties, but also hopes and dreams, they truly succeeded in bringing these excerpts to life before the audience. At the center of this performance were the drapes that hung from the ceiling, symbolizing both the desire for security at our most vulnerable, as well as the upward trajectories of our aspirations. “Laughter” shifted the mood of the event to a more light-hearted one, as the audience got the chance to sample jokes from around the world. After we had an appetizing course of giggles, chuckles, and belly laughs, we ended the encounter with a heartening and lengthy burst of guffaws—a reminder that the sheer joy of a good laugh is indeed universal.

As an individual living in this diverse world, it is definitely heartening to be reminded that there are still many commonalities underpinning the human experience. We may all speak a different language, practise different customs and hold different views about the world and beyond. But that does not deny the fact that we all want a loving home to go back to everyday—to rest and recharge from a meaningful life filled with discoveries and risks, as well as a healthy dose of laughter. The journey that Generation (Wh)Y had taken us should not be confined to the theater. As we go about our daily lives, let us not forget to treat our brothers and sisters all around us with compassion, understanding, and an open mind—whether or not they share the same race or creed. We only have one world; and we are all in this together.

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