Monday, November 14, 2011

Platform 12

She ran down the steps, whispering to herself “I am free”... She did not understand how she almost flew off the steps: Light, that’s how she felt.
“ I am free” she kept repeating it, trying hard to remember all the beautiful slogans she read about freedom, all the songs she chanted as a child, all the synonyms related to that glorified word, she remembered none. She instantly thought of Kundera’s story, and how finally she was beginning to understand what he meant when he called it “the unbearable lightness of being”.
She was not running to the station anymore, she was flying. She did not look back, not even once. Was she tempted? Maybe.
“What if I miss the train? What if I reach the station to find it empty? Where will I go?” Home, she thought. A funny word, a phantasmagorical place rather. No, there is no home. She kept running, she could feel the slow loss of breath, but she did not slow down, she couldn’t now. Not anymore.
The distance between the bench and the station was not long, the station was not far. “Where will I go?” And then she smiled thinking to herself that this is everything she ever wanted; this is what she read in books and often imagined as her life. Running free in the cold streets of south London, homeless men begging for money and cigarettes, strange women and men drinking to forget, in the distance jazz music playing... This was it, this was her book, but she was no longer reading it.
The station is there, but her solace was behind. The station was too close now, it is time to look back, and maybe the bench can still be there. It wasn’t.
She reached platform 12, but it was the wrong platform, it did not take her home. She knew that, but she jumped on the first train 40 seconds before it departed. She knew the destination was unknown, but she took the train anyway.
On the seat, beside a man who looked happy with his poppy, and disgusted with the world in his paper, she began to breathe again. The music in her head began to fade away, her voice stopped narrating. It was all quite, it was light again.
He looked at her with eyes of wonder, and asked: “you smell really good, that is you right? It’s like I am in a meadow?” She nodded “Yes, I am the meadow.” He smiled and continued reading his paper. She looked away, and her heart started beating again, she was going nowhere, where will she sleep tonight?
His phone rang and all he said was “I am running a bit late, but I will be home soon.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Talbot Square

In a little square by Sussex Gardens in London, two young girls played all day finding pleasure in the littlest things. Amazed by the great weather they were not accustomed to, Talbot Square in London became their haven: trees, grass and benches. It was situated right next to the motel, in which they stayed in with their parents and their baby sister who was too young then to play with them.
I heard this story several times from my Rasha and Tamara, who spoke about London with such love and warmth, and that square in particular. I knew that one day I will visit London just to see what Talbot was all about. Years passed, we grew older, and Rasha got married. She left the nest, and went back to the homeland with her husband.
Some more years passed, and on an idle Friday we received a phone-call from Iraq telling us of her death. I remember this day clearly like I remember what I had for breakfast today, the details of what my mother was wearing, and the smell of freshly cooked Iraqi lunch from the kitchen. I remember that my hair smelled like the new Johnson's baby Shampoo, a product I never used since then.
Fast-forward to year 2011, and 9 months into my life in London, I finally found the courage to visit that square in Paddington. I went there with so many high expectations, and excitement that I will be visiting this magical place my sisters believed was the best place to be in the city. To my pleasant shock, the square was less than ordinary, a very small green piece of land situated in the midst of motels and dark old ugly buildings. I looked around trying to find the ‘scary’ lion statue they often spoke of, and there it was a tiny statue of a gold and red colours right next to the square.I sat on a bench, and took a deep breath. I was a bit disappointed to tell the truth, and a little bit angry as well. I couldn’t quite understand why the anger when I believed that I would be smiling like in the end of a movie when the heroin visits her sister’s playground and makes a little prayer for her. The feeling of serenity escaped me, and tears started suffocating my eyes trying against my own will to leave. It was when one managed to escape my control that I realised that all I wanted to do was to pick up the phone and scold her for such exaggerated description of the square. I realised how much I wanted to have her number saved in my mobile phone, you see she died well before technology took its toll on us. Oh wait, she did manage to see my father’s first mobile phone, you know the big black block back in the 1990’s. Oh yes, I remember she laughed calling us privileged elites, since she lived in war-torn Iraq now; food and security is what she worried about.
I found myself wondering if my sister would have had a blackberry, she had to. I would send her images of myself in every spot in this city, she would have loved southbank, and would probably reply with a crying face wishing she was there with me. She would also send me a message late at night to check if I was ok, you see she loved playing mother so much reminding me all the time that she changed my diapers. I would also send her an image of the so-called great square and laugh at her lack of imagination. I started thinking about her Avatar, she wasn’t the type that changes her picture every day, or maybe she was I don’t know, I will never know.I will never know! There, right there I started to let go of my tears and surrendered to crying. I was laughing and crying at the same time thinking about the absurdity and beauty of the human mind: the mundane details that help us survive.
It has been a while since I’ve cried for you Rasha, not because I haven’t had the urge, but because like everybody else, I pretend that death becomes easier by time. You always used to annoy us with your constant ego-trips: “ How much do you miss me? How much do you love me? Am I your favourite sister/daughter?” we used to always nod and ignore you.

