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Waiting for Syria

In the Fray - Thu, 05/17/2018 - 13:37

Sand continued to drift in through the open doors. The overhead fan swirled the grit into our clothes, hair, eyes, teeth. The women wore their hijabs tight across their faces, their eyes cast down, stealing glances at James and me. It was hard to tell what they thought of us, the only white people at the crossing. Certainly they were suspicious—mostly of me, I sensed, even though my head was also covered.

My boyfriend and I had arrived at the Syrian border after three months of backpacking in Turkey. In order to get to know some of the local people, we’d been hitchhiking everywhere. We were working menial jobs to help pay our way, and staying with locals whenever we could.

At the border crossing, we waited in a concrete room, empty except for two long benches set against one wall. At the other end of the room was a dirty window, where a border guard sat and processed passports. I could see our US passports in his stack, still waiting to be stamped. We had visas, but it hadn’t made any apparent difference. James and I were in our third hour of waiting, with no end in sight.

The room was sweltering, there was no water or food, and I was becoming desperate. “You’ve got to try again,” I told James. “Ask him why we’re being held. When we can go. Anything.”

“One more hour,” James said.

What was I to do but wait? I was a woman, and a foreigner. Best not to cause any trouble. I had just escaped a maze of sexual harassment in Turkey. Being a woman there had convinced me to always wear a headscarf.

Another hour passed. We were so close, at the border of Syria. I wanted to go to Palmyra—see the ruins, sleep on the hill of the Valley of Tombs, sing in the amphitheater, explore the Temple of Bel, walk down the kilometer of the Colonnade. An old man in a long white beard in Antakya had told us about Palmyra—called Tadmor in the Bible. “You must go,” he said.

Since this was 1986, we could go. Even then, though, the older Assad—Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad—hated Americans. US backing of Israel, which refused to return the Syrian land seized during the 1967 Six-Day War, angered the regime. Meanwhile, the country’s economy was being crushed by massive military expenditures that ate up more than a third of the budget. The Syrian people were confused and frightened. The old man in Turkey had urged us to tell everyone we were Canadians—“for your protection.”

Back in the concrete box, two old men who’d been waiting for a couple of hours were called to the window. They exchanged a few words with the official, their passports were stamped with a loud thwack, and they left the room laughing—perhaps at us.

By now I was livid. I stormed up to the window. “We were here before them! What’s this all about? You have to let us cross. This is absurd.”

I knew the man didn’t understand my words, but he understood my rage. He waved me and James into his office, smiling.

We stood there quietly for a moment. The official kept looking at us, his eyes darting back and forth. Finally, he said, “American.” It was more a statement than a question. I was about to say something when he pointed to James and asked, “You. Work?”

James mimed building a house—sawing, carrying lumber, hammering on the wall.

“Ah,” he said. “Ohh-kay.” Still looking at James, he asked, “Where you go?”

James said, “Dama.”

“Where go?” he asked again.

James rummaged in his backpack and pulled out our Lonely Planet guide. He opened it to a page about Damascus hotels and pointed to the one we had picked out earlier. The cheapest. “Clift Hotel,” James said.

The man grew agitated. He pointed to me now. “You! Work?”

I paused. It was a simple enough question, but the very reason I had come here was to avoid answering it. I was a director, but no longer wanted to be one. I was traveling to forget myself and all the angst of New York City’s theater scene: the madness of actors and musicians, set and costume designers, the frenzy of rehearsals, opening nights, reviews.

I pointed to the wall. There was a faded poster of an ancient amphitheater, maybe Palmyra’s, right there over his desk. “Teatro.” While traveling in foreign countries, I’d found that sometimes an English word dusted with some kind of accent worked.

This time it didn’t. The man just stared at me. I pointed again. “Director.” This time I rolled my r’s. He continued to stare. I tried again, still pointing to the wall. “Artist.” The man never changed his expression. Blank.

I fumbled around for yet another word, my frustration growing. Finally, I shouted out, “Actor!”

