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Teresa Camacho

lives in: West Los Angeles
Writer, editor, translator and critic of books of fiction, art, culture, history and religion from the Middle East focusing on Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Palestine, Spain, Mexico and Latin America. Camacho is a Comparative Literature (Spanish, French, and Italian) graduate of... [more]

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“Let us not forget that Iranians can make their own decisions and resist and lead their struggle without the meddling or intervention of the WEST or its sensationalist media. Their mass movement is not due to TWITTER or FACEBOOK - it is a RESISTANCE by their own hand much like the second stage of the Mexican Revolution. It is a country in progress on the road to social, civil and political rights but most of all freedom of expression.”
Posted over 4 years ago
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The plight of Soha Bechara as a prisoner of El Khiam, one of the most violent and cruel prisons and subsequent transformation to symbol of resistance and idol of the Lebanese speaks volumes about the making of a legend in the context of a civil war and occupation by the Israeli army.  Her imprisonment occurred after a failed attempt to assassinate SLA general (South Lebanese Army- the mainly Christian Lebanese proxy army put in place by Israeli military forces) Antoine Lahad.


Bechara writes clearly, and it is easy for the layperson with some understanding of Lebanese history, to follow her story and the main players on the field and their allegiances.  Even if the bulk of the book is more about the reasons that led to involvement with the Communist Lebanese National Resistance Party and as a would-be assassin of Lahad than about her imprisonment -  it is impactful for it relays the suffering of Bechara who gave 10 years of her life, from the ages of 21 to 31, to a cruel existence all in the name of resisting occupation. 


It is interesting to note the manner in which Bechara relates her role as a bit player – a woman involved in the cause for whom it was easy to move around South Lebanon simply because she was female.  Her first involvement with the Communist Lebanese National Resistance Party was at the age of 14 and the seeds of resistance had been planted by the communist leanings of her father, the witnessing of Israeli raids, the confinement due to the battles, and her migrating between Beirut and her mother’s hometown Deir Mimas, a village in south Lebanon made primarily of Lebanese Christian families, for safety.   The ease with which she transitions from intelligence gatherer for the party leaders in the south to infiltrator in Lahad’s household is believable given her belief in liberation, her intelligence and her educated air.  She cultivates a bond with Lahad’s wife who is bored and takes her in as an aerobics instructor who has mostly free reign of the household and as such becomes familiar with the comings and goings of Lahad.  It is through the guise of aerobic instructor that she transitions to would-be assassin who through hesitation shoots her target but not in a fatal spot therefore ensuring her capture and sealing her fate. 


Though Bechara is not a writer by trade - the autobiography allows a look at what takes a carefree life before the Israeli occupation and decides to fight injustice and occupation by espousing communist ideology and carrying out what she believed was her mission as a resistance member.  The roots of her ideology was planted by her father’s communist roots and this only made her more sure that she needed to act accordingly even if done in secret and away from her family and friends.


She chronicles life and all of the family members she lost over the years during the civil war much in the manner that Palestinian families lose countless loved ones through the Israeli occupation as has been documented on film particularly in Death in Gaza. 


During her imprisonment, Bechara survives simply by physical exercise and mental exercise routines she devises even though she is confined to a minute cell and mostly in solitary confinement since she resisted any attempts to reveal information and therefore suffered much torture.  She also found ways to communicate and used various things to write in order to keep her mind keen in the horrible silence broken only by the howls of fellow inmates who were enduring torture.


“I am in a camp.  A prison is a place people are sent after being tried. With us, this is not the case” Bechara tells the head of Khiam  - Abu Nabil.  This waiting game and the torture continue until 1998 when under international pressure and the intense media attention on Bechara she is freed.


Bechara would have us believe that it was all worth it and that those 10 years of resistance made an impact and caused the opening of the prison and release of the prisoners two years after her departure.  It would be very interesting to view the 40-minute film, Everything and Nothing by Jayce Salloum to understand Bechara after having read her account.  In reading reviews Bechara appears as both subject and also as a symbol of resistance and appears worn down and seems to have changed some of her views after 10 years of imprisonment and torture.




