Friday, April 3, 2015

Dubai, I'm sorry.

Dubai… I should start with an apology. 

I was arrogant in my relationship with you. I didn’t think you could teach me anything. I thought I was better than you. I refused to love you, until it was too late. When people asked me why I didn’t, I struggled to put my finger on it. You were superficial, I answered; you had no depth. And since I was preaching to the converted, no one ever tested the weaknesses of my opinion. 

The truth is, I never thought you would teach me so much; that I would grow so much with you. And that it would be so hard to leave you.

You have stretched my heart more than I thought possible. It has never felt as much pain and as strong a love as it felt here with you. You forced me to be more honest and genuine about my ambitions, stripping away illusions of grandeur and leading me, for the first time in my life, to be exactly where I want to be. 

You introduced me to some of the best people I have ever met: people with such peace of heart, generosity of patience, and depth of love. Where I thought I would spend my evenings alone reading at home, I instead developed smart, passionate and loving networks. 

My cousins were the first to welcome me when I arrived, helping me to settle in, but more importantly introducing me to Egyptian sheesha caf├ęs in which I would spend much time in the years to come. 

My colleagues were a family: we walked around the office in our socks, shared many a lunch of couscous or waraq 3einab around the conference table, and supported each other in personal and professional challenges alike. We experimented with the "international" (read Pakistani) buffet in Building 2, had walks along the fake lake, and listed our annual goals on the wall to keep ourselves accountable. We were sometimes greeted by a herd of camels when we drove into the International Humanitarian “City” – one of a set of shiny buildings jutting out from the middle of the desert of Jebel Ali.

Many colleagues became good friends. We gathered for wine and cheese, and discussions of books most of us had never read. We pondered life, international affairs, and journalism; attempted to be inspired by uninspiring events in Dubai’s nascent arts scene, and danced until 4am to YouTube classics in my living room.  

I looked for a football team in Dubai before I looked for an apartment. It took me a while to find the right one, but when I did, Platform 3 became the source of some of my closest friends. We sang kareoke in grungy bars, got together to watch the World Cup, and exchanged nerdy gifts at Christmas (that’s how I won a set of shot glasses made of ice). Football was an escape, and the football community in Dubai was something special: people from all of the world who saw each other regularly in various football events around town: 5-a-side tournaments, the Jebel Ali league, fundraisers, Hatdraws. Saturday, I played with the African guys; Monday with the girls; Sunday/Tuesday with P3; and Wednesday/Thursday with different co-ed groups. Like salsa, I could find football any day of the week. Unless of course, I was injured. First the arm. Then the calf. Then the other calf. Then the hamstring. I spent much of 2013 in a cast or on crutches. But I’ve never been as fit as I was in 2014. 

Circuit Factory was another of my favourite eco-systems, run by an eccentric sports trainer with strong views on health and fitness and exceptional marketing skills. Mothers looking to get back into shape after childbirth mixed with overweighters – some of whom lost up to 40 kilos on the program – and sporty types who knew that one session of CF would keep their arms toned for a month. Smack dab in the middle of the Al Quoz industrial zone, we inhaled fumes as we did jump squats, avoided trucks as they unloaded materials, and ran past the local mosque  in our tank tops and tight shorts as it sounded the call to prayer. 

Dubai had all sorts of entertaining quirks. It’s the only place in the world you can find women in bikinis strolling next to women in niqabs. Police drove Ferraris and young men spent their Friday nights showing off their Camaros down JBR’s main street. While chaos raged in the Middle East, top headlines in the Gulf News included: “Topless butler services makes residents lose their cool” and “Cycling 30km to work daily keeps salesman fit as a fiddle.”

But for quite some time, I was never really rooted in Dubai. The first two years were something of a blur. 

I’d wake up in a panic every day. I was late before my day had begun. Late because there was just so much to do. Late because I was already, permanently, behind. I’d rush out the door without breakfast (though sometimes a Starbucks coffee), always running. Always running. 

Even if I never really appreciated you, Dubai, I did always feel a moment of awe as I drove out of JBR’s concrete jungle onto the bridge over the Marina on my way to work: the skyscrapers, the yachts, the various pieces of architectural genius – it was indeed spectacular. 

The awe quickly receded, though, as I drove down the highway at 139 km per hour, just under the limit, refusing to exit the fast lane when Sheikhs in 4x4s rode up behind me flashing their highbeams to encourage me to get out of the way. It was poor etiquette on their part and I insisted on stubbornly teaching them a lesson. Off the highway, and into the last desert stretch of the journey to the office, I passed labourers standing on the side of the road in traditional kameez and kurtas looking for a ride (I could never figure out how they got there). At the entrance to the office, security guards mindlessly checked our cars for bombs and put our lunches through an x-ray machine – protocol imposed by the UN Department of Safety and Security, with whom I would have many less-than-friendly interactions in my travels to come. 

Reporting for IRIN took me to Libya, where UN agencies were camped out in a fancy resort along the sea that had supposedly been used as a hiding place for the Qaddafi family during the uprising. It was October 2011, just after the war between Qaddafi and rebels had ended. To do interviews, I had to quietly slip out of the complex unnoticed because travel in anything but UN cars was not allowed. I saw Qaddafi’s destroyed presidential palace and the bullet-hole riddled central square. I was moved by communities’ abilities to take charge of themselves without any effective government: volunteers ran traffic and former rebels divided up neighbourhoods to provide security. I was drawn to Libya – to its tribal layers, to the very rich dynamics in its Touareg south, to the sense of opportunity that followed the uprising but would  – like in so many other cases – quickly lead to more chaos. 

