Dispatch

Welcome to Hamaswood

A trip inside Hamas's movie studio.

It looks at first glance like a typical block in Gaza: concrete facades spray-painted with political graffiti, collapsed roofs, and a battered United Nations sign. But looking a bit closer, you notice that there's something a bit too orderly, a bit too purposefully neglected, about the row of dilapidated buildings. The U.N. sign seems hastily painted on. Nearby is a fish pond.

Welcome to Hamaswood, one of the first movie sets owned by a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Hamaswood -- or, as the locals call it, the Asdaa Land for Artistical and Media Production -- is a small studio city near the Gaza town of Khan Yunis. Less than a city block in size, Asdaa's movie set is much smaller than any Hollywood studio, and it boasts a few features that you wouldn't find in Cinecittà: for example, the fish pond as well as goat yards and cow yards, not intended for animal films but as money making livestock. As it turns out, running a terrorist movie studio involves problems that Samuel Goldwyn would never have dreamed of.

Despite the challenges, owning your own studio seems to be all the rage in the Middle East. In Lebanon, Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, is a key part of the group's information warfare strategy. Al-Manar is more than just a mouthpiece; it brings Hezbollah's message to a wider audience through broadcasts that range from news programs to a quiz show in which contestants are tested on their knowledge of martyrs. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the TV station itself has been labeled a "terrorist organization" by the United States.)

Hamas already runs a modest media empire, its reach stretching to newspapers, radio, and satellite television. But Asdaa represents an ambitious foray into the world of film and entertainment, a medium that could prove an even more potent propaganda tool -- if Hamas can just get it off the ground.

Although the executive director, Abed Al Aziz Monsour, says production space at Asdaa isn't reserved exclusively for Hamas, it's clear that the current filming plans revolve exclusively around the conflict with Israel. Asdaa recently completed its first major production -- a two-hour documentary on Imad Akel, a Hamas activist who was killed by Israeli forces in 1993. The film used a professional director, but the dialogue was written by Mahmoud al-Zahar, a cofounder of Hamas. Rather than a Hollywood feature film, it's more like straight-to-DVD; Asdaa plans to sell copies of the movie to help cover production costs. Whether the studio's spaghetti Western production values can compete with the pirated Hollywood blockbusters and Egyptian movies popular in the Middle East is unclear, since the film is still unreleased.

But competition from more mainstream studios is just one of the problems facing Asdaa at the moment. Asdaa's director's office is bare-bones: just a meeting table stacked high with Asdaa-produced newspapers describing the city's work and activities. Seated behind the room's one luxury, an executive-style wood desk, Mansour outlined some of the roadblocks to building the huge studio that Hamas originally envisioned. Asdaa, he explained, sustained several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage during Israel's Operation Cast Lead, which took place between December 2008 and January 2009. The strikes heavily damaged the administrative building, blowing out windows and doors, and totally destroying the fish pond.

It has been hard to rebuild, too, because the continued blockade of Gaza has driven construction costs way up. Mansour says he intends to build a smartly furnished media center that will house a theater, museum, conference room, production facilities, and even a restaurant -- but there is little evidence of actual construction, cement now being particularly expensive with the blockade. Financing is an uncomfortable subject for the executive director. When I asked what the budget for the studio city was and who paid for it, an uncomfortable silence fell on the room, followed by nervous laughter from the bearded members of Hamas who sat at the conference table. "It's a sensitive question," Mansour said, a statement that was not surprising, given the murky origins of Hamas's funding (it is generally believed that Iran and Syria are the organization's major benefactors). The film about Akel, says Mansour, was funded by an anonymous donor.

Other projects, meanwhile, are on the way, at least in theory. Now that the documentary on Akel is complete, the next big production is supposed to be a TV series about the life of Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin, the blind sheikh who served the spiritual leader of Hamas until he was assassinated by Israel in 2004. But the constant challenge is recruiting experienced actors. Gaza does not have a homegrown entertainment industry, so Asdaa recruits amateurs, in one case hiring the family member of an employee. And Asdaa might be producing entertainment, but it still must adhere to Hamas's conservative social mores. "There is no problem with women acting, as long as they are covered, respect religion, and are traditional," Monsour said.

Then there is the problem of filming in wartime. For the recent documentary, the director needed to re-create the atmosphere of Gaza in the early 1990s, before the Oslo Accords, but getting some details right was difficult. For example, sequences that involve shooting or heavy fighting proved particularly challenging, and not just because Asdaa lacks the budget for Hollywood pyrotechnics. There were serious concerns that the Israeli military, which conducts regular surveillance flights over Gaza, would mistake them for real fighting or paramilitary training.

"They were scared for the actors' lives in that area," Mansour recalled. "They thought Israeli drones would attack them."

If the films do make it to distribution, Hamas should hope they meet with a better fate than its computer games. In Gaza's many computer cafes, teenagers spend hours playing Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter game from the United States played between a team of terrorists and a team of counterterrorists. It turns out that Hamas has made its own version of Counter-Strike, in which the two teams are -- no surprise -- Israel and Hamas. But the boys told me they preferred the better graphics from the American games. At one computer cafe, an owner offered me a copy of Hamas Counter-Strike for free -- apparently, no one was buying.

Dispatch

LiveStrong for Make Benefit of Kazakhstan?

Why one of the world's most bankable athletes is competing for an autocratic former Soviet republic.

As Lance Armstrong enters the second week of the Tour de France, questions abound. Why did he come back from retirement? Will his much-discussed rivalry with teammate Alberto Contador cost both of them the race? And even in such a commercialized sport, why is an iconic American athlete -- a Texan, no less! -- racing for ... Kazakhstan?

