Posts Tagged Arab World

I Voted for President. It Made Me Remember

No sleep. I toss and turn. I send out a tweet. A buddy in Australia sends me back another tweet. “Get some sleep for at least a couple of hours,” but he knows I probably can’t even if I tried to. This was not supposed to be like this. I was relaxed all along the presidential campaigns. I knew that they would be far from perfect under the rule of the military junta, but I also knew that there was no way out of them if we were to come out of the impasse we’re in.

We’ve gone down the street, we’ve protested, shouted, struggled to get our voices heard, now all that is left for us is to make this vote. We earned it.

I get up in the morning and pour some coffee. Watch the news. Can’t stand the dumb commentary. I need to get ready for a long day, I think to myself. I look at the faces of the people standing in lines on TV. Everyone seems determined and confident. Those are faces of people that will not be fooled.

Ok that’s it. Can’t wait much longer. I get a bottle of cold water and pull on my jeans and off I go.

Streets are all so empty (and by empty here I mean smooth traffic). I take a taxi and I stare out the window but  I don’t see much. I’m not in an emotional mood (yet). Suddenly a song I’ve known and loved since childhood starts playing in the radio. “Helwa ya Baladi.” My country, you are beautiful. And bam! Like someone suddenly put on a clip inside my head, completely out of my own will, with scenes from the revolution days.

I remember meeting with my two friends, Nadia and Adel (the latter is the one who tried to tweet me to sleep from Australia) all tense and pretending to have sandwiches under the penetrating eyes of the suspicious state security officers, waiting for the march to join it.

I remember the rising numbers of people in the marches that were everywhere I looked. “The people demand the fall of the regime” roaring everywhere and making my heart beat faster.

I remember the teargas. The suffocating moments where I thought I was going to die. The faces of the three men who came to my rescue and tried to give me water and onions to get rid of the effect.

I remember the sound of the rubber bullets. I remember the injured protesters fighting for their lives in the hospital.

I remember the ruling party’s building on fire. I remember maneuvering to cross the street to reach that tree without getting shot.

I remember the horses and the camels that came rushing into Tahrir trying to whip the protesters out of the square.

I remember the two men in Tahrir who tried to comfort me when I broke down and cried, telling me that it would all be alright. That they were not going to retreat.

I remember the night horrors. The live bullets down in our streets. The men in my family joining their neighbors taking night shifts in the street to protect homes and property.

I remember the minute we heard that Mubarak stepped down. The euphoria, the dancing in the street.

I remember the viciousness of the army in the months that followed. The continued killings and beatings.

I remember the beautiful smiling faces of the people who died.

I start weeping like an pregnant hormonal lady and throw the poor cab driver into a state of bewilderment. I ask for his tissues and blow away until we arrive at the polling station.

I can’t find any lines, I enter the school and find an average line inside, but it wasn’t mine. I didn’t have to stand in any lines. Low voter turn out? I think to myself. I go inside with my red nose and face all puffy. Didn’t get a chance to recuperate from that emotional drive. I take the voting sheet and mark my candidate. I leave.

There are no sirens and there is no music to highlight the drama of the historical moment. A moment that I, at 39, never ever thought I would see. Ever.

I know it would be simplistic of me to think that with these elections we have entered our aspired new era. Far from it. But maybe we’ve taken our first baby step in the middle of a field of land mines and ambushes. Not all the candidates are fresh blood. Some are old faces that have worked closely with the old regime. I don’t trust them. There are things they have done that have helped put Egypt in the sorry state it is in not only domestically, but regionally. Turned it into a shrunken mutilated version of a country that once was. If they win, the very democracy that helped put them there might be jeopardized. And we don’t yet have the system that can protect us from them.

We need a president that will help us build that system. That solid rock hard system that will assure that a corrupt president will be put on trial. If we have that system I don’t care who nominates themselves in the next round.

Thoughts, thoughts rumbling around in my head, beating each other for my attention.

No, we’re not there yet. But we have nothing but our vote so we cast it, hoping that we’ve made the right choice. Now all I can do is pray that the right person for the right moment would win, WHOEVER that person may be.

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Guest Post: An Ode to a Revolutionary

By Salma Beshr

One eye shows the soul breaking free,
one eye shows nothing at all.
One eye has a lot more to see,
the other… has seen it all.

One eye has infinite clarity,
rinsed by the clear light of hope,
while the other eye, stung by reality,
has nothing but shadows to grope.