Afghanistan in January is something I would not wish upon anyone (though London currently feels just as cold). Its landscape is stunning; but its people tired and, after decades of war and outside interference, intolerant of more meddling. Systems are broken, and cycles of crisis are difficult to interrupt even where solutions are obvious. 

In March 2012, one year into the Syrian uprising, I was in the Jordanian capital Amman, following around activists who had developed informal channels to get aid into Syria and speaking to refugees as they crossed the border. I would return many times and, on one occasion, spend the night in the biggest refugee camp, Za’atari. I sat in the reception area as mothers dragged suitcases and exhausted children into the queue, speaking to the new arrivals as they waited to be processed. “Among us, there are stories to fill many more notebooks,” one man told me. And he was right. I left feeling emotionally drained. How they handled their emotions with such grace is beyond me. 

There were more formal trips, to Kuwait, Qatar Geneva, to watch Valerie Amos sign MoUs, listen to presidents of countries neighbouring Syria plead for more support, and witness one small part of how UN member states come to agreement on issues of the day. There was hypocrisy, sure. Bureaucracy, inefficiency, pomp and circumstance, conferences for the sake of conferences. But in some corners, I saw a genuine desire to get things done, for example the humanitarian coordinator of Syria as he tried to convince the “Friends of Syria” representatives that their approach to the conflict wasn’t appropriate ... and the gradual increase in mutual understanding between the UN and aid agencies working in the Gulf. 

In July of that year, I flew into Baghdad International Airport (“BIAP” in UN terminology), and was introduced to the lives of UN aid workers under self-imposed lockdown behind 12-foot-high “T-wall” concrete blocks, barbed wire, watchtowers and checkpoints. Some of them flew into Iraq on a UN flight, bypassing the commercial airport altogether, saw bits of an Iraqi highway on the armoured van ride to the Green Zone, and never enter the “real” Iraq before flying back out 28 days later for R&R. Iraqis who worked for the UN, of course, did not have the same luxury. I met local staff who left their homes for work before dawn so that their neighbours wouldn’t know where they went: affiliation to the UN was dangerous, and the fewer people who knew, the better. Iraqis, like many others I have met in my travels, are a resilient people who have learned to fend for themselves. One colleague summed it up by saying: “In Iraq, the people don’t trust the government and the government doesn’t trust the people.”

Syria was perhaps the most stressful of trips. I stressed about what to bring, what not to bring, opting for an empty laptop with no files, and ditching my big camera at the last minute. I carried a hard drive with a passcode in my inner coat pocket, and locked my suitcase everyday before leaving my room in the hotel where all UN staff stayed – said to be controlled by Syrian intelligence. I never got out of Damascus, but even so, met so many people whose lives had been turned upside down by the war. Aid workers, displaced people, Syrian friends of mine living in the diaspora – many have been irreversibly affected by the destruction of the country. 

I would come home from these trips feeling disoriented, sitting in the back of the women’s taxi from the airport, watching the familiar scenery of Sheikh Zayed Road fly past me. 

As constraints on IRIN’s reporting increased, particularly on Syria, I started questioning the value of my work. I felt disconnected and insincere and wanted to feel more direct impact and engagement. 

I got involved in a project to use art and culture to show the world a different side of Palestine.  I thought that would give me the value I was looking for. Instead, it taught me that many inspiring creative types aren’t quite so inspiring when you get to know them. The concept of the week-long festival was brilliant. The execution less so. I walked away with the conclusion that activism and revolutionary thinking often amount to much less than they proclaim.  I learned to stop romanticizing. 

Over time, the tumult slowed and I began to settle. 

Dubai, when I moved to you in September 2011, I knew you were a place of luxury and over-indulgence. But I imagined existing on the edge of that world, without engaging it. Very quickly, though, and without realizing it, you became a part of me. You allowed me (and many others) a life I had never even conceptualized. And it felt good. There, I said it. 

It felt good to indulge, to be glamorous, to have money (Keep Calm. Dubai is Tax-Free!). Things that used to be out of reach were suddenly at my fingertips: living in a spacious apartment on the beach; spending hundreds of dollars in an evening; jet-setting around the world for work (with the E-gate card that got me past all the lines at customs); wearing trendy dresses to dine in trendy restaurants: Argentinian steak at Gaucho, Lebanese cabaret at Mawal, shrimp tartar at Burj al-Arab. And of course: valet parking. The sun was always out. The streets were always safe. Life was easy. 

You made me feel like a Queen, Dubai. And you made me feel free to be whoever I wanted to be.

Sometimes, I just let myself fall into your arms. I lived the way one does when they are in love with Dubai: I partied, I ate well, I was carefree. Blue Marlin. Caramel. 360. Boat cruise. Brunch. Delivery. Table Service. Bottle service. 

Life was about work, fun and football. I could go weeks without thinking about much more. And what was so wrong with that? If this life was possible, why would you live any other way? 

A Sudanese friend of mine from Canada wrote to me, asking about job opportunities in Dubai. When I told him I was leaving, he couldn’t understand: “I hope it's for a better place," he said, then added: "It's hard to think about a place better than that from my point of view.” 

But ultimately, you were never enough for me, Dubai. Something between us was always missing. Some level of trust, and a long-term commitment. My time to move on has come.  

IRIN’s new chapter has been one of the most interesting of my life – a whirlwind of meetings with donors, press conferences, late night phone calls across time zones. We sketched staff structures on napkins, woke up in the middle of the night with ideas, and felt free to dream. 

Through it all - IRIN, life, the ups and the downs - there was of course, an unsteady constant who saw me through. He is one of those special souls that you are lucky to meet once in your life. He taught me about sacrifice, partnership, integrity, faith. Just the thought of him still makes me emotional. And every inch and corner of you reminds me of him, Dubai. So it was probably best that when I left him, I would leave you too. 