But here you go Rashawi, I am not ignoring you anymore. I love you more than you can ever imagine, your absence has made you my favourite sister, and mom’s one and only. I miss you so much and the thought of not messaging you in the middle of the night scares me still. Oh how I wish I can tell you about my life in London, and about my good grades. I wish you can tell me again how special you think I am, and how different you thought I was from everybody else. The day you died, you took something away from me that will never come back. This pain of losing you has raised the bar so high for other mediocre pains in my life; nothing can break me like your absence did. Even your death made it easier for us to endure other pains, you were right Rashawi,
mako mithlich*.
I will visit Talbot again, look at my phone and think of you.

*mako mithlich: Iraqi for ' there's no one like you'.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Egyptian Revolution did NOT start in Silicon Valley, CA.

On March 30th, the frontline club and in association with BBC Arabic hosted a special panel titled: Protest, Technology and the End of Fear. The event hosted Alaa Abdul Fattah, famous Egyptian blogger and political activist, Manal Hassan, activist and co-founder of the Egyptian GNU/Linux Users group, Sam Farah, Presenter of BBC Arabic Nuqtat Hiwar (Talking Point) and Louise Lewarne, who lives in Egypt and is the founder of

The second panel hosted Khalid Abdalla, Actor and political activist (you might know him from the Kite Runner), Dr. Omar Ashour, lecturer in ME Politics and the director of the MA in the Middle East Programme in the University of Exeter, Omar Robert Hamilton, British-Egyptian (hyphenated identity) film-maker and the founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature, and Salma Said, an Egyptian activist, and a member of the Kifaya political movement in Egypt.

The event started with the first panel discussing the so-called role that technology played in what is now called the #25Jan revolution that led to the ousting of President Mubarak. The event was organised in a way that invited the audience to actively participate in the conversation, which was interesting and did add a certain edge to the dynamics of the panel discussion. The speakers were first asked to say several words about what they thought of, or would like to discuss, and the audience then led the steer of the conversation. The moderator I argue was very excited at the notion that facebook and twitter played a vital role in mobilising the masses in Tahrir square, and even directed a question at Manal about how she saw technology playing out in Tahrir. Manal disregarded the notion immediately and assured the moderator that technology had no presence in the spirits of the people standing and chanting in Tahrir square. She did not disregard the importance of sharing information about what was happening, but refused even the slightest hint that social media did play a vital role in the success of this revolution. Alaa agreed with her, and explained that Egyptians used their voices (and clubs and rocks whenever they needed to defend themselves against the aggression of the police) more than they used technology. Indeed, in the panel that was aimed at discussing technology and revolution the speakers did not want to discuss facebook and twitter.

