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Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “ISIS”

On Arab cartoons and western hypocrisy

Arab's world most famed cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, drawn as St George killing Assad the lion, alias the dragon, by Ramzi Taweel

Ali Ferzat, drawn as St George killing the dragon, aka Assad the lion, with his sharp pen, by Palestinian cartoonist Ramzi Taweel

The Arab world loves satirical cartoons.  BBC Arabic’s current affairs TV show 7 Days even used to devoted the final ten minutes of each programme to a discussion of the week’s cartoons from the Arab press. So what is all this fuss about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

The Koran explicitly tells Muslims how to react when their religion is mocked, in verse 140 of Sura Al-Nisa:

“God has sent down upon you a commandment in the Book, that if you hear disbelievers denying and mocking the verses of God, do not sit with them until they change to a different topic, otherwise you will become like them.”

The Koran, regarded by all Muslims as the word of God,  is not open to dispute.

Why therefore does the mockery of Islam using cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad provoke such extreme reactions across the Islamic world?

The obvious answer lies in orthodox  Islam’s position on religious figural art, whereby images of God, the Prophet Muhammad and other prophets, though not explicitly forbidden in the Koran, are not permitted according to longstanding tradition: only God is permitted to create humans, not humans themselves. That is seen as idolatry and therefore blasphemous. Traditional religious Islamic art is therefore overwhelmingly composed of geometric shapes and designs through which it seeks to represent God’s infinity, beauty, all-embracing nature and much more.

Dome of Istanbul's Blue Mosque

Dome of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque

Dome of Isfahan mosque

Dome of Isfahan mosque

But there is another answer, behind the obvious, which has its roots, not in religion, but in socio-economic frustration and the perceived hypocrisy of the West.

All too often, when westerners look East, they see nothing but the chaos of the Middle East apparently created by Islamic extremism. A few, looking more closely, see the socio-economic inequalities fuelled by the rise of greedy dictators and their equally greedy cronies. They may even see how the rise in literacy across the region has led, not to better opportunities for employment, but to a massive dissatisfaction with the status quo among the under 30s who account for at least 60% of the population. Few realise that even in Saudi Arabia 60% are under 21 and far from rich.

Very rarely do westerners acknowledge their own  governments’ role in creating the conditions for such chaos to flourish; in the creation of artificial states whose boundaries were drawn to suit western political and economic interests; in the creation of mandates whose remits were supposedly to protect and lead local populations to independence after World War I, but which in practice exploited them and set the various religious groupings  against each other, sometimes in an expressly ‘divide and rule’ policy; and last but not least, in the creation of the state of Israel imposed on existing local populations without consultation.

Fake Ali Ferzat cartoon, doctored by pro-regime activists to add sheep holding 'Freedom' banners

Fake Ali Ferzat cartoon, doctored by pro-regime activists to add sheep holding ‘Freedom’ banners

When Muslims look West, they in turn see extreme, and in their eyes often hypocritical, reactions. Why does the West make so much fuss over the death of 17 people in France, four of whom were Jews, when over 200,000 Arab lives have been lost in Syria to apparent western indifference? Why does the execution of four western hostages trigger a massive wave of outrage, when the earlier execution of hundreds of Muslims by ISIS inside Syria and Iraq drew no reaction? Why does the plight of the Yezidi minority, escaping up Mt Sinjar in Iraq, attract worldwide attention and lead to US air strikes, when indigenous Muslims have already been killed in their thousands by ISIS?

Then on 19 January British Communities Secretary Eric Pickles sent a letter to 1,100 imams across Britain which, though well-intentioned, clumsily implied blame on the Muslim community for allowing Islamic extremism to flourish, as if it were in some way their fault and responsibility. The letter did not acknowledge that such a global phenomenon cannot be pinned on one community, that it is spread more than anything by savvy propaganda on the internet and social media.

Tragically, such faux-pas feed into a western perception that Islam cannot take criticism, and into a Muslim perception that the West is always setting itself up above Islam, taking the moral high ground. The many instances of Christian and Jewish extremism across history are somehow seen differently by their own adherents, as excusable reactions to unreasonable provocation. Guantanamo Bay sums it up. This is why the West’s ‘holier than thou’ approach often leads to accusations of hypocrisy from inside the Islamic world.

A recent slogan tweeted by the Kafranbel activists inside Syria gave their balanced reaction to the Charlie Hedbo massacres and the subsequent adulation across the West of the satirical magazine via the ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign:

“Magazines’ Self-Glory should be built neither by mocking religions nor by their employees’ skulls. Islam has nothing to do with terrorism.”

B7jZvDVIcAAE04C

Kafranbel’s own media centre satirising Bashar al-Assad, and its Radio Fresh broadcasting outlet was recently closed down by Jabhat an-Nusra extremists, on the pretext of it being against Islam: at the same time they closed down the Kafranbel Women’s Centre where local women trained as hairdressers, nurses and seamstresses, telling them they would be beheaded if they returned. The real reason for the closure was that the extremist group could not cope with being mocked, like all dictatorial regimes round the world. The widely circulated hashtag #We are all Hadi against Nusra (Hadi Al-Abdullah was the Kafranbel activist attacked by Al-Nusra) proved that Muslims will freely criticise other Muslims when necessary.

Kafranbel cartoon on ISIS v Free speech with a jihadi shooting the microphone of Radio Fresh at the Kafranbel Media Centre

Kafranbel cartoon on ISIS v Free speech with a jihadi shooting the microphone of Radio Fresh at the Kafranbel Media Centre, by Iman

Satire of political leaders has long been popular in the Arab world, much to the chagrin of autocratic dictators. Egypt’s former president Muhammad Morsi hated being mocked by the ultra-popular comic satirist Bassem Youssef on TV. The current President Al-Sisi was equally unable to handle it, and Youssef’s slick show, modeled on that of American comedian Jon Stewart, went off air.

