Adonis Diaries

Archive for September 23rd, 2013

Scale on the “abuse of migrant workers” in FIFA selection of World Cup sites?

Should FIFA start a revised procedure for the selection of World Cup locations?

Like, how the government will go about finishing the project and the cost in abuse of workers, humiliations and deprivation of the citizens during the preparation phase… And what the citizens benefit from all the investment and headaches they are subjected to for years?

With the European football association, Uefa, reaching the unavoidable conclusion that you cannot play competitive sport in the 50C heat of a Qatari summer, the way is clear for the international football association Fifa, to break with precedent and make a decision that does not seem corrupt or senseless or both.

Link to video: Qatar: the migrant workers forced to work for no pay in World Cup host country

In hosting the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Fifa is choosing to ignore the abuse of migrant workers.

Nick Cohen published in the Observer this Sept. 21, 2013 :

How many more must die for Qatar’s World Cup?

All being well, the 2022 tournament will be held in the winter. Just one niggling question remains: how many lives will be lost so that the Fifa World Cup™ can live up to its boast that it is the most successful festival of sport on the planet?

“More workers will die building World Cup infrastructure than players will take to the field,” predicts Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

Even if the teams in Qatar use all their substitutes, she is likely to be right.

Qatar, Cohen

Fans take their seats before 2009’s Brazil v England friendly in Doha, Qatar. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Qatar’s absolute monarchy, run by the fabulously rich and extraordinarily secretive Al Thani clan, no more keeps health and safety statistics than it allows free elections.

The Trade Union Confederation has had to count the corpses the hard way.

It found that 83 Indians have died so far this year.

The Gulf statelet was also the graveyard for 119 Nepalese construction workers.

With 202 migrants from other countries dying over the same 9 months, Ms Burrow is able to say with confidence there is at least one death for every day of the year.

The body count can only rise now that Qatar has announced that it will take on 500,000 more migrants, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, to build the stadiums, hotels and roads for 2022.

Not all the fatalities are on construction sites.

The combination of back-breaking work, nonexistent legal protections, intense heat and labour camps without air conditioning allows death to come in many guises.

To give you a taste of its variety, the friends of Chirari Mahato went online to describe how he would work from 6 am to 7 pm. He would return to a hot, non ventilated room he shared with 12 others.

Because Chirari Mahato died in his sleep, rather than on site, his employers would not accept that they had worked him to death.

There are millions of workers like him around the Gulf. When we gawp at the wealth that allows the Qatari royals to buy the Olympic Village and Chelsea Barracks, we miss their plight, and the strangeness of the oil rich states, too.

How to characterize them?

“Absolute monarchy” does not begin to capture a society such as Qatar, where migrants make up 99% of the private sector workforce.

Apartheid South Africa is a useful point of reference. The 225,000 Qatari citizens can form trade unions and strike. The roughly 1.8 million migrants cannot. Sparta also comes to mind. But instead of a warrior elite living off the labour of helots, we have plutocrats and sybarites sustained by faceless armies of disposable migrants.

The official justification for oppression is, as so often, religious.

Migrants and employers are bound by the kafala system – taken from Islamic law on the adoption of children. “Kafala” derives from “to feed”. Nourishment is the last thing the system provides, however.

The system delivers captive labour instead. Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their sponsoring employers’ consent. As Human Rights Watch says “if workers walk out, the employers – the adoptive parents – can say they have absconded and the authorities will arrest them”.

In order to leave Qatar, migrants must obtain an exit visa from their sponsor. This stipulation means that they can be held hostage if they threaten to sue over a breach of contract. Wouldn’t it make a bracing change if the religious leaders we hear condemning free speech as blasphemy so often could find the time to damn this exploitation?

It is not just poor construction workers who suffer.

One might expect that Fifa would have been concerned about the fate of foreign footballers working under kafala contracts. Abdeslam Ouaddou, who once played for Fulham, has warned players not to go near Qatar.

Speaking from experience – Abdeslam Ouaddou played for Qatar SC in the Qatari domestic league – he said that if a player is injured or his form drops, the club can break his contract. If the player goes to lawyers, the club (as “sponsor”) can refuse to let him leave the country until he drops his case.

Ouaddou got out of Qatar after much tortuous negotiation. But French player Zahir Belounis, a former captain of the team Al-Jaish, is trapped in the country with his family and hasn’t been paid for two years. When he went to the international press, he was threatened with defamation proceedings.

After promising the International Trade Union Confederation that it would ensure human rights were respected in Qatar, Fifa tells me that it is “promoting a dialogue” to ensure dignified working conditions. Sharan Burrow’s colleagues say all they hear is PR flam.

It is not just Qatar in 2022.

