Afghan artist on a mission to preserve art traditions

The walls of his classroom are decorated with paintings depicting the natural beauty of Afghanistan. (Shutterstock)
The walls of his classroom are decorated with paintings depicting the natural beauty of Afghanistan. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 07 February 2021

Afghan artist on a mission to preserve art traditions

Afghan artist on a mission to preserve art traditions
  • Faqiry teaches children to hand down old skills, keep the young off the streets

KABUL: In a ramshackle part of the Baraki district of old Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Sami Jan Faqiry is teaching calligraphy and painting to a group of children for a few hours every day.
He teaches his pupils, who are between nine and 16 years of age, at the Seven Colours “school” in small premises he rents, but a decline in local interest for artwork and the effect of modern technology overtaking a demand for the craft mean that his income is meager.
However, Faqiry, 28, who studied art from a private teacher, is among a group of young artists who are pushing through new challenges to retain old traditions and culture.
“Our people have turned too much toward artificial and computerized art. If we do not teach these children how to paint or do calligraphy, we may lose a part of our culture and tradition one day,” Faqiry told Arab News.
Another reason, he says, is to offer the children — traumatized by decades of war, daily violence, lack of education and a dilapidated economy — an escape from reality by using art as therapy.
“Since our students are young and deeply traumatized by war, art helps divert their attention from the daily sufferings and calamities (and channel it) toward positive thinking. Most of them draw or paint historical areas of the country or our rich culture,” Faqiry said.
The walls of his classroom are decorated with paintings depicting the natural beauty of Afghanistan, its former rulers, singers and traditional garments such as the turban, Karakul hats or its unique flora and fauna. Sometimes, the best artwork is displayed at exhibitions in Kabul, with all proceeds from the sales given back to the students.
“A rich student might study for other professions in advanced universities and schools. The poor ones, who cannot afford that, will end up on the streets or will soon turn to crime if they are not kept busy in courses like these,”
Faqiry said. Nearly 46 percent of Afghanistan’s about 36 million population is under 15. According to a 2016 report by the Human Rights Watch, at least a quarter of Afghan children between the ages of five and 14 work to support themselves or their families, and only about half of them attend school.
The students said the art classes had taught them to be “positive.”
“This course has been highly useful for all of us. It is our winter holiday time, and here we learn something positive,” said Mahboba, aged nine.
Afghanistan boasts a strong tradition of visual art techniques, with calligraphy topping the list, but more than four decades of conflict and a rise in the use of digital media have affected traditional disciplines such as oil painting and calligraphy.
“Signs, advertisements, invitation cards and everything else is now being done by computers. We hardly have work,” said Samsoor Naqash, a former calligrapher. “I had to give up art and sell fruit instead.”


Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 
Updated 18 April 2021

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 
  • Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna jabs based on technologies used to develop COVID-19 vaccines
  • HIV estimated to have killed 32m people since it was identified in 1981