But I will not forget you Dubai: our stories and experiences, your crazy contradictions and difficult questions. They have shaped me, grown me, stretched me. And for that, I am humbled.

Saturday, June 15, 2013



(More photos on my facebook page)

My introduction to Kyrgyzstan began with a guidebook named: The living fairytale.

A 7th century visitor to Kyrgyzstan commented on its “tall peaks that reach to the very sky” and warned travelers against being “molested by dragons”.

The dragons have long gone but the peaks remain – as does the sense that you are venturing into a land of mystique and adventure, of untold possibilities and remote, achingly beautiful wilderness.

It’s striking that this land, crossed by centuries of Silk Road travelers, wandered by generations of nomads and the battleground of Jenghis Khan and other warring tribes, remains so little touched by man’s hand.

Truth be told, Mohamed and I knew very little about Kyrgyzstan, or Central Asia for that matter, when we set off for an adventure of sorts with Dad and his wife, Joan.

Friends’ confusion – “do you mean Kurdistan?” – was nearly echoed by the Kyrgyz embassy itself, which seemed surprised and unprepared for tourists from our (Arab) part of the world. Adventure backpackers, maybe, but Egyptians?

When we complained to the tour company arranging the required letter of invitation about the confusing visa procedures at the consulate in Dubai, they made it clear they had “no intention expanding into the Arab market”.

And when the Kyrgyz consular official in Dubai requested more documentation from Mohamed to ensure he was “bona fide” – “Who knows? You might like Kyrgyzstan and decide to stay”, he said with a wink – Mohamed had to remind him that two weeks prior, he didn’t even known such a country existed.

It is, as the fairy tale recounts, largely untouched.

Sandwiched along the historical Silk Road between a bunch of Stans and China, its history is one of invasions – from the Mongols in the 1200s to the Soviets in 1919. The Kyrgyz people owe their survival to the mountainous landscape – 80% of the country is at altitude 1,300m or higher – and their excellent horsemanship.

The people look Mongolian, but in character, are a head-spinning mix of Chinese, Muslim, Turkish and Russian.
The first of the Stans to gain independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has slowly opened up to the outside world. But few people speak English, and outside of the capital Bishkek, it really does feel like a magical movie world.

When we landed at 5am, we headed straight to the northeastern town of Kochkor, first in a taxi that could not reverse, then in a taxi with no brakes (which didn’t fare very well on the winding mountain road).

We organized most of our trip through the innovative and remarkably well-run Community Based Tourism (CBT) offices across the country, which direct tourist income towards local people instead of mega hotel-chains (which in many towns don’t exist anyway).

Through the CBT, we arranged a home stay with a young teacher named “Mokhabat”, which we immediately Arabized, from then on calling her Mohebat, the name of my grandmother.

Like most Kyrgyz people, she was polite, but reserved, preferring to give us our space in her large home, cluttered - like many Egyptian homes - with wall units, carpets and cabinets full of tacky china.

But when we managed to rip her away from her household duties and rosy-cheeked 1-year-old, she told us about going to a Russian school when she was young; quietly learning about Islam from her brother because the Soviets wouldn’t allow it; and the cross-ethnic love between her and her husband, who come from different parts of the diverse country. When Mohamed gave her a Russian-language Qu’ran as a thank you gift, she looked at him speechless, before finally managing to say: “This is very rich present.”

Kochkor’s main selling point for us was its Saturday animal market and its central location as a transit point between the various destinations we wanted to visit. So we didn’t do much in the sleepy town but exchange some dollars for monopoly-like currency and introduce ourselves to Kyrgyz cuisine, which I can only describe as uninspiring.

Essentially, it consists of boiled meat masked in different appearances: boiled meat in dumplings; boiled meat in fried dumplings, boiled meat with noodles, boiled meat in a patty. By the end of the week, I would have killed for anything green. And stay away from the national drink of khymyz, fermented mare’s milk that tasted sour and rotten. After an accidental run-in with shashlyk - grilled lamb skewers - we decided it was the most appealing Kyrgyz dish – though in fact it isn’t even Kyrgyz – and we would spend the next 5 days searching for it unsuccessfully.

From Kochkor, we took a short ride to a one-home village called Isakeev, the starting point of our journey to Terz Too jailoo, an alpine pasture where we would spend the night in what I can most easily describe as an advanced version of a tepee, the tent structure in which rural, nomadic Kyrgyz live: the yurt.

From Isakeev, Dad had promised us a leisurely 2.5-hour hike to the yurt. You all know my Dad, so I won’t say much more.

It was early May and the weather was brisk, but the scenery was spectacular: within a few minutes, we were surrounded on all sides by mountains as far as the eye could see, covered in velvet green, dotted with sheep and cows. We were alone in the mountains. Of course, we weren’t – every now and then we ran into a shepherd and his flock – but we felt the mountains were ours.

Enter the magical horse princess. At first, we were convinced, she could be nothing but a mirage – a vision that our newly-freed imaginations had created, given our fanciful surroundings.

She approached on her stunning white stallion, her dark hair tied back by a silver scarf, sparkling in the sunlight, her slender upper body covered in a yellow blouse; and she controlled her animal masterfully.

She galloped along like a beam of light, and as quickly as she appeared, she was gone.

Such was our experience through the Tien Shan mountain chain – part mystical and part … exhausting.

We started at 1800 metres in elevation and were to rise 400m during the 15km hike.

