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LONDON—The lights stay low throughout the play, X-Adra, creating the sense of a cell-like space on stage. Halfway through, the actors, all former inmates of Adra prison in Syria, start scribbling frantically on the floor, sending clouds of chalk dust up into the air.

For the audience, the performance is uncomfortable to watch. The actors say re-living their incarceration on stage is “exhausting” and “difficult.” But the performers believe it’s their duty to remind the world of the hundreds of thousands who have perished inside Syria’s prisons and untold numbers still languishing behind bars. “It can be quite cathartic but at the same time it’s hard to go back,” says Kenda Zaour, who was imprisoned for two months in 2012.

The U.K. premier of the play last week, following a performance in France, was part of the program at Shubbak Festival, a biennial showcase of contemporary Arab culture in London. Hend, Ali (formerly Ola), Mariam, Rowaida, Kenda and Hend Mugale recount their time in the Adra prison near Damascus from the 1980s to the Syrian revolution.

Their tales are framed by the haunting voice of singer Hala Omran, who wanders barefoot between speakers on the sparsely furnished stage. At Battersea Arts Centre, where X-Adra was performed, audiences are free come and go and make noise, as they wish. But during the performance, the audience stayed stock still and silent as they listened to stories of systematic torture, agonizing uncertainty, lost family members and hellish conditions.

Roweida Kanaan was a journalist, accused of working for an opposition TV channel. Bound and blindfolded on the day of her arrest, she recalls looking down and seeing her best friend Khaled’s feet through a chink in the fabric. In prison, she would search for his face among the corpses of people killed under torture. She never saw it, but learned later that he was dead.

Violence is kept to a minimum in this production, so the focus stays on the women and their stories. “I was amazed by the incredible presence and participation of the Syrian women in the revolution,” director Ramzi Choukair said. He wanted to spotlight individual testimonies, “but also to say that what happened to them can happen to anyone anywhere in the world.”

One by one, the women recount the circumstances of their arrest. Zaour, who had recently graduated from the Institute of Tourism, wanted to protest peacefully against the incarceration of civil prisoners. Wearing wedding dresses, she and three friends headed to a busy market in central Damascus and waved banners proclaiming their love for Syria. “That was the moment that broke the fear inside me forever,” she says. Minutes later security services arrested them.

Roweida Kanaan, a journalist who was accused of working for an opposition TV channel. (Photo:Merass Sadek)

The Syrian Network for Human Rights records 127,916 currently detained or disappeared by the government since the beginning of the conflict and says 14,000 prisoners have died as a result of torture.

A 2016 United Nations report described inhumane conditions in Syrian prisons that amounted to mass extermination. Former inmates have detailed mass hangings, torture and starvation, but rights groups say there has been no sustained effort to hold the regime to account. “Some countries have been vocal about the practices of arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearance of people carried out by the Syrian government but no concrete steps have been taken to pressure the government to end these violations,” said Diana Semaan, a Syria expert at Amnesty International.

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Art can help keep the plight of those still incarcerated in the public eye, says Semaan. “We have collaborated with many of the families of the disappeared to raise awareness on this issue through showcasing objects left behind by victims and narrating the stories of disappearance and the horrible impact on their families,” she said.

For Ali Hamidi, who used to go by Ola before a gender transition, the day of his capture was terrifying. “I was beaten up so badly,” he says. He was 21 years old at the time. “I used to drive injured soldiers to the Jordanian border so they could get help,” Hamidi explains. In a letter to his mother from prison, he wrote that: “Over here, you learn that nothing is as important as freedom.” After he was released, he made his way to Turkey and later walked to Germany, a grueling journey that took him nearly two months.

Hamidi said in an interview that he would comfort the others after they’d been tortured, “even though I was weak.” After developing diabetes and deep-vein thrombosis in prison, he shut down and spent six months without uttering a word. “I used to write on the wall all the time, anything that came into my mind, names of my siblings, my family.”

He spent a year and six months in the women’s prison, living with up to thirty people in a cramped cell. At one point, the others were pardoned and he was left alone, which was worse. “I would just wait and wait and wait.” He was released after being forced to sign a blank piece of paper that was used to transfer his $50,000 inheritance over to the regime. He was given 10 days to get out of Syria.

At the beginning of the play, which is performed in Arabic with English subtitles, the performers repeat the advice they clung to inside. “Don’t admit anything, even if they threaten rape.” “Remember your loved ones.” “If you believe in God, pray.” The isolation and confusion of the early days in prison are captured in the opening scene. “Is there anyone here?” the actors ask in frightened voices, pacing the stage, heads bent.

Their accounts of life inside Adra prison capture the surreal experience of boredom, fear, isolation, claustrophobia and eerie silence, punctuated, at night, by screams. They describe the fraught desperation for word from their families, and terror that this might mean news of death; the constant hope of release and the worry that a guard unlocking the cell means a fate that’s even worse.

Hend Mugale, 58, used to have nightmares that her daughter was also in prison and then bang her head against the wall, strangely convinced her child was in the neighboring cell. “I could cope with anything, except the thought of her being in this place,” she told the audience. Later, prisoners who shared a cell with her daughter said the girl used to stand next to the wall after hearing her mother’s voice singing a song next door.

For Kanaan, who now lives in Paris, pain floods to the surface in each performance but she’s determined that those who suffered and died inside are not forgotten. “Theatre is one of the forms of resistance,” she says. At some point in her monologue she stops addressing the audience and talks instead to the memory of her best friend, Khaled, who she last saw on the day they were both arrested. I think of you every day, all the time, she says. “I miss you immensely.”

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Since February, Algeria has witnessed regular massive protests (called Hirak, the Arabic word for “movement”) demanding political change. Under pressure from the street, ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been planning to run for a fifth term, has resigned. But demonstrators continue to call for the removal of other Bouteflika-era officials and for guarantees that elections, when they are held, will be free of interference from the government and the military.

Nacer Djabi is a renowned Algerian sociologist who has been both a supporter of the protests and a frequent commentator and analyst of their significance in the French and Arabic press. He spoke to Al-Fanar Media recently from Algiers.

Today, Djabi says, the main question is whether change will limit itself to side-lining some of the political figures of the old regime, or extend to a real transformation of the political system: “What’s mainly at stake is the question of whether we change the whole system or we just remove particular individuals. The youth and society want a radical political change, not just a change of some figures.” (See related article: “Algerian Students Thwart President Bouteflika’s Bid for Fifth Term”). The message from the authorities is: “This individual has left, so you can go home. But we don’t want to stop where they want us to stop. The major question is how to change the system that created this corruption, all these ills?”