The Arab world’s most famous cartoonist Ali Ferzat was allowed in 2000 to set up a satirical magazine called Ad-Domari, The Lamplighter, in Syria, the first such magazine since the Ba’athists took power there in 1963. The new president, Bashar al-Assad, had been his friend and encouraged him during what was called ‘The Damascus Spring’. Three years later, the magazine was closed down for its irreverent cartoons against the Syrian regime, and in 2011 Ali Ferzat was beaten up on a Damascus street, his hands broken to punish his satirical cartoons against his former friend.

On Ali Ferzat by Andreas Qassim

In support of Ali Ferzat by Andreas Qassim, Swedish cartoonist

Ali Ferzat cartoon from 2009 re leaders staying in safe places while fighters die

Ali Ferzat cartoon from 2009 re leaders staying in safe places while fighters die

 

The singer Ibrahim al-Qashoush who wrote a popular anti-regime song was found in the river Orontes with his vocal chords cut out.

Ali Ferzat cartoon re torturer emotional re TV romance but not re victim

Ali Ferzat cartoon re torturer’s empathy with TV romance but not with his victim

Torturers inside Assad’s prisons were known to force detainees to pray to a picture of Bashar and recite: “There is no God but Bashar”.

Defending free speech is easy if you like what is being said. But many Muslims feel damaged by the Charlie Hedbo media circus, misunderstood and unfairly vilified by the West. Islam’s absence of a conventional hierarchy also makes it difficult for moderate Muslims, especially Sunnis who account for about 85% of Muslims worldwide, to have a unified voice. While the minority Shia, largely found in Iran and Iraq, look to a handful of Grand Ayatollahs to guide them, Sunnis have no Pope or head of the church equivalent. No one Sunni group can speak for another and there are at least four main Sunni schools of law, each with their own theologians.

The West fears what it does not understand. But it must not allow distorted views of Islam’s nature to take hold. In the past, in its foreign interventions in the Arab world, the West has been driven by self-interest, despite its rhetoric to the contrary. Its own economic ambitions have been paramount, leading it to exploit the Middle East’s strategic location and natural resources.

If Western countries could honestly declare that their actions will in future also consider the interests of local populations, it might be a first step towards healing the misunderstandings which have led to so many of the region’s seemingly intractable problems. Respect between the West and Islam is essential.

Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker

Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker

Is Syria solvable?

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’s Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

At the funeral yesterday of a dear friend who died of natural causes in his own bed, I wept for Syria. Life coming to an end is hard to bear in any circumstances, but in Syria I cannot come to terms with why the lives of 200,000 people have ended, unnaturally, not in their beds, often with no funerals at all. What have they died for? Have their deaths achieved anything at all?

The mess that is Syria today scarcely resembles a country. Its identity has been shredded. After three and half years of a revolution that began peacefully but was met with violence, is it still even a revolution? So many opposing forces, so many countries are now involved that it has become impossible to see the way forward. Lawlessness has become the new norm. Inside Syria people are so confused about who is fighting whom and for what, that they have lost sight of what to strive for. Corruption is everywhere, the opportunism of war creating its own economy, with a ruthless few getting rich beyond their wildest dreams. Apart from the deaths, tens of thousands remain in prison. No one knows the numbers for sure. All across the country millions have been displaced and homes have been snatched – mine among them – sometimes just by needy people, but more often by immoral individuals taking advantage of the breakdown of law and order. Even in areas that used to be under tight regime control people are starting to realise that the government cannot protect them. Kidnappings purely for ransom money have become commonplace but no one is sure who the perpetrators are. More and more cases are being reported of the pro-government militia, the NDF (National Defence Force), tricking people into leaving their homes by warning them of imminent danger from DAESH (ISIS), then looting the contents and selling them on. As Lina Sinjab reports in her recent BBC piece about the NDF and its behaviour (see link below):

A few men with guns call themselves the ‘protectors of the neighbourhood’… They then set the rules and bypass the law, in a country that is already lawless.” (words of a Damascus resident)

As for the increasing cases of young people going out to Syria to fight, I cannot help but think of the scene in the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where Mary Macgregor’s brother goes out to Spain to join in the Spanish Civil War, trying to do something noble with his life, only to join the opposite side to what he intended and be pointlessly killed. Seen from so far away, the idealism can seem so clear. From close up, all clarity vanishes, as it has done inside Syria. The Spanish Civil War lasted less than three years but killed around 500,000. The rebels finally prevailed and Franco went on to rule Spain for 36 years till his death in 1975. But the Syrian war has no precedent in history. We are in uncharted territory.

The international community has allowed the situation inside Syria to fester so long that it has become insoluble. The US air strikes are not helping ordinary Syrians. On the contrary the bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra targets is likely to turn Syrians against the West and its belated involvement which is not to save them, but to save itself from DAESH (the locally used acronym for ISIS/IS). Syrians have been sacrificed at the altar of world indifference and now, with the rise of DAESH, we will all have to pay the price. Only a change in Iranian policy towards Syria would shift the dynamics on the ground. Lured by the incentive of a US rapprochement, might they abandon the Assad regime and do a deal with Saudi Arabia and Turkey to remove Assad and his top layers, whilst keeping the military and security establishments largely intact? It is the obvious solution, but what are the chances of it happening?  As I wrote in My House in Damascus, “Pigs might fly…”

More than ever, I will have to remain a ‘hopeless dreamer’,  for the sake of all those lives lost unnaturally.