Two hours into what turned out to be a steeper climb than anticipated, we were all – but Sami – struggling to breathe due to the altitude. As we tried to replenish our energy on snickers bars, we turned to our guide, Cuatbec and Badr, for some sign – in their near-zero English - that we were almost there.

One expects that locals will always be stronger and faster on such hikes; but one also expects a certain degree of compassion on their behalf for the inexperienced Westerners. Badr’s response could only be summarized as friendly mockery, as he conveyed in sign-language that we were, in fact, only half-way.

By the three-quarter mark, Joan, Mohamed and I weren’t sure that we could take another step. Joan later described it as the most physically exhausting experience of her life. Sami became a bit of a loner, keeping his head down and focusing on putting on foot in front of another. We tried to follow his lead, but eventually hailed down a shepherd and asked him to bring us a couple horses.

The appearance in the distance of two white cylindrical structures with arched roofs was a welcome sight, but we arrived at the humble yurts of Altimbek and Kenjaygul, cold and unable to speak out of fatigue.

Just as we arrived, it started to snow. (It was Mohamed's first time seeing snow!)

We were ushered into the yurts, nice and toasty thanks to a small stove fed with cow dung. The strong but humble woman of the house, Kenjaygul, wore a thick red sweater wrap, her cheeks stained nearly the same colour by the inescapable wind and cold. We barely withstood the elements for one day – I couldn’t fathom how they lived here for weeks on end. (In the winter months, they move back to the village, and in the summer, when it gets too hot in the mountains, they pack up the yurt and set it up by the lake).

We sat cross-legged around a low table to a welcome meal and ever flowing tea, before retiring to a nap in their second yurt, in which they host tourists.

From the floor, we stared up at the intertwining network of bent wood, leading to the small circular skylight at the top of the yurt, through which the sun shone onto the reds, yellows and greens of the hand-made felt carpets holding the structure together.

Our overnight in the mountains was movie-like. I was instructed to chop vegetables while Kenjaygul made bread and yogurt from scratch. While I attempted – unsuccessfully – to milk the cows, Mohamed set off on horseback to bring home the 685 sheep Altimbek is responsible for. The shepherd is paid 30 som per head – or a total of $430 per year – to manage the sheep, and makes a little extra by hosting tourists like us – about 20 a season.

Like many others, Altimbek was super excited to find out that Mohamed was Muslim and by the end of the night, as we gathered around the dinner table, just barely lit by a solar-powered lamp, Altimbek held up his hands in prayer as Mohamed recited verses of the Qu’ran with an elegance and ease that they had never heard before and would likely never hear again.

Such was our trip to Kyrgyzstan – poetic moments of human connection; awe-inspiring natural grandeur; and a people who went about their daily business in near isolation from civilization with no idea just how fascinating they are.

After our adventure in the mountains, we went on to Bokonbaev, a small town with the feel of ski resort, where we spent an afternoon on Issuk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world, at a surface area of 6,200 square kilometres.

We got lost in the red-earth canyon of Skazka – which, according to the guidebook, give visitors no chance “to gather their thoughts and expectations from previously seen wonders of the world.”

At Manjyly-Ata, we drank from the dirty spring water that was meant to heal us from liver problems, infertility, headaches, addiction, gastro-intestinal tract problems, and of course, bring us in harmony with the world.

And throughout, we experimented with foods we could not pronounce, relying on Sami’s basic knowledge of Cyrillic script, and - when we got desperate - simply pointing to photos on the menu and hoping for the best.

Upon return from Kyrgyzstan's towns and villages, the capital Bishkek felt like something of a fraud, its tree-lined boulevards filled with high-heeled trendy women, karaoke shops and 24-hour supermarkets.

It was also much more cosmopolitan, and home to most of the Russians who make up some 10 percent of the population. With their chain-smoking, adventure sports and strip clubs, they present a whole other side to Kyrgyzstan.

While many of them have never been to Russia and own nothing but a Kyrgyz passport, they consider themselves Russian – and barely mingle with the majority of the people in their country. They go to different schools; eat their own food; and have only Russian friends. But while they are a minority, they wield disproportionate influence over the language (Most Kyrgyz speak Russian) and culture (I assume the vodka-filled shisha option is their doing).

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that Kyrgyzstan is well worth a visit, if only to experience “the life-enhancing joy that comes from exploring Kyrgyzstan’s wild places.”

**NOTE: A Kyrgyz friend read this post and was very upset by it. She felt that I had misrepresented her country as a fantastical "wild" place, and neglected to tell the stories of the wonderful people I met there. So let me take a moment to do so.

You'll see on my facebook photos the sophistication of parts of Kyrgyzstan: the beautiful national orchestra concert we attended in Bishkek - complete with akyns (the Kyrgyz version of spoken word); the grand fountains; the sky-high statues. We even got rejected from a club because we weren't appropriately dressed (sorry, we didn't bring dress shoes to hike up the mountain)!

But the best part of Bishkek was meeting two lovely women who cemented the impression we had of the country. Gulya is of Tatar origin (another ethnic group in present-day Russia) but has lived in Kyrgyzstan for years. She runs a bed and breakfast that Mohamed nicknamed "Pension al-Sa3ada" for its joyful atmosphere. Every morning, she scurried from her cramped quarters at the back of the guesthouse to prepare a hearty breakfast of eggs, bread, jam, fresh juice, and cake from her son's new dessert business. She regaled us with stories of the travelers she has hosted over the years (Mohamed was the first Egyptian!) and her family's history of migration from China. When we convinced her to finally step away from her work to join us at the concert, she giggled giddily as we came home around 11pm: "This is the first time in 37 years that I come home later than my husband!"

