Friday, April 8, 2011

Syria: An Ethical Uprising

The news on the uprising in Syria has been difficult for me and Syrians around the world to absorb. It has been even more difficult for me, as a Syrian, to write about. But these words by Ilyas Khoury must be shared. They describe Syria's role in shining the spotlight on the ethical aspect of the Arab World's revolutions. You can find the original Arabic article here. What follows is my translation of a few select paragraphs of his work.

Tunisia gave birth to the now famous slogan: “the people want to overthrow the regime.” Egypt set the foundation of “Liberation Square,” balancing the powers of the army with that of the January 25th revolutionaries. Syria, where the people’s revolution is bursting amidst blood and fear, added a new slogan to the streets of revolution: “the Syrian people cannot be humiliated” …

The people cannot be humiliated, and they reject humiliation …

The use of the word “humiliation” means that people are crying out against the deepest of wounds. The word “humiliation” is one of the most savage and chaotic words in the Arabic language, to the extent that Ibn Manthour found no synonym for it in the most complete Arabic dictionary, Lisan al-Arab. The definition he offered was this: “humiliation is the opposite of respect and honor … humiliation is raggedness, subjugation.”

Ibn Manthour could not explain the meaning of humiliation except by citing its opposite. This is because “humiliation” in Arabic brings together “subjugation” and “shame,” includes the abuse of honor, and leads to the feeling of a loss of humanity.

The Tunisians and Egyptians raised political slogans in their revolutions. Syrians, however, fashioned the ethical slogan for the revolutions sweeping across the Arab World. This uprising is, at its core, an ethical uprising: it is a call for regaining individual and national honor.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Two Flags, One Hope

I turned and saw it at just the right moment.

My TV screen was showing Al Jazeera Mubashar, where a recording of Al Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan Al Jaber's funeral was playing. Al Jaber was on his way back to Benghazi yesterday when he was shot and killed by forces believed to be backed by Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Analysts believe this is part of a wider campaign Qaddafi is waging against Al Jazeera, which has put the spotlight on his brutal suppression of the Libyan people.

Al Jaber, one of the Al Jazeera employees working to help the world witness Qaddafi's iron-fisted dictatorship, was Qatari. He had no connection to Libya, other than the common hope of ending tyranny and establishing justice, freedom, and democracy. His way to work towards that hope was to show the world the truth about Libya, and for doing that, he was killed.

This was not lost on the Libyan people. At his funeral procession, they came out in droves, calling Al Jaber a hero. And then, the moment that stopped me in my tracks as I was cleaning the living room table after breakfast:

A man was hoisted up onto the shoulders of the crowd, waving the new Libyan flag as expected - but beside it, waving the flag of Qatar.

The Libyan people, through this act, were acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice of a man not from their country, an Arab who crossed the lands known in our imagination as al-Watan al-Arabi - the Arab Nation - to support them in their quest for freedom and justice.

The Libyans were also recognizing the Qatari government's support of Al Jazeera, a truly pan-Arab network uniting Arabs across the region in these days of revolution by being the voice and vision of the oppressed and downtrodden.

I stood there, sponge still in hand, watching the Libyan and Qatari flags flutter together in the night's wind. A shiver ran down my spine as the reality of what I'd been reading about for the past two months hit me: these protests were the beginning of a new Arab experience, a new Arab unity based on the values of freedom, justice, and openness.

Just a few months ago, we Arabs were butchering each other over the results of a regional football game. Now, we are willing to die to help each other overcome the shackles of dictatorship and reach out to a future bright with freedom and progress.

With those thoughts still floating in my head, I went back to cleaning my breakfast table, wondering which flags will rise together in the winds of tomorrow's Arab night.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Libya: Learning from a Rhyme

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." This children's rhyme rings particularly true as we watch Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi massacre his people en masse in the dusty streets of his North African country.

Over the last few days, the international community witnessed an outpour of words against the news of foreign mercenaries shooting and raping the Libyan populace, the wholesale bombing of civilian neighborhoods, and Gaddafi's outright threats to burn the whole country down. As the Libyan government's violence against its people escalates, it is clear that these words have not ended Gaddafi's massacres or pushed him out of power. The power of words against Gaddafi has faded. Recognizing this, the international community must now move from words to action.

Although the U.S. finally stated today that it will impose some form of sanctions on the current Libyan government (even though what these sanctions will actually mean is unclear), most of the international community is hesitating to take similar or stronger stances. Sadly, this is because of one major reason: Libya is the first major oil-producing country to be swept by the last two months' waves of Arab pro-democracy protests. Since Libya sends 85% of its oil to Europe, unrest threatens European countries' current access to this fossil fuel.

But as Libya represents only 2% of world production, Western nations with oil interests in the region are more afraid of the domino affect Libya could start in Arab oil-producing nations. Unrest in the Middle East has pushed oil prices to two-and-a-half year highs, and oil-consuming nations fear further unrest could send those prices even higher.

But is international paralysis towards Libya warranted? The winds of change are blowing in the Middle East, whether the region's dictators or their interest-driven supporters like it or not. Eighties-style dictatorship is simply not sustainable anymore, and the Arab people will push to set up democracy in this outdated political system's place.

