Posts Tagged 'egypt'

Photographer offers glimpse into Lebanon’s paradise lost

By Harry van Versendaal

Two black IKEA-style chairs sitting empty on a balcony overlooking a bombarded apartment building, a black Mercedes, partly covered by a tablecloth in an empty lot next to a derelict building, a tangle of trees sprouting through the floorboards of a bullet-riddled church.

Demetris Koilalous does not pretend to be a documentary photographer. “My style of photography is intrinsically connected to the way I see the world. A beautiful landscape, for example, does not interest me — I don’t even lift my camera,” he says, sitting on the sofa of his colorful apartment in the northern Athens suburb of Halandri.

This jagged juxtaposition of the mundane with the war-torn is what the 50-year-old photographer seeks to bring out in his photo exhibition of present-day Lebanon currently on display at the Museum of Photography, located in a former warehouse designed by Eli Modiano in the northern port city of Thessaloniki and the only Greek institution exclusively dedicated to the medium.

Koilalous spent 18 hectic days last year in the Land of the Cedars on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. He was on a photographic assignment commissioned by the museum which sent five professionals to the Middle East as part of a Greek Culture Ministry program. Featuring some 200 images shot in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Qatar, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, “Oriented and Disoriented in the Middle East,” will run through May 13.

Intrigued by the delicate balance found in Mideast societies, Koilalous went to Lebanon intentionally seeking out places that would illustrate a country on the brink — “a rather European preconception,” he admits. Carrying a Canon DSLR camera, he looked for places where battles took place, where massacres occurred, where people were driven out of their homes, places that formed the border between different minorities.

“At some point during the second day, I was in the center of Lebanon and I happened upon this church that was totally pockmarked by bullets; you know Beirut, it’s all cement, ruins, torn-down houses, rebuilt houses, there are really modern buildings and not much green at all. And so suddenly I see this incredible anarchic greenery. It was an old church, it didn’t have a roof, and when you walked inside it was like walking through a forest. And that’s when I remembered another photographer’s project called ’Paradise Lost.’ And it just kept going through my mind that there is a lost paradise over there. This country that’s living its very own anti-paradise,” he says, explaining the inspiration behind the somewhat awkward project title.

Conflict-prone Lebanon is split along sectarian lines that dictate not only politics but also living arrangements and standards of living. The 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 cost an estimated 150,000 lives while many more were wounded or displaced. Originally fought between Christian militias and leftists allied with the Palestinians, the conflict triggered a wide array of clashes as Syria, Israel and others stepped into the fray. Social peace remains fragile and contemporary events are so disputed that school history books stop at independence from France in 1943.

Understandably, time pressure was not the only problem Koilalous had to deal with. Security guards were constantly monitoring his movements and the photographs he was taking. He was armed with documents from the Greek Embassy in Lebanon, the Museum of Photography, and Greece’s Culture Ministry. He also had written permission from Lebanon’s Information Ministry, police force and military to take pictures in public spaces. But often he would find out these were not enough.

“There’s this hotel called the Monroe with a great view of the sea where I wanted to take a shot. So I showed them all my papers. The guy responds that the paper says I am allowed to take pictures inside Beirut but nothing about overhead shots,” he says, explaining that it was not army officials but private security guards that would give him the most trouble.

“If I were his cousin he would have let me in — just like in Greece. But because I took the legal route he wouldn’t let me. Some people find an excuse to exercise the little power they have left. A security guard trying to impose his own interpretation of a ministry document in order to legitimize his position.”

Born in Athens in 1962, Koilalous initially studied urban planning in Edinburgh and geography at the London School of Economics before gravitating to photography. It was only after he started to teach the craft about 10 years ago, he says, that he began to take good photographs. First noticed thanks to the dreamlike quality of the black-and-white panoramic landscapes of “Deja vu,” showcased in the 2008 PhotoBiennale, Koilalous has steadily evolved with more sharply focused work. His open-ended “Growth” project, a rather lyrical commentary on the changing landscape along Greece’s national highways, has shown him to be a good master of color and symbolism.

Koilalous keeps no secret of his wide range of influences — from the activist photojournalism of Sebastiao Salgado and the iconic images of Magnum master Josef Koudelka, to outsider photographer Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin, to Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth of the Dusseldorf school. “It’s a lot of contrary things. But I gradually came to appreciate the simplicity of photographers like [Andre] Kertesz.”