We found the second woman, Sara, one morning behind the counter of a hectic government office where she was answering a million questions from a million people. We had already spent much of our day trying to figure out how Mohamed should register his visa with police so as to avoid problems when leaving the airport. We had gone from office to office until we finally found Sara, a young Kyrgyz with bleached blond hair, a sparkling smile and perfect English. We immediately clicked and she gave us detailed instructions on what to do, even calling us back at the pension after double-checking with her manager for more details.  After leaving her office, I shyly made my way back inside to ask her if she would like to go out with us at night. She said yes!

The solution to Mohamed's visa problem ended up involving dragging Gulya on a Friday morning to that same office, to essentially sponsor him in her name. Without the two of them, we'd probably be locked up in a detention centre somewhere.  But beyond the help they gave us, they both had such warm hearts and such a keenness to engage with others. As we left the guesthouse at 4am, Gulya handed me a hand-made felt purse as a gift. I hold it dear as a memory of our friendship, which I hope we will maintain for years to come.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Catching Up

It’s been seven and a half months since I moved to Dubai, and it’s only now that I am starting to feel there is some hope for me to strike a balance in my somewhat hectic life. Part of my efforts to do so involve committing to this blog. I’ve been seeing a fair bit of new in these past months but have always been “too busy” to write about it. But today, I say, no such thing! It’s a question of priorities. So I, on April 16th 2012, hereby decide that documenting these moments and experiences – and sharing my life, to the small extent I can, with you – is a priority.

Let me try to sum up the past six months:

Moved to Dubai. Hated it. Complained about everything (see previous blog posts): the roads, the people, the lack of cultural exchange, and so on. But told myself I was here for work – and the work looked to be great. And the rest of the time, I could spend on “self-development”: my lofty vision of quiet nights reading; Arabic lessons, and... well, actually, I think that was the whole list.

The work did turn out to be great.

First trip was to Libya, in November, one month after the war officially ended. Stopped over on the way from the airport to the much talked about Bab al-Azzizzeya compound. By this point, waves of rubble were all that remained of the layers of metres-high walls that had kept Qaddafi feeling like a king among his subjects; and kids played among the spray-painted tanks.

The biggest shock upon my arrival to Tripoli was the conditions under which the UN was working. I was accustomed to the desert refugee camps of Chad, where torn plastic sheeting with UNHCR splashed across the top, was the kind of place you’d find aid workers. In Tripoli, the UN had parked itself in a 5-star resort along the beach in beautiful apartment-suites, with balconies and kitchens and maid service. Qaddafi’s family had apparently stayed there for several days during the unrest.

Libya had a good vibe in those days – with some major exceptions I’ll mention later. Many Arabs have this impression of Libyans as very rough people – and the images during the war didn’t help. But I actually enjoyed Libya more than any country I’ve visited so far. I found the people very real, very emotional and very willing to engage.

My first day there, I left the armoured vehicles at the compound and – in typical Heba fashion – hopped into a car with someone I had just met but had a good feeling about. He drove me around in my desperate search for a sim card, until we found what might well have been the last sim card in the city – used for $100.

Of course, those were the days of post-revolutionary bliss – when much of the population was still living off the high you get from accomplishing something unimaginable in unprecedented acts of togetherness. It was similar to the feeling I experienced in Cairo on Feb. 12, 2011, when I watched my 30-something female cousin sweep the streets of downtown with a 14-year-old boy she just met.

The level of self-organization (the protesters erected and respected security checks, set up mobile pharmacies, had people deliver food, etc) with which Tahrir Square wowed the world was multiplied to the nth degree in Libya. Entire cities were self-run, with no functioning government. Militias set up security checkpoints, each governing a different area, but coordinating with each other through an impressive system of communicating and structure. Regular Libyans got together trucks of aid supplies and drove through gunfire to reach people affected by fighting. I met people who had been “volunteering” for months – they basically signed up to work with LibAid, and spent days running from one city to anther to deliver aid, without ever asking for a salary. With a population of just 6 million, nearly everyone was affected by the war in some way, so this feeling of engagement was very tangible.

There were clear segments of the population that did not have access to this tight community that had formed. Many people I spoke to believed that Libyans were bordering on all-out racism in the way they treated the black-skinned Libyan minority called the Tawergha (who fought alongside Qaddafi and were accused of committing atrocious crimes, especially mass rape) as well as migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who had been working in Libya when hostilities broke out. The stories I heard about entire communities being chased out of their homes were horrible. The hatred was pervasive – even open-minded, educated people admitted they just didn’t see a place for all Tawergha – even women and children – and that they should just go “somewhere else”. Continued revenge attacks raised a lot of questions about the direction in which the new Libya would head. National reconciliation seemed incomprehensible to some on both sides. On this front, Libya hasn’t come very far since.

I also believe that a lot of Libyans have not really dealt with the tsunami of emotions that surely hit regular 20-somethings – engineers, doctors, businessmen – who picked up guns for the first time in their lives and watched in flipflops and jean jackets as their friends died before them. Post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t really a recognized phrase in these parts, and I think there will need to be a proper grieving process at some point in the future.

I watched one Libyan cry as he told me about his two brothers. One fought during the revolution and died. This one Mahmoud spoke of with pride. His brother was happy to meet this fate and a certain satisfaction accompanied Mahmoud’s words. But the other brother died years ago, after being tortured in prison where he was held on accusations of links to terrorism. His brother was afraid in the days before his death, Mahmoud told me with shame. He didn’t want to die. And watching him experience that fear was more painful than watching his other brother die in battle.