The international community can either help speed up this process so that political and economic relations with the region improve sooner than later, or it can stall the process through inaction. If it chooses the latter, it will ensure that instability will fester longer than necessary in the region. And it will have Arab democracies run by populaces furious with the international community's backing of brutal dictatorships that deprived them of their most basic rights for decades. Try having good political and economic relations with these states then.

International leaders must recognize the above reality. That recognition, coupled with their own admissions of horror at the atrocities taking place in Libya, must lead them to act against Gaddafi.

Over the past few days, the UN's high commissioner for human rights declared that widespread and systematic attacks against civilians "may amount to crimes against humanity." German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Gaddafi's speech was "very, very appalling" and "amounted to him declaring war on his own people." And finally, the UN human rights head publicly stated that reports of thousands of people killed in the violence in Libya are highly likely.

What more do we need to know before acting against Colonel Gaddafi? His speeches over the last several days gave the green light for more massacres to occur, and rumors say that he is considering blowing up Libya's oil pipelines.

As the classic nursery rhyme tells us, words against this man are useless. The whole international community must take direct action against Gaddafi in the form of sanctions, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to end the bombing of civilians, and the severing of all ties with his regime. These are the sticks and stones that can break the bones of one of the Middle East's most notorious dictatorships and establish the beginning of a democracy there, benefiting both Libyans and the world at large.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Vocabulary of Freedom

Sometimes, it's hard to look past the corruption and injustice facing people here in the Arab World. Especially since these two adjectives, "corruption" and "injustice," describe almost a century of this region's history.

But now, Arabs are writing a new history for themselves, with a whole new vocabulary. First in Tunisia, then in Egypt, then who knows where tomorrow, the words surrounding "defeat" and "oppression" are making way for "freedom," "equality," "prosperity" - and finally, "happiness."

The number of people pouring out into the streets of the Arab World, speaking the vocabulary of freedom, is rising. The new words they learned to say out loud in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt are echoing everywhere between Morocco and Bahrain. These words have more power than any found in the old vocabulary of defeat. That is why rulers' calls to end protests in the name of "security" and "stability" are falling on deaf ears. These words and phrases have long been the shackles used to keep a corrupt elite in power. They've been much too overused, and so, like any over-played song on the radio, have lost their effect.

Blogger Osama Romoh's amused surprise at Arab leaders' thoughtless parroting of this old vocabulary, even after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, brought a smile to many a reader's face. "It looks like 'some' Arab leaders learned nothing," he wrote humorously, describing how these leaders are acting in a way that is making the new wave of Arab protests across the region follow the footsteps of their Tunisian and Egyptian predecessors. "I'm starting to doubt their mental abilities," he ended, thinking that perhaps their inability to comprehend the changes sweeping the Arab World signals that they should all go in for I.Q. tests.

It looks like the vocabulary piecing together today's new Arab history is incomprehensible only to some leaders whose interests lie in the old order. Everyone else not only understands the new vocabulary, but uses it too. And not just on the streets in protests. This new vocabulary is getting into the very heart of Arab culture, making itself heard at the dinner table, at the office, and in the songs celebrating the newfound sense of Arab freedom.

In fact, Arabic music probably shows one of the clearest examples of this shift in vocabulary. Once infamous for it's shallow "habibi, habibi" pop, Arabic music is now addressing peoples' hopes, fears, and questions about the future - like real art should.

I leave you with a song composed, performed, and produced by a group of young Egyptians who were in Tahrir Square. It is called "The Sound of Freedom."

Enjoy the sweet ring of this new vocabulary.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Revolutions Continue

It's hard to be all the way out here in Dubai while pro-reform and pro-democracy demonstrations are taking place just about everywhere else in the Arab World. Like Wael Ghonim said, we're living an ideal life here. We've got the nicest houses, the nicest cars. All the world's greatest restaurants and hotels are just a short drive away. In a lot of ways, living here is like living in a dream.

But the protests and the demonstrations in the rest of this region are still going on. Reports of 84 dead in Libya and at least 5 dead in Yemen show that the autocratic authorities in the Middle East will not let their hold on power loosen easily.

And in the midst of all this, I was on vacation in Oman for the last two days, enjoying the view of pastel-colored mountains and ocean set against the sky. Is that fair?

Revolution is brewing, revolution is brewing. And I find myself here, sitting helpless at my computer.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From Egypt to Bahrain

As Egypt tries to return to daily life, protests in the rest of the Middle East are bubbling up. The protests in Iran and Yemen over the last few days are getting lots of media attention. Let's hope that media spotlight keeps the protesters safer than they would be otherwise.

Bahrain, however, is given less air time. The protests that took place on February 13th and 14th, the second of which was called the Gulf state's "Day of Rage," have left at least 3 people in critical condition and 1 man dead. A video of the protests is spreading through Twitter. Watch it here:

To quote @JustAmira, "Look at how they shoot at close range. Please spread this video."

This is a protest that needs to get more media attention - at least to keep the security forces marginally more timid about attacking demonstrators.

Take a look at the pictures below, courtesy of Al Jazeea English.

Protests in Bahrain

Protests in Bahrain

Protests in Bahrain

Protests in Bahrain

Please share, and start talking about the protests in Bahrain. That is the first step towards a global discussion on the issue. And by starting this global discussion, we can keep the people of Bahrain safer than they would be otherwise.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mabrouk, not Mubarak

For the last thirty years, