Us Arabs have been known for our ability for self-censorship, drawing lines around freedom of expression, and excommunicating others who offer an opinion using creative license. This censorship has put boundaries aplenty on artistic creativity, and spawned the image portraying Arabs and Islam as blood-thirsty barbarians instead of the peace-driven message and name it carries. The burning of embassies, effigies, trampling of flags, and demonstrating for death,  simply feeds hatred, anger, and this false image.


The alternative? Toiling through a maze of rules and regulations, specifically designed to make you falter and fall, to produce a piece of artistic work that communicates usto them.


We refuse to engage in discussion. And this self-terrorizing limiting of thought keeps the distance between Arabs and the world perpetually growing.

The harsh reception director Omar Shargawi received at the screening of the award-winning feature film Ma Salama Jamil atCairo’s International Film Festival was one example. Mainstream film critics crucified it, even during the screening, citing absurdities such as “this is more offensive than the Danish cartoons.”


Ma Salama Jamil, produced by Lars Von Trier and his Danish label Zentropia, is ultimately a message of peace. It fades to black with a quote from the Qoraan; “Man qatala nafsan ka’anama qatala alnas jamee’an” He who kills one self is as though [he] has slain all of humanity.


“… There’s always a handful of angry audience members that remind me of the right-wing in Denmark, and there’s a bunch at every screening,” says Shargawi lightheartedly of the way he was received in the once cinema capital of the Arab world. Yet “people all over the world have expressed that 10 minutes into the movie they forget they’re watching a movie about Sunni and Shi’a. They see the struggle and raw violence that is propelled by human beings. And the need to end it.”


Some saw the movie as didactic, an unwelcome sermon, when we most need to reflect upon where we came from, to make sense of where we’re going. Sometimes anger is a defense mechanism to preserve the life we know, the people we were before.


Shargawi’s Palestinian father, who stars in the film, arrived in Denmark in the 60s and took a Danish wife, Shargawi’s mother. His great grandfather was from the Egyptian Governate of Sharqiyya and that is where he gets his last name. Born and raised inCopenhagen, on the streets that formed a new culture and language from the fusion of both Arabic and Danish. Shargawi’s movie shines a light on this hybrid culture through a murderer’s violent journey to break the cycle of revenge within himself, after a Sunni murders a Shiite in revenge for the killing of his mother.


Arabs arrived in Copenhagen escaping the Lebanese civil war in the 80s; “they brought their old differences with them from back home. At the end of the war everyone was fighting everyone; Sunni Shi’a Muslims, Jews, Christians … even Sunni and Sunnis.”


In essence we’re all the same, all religions favor doing good over bad, yet …“even though Sunni and Shi’a belong to the same religion, the civil war in Lebanon proved that when there is conflict, the little differences become very big. Even bigger so after the first drop of blood has been shed.” Housed in refugee camps/centers the fighting continued in Copenhagen and sometimes the police would barricade them, not able to get in. “No one in the European or Danish community knew what was going on. And for non-insiders it was a constant stream of bad stories about Muslims and Arabs, and it’s gotten worse. In most cases the non-Arabic publics think of “those crazy Arabs” …Islamic fanatics, terrorists or criminals. This is the mainstream idea [upheld by] the non-Muslim public [in Europe].” Truly, how will others know who we are if we do not communicate it?


“99% of what we’re bombarded with is crap. And it’s not only here it’s in the West as well. Reality shows following a guy losing weight for three months, putting people in a house and filming- all are superficial and all are there to divert our attention from what is really going on. …it’s easier to digest than Palestinians getting killed everyday… by Israelis… by [other] Palestinians. It’s easier to digest than Sunni and Shi’a killing each other in Iraq, in a war created by the West. Then you get angry if someone is writing a book or making a movie about it. All because we want to forget, want to pretend it doesn’t exist. …Life is not about a penthouse flat in Zamalek, but this is what is being over-exposed all the time.”


After 9/11, the world has also been building up a wall between itself, and between Arabs and Islam. No longer only a predominantly-Arab or communist notion, is the West too hiding behind walls of what they know, drawing lines and boundaries to mark asafe-area for a spectrum of opinions that ispolitically correct.


The media machine has conditioned people to a tunneled version of permissible options;“It’s becoming more and more like that inEurope, there is no longer such a thing as freedom of speech. You cannot say everything you want. Now it’s becoming criminal to say something like “I support the freedom fighters in Iraq”. This kind of talk can land you in jail.”


“It’s hard to present real problems in the Arab world. But I’m happy to hear of more projects in Egypt addressing real problems of society,” concludes Shargawi.


The constant constraints on freedom of speech have given rise to a subversive language of symbols and metaphors. Yet sooner or later this continuous restriction will inhibit the natural evolution of artistic creativity.


Elsewhere… “The Czech Republic is, in broad terms, a democracy.  However, many of its state institutions are still controlled by a generation of functionaries who are essentially communist in their outlook and behavior, and have merely learned to replace the word “socialism” with the word “democracy” in their rhetoric”, explains Craig Duncan who hosts an evening show on the popular Radio Wave network in Czech Republic.


In communist eras the classic method of censoring alternative cultures was a public denunciation of an artist as a political extremist who must be suppressed for public good, supported by deliberately out-of-context quotes.


On 12.9.08 Craig Duncan played the Primal Scream song “Swastika Eyes” on his show.  Primal scream is one of the most successful UK bands in the past 20 years, known for their anti-racial and anti-totalitarian themes.


Your soul don’t burn
You dark the sun you
Rain down fire on everyone
Scabs, police, government thieves
Venal psychic amputees


[The song criticizes politicians who talk loudly about democratic values while openly engaging in not-so-democratic practices. Metaphorically speaking, their words cannot conceal their “swastika eyes”.]


More than a month later, the Czech Radio Council, the state body responsible for radio standards accused Craig’s Radio station of “promoting fascism” … by playing “neo-fascist” group Primal Scream. “In support of this allegation they published an extremely distorted mistranslation of the lyrics to “Swastika Eyes”, rewritten to make it appear as a celebration of Nazism.”


The accusation fueled a large protest movement, ranging from demonstrations for the resignation of the Council, to a free concert organized on 11.11.08 by some of the country’s top alternative musicians in protest of this oppression of thought.


“It is deeply ironic that they chose to base their smear campaign around a song which is about specifically this type of activity – namely, totalitarian behavior by state officials who loudly claim to be “democratic”. I played the song in question and continue to play it, since angry Czech musicians keep sending us their cover versions.”



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