Side by side they both lay,
partners in every decision,
till one dark January day,
one eye was robbed of its vision.

But the eyes of the world would agree,
’twas taken only in name;
With only one eye left to see,
the vision stronger became

If I should be robbed of my right hand,
would I still have the will, the desire
to pick up a pen with my left hand
and somehow attempt to inspire?

Would that the heart–cold and cruel–
had instructed the hand that betrayed
to look reverently on so precious a jewel;
For freedom–a small price, indeed, to be paid!

Jawad El Nabulsi telling his story on his first TV appearance

Dedicated to Jawad El Nabulsi, who lost his eye during the protests and never ceases to inspire me with his cheerfulness, calm resolve and his vision of rebuilding the future.

Salma Beshr

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The Silent Stallions of Libya

In Arabic we have a proverb that says beware the wrath of the patient. When Egypt rose against the tyranny, oppression, and widespread rooted corruption that had been governing it for three decades it was as if Sphinx had suddenly come to life and rose from his eternal rest. We toppled the president, a man known for his involvement in much of the plight of the Palestinians, if not his own people, but we still don’t feel that it’s over. Even before January 25, the day the revolution began, we had a series of little protests and semi-free press that criticized Egyptian domestic and foreign policies on a number of issues. Some journalists, although jailed later, criticized the person of the president. We expressed ourselves, but we were jailed, arrested, and tortured.

The Libyans have none of that. And they’ve had none of that for 42 years, not 30. I visited Libya in 2007 in a small attempt with a friend of mine to do some “Arab tourism,” visiting a fellow Arab country and seeing it through the eyes of a people who wanted to learn more about their immediate neighbors, with whom we share so much.

There was not a single day that passed without meeting a person who was either half-Egyptian or married to an Egyptian. Everyone was extremely kind, peaceful, calm. Nothing like what much of the media had tried to show of the Libyan people in many years that passed.

Posters of Qaddafi filled every street corner in such a way that made Mubarak appear quite benign, modern, civilized, and democratic. It was the 38th year of the coup d’etat which Qaddafi liked so much to refer to as a revolution. Larger than life images of him greeting his people, with the number 38 shamelessly plastered next to him.

We focused much of our trip on Benghazi, the land of the Sanoussis, the ousted royal family whom Qaddafi continued to despise, showing his hatred to the past with exaggerated and appalling neglect for the city. Streets were poorly paved, much of the buildings affected by the coastal weather were left unpainted for years. Government buildings were rundown, with broken windows left unfixed. Benghazi was a beautiful, neglected stallion ready to spring the minute it broke free of its curb.

People there were mostly silent. We were warned beforehand that it would not be wise to speak politics with any person. We were given the chance to visit the grandson of Omar Al Mukhtar, the legendary freedom fighter who fought the Italian invasion in the early twentieth century, now an elderly sheikh with an open lounge for students and visitors paying their respects. I was especially curious to listen to his views on the situation in the Middle East, especially after the 2006 war in Lebanon had just ended. The man’s eyes widened and he became extremely tense, refusing to talk to me, while men surrounding him decided that my friend and I were no longer welcome in the place.

Qaddafi does not just oppress dissent, he refuses the mere concept of opposition. Educators, professionals, writers, and many more skilled Libyans are living abroad. And outside Libya, if they oppose his regime he hunts them down and kills them. If you’ve ever tried talking to a Libyan about the truth of the Libyan regime prior to the current uprising you would know what I mean. Qaddafi haunted his opposition even in their dreams.

The more I watch the media the more evident the size of the horror gets clear to me, and that’s not just because of the sight of dead bodies or severely injured civilians. It’s because of the quivering voices of the anonymous eyewitnesses that can’t fight back their tears as they plea for help to the outside world, be they men or women, young or old. It’s in the shivering jaws and hands of the old opposition Libyans living in the UK, the US, Germany, and virtually most countries on the planet except their own, as they spoke with mixed emotions of grief and pride, their eyes wide in disbelief as they saw the liberation moment coming so close. Those silent people who couldn’t even speak about the regime even in exile were now exploding with horrors of the past they had witnessed, and appealing to the world with their plight.

I’ve seen it in my own country. If the fear is broken nothing else brings it back. If the wall of silence crumbles nothing will ever build it again. And it is crumbling everywhere in the Arab world, exposing the ugliness of the savage rule it had been subjected to for decades. And the Libyans, those amazing people who can teach the world lessons of patience, are bound to show the world how they will present their lives to the mad beast that dwells among them. It is their only gate to the world outside.

