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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

Collateral Damage: A Review of Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season

In the Fray - Fri, 03/16/2018 - 08:56

Wolf Season
By Helen Benedict
Bellevue Literary Press. 320 pages.

In her latest novel Wolf Season, Helen Benedict tells the stories of three women in a small town in upstate New York coping with the trauma of war—not just the direct experience of violence and death, but also the collateral damage it inflicts on loved ones. Rin is a rape-scarred Iraq War veteran who has returned to her hometown of Huntsville. Naema is an Iraqi refugee who lost her husband during the conflict and now works in the town as a doctor. Beth is a military wife dealing with an abusive husband and a troubled child.

The book’s eponymous wolves are Rin’s. She keeps three of them, illegally, on ten fenced-in acres of her farm, to fulfill a promise she made to her dead husband. Their presence comforts her, and she feels a connection to the wild animals. When she describes them as creatures “who won’t be tamed, won’t be polluted, won’t be used,” or imagines them patrolling the woods “like souls freed from the dead, their thick-furred bodies bold and wild,” Rin seems to be saying something about herself, too—a war survivor whose greatest suffering came at the hands of her male comrades-at-arms, who raped her.

A Columbia journalism professor and the author of twelve books, including seven novels, Benedict has been writing about sexual assault in the armed services for years. (According to the US Department of Defense, about one in three military women has been sexually assaulted, compared to one in six civilian women.) Previously, Benedict tackled this subject in a work of nonfiction—The Lonely Soldier (2011). For Wolf Season, she spent more than three years conducting research, speaking with scores of female veterans and Iraqi refugees. There were times, she wrote in a recent essay for Powell’s Books, when the people she interviewed “would fall silent, hands shaking, eyes filling with tears, unable or unwilling to speak further.” She came to believe that just writing up their stories would not be enough; only fiction would allow her to get at what had been left unspoken in those conversations.

Wolf Season is the second in a planned trilogy of standalone novels about the Iraq War. The first book was Sand Queen (2014), a gritty narrative of combat on Iraq’s front lines, which Benedict told from the perspectives of an American female soldier and an Iraqi medical student—Naema. In that book, Naema’s brother and father were rounded up by US soldiers because of suspicion they were conspiring against coalition forces. (The vast majority of these sorts of arrests—common during the early years of the war—would turn out to be groundless, the result of grudges by neighbors or other false information.) When we meet her again in Wolf Season, Naema has relocated to Huntsville following the death of her husband, an interpreter for the US army, in a bomb blast. Now a doctor, she works at the town’s veterans clinic while she tries to build a new life for herself and her ten-year-old son Tariq, who was maimed by the same explosion that killed his father.

Author Helen Benedict. Photo by Emma O’Connor

The novel starts with Rin taking her blind nine-year-old daughter Juney to the clinic while a hurricane is descending on the town. When she learns that the doctor—Naema—is Arab, Rin’s post-traumatic stress disorder is triggered: she starts trembling and becomes disoriented, her war memories drowning out her ability to distinguish between past and present.

Beth lives on the other side of that trauma. Her husband Todd, a Marine, has returned home from Afghanistan embittered and volatile. On his first day back, he barks at his wife, “Gimme the fucking keys,” and then tells his son Flanner to “watch TV or whatever the fuck you do with yourself these days.”

Tariq and Flanner are friends and play together by a creek running near Rin’s property. Tariq is mesmerized by the wolves. They indulge his childhood need for magic and myth, and he perceives them as otherworldly creatures—“loyal and wise and beautiful.” At one point, Tariq reads a book that dismisses the animals as “no more than a bundle of instincts.” The boy is distraught. “When he gazes into [the alpha male wolf] Gray’s amber eyes, he sees much more than raw instinct and aggression. He sees a rich and complicated being in there, a being with whom he can speak his secret language, boy to wolf, wolf to boy.” It is a poignant moment in the novel, capturing the alienation and yearning for connection that Tariq—an Iraqi refugee, a disabled child, a fatherless boy—cannot help but feel.

In her essay, Benedict discusses what she describes as a “serious crisis of compassion” among the political leaders now in power and their supporters. When white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, Benedict—who was there—felt that she was witnessing a “colossal failure of imagination” at work. “These white nationalists had clearly never given a moment’s thought to what it is like to be an African American or an immigrant, a Muslim or a Jew, or anyone else they were targeting,” she writes. Like other great art, Wolf Season renders a world that defies such heartlessness, showing us how deeply moved we can be by lives and experiences that bear little resemblance to our own.

Priya Malhotra has been a journalist for over fifteen years in New York City. She writes about contemporary art for Hong Kong-based Asian Art News magazine and has contributed to numerous other publications, including Newsday, Time Out New York, the Times of India, and the Japan Times. Twitter: @writer_priya | Facebook: priya.malhotra.771

Canary in the Coal Mine: A Conversation with First Nations Activist Carol Prior

In the Fray - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 16:46

In Australia, a new mining megaproject threatens to devastate the Great Barrier Reef and the land of First Nations peoples. The planned Carmichael mine, set to be one of the world’s largest, will be located in the northeastern state of Queensland, within the vast Galilee Basin. It will be owned and operated by the Indian conglomerate Adani, which plans to export most of the coal to India by sea, via a soon-to-be-expanded port that sits on the Great Barrier Reef.

There is widespread opposition to the Adani project across Australia, which is already the world’s largest exporter of coal. So far, the outcry has discouraged the country’s four biggest banks from funding the project, and local activists have sought international support to keep the pressure on Adani.