However, as his experience working as a teacher has shown him, no amount of quality influences and hard work can match a generous dose of talent. “The outcome is a matter of hard work, but instinct is a question of talent. There are people out there who can see through walls. It’s incredible. Some things can be cultivated, particularly some stereotypes — but instinct cannot.”

Skeptics often complain that contemporary art, particularly its conceptual genre, has lowered the bar to the point where actual talent is made redundant. If you want to succeed, the argument goes, make sure you have good market connections. The argument seems to strike a rather emotional chord with Koilalous, who is ready to defend his more conceptual counterparts.

“I am not denying the fact that the market defines things to a certain extent, but it’s bulls**t to say that art is determined by curators. The price of an artwork is one thing, its value however is quite another. It’s good that a photograph can sell for a lot of money. The more people want a photograph, the more its price will rise. Something that nobody wants to buy will never sell,” he says before going on to deconstruct a couple of Gursky photos from a Dusseldorf school photo book.

The German artist’s “Rhine II,” a picture of the gray river under gray skies, last year fetched a record 4.3 million dollars at a Christie’s auction in New York. The image, described by Gursky as “an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are,” was digitally manipulated to leave out elements that bothered him. Many found the photo “overrated.” Writing for the Guardian, Maev Kennedy called it a ”sludgy image of desolate, featureless landscape.”

“It’s immature to say that Gursky, whose works hang in MoMa, Berlin and the Tate Modern, is a creation of marketing. Only someone with an inferiority complex would claim that.”

It’s not easy being a pioneer. If you want to use photography to talk about new things, Koilalous suggests, you have to overcome the huge obstacle that is reality. As a photographer who is an artist, you have to make use of what is commonly perceived as reality and illustrate it in a subjective way, but still communicate it to the audience, he says. “This is an important part in photography that you need to get used to.”

One of the “anti-paradise” pictures depicts a pair of empty armchairs flanking a little round table with decorative objects — including a statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle. His intent, Koilalous explains, was not a comment on religiosity or kitsch, but rather an allegory on the absence of dialogue in the divided country. “This is what I am trying to say. I am not sure if this will resonate with the audience at all. But I want my images to make people think twice.”

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Egyptian revolution: Download at 50 percent

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s night and small group of friends are sitting inside a living room. The shades are closed but the lights are off. Outside, a group of men wielding knives and clubs are coming down the street shouting slogans. “It’s the f***ing thugs,” a voice says as a small HD camera rolls. It’s the first few days of Egypt’s revolution in January 2011, and nobody really has a clear idea of what is going on.

Filmmakers Karim El Hakim, an Egyptian American, and Omar Shargawi, a Dane, got a chance to film the dream of a lifetime as the Egyptian capital was swept by protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Armed with consumer HD and phone cameras, the two activist friends shift the focus back and forth between the violence in and around Tahrir Square and the heated conversations inside the downtown apartment, covering 11 days of the revolution.

Shot at a high-speed pace, with shaky footage (that may put off some older viewers) and claustrophobic close-up shots and augmented with a dramatic score, the end result is a diary-like, action-packed verite personal documentary that will keep you on the end of your seat. With no choice due to the escalating violence, the filmmakers flee the country together with El Hakim’s wife and child, leaving both the revolution and the project unfinished. “Half Revolution,” which draws on some 120 hours of footage, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.

El Hakim, a tall man with unruly curls and sporting a leather jacket, was in Thessaloniki for the promotion of the film, which was screened at the coastal city’s documentary festival this week. Born in Palo Alto, California, he moved between the United States and Egypt for years, until ultimately settling in Cairo a decade ago, largely prompted by the anti-Arab backlash after 9/11. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about those “11 life-changing days” and shared his thoughts about the prospects of this “half revolution.”

What were you doing when the whole thing started?

We were working on a feature film directed by Omar, set in Cairo and loosely based on the Book of Job. It’s about an Egyptian-Danish man who comes back to Cairo and the second he sets foot in the country his whole life is turned upside down. The man blames God for his troubles, he turns his back on him and sees what living without God means. You’ll definitely hear about it soon.

Are you religious?

Not particularly. I actually come from a very Sufi background, but strict religion is not something I believe in. I think everybody has their own religion in a sense.