Some of the groups that have called for change met recently in a national dialogue forum. The gathering, which was mostly comprised of nationalist, Islamist parties, NGOs and unions, is just one avenue that opposition forces have pursued to try to hammer out their demands. There are other points of view and approaches, says Djabi, including those that are more radical or leftist, or that represent groups based on their Berber identity. These groups don’t want to move too quickly toward presidential elections, because they fear that process will bring back the old system.

In fact, one of the main points of contention today is how to structure a national dialogue with le pouvoir (as Algerians refer to the ruling regime) and what new independent structure will be created to oversee elections. “The demand of many is to keep government and the ministry of interior at a distance from the management of the elections, and to have the first free and honest elections in the country,” explains Djabi.

A man waves a flag on a balcony during a demonstration coinciding with the celebration of Algeria’s independence from France (Photo: Kadri Mohamed/Sipa/AP).

On the other hand, “le pouvoir wants to move very quickly towards elections,” says Djabi. The authorities say this is necessary in order to stay within the framework of the constitution, and to exit the crisis as soon as possible. But Djabi argues that the country has already gone outside of this framework. “Our constitution is not built to handle political conflicts, and we are in an exceptional situation. The population says this political problem requires a political solution, not a constitutional one.”

Meanwhile, massive street protests are the only way to maintain pressure for change, he says: “Our only guarantee is this popular mobilization. Without it, we will regress to the old methods. We need to stay in the street to impose this dialogue.”

And, adds Djabi, “there is a great political debate. There is a great politicization in Algeria, of young people especially.”

This mobilization has included universities. The demonstrations that university students and professors continue to hold every Tuesday are mostly focused on general political demands for democracy, says Djabi, but they are also concerned with “democracy inside universities, how to free universities, how to fight corruption inside universities.” (See related article: “Algeria’s Student Strikes Put Academic Year at Risk”) Students are demanding more transparency in how universities spend public funds. They are calling for new pedagogical approaches that are in line with international norms, and for more openness to the outside world.

The question of university governance is directly connected to the political debate in the country, notes Djabi: “We can’t change universities without changing the political system. Only a legitimate political system, a parliament and president with the support of the people, can seriously face the problem of the university in Algeria, its financial management. We’ve never had a serious transparent debate on the role and future of the university, one that asks: What university do we want to have? Our leaders were afraid of facing these problems, and they never solved them. And this gave us ailing universities.”

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Djabi says that he expected unrest and protests to break out in Algeria, given how frustrated people have been. But like many others, he was surprised and impressed by the form the mass mobilization has taken. “I didn’t expect this huge peaceful organized mobilization. We weren’t sure we would see a strong national movement that would remain peaceful for many months. This was a beautiful discovery. I wasn’t surprised by something happening, that things wouldn’t continue as they were, that Algerians were sick of it, especially the young. I am surprised by the determination of the Algerian population. They go out in 48 cities at a time, with the same demands, in this heat. It’s been going for five months.”

A positive resolution of this crisis will not be easy. “We are entering a very delicate, difficult period,” says Djabi. “There will be formal and informal negotiations. I believe the mobilization will impose itself. Algeria was the first country that had a civil war in the region. I hope we will be the first country that will change its political system through a peaceful mass movement.” He believes this could serve as a model for the region and offer hope to other Arab countries that they can overcome the trauma that followed the failure of the Arab Spring in countries such as Egypt and Syria.

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TUNIS—After two years of research, Balkis Friaa, a textile-engineering scientist at the University of Monastir, designed a special textile that can be placed in the insoles of shoes to help blind people navigate their way.

The fabric contains sensors that identify obstacles and vibrate or give other signals to help the person navigate around them, according to the researcher.

“As I was a textile specialist,” says Friaa, “I developed electronic sensors inside smart fabrics that could be put into the shoe’s insoles so that they will be lightweight and inexpensive.”

Friaa’s research is part of a worldwide move toward developing “smart fabrics” that can provide crucial information to the person wearing them. A research team at the Canadian Université du Quebec at Chicoutimi, has worked on a similar idea and obtained a patent for the invention. Friaa was awarded a grant by the Canadian nonprofit Mitacs to join the university and work with the team, so she can further develop her idea for “smart shoes.”

Friaa’s interest in the problem comes from her knowledge of the difficulties faced by blind students on their academic path, difficulties that prevent many of them from completing their university studies. “Unfortunately, most public universities do not have enough advanced tools to facilitate disabled students’ education, most of whom are forced to drop out,” she said.

A Hindering Reality

No official statistics exist on the number of students with special needs at Tunisia’s public universities. However, the Tunisian “handicapped” website estimates that the country has 208,000 handicapped people, 46 percent of whom are classified as having physical disabilities, 27 percent with mental disabilities, 12 percent with auditory disabilities, 11 percent with visual impairment and 4 percent with multiple disabilities. Although Tunisian law emphasizes the responsibility of the state and society to protect the disabled, the reality is that most of them are marginalized and excluded, and 60 percent are unemployed.

“Most of the public universities do not have a friendly and suitable infrastructure for people with special needs, whether blind or handicapped, because most of the university buildings are old and rented,” said Mounji al-Nuaimi, director of student affairs at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. “Therefore, universities cannot change the designs of their buildings as required.”

The lack of infrastructure is not the only problem. Most public universities are unable to provide even basic services, such as Braille books and references, for example, for those who need them. That drives some visually impaired students to attend private universities, despite their high cost.

The family of Hamzah el-Benzarti, a second-year blind law student at a private university, had to borrow money to pay the tuition at a private university after he failed his courses three years in a row at a public one.

“The university is supposed to provide people to help us during the exams,” he said, “so we can dictate our answers to them. But they often miss the exams’ dates or come late, which creates a great psychological strain on us.” Because of the lack of books in Braille, blind students need to have someone available to read texts to them and help them find references, he said.

Fatima Ghia, a second-year law student at Sousse with physical disabilities that impair her use of both her legs and arms, said the Ministry of Higher Education neglects the needs of students like her.

“Unfortunately, I have no rights at the law school where I study,” she said, “I have a very hard time moving around the campus and I cannot attend some of the lectures on top floors.”

The suffering of disabled students in Tunisia intersects with the suffering of thousands of their counterparts in many Arab countries (Read the related articles: Options for Special-Needs Students Are Few at Egyptian Universities and The Blind Side of Arab Education: Disabled Students). However, some universities, such as those in Jordan, have moved towards improving their infrastructure (Read the related story: University of Jordan Opens a “Safe Path” for Blind Students). Tunisian students hope they will someday get improved facilities in their own universities.