This was supported by a member of the audience, who shared my views when he stated that the western excitement about the technology being part of this revolution was indeed their way of wanting to be a part of a democratic uprising that needed no intervention. I shared his sentiment when I compared how the theorizing of social media and democracy nowadays mirrors the US excitement about the Samizdats being responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of Communism. I mean who could forget Hilary Clinton’s infamous speech on the 21st January 2009 when she compared the internet to the Samizdats and declared it the tool for the oppressed against authoritarian regimes. Of course I must note that my comment/question about the political ramification of the fall of Baghdad during the American and British led war on Iraq in 2003 on the Egyptian revolution was met with enthusiasm from the panellists, and rolled-up eyes from the moderator. I guess the fact that the conversation with the audience did shift to the political impact of the revolution did interfere with the already set-agenda to link technology and the Egyptian revolution together.

Alaa actually made an interesting comment following my intervention, and discussed how the protests that went out on the streets of Cairo ( opposing the war on Iraq) in 2003, and were harshly oppressed and stopped by the police, led eventually to the formation of several dissident political parties. Alaa intelligently realised that the potential of the question was important, since Egypt’s democracy was established bottom-up, and not like Iraq, which saw its so-called democracy brought on American tanks, and British jet-fighters.
One of the most fascinating comments was made by Sam Farah, who took the liberty on behalf of the whole Arab population in the world to declare Arab nationalism dead. Alaa interrupted and asserted that during the whole time in Tahrir square, the chants were: Cairo first, then Jerusalem. As soon as the panel ended, Alaa tweeted:
The siege of Gaza will fall, gas will stop flowing, camp David will be renegotiated so Egyptian army can be deployed in Sinai, promise.

The second panel was more involved in discussing the future of Egypt and the political development post the revolution. All of the speakers shed the light on the possibilities of change and development in Egypt now. Omar Hamilton was very precise when he rightly assured that the democratic developments in Egypt must not be linked to neo-liberal economic policies, that link he considered to be ‘dangerous and wrong’. Khalid Abdalla stated that the best support Egyptians can give to other uprisings in the world is by succeeding in their efforts now, and that what is happening now will determine the real success of this revolution. The discussion of course led to the Muslim Brotherhood involvement in politics, which triggered a question from an audience member to Salma Said about the involvement of women in the revolution in Egypt. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the West’s fetishism about burdening the national discourse with feminist theory can predict the moderator’s then interrogation to Salma about who the women were that participated in the revolution, at some point he asked her: who are they? What are their names? Can you name them? Salma was obviously shocked and just simply answered, of course there were. And indeed, there were many, and the way that the moderator went about questioning Salma was heavily orientalist to say the least.
The event ended with a rather strong sentiment and question by an audience member that we later on find out that he is Khalid Abdalla’s father, who asserted the importance of having a leader to challenge the already existing powerful parties that are seeking to take power from the revolutionaries.

The event was successful in reframing the Egyptian revolution in terms of social mobilization and economic reform, and disregarding the utopian fantasy that silicon valley in California had anything to do with the millions that marched all over Egypt asking for change.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Notes on Egypt, Al Jazeera and the Digital Divide