My Damascus House

My Damascus House

 

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29429941

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/international-alliance-no-change-front-lines-syria-rebels.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=15b8a0b861-October_2_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-15b8a0b861-93116701

How #ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, declared himself ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ in June 2014. Claiming a genealogy traced back to the Prophet Muhammad and his noble tribe the Quraysh, together with a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, his religious credentials are certainly stronger than previous Al-Qaeda leaders.

The caliphate in early Islam was a military and political office, not simply a religious one. The Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime was religious leader, lawgiver, chief judge, commander of the army and civil head of state all in one. ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is following this model. The Prophet Muhammad died suddenly in 632 leaving no male children. Disputes over who was to be his khalifa or caliph, (Arabic ‘successor’) have been responsible for most of the schisms of Islam, including the major Sunni/Shi’a division. ‘Never was there an Islamic issue which brought about more bloodshed than the caliphate,’ wrote the respected historian Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153) in his Book of Sects and Creeds.

To boost his standing further, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ appears to be modelling himself on the first four Sunni Orthodox caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali – known as Al-Rashidoun, ‘the rightly-guided ones’, who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. Under them the Islamic state expanded within a decade from Arabia to conquer first Syria, then Iraq, Persia, Egypt and beyond. Those early conquests were characterised by military campaigns led by brilliant strategists like Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-Aas, using horses and camels in lightning raids against their enemies – the Byzantines and the Sassanians – whose armies were generally on foot. Today’s ISIS attacks too are characterised by their speed and surprise, always mounted on vehicles, attacking from many sides like a Bedouin ghazwa (raid). Raiding was seen as a noble occupation in early Arabia – much poetry is devoted to its praise. Acquisition of new territories was one of the principal duties of the caliph, and it is to this tenet of jihad (religious war) that Islam owed its fast early growth.

The Prophet Muhammad’s great achievement was to break tribal allegiances and replace them with a new fraternity of Islam: “Know ye that every Muslim is a brother unto every other Muslim, and that ye are now one brotherhood.”  All new converts of whatever tribe, race or nationality were welcomed. The new ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is using the same tradition to welcome foreign fighters to his fold.

New actors on the world stage like ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ do not come out of nowhere. Conditions have to be right for them to flourish. When the Prophet Muhammad preached the new religion of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia, anarchy already reigned in the 7th century world around him. Arabia’s political structures had broken down, sapped of energy by never-ending tribal feuds and disputes over springs, pasture and livestock – the bare necessities of life in an arid desert environment.  Long-running wars between the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanians, heavy taxes imposed by both empires and the multiple schisms of the Christian Church paved the way for the rapid advance of the early Muslim armies.

Like the early caliphs, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’s’ conquests have been eased and enabled by the chaotic regional environment. The post-2003 ‘de-Ba’athification’ process carried out by the Americans after deposing Saddam Hussein left an Iraq reeling and beset with government in-fighting. Ripe for harvest, its oilfields beckoned tantalisingly.

Syria’s tragic revolution-turned- civil-war provided the perfect cloak to ISIS ambitions. Under a general amnesty in early 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists were released from Assad prisons. Some regrouped with remnants of Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq and organised themselves into what has evolved as ISIS. In March 2013 they captured Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, 25 miles east of Tabqa, Syria’s largest dam, just as in August 2014 they captured the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, on the Tigris – now wrested back for the time being by the Kurdish peshmerga with the help of US air cover. In Syria ISIS practised its fighting skills, not on the well-equipped Assad army, but on Syria’s Kurds and on the poorly-armed rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army. ISIS now controls most of Syria’s eastern oilfields, and in Iraq too its strategy involves systematically seizing the northern oil installations, fuelling its wealth. Conservative estimates put ISIS income from oil alone at US$1 million a day. The bearded chiefs have grown rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Thanks to such control of oil and water, new followers flow strongly into the fold. An impoverished population suffering from the effects of drought, unemployment and disenchantment with the powers-that-be, makes fertile recruiting ground. Most of the Prophet Muhammad’s early converts to Islam were slaves and lower classes – people with something to gain. The first caliph Abu Bakr, when recruiting for his armies, wrote to the people of Mecca promising them there was rich booty to be won from the Byzantines. To raise more money from its conquered territories, early Islam also imposed a means-assessed poll tax on Jews, Christians, Sabians (and later Zoroastrians) considered ‘People of the Book’, acknowledged to be monotheists. Only groups like the Yazidis, who were misunderstood as ‘devil-worshippers’, were presented with the stark choice of ‘convert or be killed’. The poor paid a quarter of the rich, while women, children, beggars, the old, the insane and the sick were exempt. ISIS has been taking taxes from towns under its control in Syria since 2013. In Iraq it has been demanding protection money from local business, whilst also presenting a generous face through handing out food, petrol and subsidising electricity.

As well as offering an attractive and powerful identity, ISIS can offer $400-500 a month as regular income to young Sunnis only too happy to believe in a new ideology based on their own supremacy, and in which the Arabian concept of ghanimah, booty, is legitimate.  Sura 8:42 of the Koran says ‘one-fifth of the booty is for God, the Prophet, those close to him, orphans, the poor and the wayfarer’ ie belongs to the state. By implication therefore the rest can be taken by the fighters. Yezidi women and children are legitimate spoils of war in this ideology.

Under the rallying cry of religion, the ISIS of today is driven by motives it sees as sanctioned under Islam – to gain territory, to acquire new converts, and to spread its strict Islamic rule of law – the Shari’a – with punishments like amputation for theft and beheading for apostasy or for non-believers who refuse to convert. It is copying the social mores of 14 centuries ago.