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Jan 25, 2011, the Day Fear Died in My Country

Protesters lift bars as they try to advance and join another march, tear gas shown in the distance

I’ve been feeling so trapped inside my body. There’s a bundle of emotions swirling around me, so dramatized by all I’ve seen, that I feel so drowned in its deep waters. It’s been 26 days now and I still have not been able to tell my story. But I know I need to get it out fast before the memory starts to fade away, before I finally ride up on one of the strong tides that keep pushing me adrift off and away from the shore.

Ever since it all started I’ve been shrinking in my own eyes. It’s like when a cat is suddenly face to face with a lion – wherever that might happen – and suddenly realizes its own insignificance. The silence that overcame me crept into my inside, making me doubt whatever I might want to say or share, believing it would by far be less significant than what many others had to say, or have already said.

But I will try. It’s my experience, and this is my blog, so feel free to search elsewhere if it doesn’t grab you!

I arrived back home in Cairo on January 24, one day prior to the scheduled protests on the 25th. I had been in Saudi Arabia for three weeks with my mother’s family. I had by then managed to train myself to shed off much of the pains and sorrows of the past and to wake up each morning with a fresh look towards a new day. I overate, overslept, overindulged myself in perfumes and nail polish. My busiest times were the times I sat to read a book of my choice. I had deliberately chosen to stop following political events around the world, I had started to doubt whether I actually wanted to have a career in political science or even the media to begin with. I no longer cared what happened in Egypt, because all the events sounded the same, and all the results were boringly predictable. There was the corrupt government whose mummified faces didn’t seem to be going anywhere. There was our ridiculously unprofessional state-run media blabbing away about the divine qualities of the president, his family, and his associates.

And there was the usual handful of activists, intellectuals, and professionals who wanted change.

This handful of lone protesters always seemed to be standing on an island of their own. They weren’t many when compared to a population of over 80 million people, but they were working day and night to empower the poor and the workers. Their morale did fade sometimes, their hope did become a vague, unrealizable dream, but they continued to work the way a street sweeper continued to sweep, even though passersby threw trash right after he finished.

And it was no accident that those protesters were standing on an island. They were quite literally placed on it. With police forces three times the size of our army, few Egyptian streets were void of police officers or truckloads of guards parked near a university or a mosque, ready to quell the faintest sign of ‘unlawful’ assembly. So a demonstration of 200 people would be surrounded by a thousand uniformed guards, tens of plain clothes officers, dozens of sunglasses and mobile phones, and officers of so many ranks I lost track of. It would not be allowed to march, but remain cornered in place, like caged animals in a zoo, while passing cars would slow down to try to hear what the chants were saying to no avail.

This lasted for as long as I could remember for the past 30 years of Mubarak’s regime. This was the people’s only channel to speak directly to the regime in an attempt to be seen and heard by all, not just the educated elite or even merely those who could read newspapers.

With this background I eyed the call for the January 25 protest with so much doubt and skepticism. I had the burden of the years behind me, of the scenes and the frustrations that never seemed to cease. And I did not believe that change could be brought about with an appointment, setting date and time to take the road against oppression. Revolutions didn’t happen that way. They were spontaneous. They had to be spontaneous. They weren’t a rendez-vous with freedom.

I woke up on the morning of the 25th feeling lazy, and guilty for being lazy. My friend Nadia called and insisted that I go, so I got off the bed because I knew that I would not be able to live with the guilt of not being out on the street on that day.

Massive march towards one of the oldest bridges in downtown Cairo, an entrance to Tahrir square

As I later found out, we were like many other skeptical Egyptians who were going out of a fading sense of duty. We knew there was nothing else we could do if we wanted any change. So the step now was to decide where to go to begin the demonstration. A number of places had been discussed by those who said they’d participate. Some had planned to have breakfast in a chic cafe in an upper class neighborhood and move from there – adding much to my already skeptical attitude – and others had decided to begin in Shobra, a busy, crowded neighborhood known for its mosaic of inhabitants, from Christians to Islamists. So Nadia and I opted for Shobra. We wanted hot events and we wanted to see them for ourselves.

We signaled for a taxi and got in, immediately putting on our casual girls all out for fun act. The taxi smiled and pointed to two people that had signaled for him before us. “Do you see those idiots? They stopped me and said, ‘take us to the demonstration!’ Demonstration?? I want to live!” And he laughed. “So why are you going to Shobra, young ladies?” We looked at each other and Nadia instantly replied, “We’re visiting a friend.”