When Armstrong announced last September that he was coming back to try for an eighth Tour win, one of the more prosaic questions -- after those about his motives and abilities -- was what team he'd ride for.

Most observers saw only one option: Armstrong would rejoin the team of his friend and former manager Johan Bruyneel. An ex-pro himself, Bruyneel took control of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team in 1998 and was among the first people to think the Texan could be a Tour de France winner.

But Armstrong was hardly returning to the situation he left when he retired in 2005. The Postal Service's replacement, the Discovery Channel, ended its sponsorship after the 2007 season. Bruyneel still had a solid team, including that year's Tour winner, Contador. But after doping scandals plagued the Tour in 2006 and 2007, even cycling's equivalent of the New York Yankees couldn't find a corporate backer.

Yet as luck would have it, one of those very scandals eventually brought Armstrong and the Kazakhs together. In 2006, a pair of Kazakh racers -- Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin -- was collateral damage in a doping scandal. The manager of their Spanish-based Liberty Seguros team was found to be part of a massive doping ring called Operación Puerto. Although neither racer was personally involved, the criminal investigation -- which took place just weeks before the Tour -- cost the team its sponsor and jeopardized its Tour entry. Vinokourov, a national hero in his home country, appealed to the chairman of the Kazakh national cycling federation for help.

The man in charge of Kazakh racing was not just anyone; he just happened to be Danial Akhmetov, whose day job was prime minister (and, later, defense minister). Akhmetov swiftly put together a consortium of eight Kazakh companies to sponsor the team under the nationalist name Astana (Kazakhstan's capital and second-largest city), but the team failed to field the necessary number of starters and was not allowed to race. In 2007, Vinokourov raced the Tour on Astana, but tested positive for blood doping and was sacked. Kashechkin was busted a month later, and both were banned for two years.

Shorn of its stars and without confidence in the team's Swiss management, Kazakh authorities turned to Bruyneel, who effectively blended the remnants of Astana and Discovery Channel into a new team under the Astana banner. As a historical irony, one of the riders who joined was Contador, himself a former member of the doomed 2006 Liberty Seguros team.

Everyone had their motivations for making Astana work. Bruyneel's primary love is winning, and in the 26-year-old Contador he had the sport's best stage racer and a likely champion for years to come. For Akhmetov and the Kazakhs, the team was a high-profile PR set piece -- a means to gain respectability and burnish Kazakhstan's image. As a further point of national pride, the team would mentor and develop promising young Kazakh cyclists.

It was into this complicated arranged marriage that Armstrong entered, and the relationship was rocky from the start. Contador felt his rightful place as team leader was being usurped, a dynamic that is currently animating the Tour. But separately, there appeared to be little affinity between Armstrong and the sponsors.

Armstrong -- who all season had appeared in Astana team kit only when strictly necessary according to racing rules (preferring LiveStrong jerseys when he was training, or those from his Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny's) -- remarked that he knew Kazakhstan mostly from Borat and said, pointedly, "It's not my team; it's not my sponsor."

In February, Astana's eight corporate backers quietly stopped paying the bills to the Kazakh cycling federation, which then shut off payment to Bruyneel's management company and, by extension, riders and staff. By mid-May, the team was in danger of folding, and the team and its owners began to fight openly. At the prestigious Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), the riders broke out uniforms with sponsor logos all but faded from legibility as a way to shame the owners into paying.

The "Team Faded-Jersey" gambit worked and under pressure from the sport's governing body, the sponsors (including, now, the federal government) ponied up the cash to keep the team going until the end of the year.

Two competing theories explain Astana's payment issues. The simple answer is that amid the commodities collapse that accompanied last fall's economic crisis, the natural resource companies that constitute a major part of Astana's sponsor roster simply had a cash squeeze. But in the world of big business, the $15 million it takes to fund the team is a rounding error.

A more salacious rumor holds that the nonpayment was sporting politics: Vinokourov's suspension ends July 24, and the sponsors want him back on the team. Bruyneel, however, doesn't. Although unsupported by hard fact, that theory got a bump when Vinokourov -- with Nikolai Proskurin, deputy head of the Kazakh cycling federation, at his side -- held a press conference in Monaco before the Tour's start to announce his return. "It's my team," he said of Astana. "If Johan [Bruyneel] has a problem with me, it is up to him to leave the team, not me."

That kind of breakup, honestly, may be what everyone wants. During the height of Astana's financial difficulties in May, Armstrong announced that he was interested in forming his own team in 2010 as a rider and owner. And, had Astana defaulted on its payment deadline and lost the team sponsorship in June, Armstrong was ready to step in with LiveStrong and Nike as replacement sponsors (now the deal appears likely for 2010). Bruyneel will likely go too, and hence, Vinokourov can return to Astana.

Whether you believe that Armstrong's return is primarily about raising cancer awareness or is also, as has been floated in various forums, a springboard to a political career, racing the sport's highest-profile event for Livestrong-Nike would sure beat a scrum of unpronounceable natural resource companies from an obscure Central Asian republic with a president for life and a spotty human rights record.

But until July 26, when the race finishes in Paris, Armstrong will not be riding for Livestrong, Nike, or even his bike shop. He's on board for state holding company Samruk-Kazyna, natural gas producer KazMunaiGas, and mining concern Kazakhmys. Lance may yet break away from his competitors on the race course, but he can't quite drop his sponsors just yet.

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