LONDON: Two teams of scientists are set to begin trials of HIV vaccines based on technologies used to develop COVID-19 jabs.
Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, which was behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, and US pharmaceutical giant Moderna in partnership with Scripps Research, will use different techniques.
The Oxford team’s HIV vaccine utilizes a modified adenovirus taken from chimpanzees, while the Moderna one is based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).
Both methods have been used successfully to stimulate the human immune system against COVID-19 in the past year.
It is hoped that they can be applied to HIV, the disease that leads to AIDS, which has killed an estimated 32 million people since it was identified in 1981 and currently affects 38 million worldwide, with almost 690,000 dying annually.
The Oxford team is set to start the first phase of trials this month on 101 HIV-negative volunteers aged 18-50 from the UK, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Moderna will launch two mRNA trials later this year.
The location of the trials in Africa is significant; in recent years, treatments have been discovered to allow many people with HIV to live relatively normal lives, but can cost upward of $500,000 in developed countries.
Despite lower prices in developing countries, treatment is still often unaffordable for many African patients.
It is thought that up to half of the infected population on the continent are not even aware of their condition.
Despite the success in developing various COVID-19 vaccines, HIV remains far harder to treat than coronaviruses given its propensity to lie dormant for long periods, mutate more quickly than any other known disease, and imbed itself in patients’ DNA, making it all but impossible to permanently cure.
Oxford University’s Prof. Tomas Hanke told The Times: “The moment you’re infected with a single virus, it diversifies in your body. For the coronavirus there are four main variants we are worrying about around the world. For HIV we have to deal with 80,000.” 
The team at the Jenner Institute will aim to stimulate the production of T-cells — which destroy other human cells already infected with a virus — through its modified adenovirus, ChAdOx-1, designed to train the cells to specifically recognize HIV. 
Hanke said the T-cells could prove HIV’s “Achilles heel,” targeting areas “essential for the virus to survive and, importantly, common to most virus variants around the globe.”
The team hopes that if successful, the vaccine could be used to treat HIV-positive patients as early as August this year.
The Moderna team, meanwhile, believes that mRNA technology might be able to trigger enough B-cells — the part of the immune system that makes antibodies — to prevent HIV from adapting to its host.
This belief is based on a trial by Scripps Research, which found that in a small sample of 48 people given a similar vaccine, 97 percent showed a strong immune reaction against HIV. 
Moderna’s European head Dan Staner told The Times: “I believe that mRNA technology is going to be revolutionary. It could be something spectacular if we were able, in the coming years, to bring a vaccine to treat HIV. Let’s let the science speak in the coming months and years, but I do think the sky’s the limit.”
Scripps Prof. William Schief said: “The rapid development and high efficacy of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine bodes really well for our work on HIV.”


Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible

Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible
Updated 18 April 2021

Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible

Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible
  • The two countries are NATO allies but at odds over many issues
  • Nikos Dendias says it is not possible to hide disputed issues under the rug

ATHENS: Greece cannot ignore its differences with Turkey over territorial disputes in the Mediterranean and other issues but while a solution is difficult, it is not impossible, its foreign minister told a newspaper on Sunday.
The two countries are NATO allies but at odds over many issues, including competing claims over the extent of their continental shelves in the Mediterranean, air space, energy resources and ethnically split Cyprus.
“It is not possible to hide under the rug issues where we have different views and approaches,” Nikos Dendias told Kathimerini newspaper in an interview.
On Thursday, Dendias and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu clashed openly at a joint news conference in Ankara that began with hopes of improved relations but quickly descended into acrimonious accusations from both sides.
It was the first visit by a Greek foreign minister to Turkey since 2015 in an effort to find common ground for a positive agenda of discussions with Ankara.
Dendias told the paper that while the climate during the talks was good, there was no convergence on many issues.
“The issue we face with Turkey is that there is no common denominator regarding the framework of resolving our differences,” Dendias told the paper.
He said Greece’s view is that demarcating its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf with Turkey in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean must be based on international law.
“I don’t see a toughening of Turkey’s stance on the issues concerning the Aegean and the east Mediterranean. But I do see fixed positions that are beyond international law, which makes resolution prospects difficult but not impossible,” he said.
Dendias said he has invited Cavusoglou to Athens to continue talks and this could help to prepare the ground for a meeting of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.


Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
Updated 18 April 2021

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
  • 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners, are covered by the pardon
  • Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019