When did you consciously decide to go beyond coverage of events and make yourselves the subjects of the movie?

We started by trying to capture things happening on the street. We were shooting stuff in the street and then shooting stuff at home, mostly conversations, because there was nothing else to do. Then on January 25 we got arrested at around 1.30 in the morning in Tahrir Square as the police really brutally attacked the people; a lot of people were shot and a lot of people died that night. We got beaten up by a hundred guys, thrown in a box, we were separated, sort of reunited in the box, then taken to a prison. We were released at around 4 a.m. because we played dumb — we pretended we were foreign tourists and they let us go. That traumatic experience made us realize that even though there was stuff happening around us, there was also stuff happening to us and we wanted to capture that. And we realized the best way to tell the story was through the frame of reference of characters and that we were, in fact, the characters. So the film became a kind of autobiographical account of what we were going through. We didn’t use any historical clips, or YouTube clips. It’s not the history of the revolution. It’s not a history lesson.

You must have tons of material.

Yes, we have around 120 hours of material. We had three to four cameras going and everybody was filming as much as they could.

What did you shoot with?

Just small consumer HD cameras. I even shot with an iPhone.

Did you have any of your material confiscated?

Actually, the night we were arrested, Omar tried to film inside the police truck and a policeman took the chip out of his phone. So we did lose some important material that night, but we were were able to patch up the storytelling. In the end, we were lucky to get out with all the footage. [At the airport] I had to hide some of the stuff in my son’s diapers. We were very scared about getting caught, because we heard of other journalists getting caught. I even cut my hair, really short and boring, wore really boring clothes, pretending to be an English teacher. Having a baby of course helped.

Where did you fly to?

We went to Paris, where my uncle and cousins live. We stayed there for three months until the dust settled and then went back to Cairo.

Were you or anyone else hurt during the protests?

I got shot in the head with a rubber bullet; luckily it missed my eye by about half an inch. And on the night we were arrested, I was beaten up pretty badly. Otherwise I was pretty lucky. We missed some bullets that flew very close to us.

Where exactly do you live in Cairo?

I live right downtown, two blocks from Talaat Harb Square and four blocks from Tahrir.

What was the situation like in other neighborhoods? At some point your wife says she’s off to [the more affluent residential district of] Zamalek to get some milk for the baby.

Zamalek is like an island in the middle of the Nile. It is more upscale and was actually a safer zone to be in. There were not many protests happening in Zamalek. Life did go on in certain parts of the city. Downtown was really the battlefield.

Did you use Twitter or any other social media?

I actually started using Twitter once they turned the Internet back on, but I did not have a smartphone. Some of my friends used [BlackBerry’s encrypted messenger service] PBM to communicate and to mobilize and to warn each other where not to go to avoid the police. But when they cut the Internet everybody went out on the street to find out what was happening. And then, when they turned it back on, the crowd thinned as a lot of people left to upload their clips. It’s ironic. [The authorities] used it as a weapon to manipulate the crowds, so relying on that kind of stuff was useful but it cannot ever replace actually being there.

We don’t see any journalists from the mainstream media in your film.

They were not really part of our reality. I didn’t see many journalists in the street, most of the journalists were sitting at five-star hotels shooting from their balconies. We did try to get in touch with people to upload these clips but we couldn’t find them, they were too busy or got arrested.

Is it more dangerous for you now that you’ve made the movie?

I guess I’m waiting for that knock on the door. But it hasn’t happened yet. And I think part of the reason why it hasn’t happened is that in Egypt they are really not concerned with what is shown outside of the country. They are more concerned about what is shown inside the country. So as it’s shown in Cairo for the premiere there will probably be reactions to it.

Where do you see things going from here? Do you see a fresh showdown with the army?

There are daily showdowns with the army now. Some are violent, some are not, but I think ultimately it is sort of the beginning of the end of their completely privileged place. I think that they will have to compromise with the people and work with the Brotherhood. To what extent, we will have to see. Many people believe the Brotherhood have made a deal with the army allowing them to take power on the condition that the army is not reformed — which is an empty wish. Because things are not going to go back to the way they were. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has always been an illegal party, so in a sense what the revolution has done is take them out of the shadows, put them into the light and legalize them; and there is a lot of pressure on them to perform. They have a lot of cleaning up to do. All these institutions that are rotten to the core, they have to be rebuilt. Ultimately, if they don’t do anything, they will feel it in the polls. This pressure is not going to go away. Something has woken up in people and it’s like the veil has been lifted from the eyes of the regular Egyptian. He has realized he has been living under a military dictatorship for 60 years and this was something they did not even really understand. Something has to change, hopefully for the better.

