Saturday, 21 January 2012

Ibishblog interview: @monakareem, Part 1 - The stateless issue and the #bidoun of #Kuwait

Social media is still mainly dominated by two vehicles: Facebook and Twitter. And they couldn't be more different. Facebook is heavy, cumbersome to use, intrusive, and an extremely poor way of exchanging information. It feels burdensome and almost as if it were designed to allow people to check up on each other in an often unhealthy manner. That said, it's probably indispensable for people involved in trying to disseminate their views; more's the pity. Twitter, on the other hand, is light, flexible, easy to use, easy to follow. Despite its 140 character limitations, it's an infinitely more powerful vehicle for exchanging information. Indeed, I think the character limits, although they can be gotten around in various ways, impose an interesting and useful discipline. Of course neither of them lends themselves to satire or irony, and both are open to serious misunderstandings.

But while Facebook is basically an unavoidable nuisance, Twitter has become an indispensable means of following the news and exchanging ideas. I've learned almost nothing on Facebook, but I've learned an incredible amount on Twitter. And I've gotten to know a number of very interesting minds and personalities on Twitter that I otherwise did not have access to before (again, this barely applies at all to Facebook, with perhaps one exception to an otherwise utterly barren ledger on that account).

One of the most interesting people I've come to know through Twitter is Mona Kareem, a poet, journalist, blogger and tweep who also happens to be bidoun jinsiya - “without citizenship” - from Kuwait. First, it's almost impossible to follow events in Kuwait quickly and efficiently in English -- and in many cases at all -- without consulting her Twitter feed (@monakareem), which does the work of 20 typical Middle East journalists. I'd go so far as to call it indispensable. More significantly, through her tweets and blogs she's introduced me, and I'm sure a lot of other people, to not only up-to-date information but background details on an issue we either didn't know about or, in my case, knew about only very vaguely: the plight of the stateless of Kuwait. It's all the more fascinating that she's only 23, has been in the United States for a few months as a graduate student studying comparative literature (my own PhD discipline, as it happens) and working on the beat generation (William S. Burroughs being a particular favorite of mine). To top it off, she seems to have a healthy taste for the blues and an even healthier distaste for the religious right of all stripes.
Given this extraordinary combination, I sought out the opportunity to interview Mona in person at the end of November, with a quick phone follow-up a couple of days ago, to talk about a variety of issues, particularly that of the bidoun in Kuwait, Kuwaiti politics, and the tweeting and blogging scene in her country. What follows is part one of this interview, one of the most interesting conversations I've had in quite a long time. It began in a most extraordinary manner: she showed me some documents, the like of which I've never seen before. First, there was her silver Kuwaiti travel document, as opposed to the normal blue Kuwaiti passports issued to citizens, which literally identified her as an “illegal resident” of the country. The visas in it were equally interesting, and in some cases almost as horrifying. And, what passed for a driver's permit that was issued to her was positively scandalous. It looked like the crudest forgery slapped up by some feckless teenagers hepped up on goofballs. I'm used to seeing the "travel documents," “permits,” “IDs,” and other inherently insulting documents issued by some Arab states to Palestinian refugees, particularly those in Lebanon. But I've never seen these, and in themselves they told quite a horrifying story.
And, as I write, today the bidoun in Kuwait are again protesting, and again facing not only severe repression which is not meted to out those deemed "citizens" by the Kuwaiti government, but also facing the added insult of continuously having to show their IDs since protesting is, as she points out, a "right" at best reserved for Kuwaiti “citizens.” It's all being barely covered by the media, particularly in English, but this ongoing outrage deserves serious consideration by all of those who care about human rights, particularly in the Arab world. In Mona, the stateless of Kuwait have, as you'll quickly note, a remarkable young advocate.

Part 1: The stateless issue and the bidoun of Kuwait

Ibishblog: Let's start with the most important issue, the stateless issue, since I've seen your passport, or rather your travel document, and it's extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it. I've seen a lot of Palestinian travel documents, but this is something completely different. Before we get into what it allows you to do and doesn't allow you to do, I'd like to talk about the bidoun and the status of stateless people in Kuwait. Were you born in Kuwait?