Libya proved to be a fascinating country, because of its overlapping and competing identity frameworks. That too has come at great risk. I remember Anna Maria Tremonti raging at someone during an interview before I left, chastising “the West” for insisting in its rhetoric that Libya was a “tribal society” – as if that was a horrible insult. In fact, Libya is – or at least was – a tribal society. That is a fact, and a fascinating, though potentially fractious, one. The revolution was not tribal in nature. Militias grew out of neighbourhoods (streets even), not tribal structures, and rather, the revolution was dangerous in how it created local identities out of the “Misrata brigades” and the “Benghazi boys”. With every day that the central government fails to grab a bit more legitimacy, those identities become more of a threat. But tribal dynamics were certainly at play in the decades before the revolution and continue to hold sway, especially in the south – a desert collection of oasis towns with little government control and strong tribal autonomy – where I have vowed to go on my next trip to Libya.

I met a very special soul in Libya – a Mohammed swept up in the revolutionary fervour, who at 31, had given up his life, left his parents, and trekked across the country under the guidance of a man he barely knew to try to find his role in all of this. You could call it the Arab-Spring version of youth adventure. What Khaled Ben Ali, now head of LibAid, created out of young people like Mohammed, was a committed, open-hearted group of Libyans who have tried to fight against the tides of racism, hatred, division. Mohammed literally gave himself to the cause – spent days out of contact as he criss-crossed from the mountains of Zintan to the destroyed buildings of Misrata delivering aid. He eventually took charge of the camps for displaced people... I watched him, one day, as he held a young Tawergha girl and begged her not to cry when she spoke of what happened to her father at the hands of former rebels. In Libya in those days, it was hard to find anyone sympathetic to the Tawergha, but Mohammed saw humans as humans. Full stop.

I left Libya feeling it was a country I wanted to come back to and spend time in – to understand the people and history, and to watch those who had invested so much in changing it find their way in the path that lay ahead.

Next came Egypt, a sober reality check on the honeymoon period, where (see my previous post) the lead-up to the first parliamentary elections was characterized by extremely low morale by activists, who felt they were being played, and a completely different Tahrir Square than the one I had seen in February: drunk and homeless people, the smell of urine, but also, positively, a hub for public political discussion I hadn’t witnessed before.

Then it was off to Afghanistan in the midst of winter, fleece underwear and down jacket in check.

Afghanistan was unpleasant, to put it bluntly. Not because of the country’s geography – which was spectacular – or people – I didn’t have a chance to know them – but because of its ‘zuroof’ as we would say in Arabic – or its circumstances.

If it wasn’t at war, Afghanistan would be a leading country for tourism, with its magnificent snow-covered mountains and rugged terrain. But its people are rough and tired. They’ve been through 30 years of occupation and have come to believe that living in war is simply their destiny. I met many who seemed to have given up.

“When I was young,” one of our Afghan colleagues told us, “they said ‘when you grow up, hopefully, there will be peace.’ Now I am 26 year old and I have seen nothing.”

He planned to leave Afghanistan as soon as he could.

The modus operandi in Afghanistan is another nightmare – armoured vehicles, convoys, checkpoints, and blast walls. It’s a horrible way to try to know a people and deliver aid.

There is good reason to fear. The 2011 attack on the northern town of Mazar-i-Sherif was well publicized in the news. But the details are horribly painful: A protest against Pastor Jones’ burning of Qu’rans turned violent and an angry mob looking for the US embassy found a UN compound along its way instead. The five staff inside ran for the bomb shelter. When the armed mob started banging on the door of the shelter, the head of the UN mission at the time, a Russian, told his team he would face the mob. He would tell them he was the only one inside and sacrifice himself for the other four.

The Russian knew a few words of Arabic and recited the Qu’ran as he stepped out of the bomb shelter. The mob, miraculously, let him go. They then turned and killed the other four – some reportedly had their throats slit. The Russian resigned and left Afghanistan.

So I do not belittle the need for security measures. But why operate in a place if you are so unwelcome? Or rather – why not find a way of operating that makes you welcome and decreases the risk? Anyway, a rant for another day. But all this to say, Afghanistan – in the way that I experienced it – wasn’t my cup of tea.

I did, however, spend a few wonderful days in small villages of the north – a relatively more peaceful part of the country (save the event described above), where villagers complained that because there were no problems in the north, they also didn’t benefit from the mountains of development aid that poured into the south. Given the way that aid was implemented, their neglect could have been a good thing. But Mullah Najibullah, photographed here, didn’t seem to think so. He would have been happy to see more of a role for the international community in the north... and maybe a second wife too :)

After Afghanistan, Jordan was a relief – I could hop into taxis as I pleased, stroll around the market for za’atar and olive oil, and do real journalism. Covering the Syrian refugee crisis was very different than anything I had done in the months before. I’m not a war reporter – I don’t brave bullets to see the action first hand and so I am often analyzing events that I was not a witness to.

In Jordan, I felt as though I was really living the Syrian crisis with those affected by it. I met family from Homs, who had fled to Amman – a woman, her husband, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and four kids, who were living in a three-bedroom rental home with leaking ceilings and barely any running water. The woman was so grateful – she refused to complain or list off her needs. “Alhamdullilah,” she kept saying. “Alhamdullilah.”

I met another family, in the Jordanian border town of Remtha, hours after they had crossed illegally into Jordan. The mother had climbed a dirt wall, crawled under a fence, and dropped to the ground amid gunfire – all while carrying her months-old baby, whom she had fed a pill to ensure she didn’t cry and arouse attention. Once in Jordan, they were living in a transit facility until they could find more permanent accommodation. She showed me the bathrooms in the top floor of the building – fresh feces lay in every stall, surrounded by flies, and used women’s sanitary pads were piled up in the corner.