I sent my first tweet that I was on my way to the demos and received a phone call from my friend Adel. “You’re going to the demonstration?” He asked with excitement. All I could think of was to control all my replies lest I horrify the taxi driver.

“Umm, yeah.”

“Cool where will you go?”

“Shobra.”

“Shobra! Why is that?”

“Just like that.”

“Just like that. Choice. Ok… maybe I’ll go in Mostafa Mahmoud, then.”

I couldn’t wait for Adel to hang up so that I could SMS him on why we wanted Shobra or why I spoke to him that way.

I could not resist taking a quick picture of this man. He was sobbing as he chanted and joined the protest.

We arrived in the main square in Shobra. Neither we nor the taxi driver had ever been to the place and we didn’t know how to find it, but the sight of an increasing police presence told us we were close. Someone pointed out to us that it was further ahead, and the minute we reached it we knew we were in the right place. Dozens of police trucks were parked on the sides, dozens of plain clothes men in dark sunglasses, dark coats, and neat haircuts had pulled up plastic chairs and sat on the sides of the road, believing that that way they could actually blend among the people. Those were the famous Amn Dawla, the humungous state security apparatus that had been terrorizing political activists for decades, bullying all dissidents whenever they felt like it. Men in uniforms of too many ranks stood talking to their radio receivers, barring some shops with iron bars and helmeted guards.

And there was not a single protester in sight.

Like many other Egyptians, the mere sight of heavy police presence unnerved us, because we knew that under the emergency law that’s been ruling the country for 3 decades, they could easily pick us up off the street and arrest us for no apparent reason other than being physically there. We kept walking back and forth with no place to go until we decided to settle in a restaurant and wait for Adel to join us. That way, maybe we wouldn’t really attract too much attention.

Adel arrived and asked the police to allow him into the restaurant, signaling with his hand that he wanted to buy a sandwich. We were all oblivious to the oddity of people deciding to just hang out in a restaurant under police siege.

Time passed and nothing was starting. Action was already beginning in that upper middle class cafe we had rejected, however. Nadia learned that our friends there were arrested right out of that cafe and carried in police trucks, only to be released in a far suburb away from the center of the city. We figured that plans where we were might have changed. Nadia was always inseparable from her mobile phone, following everything on Twitter. So she read that a protest was actually growing in downtown Cairo. We immediately took the decision to go there. We stopped the taxi and continued on foot, when suddenly we found ourselves in an overwhelming crowd of people marching in the streets, chanting against the government and calling for the fall of the president. This was the first time I had ever seen a protest allowed to actually march in the streets of Cairo.

An army of guards surrounds the state television building for fear of the protesters reaching it.

We kept walking along with it, and people were standing in their balconies in all buildings watching. Others stood on the sides of the street like they were looking at a parade. It felt like one to me, because I had never seen such young fresh faces calling for freedom before. They were the kind of people that I only saw when Egypt won a soccer game. Suddenly those young men were rallying for change. Suddenly they were out, risking everything, for the right reasons.

This march did not appear to have any leaders. Hundreds were growing into thousands, and the young were carried on shoulders in many groups, shouting the regime down. They seemed to come from every street, every alley. And the more time passed the more crowded it became. My heart was beating fast. The sounds of the crowds almost shattered the walls. And the protesters looked up to the windows, calling upon the people watching to come down and join them. They called for every person standing by to join. I could see people beaming at the protesters, eyes lit up, filled with joy and hope, yet standing pinned down to the ground, too afraid. As I walked along I could hear hums very near to me. I turned and found a middle aged man in tears and a look of disbelief chanting the national anthem. He had decided to join the march.

Nadia and I began to run from one end to another in each rally, trying to figure out the size of the crowds, then I began to see the hesitant faces that had previously stood by now in the midst of the marches, shouting off the top of their lungs, “Down, down with Mubarak!”

The destination of the marches in different parts of Cairo was Tahrir, or liberation, square. Being the largest in Cairo, the place holds special significance for both the people and the government alike. It was as if those who controlled it held the upper hand and were seen and heard by all. And as the crowds began to grow and the police tried to isolate marches from each other, I knew that there was no way the police would allow a soul into Tahrir.

The larger the number the safer and more assured most people began to feel. They challenged the police to continue their marches to join those on the other side, and when they failed they spontaneously changed direction, in thousands, to another path leading to the same destination.

The coordination was perfect. An advanced row would begin to shout to the back “Go back!” And it would be transferred from one row to another until an entire batch of at least a thousand or more people would change direction with no clash or division.