Mona Kareem: Yes. My dad was born in Kuwait, my grandfather was born in Kuwait. We all have documents that prove that. My father served in the government for three decades, and he himself has a Kuwaiti passport. Until the 1990s, there was no such thing as this grey stateless passport. After the Iraqi invasion, there was a real problem with people who needed to travel and had medical issues and so forth, and they needed a solution.

Ibishblog: So it's effectively a travel document? But it emphasizes that you're not a citizen of Kuwait. Can you explain to us in the simplest possible terms the categories of citizenship in Kuwait and Article 17?

Mona Kareem: The first category of citizenship applies to those who've been there supposedly since the 1920s, and although this is what the Constitution says there are people who have gotten it although they do not qualify in that way. Some have come in the 60s and 70s and have gotten it. Most of this is what we could call “political naturalization.” In the 1970s there was mass citizenship awarded to a tribe from Saudi Arabia for strategic and political reasons. It was because a major politician needed a constituency to support his fortunes, status and power.

Ibishblog: He needed a base?

Mona Kareem: Yes, exactly, he needed a base. And that's what he did, and people were amazed. The good thing about it is that when this happened, no one stopped it but even the royal family opposed it. In the beginning they didn't allow them to go into the military, the National Guard, and other sensitive positions. But eventually they gave up, and said, "well, we can't really keep excluding them," and now those people have been there for generations and they're just part of the first-class citizenry.

Ibishblog: So that's category one?

Mona Kareem: Yes, then there's category two, who can vote, but cannot run for electoral office. For example, I have a category two friend who got this citizenship because her relatives are article one citizens, so she's naturalized but not fully. Such people would normally fall under the first category, but their file is missing something, so they get the second category. And sometimes someone would be placed into the fifth category of naturalization, so the second generation would then get the second category. And then maybe the third generation might get the first.

Ibishblog: Possibly, or not?

Mona Kareem: Yes. The problem is the law is not detailed, and it's very bureaucratic and arbitrary.

Ibishblog: And it's subjective?

Mona Kareem: Yes, because the Kuwaiti constitution says after 20 years you should be a first-class citizen. And then there is also Article 8, which is mostly given to women who marry Kuwaiti men, who get a kind of citizenship. They cannot pass their citizenship to their children, but they get their citizenship from their fathers. Of course children cannot be Kuwaiti from their mothers. After women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament, that was on their agenda: to allow citizenship to pass from mothers, but of course with this political crisis we're in now, no one is talking about that anymore. Honestly, I think it's a hopeless case.

Ibishblog: Well, that's standard in much of the Arab world, even in countries that are not protecting small groups of wealth and privilege.

Mona Kareem: I took part in campaigns that had to do with that, and also I worked with female political candidates, and what is shocking is not only that the society refuses it, but that even women are refusing it. Particularly women who belong to the upper classes, who get married within their own class, don't really care if you marry someone who's not Kuwaiti.

Ibishblog: So, they're protecting their own privilege?

Mona Kareem: Exactly. One of the most fundamental issues regarding statelessness in Kuwait and class differentiations has to do with ego. People always ask, "why should I be equal to this person?" This is said openly, and with no embarrassment. "I was here first, you were here later, so how can you be equal to me?" Or, "I am from this family, or from this class, so how can we be in the same group, that's just unacceptable."

Ibishblog: How many citizenship categories are there, roughly?

Mona Kareem: I think it's about five.

Ibishblog: Now Article 17 would be the most difficult, and this affects the stateless of bidoun origin, but that mainly covers people who've been in Kuwait for generations, and so we're talking about people who theoretically under the law should be first-class citizenship Kuwaitis?