The man’s eyes grew wild. His mouth opened, then shut. He grabbed our passports—which had, at long last, made it to the top of the pile—and shoved them under all the others, at the very bottom. And then, with a flick of his wrist, he ushered us out.

We went back into the concrete room.

Another hour passed. By now, James and I were the only people waiting in the room. It was getting late, and we were exhausted. We had stopped talking, stopped trying to figure it out.

Ignoring us, the official began packing up. We watched him put on his cap, pick up the newspaper he’d been reading all day, and start toward the door. At that very moment, a man in a suit walked into the room. He was impeccably dressed—his white shirt perfectly ironed, his black shoes polished—and he carried a Syrian passport.

I ran up to him. “Do you speak English?” I asked.

He did. We’d been waiting for nearly six hours, I told him. Everyone had made it across the border into Syria except us. And we were being held without reason, and there were our passports under a pile on this official’s desk, and he’s leaving, and please help us.

The man, whose name we learned later was Hassan, marched over to the official and shouted two short sentences that sent him scurrying back into his office, where he promptly stamped all our passports. He practically ran back to Hassan with them, then hurriedly left the building.

Hassan handed us our passports. “I am so very sorry,” he said. “He is stupid. Come with me. I will take you to my home. You will bathe and eat and sleep, and then in the morning you can go where you want, and be free.”

I slid into the backseat of Hassan’s big white car that somehow, in the middle of the desert, seemed as untouched by dust as he was. James sat in the front. As we drove off, Hassan said, “Now, tell me what happened.”

James told him how we, the Americans, had been detained without explanation, while everyone else had been sent on their way. When he got to the part where the official took us aside for questioning, Hassan stopped him. “What were the questions?”

“Where we were from, and where we were going in Syria, you know—just those,” James said. “And our work.”

“And what were your answers?”

“We said we were going to Damascus to stay at the Clift Hotel,” I said. “James said he built houses, and I said I was a director in theater. But he didn’t understand, so I said I was an artist. And he still didn’t understand, so I said actor—and that’s when he went crazy.”

Hassan laughed. He laughed so hard, he sneezed, and the car swerved. “Oh, so funny. So very funny.”

I leaned back in my seat. It felt good to be wrapped in that laughter—on a soft seat, behind tinted glass, in an air-conditioned car, moving swiftly away from the border.

Finally, Hassan wound down. He sighed. “I am so very sorry. You see, it is all a terrible misunderstanding. ‘Actor’ means ‘whore’ in Arabic—it’s pronounced ‘aahrh.’ And the Clift Hotel in Damascus is where men can find whores. It is funny, no?”

We spent the night. Hassan and his wife treated us to hot baths, clean clothes, a five-course meal, and the best sleep we’d had in weeks. When we left, we all embraced. They told us they loved Americans.

• • •

The next day we were in Aleppo. A man we met on the bus invited us to stay with his family in their fifth-floor walk-up. The couple had five young children, and their flat just two bedrooms, but they insisted we take one of them. The kids taught us Arabic. The mother taught me to cook Syrian dishes like yabra’ and fatteh. The father took us through the city’s covered souk, where we saw rising above us, next to the marketplace, the slender minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, erected at the end of the eleventh century.

Today, the market lies in ruins. The mosque’s minaret was pulverized five years ago during fighting between the Syrian Army and rebel forces.

In Damascus, a young Syrian man named Mufla befriended us. He instructed us on how to stay out of trouble in the war-torn city, where young soldiers no older than sixteen stood on the street corners, machine guns slung over their shoulders. “Whisper. Don’t point,” Mufla said. “And don’t talk to them. They can be crazy.”

Earlier this month, the Syrian Army and the Islamic State were reportedly still fighting to control an area in the south of Damascus.

At the end of our trip, we hitched a ride on the back of a beat-up delivery truck to Palmyra, the city the white-bearded old man had told us to visit. After hours bouncing through the windswept desert, there it was in the distance—majestic columns of sandstone against a clear blue sky. The Great Colonnade. And the Temple of Bel, dating back to the first century, its walls covered with carved hieroglyphs of birds and people. And on a hill overlooking the site was the Valley of the Tombs, where in a tower crypt a poisoned stray dog died in my arms.