But behind this religious cloak the same economic forces that drove the Prophet Muhammad’s followers and led to his early conquests are driving the speed of ISIS’s advance. Many despairing Syrians and Iraqis who have watched their countries crumble around them are now joining ISIS out of pragmatism, rather than ideology. The attraction of being on the winning side cannot be overestimated. As long as the region remains in disarray, the likelihood is that ISIS will increasingly be seen by many as the only answer – and a rewarding one to boot.

Bombs

 

#Yazidi women are legitimate ‘spoils of war’ in #ISIS ideology

As reports begin to emerge on the fate of Yazidi women captured in the Sinjar region of Iraq, it is as well to understand the ideology that enables ISIS to consider its actions legitimate:

The rules on ghanima (booty or ‘the spoils of war’) are clearly laid down in the Koran, Sura 8, verse 41, and ISIS is following them to the letter in its treatment of Yazidi women:

“Know that a fifth of what ye have won belongs to Allah – to his prophet, his family, to the orphan, the needy and the traveller.”

The verse was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad after the Battle of Badr in 624, the first decisive military victory won by Muhammad and his followers against those who opposed his new religion of Islam. As part of the pre-Islamic Bedouin raiding culture of the Arabian Peninsula, Arab chiefs had by tradition kept a share of the booty. It was the norm of the times. One fifth was later considered by Muslim scholars to be the share needed to support the Islamic state’s expenses as it expanded its empire. The remaining four-fifths were divided among the fighters who had won the booty.

This same concept of booty is being followed now by ISIS 14 centuries later, and they are defining it in the same way. The accepted definition by Muslim scholars of ghanima includes all weapons and all movable possessions. It also includes ‘non-believers’ who can be taken as prisoners of war – be they men, women or children. These prisoners are to be divided as slaves among the fighters. ‘Liberating’ the women is even considered an act of pious charity, especially if the women in question happen to be Yazidi, wrongly labelled ‘devil-worshippers’.

How in the 21st century does one even begin to combat such an ideology, when it is so convinced of its own legitimacy?

Yazidi children during a religious ceremony [Getty]

Yazidi children during a religious ceremony [Getty]

Related:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-crisis-isis-militants-plan-to-marry-captured-yazidi-women-9674922.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29001357

 

 

 

Iraqi/ISIS/Yazidi conflict is less about religion than about oil, water and power

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing the Peacock Angel, as God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

Article below as published in The Sunday Times 10 August 2014:

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/focus/article1444902.ece

Oil and water, not religion, are fuelling Isis campaign to wipe out minorities

Who could have dreamt that the plight of the secretive Yazidis, stranded without food and water up Mt Sinjar, would suddenly command worldwide attention, let alone lead to US air strikes against the self-styled caliphate of the insurgent group Isis? But the epic, near Biblical scenes of this resilient group of people fleeing up a bare mountain have caught the public imagination.

Look more closely at a map and it becomes clear that this entire region is filled with religious minorities, the remnants of the intermingling of many faiths. For here in the once Fertile Crescent was the birthplace of religion, even the birthplace of civilization itself. Three of the world’s great monotheistic religions were born here – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a deeply spiritual part of the world.

The origins of many of the religions practiced here remain shrouded in obscurity. Yazidi ancestry is Assyrian-Semitic but over the centuries they are thought to have moved north from Basra and become Kurdicised.

Successive persecutions at the hands of local rulers have stemmed from two misunderstandings:  that their name referred to the detested early caliph Yazid bin Mu’awiya (when it derives instead from the Persian for angel ized), and that they worshipped the devil (a confusion of the name shaytan, Arabic for devil, with the Peacock Angel whom Yazidis see as God’s alter ego on earth).

 

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Physically they resemble Kurds and most speak Kermanji Kurdish, though the Yazidis from Mt Sinjar also speak Arabic. They live separately from neighbouring tribes and do not intermarry, mainly settled in remote villages but are sometimes nomadic with herds of sheep. They have never been politically important – till now, when they have come under the glare of the international spotlight.

They have only ever sought to practice their religion in peace, away from prying eyes. At the core of their faith is a deep belief in transmigration,  that each life gives the chance to move gradually forward towards a better future. Hell and the existence of evil are denied as absolutes. They see all evil as man-made. Their current persecutors, Isis, are evil personified, threatening them with death or conversion, but no Yazidi can convert religion – it is tantamount to forfeiting the soul. As with the Druze and Alawi minorities found across Lebanon and Syria, it is not possible to convert to their religion, only to be born into it.

The images of bleak deserts that flash across our screens today also serve to obscure the region’s two secret treasures: water and oil.  The mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers both of which have their headwaters in eastern Turkey, run through Syria and Iraq before exiting into the Gulf near Basra. The very word ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘the Land between the Two Rivers’.

Whoever controls these waters controls the lifeblood of the region, and IS’s seizure in recent days of the fragile Mosul Dam has the potential to change the course of history – another epic flood of biblical proportions. Downstream, were it to burst, either accidentally from lack of maintenance or deliberately as an act of maniacal vengeance, Iraq’s first and second cities, Baghdad and Mosul, would disappear underwater. The oil wells of northeast Syria, northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan all lie within the grasp of IS, and it is systematically taking control of them to fund its operations.

Beside the religious there are further ethnic  minorities, such as the Turkmen who divide more or less equally between Sunni and Shi’a Islam with their own language and customs, and the Shabak, mainly Shi’a  but with elements of Yazidism. They too have their own language. The numbers of all these minorities have plummeted over the last decade, none more so than the Christians, down to about 400,000 in Iraq alone from 1.5 million before 2003. There are between 70,000 and 500,000 Yazidis worldwide.