“I hope that Friaa will be able to carry out her research and that the shoe will be available here in Tunisia at a reasonable price,” said el-Benzarti. “This is a dream I hope will come true soon.”

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A recent policy paper published by Unesco calls for schools to act as early warning centers for refugee students with mental-health needs. The report says teachers should be trained to recognize the signs of displacement trauma and provide intervention. While the paper is focused on teachers and schools, its findings also appear relevant at the university level.

The move is welcomed by experts, who say that the earlier mental-health treatment begins, the more effective it is.

“Given that 50 percent of all mental-health problems start in adolescence, it seems wise to get the prevention work started early,” says Justin Thomas, a professor of psychology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. “A new breed of teachers could well be the key to reversing the mental-health crisis.”

Refugees often leave their homes under very stressful conditions—sometimes witnessing extreme violence, perhaps leaving loved ones behind or undertaking perilous journeys on foot. The Unesco paper says these experiences can lead to long lasting effects such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

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The statistics back this up by showing high rates of mental-health problems among refugees compared to the populations of the countries that host them. For example, approximately 40 percent of adult refugees and 20 percent of child refugees in Germany suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the report.

Refugee students are not the only ones grappling with mental-health issues. A 2018 study showed that 25 percent of young people in greater Beirut are suffering from mental-health problems. They would also stand to benefit from early interventions in schools if such treatment programs were available. (See a related article: “Study to Map Mental-Health Needs of Lebanese Youth.”)

Some of the Unesco paper’s recommendations suggest creating the best atmosphere in classrooms for refugee students to feel safe and secure again. “Whether in high-income countries or emergency settings, learning environments must be safe, nurturing and responsive,” said the report. Practically, that means ensuring students are fed, are physically safe and feel welcome.

On top of that, the report recommends what it calls “supportive generalized activities,” which include art, drama and mindfulness classes to be run by teachers or other professionals. (See a related article: “Iraqi Researchers Use Art to Help Sexual Violence Survivors.”)

“Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, for example, is typically only offered to people once they have overcome their depression, but the idea is to prevent future episodes,” says Thomas. But he’d like to see this change—in line with the report’s recommendations—rolling out such programs earlier to populations believed to be at risk of mental-health problems.

The policy paper also endorses further training for teachers so that they might recognize the symptoms of a student in need. For example, a student may appear to be disruptive or uninterested during lessons, but that could be a sign that help is needed.

With sufficient training, teachers would be able to identify these at-risk students and refer them to mental-health professionals where access is available.

Fadi Maalouf, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, says the report’s recognition of the role of teachers is significant.

“It is highlighting the importance of supporting teachers’ well-being, which is often neglected in some interventions,” he says. “For our children to thrive well in schools, we need to also pay attention to the teachers.”

Early intervention not only offers the chance to improve the lives of those directly affected by mental-health problems, but it could also boost national development. Research has shown that mental health is the single largest source of economic burden caused by any disease in the Arab world. (See a related article: “Anxiety and Depression Often Overshadow Arab Youth.”)

Efforts to reduce this burden among refugees should also help the wider community.

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History, according to British novelist Hilary Mantel, helps us place our small lives in a context. But what sort of context? And whose stories are to be told? At the Shubbak Festival in London late last month, four acclaimed Arab novelists talked about the contexts for their historical fiction, how they write to shift official narratives, to affect the future—and also to have fun.

The four novelists all said that they worked against the grain of official history. Iraqi-Welsh novelist Ruqaya Izzidien talked about writing about lives that had been erased from British accounts of World War I; Palestinian novelist Rabai al-Madhoun spoke about confronting Israeli narratives; Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi talked about passing on stories about Iraqi art and culture; and Sudanese novelist Hammour Ziada talked about writing about white people in Sudan.

The panel opened with a reading from Izzidien’s debut novel The Watermelon Boys (shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, awarded by the U.K. organization, the Society of Authors), which is set in Iraq between World War I and the 1920 uprising against the British. For Izzidien, the only one on the panel who writes in English, it was important to place Iraqi stories into English-language literature set during this period.

English-language writing on this subject, she said, usually “centers around European narratives and European protagonists and sets the Arabs as antagonists or, at the very least, background characters who serve as a menacing, perilous, exoticized background for the European adventure.”

Ziada, the author of three novels and two short-story collections, read from The Longing of the Dervish (winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal, given annually by the American University in Cairo Press to the best contemporary Arabic novel not yet available in English translation), translated to English by Jonathan Wright, the British journalist and literary translator. Ziada’s novel is set in Sudan during the Mahdist revolt near the end of the nineteenth century.

Ziada said he did not focus only on the stories of Sudanese characters. “Unlike Ruqaya, I want to write about the white man in our country with my point of view,” he said. “They wrote about us… but how do we see them? I have the right to write about this white man, or white woman.”

The Sunday-evening panel, held at the British Library, was moderated by political scientist Laleh Khalili, who teaches at SOAS, University of London. She asked the writers what they thought about their novels being used in classrooms, as teaching tools. Izzidien said it could be problematic if writers were to be pressed into service as representatives of a whole culture, but also empowering if it were part of a writer’s own project. Izzidien, Kachachi, and al-Madhoun all talked about the ways in which they purposefully intervened in the way history is written.

Ziada, by contrast, emphasized that he didn’t have a “good reason” for writing historical novels. He was raised largely by his grandmother and, because of this, “I played with stories from the past.” His grandmother’s tightly plotted tales ensured that “my imagination lives in that period.” Rather than representing Sudan, Ziada said, “I am still a kid playing with history.”

For al-Madhoun, there was no way to avoid representation, politics or the past. “There is no time like Palestinian time,” he said. “You live this life in the present time while the past is dominating your life and trying to force the definition of your future. So what time are you living in? You don’t know.”

Al-Madhoun emphasized that the question of Palestine’s past was central to resolving the conflicts of the present. We can forget the past, he said, only when injustices are resolved. Palestinians and Israelis “need to forget the past to live in peace and to share everything: the air, the sky, the shit, the rubbish, the love, everything,” he said. “But we couldn’t do that under occupation.”

Al-Madhoun’s novel Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba won the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and has been translated to English by Paul Starkey, now an emeritus professor at Durham University and the editor of a survey of contemporary Arabic literature. Al-Madhoun said that part of his novel’s project was to “confront the Holocaust with the Nakba”—that is, the Palestinians’ expulsion from their homes and villages in 1948. He emphasized that it’s important, when telling the history of the Holocaust, to “make sure it doesn’t happen again. But the problem with the Nakba is that it’s continuing, with no end.”