The current situation in Egypt is indeed provoking many discussions about the role of media in the coverage, and some could argue the ignition of its events, which began on the 25 January 2011. The protests, which are held all around Egypt, but mainly focusing on Tahrir Square (translates to Liberation Square) are creating a new school of political and social contestation; what is being witnessed now is challenging the traditional uprising module, and is shifting the event from its national territory to a global scale.The current events in Egypt are labeled differently depending on the language, and the geography. For example, here in London Western scholars are hesitant to call it a revolution as in yet. On the other hand, Al Jazeera Arabic channel uses the words Thawra & Intifada (revolution & uprising) generously when describing the scene in Cairo and other cities, which resonates well with Arab audiences who do not find the use of such labels problematic. Being an Arab myself, I find no problem using both words in the right contexts, with the simple logic that the situation in Egypt escalated when the young Egyptians revolted against the current regime and its president. I also don’t mind using the word uprising ( Intifada) although this word in particular is very nostalgic of the Palestinian one, and I sometimes find that using it plays a strong role in establishing anti-apartheid, anti-Zionism and anti-occupation sentiments with Arab viewers and readers of current news. For the sake of the argument however, I will continue to use the word ‘uprising’ in this post.
The reason that I argue that this Egyptian uprising is creating a new school, is because of the interesting intertwined role the media is playing in covering the events as they unfold. There is a circulating discourse that this revolution is a social-media revolution, and it is happening thanks to programmes like Twitter, and Facebook. From a critical point of view, this labelling could undermine the reality of the actual events that are happening for 14 days now on the grounds of the country, bringing together all Egyptians regardless of how connected they are. The reality of the digital divide in this day should not escape us when we attempt to acknowledge what is happening now in Egypt. There is no doubt that social media, and the World Wide Web have contributed and continue to heavily in the propagation and dissemination of information, and are also crucial in communicating with protesters on the ground. Many of the videos and information that we are receiving now are being circulated through social media, and are eventually being used as trusted source of information on mainstream media. However, not all of the 8 million protesters on the 28th of January were twitter and facebook users, those were people that had to protests for the same reasons the ‘connected’ protesters had when they went out on the streets. And when all connections were cut, and the internet was blocked in Egypt, the protests went on, that moment of disconnection did not affect its velocity, but rather affected how we received our information.
It is important to question the role of media in this context, without undermining the role of new and small media in the recent events. This is not a Gladwellian article bashing new media’s role in the contemporary political map.
Another interesting angle to consider is the relationship between traditional and new media. This interesting shift back and forth between what Al Jazeera has to say, and what activists are tweeting and posting online, created unprecedented ways of witnessing. The distance and the physical disconnection are possibly not relevant, as many consider themselves participants by actively tweeting, re-tweeting and watching live-streaming from Tahrir square. Al Jazeera recognises this shift in coverage, and utilizes this by setting up a portal for all activists and protesters to post videos, images and news to be used later in the reports aired on the news channel. Also, considering the recent closure of Al Jazeera offices in Cairo, and the arrest of its journalists by the Egyptian governments, the channel is now relying on what the young protesters on twitter and facebook are saying, which in itself challenges traditional journalism. During the live coverage a couple of days ago, one of the news anchors on Al Jazeera undermined the efforts by the Egyptian government to shut down Al Jazeera offices in Cairo and interrupt its live coverage, because as she stated “every Egyptian is a journalist in the making” and this is a “new revolution that cannot be stopped.” These are strong statements from Al Jazeera, which is now gaining momentum for its extensive coverage of events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt and is being considered one of the integral parts of the Egyptian uprising.
While most Western channels used celebrity journalists to cover the events, such as ABC’s Amanpour who was granted an exclusive interview with Mubarak, and CNN’s Cooper who is covering events live from Tahrir square, Al-Jazeera is still pacing ahead with the generous time slots offered to protesters, activists, Egyptian commentators and experts in Arab affairs. This reflects the strength of the coverage that needs no stars to validate it.
There is no doubt that as the events unfold in Egypt, Al Jazeera continues to challenge not only other news channels, but also new media with their coverage. It would be very interesting to see how these recent events could possibly change or alter the dynamics of journalism in Qatar itself, now that universities in Qatar’s Education city are calling for amendments in the press laws. It would only be fair, for the country that brought to us, what is arguably the most controversial of global news channels, to support press freedom in its own territory.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Enough circulates..

London Protests
29 Jan 2011

On the streets of Cairo, Egyptians are re-drawing the map of the Middle East, and arguably the world. In a couple of hours it would be almost a week since the protests against Mubarak's regime and government began in Egypt. It was surreal but somehow expected now that Arabs are already enjoying the support of the recent history of a nation's victory against an authoritarian regime in Tunisia.

