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 ***

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


The initial prognosis is... as bad as we expected. I wake up to a view of skyscrapers sprouting out of the sand. I am staying at a hotel where the internet has a mood of its own; the staff barely speak English and definitely don't speak Arabic; and a mini-can of coke costs nearly $5. The roads here are crazy and confusing. You need a cab to get to work, get from work, and if you want to try to be environmentally friendly, you need to take a cab to get to the metro and get from the metro. If you want to be really really environmentally friendly and walk, you will make it about five yards before the heat clogs your lungs and drenches your skin. So far, you might say, that's not so bad. So I'll go on.

I work in what is called "Dubai Humanitarian City". Dubai's government came up with this brilliant idea of creating little cities: Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City, Dubai Green City, etc. -- meant to be global hubs for certain industries. The vision for the humanitarian city was actually quite unique. A place where UN agencies and NGOs from around the world could set up offices, warehouses, etc in a location that could conveniently and quickly provide for many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia in the case of an emergency. The UAE gave free office space to these agencies and IRIN set up shop in the early days of the project. Sadly, the execution fell a bit short of the dream, and the whole thing sort of fizzled out, leaving WFP, UNICEF, a few NGOS... and us, in what is essentially an abandoned collection of half-completed buildings in a patch of desert lost in a web of highways. The humanitarian city is, shall we say, lacking in amenities. At noon, when the sandwich stand opens up in the bottom of building 3, people rush to line up, because the shanghai noodles and tuna salad sandwiches are all the food you'll find in the "city" for the rest of the day. Still, not so bad.

Say the sandwich stand runs out of its goodies, or you have a meeting outside of the "city". You must, as previously explained, order a cab. Like the hotel staff, the cabbies mostly don't speak English. That, I can deal with. But they also have no clue where the blessed humanitarian city is. And there is really no way I can explain it. Take Al-Khail road, but when it splits into two, take the business bay exit... but not the business bay extension... the other exit, you know. keep to the right. But not too far right. And then when you pass the bridge - which bridge? - but before you get to the other bridge - ??? - you'll see a little turnoff... well actually at night you won't see it, because it's written on a tiny little sign that you wouldn't find even if you knew it existed. When you find yourself on the wrong side of the highway, do the 10-minute u-turn and try again.

So generally, leaving the office is a two-hour procedure. And of course, if it's 8pm and you're hungry, this is slightly uncomfortable. So when the cab finally finds the last place on earth, you ask him to stop along the way for some food (because the hotel, as previously explained, charges exorbitant prices). Your office is on the side of the highway. Your hotel is on the side of the same highway. The only thing between your office and your hotel is a gas station, where you buy some potato chips - well, "yummy flakes" - and a funny-tasting sandwich, before going back to the hotel to fight the internet connection fight.

And after a day of frustrating taxis and disappointing food, you've spent at least $50. As Karim puts it, in Dubai, you piss money. I thought I'd be the last person to say it, but you need a car. And once you have a car, you need a GPS. The upside, I guess, is that the gas might as well be free.

Enough ranting? Here are the saving graces.

If you can actually get past the Pakistanis calling everyone ma'am, on very rare occasions, you might actually meet a real Emirati - and they are actually very interesting! I really enjoyed Kuwait for the same reason. The Gulf culture is actually quite lovely. It's very important for them that you feel welcome and at home.

The tradition of hospitality often expresses itself in cardamom-infused coffee served in single-sip portions in tiny little cups, while your host stands before you, carafe in hand, refilling your cup until you are fully satisfied. They wear the crispest, whitest robes and when I'm around them, I find myself constantly staring at the fabric, wondering just how they keep it so perfect all day. Apparently they have closets (and stores) full of these identical white robes and rotate through them quite frequently.

I experienced the coffee exercise at the VIP lounge at the Kuwaiti airport. I stopped over in Kuwait on the way to Dubai for a conference on Monday. An Egyptian (half the people in Kuwait are Egyptian, the way half the people in Dubai are Pakistani) met me and my colleagues as soon as we stepped into the airport and whisked us away through some glass doors and into what seemed like another universe. We sat on couches being served tea while someone took our passports, got us visas, and took care of all the arrangements. I didn't speak to a single airport official, before we were again whisked into a private car and driven to the hotel. (This has nothing to do with UN - it was the conference organizers who were over the top. And I should acknowledge the racial profiling that put a bit of a damper on the night. We spent two hours waiting while my American-Somali colleague - could you ask for a better combination? - had his passport sent to national security for extra screening. Thankfully, there was the tea).

Saving grace number two are my cousins Karim and Tamer who live in Sharja (a suburb of Dubai) and Abu Dhabi respectively. Their two-man airport welcome committee saved me from myself. Until I met them, the airport's shiny floors and flashy ads about Dubai Mall (the biggest in the world, apparently) had me lost in thoughts, after my third flight in 30 hours: 'This is my new life: airports, conveyor belts, suitcases, grumpy customs officers, taxis, loneliness.' Karim and Tamer changed that - and the lovely dinner of kebab and tabbouleh Tamer invited us to didn't hurt either!

And the last saving grace: McDonald's ice cream cones cost thirty cents here. Yes, Camille, that's what excites me about Dubai. This is my new life.

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

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Home Sweet Home

I used to think the place Africa held in my heart was based in a romanticized notion of an exotic land far from home. But I’m tired of discrediting how I feel about the continent. The truth of the matter is I have felt more at home in Nairobi in my first 24 hours here than I did in the past year and a half in Canada. There’s no reason not to love being in a place where people smile regularly; where your view on the world matters more than what you wear; where you can eat non-processed food and where most foreigners are here out of some desire – well-placed or not – to create positive change.