Were you surprised at it all?

I think the army really was trying to fend off a real revolution. It’s clear to me now in retrospect that on day three of the uprising, when the army went into town and basically styled themselves as the saviors of the revolution, that they were in fact trying to position themselves in a positive light by basically getting rid of Mubarak. It’s really difficult to invest in the military. In a sense we can only hope for the best and hope that the Brotherhood and the army will start to have some friction. They are certainly not the best of friends. But they have a common enemy, which is revolution, which is democracy. Neither of these groups is democratic, neither of these groups is liberal. They are both very conservative so at the moment we are seeing this counter-revolution being waged against the liberals and the youth parties and the workers’ parties to try to discredit the revolution and take people out of the game. It’s a real tense and fragile moment, but what is clear is that the military is up to a lot of dirty tricks. They are playing mind games, trying to confuse people. You need to influence the minds of the so-called couch party, the silent majority who only get news from state TV and terrestrial television, who don’t watch Al Jazeera, don’t have Internet, and only read government papers. And I think our film does the same on the international stage. I’ve been trying to spread the word through this film that the revolution is not over. A lot of people, especially in America and Europe, think, “Hey, the dictator is gone, the revolution is over, you must be so happy, everything is cool.” But it’s not. We’re only halfway done, maybe even less than halfway done.

Yasser Alwan: Photographer with a cause

By Harry van Versendaal

I like getting lost. It’s the best way to really get to know a city,” explained Yasser Alwan as he arrived outside a Thessaloniki bar some 30 minutes after our agreed time. After 17 years in Cairo, the 47-year-old photographer certainly knows the streets of the Egyptian metropolis as well as any homegrown resident.

Born in Nigeria to Iraqi parents, Alwan told me he lived in Lebanon and Iraq before moving with his parents to New York in the early 1970s. His Iraqi-American background was “volatile enough” for him to decide to leave the US in 1992. He said he hadn’t been back since.

Standing in the tradition of documentary art photography, Alwan was in Greece this weekend for the inauguration of “Facing Mirrors,” an exhibition of 130 portraits at the northern port city’s Museum of Photography that is also showcasing works by Middle East artists Gilbert Hage, Youssef Nabil, Hrair Sarkissian and Raed Yassin.

During a panel discussion in Thessaloniki, Alwan, an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime who played an active role in the January uprisings, responded to questions about his work and political developments in Egypt. Here is an excerpt of the discussion.

My images are as artless as possible. Yes, I think about balance and composition. But what I am mostly interested in is honest human contact. I am not interested in spectacle or a visual experience. I am interested in an all-round experience and in celebrating the people I take photographs of.

It’s probably the most produced item in the world today, and it’s the easiest thing to make: a picture. Of, course, it is also the easiest thing to delete. Any picture made for public space — all the print media, television and the Internet — has a life of 24 hours; and then the next day comes and new images are needed. Images made for public use are made in the millions daily. How possible is it to make images that convey more than just a blink of an eye view of the world? I think it’s impossible.

In the days of painting portraiture, when a painter would have a subject sit for him maybe days or weeks, there was a relationship that was established. A painter would come to know a person because of a connection between eye, brain, spine, hand, canvas — and then the connection back to the person, and that connection was happening hundreds of times during a particular sitting. But photography sort of eliminated that necessity. I think photography brought about a change in consciousness.

I have an ethical obligation when I make a portrait of someone, which is to convey something of the truth. And the only way that I feel I can do that is if I spend time with the people, with that environment. I would like you to believe that my photographs from Tahrir are more real [than those that appeared on the media]. I understand that all images are constructed regardless of whether you believe they are more real or not. But I do want to get across that my pictures are more real and more honest. That does not make the art go away. But part of the art is to get you to suspend your disbelief.

Egyptians react quite forcefully to my work, but usually in a negative way. The pictures hurt them but that is absolutely not my intention.