For Kachachi, who lives in France, it is important that her novels are translated and available as new Iraqi stories. She wanted to confront the misconceptions about Iraqi migrants, she said, who are often depicted as a people without deep cultural history or artistic longings.

Double exposure on a postcard from Baalbek, Lebanon, 1960, by photographer Ibrahim Chamas (Photo: FAI Collection, courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation).

For Kachachi, who lives in France, it is important that her novels are translated and available as new Iraqi stories. She wanted to confront the misconceptions about Iraqi migrants, she said, who are often depicted as a people without deep cultural history or artistic longings.

One focus of the evening was the research the authors did to support and inform their novels. Kachachi, whose most recent novel was The Outcast,  shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, said she relied in part on letters and other documents that she had obtained from her characters—or rather, the real people on whom her characters were based.

“And of course,” Kachachi added in English, “I have to say a big thanks to Santa Google.”

Izzidien said she used family stories in addition to official archives, as she felt “it was important to know what the other side was saying about us.” In order to do that, “I needed to consult British accounts in newspapers or autobiographies.”

Yet she was surprised by the extent to which British suppression of the Iraqi uprising was absent from English-language newspapers in Iraq. Izzidien said she “went to the archives in Istanbul expecting to see at least a sentence about it” in an English-language newspaper called The Baghdad Times, “but it was just articles about what was happening at the YMCA.”

Al-Madhoun said that much of his research involved walking the streets in historic Palestine where his novel was set. He wasn’t concerned about public figures, he said, but rather about the lives of ordinary people. “I go to the history which wasn’t written, the history that’s not taught to children in schools, that’s not in the media. I go to the ordinary people, and I take the stories from the lips of ordinary people.”

It was important to Kachachi to reorient historical fiction around people who don’t usually make the history books. “The official history has always been falsified and re-written with each new ruler,” Kachachi said. “So as my fellow panelist said, I think we have a duty to write about real people living this life, rather than official history.”

For Kachachi, it was important to de-emphasize narratives of war, which have dominated so much of twenty-first-century discussion of Iraq. After working for many years as a journalist, Kachachi started writing fiction in her 50s, when she decided that she wanted to show the next generation that Iraq was a country rich with art, music and literature. “I wanted to tell the stories of this culture, and this people. “

Ziada—who wore a blue t-shirt emblazoned with the Twitter hashtag #blueforSudan—was interested in social justice and contemporary political reform. Yet he was also the panelist who most often shifted the conversation to the pleasures of reading and writing.

“Yes,” he said of doing research, “we need the archive. Yes, we use the archive. No, we don’t write the archive.”

All four novelists approach history in different ways, shedding light on lesser-known stories. But Ziada also sounded an important note: Novelists are not historians, and there is no reason for historical fiction that does not tell a good story.

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A power-sharing deal struck last week between civilian and military forces in Sudan will split rule between the two sides until elections are held three years from now. But women—who took a strikingly prominent part in the revolution that forced the agreement—were absent from the negotiating table.

The students and other young people who forced the departure of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in April are also wondering if they will be represented during the interim rule. All who tracked the country’s rise to a shaky form of freedom are carefully monitoring progress.

“Women were well represented in the streets, which was something not easy. But we were totally surprised about our weak representation on media platforms and in negotiation rooms. I am sure this can’t continue.”

Tasneem Dahab   A Sudanese journalist

“Women were well represented in the streets, which was something not easy,” said Tasneem Dahab, a Sudanese journalist. “But we were totally surprised about our weak representation on media platforms and in negotiation rooms.”

“I am sure this can’t continue,” she added. “If the caretaker government doesn’t have a fair representation of women, I am sure the protesters in the streets will take it down.”

The seven-month uprising met with brutal violence from the government, including a June 3 crackdown in which more than 100 protestors were killed and over 40 bodies dumped into the Nile River, according to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, which has tracked the medical effects of the violence. (The agreement struck last week called for an investigation into the government-sponsored attacks.)

The ‘Bread Protests’

The first scattered demonstrations in Sudan—sometimes labeled “the bread protests”—broke out in December. The economy had hit rock bottom and long lines were forming for fuel, bread, and cash. But beyond that, observers said, citizens resented brazen corruption by the government in the midst of widespread poverty. Many Sudanese felt they had nothing left to lose by protesting.

In early April, protesters numbering in the tens of thousands gathered around military headquarters in Khartoum. The government had already shut down higher-education in an attempt to stamp out the revolutionary spark spreading among young people. (See a related article, “Sudan Shutters All Its Universities.”)

But in the midst of the protests, education of an informal sort still flourished—political discussions, informal teach-ins, and art displays.

An “art corner” in the main protest area that included a library where the organizer was giving away books became popular. Political posters, graphic designs, graffiti, and protest-inspired murals began covering the city’s dusty walls and filling up the country’s social media. The protestors created their own radio station and set up a school for street children. Mobile clinics treated the sick and injured. At times the atmosphere was more like a football match or a music festival than a protest, said the journalist Mohanad Hashim in a report on the BBC World Service.

“I don’t think that it was like anything that anyone has seen, ever,” said Yousra Elbagir, a Channel 4 news reporter in the United Kingdom who was born in Sudan and has reported on the protests. She and some other journalists who have covered the Sudanese uprisings spoke last week at the Frontline Club, in London.

“I don’t think that pictures or words can encapsulate what that space meant,” Elbagir said of the main protest area outside military headquarters. “It was the most magical place. But it was also very organized.”

Men and women lined up in separate queues up for security searches before entering the protest area. During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, large pots of food were cooked and shared for iftar, the meal after sunset when the daily fast is broken.

Journalists who have covered Sudan discuss the events of the past seven months there at the Frontline Club, in London. From left are James Copnall, of the BBC; Yousra Elbagir, Channel 4; Othaylat Suliman, broadcast journalist and chairperson of the Sudanese Journalists Forum (Photo: David Wheeler).
The Women Arrive

Under al-Bashir’s rule, many women say that they couldn’t venture onto the street for fear of facing hostility, sexual harassment, or punishment for violating religious law. But women quickly began joining the protests, as word got out that it was safe. The first reaction of some male protesters to the women joining them was: “They are coming to cheer us on,” said Elbagir. But the men quickly realized, she said, “They are not your cheerleaders, mate, they are coming to fight the fight.”