Everything has been super smooth so far - I taught the official at the visa counter at the airport a few words of Arabic; all four of my bags arrived unscathed; the immigration officer believed me when I assured him that all the contents were destined for Dubai and he need not worry what I was bringing into Kenya; and the guest house envoy was waiting for me with my name scribbled onto a piece of cardbaord in what looked like kid’s writing.

The guest house staff greet me with "Good morning! I am fine" every day, before I sit down to an eggs and beef sausage breakfast, along with the best instant coffee I've ever had. (as you well know, I've drank my fair share of instant coffee).

I walk to work in less than half an hour. The UN Complex is not quite what I expected. Much more human actually, with trees, and green space, and little pools of water with lilypads. (The buildings, though, are as ugly as you might imagine - grey concrete block labelled, creatively, "A", "B", etc... I'm in "Block X"). In the evening -- not that I work long hours or anything -- the place becomes an auditorium of birds and insects who chirp so loud it's overpowering, even from inside the office.

The training has been very informal. More than anything, it's a chance for me to meet with all my bosses and get a sense of direction before heading for the desert - where I will be working in a small office, mostly independently. My bosses (yes, very plural) and colleagues have been very welcoming - to the point, surprise, surprise - that I wish I was posted in Nairobi instead.

I've already run into a bit of UN bureaucracy though. When I asked how I was to be paid – I’ve so far spent hundreds of dollars for which I need to be re-imbursed and am supposed to be receiving a daily stipend to cover my accomodation here - my supervisor looked surprised.

“Didn’t they give you some money?"

“No, I haven’t been given anything.”

The finance officer's response was worse: “I have no idea! Isn’t she supposed to get the money from Geneva? Ask Geneva!”

Otherwise, the first couple days have been really good. People are super nice. The job looks super interesting. (God, Diaz, I keep saying "super this" and "super that" - you're rubbing off!) I've got tons of reading to do to get up to speed on the region, and to understand the ins and outs of humanitarian technicalities (acute malnutrition vs. chronic malnutrition) but I’m excited to get to really throw myself into something. And the people here seem really eager to make me feel like part of a team, and -- equally importantly -- to make me feel needed.

I got to enjoy a bit of Nairobi over the weekend - had some githeri (a stew of beans, maize, carrots and potatos), chapatti and nyama choma (roasted meat); bought some soap-stone plates at the market; watched the Kenya-Guinea Bissau CON qualifer; and spent time with old acquaintances and new colleagues.

It's nice to be home.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Indulgence Begins

I understand the young kids these days have more sophisticated methods of communicating than an old-school blogspot page. But something about the name “Heba’s adventures in Senegal” makes it hard to let this good old thing go. So you are now witnessing a revival. My last post here was two years ago. Since then, I biked around the Mediterranean, moved back to Canada, worked at the CBC, and am now about to start a new gig at the UN’s humanitarian news and analysis service, IRIN (, based in Dubai and covering the Middle East. (Funny – this blog started with my internship at IRIN in Dakar). Granted, Dubai is no Senegal, and it certainly isn’t Chad or Sudan. But I suspect it will come with a great number of eye-opening experiences of its own kind. Thus warranting said blog.

Now, I promise you, I didn’t want to do this – especially not in my first post. This, of course, being suggesting in any way that I have experienced a superior existence since I left Canada or that you are worse off while reading this at home – but the last 24 hours have just been too good to keep quiet. And it’s a bit fitting that the Dubai chapter of this blog should start in such fashion – so here we go.

First class.
(CORRECTION: Apparently first class and business class are not synonymous. It was business class - not that it makes any difference to me, but just so I don't start hearing all the lectures about the UN throwing money away).

It is not, as I had previously convinced myself, a waste of money on spoiled businessmen and politicians who no longer know how to interact with commoners. It is, my friends, flying made dignified.

It began with the Air Canada Lounge in Ottawa: unlimited food and drink, internet, magazines, etc. But anyone who has flown Porter has tasted a bit of that.

First class on the plane, however, is a whole other matter. The 40-minute flight from Ottawa to Toronto came with a “Welcome Ms. Aly”, refreshments before my butt even touched the seat and a tasty chicken wrap served on elegant dinnerware.

In Toronto, another lounge. More food and drink.

Then, on the Toronto-Heathrow leg: paradise.

There were so many buttons on my bed-seat, I didn’t know what to touch first. I spent at least 15 minutes opening and closing all the gadgets and compartments in my little apartment. I reclined and straightened up my chair – back and forth, back and forth – giggled and closed my eyes, smiling.

There were about five options for dinner and when the steward came by – the old lady in the seat ahead of me said he had a “holy air” to him – I was expecting my roasted chicken with mushroom sauce and wild rice, with butternut squash on the side.

I was wrapped up in a charming documentary about 82-year-old New York Times Style Photographer Bill Cunningham – “doing away with fashion would be like doing away with civilization” – and I looked down to find an appetizer instead: an exquisitely-twirled tower of smoked salmon with capers and a cilantro-mustard sauce.... fresh bread... salad ... etc. It was so beautiful, I wanted to take a picture, but was just too comfortable in my bed to get up for the camera.

By the time the main course came and went, I was so full I needed to lie down – which, of course, I did.

But then I heard those blessed words in the distance: “Would you like a selection of cheeses?”

Need I say more?

And cheese wasn’t dessert. The warm chocolate pecan pie came later.

I imagine those who travel first class all the time have learned how to refuse some these offerings. I have not yet developed this aptitude. And so I sat there, terrified that there was still more to come. (On the Heathrow-Nairobi leg, the steward just rode back and forth down the aisle: “Can I get you anything now?” ... “How about now?”)

Before I left Canada, I spent a lot of time grumbling about the consumerism and overly indulgent society of palm-tree-shaped-islands that I was entering into.

I would like to formally take those grumbles back.