YANGON: Myanmar’s junta on Saturday released more than 23,000 prisoners to mark the traditional new year holiday, including at least three political detainees, and the military leader behind the February coup confirmed he would attend a regional summit later this month.
It wasn’t immediately clear if those released included pro-democracy activists who were detained for protesting the coup. State broadcaster MRTV said that junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had pardoned 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported from Myanmar. He also reduced sentences for others.
As security forces continued the deadly crackdown, unconfirmed but credible accounts with photos on social media said that three people were killed Saturday in the central city of Mogok, in Myanmar’s gem mining region.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 728 protesters and bystanders since the takeover. The group says 3,141 people, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are in detention.
Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019. They are members of the Peacock Generation performing troupe who were arrested during that year’s new year celebrations for skits that poked fun at military representatives in Parliament and military involvement in business.
Their traditional style of acting is called Thangyat, a mash-up of poetry, comedy and music with a sharp undertone of satire. Several members of the troupe were convicted under a law banning circulation of information that could endanger or demoralize members of the military. The actors may have drawn the special wrath of the military because they performed in army uniforms.
Several members were also found guilty of online defamation for livestreaming their performances. It’s not clear if all of them were released.
Another freed prisoner was Ross Dunkley, an Australian newspaper entrepreneur sentenced in 2019 to 13 years on charges of drug possession. His release was confirmed by his ex-wife Cynda Johnston, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported.
Dunkley co-founded the The Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, but was forced to give up his share in it. He became well-known for co-founding or acquiring English-language publications in formerly socialist states that were seeking foreign investment, but was sometimes criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes.
Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, and this is the second batch the ruling junta has announced since taking power.
Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on Feb. 12, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic, especially by setting fires. Some areas responded by setting up their own neighborhood watch groups.
In March, more than 600 people who were imprisoned for demonstrating against the coup were also released from Insein Prison, a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared aimed at placating the protest movement. They were mostly young people caught in sweeps of street rallies while those considered protest leaders were kept locked up.
Neither the military government nor those opposed to it show any signs of backing off. Western nations have tried to pressure the military through diplomatic and economic sanctions with little effect.
Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors, concerned about the prospects for regional instability, are also trying to get the junta to start back on the path to restoring democracy, or at least end its violent repression.
A spokesman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry in Bangkok said Saturday that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has confirmed he will attend a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — ASEAN — expected to be held on April 24.
Tanee Sangrat said in a text message to journalists that Brunei, the current chair of the 10-nation body, confirmed it had proposed the date for a meeting at the group’s secretariat in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Indonesia has taken the lead in calling for the special meeting to discuss the crisis in Myanmar.


US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency
Updated 18 April 2021

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency
  • The US and China, the world’s Nos. 1 and 2 economy, are the top carbon polluters
  • They pump out nearly half of the fossil fuel fumes that are warming the planet’s atmosphere

SEOUL, South Korea: The United States and China, the world’s two biggest carbon polluters, have agreed to cooperate with other countries to curb climate change, just days before President Joe Biden hosts a virtual summit of world leaders to discuss the issue.
The agreement was reached by US special envoy for climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhu during two days of talks in Shanghai last week, the State Department said in a statement Saturday.
“The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” the joint statement said.
The US and China, the world’s Nos. 1 and 2 economy are thetop carbon polluters. Their cooperation is key to a success of global efforts to curb climate change, but frayed ties over human rights, trade and China’s territorial claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea have been threatening to undermine such efforts.
Kerry’s Shanghai trip marked the highest-level travel to China by a US official since Biden took office in January. From Shaghai, the former secretary of state flew to South Korea for talks.
Biden has invited 40 world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, to the April 22-23 summit. The US and other countries are expected to announce more ambitious national targets for cutting carbon emissions ahead of or at the meeting, along with pledging financial help for climate efforts by less wealthy nations.
It’s unclear how much Kerry’s China visit would promote US-China cooperation on climate issues.
When Kerry was still in Shanghai, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng signaled Friday that China is unlikely to make any new pledges at next week’s summit.
“For a big country with 1.4 billion people, these goals are not easily delivered,” Le said during an interview with The Associated Press in Beijing. “Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid this is not very realistic.”
On whether Xi would join the summit, Le said “the Chinese side is actively studying the matter.”
During a video meeting with German and French leaders Friday, Xi also said that climate change “should not become a geopolitical chip, a target for attacking other countries or an excuse for trade barriers,” though he called for closer cooperation on the issue, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Biden, who has said that fighting global warming is among his highest priorities, had the United States rejoin the Paris climate accord in the first hours of his presidency, undoing the US withdrawal ordered by predecessor Donald Trump.
Major emitters of greenhouse gases are preparing for the next UN climate summit taking place in Glasgow, UK, in November. The summit aims to relaunch global efforts to keep rising global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) as agreed in the Paris accord.
According to the US-China statement, the two countries would enhance “their respective actions and cooperating in multilateral processes, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement.”
It said both countries “are firmly committed to working together and with other Parties to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement.”