The corruption and waste around the 2014 World Cup has provoked riots in Brazil.

As for 2018, Putin’s Duma has already restricted the rights of workers preparing the stadiums for the World Cup.

Fifa strikes me as a decadent organisation in the political rather than literary meaning of the word. It is an institution whose behaviour contradicts all of its professed purposes.

If Fifa cared about football, it would not even have thought of staging a tournament in the Qatari summer.

If it cared about footballers, it would take up the case of Belounis.

And if it respected human life, it would say that the kafala system could not govern World Cup contracts.

I don’t know how much longer sports journalists can ignore the abuse Fifa tolerates.

The World Cup is overturning all the cliches. People say that “football is a matter of life or death”, said Bill Shankly. “It’s more important than that.” Shankly was joking. Qatar and Fifa appear to mean it.

Sport is “war minus the shooting“, said Orwell. There may not be any actual shooting in Qatar but workers will die nonetheless.

The quote that ought to haunt all who love football is CLR James‘s paraphrase of Kipling:

What do they know of cricket that only cricket know?” James was writing about how sport was bound up in the Caribbean with colonialism, race and class.

Anyone writing about the World Cup must also acknowledge that the beautiful game is now bound up with racial privilege, exploitation and the deaths of men, who should not be forgotten so readily.

Note: World Cup procedures are carbon copy of the wishes of extreme liberal capitalism that love to thrive in political systems such as practiced in Qatar, Saudi Arabia…

Ali Ferzat is a renowned Syrian political caricaturist and activist.
In 2011, he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for peace, and was listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012.
Two years ago, during the beginning of the insurgency in Syria, Ferzat was attacked, his hands were broken, and he was left for dead on the side of the road – such is the controversy surrounding his caricatures.
A few of Ferzat’s works were included in the recent #withoutwords exhibition of Syrian artists at the P21 gallery in London this summer.
Ashitha Nagesh got the chance to speak with Ferzat about his caricatures, among other things.

Ashitha Nagesh published in Reorient this Sept. 16, 2013


Ali Ferzat

Photograph by Muzaffar Salman (Associated Press) 

Just to begin – could you tell me a bit more about how you managed to publish your drawings during the Assad regime? How did you evade censorship?

I dealt with the regime as though I was dealing with a venomous cobra. I had to attack them from a place where they couldn’t see me.  I tackled issues that could have applied to them, but they could not say for certain that [the drawings were] definitely about them.

Yes, because you said they were about foreign political issues rather than Syrian ones …

Yes. For example, I would say that the drawings were dealing with the political situation in Iraq, or other countries; so, we were technically talking about Iraq, but of course, [the drawings] could have also applied to Syria.

Do you think that, as well as having avoided censorship, their non-specificity shows that the situations you depict are actually somewhat universal?

Yes. In the beginning, I didn’t personalise the cartoons; I kept them vague, and very general, so that they would apply to any country around the world – and that’s a very good point, because in fact, these cartoons have spread internationally. They don’t need a language – they’re just images without any words.

I raised the issue of Syrian politics to the whole world so that they [could] understand what’s happening inside by just looking at these cartoons.

Then, I moved onto the next stage – breaking the ‘wall of fear’ – when I felt it was the right time.

I felt that people had been waiting for this. Then, of course, the revolution started, so I began tackling the regime, the president, and the secret service directly, showing them as distinct [entities] with their own faces and personalities.

This attack on the Baath (socialist) party, or, in fact, any Syrian party, had never happened in the years since the regime [came to] power in 1963. It was like a victory for liberation; it broke the ‘wall of fear’, and the revolution started three months afterwards.

I’m also interested in the way in which social media has played such a huge role in the Syrian revolution, in creating new ways of visualising and representing conflict.

How do you view the role of social media in the revolution?Ali Ferzat

Social media gives you a lot of help, in a way, but in another way, it’s not going to enable you to address the main issues; it’s still firmly in the arena of personal opinion, and it won’t necessarily give you proper, objective information.

You can’t get the facts of the revolution just from social media – you really only get opinions, and you have to really search for which opinion is ‘better’ or more true to the reality. But, generally speaking, it gives a truthful account of what’s happening.

Considering photography – for example, the work of the collective Lens Young – do you think that it’s empowering for civilian artists in Syria to be able to present these images to the international media in new ways?

These images might be manipulated as well – they give an idea of what’s happening, but might give the wrong information as well. The good thing about social media, however, is that you’re not waiting around for CNN or any of the other big media outlets to give you the news from the ground.

There are a lot of people who are effectively correspondents on the front line, and [they] can give you, for example, the same photo from different angles. In this case, because there are so many different perspectives of the same image, they are unlikely to be misleading when considered collectively.