Not being bound by a single group, Nadia and I were able to penetrate even to the side of the police, changing our occupations and purposes of being in the street as we went along depending on who asked us. One minute we were journalists, the other we were trying to get home. I could see that the situation was extremely tense on their side. I overheard an officer speaking on the phone, “This is only getting worse! We can’t handle these numbers!” The minute I heard that sentence I knew that the time had come. This was the time to do it. If not now then the chance wouldn’t come again, not for another 30 years.

The crowds were finally able to enter Tahrir, pushing the police toward the ministry of interior building, by which time the police had redeployed throughout the street that led to it, pointing water hoses and using tear gas to disperse the crowds. Suddenly there were rocks flying in the air. We took shelter in a corner right at the street where the battle began. The further the protesters advanced the more cheerful they became, and soon they were joined by thousands more coming into Tahrir from all directions. Tahrir had become theirs.

I stood speechless. I left my home that day expecting a few hundred to be surrounded by an army of black-cloaked helmeted guards, and I found scores of people from all walks of life chasing the police out of Tahrir! I had never ever imagined a protest of this size or magnitude.  And the amazing contrast of moods between the crowds and the police was what struck me the most. The minute I was among the protesters there was nothing but defiance and determination, yet among the police there was nothing but horror and panic.

Something very big had happened in my country. The people were no longer afraid, the regime was.

 

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The Sound of War

Each time I visit Lebanon I keep thinking to myself, “Will the war erupt and will they close down the airport while I’m there?” A friend of mine and I have had this secret wish for so long it’s become a common joke between us. Yes, wish. Not for a war, but for us to physically be there if a war does actually begin.

I’ve never been to a war zone. I have no idea what the sound of an F16 right above my head would be like, the closest I ever got to a fighter jet was when I was 9 with my class when we went to visit an army museum to see the jets that fought against Israel in 1973, but that was back when pride in “our soldiers” was something still being taught in Egyptian schools. Another time I was sitting in the living room when a very strong sound of a plane started approaching. At first I thought it was just a civilian plane, but the closer and louder the sound became the stronger the engine sounded. Interestingly, it would just not go away, it kept getting louder and louder until I officially panicked and froze. All I could think about was that Cairo was under an air strike. War broke out and I can’t move my feet to the TV to check the news since the building is about to crumble anyway. I later remembered that it was October 6, and the army was performing in commemoration of the 1973 crossing. When I finally did get the strength to look at the window I saw a part of the performance. The aircraft was in no way as near as it sounded. I had honestly thought I was taking my last breaths.

But listening to that sound and knowing for sure it’s an air strike is definitely worse, because there’s no room for doubt this time that it would surely take lives. I did listen to a detailed description from a Gazan friend a few years ago of what an F16 sounded like and it surely unsettled me. I saw the psychological effect of the sound and the accompanied fear on the reaction of another Palestinian friend to fireworks in Cairo right across the street. As I jumped in excitement and watched the “show” she closed her eyes and tried to block her ears. She simply could not take what was to her the sound of war.

I’ve never been a high intensity seeking kind of person. I’m usually very careful with myself and I weigh consequences. So much so that I once declined a horse riding trip after I had gotten on the horse simply because I discovered that I was wearing the wrong pants. I couldn’t stabilize myself properly, so I chickened out.

But when I’m actually in the situation, the “woman in charge” takes over. I recall traveling from one town to another during pilgrimage on foot, simply because I knew my feet would get me there faster than all the buses that seemed to be parked for hours along the highway. And I’m a person who doesn’t have a very good sense of direction.

If war erupts in Lebanon I don’t think I can sit by in the comfort of my living room in Cairo and watch it all like a spectacle on television, let alone listen to useless critical commentary from those who’ve never been smiled at by an orphaned child from the south, or who’ve never breathed the air at the southern tip of a mountain that overlooks historical Palestine. I’m known amongst my friends to be a freak when it comes to the whole Lebanon subject, but even the food in the south tastes like freedom. No one is subordinate there. Everyone controls their own will. Everyone is a master of their own land. That sense of ownership Robert Fisk once wrote was so missing from most Arab countries is so vivid in south Lebanon.

But as much as I claim to know how different the place is, I think I’m yet to acquire the ways of the people there in order to fully understand how they’ve learned to face death so fearlessly. I shudder at the very thought of losing the warm friends there who always make me laugh. Each time one of them talks to me I cherish every word and look them straight in the eye to take the moment all in. I always fear I may never be able to see them again. How blatantly “un-Shiite” of me to be such a coward about loss! And I’m a person who wouldn’t miss an opportunity to lecture about Karbala.