Mona Kareem: No, according to law, if you are not traceable to 1922, you are not a first-class citizen. And because Kuwait wasn't a state before the 60s, many bidoun cannot prove they were in the remote areas at any given time. There is a gentleman who was the minister of information in Kuwait for a short time, and he now owns the number-one online newspaper, but he has no evidence that his family was there in the 1920s. There are bidoun Kuwaitis. But everyone knows that he and his family were there before the 1920s.

Ibishblog: So popular opinion and what's called “common knowledge” determines a great deal about what happens to any given family. So, under Article 17, As a stateless resident, what rights do you have, and what do you not have? Obviously that "passport" is a difficult thing to use internationally for travel, but I'm not really interested in travel. I'm more interested in what you can do and not do inside Kuwait.

Mona Kareem: The Kuwaiti citizenship law says if you have documents proving that you were present before 1965, and that's what most of the bidoun have, counted in the census, or that you have served the country in one way or another, for example the majority who were killed in the Iraqi occupation were stateless bidoun, and the majority of those imprisoned by the Iraqis were also stateless, but that doesn't earn anybody any extra status. The relatives of those who died during the occupation are still stateless. Those whose fathers died fighting for Kuwait in 1967 and 1973 and those who were also killed during the assassination attempt against the Emir in the 80s, all their families are still stateless. And this is the most unfair situation of all, because these are martyrs for the country. There are hundreds of such cases.

Ibishblog: Is it the case that they are recognized to be martyrs and praised but it just doesn't affect their legal and political status and that of their families?

Mona Kareem: They are recognized by the “Office of Martyrs,” which determines who qualifies as a martyr or not, and they're all recognized, but people are always assured there will be some kind of reward and there never is one. There is one additional article, which is very interesting, which says that if you are an Arab who has been in Kuwait for over 20 years, you can actually apply for citizenship. But in practice this is completely impossible. I think if someone tries, they will just laugh at them.

Ibishblog: That part is well known in the Arab world. You could be there, your children could be there, your grandchildren, it doesn't matter. If you're not a Kuwaiti, you're not going to become a Kuwaiti. This much is well-known in the rest of the Arab world, but not the stateless issue.

Mona Kareem: On the stateless inside Kuwait, there is a secret document from 1986 leaked later on, that was signed by prominent Kuwaiti figures that held that “we are spending too much money on these stateless, we need to stop it,” because they used to be treated exactly like Kuwaitis except for citizenship. Except for some social services and housing, they got exactly the same treatment. As far as education, scholarships to the outside, anything you can think of except for housing and some small privileges like marriage loans, but all the important things, like the documents and the IDs, and everything, was Kuwaiti.

Ibishblog: Is the existence of this document denied or confirmed, or people just don't talk about it?

Mona Kareem: They don't talk about it but they can't deny it because it definitely exists. And it has been recognized by international organizations. All the major refugee and human rights organizations recognize and refer to it. So the plan was to gradually cut off the rights of the stateless, and the first step was to not let them get into Kuwait University. Up until 2002, there were no private universities in Kuwait, and the new private universities in Kuwait are extremely expensive, so even most Kuwaitis can't afford it. Only Kuwaitis of high status can get in, and some others get sponsored by the government because Kuwait University is overloaded and they prefer to send some people to private universities. Especially after the invasion, and when a lot of the bidoun left to Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Jordan, in other words escaping, Kuwait did something really horrible. No one is acknowledging this, even the rights organizations, which is that Kuwait used the invasion and the liberation to not let bidoun back. There is a very well-known case of a family of one of the martyrs who served in the Army for three decades and was killed by the Iraqis and his family is locked out in Jordan with no documents and they will not let them back.

Ibishblog: So they're in Jordan, but they're not Jordanians.

Mona Kareem: No, they went there because they escaped the invasion and they can't come back, because Kuwait said, “anyone who went out is not coming back.” The only ones who came back were the ones from Saudi Arabia because the Saudis insisted on this. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein started trying to use them as cards, and he exploited the issue. It got worse, especially in the 90s, with the interior minister Muhammad Al-Khaled, who was the harshest.