Teresa Camacho is a  writer, editor, translator and critic of books of fiction, art, culture, history and religion from the Middle East focusing on Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Palestine, Spain, Mexico and Latin America.  Camacho is a Comparative Literature (Spanish, French, and Italian) graduate of UC Berkeley and current student of Iranian/Middle Eastern Studies.


This book review was originally published in the Journal of Twentieth Century History, vol. 1, no. 1 (Feb 2006), 57-58. 



 



 

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Women Of The Middle East
Gender In The Middle East
Arabic Literature Studies

Mona N. Mikhail’s book, Seen and Heard: A Century of Arab Women in Literature and Culture highlights the changes for women in the Middle East during the 20th century in everything from high culture – literature, politics, and low culture in areas such as soap operas, religion. Mikhail gives a new image of Arab women since she relates their stories as authors, activists, active members in their respective societies via contributions to culture, history, and religion. This in effect shifts the paradigm of victimhood the West seizes upon as an excuse to pity Arab women and demonize Arab men and it legitimizes the narrative since the narrator is also an Arab telling her own story critically. The problems of political, religious, economic, legal and sexual issues do exist, but women are not waiting for reform they are actively engaged in brining it about through political activism, writing, and working.


The areas touched upon by Mikhail are diverse and they are always through the critical lens of culture. One chapter which will definitely be examined by many a Westerner is the one on veiling titled “A New Vision of the Veil” written by Iqbal Barraka, the Editor-in-Chief of the oldest and most prominent women’s magazine, Hawa. It is one of four chapters that are written by another author and translated from Arabic by Dr. Mikhail. The translated chapter is from a book that Barraka has written over a period of several years and her masterful research skills give the overdone (in the West particularly) subject a new interpretation through an analysis of the Quran, Hadith, and other relevant Islamic texts. Though Barraka includes reasons for why women don hijab and why it is difficult for some to decide to don it the text she uses to find reasoning against it is fascinating. She uses the Emancipation of Women by Qasim Amin who at the end of the 19th century called for a lifting of the veil and stated that in donning the veil could cause lust to arise since much was left to the imagination. Amin also believed in the rights of women and believed that hijab was donned by the wives of the Prophet as is generally interpreted and there is not a true reason in the sura for other women to don it. Barraka cites others and turns the Western belief that Arab men subject women to enslavement and abuse on its head.


Though Dr. Mikhail is a Professor of Arabic and Contemporary Literature, her historical, anthropological and sociological observations are the most interesting because they give images of women’s lives in different countries of the Middle East and in various cultural and social contexts.


A beautiful chapter on Egyptian women’s lives at the turn of the 20th century, Growing up in Egypt at the turn of the 20th Century, gives a glimpse of how the middle and upper middle class families prepared their daughters for adult life. Many were educated in schools founded by Catholic and Protestant missionaries or secular schools where they were taught in one of the colonial languages of French, Italian, English, or German. Within these schools women of the elite were trained to take prominent roles within their respective society and social circle by learning the rules of etiquette and running a proper household and learning their proper role in society.


Mostly these foreign-run schools, along with Arab elite schools who gave instruction in Arabic, functioned as preparatory schools wherein young women were prepared for becoming the culturally aware wives of socially or politically powerful men who had usually been educated abroad.


Some of the women did marry prominent and rich men but others instead chose to work on important social issues and take on careers of their own but they were in the minority. It is evident that the most important aspect of these schools was the fostering of friendships and networks which carried into adulthood and into the istiqbals of these women. This is further evidenced by the importance of portraits during this era and the oral histories of the time as well.


The portraits also served another purpose, that of securing an amenable partner and these portraits were used in marriage arrangements and the chapter is related to chapter two, The Mother of the Bride Frantically Prepares: Egyptian Wedding Customs where Dr. Mikhail’s describes the use of traditional wedding customs by contemporary women in the 20th century. It is interesting to note that the author views the use of traditional wedding customs as more common among the educated classes in the contemporary society when in the past it was the something practiced by the lower classes. Within current society these traditional customs are practiced by the upper classes which are in turn imitated by the lower classes who aspire to be in vogue with the current bridal style.