But I don’t think it’s that. I’m just a person who’s never been in a war, who’s never lost anyone for war, and that is my weakness, because as scary as the sound of war may be, it perfects a person’s ability to endure. It simply makes them stronger.

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Mournful Ghosts or Uncovered Meat? The “Saudi Woman” Effect

By Arwa Mahmoud
Additional reporting by Ahmad Al Amoudi – Jeddah
(First published in 2007 by IslamOnline.net)

“Stop! Stop it NOW!”

“I don’t know how to!!”

“Jump from it!!”

“I CAN’T!!”

The sound of a big splash combined with a loud engine overrode the girl’s screams as teenage Hoda, dressed in a T-shirt and swimming suit, drove into the Red Sea with her brother’s motorcycle in a public seashore in Jeddah.

Today, Hoda is 41 years old, married to an imam, and runs a self-development center specialized for women and children.

“Jeddah’s sea resorts have always attracted young men and women from different nationalities. Back in the late ’70s, it was never an uncommon thing to see a foreign woman on a boat in her swimming suit. Today, many girls continue to find their ways around these places,” said Hoda.

Saudi Arabia is a place that surely challenges a journalist’s professional ego. The common image of it being a desert with rich princes and women in black cloaks covering them from head to toe often tempts a writer to write about it with a great deal of sensationalism. Some of the Western literature on Saudi Arabia gives the immediate impression to an insider that the author has chosen the easy way: entering the country with a previously established idea, being guided throughout with selective perception, and eventually writing what sells.

BBC correspondent Rachel Reid’s recent reflection on Saudi, initially titled “The First Woman to Swim in Saudi,” and then changed to “Making a Public Splash in Saudi,” is reminiscent of such literature.

“Reading through Reid’s article, it was as if she wrote about Saudi some 50 or more years ago… women are depicted as subjects, recipients. Expressions such as ‘folded away’ and ‘ushered’ draw a dim picture of oppressed women beaten around like cattle,” commented Hoda. I listened to her as I looked back into the article, up to the third paragraph, where I reread her description of Gulf women in abaya as “mournful ghosts.”

As a half-Egyptian, half-Saudi woman, my life has always been divided between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, I drive and I wear whatever I want. In Saudi Arabia, I can’t drive and I have to wear an abaya on top of whatever I’m wearing. I switch between both modes naturally. I hardly give it a thought.

The black abaya that women wear in public places in Saudi has always been in my wardrobe. I put it on as I go to the airport to take my flight to Jeddah or Riyadh, always have it on as I walk in shopping malls or in the streets of Makkah and Madinah, and sometimes forget I have it on when I go visit a cousin and immediately start catching up with old conversations. Sometimes it gets in the way as I come out of a car, sometimes I trip over it when I come up or down the stairs, but I always attribute it to malpractice. As I try to hide my embarrassment, most of the women around me always seem to walk in it with grace and ease.

It never occurred to me once that I looked like a mournful ghost – no child ever screamed when they saw me.

You can never enforce a single uniform on people, let alone women. The Saudi abaya does appear to be a hassle to any foreign woman used to more overt expressions of her individuality. But many Saudi women still manage to find their ways around it. Walk in any fancy mall and you will be stunned by the variety of fabrics, designs, and decorated color appliques, not to mention the high heels, luxury bags, and full makeup that nearly always come with it. So even as the abaya is an enforced uniform on women, it never snatched away their personal taste or preference. Saudi women who do cover in plain black, head to toe, are culturally accustomed to it. In fact, some of them continue to wear it even outside the country.

The Private Public

Saudi women do not have to be escorted by men everywhere they go. Any visit to a “family” section in a restaurant shows it. Yes, they live segregated lives, but this has created a parallel public world with its own social codes and standards. It is also a world of ease and luxury that can easily get you into thinking that it is unsurpassed even by the Saudi man’s world.

There is very little that Saudi women cannot do in their own world. As a practicing Muslim wearing the hijab, I find my clothes nearly have no place in Saudi. I catch myself digging for jeans and dresses each time I have to travel there. Underneath the abayas, women there wear anything they please. It even gets competitive.

The busier women are always caught in their work, and in their leisure time they practice a wide variety of sports ranging from martial arts to horseback riding, the latter often taught by a male trainer.