All of these—colonnade, temple, tower—were smashed when the Islamic State took the city.

Now in its seventh year, the civil war drags on, having left an estimated 500,000 dead and millions displaced. Looking back on my visit there long ago, I think about whether the places and things I saw are now lost forever. And I think about the people who welcomed me so warmly, and wonder when they will be able to open their doors again to foreigners, without fear.

All Your Bases Belong to Us: A Conversation with Japanese Activist Hiroshi Inaba

In the Fray - Tue, 05/15/2018 - 20:25

More than six decades after America’s post-World War II occupation of Japan officially ended, more than 50,000 US troops remain there. Over half of them are stationed on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, an island with a population of 1.3 million, which the United States values as a strategic base close to China and North Korea.

Although few people outside of Japan know about it, demonstrations go on daily against the thirty-two US military bases and forty-eight training sites on Okinawa, which occupy about a fifth of the island’s land. The protests have been a feature of Okinawan life since the beginning of the US occupation in 1945 (which officially ended for most of the country in 1952, but not for Okinawa until two decades later). From time to time the discontent has exploded into massive street demonstrations, often in response to violent crimes connected to military personnel, such as the 1995 rape of a twelve-year-old girl by three American soldiers and the 2016 rape and murder of a twenty-year-old woman by a former marine working as a contractor for the US military.

In the late 1990s, the US military and Japanese government announced plans to build a new helipad in the far north of Okinawa and relocate the aging Futenma air base to the Henoko district of Nago, a city near the island’s center. For a time, fierce public opposition stymied those plans, but after the conservative government of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe took power in 2012, the work moved ahead. The plans for Henoko involve the expansion of the Marine Corps base already there, Camp Schwab, and the construction of a military runway in the waters of Oura Bay, which critics say will destroy coral reef and seagrass essential to the survival of aquatic life like dugongs, a manatee-like species of marine mammal.

In 2017, a poll by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun found that about two-thirds of Okinawans surveyed were opposed to the Henoko project. Local activists believe it amounts to an overall expansion of US bases on Okinawa, which they claim the government is trying to pass off as just a relocation of existing forces. In Oura Bay, they have formed a “canoe team” to monitor the construction from the water. Mobilizing dozens of boats at a time, the activists have also conducted “sit-ins-on-the-sea” to block the work, which so far has included the building of a barrier in the sea, preparatory boring ahead of the construction of the runway, and the dumping of sand to fill in portions of the bay.

The Abe administration not only supports the planned construction, but has even agreed to finance it. Japan has remained militarily dependent on the United States ever since the postwar occupation, when it was forced to accept a new constitution banning it from building offensive forces, and it has long supported the establishment of US military bases throughout the region. At the same time, Japanese nationalists have pushed—with US backing—to remilitarize the country. In recent years, lawmakers have approved legislation reinterpreting the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight overseas in support of allies. The country’s “self-defense” forces have operated in far-flung war zones like Iraq and South Sudan, and Japan now boasts the eighth-largest military budget in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. A key goal of the government now in power is to rewrite the constitution in order to loosen the remaining restrictions on Japan’s armed forces. Regardless of whether that happens, though, the US and Japan will likely continue their close military alliance, which experts say is one of America’s strongest strategic partnerships.

Hiroshi Inaba, a sixty-seven-year-old Japanese peace activist, received an eight-month suspended prison sentence last year because of his work protesting the US military presence on Okinawa. Originally from mainland Japan, he moved to Okinawa in 2014, just after protesters began engaging in regular sit-ins at Camp Schwab. In 2016, he was charged with “forcibly obstructing official business” after he and other protesters piled concrete blocks outside the base’s gates to prevent construction vehicles from entering. He is currently appealing the guilty verdict.

We interviewed Inaba last year about how the anti-base movement inspired him to relocate to Okinawa, the successful hunger strike he carried out to object to the conditions of his imprisonment, and the importance of international pressure in rolling back the US military presence in Japan.