Ibishblog: He has quite a reputation.

Mona Kareem: Yes, and he was completely against giving the stateless any form of documentation and not until he left the ministry did anyone start to get any documents.

Ibishblog: This was just after 2000?

Mona Kareem: Yes. So we started to be able to get drivers licenses, for instance here's mine. It's handwritten.

Ibishblog: I shouldn't laugh, but it's ridiculous. It looks like you made it in your kitchen.

Mona Kareem: I've personally been stopped several times by police officers and they question the legitimacy of this paper. I say, “ask your government, I didn't issue this." And they just let me go because, you know, it's so ridiculous and those guys have no clear orders on how to deal with us and they don't know what to do. Sometimes if they are bad people, they have complete authority to take you to the police station and start an investigation and God knows when you're going to get out. But most of the time it's too confusing even for them, and they just give up. As for the civil IDs, we don't get the regular ones. We get a huge one. And the size is meant to distinguish us from everybody else. It's green, not white like all the others, and it's embarrassing, and it says “illegal resident” in its status category. And it doesn't count as a civil ID, because you cannot use it in court and you cannot use it to get a work contract.

Ibishblog: So it's just an identification paper, nothing else, but designed to distinguish you very clearly from everybody else, almost like a stigma?

Mona Kareem: Yes, and the employment authorities, when employers suggested they would like to hire bidoun, because they are cheap labor, on a contract basis, and it would be stipulated that they don't get any benefits, the employment authorities said, "there is a clear law that no one can be hired without a civil ID, so you guys figure this out." They wouldn't cross that line. The problem is that in Kuwait everything goes through the Parliament, but the government did something extraordinary in this case that no one objected to by forming the “Central Committee for the Stateless.” This is about three years ago. This is headed by Salah Fadalah, one of the most aggressive enemies of the bidoun. He used to be an MP, and he is of high-status merchant family background.

Ibishblog: So it's more a class and chauvinistic thing?

Mona Kareem: Yes, and he made many insulting remarks against the bidoun.

Ibishblog: And so they put him in charge?

Mona Kareem: Kind of, yeah. When the bidoun protested, they carried his picture with Hitler's mustache on him, calling him a racist, and things like that. And although people protested and said, "if someone really hates us, why put them in charge of us, he can't solve our problems, he's just against us." But, whenever he gets interviewed, he always promises to work on things and claims lots of money is spent on our education, and so forth.

Ibishblog: Now, when this committee was created, no one in Parliament objected?
Mona Kareem: Only the bidoun supporters that we could call independent/conservatives objected because they have a lot of voters who have bidoun relatives, so they did it just as a statement. This Committee falls under the interior minister. Technically it should be under the Parliament, but it is functioning completely independently with no oversight.

Ibishblog: As is tradition.

Mona Kareem: On the passport issue, no bidoun has the right to have a passport. It is being done on an exceptional basis. Everyone who gets one is an exception.

Ibishblog: Now, does that apply to your travel document?

Mona Kareem: Yes, I'm the luckiest of my community. There is almost no one is lucky as me. There are many factors: my family, that we are in the 1965 census, my father served three decades in the government, I worked as a journalist for five years, I am a graduate student at SUNY Binghamton, which also helps, and sometimes showing proof that you are accepted in major foreign universities helps -- not all the time but sometimes. But mostly, it's motivated because Kuwait wants people to leave.

Ibishblog: So go there, study, and stay there and become a professor in Binghamton?

Mona Kareem: Yes, don't come back. And also if you can prove that you have certain diseases you cannot cure in Kuwait you might be allowed to travel for medical reasons, if there is a foreign hospital that will take you.

Ibishblog: So everything is on an exceptional basis?

Mona Kareem: Yes, everything is exceptional. There are no clear numbers, but our perception is that about 20 percent of bidoun got passports. Pretty much everybody applied, but about 80 percent were rejected.

Ibishblog: We hear numbers of approximately 120,000 of Bidoun in Kuwait, but we don't know. What's your sense?