Carol Prior is a key activist in the anti-Carmichael movement. She is an elder of the Juru people, an Australian First Nations community on whose traditional lands the mine’s railway line and coal terminal will be built. The passage of Australia’s 1993 Native Title Act granted First Nations peoples some limited rights over their traditional lands and forced mining companies like Adani to negotiate with them, but those rights, Prior and other activists say, are meager at best—and in recent years the Australian government has further curbed them. In 2017, the federal government amended the law to overturn a Federal Court ruling so that fewer representatives of First Nations communities have to approve deals with corporations for them to move forward. In the case of the Carmichael mine, Adani has already reached an agreement to operate on Juru lands, even though many members of the community remain staunchly opposed to the project.

We spoke to Prior about her experiences as a First Nations activist, her passion for protecting what her people refer to as “Juru country,” and her warning to the world about the environmental and cultural costs of valuing electricity over life. 

Can you tell us about yourself?

I’m 71 years old. My grandparents met and married in Bowen, Queensland, in about 1901. From there they were removed to an Aboriginal mission called Hull River Mission [at Mission Beach, now a popular tourist destination]. Everyone who’d been taken away from their lands was put in the mission—it was set up for this. They were moved again, this time to Palm Island, because a cyclone blew the Hull River Mission away.

First Nations people were under the Aboriginal Protection Act right up until 1976. The Act meant that no one could move [from where they were placed] unless they had a permit. If you got a permit, it would state that you could only move around for one or two days. My father got an exemption to go and work in Ingham, and I was born there.

My fight really began in the early 1990s, with the Native Title claim for Juru country. We were only allowed back on Juru country to visit our sacred places and cultural heritage sites in 1995. But by then it was all private property and locked gates.

Did the Native Title Act mean that you could reclaim your land?

No. When they brought in the Native Title Act, it was another act to keep us chained to slavery. We’ve still got nothing. It’s just token. For example, we won the Native Title claim for Cape Upstart. But it had been made into a national park, and you needed permission from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife [Service] to do anything.

You were originally on the negotiating team with Adani. What happened?

When we received our Native Title, the judge ordered that a [legal body] be set up to represent the Juru people. The board of directors, of which there are eight, have refused to accept the membership of people who really have Juru heritage. This is because it’s people like me, who have Juru heritage, who will fight for our land. You’ve got anthropologists, lawyers, and the state government, who will put people on the [legal bodies] to make sure that things like the Adani project are signed off. To me, it’s divide and conquer.

I was elected to be a spokesperson for my family, but the other seven family representatives voted me off. The reason I got voted off was because I asked, “How many jobs are going to be provided for the [Juru] people?” Apparently, more than 4,000 jobs, including traineeships. That sounded good to me. But then we were told that the hiring would be done by subcontractors. I said, “I don’t like that.” Subcontractors have their own workers. They won’t want to give jobs to us. When subcontractors come in, whatever deal we have made with Adani isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

A Juru-led protest in September on the beach in Bowen, highlighting the threat to the Great Barrier Reef posed by the Carmichael mine. Bowen is close to Abbot Point, the location of Adani’s port. Photo by Alex Bainbridge, Green Left Weekly.

Do you think the struggle against Adani is also a struggle in solidarity with First Nations people?

Yes. [Adani founder and chairman] Gautam Adani is planning to destroy a tribe of people he knows nothing about. Adani and the Indian people will watch us get wiped out to give them electricity. When I say this, I mean that they’re taking away our very existence, taking away our spiritual connection to our sacred sites and our whole land. I’m damned if I’ll ever stand for that.

The planned railway line is only 30 meters from our rock art at Mount Roundback. The trains will go past, and the coal dust will cover the rock art. It will also go through our ochre ground, which was used to paint those 3,000-year-old paintings, and for our corroborees. Once that railway line is in position, the land will become private, and we won’t be able to cross it to visit our rock art. Our rock art is there for us to learn about our ancestors. It tells us, “This is where you come from, and this is where your spiritual connection is. This is your country.” We are at one with everything around us. We come from Mother Earth. When we die, we know we’re going back to Mother Earth. The Adani project will destroy our sacred sites and everything that is spiritual to us.

How will the Adani project affect the Great Barrier Reef?

Everything in the ocean has a meaning to Juru people. We are saltwater people, and we have a connection to the ocean. I’ve seen coal dust on the beach. When the turtles lay their eggs, the coal dust heats the eggs, and they don’t hatch. You can see the dust on the top of the ocean. The coral reef has so many animals, and the Caley Valley wetlands, which will be affected, are a breeding ground for coral crabs. Black swans also nest there, and it’s a breeding place for fish. Adani is building its [coal port] extension not far from the wetlands. Of course, whatever happens on the land will go out into the ocean. If it kills on land, it will kill in the ocean. It’s a domino effect.

Do you think that people around the world can act in solidarity with the struggle against Adani?

Yes, we need the world to stand up. There is nothing more beautiful, richer, or rarer than the Barrier Reef. If we allow it to be destroyed, all of the creatures will become extinct. The only place people will see them is in a book. People will be saying, “Why didn’t our grandparents stand up to protect them? They should have fought to protect them.” Put your hands up, be counted, help us to protect this place. The reef is not just for Australians—it’s for the world. The animals you find in Australia, you won’t find anywhere else. If we destroy their habitats, we have nothing.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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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