Portraits require a sense of social mobility. Historically, the people who had portraits made of themselves were people who were moving up in the world or who were already at the very top by birth. Ordinary people had no portraits except for minor examples from the beginning of the history of portraiture 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Each person is different. Sometimes I make a picture of someone in an hour and it turns out well, and sometimes I try for months and it never works. Photographing in the streets in Cairo is extremely difficult. You have to remember we live in a police state. I have been in jail many times; I have been taken to the State Security Headquarters just for taking pictures. So the environment is not a comfortable one for a photographer like myself to work in. The state is terrified of images like mine. They don’t want such images to be seen by the population of Egypt because they have a vested interest in controlling the image. Ninety-nine percent of the images that you see of Egypt are the Nile and the Pyramids, Luxor and Aswan — by design. It’s been a very difficult way of working, but it’s the only way of working: that is, to get people to overcome their own fears and prejudices about what a picture is.

I’ve been stopped by the police at least a hundred times in Egypt over the last 17 years. Also people will immediately accuse me of being a spy, I am a foreigner, I don’t speak the Egyptian dialect like an Egyptian. If I don’t manage the situation well it can turn into 15 people taking me by the arms to a police station.

[Women are] an invisibility that I’ve reproduced. Most unfortunately. It is part of the culture that I’ve swallowed myself. It’s something that I am dying to do. I’ve tried to work with women’s organizations to be able to gain access to women, it’s been very difficult for me to photograph the ordinary average nobody who is a woman. I am very able to photograph the upper classes and I have. But the ordinary average woman is much more sensitive about her image and it would take somebody much smarter than myself or a woman photographer.

Religion doesn’t come into play at all in my work. I’m working on a project about the Coptic community in Egypt. It’s an extremely sensitive issue, but that’s where my interest would be, rather than Islam.

I’d like to use the momentous events of January-February 2011 in Tahrir Square. I’ve lived in Egypt for 17 years and I’ve been going to Egypt for 25 and it was beyond my imagination to believe that what happened did happen. The uprising brought the social media to the fore. Videos and photographs that ordinary people have been making on their mobile telephones have been put on the Internet, they are being gathered by the American University in Cairo, which is trying to compile an archive of images, sound and video of the revolution. We have not removed the system. But that’s coming, inshallah. However, there has been a public space that has been carved out in Egypt and that public space is not going to be given up. Graffiti, and most of the graffiti is politically oriented, and some of it very refined, is throughout the streets of Cairo. The Ministry of Interior is now buying paint by the ton and as soon as the graffiti is done they have troops of people to paint over it.

I predict we are going to have another confrontation, hopefully sooner rather than later, but no more than two years from now. And it will be bloody.

The European switchboard

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent cartoon in The Economist showed Catherine Ashton sitting behind a desk with five telephones. The problem is many people still do not know who Ms Ashton is, what she does or what she looks like. Worse, perhaps, most people don’t give a damn.

The cartoon was an allusion to Henry Kissinger’s famous quip: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” the former US secretary of state once said, in a remark that drove home the old continent’s lack of a single voice. Little has changed since then. As membership has ballooned to 27 states, the European home has remained little more than an amalgam of national fixations, as nation states are reluctant to give up serious chunks of sovereignty.

The Lisbon Treaty, the European Union’s last piece of institutional engineering which was propelled into being in late 2009 following a decade of tedious horse-trading and frustrating setbacks (including an embarrassing rejection by Irish voters in a public referendum), was supposed to change all that by installing a president of the European Council and a foreign policy supremo. However, the subsequent decision to appoint a duo of political lightweights — former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as president and Baroness Ashton, a British Labour peer, as high representative for foreign affairs and security policy — quickly dampened the hopes of Euro-optimists. It was like wishing for the job to be done badly, critics scoffed at the time.

A joke circulating in the corridors of Brussels, The Economist reported, has Ashton informing Hillary Clinton that she now has a single telephone number so that Washington can reach Europe, but when the US secretary of state finally does so, she gets a message: “For French foreign policy, press 1. For British policy, press 2…” Few Europeans would disagree about the switchboard analogy (though, to be fair, #1 should connect you to Berlin).