“Saudi Arabia is loaded with a number of social and sports clubs that offer special services for women, and swimming is no exception,” commented Maida Zaazou, a Saudi poet and writer who takes swimming as a primary sport.

“My best friend goes swimming with her children every week in Al-Bilad Hotel. It has a certain number of hours for ladies. Most hotels here do,” added Hoda. “What the hotel provided for Reid was a private hour. This wasn’t so public. They just gave her another private public space, something normally offered in many other hotels.”

Reid created a catchy story from a single incident in one of the hotels, and she fit it perfectly at home with what many readers want to read about Saudi.

Saudi women’s roles are not necessarily confined to the “private public” sphere. An increasing number have joined the workforce, and many of them can be seen in less “scary” abayas, smiling, and joining male counterparts in meetings and discussions.

Currently, there is a large number of women members in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “There are four women in the board of directors,” added Salih Al Turki, the chairman of the board.

Segregated life in Saudi is still not easy. Especially as a woman who does not live in the country, I sometimes find it frustrating to constantly be interrupted by figuring out where to sit, or having to rely on someone else to drive me to the place I’m going. Also, Saudi society has started to develop its own list of problems and complications that many Saudi youth are now trying to find solutions to. However, the problem is far from being the old cliché of a suppressed, covered woman always in the shadow of a ruthless, selfish man. A closer look at the society exposes a whole new set of issues that are by far more real and more pressing.

The Controversial Vote

With the image of the covered Saudi woman and her imaginary male escort still fresh in Reid’s mind, she concluded her piece with a reflection on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, with special attention to voting. She commented that if women were allowed to vote in the 2009 elections, it would be a “revolution.”

“What revolution? We have an existing problem with the voting system itself! Even men suffer from inequality in this regard,” Hoda giggled. “Did everyone forget that we live under the most tyrannical monarchy in the region? Focusing on voting as the sign of women’s liberation is laughable. It simply does not apply.”

She added, “This country needs serious human development, good education, more social awareness and cohesion, and professional training in order to reach a phase in which voting is actually efficient and effective.”

How Far Can Labels Go?

Reid’s reflection story promises problematic reporting. Because it is an opinion piece, Reid has unknowingly given her prejudice so much liberty that she easily used terms and labels that are culturally offensive. She equaled herself to Australian imam Taj Din Al-Hilali when he labeled women who did not wear the hijab as “uncovered meat,” which was equally offensive.

“It’s about what people are culturally used to and how they conduct their lives accordingly,” said Nadia El-Awady, a half-Egyptian, half-American journalist. “In some beaches I see topless European women tanning or having cocktails with great ease, an uncomfortable scene for any person who is not used to nudity. It’s the same feeling others get when they see women covered head to toe, which is an opposite extreme. In the end it is what each of those women is culturally used to.”

One of the key skills journalists often feel compelled to learn at the very beginning of their career is the ability to detach themselves from their personal prejudices and cultural standards, to be able to take a clear and pure look at everything new a foreign society has to offer them. The further journalists manage to go down that path, the more they will be able to mirror what they find as accurately and as credibly as possible.

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A Lebanon Chronicle (Part II): A District of Lullabies

By Arwa Mahmoud

My first visit to the southern district of Beirut was an organized field trip by the conference I was there to attend.
The conference was an assembly of activists and professionals who came from different parts of the world to show their solidarity with the Lebanese resistance and to discuss future civil resistance strategies to carry out back at home. The mosaic of cultures and backgrounds was wonderful. Many of them had never been to Lebanon or the Middle East, yet they had done so much in support of the rights of civilians who suffered directly from the ramifications of war. Many came with so much emotion and conviction, and many were stirring examples of kindness and commitment to people they share nothing with except the fact that they were human, not subjects.

(Click here for a photo gallery of Beirut’s southern district after 2006)

The Dahyeh

Stuffed toys lie among the ruins of a destroyed home. (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

As we boarded the buses to southern Beirut, I sat next to a Lebanese woman, Karima, who welcomed me with a warm smile. I told her that this was my first visit to Lebanon after the war and that I couldn’t imagine what seeing the destruction with my own eyes would feel like. She responded with the same smile: “When we reach the district, I will show you where the building I lived in used to be.”

This was my first lesson in speechlessness. It’s very hard to think of anything to say to someone who’s experienced grave loss. That’s what you normally go through whenever you visit a war-torn place and talk to its people. Nothing on a personal level can even remotely relate to their experience. You can either console them with words of comfort and feel stupid, or go on asking questions and be rude.