When she said, “We’ve got a good life here,” I assumed she was being sarcastic. She wasn’t.

When I came back from Jordan, I met up with a Syrian friend from Homs in Dubai, whose family had finally made the call to pack up and leave their home because it had simply become too dangerous. They had become “displaced”. He had a hard time coming to terms with the idea, and a harder time physically uttering the word “plastic”, which described some of the tents that displaced people were living in. “Plastic!” he kept repeating, shaking his head. The Syrians are a proud people with a strong attachment to their country. Among the death and the divisions, displacement, too, has not been easy on them.

So it’s been a humbling experience. I feel blessed and lucky to get to see this part of the world at this time in its history. But at the beginning, I also spoke of “self-development”... the quiet nights of reading, and the silver lining of isolation in Dubai.

That never really materialized.

In 7 months, I have made it to page 98 of my book on the history of the Arab world. My apartment is nearly always covered in my hair. I regularly have to throw on rotten food in the fridge. I haven’t started Arabic lessons and I still don’t call my mother enough.

Part of the reason for that is which takes up about 4 nights of the week. The rest of it is the wonderful people I have found here (and those who visit!), who have enriched my life tremendously, and the fact that Heba will always be Heba – and thus find ways – like crashing into a column in a parking lot – of doing things that take up her time.

There you have it – I think you’re up to speed.

Promise you’ll get a posting every trip from now on. Iraq is next up.
(Just read my last post – dated Nov. 27 – which read: “I promise I’ll blog more consistently when I get back. Oops.)

*** The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or positions of the United Nations or IRIN ***

Sunday, November 27, 2011

On the eve of the elections

So Egypt the night before the elections...

Can't say I'm very optimistic - though I've mostly been hanging out with revolutionaries from January who are run down and depressed and think the country is going to hell.

There is talk of liberal candidates having been stabbed by remnants of the old regime. People won't let their mothers go vote alone, because they are afraid of violence. Most activists think the elections are irrelevant, because they won't change anything. The military council will stay in power despite the elected parliament, and the parliament will have no power to do much of anything. Some of the activists are voting anyway because they fought so hard for these elections. Others don't see the point or don't think it's appropriate to be campaigning and voting when people were dying on the streets a few days ago.

Almost everyone I've spoken to is gearing up for a long fight against the military council, long past these elections.

"I'll go vote and then come back to Tahrir," I heard several times.

Then there's the fact that no one has any idea how the voting will work logistically. Nobody knows the rules, who's running, where they have to go to vote, or which party belongs to which block. The system is unnecessarily complicated - perhaps because of the militay's incompetence in election planning, perhaps because they meant for it to be.

I hung out with one activist who spends his time walking around the streets trying to inform people about the elections. We'll be at a felafel shop and he'll start up a conversation.

"You planning to vote tomorrow?"

He gives them his analysis of which candidates really represent the protest movement, counters their conspiracy theories about the revolutionaries, and tries to help convince them that Baradie did not cause the invasion of Iraq.

"Just tell me who to vote for and I'll do it," one shoemaker pleaded with him once.

Because of the lack of knowledge, the insecurity, and the political context, these elections - as a friend of mine told me - are a disaster.... or worse, a trap. Many activists see them as a ploy to push them into a corner. They will lose legitimmacy on the street because the military council will be able to say "You wanted elections - we gave you elections. Now go home." And yet those elections will not represent the change they were meant to.

Morale seems lower. Tahrir has lost its class. People say the tear gas has had a lingering effect on them - that they're drained - physically and mentally.

"I ran on empty for months," my friend Mona told me of the initial revolution. She lost 20 pounds and devoted every waking minute to the struggle. "I’m not the same anymore. Nobody is, in this country."

But this second revolution has re-invigorated people, and I have never seen Egyptians engaging in such healthy political discussions. When you walk through Tahrir, you find groups of people huddled together debating the way forward.

"We cannot vote under these circumstances! How can we hold elections in a country that can't even secure a soccer pitch!"

"No, we have to vote! If we don't vote, the Islamists will take power!"

"What we need is to abandon all ideology and come together!"

Hold on to your horses. This is going to a bumpy ride...

*** The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or positions of the United Nations or IRIN ***

People gathered at Tahrir

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A couple months in

I have been horribly absent - I know. A sign, I suppose, that Dubai really isn't that bad.

It's clean. It's functional. It's ... fine. It's not a place I'll ever fall in love with, but it's manageable. In fact, people always complain that it's easy to lose time here. The days go by quickly and you don't ever know quite how you spent them.

I complain a lot that the place has no soul, but it would be unfair to say it isn't interesting... Where else in the world can you find a woman in a niqab next to a woman in a bikini? Anything goes here, and everyone accepts everyone else as they are. And it is very cosmopolitan. You can find people and food from around the world - though the different cultures are not engrained and appreciated the way they are in, say, Toronto. It's also unique in how quickly it has grown. Many of the places we hang out in were desert just thirty - or in some cases five! - years ago.

We spend long hours here debating Egyptian politics, Syria's uprising, Qaddafi's death. I fear the elections in Egypt will be a disaster, given how complicated the election rules are and how little anyone knows about the different party platforms - including the parties themselves! In Syria, I spend a lot of time arguing with friends that things are not as black and white as they seem on TV... that there are weapons and interests at play within the opposition and that a significant proportion of the population still supports Bashar. Qaddafi's death? Even my friend's 65-year-old mother couldn't stop herself from watching the gruesome videos...

All this to say, it's been interesting.

I'm off to Libya in the coming days, to get a sense of how things are progressing on the ground in what is likely to be the hardest part of the revolution; and then to Egypt for the elections.

I promise I'll blog more consistently when I get back.

