Trump, Turkey’s Erdogan Discuss Gulf Crisis Involving Qatar

President Donald Trump spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Friday to discuss the ongoing feud between Qatar and several Arab states, a conflict that some are calling the worst Gulf Arab crisis in years.

Trump and Erdogan talked by phone to discuss how to resolve the dispute “while ensuring all countries work together to stop terrorist funding and to combat extremist ideology,” the White House said in a statement.

Turkey has been a supporter of Qatar, whose ties with some of its Gulf and Arab neighbors were severed after Qatar was accused of funding terrorism and fomenting regional instability. Qatar denies the accusations. Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cut ties with Qatar.

Watchdog: Sarin Nerve Gas Used in Deadly Syrian Attack

An investigation by the international chemical weapons watchdog confirmed Friday that sarin nerve gas was used in a deadly April 4 attack on a Syrian town, the latest confirmation of chemical weapons use in Syria’s civil war.

 

The attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province left more than 90 people dead, including women and children, and sparked outrage around the world as photos and video of the aftermath, including quivering children dying on camera, were widely broadcast.

 

“I strongly condemn this atrocity, which wholly contradicts the norms enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement. “The perpetrators of this horrific attack must be held accountable for their crimes.”

The investigation did not apportion blame. Its findings will be used by a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation team to assess who was responsible.

 

The U.S. State Department said in a statement issued Thursday night after the report was circulated to OPCW member states that “The facts reflect a despicable and highly dangerous record of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime.”

 

President Donald Trump cited images of the aftermath of the Khan Sheikhoun attack when he launched a punitive strike days later, firing cruise missiles on a Syrian government-controlled air base from where U.S. officials said the Syrian military had launched the chemical attack.

 

It was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and Trump’s most dramatic military order since becoming president months before.

 

Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied using chemical weapons. His staunch ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, said earlier this month that he believed the attack was “a provocation” staged “by people who wanted to blame him (Assad) for that.”

 

Both the U.S. and the OPCW were at pains to defend the probe’s methodology. Investigators did not visit the scene of the attack, deeming it too dangerous, but analyzed samples from victims and survivors as well as interviewing witnesses.

 

The Syrian government joined the OPCW in 2013 after it was blamed for a deadly poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb. As it joined, Assad’s government declared about 1,300 tons of chemical weapons and precursor chemicals, which were subsequently destroyed in an unprecedented international operation.

 

However, the organization has unanswered questions about the completeness of Syria’s initial declaration, meaning that it has never conclusively been able to confirm that the country has no more chemical weapons.

German Parliament Legalizes Same-sex Marriage

In a victory for gay rights activists, German lawmakers voted Friday to legalize same-sex marriage.

Activists waved rainbow flags and cheered as the lower house of parliament voted 393-226, with four abstentions. The decision follows similar action in some other Western countries. The decision came days after Chancellor Angela Merkel said lawmakers were free to take up the issue as a “question of conscience.” Merkel and members of her conservative bloc had opposed the legalization of marriage between two members of the same sex.

Civil partnerships have been legal in Germany since 2001, but same-sex marriage had been illegal.

“This is simply a historic day for Germany,” said Soeren Landmann, a marriage equality activist. “Today, thousands of same-sex couples were given equality, and the two-class society in matters of love was abolished. Germany can really rejoice today.”

Amnesty International’s Europe director, John Dalhuisen, welcomed the vote, saying, “Germany has become the 23rd country to recognize same-sex marriage and has sent a clear message to the world that gay and lesbian people should be entitled to the same rights as everyone else and to full and equal protection of the law.”

Merkel said she voted against the bill because she believed marriage as defined under German law was between a man and a woman. Merkel said her decision was a personal one.

“I hope that the vote today not only promotes respect between the different opinions but also brings more social cohesion and peace,” she said.  

The Catholic Church said it regretted the decision.

The measure still needs to be approved by the upper house of parliament.

 

Ambitious Cambodian Dance Troupe Honors Artistic Traditions in New Ways

Prumsodun Ok, a Cambodian-American born to refugee parents, knew he wanted to be an “apsara” dancer from the age of 4, when he was entranced by a performance captured on one of his family’s home movies.

No matter that the dance dated back to the seventh century, or that traditionally apsaras were beautiful, heaven-born females, destined to entertain gods and kings at the Angkor temples in the ancient Khmer Empire, modern-day Cambodia. Ok focused on the stylized grace of the dancing and thought little about the fact that the dancers were women, because he was a kid and he had a dream.

But he put that on hold for 12 years. 

Growing up in Long Beach, California, home to 20,000 Khmer immigrants, Ok was bullied because he was “different.” He recalls being branded as gay and “kteu” — Thai or Cambodian slang for someone who is born male but acts or looks female — when he was 5. That name calling led him to self-identify as gay in his teens.