Laylat al-hanna and Katb al-Kitab are two ceremonies which are practiced before the wedding ceremony and are both for happiness in marriage. Katb al-Kitab occurs during the signing of the marriage contract wherein the bride sucks on a sugar cube which is then dunked in a glass of water given to the groom to drink to assure a sweet relationship between them.


Ballanas were women who helped with the bathing of the rich and went to their homes to afford them the luxury of being scrubbed and washed down by their expert hands. By being allowed into the homes of the rich they were given access to a private world and were extremely trusted by those who patronized them. Over time due to the ties to the socially important they began to function as matchmakers between families with marriageable children. The significance of ballanas in the past and in contemporary society provided a means for contact between prominent families and a discreet method for families to join their marriageable children.


The chapters on literature are interesting and they all have issues of identity tied to them as well as having the preponderance of literature written by men and the portrayals of women by these men. The most interesting of these chapters is, Masculine Ideology or Feminine Mystique: A Study of Writings on Arab Women. In it, Mikhail details how social changes have helped with the transformation of Arab society and have facilitated the advent of women authors even though this has not been without problems. Emancipation and education have been instrumental in the process and writings have moved to more secular themes since the 70s. Also the ever-present them between tradition and modernity exists in women’s works as it does in men’s.


The book gives a thoughtful analysis of women mostly through the cultural lens but that is what makes it interesting and the topic of Arab women remains interesting throughout. There is a void in publishing that needs to be filled by more works such as Mikhail’s which gives us a gaze from an Arab woman about Arab women.


 



Teresa Camacho is a  writer, editor, translator and critic of books of fiction, art, culture, history and religion from the Middle East focusing on Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Palestine, Spain, Mexico and Latin America.  Camacho is a Comparative Literature (Spanish, French, and Italian) graduate of UC Berkeley and current student of Iranian/Middle Eastern Studies.



 


This book review in a different version was originally accepted for publication by Al-Raida journal in Beirut though it has yet to be published. It is the copyrighted intellectual property of Teresa Camacho.

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Though Zaha Hadid has been maligned in the architecture, critical and fashion worlds alike, nothing speaks louder than the Pritzker Foundation awarding her the 2004 Pritzker Architecture Prize. The Pritzker which known as the ‘Nobel of Architecture’ is the most prestigious award in the field of architecture. The awardee receives a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion as well as credibility in the aesthetic and sometimes superficial world of architects. Also, Ms. Hadid is the first woman who has won the award and shatters all preconceptions about architecture being a man’s domain and her place as a prominent Middle Eastern (Iraqi) woman has been sealed.


Her designs are notoriously called deconstructionist in the vein of certain Japanese fashion designers such as Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto and also of fellow architects Frank O. Gehry and Daniel Libeskind. The literary term is thus misused and does not begin to put into diction what her work represents for architecture. Her work is beauty conceptualized and captured at precisely perfect moment, much as a photograph that freezes time and maintains the instant for posterity as the following built projects demonstrate: Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany; LFone Landesgartenschau, Weil am Rhein, Germany; Car Park and Terminus, Strasbourg, France; Berisel Ski Jump, Innsbruck, Austria; The Richard and Lois Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinatti, Ohio, United States.


Ms. Hadid was born and bred in Baghdad, Iraq and studied at the University of Beirut and then the Architectural Association in London under Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas whose office she joined upon graduation. Besides excellent credentials, one is presented with a woman with a strong personality who has been described as difficult, divaesque, and willful and has been known to walk out of meetings according to an article in International Design. “Her presence was nonetheless substantial,” “She is a large woman, and there was something arresting about the way her feet were squeezed into a pair of pointed, spike-heeled gold pumps…” wrote Nicholas Fox Weber in Vogue. The picture we are presented is one wherein Ms. Hadid is the extreme opposite of what she creates, unaesthetically pleasing, and therefore not to be taken as seriously as an architect which is highly disrespectful.


Her designs are highly conceptual and visually awe-inspiring and most are confined to countless drawings, paintings beautifully designed interiors of various worldwide locales as well as furniture. Her career has been fraught with difficulty since some of her greatest projects including the The Peak (Hong Kong), Cardiff Opera House (Wales) were never built. Still even though some critics view her as more of an academic than an architect, since she won many research-based design competitions from 1983-2002, Ms. Hadid’s vision has not faltered and she forged ahead also in the academic realm by publishing her drawings and paintings. Also, she accepted guest professorships at Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg, the Knolton School of Architecture, Ohio, and the Masters Studio at Columbia University and was honored by being bestowed the Kenzo Tange Chair at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard and the Sullivan Chair at the University of Chicago School of Architecture.