Debates on the street focused not just on politics, the Sudanese journalists at the Frontline Club said, but about the features of Sudanese society that may have contributed to autocratic rule. “It was amazing after 30 years,” said Othaylat Suliman, a television journalist and chairperson of the Sudanese Journalists Forum, to see the Sudanese having such intense cultural and political discussions.

Elbagir said social divisions have contributed to the country’s problems. “There’s a lot of racism in Sudan,” she said. “There’s a lot of Arab supremacy. We were colonized, so there’s a lot of white supremacy.”

Residents of Khartoum may not always hear about the government’s actions in putting down rebellions elsewhere in the sprawling country, where it is a three-hour flight from Khartoum to Darfur. Many in the country’s outskirts are both geographically and economically marginalized. Around 1,500 protesters arrived from Darfur to join those in the protest zone outside military headquarters. That was a momentous occasion, protesters said, with chants of “We are all Darfur.”

Protesters were concerned about the presence on the transitional ruling military council of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known by the nickname “Hemeti.” Hemeti is the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which guards Sudan’s borders and puts down rebellions. He is regarded as complicit in the government’s brutality in Darfur and other rebellious territories where the RSF has been synonymous with the hated Janjaweed militia. Although Hemeti was the vice chair of the ruling military council, those familiar with Sudanese politics say he has been in charge. “He’s the man with the money, he’s the man with the troops, he’s the man with the regional usefulness,” said Elbagir. “Everyone has taken his lead.”

The Rapid Support Forces are independent from the Sudanese army. European Union funds for efforts to end northwards migration are rumored to have trickled down into Hemeti’s hands and the Rapid Support Forces have been enriched by supplying troops to fight for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen. Hemeti did not rise to leadership by some of the traditional educational routes—the University of Khartoum or a military staff college. “Hemeti is a war criminal,” said Elbagir. “He is the regime’s rebellion crusher and attack dog.”

June 3: The Darkest Day

Hemeti and his loyalists lived up to their fearsome reputation at dawn on June 3, in the final hours of Ramadan. The Rapid Support Forces attacked the protesters with no warning. No safe corridors existed that the protesters could escape through. As army soldiers watched, RSF troops shot, whipped, beat, and raped protestors and burned their tents. An early estimate by Sudanese doctors found that 70 women went to Khartoum hospitals to be treated for rape—with the actual number of rapes expected to be far higher than that. The RSF troops only made crude efforts to cover their tracks, such as throwing bodies into the Nile. “What they did was so unbelievably, profoundly cruel,” said Elbagir.

Human rights groups are still struggling to piece together a full picture of the June 3 atrocities. The immediate shutdown of the Internet in Sudan after the protest—a move condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Council—has made assembling evidence more difficult.

But blocking the Internet did not stop protests. Activists have been organizing by meeting in mosques, football stadiums, buses, and at wakes for those who have been killed in protests, said Mohanad Hashim, the BBC journalist. Said Elbagir: “The revolution has gone analog.”

Now the international diplomats who pushed Sudanese negotiators to work with Ethiopia and the African Union to come to a power-sharing agreement are applying pressure for compliance with its terms. “We look forward to immediate resumption of access to the Internet, establishment of the new legislature, accountability for the violent suppression of peaceful protests, and progress toward free and fair elections,” said a U.S. government statement.

For their part, the protesters, said Elbagir, “may have gotten “addicted to the feeling of liberation and equality.”

That addiction to freedom may well expand but whether the Sudanese women and youth craving freedom and wanting to build on it are represented in government, future negotiations, and elections remains to be seen.

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Researchers who want to conduct experiments on humans, or on viruses and bacteria that infect humans, can face daunting hurdles in the Arab region to get a government’s approval for their plans. But some scientists have found innovative ways to cope.

The regulation of research on human subjects has roots in dark episodes in medical history: the Nazi experiments on prisoners and U.S. government-supported research that infected African American men with syphilis and left them untreated. In 1964, the World Medical Association established guidelines, known as the Declaration of Helsinki, for human-subjects research that have been regularly updated.

Under these guidelines, and other ethics rules about working with samples of human tissue, governments need to establish processes to keep the public from being infected by viruses and bacteria and also ensure that participants have knowingly consented to their tissue being used in experiments.

But in some Arab countries, researchers say permission is unreasonably difficult to get, takes more time than it should, and the approval processes aren’t particularly clear.  All of this can make it difficult for researchers to plan their work and use their hard-won funding.

Avoiding Working With Human Tissue

Marieh al-Handawi is a chemistry researcher at New York University–Abu Dhabi who is trying to create heat-proof vaccines that don’t need to be refrigerated—this would allow vaccination supplies to reach the most isolated places on earth. (See a related article, “U.A.E. Researcher Joins Quest for Heat-Resistant Vaccines.”)

In the first stages of her research, she decided not to investigate microbes that could infect humans. Instead, she opted to see if she could produce a plant-virus vaccine that could withstand high temperatures. She did this because it meant she wouldn’t need to bother with the paperwork required in working on a human pathogen. “It was just about proving the concept,” she says. “A plant virus meant we could get started right away.”

Now that she’s proven her methods work, al-Handawi wants to push on with her research to see if it would also work for a virus that infects humans. “We would like to try and stabilize a real vaccine,” she says. “But we believe it will be a long process and permissions would be required.”

But she dreads the process so much that that she won’t start it until other aspects of the project are finalized. “Once we get the funding, we will go ahead and figure it out,” she says.

Until then, she’s putting off the paperwork.

Getting Blood Samples

The need for governmental approval doesn’t apply to every kind of scientific investigation that involves humans. Along with clinical trials of treatments, research that involves collecting certain parts of human tissues or experiments that include infectious microorganisms must also be reviewed.

It’s usually a lot easier to do observational studies, which are less invasive.

Jumana Saleh’s work is one such example. She’s a professor in the biochemistry department at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman and is trying to find out why such a high proportion of women die from heart disease. She analyzes patients’ blood for chemical signals of heart disease risk factors. (See a related article, “Researcher in Oman: Why Do So Many Postmenopausal Women Die of Heart Disease?”)

For this kind of research, she says she doesn’t need to seek approval from the government, just the normal university permission. (Universities typically set up committees to review the ethics of research.) The harder part of getting started in her research, she says, is convincing patients in hospitals and members of the general public to consent to be part of the research.

“This is my issue, how to make people understand that this will help them,” she says.

However, she says her gender sometimes helps. “As a woman, I find it easier to be involved with studies where women are participants,” she says. “I have easy access.”