It is one of the great ironies of history that all these minorities lived out their beliefs in relative peace under the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the Assads in Syria. But the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ and now the rise of Isis have combined to turn this part of the world upside down. Into the power vacuum left by the floundering Syrian Revolution and the chaos of the Maliki-led Iraqi government stepped Isis, making its headquarters at Raqqa on the Euphrates in Syria.

As the patchwork of Iraq and Syria disintegrate under the onslaught of Isis, it is north to Iraqi Kurdistan that the overwhelming majority of persecuted minorities are fleeing. Perceived as a haven of relative stability, the Kurdistan Regional Government is seeking to gain independence from Iraq, though its Peshmerga fighters, low on cash and weaponry, will be tested to the full in the coming weeks and months. Its Education Ministry has introduced the enlightened policy that its schools must teach all world religions equally. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim but Islam is accorded no special status. A person’s faith is seen as a private matter. For Isis such a policy is of course anathema.

Many refugee minorities would flee to Turkey, if the borders were opened, as the Turkish government now also allows its Syriac Christians and its Yazidis to live unmolested.

The biggest irony is that all the religious groups struggling to co-exist in this region believe in the same God, however they choose to address him or whatever symbol they choose to represent him – be it a peacock, a cross, the sun or simply an abstract geometric pattern. Proof if ever it were needed, that this conflict is less about religion, than about water, oil and power.

Diana Darke is author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution. She has specialised in the Middle East for more than 30 years.

Related posts on the Yazidis:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-now-we-can-all-share-the-boris-fantasy-9658001.html (scroll to second letter from Professor Christine Allison, Ancient community faces a grim fate)

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel, God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

 

 

Postcard from Nusaybin, southeast Turkey

POSTCARD from NUSAYBIN (as published in Chatham House’s The World Today magazine (Aug/Sept 2014 issue)

Mar Yakoub Church and university, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

Syriac Mar Yakoub (St James’s) Church and university dating to the 4th century, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

One glance at a modern map is enough to understand why Nusaybin is a hotspot in today’s world. Situated in southeast Turkey, it looks across the border at its southerly reflection, Qamishli in northeast Syria; its main east-west highway hosts an endless convoy of tankers with their precious cargo heading out from Erbil in oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan into oil-poor Turkey;  and another highway leads southeast to Iraq’s Mosul. This volatile triangle of territory is delineated by watchtowers and fences along the Syrian-Turkish border, erected in the 1970s, and by the long Syrian-Iraqi desert frontier which became a physical barrier only after 2003.

All this talk of borders would have made no sense at all before World War One. Sykes-Picot had yet to draw their ‘lines in the sand’ creating the modern states of the Middle East. The maps in Baedeker’s 1906 Palestine et Syrie show only the loose provincial Ottoman boundaries and the journey from Nusaybin to the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire on the banks of the Tigris opposite Mosul, is described as ‘five days on horseback requiring a strong escort.’ Even in the 1930s under the French Mandate when Agatha Christie accompanied her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan to dig the famous tells of Mesopotamia, they would arrive by train at Nusaybin via the Berlin-Baghdad railway, then head south with no customs formalities, despite their trunkloads of luggage.

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

Nusaybin’s strategic location on east-west trade routes ensured a complex past. Beginning with the Assyrians, empires came and went, and as Roman Nisibis it formed a fortress-frontier against the Persian Sassanids. Forever caught in the power-play of outside forces, there are two indigenous peoples, the Kurds and the Syriacs, in and around Nusaybin who rarely get a mention, stateless peoples whose aspirations for nationhood were repeatedly thwarted. But an unintended consequence of recent events like the US invasion of Iraq, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the rise of ISIS militants has changed the dynamic.

The city’s residents today, like most in the area, are overwhelmingly Kurdish, with just a small Syriac community, but in the 4th century the population was mainly Syriac, and Nusaybin’s Syriac roots are still deep. St James’ Church in the centre is one of the world’s oldest functioning churches, dating back to 325. Alongside it sits the newly excavated university where famous scholars like St Ephrem the Syrian, ‘Harp of the Spirit’ (306-73), composed  hymns and trained all-female choirs. His language was Syriac, and his descendants, ancestors of the Assyrians, still speak a dialect of ancient Aramaic known locally as ‘Suryani’, using its classical form in their liturgy.

Successive persecutions at the hands of fellow Christians, Muslims and Kurds across the centuries caused most to escape to Europe and beyond, but to ensure the language does not die, each year dedicated members of the Syriac diaspora  send their children to Syriac summer schools run by monks at the nearby monasteries. Those who stayed scattered into small broken communities across the region within cities like Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria, Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq.  Qamishli was largely created by Christians fleeing the fighting of World War One.

Next summer  will be the centenary of their worst ever persecution, the 1915 Sayfo (The Sword), little known in the West, a massacre in which tens of thousands of Syriacs were slaughtered alongside Armenian Christians, mainly at the hands of Kurdish tribesmen.  Yet remarkably, today the highly educated and talented Syriac community is reviving, fed not only by families from abroad, but also by refugees from Syria,  returning to their ancient homeland. Most significantly of all, they are gradually healing historic rifts with their Kurdish neighbours, acknowledging that they were manipulated during the 1915 Sayfo by their Turkish masters.