Even with all of the difficulties Ms. Hadid has had in her career nothing, not her size or her feisty personality can take away from her creative genius and her own words echo the sentiment, “Would they call me a Diva if I were a guy?”


 



Teresa Camacho is a  writer, editor, translator and critic of books of fiction, art, culture, history and religion from the Middle East focusing on Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Palestine, Spain, Mexico and Latin America.  Camacho is a Comparative Literature (Spanish, French, and Italian) graduate of UC Berkeley and current student of Iranian/Middle Eastern Studies.


This was originally published in Women's Art News in 2005 and is the copyrighted intellectual property of Teresa Camacho.



 

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For an artist who has stated in interviews that she is not political but rather posits her art as something to open up dialogue - Shirin Neshat's comments were very political during her conversation and partial screening of her film Women Without Men at LACMA on June 15.  Neshat thanked the audience and made it clear that she was emotional and glad to be among Iranians during this time of turmoil in Iran.  "My country's image...which is viewed as barbaric and inferior...and one that likes violence."  As a counterpoint Neshat gave a look at an Iran on the verge of social and political change in 1953 and this comes at a time when we are again witnessing change in Iranian society.


 


Neshat's film Women Without Men which is based on Sharnush Parispur's book of the same has been six years in the making and the Los Angeles audience was the first to be viewing it in a partial cut.  There was a segment in which the main characters were introduced and they have been reduced to four in the film from five in the book.  The character of Mahdokht  was left out since she would have been difficult to portray due to the mythical or magical realist manner in which she is portrayed by Parsipur in the book.  Parsipur even appears in the film as the madame of the bordello where Zarin works.


Operation Ajax or the coup d'état instigated by the British and the U.S. to topple the democratically elected Mossadegh takes a prominent role in the film while in the book it is more a point of departure and is more of a background story.  For Neshat this change was necessary to demonstrate that Iran had shifted to democracy in 1953 and that democracy was erased by the West who profess to having democracies by their coup.  Much research was conducted by Neshat through interviews of ex-political activists who are now in their 80s.  "I learned much about Iran in doing this research and interviews for the film," stated Neshat.  Also, Neshat became aware of the highly developed artistic and social culture and the politics of Iran in the 50s.


The film's cinematography is stunning and its palette is muted in the manner of a fading postcard of a distant land.  The aesthetic was created by shooting the film in Super 35 and the cinematographer is Austrian Martin Gschlacht.  Neshat stated her film influences range from Tarkovsky, Buñuel and Kiarostami but the film and its aesthetic are all Neshat. This is a departure for Neshat who typically works with a group of Iranian artists, musicians and cineastes.  


In this same vein the music which contains Iranian and Middle Eastern tones and melodies by the inclusion of instruments such as the santour is composed by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who has done work on many international films such as Babel.


Neshat decided to work on a feature length film in order to reach a wider audience and become accessible to others besides the gallery and museum crowd.  Though the project was something new Neshat believes that one has one life and one should take a chance at re-invention and an opportunity to renew and grow.  


For Neshat the film represents, "...courage and the notion of courage to do something by one's own hand."  Also it is indicative of the spirit of Iranians and how they have had the courage to change in 1953 and throughout the history of Persia and Iran.  


Neshat did not know if she would be successful but wanted to take a chance at learning how to make a film and acquiring a new audience while keeping her old audience enraptured with how she continues to grow.  Women Without Men has been invited to premiere at several European film festivals in fall 2009.




Teresa Camacho is a  writer, editor, translator and critic of books of fiction, art, culture, history and religion from the Middle East focusing on Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Palestine, Spain, Mexico and Latin America.  Camacho is a Comparative Literature (Spanish, French, and Italian) graduate of UC Berkeley and current student of Iranian/Middle Eastern Studies.




[This was originally published on PersianMirror.com and is the copyrighted intellectual property of Teresa Camacho.]


 


 


 


 

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