Men on the other hand may find it more difficult to include female patients in their studies because of cultural constraints. (Some female patients in Gulf countries, for example, refuse to be treated by men.)

A Waiting Game

But some research, in particular experiments that seek to test a new product on humans, require permissions from the relevant government authority—along with ethical approval from universities—and this isn’t speedy.

For example, Zainab al-Balushi, a chemistry student at A’Sharqiyah University, in Oman, has developed a skin patch to deliver critically needed nutrients to anorexia sufferers in emergency situations. (See a related article, “Anorexia in the Middle East Is an Overlooked Problem, Say Researchers.”)

This prototype was created through experiments carried out on mouse skin, but al-Balushi now wants to move her product on to the next phase.

“This was done in vitro and we’re currently waiting for approval for clinical use in humans,” she says. The application was submitted more than four months ago, but she is still waiting to hear back.

Researchers often complain about a lack of funding. Boosting financial backing for research could be hard to achieve throughout the region, but researchers believe that when they do win funding, governments could streamline regulatory approval while still protecting both the subjects of research and the general public.

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LONDON—Deena Mohamed’s female Muslim superhero Qahera is seen as defying the norm—not because she has super strength or can fly, but because she does those things wearing a veil. Qahera is now a feminist icon for women in Egypt, but that wasn’t the intention when Mohamed, a 24-year old graphic artist, sketched her first adventures.

“People tend to assume my work represents all Egyptian women or that it represents the feminism of today,” she said during the opening session of Shubbak @ The British Library. “Really it just reflects a different point of view that is uniquely my own.”

Six years after creating the Qahera web comic, which has over 750,000 views, Mohamed is a little disheartened to find that a strong woman wearing a hijab still comes as a surprise. “It reinforces the stereotype,” she said in an interview.

Representation was a recurring theme at the event, held last Sunday, when novelists, poets, journalists, translators and graphic artists from across the Arab world gathered for a day of discussion on new works in the fields of feminism, queer writing, Kurdish fiction, and other forms of writing. The event formed the literary chapter of the biennial Shubbak Festival, which showcases contemporary Arab culture in theaters, concert halls, cinemas, art galleries, museums and outdoor venues across London.

The theme for the fifth edition, questioning the norm, champions Arab artists who are probing established narratives and reimagining traditional definitions.

“We aim to shift the discourse about our complex relationship with the Arab world,” said Eckhard Thiemann, the festival’s artistic director. “The privilege of a festival is that we can offer a multiplicity of voices, different aesthetics, different opinions all in a short time. This combats a unilateral and simplistic reading of the many expressions of Arab artists.”

An attentive audience listened to a panel discuss new feminist writing at the Shubbak Festival (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).

New Interpretations of Feminism

Starting the day with a panel titled The Endless Wave: New Feminist Writing, Mohamed and a co-panelist, the Saudi journalist and chat show host Badriah al Beshr, discussed the need for flexible interpretations of feminism that reflect different countries and contexts—and the diversity of thought within them—across the Arab world.

For al Beshr, who has written widely on issues affecting Saudi women, the current wave of feminism calls for supporting the individual through localized responses. “We have to make it more relevant,” she said.

In the past, issues facing Saudi women were fixed, she told listeners, ticking off some of the recent hard-won gains for women in the kingdom, including the right to drive and increased female participation in public life. She sidestepped prompts to criticize the Saudi government for imprisoning female activists who campaigned for some of these freedoms. These are security issues, she said. “It’s not for me to discuss right now.” (See a related article, “Women’s Advocates Go on Trial in Saudi Arabia.”)

In Egypt, a crackdown on freedom of expression has made a degree of caution necessary among writers, artists and activists. “In theory we might have a lot of rights but in practice we don’t,” said Mohamed, whose debut graphic novel Shubeik Lubeik won the award for best printed graphic novel and the grand prize at the CairoComix Festival in 2017.

She outlined two types of feminism in Egypt: a state-sponsored brand and grass-roots activism, which operates within a very stifled space. The result is a sanitized feminism that “tiptoes” around issues that need to be addressed. “Right now we’re scraping for leftovers.”

Censoring the Gay Experience

Censorship was explored from other perspectives during a panel headlined Bold Voices: New Queer Writing, where the poet, playwright and actress Dima Mikhayel Matta joked—without divulging too many trade secrets—about the loopholes LGBTQ artists exploit to share their work in restricted environments. Censors who ask why a piece differs from the version submitted may hear that the piece is “in progress,” she said. Also, art galleries are often used instead of theaters because they face fewer restrictions.

“Also publishing can be practiced underground, which is even sexier,” added the artist Joseph Kai, to loud applause.

For Kai, an editor at the Lebanese comic collective Samandal, homophobia is the “eye that is always there, reading whatever I’m writing … searching for sexuality.”

Kai, whose works explore the unspoken, marginalization and gender, spoke of different forms of homophobia in Beirut. The city is considered one of the region’s most liberal and was the first in the Arab world to host a gay pride week in 2017. But the fragility of these freedoms was made clear last year when authorities forced the cancelation of Beirut Pride and detained its organizer, Hadi Damien, overnight.

“Homophobia very much exists in Lebanon,” said Matta, who said she feels safe in her Beirut neighborhood but plays straight at work to avoid being fired.

But she and others said they were not out to “normalize” the gay experience.

Khaled Alesmael wrote a “gay Syrian novel,” that foregrounds the gay experience against the background of the Syrian revolution. But at the moment, the book is only available in Swedish (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).

Getting Published, but Not in Arabic

Syrian writer Khaled Alesmael, who was also on the panel, said authors should mix homosexuality with other issues in their work.

His first novel, Selamlik, foregrounds the gay experience during the Syrian revolution to challenge the exclusion of LGBTQ people. “I like my book to be called a gay Syrian novel,” Alesmael said. In a society that often denies homosexuality exists, Alesmael  wanted to “save the oral heritage of gay life in Syria,” to chronicle the places he frequented and the men he met before war swept them away.

Alesmael published his book from Sweden, and at present it is available only in Swedish. The erotic nature of the story makes it difficult to find an Arabic publisher, he said. “From the first or second page, they tell me this is too much for us to publish because of Middle Eastern sensibilities.”

That’s a hurdle many queer Arab writers face. There were several mentions of Saleem Haddad’s celebrated novel Guapa, about a young gay man navigating his sexuality in an unamed Middle East city. It was written in English and translated into over 15 languages, but not Arabic. It’s up to Arabic publishers to change their sensibilities and bring these novels to Arab audiences, Alesmael said.

