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 ***