Kremlin critic Navalny could ‘die any minute’: doctors

Kremlin critic Navalny could ‘die any minute’: doctors
In this Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021 file photo, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia. (AP)
Updated 18 April 2021

Kremlin critic Navalny could ‘die any minute’: doctors

Kremlin critic Navalny could ‘die any minute’: doctors
  • Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, who accompanied him when he collapsed on a plane after the poisoning in August, said the situation was critical again

MOSCOW: Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny risks cardiac arrest at “any minute” as his health has rapidly deteriorated, doctors warned Saturday, urging immediate access to Russia’s most famous prisoner.
On March 31, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent went on hunger strike to demand proper medical treatment for back pain and numbness in his legs and hands.
On Saturday, US President Joe Biden added his voice to a growing international chorus of protest at the treatment of the activist, describing his situation as “totally unfair.”
Navalny, 44, was imprisoned in February and is serving two-and-a-half years on old embezzlement charges in a penal colony in the town of Pokrov around 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Moscow.
Navalny’s personal doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva and three more doctors including cardiologist Yaroslav Ashikhmin have asked prison officials to grant them immediate access.
“Our patient can die any minute,” Ashikhmin said on Facebook on Saturday, pointing to the opposition politician’s high potassium levels and saying Navalny should be moved to intensive care.
“Fatal arrhythmia can develop any minute.”
Navalny barely survived a poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent in August which he has blamed on the Kremlin. His doctors say his hunger strike might have exacerbated his condition.
Having blood potassium levels higher than 6.0 mmol (millimole) per liter usually requires immediate treatment. Navalny’s were at 7.1, the doctors said.
“This means both impaired renal function and that serious heart rhythm problems can happen any minute,” said a statement on Vasilyeva’s Twitter account.
The doctors said he had to be examined immediately “taking into account the blood tests and his recent poisoning.”

Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, who accompanied him when he collapsed on a plane after the poisoning in August, said the situation was critical again.
“Alexei is dying,” she said on Facebook. “With his condition it’s a matter of days.”
She said she felt like she was “on that plane again, only this time it’s landing in slow motion,” pointing out that access to Navalny was restricted and few Russians were aware of what was actually going on with him in prison.
On Saturday, responding to reporters’ questions about Navalny’s plight, Biden responded: “It’s totally, totally unfair, totally inappropriate.”
More than 70 prominent international writers, artists and academics, including Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave and Benedict Cumberbatch, have called on Putin to ensure that Navalny receives proper treatment immediately.
Their appeal was published late Friday by France’s Le Monde newspaper.
Navalny’s team had earlier announced plans to stage what they said would be “modern Russia’s biggest protest.”
Navalny’s allies said they would set a date for the protest once 500,000 supporters had registered with a website. As of 2230 GMT Saturday, more than 450,000 people had signed up.
Yarmysh on Saturday urged more Russians to sign up, saying that a big rally could help save Navalny’s life.
“Putin only reacts to mass street protests,” she added.
Earlier this week, Navalny’s wife Yulia, who visited him in the penal colony, said her husband now weighed 76 kilograms (168 pounds) — down nine kilograms since starting his hunger strike.
On Friday, Russian prosecutors asked a court to label Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and the network of his regional offices “extremist” organizations in a move that would outlaw them in Russia and could result in jail time for their members.
“The darkest times are beginning for free-thinking people, for civil society in Russia,” said Leonid Volkov, the head of Navalny’s regional offices.