Construction of a military runway has begun in the waters of Oura Bay. Eliza Egret / Shoal Collective

Why did you move to Okinawa?

I originally came here on a sightseeing trip, but after I saw the demonstrations [at Camp Schwab]—the old people being dragged away by the riot police—I thought that I had to do something. I decided to move to Okinawa.

More than 70 percent of US bases in Japan are in Okinawa. Okinawan people don’t want the US base construction, but they’re not being listened to. People here deserve democracy and human rights. I don’t know what the results of our protests will be, but we have to do it.

Can you tell us about the resistance to the base construction in Henoko?

They started [exploratory] boring under the sea in Oura Bay in 2004, but activists managed to stop them. Protesters climbed their scaffolding and slept there all night in 2005. Eventually the government gave up. They couldn’t finish the boring.

Almost ten years passed, and prime ministers changed. In 2012, [Shinzo] Abe’s right-wing government came to power. They restarted the construction at Henoko. They had to bore at fourteen points in Oura Bay. People resisted again, but this time, unsuccessfully. Unfortunately, I think most of the boring is now finished.

The next phase of construction has started: building a runway in the bay. They are bringing big loads full of sand and rock [to fill in the sea].

Some people protest because they’re upset about nature being destroyed—others because of the noise pollution at night from the Osprey military helicopter flights, or because of the lack of democracy, or because [their] relatives were raped by US soldiers.

How does the history of Okinawa relate to the opposition to US bases here?

Okinawa is disconnected from the rest of Japan. People here are treated differently and discriminated against. This has been the case since the end of World War II.

A quarter of the people on Okinawa died in the Second World War. Okinawa was the only place in Japan where US and Japanese soldiers fought on the land. There were so many Okinawan civilian victims. The Japanese army even forced people to commit mass suicide so that they wouldn’t be captured by the US troops. People who were children at that time are now in their eighties. They don’t want to see a repeat of that time—that’s why they oppose the military.

A Marine rifleman views the results of the American bombardment of Naha, the capital city of Okinawa (May 30, 1945). US Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, via Flickr

After the war, the US government thought that Okinawa could be a keystone in their policy against China. US occupation on the island lasted for twenty-seven years, and people used the dollar note. Okinawa wasn’t returned to Japan until 1972.

Do people in mainland Japan understand what’s happening in Okinawa?

Now, after the protests, more people on the mainland know about Okinawa, but they’re not interested. Maybe they think that they can’t do anything because it’s a US base—that they can’t reject it. Most Japanese people think that way.

Can you tell us about your arrest?

January 2016 was an unusual time in the movement. Riot police had been sent to Okinawa from different prefectures, and people were being arrested or injured at the protests all the time. Every day, big trucks were bringing construction materials into Camp Schwab. People were very angry.

At that time I brought fifty to a hundred concrete blocks to the sit-in. A few people put the blocks in front of the gate, and others followed. The police had to carry them away.

After that, I hired two cars, and we decided to buy lots of concrete blocks. Every day we blocked the gate with a hundred or two hundred blocks—in one week, maybe 1,400. We repeated it every day, two or three times. The action was successful in delaying the base construction.

The police had been watching and videotaping me. One morning, six police came to my apartment. They charged me with “interfering with business.” They searched my room and seized my things. Ten months later they returned and took me to the police station in Nago, where they kept me in a cage for one month. They interrogated me almost every day, twice a day for one hour. When they brought me for interrogation, I was in handcuffs with my arm locked to a chair. I was alone when questioned, without a lawyer. During the interrogation I would chat and make jokes, but try my best to ignore their questions. Sometimes I enjoyed the interrogation because the rest of the time I had no one to speak to.

Why do you think you were arrested?

They target people who influence people, or who make good speeches. The police secretly prepare the arrests with the Japanese government. Another influential activist, [Hiroji] Yamashiro, was arrested at the same time for cutting the wire fence around a US base. They put him in prison for 150 days.