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man's land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2013]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man’s land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2014]

Looking across today’s barbed-wire border from Nusaybin, through the no-man’s-land where the last relics of Roman Nisibis still rise, the houses and grain silos of Syria’s Qamishli are clearly visible. Blessed with fertile wheat fields, Syria’s largest oilfield and three major rivers, this panhandle of northeast Syria  is quite a prize, and in January 2014 Syria’s Kurds, as the dominant population, declared Qamishli capital of ‘Rojavo’  or western Kurdistan. The 22 cabinet ministers are a Christian/Muslim/Kurdish mix, in line with their secular ideology. Kurdish identity is defined by ethnicity, language and culture not by religion, a fact reflected in Iraqi Kurdistan’s schools where all world religions are taught equally.

Today’s fragile balance is now threatened by new invaders, the Sunni militants of ISIS, who want to rid the region of imperialist borders, and impose an ultra-conservative Islamic state across Iraq and Greater Syria.  A year from now, at the centenary of the Sayfo, will Nusaybin still be in Turkey? What will the map look like? Only one prediction can safely be made – that it will still be a hotspot.

 

 

#Syriac Christians threatened with the ‘Sword’ again

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

The threat of  ‘the sword’ has special resonance for Syriac Christians. Syriac for ‘sword’ is Sayfo, the name they use to refer to the massacre they suffered in 1915, when tens of thousands of them were slaughtered. On Friday 19 July the Syriac Christians of Mosul, whose ancestors were the Assyrians with their capital at Nineveh on the bank of the Tigris opposite Mosul, were threatened with the sword, unless they converted to Islam or paid the jizya, a tax levied by early Islam on religious minorities. Beheading by the sword was the earliest form of capital punishment in Islam. This time, to escape such a fate, they are fleeing northwards in their thousands, mainly into Iraqi Kurdistan, whose Kurdish rulers do not define themselves or anyone else by religion. Islam is one among many religions and Kurdish schools there teach all religions equally. Nearly a hundred years ago,  the Syriacs fled southwards from Turkey. On that occasion their persecutors were mainly Kurdish tribesmen acting on the instructions of  Turkish masters seeking to purge the Turkish state of non-Turkish minorities, but today their tormentors are fanatical fighters of mixed nationalities from the State of the Islamic Caliphate (formerly ISIS), who took control of Mosul,  Iraq’s second city, on 10 June 2014.

As Europe remembers the outbreak of World War One a hundred years on, the oft-forgotten group of Aramaic-speaking Christians has been gearing up for its own centenary. Their original heartlands are the region known as the Tur Abdin (‘Mountain of the Servants of God’ in Syriac),  a remote corner of what is now southeast Turkey, where their churches and monasteries date back to the 4th century. As their anniversary approaches, this resilient community, helped by members of their increasingly active diaspora from Sydney to Stuttgart, has been resolutely fighting back.

Their expulsion from Mosul will definitely not be the end of them. The following text of my BBC From Our Own Correspondent piece with accompanying photos, describes their determination to survive:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3 (direct link to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of 10 July 2014)

“No need for alarm clocks in Midyat. Every day in this ancient Syriac Christian town high on its plateau in southeast Turkey I am woken by goats bleating at my window and by cattle clattering past on cobbled streets. Kurdish children are herding them to nearby pastures from once elegant mansions that now serve as stabling.

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

For visitors like me the livestock lends a rustic charm, but not for members of the Syriac diaspora like Gabriel Khoury, whose ancestral home is one such pungent stable. Gabriel’s family emigrated to Australia when he was a boy, but now he has come back to claim his property. ‘I have six court cases to fight,’ he declares, his blue-eyes flashing angrily.  I encounter him at church where he leads the chanting in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Then he takes me to the one-roomed hovel, his current home, which is all he has left of his heritage. His surname ‘Khoury’ reveals he comes from a line of priests.  ‘Long story short,’ he explains, ‘I will not give up till I have my family’s houses and shops back. Then, if God wills, I will rebuild them.’

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Rebuilding is a constant refrain in this region known as the Tur Abdin,  where the Syriacs, one of the world’s earliest Christian communities, suffered heavily at the hands of the Kurds and Turks, especially in the 1915 massacres. At the village of Kafro I meet Niall, who has returned from 30 years in Stuttgart to help rebuild his community. An imposing row of large walled villas with a slightly fortified feel now flanks the single street. Alongside the ruins of the house where he was born, he has opened an al fresco pizzeria shaded by a nine-sided gazebo draped with vines. Multiples of three, representing the Trinity, are everywhere in the architecture here, and vines too hold deep spiritual significance, producing wine from the precious blood-stained soil. Traditionally each family planted just enough for its own modest consumption, but now some Syriacs have set up a wine factory imaginatively concealed in a mock mansion carved with friezes of grapes and wine glasses. Producing five reds and two whites to growing worldwide acclaim, its carefully chosen trademark  Shiluh means ‘peace’ in Syriac.

‘Two more families are coming back this year,’ smiles Niall, as he takes me to see the derelict shell of their original church. ‘When our community is bigger, we will restore this one. For now we are using a smaller one.’ He leads me past a well-tended cemetery where an open grave is awaiting the body of a 90-year-old returnee from Germany. This land reclaims its old, but reclaiming the young is more problematic. ‘Our teenagers,’ he explains, gesturing at a group just finishing their pizzas, ‘will leave soon for universities in Germany. A school bus takes the three of them from Kafro to Midyat where they are the only Christians in classes of over 40. How can we expect them to return here?’

Back in Midyat, Gabriel is on the case. The refugee camp established on a nearby hill was intended just for Syriac  Christians fleeing the fighting in neighbouring Syria, but so successful were they in being sponsored to leave, that only one family now remains.

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

 People like Gabriel took responsibility for the Christian refugees, many of whom have since moved west to Istanbul. Some have stayed in Midyat, like Maryam, a fair-haired beauty originally from Qamishli just across the border in northeast Syria. She now works as a waitress at one of Midyat’s magnificently restored Syriac mansions, converted to a 15-room hotel.