“I don’t know when I knew,” Ok said about realizing that he was gay, “but I can say that I only became comfortable in my latter years of high school. This is me, this is who I am, and no one can change that or take that away from me.”

That was about the time when, after years of watching his younger sister practice traditional Khmer dances, that he found the courage to approach her dance master.

A rising star among dance students

“I really love dance. Can you please teach me?” Ok pleaded, and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro agreed. Teenager Ok quickly became a rising star at her Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, which is affiliated with an arts ensemble in Cambodia.

The school, founded by Shapiro, teaches traditional arts to Cambodian-Americans. Shapiro was one of the first graduates from Phnom Penh’s School of Fine Arts after the fall of the Pol Pot regime and is revered as one of Cambodia’s leading contemporary dance choreographers.

In 2015, Ok, now 30, moved to Cambodia and established Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA, the country’s first gay dance company. Male dancers ages 18 to 24 fill roles traditionally performed by women. The troupe stages Khmer classical dances as well as new works that Ok creates.

“What I’m doing is drawing from our traditions and using these traditions in ways that people could never imagine to create a more inclusive and compassionate and just Cambodia,” he said.

Coming from “a long tradition of people who are in the service of society … of humanity,” Ok said he has learned “that service is not just about being comfortable: those who are comfortable are not always necessarily right.”

Cambodian society’s tolerance

Srun Srorn, 36, the founder of CamASEAN and a human rights activist, told VOA Khmer that while the majority of LGBTQ Cambodians are marginalized and discriminated against, society is more tolerant of their role in the arts.

Ok’s group “is more professional, so I think it will bring the positive [response] from the community,” Srorn said. “So far, this part of the art — performing — is not getting any negative reaction from the public.

Ok says his role as a teacher of dance goes beyond the classroom.

“Getting them to learn how to see, getting them to have the courage to ask questions, getting them to have the bravery to explore things on their own,” he said. “Those are the most essential things that a teacher of any art form, or discipline or medium, needs to inspire in their students.”

Choung Veasna, 19, of Phnom Penh, says Ok gave him confidence: “I’ve learned from my teacher that no matter what people say about you, it doesn’t matter.”

Tes Sokhon, 24, from Pailin province, the oldest dancer in the group, says his teacher is inspiring. 

“He’s more than my idol,” Sokhon said. “He’s the first teacher to train me in classical dance. He provides us with income and makes our lives better.”

​‘Combination of beauty and tradition’

The troupe’s passion for classical Khmer dance has not gone unnoticed.

Craig Dodge, director of sales and marketing at Phare, the Cambodian Circus performance troupe in Siem Reap, said: “When I watched the video on their homepage and heard the young men talk about what performing has meant to them, their identity and their self-esteem, it made me cry.”

Courtesy Prumsodun Ok and NATYARSA 

 

Dodge worked with Ok to make the troupe’s Siem Reap debut in Cambodia’s artistic center a reality, by tapping into the city’s strong sense of community, which he describes as “the perfect place for nurturing and presenting traditional and new Cambodian creative expression.”

Resident Darryl Collins, an art historian, is providing the venue without charge because “the combination of beautiful and traditional 100-year-old Khmer houses with an elegant contemporary form of classical dance seemed an exciting collaboration.”

Other Siem Reap businesses are pitching in with free accommodations, transportation, security and are helping stage the performances July 14 and 15.

Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA is scheduled to perform three dances: PRUM x POP, ranging from Khmer classical dance to pop music; Beloved, which explores a 13th century Khmer king’s love for his land; and Robam Santhyea Vehea, a tale of love and marriage of two men.

Ok hopes an open-minded audience will see the performance as a measure of how LGBTQ people can create art in their communities.

“I want the company to be a model for compassion, for bravery, for beauty,” he said.

The Next Silicon Valley? Head to France  

France is known worldwide for its wine, food and culture, but under its new president, the French are aiming to be the new global hub for tech startups.

President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to build a version of Silicon Valley in France. His administration has launched pro-business initiatives that are loosening government restrictions and encouraging entrepreneurs to launch their startups in the country.

“The tradition has been in Europe and in France to invest in big, traditional companies and not specifically [in] tech startups. So we will dedicate a €10 billion fund to the investment in tech startups in France,” said Mounir Mahjoubi, France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs.

Both public and private investments will factor into Macron’s vision of France as a “country of unicorns” — the term popularly used for tech startups valued at $1 billion or more, said Mahjoubi, who recently was in New York City for “La French Touch” conference, where he discussed France’s strategy for attracting the tech world’s best and brightest.