“We have installed too many phone lines,” said Panayiotis Ioakimidis, professor of international and European studies at the University of Athens and a member of the local ELIAMEP think tank, during a recent discussion at the Foreign Ministry in Athens. “We have five presidents speaking for Europe and that spells confusion,” he said. New posts keep springing up, making the EU look like the Lernaean Hydra of institutions. Next to Van Rompuy and Ashton there is Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup.

The Lisbon Treaty — which followed the ill-fated EU constitution and the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties — was designed to make the bloc more effective, more visible and more legitimate. But success has so far been minimal on all levels. By installing a two-headed presidency, the new blueprint has institutionalized the EU’s split identity at the highest level. Undefined and overlapping duties between the top dogs have occasionally resulted in turf wars while the excessive number of presidents has given the EU more visibility — but not in the way it had hoped. The treaty has at least strengthened the role of the bloc’s perennial underdog, the European Parliament, but has not necessarily made it more democratic. The MEPs may be elected but they are hardly accountable: They are little known to ordinary citizens while the impact of their decisions is limited.

Political pygmy

Impact is also wanting on the global scene as the Union’s diplomatic power is no match for its economic clout — the EU is after all the world’s largest trading bloc. A self-styled champion of freedom and human rights, Brussels has come under fire for its sluggish response to the pro-democracy riots in Tunisia and, more recently, Egypt. “The Tunisians are not going to postpone their revolution for a year so that the EU can issue a response,” Piotr Maciej Kaczynski of the Center for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank, told the Foreign Ministry discussion.

Nor has the new setup been very impressive in handling the euro crisis. Worse for the federalist technocrats in Brussels, developments like Greece’s near-default and the creation of a bailout mechanism for Europe’s spendthrift countries have shifted power to the governments in Berlin and Paris. “Expectations were too high,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussls. He said some Eurocrats tried to sell the product beyond its real value. “This is obviously not a perfect treaty. However it is the treaty we have to live with for a certain period of time and we have to make the most out of it,” Emmanouilidis said.

Van Rompuy, for one, is certainly trying. The Flemish politician, a devout Catholic with a soft spot for writing haikus, may be an unknown quantity to people outside the small Benelux nation but he has an excellent record of conciliation and negotiation (Belgians refer to him as the “miracle man” for keeping the country glued together). “Tony Blair would be wrong,” Emmanouilidis said of the former British premier who was once favorite for the job. “So would anyone else that would be tempted to behave like a president of the EU.”

It is still too early to judge the EU’s new rulebook. The new equilibrium will take years to consolidate. Unlike Ashton, who seems to have been reduced to switchboard operator status, Van Rompuy is still testing the system to see how far he can go. The Greek debt crisis, where he deftly bridged the original divide between France and Germany, and Belgium’s presidency in the second half of 2010 were a wind of political Fortuna which won him considerable credit. Many critics underestimated the Belgian, Emmanouilidis said, but we should keep in mind that he started from scratch. It is important that the first occupant defines the post for the next generation of council presidents.

The EU has never been great at grappling with the existential question about its place in the world — particularly as its relative weight is in decline. The bloc’s contradictions cause inevitable tension and deadlocks. Progress can sometimes be frustratingly slow. “But when historians look back they will see a treaty that was as important as the Maastricht treaty,” Emmanouilidis said. “It is by no means perfect. It does not give all the right answers. But this is not the end of History.”

Pray as you go

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s not easy to get hold of Naim El-Ghandour these days. As the anti-Muslim sentiment in Greece grows, the 55-year-old Egyptian president of the Muslim Association of Greece has had to make a full-time job of defending the members of this heterogeneous minority against criticism – and increasingly against verbal and physical abuse.

Growing tension between natives and foreign immigrants, most of them Muslim, in the capital’s scruffy neighborhoods was catapulted onto center stage last week as Muslims meeting to celebrate Eid al-Adha in public squares around Athens were occasionally harassed by locals and ultra-nationalist activists. Meanwhile, even mainstream media that have traditionally backed the long-stalled plans for a mosque in Athens faulted the decision by the Muslim community to hold their prayer service in front of the Athens University (Propylaia) as a symbolically loaded gesture.

In this interview with Athens Plus, El-Ghandour, who has lived in Greece for the past 38 years, rebuffs criticism of the Propylaia gathering and expresses hope about the construction of a mosque in Votanikos, while pointing a finger at the failings of fellow Muslims.