Mona Kareem: Minimum 100,000. Kuwait does know, of course. Kuwait has been keeping track for a very long time. But they do not say. The last time they said anything, they said it was 100,000. The community believes it is 120,000.

Ibishblog: That's the number I see usually cited. That would be the largest group in the Gulf, maybe more than in Saudi Arabia?

Mona Kareem: I don't know about Saudi Arabia because it's really complicated, but certainly compared to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, it's much the largest number. There is a problem everywhere, but no one is like our case where we can prove our residency for so many generations, given our numbers, and given the sacrifices I mentioned.

Ibishblog: The protests we saw emerging earlier in the year were only the latest of many previous protests.

Mona Kareem: In the past, there were very small numbers, you would only see 50 or 100 people coming out at a time.

Ibishblog: Okay, but this year they were pretty big, enough to garner the world's attention.
Mona Kareem: And especially with the Arab Spring, of course.

Ibishblog: As with the protests in Bahrain, this was maybe Arab Spring-inspired, but had much earlier roots. I mean the grievances are more specific than the general grievances of the Arabs that we've had enough of dictators. So have the protests increased, or have they ebbed and flowed, or what?

Mona Kareem: No, they began in February but at that point the entire society began making extremely discriminatory remarks about the bidoun, particularly on call-in talk shows, in which people would say, "throw them out, burn them, we don't want to see them, destroy their houses on their heads," and things like that. Either these people are chauvinistic or they are ignorant.

Ibishblog: What does the government say? What do they say about all of this? What does the average citizen of Kuwait think about all of this? What goes on in their imagination?
Mona Kareem: Well, it depends on your community but as far as the merchant class and the high class is concerned, we all came after the invasion. We "forged our documents," they don't know about the census, and we are just "greedy and want to take their money" away from them. And the general opinion is we came mainly from Iraq, because that invokes the hatred more than anything else. And of course the newspapers in Kuwait, because they're owned by merchants, when we protested, leaders of the bidoun community said they were meeting with leaders of Iraq to compare records of those in Iraq, and see who was from where and what happened. So then there were accusations of collusion with Iraq and all kinds of other accusations that the bidoun would be exposed as Iraqis or agents of Iraq. The bidoun community, of course, said “we didn't know about this meeting,” and this was all part of a generalized tendency to try to say of us that we are simply not Kuwaitis.

Ibishblog: Do you have supporters within mainstream Kuwaiti society?

Mona Kareem: Of course, yes, and they should be credited, especially the activists. There are lots. But also there are tendencies in the community to group together.
Ibishblog: I'm still curious about some aspects of support you get from some elements of mainstream, privileged Kuwaiti society, whatever it may be, maybe not royals, but whatever, tell me about that?

Mona Kareem: Some activists, some professors, people in different fields try to help. Like for example, you have the Kuwait Human Rights Society, three of them are sympathizers and try to help. And they make statements in support of us, and whatever. When after the protests, there were 100 men seized by the security forces, and they were tortured, members of the Society talk to them, took evidence, and that kind of thing, but they're not putting it out because the victims are afraid. But what is ironic is that the head of this group, Ali Al-Baghli, has made some of the worst racist remarks against the bidoun. He said something along the lines that we have no honor, a commonly-used term against the stateless, and also implied an Iraqi origin, which is a huge stigma in Kuwait. There are bidoun from Saudi Arabian or Iranian origin, but they tend to stick to themselves.

Ibishblog: The fact that they have ethnic or sectarian differences from the rest of Kuwaiti society makes them less dangerous than those who are Arab and Sunni, no?

Mona Kareem: Yes. Definitely. And also, they don't want to belong with the rest of the bidoun, so generally they marry each other, so these identities are, over time, disappearing. And more of these got citizenship than the rest during periods of nationalization over the past couple of decades.

Ibishblog: How long have you been writing about this?

Mona Kareem: I'd say five years.

Ibishblog: And what kind of reaction did you get when you were writing inside Kuwait?