She reached for her bag and took out her mobile phone. She showed me the picture she’d chosen for a background; a picture of a part of her then brand new living room that was taken after the first few air strikes on the district. All I saw was a crumbled room with shattered glass all over. But she saw something else: “See the colors of the sofa and the wall? I chose those myself.”
On the time the picture was taken her apartment had been only partially destroyed. One day after that picture was taken, the entire building was leveled to the ground.
As the bus continued through Beirut I began to spot the first signs of the Dahyeh, Beirut’s southern district as preferably referred to by its people. This area was one of Israel’s primary targets. For those who continue to view Hizbullah as a physical entity that can be destroyed, the Dahyeh is believed to be its “headquarters,” just as Bint Jbeil in the south is considered the headquarters of Hizbullah’s military wing, or the “capital” of the resistance. Yet the Dahyeh wasn’t really a military barrack. It was the area in which much of the Shiite exodus from the conflict-torn south and Bekaa began to settle roughly during the 1960s. There are no gates that separate it and you don’t need permission to enter, but once you’re inside, it’s another Beirut you seldom get to see.
Not much of it was left when I saw it in 2006.

An Exhibition of Savagery

Standing up close to this was not an easy experience. (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

I gasped as I saw my first spot of rubble. Karima stood next to me and spoke with unconcealed pride, “That’s nothing! This used to be mountains of rubble! We’ve cleared so much of it already!”

The magnitude of the destruction was beyond description. And yes, the creepy feeling of standing under a half-destroyed 15-story building surpasses any experience a person could have by just looking at its picture. Walking in those streets was like walking in an exhibition of hi-tech savagery. From corner to corner, I could see massive holes stretching so many meters underground—traces of missiles that failed their targets, scattered clothes, books, toys, etc.

I slowly began to make my way through the alleys. I stopped by an American colleague frantically taking pictures of what seemed to be hundreds of books buried in the rubble. When I walked up to where he stood I could see there were tears in his eyes. “They told me this was a library,” he spoke with a quivering voice, “My tax money builds libraries at home and destroys them here!”

Because I had followed the war minute by minute, suddenly being there brought the trauma back to life to me. It had already been three months since the cease-fire started, and even then many of the district residents were back already, going about their lives in the midst of the destruction. They had build small shelters on top of what used to be their homes. They would make it a point to go there daily and dig under the rubble to reclaim what they could of their belongings, or simply sit right there and drink tea, just to make a statement of ownership and survival.

I could not imagine what the place must have looked like when it was still a ghost town, haunted by terrifying sounds of jets roaming around it all night, each time choosing a different prey.

During the war I used to go to bed in Cairo after midnight and think, “Air strikes must have started again. I wonder how many children are crying right now, I wonder how many mothers are singing them lullabies to soothe them, silently praying that the strikes would end without taking more lives.”

And each morning I would wake up to a new statistic.

I walked from street to street, looking at scattered children’s books and stuffed toys in the midst of the rubble. It was as if the lullabies they inspired were still in the air of the Daheyh, memories of childhood left behind to a refugee tent, a hospital, or death.

But to the Lebanese children who survived, the nightmare was over. They were running around the streets of the district playing, laughing, waving their hands at the visitors and welcoming them.

“On to Change! On to Reform!”

A small shelter a resident had created near the remains of his home. (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

From the minute I arrived in Beirut, I’d been fascinated by how quickly this nation was recovering and picking up the pieces. Their grief turned almost immediately into positive energy.

Hizbullah’s broadcasting station Al Manar created a live studio in a tent it built in the midst of the rubble, hosting guests that spoke about the ramifications of the war all day and most of the night, celebrating the mere fact that they still stood there, documenting the war by filming everything around them.

On more than one spot of the rubble in the Dahyeh there were mocking signs that read “Made in USA” or signs that showed alternative addresses to offices where they used to stand. No time wasted; they were simply moving on with their business.

Almost everywhere I walked there were teams of workers who were clearing the rubble, or builders who were reconstructing sites. As I got closer to one of the workers I heard him sing, “On to change! On to reform! Together, we build our country.”

Lebanon is a nation that takes so much pride in its ability to endure. Many of the poems and speeches speak of life being born with each fighter who falls and with each mother or child who dies. It is as if the physical losses are the key signs of triumph, because they were endured for the protection of one’s land, heritage, and most importantly, one’s dignity. For that reason, the Lebanese believe that they won this war.

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