The Electronic Intifada

Joe Strummer performing at St Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, NYC, April 5 2002. (Photo: Wikipedia)

A bleak Christmas Eve, bringing news of despair in Bethlehem and killings near Jenin, has been made even bleaker with the news that Joe Strummer, the lead singer for the legendary British punk band “The Clash,” has died at the early age of 50.

Ironically, he and the original members of the group, which infused punk with a searing political poetry during the dull and mediocre right-wing political era of Thatcher’s UK and Reagan’s US, were to reunite for a performance next month marking the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Just as ironically, the daily news from the Middle East reads like the titles of The Clash’s songs: “Washington Bullets” are flying in Afghanistan, Jenin, Ramallah, and Rafah and will soon be flying, perhaps tipped with depleted uranium again, in Iraq. “Somebody got murdered” — today, yesterday, and everyday in Occupied Palestine.

So many headlines in the news today echo the political situation of twenty years ago. The same unpalatable people are back in power in the US: John D. Negroponte, Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Admiral Poindexter, and Elliott Abrams are once again “honorable men” advancing US policies eerily akin to those which angered and horrified progressives in the early 1980s. The “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative, disregard for human rights in pursuit of unilateral US policies across the globe, and American alliances with thuggish leaders are all back in fashion.

And in 2002, just as in 1982, the US is once again standing by, complicit in its silence, while Ariel Sharon commits war crimes using US tax dollars and US-provided armaments to pursue a policy of incremental ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and Gaza.

But nowadays, we rarely see or hear protests as eloquent, powerful, pithy—or as dance-able—as the songs of The Clash, which remain remarkably undated, sounding just as fresh, energizing, and subversive today as they did upon first hearing two decades ago.

Everytime I listen to the Clash’s album “Sandinista!” I automatically remember the day that I learned of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. In August 1982, I had just returned from my first-ever trip to the Middle East—an archaeological expedition to the southeast Dead Sea area of Jordan, with memorable trips to Israel, the West Bank and Syria afterwards.

On the way home, I spent a week in New York City, and with the few dollars remaining from my summer adventure, made one purchase in a record store in Times Square: “Sandinista!” — a remarkable, three-album set of powerful protest songs set to reggae and rockabilly beats as well as clever spoofs on Motown riffs. Every song on the three albums of “Sandinista!” makes pointed commentaries on race relations in the UKUS adventurism in Central America, and the then-looming threat of a USUSSR nuclear showdown.

Returning home from college classes one Friday evening in September 1982, I was met at the door by my roommate Janine. “I don’t think you should watch the news!” she said somberly as I walked into the house. The first reports and images of the massacres in Sabra and Shatila were spilling across the television screen.

In 1982, lacking e-mail, a cell phone, activist list serves, or websites like this one, the best outlet for my horror, sorrow and anger at what had happened in those camps in Beirut was to crank up The Clash to full volume as I cleaned the house in fury.

One song in particular brings that dark day into sharp focus for me: “The Call Up,” probably one of the most eloquent anti-war, anti-killing ballads ever penned. The song goes beyond merely decrying war and killing; it emphasizes where the responsibility for atrocities lies: each individual must refuse to be complicit. This could well be the anthem for the courageous Israeli “Refusniks” — the 500+ Israeli soldiers who have refused to be complicit in Sharon’s war crimes and the daily US-sponsored killings in the Occupied Territories.

In honor of the late, great Joe Strummer, and as a warning of what may be coming in Iraq as well as in Israel/Palestine in the near future, here are the lyrics of “The Call Up” to remind us of what we must do in the coming, probably frightening, new year:

The Call Up

It’s up to you not to heed the call-up
and you must not act the way you were brought up
Who knows the reasons why you have grown up?
Who knows the plans or why they were drawn up?

It’s up to you not to heed the call-up
I don’t wanna die!
It’s up to you not to hear the call-up
I don’t wanna kill!

For he who will die
Is he who will kill

Maybe I wanna see the wheatfields
Over Kiev and down to the sea

All the young people down the ages
They gladly marched off to die
Proud city fathers used to watch them
Tears in their eyes

There is a rose that I want to live for
Although, God knows, I may not have met her
There is a dance an’ I should be with her
There is a town – unlike any other

It’s up to you not to hear the call-up
and you must not act the way you were brought up
Who give you work an’ why should you do it?
At fifty five minutes past eleven
There is a rose…


Laurie King-Irani, former editor of Middle East Report, is one of the four founders of the Electronic Intifada and is North American Coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra & Shatila. She currently teaches Social Anthropology in British Columbia.

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