In the French tech world, all eyes are on the privately financed Station F, which is set to open this summer in Paris. Billed as the world’s biggest startup campus, the 34,000-square-meter space already has major tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Ubisoft signed on. The companies will develop their products, as well as host and mentor startup founders in incubator programs. One thousand individual startups are expected to set up shop at Station F.

Seeking global appeal

Silicon Valley has attracted tech talent from all over the world. Now France hopes to do the same for those beyond its borders. Initiatives like the “French Tech Ticket” and more recent “French Tech Visa” are designed to bring startup founders, employees and investors to the country through a combination of mentorships, grants and subsidized work spaces. The French Tech Visa fast-tracks a process for participants to obtain a renewable, four-year residence permit.

Not to be left out are the locals in France’s poorer, outer suburbs, the banlieue. The new administration is aiming for social diversity through inclusion initiatives that foster entrepreneurship, said Mahjoubi.

“We decided to create hubs in the private area[s] of France,” said Mahjoubi. “There might be entrepreneurs over there that believe that it’s not for them, because they couldn’t afford to not having a salary for a year of entrepreneurship … we created the condition so they could receive money from the state, to have a salary during these 12 months [to] push their project to the highest level they can.”

Unemployment at 9.5 percent

The encouragement of entrepreneurship is a novel sentiment in a country where traditional attitudes and strict labor laws have long dominated work culture. With a national unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, venturing out on one’s own to start a business can seem too risky.

But with the success of French unicorns like ride-sharing service BlaBlaCar and network provider Sigfox, attitudes appear to be shifting; 68 percent of French people aged 18 to 25 aspire to run their own business one day, according to a 2015 Ernst & Young survey.

“I think the ecosystem, the government, have done a very good job to do some marketing about entrepreneurship and I think it’s very important because when we compare our situation to the U.S., in the U.S. there is a lot of storytelling, everyone is super enthusiast[ic] and it brings a momentum that is super beneficial,” said François Wyss, co-founder of French startup DataBerries.

Funding available

Wyss and his co-founders recently secured $16 million in their first round of funding for his digital marketing startup.

“There is a lot of funding now in France, so it’s great. We have the chance to have world-class engineers, which are far cheaper than in the U.S. So a lot of companies are developing their core product and R&D in France before exporting it overseas,” said Wyss.

“French tech is all about having roots in France and having a vision for the world,” said Mahjoubi. “The French tech startup scene is an international startup scene.”

Long-awaited ‘Jumanji’ Sequel Puts New Twist on Magical Board Game

In the verdant rainforests of Hawaii, Jack Black, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan simulated dodging rampaging rhinos and hungry hippos as they filmed the long-anticipated sequel to the Robin Williams 1995 adventure film Jumanji.

The first trailer for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, released Thursday, shows how four high school teenagers are transported into a Jumanji video game as adult avatars and find themselves pursued by jungle creatures and motorcycle assailants, jumping into waterfalls and encountering perilous caves.

The first Jumanji told the story of a boy trapped in the magical board game for 26 years. He is released as a grown man (Williams) when two children discover the game.

As they start playing again, stampeding elephants and wild creatures escape from the Jumanji jungle into the real world, causing havoc in a small town.

In the sequel, due out in theaters on Dec. 20, viewers are meant to get a sense of being pulled back into the alternative world of the board game jungle.

“This has the original energy and magic of the classic that everyone saw 20 years ago but, this time, I like to tell people it’s in the game,” Black told Reuters in interviews from the Hawaii set of the film.

“I’d say that our movie is on a grander scale because it’s a whole universe of Jumanji,” he added.

To kick off the sequel, four high school teenagers forced to clean out their school’s basement while in detention come across an old Jumanji video game. They soon wind up being transported into the game, as the adult video game avatars that they pick.

A nerdy teen becomes the muscle-bound Johnson, a blonde cheerleader transforms into the bespectacled Black, an introverted girl becomes a skimpily-clad Gillan, while a buff football player transforms into the diminutive Hart.

Johnson said the sequel pays homage to Williams, who committed suicide in 2014.

“In terms of Robin and our story, it’s done with so much love and respect that I think we’re putting ourselves in a really good position, and I think fans will love it,” he said.

Turkish Envoy to Greek Cypriots: Hope for Removal of Troops ‘a Dream’

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has told Greek Cypriots to stop dreaming that 35,000 Turkish forces will leave the divided island.

“This is their dream. They should wake up from this dream and they should abandon this dream,” he said Thursday at U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Crans-Montana, Switzerland.

Cavusoglu said the current round of talks should be the last attempt to resolve the decades-old dispute over Cyprus.

“We cannot continue negotiating forever,” the Turkish diplomat said.