Can you tell us about your hunger strike?

I started a hunger strike on my second day in the police station. During the strike I only took liquid, and sometimes prunes. I lost fourteen kilograms [thirty pounds]. People were very worried about me, and they said I should stop—otherwise, it would affect my health.

The hunger strike was the only thing I could do to improve my situation in the police station. That’s why I started. The newspapers reported it, and I was able to speak to journalists.

After one month, I was moved from the police station to Naha prison [in the south of the island]. This was a long time, as normally people only stay at the police station for three weeks, maximum. When I got to the prison, I stopped my hunger strike.

I was released from prison on the condition that I not make contact with Mr. Yamashiro and [Atsuhiro] Soeda [another activist who had been arrested]. Our group had to pay big money—three million yen [about $28,000, as bail]—for my release. The price was much higher for Mr. Yamashiro, and altogether it cost ten million yen [about $94,000] for the two of us. Because of that, my lawyer advised me not to go to the protests [while the case was ongoing]. If we were arrested again, it would be too costly.

What can people do in solidarity with the struggle in Okinawa?

Tell people what’s happening in Okinawa—that’s the thing I want people to do the most. A lot of people here can’t speak English, so they can’t tell the outside world what’s going on. If foreign countries criticize Abe and the Japanese government, this could have an effect.

It’s useful for people to come from Europe to join the protests. I was here for three years, and I noticed a big difference. There weren’t so many international people here three years ago—no foreign people or foreign journalists. Now, many people and journalists are coming, and people have demonstrated outside embassies in London and Washington. This really helps our struggle.

Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson are part of Shoal Collective, a newly formed cooperative of writers and researchers writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. Twitter: @shoalcollective

Exclusive: Listen to two tracks from Mike Brody album Sell Me A Bridge, out Oct. 27

Punchline Headlines - Tue, 10/17/2017 - 15:08

When NBA star forward Kevin Love left the Timberwolves to join LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, stand-up comedian Mike Brody – like most sports fans in Minnesota – was all sorts of bummed. But Brody turned his pain into comedy and his comedy into nearly three million views on YouTube with “Kevin Love Jersey Burning – Minnesota Nice Style,” a video poking fun at those who think defiling store-bought sportswear is a bold protest while simultaneously having a laugh at his Midwestern roots. It’s hilarious and, actually, kind of sweet.

Three years later Brody’s head is in a different place, not that he’s above light-hearted goofs. But as he prepares for the release of a new stand-up album Sell Me A Bridge (Oct. 27 on Rooftop/Audible) Brody is reveling in the newfound freedom he feels from writing much more personal material. “I think I got to a point in my career where I realized that I wasn’t really being me on stage,” Brody tells Laughspin. “I was down in the dumps and stalling creatively. Plus, my best friend, comedian Bill Young, had died and it sent me into a tailspin. I had a career and I was funny. But I wasn’t sharing anything about me as a person and I made a conscious decision to change that immediately.”

With that in mind, Laughspin is psyched to exclusively premiere two tracks from Sell Me A Bridge, which you can ear-peep below. Also below: A complete track listing plus more from Brody on the making of the album. Enjoy!


Sell Me A Bridge – Complete Track Listing

1. Fat Again
2. Reality Check
3. Grief Porn
4. Sobriety is a Tricky Thing
5. Sell Me a Bridge
6. Adult Child
7. Mike Brody Goes West
8. Moment of Truth
9. A Tale of Two Dachshunds
10. Pet of the Week
11. Look at Me!
12. Tell Everybody!
13. Cat Attack

I recorded this album in mid-August and every joke except one was written since January 2017. I just gave myself a deadline and stuck to it and I ended up writing my favorite material ever, because it’s all me.

In the past, I really had a hard time talking about sobriety and things like that on stage. Any time I’d start, someone would yell out ‘Quitter!’ or something shitty. I don’t get stage fright anymore, but if an audience doesn’t like a joke about a sandwich, it’s no big deal. If they don’t like your joke about your personal struggle with sobriety that you’ve fought for over a decade, it hurts. It’s YOU.