There is a growing number of attacks on Muslims in Greece. Where do you attribute this trend?

It’s part of the rise of the extreme right in Europe. It’s a fashion that has caught on in Greece — but it will pass at some point. The ground is not fertile here, because Greeks are not racists.

Is the far-right surge a symptom or a cause? Do you see any economic or social factors behind the trend?

No, these are not merely economic. Islamophobia, the hatred for Islam, is not random. When the [ultranationalist] LAOS party and [extreme right-wing group] Chrysi Avgi were first established, they targeted Jews, not Muslims. This changed after 2001. I used to have a friend who was a member of the [LAOS] party and he would go on and on about the Jews. Now they have changed their tune.

What about the impact of the economic crisis in Greece? Could people be looking for scapegoats?

Smart people, educated people know all too well that the immigrants have not taken jobs away from the Greeks.

However, the attacks are not necessarily coming from smart, educated people.

These are a small minority and they do not concern us. We cannot deal with every single person out there. Everyone can have access to knowledge these days or they can choose to stay in the dark

Critics said that the recent prayer service [to celebrate Eid al-Adha, one of Islam’s main holidays] at the Propylaia was a political act, a show of force as it were.

Such criticism comes from the same people. I’ve been living here for 38 years and I’ve always prayed in open space, except when the weather was bad and we had to move to the Olympic Stadium. We would also pray at Eleftherias Square, near the US Embassy, as well as other squares. So why all the fuss this year?

Some said the Propylaia is a symbol of modern Greek enlightenment and it was an odd spot to pick for the prayers.

We had three options: Klafthmonos Square, the Propylaia and Kotzia Square. We recently held a service on Kotzia but we thought of moving closer to a metro station. Where is the problem with that? We could have held it at Syntagma Square, which is also a convenient place, but we did not want to disturb passers-by.

As for those who say this was a “show of force,” I say, a show of force against whom? The Greeks are our brothers and many of them visited the Propylaia to wish us well.

By the way, a prayer service at the Olympic Stadium once drew 18,000 people. The recent one at Propylaia drew some 4 to 5,000. Where is the show of force? Critics make money out of their criticism. They have not looked into the issue carefully. Controversy sells, serenity doesn’t.

The gathering at the Propylaia was interpreted as a reminder that Muslims who live here need a mosque.

We know that the construction of a mosque is under way. The Defense Ministry and the City of Athens have signed an agreement for the removal of the Navy base in Votanikos [to make space for a mosque]. It’s all been planned. The money has been found and things are edging forward like everything else here: slowly.

So there is no talk of taking the issue to the European Court of Justice?

No, not at all.

Do you think that Muslims who live in Greece must make a greater effort to integrate into society?

Yes, integration is a problem. To people from Bangladesh for example, and all those who walk around in supposedly religious attire, I tell them that there is no religious Islamic dress code – except for the women’s headscarf. Prophet Muhammad used to wear all sorts of clothes and colors. If he were alive today, he would probably be dressed in a suit and a tie. This is why I tell them: “Wear normal clothes like everyone else,” so that people are not intimidated when they see a different culture in front of them. We are not all the same. Some people are OK with this, some are not. At the end of the day, it’s they who came here, not the other way around. We can do this gradually, with long-term planning after we get an official imam.

Skeptics are concerned that some Muslims elevate religious law above the law of the state.

That’s rubbish.

They draw on the experience of other European countries, such as France and Holland.

Greece is not France. Those who went to France came mostly from the colonies that France had sucked the blood out of.

You mean to say that there is no vindictiveness by immigrants here?

That’s right. The Greeks never treated people like the French or the British did.

On the other hand, Muslims who live here are often not treated well either. Some might feel vengeful here, too.

It’s not like that here. Greece never asked these people to come here. And more came here [than Greece could absorb]. For every 10 jobs, there are some 100 people. That was bound to cause problems. Greeks are not to blame for this. And then there is the [economic] crisis.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I hope it will all work out in the end. This wave of hatred will abate. Many migrants are moving back to their homes. A number of programs are under way aiming to solve the problems caused by the large number of immigrants living in the center. Some will be accommodated in guesthouses that will provide food and a decent place to sleep. Some good will eventually come from the evil. Politicians will now have to implement the proposed solutions.


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