His Greek counterpart, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, said the Turkish side has been repeating the same positions over and over.

The Greek Cypriots’ demand that Turkish forces go home is one of the major roadblocks to a deal to reunify the Mediterranean island after 43 years.

Turkish troops invaded Cyprus in July 1974, after a coup in Nicosia that was aimed at unifying the island with Greece. Cyprus has been divided since then between separate administrations — Greek Cypriots in the south and Turkish Cypriots in the north — kept apart by U.N. peacekeepers.

Only Turkey recognizes the north, while the Greek south enjoys international recognition and European Union benefits.

Turkish Cypriots want Ankara’s troops to stay on for their security; Greek officials in Nicosia say the continuing presence of the Turkish army is a threat to stability.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres plans to join the talks in Switzerland on Friday in the hope of moving the negotiations forward.

Spider-Man Swings Into Marvel Universe for Latest Film

Fans were crawling up the walls with excitement as the stars of Spider-Man: Homecoming swung into the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe series of films, which have dominated the global box office for years.

British actor Tom Holland, who plays the web-slinging hero, showed up at Wednesday’s premiere accompanied by an actor in full Spider-Man costume who was lying on the hood of a car and performing back flips for the crowd.

“I think for me I’ve realized the responsibility of being a role model for young kids everywhere,” Holland told reporters, adding that the character’s motto that “with great power comes great responsibility” resonated with him.

The film is the first time that Spider-Man, one of Disney-owned Marvel’s most popular characters, is the lead in a film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, championed the cause of getting Spider-Man into the Disney-run sphere.

“Now we have the first time Spider-Man in the Marvel Universe where he belongs,” he stated at the premiere, adding, “I sort of am still pinching myself. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe we’re premiering the movie tonight and I can’t wait for people to see it.”

The film sees Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr., another staple of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who has been featured in several of the series’ films, taking a co-starring role alongside Holland.

The film is to be released in European cinemas on July 5 and in U.S. theaters on July 7.

Driver Arrested for Targeting French Mosque Worshippers

French police say a man has been arrested trying to drive into a crowd outside a mosque in the Paris suburb of Cretiel. No one was hurt in the incident Thursday.

The unidentified driver was unable to get past barriers surrounding the mosque, police said. 

Le Parisien newspaper reported that the man said he wanted to avenge attacks by Islamic State group extremists that have killed dozens of people in Paris in recent years.

Last week, one person was killed and several wounded when a van drove into worshippers leaving a London mosque.

From Bars to Baseball Parks: Lady Gaga Readies Live Shows

Whether it’s at a bar or baseball park, Lady Gaga says she’s going to give every performance her all.

The singer will launch a summer tour with stops at arenas and stadiums across the globe, and she’s also returning to the Dive Bar Tour with Bud Light to perform a show in Las Vegas on July 13.

She called the first bar crawl, completed last fall around the release of “Joanne,” a deep experience.

“For what it’s worth, when I got up there, I totally forgot where we were and I just went into performance mode,” she said in a phone interview. “For me, no matter how small a venue is, you don’t perform it differently than you perform at a big venue, that’s not fair to the fans.”

Last year’s tour included a stop at The Bitter End, the New York City bar where Gaga performed before her pop star days. The new Dive Bar Tour will also include shows in Los Angeles (July 26) and New Orleans (August 30), to be headlined by other artists, who will be announced soon.

Gaga, 31, will launch a world tour on Aug. 1 in Vancouver, British Columbia. It includes stops at baseball parks like Citi Field in New York, AT&T Park in San Francisco, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston.

Now that she’s wrapped filming “A Star is Born” with Bradley Cooper — an experience she called “life changing,” “wonderful” and “inspiring” — she’s focusing on the massive tour.

“This one will be a little bit different,” she said. “I also like to change things up. “I have some other ideas about how I’d like to perform some of my fans’ classics.”

Part of switching it up comes from the sound of “Joanne,” which includes rock, country and slower songs compared with Gaga’s past electro-flavored dance hits.

“The album is extremely healing and reflective for me. I wrote about things that I’ve never written about before that are extremely deep and personal, and dare I say, things that haunted me, that were poisoning me, that were toxic to me, and I had to get them out. And it was very revealing in that way,” she said.

“The cover of the album is very indicative of that — me putting a hat on that I’ve never worn before and just not sure where I’m going at all — but knowing I got to get out of where I am.”

At the Coachella festival in April, where Gaga headlined, she released “The Cure,” an upbeat song about healing. She said she wrote the song after performing at the Super Bowl halftime show.

She added that she’s writing new music and said she could drop another song unrelated to an album.

“You know, I wouldn’t say that it’s out of the question,” she said.