*** The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or positions of the United Nations or IRIN ***

Monday, September 26, 2011

Some photos

I got another hilarious email from Sami yesterday that read:

We need picture in ur blog
That is not acceptable

Can't say no to the Old Man!

Dubai in all its glory

Karim and Tamer at a Lebanese restaurant.

Karim's daily activity

The living room of my new apartment - please excuse the furniture.

Look carefully: it's a stuffed camel wearing a traditional galabeya and head dress. Bought it at "The Camel Company".

Local Emiratis at the mall

*** The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or positions of the United Nations or IRIN ***

Friday, September 23, 2011

Clash(es) of Culture

Ok, so two weeks in and ... things are not so bad after all. Yes, I know you all said it would be so.

I should be moved into my new apartment next week. Furnishing an apartment from scratch again is not only expensive, annoying and frustrating (I have exactly what I need sititng in Canada!), but also a constant reminder that I have made myself home-less. Still, I go on trying to make one wherever I go. And this one should be nice. Arched windows. Big patio. Huge kitchen. And literally two minutes to the beach.

I cannot understate how wonderful it has been to have a little community here. Karim, my cousin, has introduced me to some of his Egyptian friends, and they've become family overnight. They take such good care of me. They're always checking on what I need, negotiating prices for me, picking me up, dropping me off. We all see each other nearly everyday. It's been about four years since I've had such a tight-knit group that is so involved in one another's lives. And I love it.

The staff at the office are wonderful, and I'm truly enjoying the work I'm doing. I've been very slow to get started, but have a number of articles lined up that should get out soon.

Best news is I'm planning on trying out for a soccer team tomorrow!

The roads are still terrible. Seriously, terrible. The thing I miss most about Canada right now is the good highway layout and the signage. In Dubai, you miss one exit, and you've automatically just lost 30 minutes of your day and added 20 km to your ride.

And the language barrier is still a problem. Today, we spent twenty minutes trying to understand whether the bedsheet an Asian man was selling was meant to go on top of the mattress or below it. It's like traveling to a foreign country and not knowing the language, only in reverse.

But the thing I've been struggling most with actually, is culture shock. On various levels.

Do you know how much the casual workers here make? The ones who leave their families back home and come here in droves for the sole purpose of making money? One Pakistani security guard at my office asked me the other day whether I could spare some money for his friend who broke his arm, but couldn't afford to go to a hospital here and needed to fly back to Pakistan where healthcare is cheaper. The guard makes 900 dirham a month, or about 235 Canadian dollars. When I offered to speak to the head of the office about it and see if we could help, he pleaded with me not to because he didn't want to get in trouble for having asked for money.

In my new neighbourhood, Jumeira Beach Residence, where Russians, Brits and Americans saunter around in beach clothes and sit at shi shi cafes, Pakistanis and Indians in blue uniforms crowd around the bus stops waiting for the public transit that no one else in the country uses. When a bus approaches, they make a huge scene, by jumping over each other in herds to get a seat on the bus, which will probably take them 45 minutes away to lower-class neighbourhoods like Deira or Sharja, where they live 10 to a room.

But the real culture shock is personal. I'm realizing just how Canadian I am.
My Western attitude has also gotten me into some trouble at work (not in my office, but with people I call for interviews, etc). There's a system in Middle East... largely based in relationship-building. It's slow, and sometimes a bit fake, but it's their system. And when you barge in trying to get everything done at once, without having built those relationships, people consider you too forward and too pushy and are less willing to help. So I'm learning to play the game.

Hanging out with Egyptians day in and day out has also been a bit exhausting. Here's how I break it down. Canadians function based on practicality and logic. Egyptians function based on duty. When I am with my cousin, it is his duty to take care of me. Thus, he has a self-imposed obligation to carry any heavy bags I may have, pay for my lunches, and drive me across the city. I have had a hard time with this, but sincerely feel I have made an effort to let go and accept people's generosity. But there comes a point where you just want to take control of your own life!

The other day, we were out at one end of town, near the home of some friends of ours, Mohamed and Maha. Karim had picked me up and Mohamed and Maha had come together in one car. Karim and Mohamed wanted to go out to a place nearby, but I was tired and wanted to go home, to the other side of town. The logical thing to do would have been for me to take a cab home and for them to go out. But that, of course, was unacceptable. So instead, Karim and Mohamed drove to Mohamed's house, picked up Maha's car, came back to meet Maha and I, where we transfered cars, and Maha drove me across town, only to drive all the way back again to get home. Not only did it not make any sense, but it also took 45 minutes for them to go get the car and come back, by which time I could have been in my bed happily sleeping.

I keep hearing "This is how it is here", and need to remind myself that just as I adjusted to cultures in Africa, I should adjust to this culture too. But when it's people you know, you feel, somehow, that they should be more willing to compromise. They're not. They're stubborn as hell and I'm tired of fighting.

What I do like is that, despite all the foreigners, this place does have a distinctly Muslim/Middle Eastern flavour. And there is something so beautiful about the uniform white galabeya (they call it dishdash here, I think) the men wear and the black abaya the women wear. The azhan rings throughout malls when it's time to pray. The majority of people here - including the Pakistanis! - greet you with Salamu Alaikum. And while you don't meet that many Emiratis, there is certainly a lot of Arabic around. Dubai is a very accepting place. But beyond all the skyscrapers, it has not forgotten, it seems to me, who/what it is. And it's not ashamed of it either. Being in the Middle East always makes me feel as though the rest of the world is a bit irrelevant. People live their lives their way here, even if, as one Emerati told me, "the West doesn't understand us."

*** The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or positions of the United Nations or IRIN ***