The album is dark in places and light in others, just like life. It’s incredibly personal, talking about struggles with weight, suicidal thoughts and moments in my life when I felt trapped and depressed with no way out. But at the end of the day I’m an optimist, and I got through it all. And I wanted this album to reflect that life can be dark with twists and turns, but there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. And I dedicated the album to the memory of Bill Young, because the tragedy of his death was the beginning of all this for me.


Julian McCullough headlines fundraising event to ‘stand up’ against mental health stigma (guest post)

Punchline Headlines - Thu, 09/07/2017 - 13:03

Storytelling is a powerful agent for change. Sharing personal stories with others takes bravery, especially when a person is opening up about their own mental health journey. In doing so, they may feel vulnerable or judged. And while those feelings may exist because of the dark shadow stigma casts on mental health, something far more important and impactful is happening; people are learning, relating—empathizing. Stigma is replaced with a message of hope.

The individuals listening may be going through similar issues, and therefore the storytelling is helping others feel like they are not alone. Sharing mental health stories is combatting stigma. These stories of lived-experience are relatable and genuinely felt. They are not forced, staged, or mechanical. They are truths being told based on that person’s life.

Similarly, comedy that resonates with an audience is also storytelling at its finest. Human life as told through the eyes of a comedian has a very unique appeal. Good stand-up comedy wouldn’t exist without comedians willingly stepping outside of their comfort zone to share their personal stories. It can even be therapeutic for the comedians and audience members. The very events a comedian shares on stage may be similar to the experience of an audience member, giving them both an opportunity to laugh and find humor in life’s situations.

On Monday, September 18, 2017 at 8pm, comedian, actor, and writer Julian McCullough will bring you comedic storytelling at its best. He will team up with the Jordan Porco Foundation charity for a night of stand-up comedy to stand up against mental health stigma at the Comedy Cellar at the Village Underground. All proceeds — TICKETS HERE — will benefit the mental health promotion and suicide prevention programs of the Jordan Porco Foundation.

“When celebrities like Julian use their influence in support of raising mental health awareness, it makes them key allies for challenging stigma, wherever it may be. With comedy, Julian has found ways to broach tough topics, providing what many cannot—a sense of relief and laughter,” said Marisa Giarnella-Porco, President and CEO of the Jordan Porco Foundation.

Relief from stigma is needed. Research on stigma towards mental illness shows that most people, starting at a young age, hold negative attitudes towards people with mental illness. These attitudes include stereotypes and perceptions that those with mental illness are dangerous to others. According to the World Health Organization, depression alone is the leading cause of disability in the world. One in four American adults is suffering from a mental health disorder this year. But, even though this crisis is so visible in our society, only 25% of those diagnosed with mental illness feel that other people are caring and sympathetic towards individuals with mental illness.1 Stigma can create overwhelming feelings of isolation and shame that cause people with mental health issues to distance themselves from their family and friends, due to fear of being judged.

“I don’t want my daughter to feel alone, to distance herself from the people she loves. My daughter’s mental health is important to me because I don’t want her to simply endure life, I want her to enjoy it. I want her to be able to talk about how she is feeling without fear being judged. I want her to freely share her talents with the world, know how to take care of herself, and how to take care of the people she loves… especially me when I get old,” said Julian.

Sharing our stories helps bring people together, replacing fear with hope. It takes a village to stand up against mental health stigma and change the mental health landscape. Come be part of our village at the Comedy Cellar at the Village Underground. Get your tickets, here. Tickets are $80 per person. Doors open at 7:15pm for the 8pm show. 21 and older.

About the Jordan Porco Foundation

The Jordan Porco Foundation’s mission is to prevent suicide, promote mental health, and create a message of hope for young adults. This is accomplished by providing engaging and uplifting peer-run programs on college campuses. Their programs strive to start a conversation about mental health that reduces stigma while encouraging help-seeking and supportive behaviors in order to save young adult lives. Learn more at jordanporcofoundation.org.

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