To attempt to analyse what is happening now politically, socially or even from a media perspective is a bit complicated, as it is always dangerous to pose premature findings and analysis on what is happening while it is happening. Indeed, it is writing from the time of conflict that deems to be the hardest, whatever is said now could be proven wrong in the next minute.

For Arabs everywhere, what is happening now is unprecedented in the contemporary history of the Arab world. Most Arabs revolutions happened before this generation was born, or when they were really young to comprehend the impact of the change. The myth of the 'Al Sha'ab El Aaraby’, which translates to the Arab nation, was often contested and ridiculed; the masses are mobilised; they are aware, but too hungry and too poor to demand change.

Again, that judgment has now proved wrong amidst the epic uprising of the people in Egypt and Tunisia, and the collective solidarity and hope that is visible in all social media between Arabs living in the Middle East, or those forced out of their homelands in other countries. Social media programmes like twitter, facebook and other blog sites are overloaded with photographs, uploaded footage from AlTahrir Square in Cairo and articles that explain the political and social ramifications of the Egyptian uprising. Social media helped propagate the news and development on the streets of Tunisia and now Cairo to millions of people all around the world, and around the clock. This arguable shift from mainstream media to citizen journalism was challenged by the thorough coverage of the Tunisian and the Egyptian uprising by Al Jazeera channel, which is providing an extensive coverage of all major cities in Egypt and mapping as well the international reactions.

The one thing that is evident in the reactions of young Arabs in the Middle East and in Diaspora that this revolution is reflective of a generation that will not tolerate injustice anymore. A generation that is aware that change is not only possible, but also inevitable. The excitement builds up as several Arabs think of the Domino Effect, and what other possibilities are in the very near future. This fear is also stretching to Arab governments that are this is the time of the people, not the ruling elites. Now Kings, Sheikhs, and Rulers must be aware as the word Enough is being repeatedly used in the Global Arab public sphere.

The creation of a global public sphere amongst Arabs virtually is not only successful in disseminating information and footage on what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia, but also has reignited the collective nature of Arabs around the world. They now feel that they belong to something bigger than post-colonial segregated geographies, they now belong to the Sidibouzeid and AlTahrir revolutions. It doesn't matter today if you are originally from Iraq, or Algeria, there is this collective identity that was Tunisian a week ago, and Egyptian today. And regardless of how people feel about this immediate shift in the national and local paradigms, the truth remains that what is being witnessed now is an unparalleled re-mapping of the modern world.

In London, where I currently live, hundreds gathered in front of the Egyptian embassy yesterday to show solidarity with the protesters in Egypt. I was caught chanting Anti-Mubarak slogans fully aware that I meant every Mubarak in this world. Students from British universities joined to show solidarity and it soon became an international uprising against all injustice in the world. Mubarak, Obama and Cameron were suddenly all one.

It is evident at times like these, how injustice can bring thousands of people together, irrespective of where they come from. There is a strong sense of relation, because unfortunately suffering has become an international language.

I found myself contemplating songs, slogans, prayers and thoughts as I tried to put logic to what is happening these days, and how all of a sudden the word government means nothing to me. I remembered all the creative contestation we exercised in the form of political jokes and proverbs, and smiled at the prospect of a new time, and a possibility of change.

I wanted to pray Al Duhur, but thanks to my knowledge and understanding of how media works, I was worried that a sensational snapshot of myself praying on a Egyptian flag would be used to characterize this as anything but a revolution of all the people. A photograph of a veiled woman praying on an Egyptian flag would provoke an Islamist discourse and push forward all agendas trying to make this look like a political movement, rather than a popular one. This over-analysis is excused, for so many reasons.

After some good five minutes of intense contemplation, I prayed on an Egyptian flag behind the protesters, and it felt right.

We all stood there for hours, some longer than the others. It was very cold, which I realised only 4 hours later when I rushed to the closest tube station just to warm myself almost crying from the pain. One can only try to imagine what the Egyptians are feeling now, as they camp on the streets of Cairo in the blistering cold, fighting not only for their right for freedom, but also for our hope for change.