I found it really interesting how you’ve spoken about the role graffiti has played in this revolution – particularly considering the fact that the revolution started with graffiti*.

Graffiti continues to play a huge role in the movement – what do you think it is about both street art and caricature that speaks so directly to the movement?

The unique thing about street art and graffiti in this revolution is that it has allowed all of the people from Syria to engage with the movement, and [they are] platforms for the creativity of people from different background and different ages. It is the same for cartoons, music, and singing; it is because all of these art forms are non-political from the start.

They’re not political, did you say?

Well, yes, in a way, because this is a movement of regular people who just want to stop this regime from committing the barbarian acts that they’ve been carrying out over the past 50 years.

It’s not about a political party that wants to displace another party; in a way, the work is political, but in a different sense. Although it’s about politics, the people on the ground don’t listen to the political rhetoric.

When we started the uprising 3 years ago, there wasn’t an opposition anywhere – it didn’t exist. The art is not directly related to the opposition.

The opposition is still outside – it is trying to do something – but the real people on the ground, the civilians and artists who started this movement and are pushing it forward perhaps don’t even have TVs to see what’s going on with the opposition, so they don’t care … the people are leading the movement, and the opposition party is following them.

Do you think that caricature as a form is inherently subversive?

Yes, in a way, because it allows people to claim their rights, and to be openly and actively against a certain problem. In this way, it gives people a sense of freedom.

Ali Ferzat

How do you think it’s liberating vis-à-vis other forms of art?

Caricature is on the front line against dictatorship. It is an art form for all people – people who may not necessarily understand painting or sculpture, but [who will all] understand caricature. Also, it’s daily, and so it gives the audience a daily view and keeps them up-to-date.

You have said before that you don’t believe art and politics can mix, and we have touched on this briefly already, but I was wondering what your opinion is on this … because this exhibition seems almost entirely based on the mix of art and politics, and art based on politics.

Yes, but the thing is, as a person, I will tackle political issues – but at the end of the day, I am not a politician. But as an artist, you still need to highlight these issues.

Caricature is on the front line against dictatorship.

It is an art form for all people – people who may not necessarily understand painting or sculpture, but [who will all] understand caricature

I see, so as an artist you need to tackle important issues but not engage in political polemics yourself …

Yes, exactly.

And your criticism of Adonis [the well-known Syrian poet]?

Yes – I criticised Adonis because he engaged politically, and placed himself firmly on the side of the government. He himself criticised the revolution, and the people themselves.

Adonis can criticise me personally as Ali Ferzat, he can criticise individual people, but he really cannot criticise the majority or the movement.

He also contradicts himself; he supported the [1979] revolution in Iran, which was all about religion, but now he’s outspoken against the Syrian revolution, because he says it’s coming from the mosques. So you can see the contradiction.

This regime came riding in military tanks – but he hasn’t criticised the regime, he’s criticised the people whose crime was simply asking for their freedom.

Ali Ferzat

You’ve said before that this is a ‘revolution of children’ – this is a poignant description, especially when looking at the photographs coming out Syria at the moment. Downstairs, in the room dedicated to photographs taken by Lens Young, there is a sign stating that nobody under the age of 18 can enter, but there are very young children in almost every single photograph.

Children have indeed played a huge part in this movement, and of course, it was the plight of children in Daraa that sparked the revolution. Similarly, I feel like the cartoon format is inherently more accessible to children.

I address ideas, but in a way that everyone can understand. Children are drawn to the cartoons because there is still hope in them – [they] don’t just depict the issues in a depressing way in order to make people feel down.

There is hope and humour there too, and that’s the good thing about cartoons. Actually, when I exhibited in Damascus, most of my audiences were children; they would come and greet me, and say hello. A lot of children are fond of my work.

That’s lovely, and so apt, considering what you were saying about this being a revolution of children.

That’s why my work is not exactly directly related to politics; it addresses political issues, but it’s more pure than that. It’s so pure [that] it appeals to the children of the revolution themselves.

Of course – because children don’t speak politics.     * The revolution was sparked in the southern city of Daraa in 2011, when at least fifteen children were arrested and tortured for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls. Amongst other reactions from the government, the children’s families were informed that they should consider their children dead, but that soldiers would come over and ‘give their wives new children’.

The artworks shown in the exhibition are now available for sale. All proceeds will go towards the purchase of food parcels and survival kits in the suburbs of Damascus. For more information, please email Ylenia Gostoli.

With special thanks to Fadi Haddad

Ashitha Nagesh is a London-based modern and contemporary art critic, who writes regularly for Artforum, Apollo, and Modern Matter, amongst other publications. She has also worked in the US and India.




September 2013

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