Writers talk about their work and about the need for “flexible feminism” during a session on new feminist writing (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).

‘Forming Our Own Narrative’

Language carries other considerations too. Matta told audiences that she felt compelled to begin her play, This Is Not a Memorized Script, This Is a Well-Rehearsed Story, in part because of the lack of queer Arab women writing in English. She examines her choice in the play’s opening monologue: “I’m an Arab but I’m talking to you in English, am I performing for you? I am, aren’t I. What happens when I perform in a language that is not my own? I sound a bit off, don’t I. Like I’m one degree away from myself.”

Educated in English, it’s easier for her to find expression in the language, not least because some words for the queer experience have no Arabic counterpart. “In the Arab world, we’re trying to invent a language that is not directly translated.” Gender is still “jendr”, queer is “qeery,” Matta said. “So much of what we are is viewed through a Western lens. … It’s about forming our own narrative.”

But leaf far enough back through history and a precedent for the queer Arab experience emerges. When he started writing, Alesmael would switch from Arabic to English for sex scenes. “I thought that there was no Arabic to express gay love.” Then he dug deeper into the heritage of his native tongue and found a literary movement under the Umayyad dynasty when homoerotic expression flourished among the writers of Andalucia, Aleppo and Damascus.

Then it was just a matter of weaving in modern-day dialect to create a Middle East novel that chronicles homosexuality in Syria and ties it into a growing number of contemporary narratives that make queer Arab life visible in places that have kept it hidden.

“This story needs to be told,” Alesmael said. “It’s a revolutionary time for the Arab countries and the Arab world.”

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Arab students from outside Sudan who were studying at the countries’ universities have essentially become hostages to its political unrest now that Sudanese universities are closed indefinitely.

Many Arab students go to Sudan because of relatively low costs and lower admissions standards than they would face in their home countries. But that is also making it difficult for many of them to transition back to universities at home.

The number of Arab students in Sudanese universities is at least 15,000, according to the Non-Sudanese Student Welfare Organization, an official non-governmental organization. The students are distributed among 38 public universities and more than 100 private educational institutions across Sudan.

After four years of studying dentistry at Al-Yarmouk Private University in Khartoum, and just a year before her graduation, Duaa Mahmoud was forced to leave her university and return to Egypt, after halting her studies in December. “My future is being lost before my eyes and nobody cares or is doing something to help me,” she said.

Mahmoud’s return to Sudan does not seem imminent, given the continuing political turmoil there, and her attempts to resume her studies in a similar institution in her country seem impossible. Her grade on her high school exit exams does not qualify her to study dentistry in Egypt.

“I have lost a full academic year in Sudan and I am very afraid of losing my previous academic years and my academic and professional future if I cannot resume my studies in the specialty I loved and spent four years in,” she said. (If she passed her Sudanese exams she would be able to practice dentistry in Egypt.)

The largest number of foreign students in Sudan—7,000—comes from Somalia. Two thousand students are from Yemen, and 1,200 students are from Egypt. All these students have halted their studies now after a government decision to shut down the universities as a result of public protests against poor economic conditions and high living costs. Those protests led to the April 11 overthrow of the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and the transfer of power to a transitional military council. (Read the related article: “Sudan Shutters All its Universities”).

Closed University Classrooms

Although the military council has said it wants to reopen universities, that hasn’t happened yet. Protesters are pressuring the military junta to hand over power to civilians; something rejected by the council. Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in recent days and many have been injured.

“Opening the universities at this time would be an irresponsible act,” said Mohammed Yousef Ahmed, an economics professor at the University of Khartoum and the representative of the university professors’ group within the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has driven much of the protest. “University students are part of the revolutionary force, and if study is resumed this might double the likelihood of their clashing with the security forces,” he said.

While universities seem unlikely to reopen for now, Arab students returning to their home countries to resume their studies face obstacles.

In Egypt, the Ministry of Higher Education will not allow universities to admit students coming back from Sudan because of differences in admission standards and educational systems. Many of the Egyptian students enrolled in Sudanese universities had high-school exam scores that were too low to allow them to join even private universities in Egypt.

“We met the Minister of Higher Education, who assured us that our admission at Egypt’s universities may take place if our grades in high school exit exams were sufficient to qualify us to be accepted according to the admission requirements of these colleges today, provided that we resume our study from the first year,” said Mahmoud.“That means our previous study will not be recognized. This is so frustrating.”

Adel Abdul Ghaffar, the media spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, emphasized the ministry’s eagerness to help Egyptian students at Sudanese universities, in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We support students and their parents in any action that will ensure their continuing their education in order to preserve the future of their sons,” he said. (Many Egyptian families would not generally send their daughters abroad for study.)

Arab students from other countries with greater internal conflict than Egypt—including, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine—face an even harsher reality if they return. But it’s not safe for them to stay in Sudan.

“I have lost three years of my life and I do not know what tomorrow holds for me,” said Saleh Hamed, a third-year engineering student from Gaza who is now at the International University of Africa, in Sudan.

Hamed says he has been living in harsh conditions during the protests. “We are having a hard time getting money transfers,” he said. “There was the sound of gunfire and the smell of gas bombs everywhere. Going out to buy food was dangerous. We spent days just eating bread and drinking water.”

Hamed calleed on the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Higher Education to find a solution for the future of Palestinian students, ensuring their safe return and enabling them to resume their studies in the same academic fields. But the Palestinian policy is the same as in Egypt, according to an official statement issued by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. The statement said that the admission of students returning from Sudan would be “within the scope of the Ministry’s rules and regulations and university policies,” which implies that many of them cannot resume their studies, especially in the same disciplines.

In Jordan, a Possible Solution

Some experts say that not allowing students returning from Sudan to complete their studies in their country is logical. The university admission system in the majority of Arab countries is based chiefly on secondary school exit exam scores. Because the majority of the students went to Sudan because of their low grades and low university admission requirements, it is not fair to admit them today in disciplines they were not initially qualified for, some academics say.

“It is unfair to equate students at Egyptian universities who got high grades in high school exams with students with lower grades,” said Mohammed Kamal, an assistant professor of education at Kafrelsheikh University. “We recognize the difficulties our students face in Sudan, but the solution should not be at the expense of students in Egyptian universities.”

Kamal said the majority of students who are enrolled in Sudanese universities because of the low admission requirements are in medical and engineering colleges. For such students, the cost of living is $300 a month or less, he said.