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

‘Long story short,’ says Gabriel, ‘we need more like this to bring our people back, more girls and more hotels.’ He even wonders if one of his sons might marry Maryam – his own wife was from Qamishli – and plans how young men might return from Europe as architects and managers to design and run hotels, as businessmen to create new enterprise, and above all  as lawyers to champion their cause. I dare to raise December’s controversial settlement of the land dispute with the biggest of the monasteries. ‘Don’t make me laugh,’ he retorts  tossing his head, ‘they gave us 20% only, the other 80% is still held back. Long story short,’ he continues, ‘we will fight on till we get back what is rightfully ours. ‘

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk at Mor Awgen, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk  who has revived Mor Awgen Monastery, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

As the centenary of their historic massacre, the Sayfo, approaches, long story short, maybe they will.

Related links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/conversion-of-iraq-as-isis-drives-christians-out-of-their-homes-the-groups-genocidal-intentions-take-on-horrible-clarity-9617651.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/time-runs-out-for-christian-iraq-isis-deadline-passes-with-mass-flight-9617606.html

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/07/jabhat-al-nusra-announce-islamic-emirate.html

Church of the Mother of God, Haho July 2013

Church of the Mother of God, Haho [DD, May 2014]

Refutation of Mother Agnes Mariam’s narrative on #Syria

As submitted to The Tablet, published 21 June 2014
“Abigail Frymann tries hard to present both sides of the narrative in her feature interview (“The rebels want my head”, 7 June) with Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross. Sadly, in so doing she falls hook, line and sinker for the controversial nun’s take on matters inside Syria. The view that ‘the majority of anti-Assad fighters in Syria are foreign’ is presented as ‘widely accepted’, yet all reputable media outlets like The Financial Times and the BBC regularly report that whilst there are indeed now many foreign fighters inside Syria, they began in small numbers and only started expanding a year after the uprising began. Even now they account for less than 25% of the total opposition. Assad himself has of course brought in far greater numbers of foreign fighters – from the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – to defend his own regime, but no mention is made of that. 
Certainly matters ‘are not black and white’. But the ‘more complicated reality’ to which Mother Agnes refers is that Assad, under the guise of a general amnesty in early 2012, released al-Qaeda affiliated prisoners from his jails, knowing full well they would regroup and pursue their extremist ideology. Again, no mention is made of that. Now, two years later, the proof is before us, as ISIS, untargeted by regime airstrikes, was allowed to consolidate itself in Ar-Raqqa, from where it has swept into Iraq and taken large swathes of territory. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically – why is it that they have yet to fight each other?
The ‘reconciliation’ initative of which Mother Agnes is part, so loudly trumpeted by the Assad regime that well-meaning people like Mairead Maguire are fooled into nominating Mother Agnes for the Nobel Peace Prize, is a naked attempt to deceive the world that Assad is keen to forgive and forget. Had ‘reconciliation’ been his message at the outset in March 2011 instead of savage crushing of peaceful demonstrations, ISIS extremists could never have thrived on Syrian soil. As to her assertions on the chemical weapons attack,  Human Rights Watch has systematically dismissed the basis for her arguments.
Only when Assad, no doubt amply aided by Hizbullah and Iran, finally orders his forces to drop barrel bombs on ISIS headquarters, instead of on moderate rebel headquarters in Aleppo and Dera’a, will his narrative that he is fighting ‘extremism and terrorism’ become true. Maybe then we can nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Diana Darke
Author of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution
All that remains of St Simeon Stylites' pillar in St Simeon's Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting 'souvenirs' across the centuries [DD]

All that remains of St Simeon Stylites’ pillar in St Simeon’s Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting ‘souvenirs’ across the centuries [DD]

Assad and ISIS – the ‘marriage of convenience’ is over

By the end of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, nearly every party had allied with and subsequently betrayed every other party at least once. The age-old pattern is the same: groups like ISIS began in Syria by ingratiating themselves with the local population, as they are doing in Mosul now, offering free fuel, electricity supplies and appearing to restore security to the streets. Next they will provide food and medical services. At first, in such charm offensives, they seem to be a godsend, then in stages, the reality reveals itself and their hard-line Islamist agenda comes to the fore, with compulsory Quranic schools, summary public executions and enforced veiling of women. But just as this was not the real Syria, neither is this the real Iraq. Women will pull their headscarves out of their handbags to put them on at black-bannered checkpoints, then stuff them away again.

In the early months of the Syrian Revolution extremist rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra accounted for no more than 3-4 per cent of the rebels overall, maybe reaching 10 per cent around Aleppo. While most fighters in Al-Nusra are from Syria, the extremist group ISIS which appeared over a year later than Al-Nusra in April 2013 is both foreign-led (by an Iraqi) and foreign-dominated. Its fighters come mainly from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia, though there are also Chechens, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and Iraqis as well as a few Pakistani Taliban and even Chinese. Dressed in their Pakistani-style tunics and menacing black balaclavas, brandishing their weapons, they form a stark contrast to the conservative but moderate Sunni Muslims who make up 74 per cent of Syria’s resident population. Typical communiqués use language like: ‘Our army is full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones.’ It is hard to imagine their ideology ever taking root in Syria, despite their ceaseless propaganda videos on YouTube and their thousands of tweets – all the rebel groups have their own highly active Twitter accounts.