Mona Kareem: I'll give you two examples. When I used to write as a blogger with a nickname, I got mixed comments, but mostly very respectful even if they didn't agree with me. This was because at the time the blogosphere was limited and had a certain audience.
Ibishblog: Which was literate, educated, online with access to the Internet, and all that at that time, so self-selected with a certain degree of civility? It was hard for a rabble to get involved?

Mona Kareem: A lot of them were opposed to my ideas because with the political naturalization in the 70s, people were afraid that the bidoun would be used for political purposes. But they wouldn't use any derogatory terms, which is good. But a speech I gave on the issue was published by several newspapers online and in print in Kuwait, and you have no idea what kind of comments I got. There were more than 200 comments, without even mentioning what was brought up on Twitter and so forth, people claiming, “you are Iraqi,” “our kids have to go to training colleges in Kuwait while this girl studies in New York,” and a lot of them emphasized the accusation that I am somehow Iraqi. It was a very abusive response. A lot of it was very personal, attacking my dad, because he is also a columnist and short story writer, and has a public profile. So they attacked my family as well.

Ibishblog: The bidoun movement, is it basically Kuwait-specific or is it hooked up with broader bidoun issues throughout the region?

Mona Kareem: No, it's very localized to Kuwait.

Ibishblog: So, each bidoun community in each state deals with its problems on a state-by-state basis?

Mona Kareem: There is no bidoun activism in the GCC states except in Kuwait. The rest are not active. I know some guys in the UAE who tell me that "if we even think about it, let alone do it, it's going to be so risky that it's out of the question." And, among the arrested online activists in the UAE, one of them was Bidoun. And he's the one getting the least international and regional attention, and no one has really acknowledged his case. I tried getting some information about him, but my contacts there said, we really don't know. It's such a murky case. The guy was just arrested, and now he's gone. And for sure if those guys from high status families were not getting out, this guy is definitely not going to.

Ibishblog: Is it the numbers of bidoun in Kuwait that make it possible, or is it relative political openness in Kuwait compared to other GCC states?

Mona Kareem: I'd say it's the relative openness. To be honest, the state security police has been doing a lot of harassment, checking up on activist very closely. They do not allow them to protest, especially after the more recent protests and now if they even hear of a rumor that there's going to be a bidoun protest, they just go into the area beforehand, shut down the place, completely besiege it, and if they see anyone moving around the streets they immediately order them to go home. They can easily do this because the country has, for a long time, been isolating the bidoun in certain areas, especially two or three areas, so it's very easy to shut these things down if they get any advance warning or even hear a rumor. They tried protesting at the parliament many times over the past few years, and the Interior Ministry says that not only can bidoun not protest anywhere, they specifically cannot protest next to the parliament. This is a kind of “sacred” area for Kuwaitis.

Ibishblog: Well, look at the reaction to the non-bidoun protests at the Parliament.

Mona Kareem: Yes, many people were arrested and went on hunger strikes. I think we are really entering a dark era in Kuwait.

Ibishblog: There's been another eruption of anger on December 12 and major protests by bidoun in Kuwait. This apparently is a consequence of the previous arrests and the trials and torture of some of the activists. Can you describe what led up to this new eruption of tensions, and is it particularly bad, as it looks, and if so why?

Mona Kareem: They were definitely triggered by the trials, and the refusal of the authorities to give any information about the status of the activists recently. Smaller demonstrations were dispersed, and this has led to bigger ones. It's noteworthy how ruthlessly the authorities are dealing with these protests compared to the ones at the parliament. With the bidoun, they break into houses, they use tear gas, water cannons, arrest minors and beat people, including children. At the parliament, they tried to stop the protesters, maybe they beat a few of them, but that's it, there was no tear gassing, no water cannons, no mass abuses. People were arrested, but they were not mistreated. In the case of the stateless, we are talking about people who've been tortured, and people who can't go to court to assert their rights.

~ reposted by Sofia Smith

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