But students believe that applying old admission rules to them today is unfair, especially if they have performed well and are about to graduate.

“This is injustice,” said Haitham Mehran, a third-year dentistry student at Neelain University. “The courses and textbooks are almost 90 percent the same in Egypt and Sudan, according to the Supreme Council of Universities.”

Although the number of Jordanian students studying in Sudan was only about 445 students, the Higher Education Council in Jordan is trying to help them complete their education.  Jordanian students can be admitted to Jordanian colleges similar to the Sudanese ones that they were studying in on the condition that they pass an exam determining their level of education. Students will not be admitted to scientific colleges such as medicine and dentistry unless their grades on the secondary school exit exams were 80 percent or higher.

Mahmoud and Mehran hope that the Egyptian ministry will follow the example of its Jordanian counterpart and facilitate their admission to local universities without having to start from scratch. Hamed, from Gaza, is more pessimistic, especially given the difficulty of returning to his besieged country. “Thinking about future does not seem feasible,” he said. “The present as well as the future is not in our hands.”

Students from outside Sudan who are studying there are concerned about their educational future amid widespread protests and shuttered universities.
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Souad Naji al-Azzawi, an Iraqi environmental scientist, has devoted much of her professional life to studying one of the thorniest problems remaining from the years of war in her home country—the effect of depleted uranium weapons on the Iraqi environment and on human health.

Iraq’s environment suffered enormous damage in nearly four decades of war. Iraqi scientists, environmentalists and government continue to assess the extent of the effects of armed conflict on the country’s air, water, soil and on the health of its people.

Al-Azzawi, although she is technically retired and lives in Abu Dhabi, continues to publish research and to campaign on this issue, which has largely receded from public view, even though the problem has not gone away. In May, a private Qatar-based charity, the Arab Scientific Community Organization, published al-Azzawi’s paper, Modeling Depleted Uranium Contamination in Southern Iraq.

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Depleted uranium—a waste product of nuclear power generation—is effective in anti-tank projectiles. The radioactive metal reaches high temperatures on impact with tank armor: hot enough to melt the armor into minute particles that are carried on the wind as dust. Environmentalists and many scientists argue that this radioactive dust contaminates air, water and soil, and has harmful consequences for human health—notably, conspicuously high incidences of cancer, leukemia and severe birth defects in areas where depleted uranium weapons were used.

“It’s not a subject that people are talking about much any more. I don’t know why,” said Renad Mansour, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House who specializes in the reconstruction of post-war Iraq.

A Persistent Campaigner

While database and Internet searches indicate the number of papers published on the subject has dwindled in recent years, al-Azzawi has not stopped publishing and campaigning. She lectures worldwide, and in recent years has appeared on Iraqi TV as a political commentator.

“I’m not quitting,” she says.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Mosul in the early 1980s, she left Iraq—with her three children—for the United States, to study geology and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. The subject of her doctorate was the contamination of underground water by nuclear power generation.

Souad al-Azzawi speaking on Iraqi TV channel Alrafidain, in 2017 (Photo: Youtube).

Al-Azzawi returned to Iraq in 1991, in the middle of the war that followed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In 1996, as director of the doctoral program in environmental engineering at the University of Baghdad, she led a team that conducted a field survey to measure the effects of radiation on civilians and soldiers in southern Iraq in the aftermath of the war.

“People in the western part of Basrah city, and the Iraqi and American troops, received … a radioactive dosage about 200 times more than natural,” she wrote in an overview of the work.

At the same time, epidemiological studies conducted by faculty members of the Basra College of Medicine showed a correlation between depleted uranium contamination and disease. Cases of leukemia in children in Basra increased by 60 percent from 1990 to 1997, for example. In the same period, there was a threefold increase in the number of children born with severe birth defects.

“Nobody knew how to handle the problem,” al-Azzawi said. The wreckage of tanks and radioactive shrapnel lay near where people lived. “Kids were playing with the used bullets. The depleted uranium bullets were shiny and clean, and the kids would collect them and take them home.”

When the radioactive dust entered dust clouds, the contamination spread to cities.

Unpopular Findings

The team’s work took nearly seven years and faced obstacles that came from within and outside Iraq. Domestically, their work was unpopular for painting an unfavorable picture of conditions in the country.

“Our work was scientific work. We were saying this [debris] is radioactive, it’s not safe for civilians. Everyone was attacking us, even inside Iraq. They said, ‘Those people [researchers] will make people migrate from Basra, and nobody is buying our fruit [from fear of contamination].’ We were just telling the truth.”

At the same time, Iraq was still under United Nations sanctions which throttled the Iraqi economy and isolated the country from the rest of the world. Researchers could neither publish their results abroad nor receive scientific publications published outside Iraq.

When their work became too dangerous to continue, the research team disbanded. In 2003 Al-Azzawi fled the country and found refuge in Syria where she was appointed as an administrator at Mamoun University for Science and Technology near Aleppo, one of the private universities established in the early days of the rule of Bashar al-Assad. The same year, she was given an award for education by the Nuclear-Free Future Foundation, based in Germany. She remained in Syria for the next seven years.

A soldier examines an armor-piercing round using depleted uranium to be used in a U.S. tank during Operation Desert Shield in 1991 (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense).

Proving, beyond reasonable doubt, a direct causal relation between depleted uranium and health effects remains difficult. “It is like cigarettes and cancer,” al-Azzawi said, referring to the prolonged struggle between American tobacco companies and scientists on cigarette smoking as a cause of cancer. Until a critical mass of research was achieved, the link could always be denied.

A Shroud of Secrecy

Obstacles to conducting this basic research remain, said Doug Weir, research and policy director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a United Kingdom-based organization which continues the campaign to ban the use of depleted uranium weapons.

“It’s hard to do the necessary research in Iraq,” Weir said. “Although there is civil society interest in Iraq about the effects of depleted uranium,” he said, the Iraqi environment ministry stopped the work of its radiation protection department when the rise of ISIS [the so-called Islamic State group also known as Da’esh] forced a change in their priorities.

Another obstacle facing research on the effects of depleted uranium weapons is the official secrecy that surrounds them. A stigma surrounds radioactive weapons that encourages government secrecy, Weir said. Data about where depleted uranium weapons were used must be painstakingly extracted from the United States government using Freedom of Information Act requests, he said.

Indeed, one of al-Azzawi’s remaining goals is to persuade the government of the United States to assume responsibility for the environmental impact of the depleted uranium weapons that were used in Iraq from 1990 onwards.

“You broke it, you bought it,” she says.

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