Many Syrians told me long before the revolution that the Syrian brand of Islam is close to the tolerant Sufi Islam of Ibn Arabi and Al-Ghazali – open to all and with no coercion. Yet groups like ISIS are so intolerant they even started to ban tobacco as un-Islamic in areas they controlled in Syria’s north, not just alcohol and what they called ‘immoral entertainment’.  The kind of Syria they are trying to usher in would end up destroying the country’s very identity, its tolerant character. Moderate Syrians have begun social media campaigns against them with slogans like: ‘DAESH [Arabic for ‘ISIS’] GO OUT. Bashar and DAESH are one. We didn’t have a revolution against a tyrant for another tyrant to come and control us in the name of religion!  Those who belong to Syria, Syria is for all of you. Those who belong to Al-Qaeda, go to Afghanistan!’ Dozens of Arabic language Facebook pages have been set up rejecting ISIS, its Islamic credentials and its brutal tactics.

The rebel group ISIS now controls the oil fields in Syria’s north eastern provinces. They have broken the pipelines, creating environmental disasters, then welded on crude taps from which they fill queues of tankers. The valuable cargo is then trundled mainly into Turkey and sometimes even into regime-held areas of Syria, where prices rocket. It is a money-making exercise, free of overheads, that has turned the bearded chiefs into millionaires. Thousands of amateur refineries have sprung up, converting the crude oil to petrol, diesel and mazout heating oil, sold in smaller canisters to anyone who has the money. None of them will give that up without a fight. As the ISIS accounts captured in recent days have revealed, the rebels have accumulated huge funds from this oil and from looted Syrian antiquities, enabling them to pay good salaries to new recruits and to acquire proper weaponry for them. From their Syrian headquarters in Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, they have in recent days swept east into Iraq and taken the second city of Mosul along with vast tracts of adjoining territory, capturing along the way much heavy weaponry from the American-supplied Iraqi army.

So now the equation has changed. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically, yet they have never fought each other. ISIS militants have slept sound in their beds without fear of regime air strikes and barrel bombs. Whereas the Assad regime was before quite happy to turn a blind eye to ISIS and its atrocities in the north and in Al-Raqqa, content that its energies were being directed towards fighting the more moderate rebels, now ISIS has become a real threat.

Therefore it should come as little surprise that as The Times today reported, Syrian government forces for the first time bombed ISIS bases in eastern Syria and Al-Raqqa ‘acting in co-ordination with the Iraqi government’. The Assad regime has re-done its calculations, and is now banking on the expectation that its air-strikes against ISIS will also earn it grudging gratitude from the West. Bashar al-Assad must even be thinking this is his chance to become rehabilitated in the eyes of the international community, and undergo a transformation from ‘murderous dictator’ to ‘saviour from Islamist barbarians’.

The UN Chemical Weapons deal last autumn only happened because there was a rare consensus in the international community and no blame was attributable. Maybe such a consensus can be found again, this time to rid both Syria and Iraq of the growing extremist groups like ISIS. Maybe moderate elements from the rebels too can find a common cause and unite against this greater Al-Qaeda-affiliated menace whose terrorist jihadi agenda threatens not just Syria and Iraq’s future but the future of the entire international community. Maybe it will be Syria’s second revolution, a revolution in which even the ‘silent majority’ may find its voice.

In the meantime we can expect more Syrian air strikes against ISIS bases – their ‘marriage of convenience’ is over.

[This post includes extracts from the book My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution ]

Related articles:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/15/iraq-isis-arrest-jihadists-wealth-power?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/middleeast/iraq/article4120205.ece

This post includes extracts from the book.

This post includes extracts from the book.

Chink of Light in #Syria?

Aleppo citadel at night, July 2010 [DD]

Aleppo citadel at night, July 2010 [DD]

The speed at which things can happen once there is international consensus is remarkable. UN Chemical Weapons inspectors are already in Syria just days after the UN Security Council agreed unanimously last week to dismantle the country’s chemical weapons arsenal. They are working to a strict timetable and have just till November to complete their work.

Seven out of the 19 chemical weapons sites which they will be inspecting are, according to the Syrian government (which provided the list of sites) in rebel-held or contested combat zones. Here is the possible chink of light.

Ceasefires will have to be negotiated to enable the UN inspectors to pass through these combat zones to reach these seven sites to verify them and make assessments. The wording of the new UN Resolution makes it clear that action will be taken against anyone – regime or rebels – found to be obstructing the UN inspectors’ work. Such a situation forces compliance and cooperation on all sides and may be the start of a new dynamic on the ground.

So what if consensus can be achieved now, not just on chemical weapons, but on another issue of pressing concern – the need to expel from Syria the recently-formed foreign extremist Islamist groups? Parties involved in the conflict – both inside and outside the country – are increasingly concerned about the rise and rise of such foreign-funded, foreign-composed extremist groups such as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Shaam), which are intent on imposing their vision of an Islamic state on Syrian citizens the overwhelming majority of whom do not want this. Many feel their revolution has been hijacked by these Islamist groups. Some who began by supporting them because they were better funded and better organised than other rebels, now regret their early enthusiasm. After experiencing the reality of life under such radical groups in places like Ar-Raqqa and around Aleppo, they now want to distance themselves and return to something more moderate. 99% of Syrian citizens don’t want them, the Assad regime doesn’t want them, the moderate opposition groups don’t want them, the US, Russia, Israel and European countries don’t want them, seeing them as a greater threat to world stability than either the Syrian regime or the moderate Syrian rebels – it’s beginning to look like another consensus.

On that basis, with the political will, a ceasefire could even be agreed in time for the upcoming Eid Al-Adha on 14 October, marking the end of the pilgrimage season. Over-optimistic perhaps, given it will take time to drive out the extremist fighters even if the regime and the moderate groups were to unite to achieve it. But once there is consensus, remarkable things can happen very quickly, as we have just witnessed.

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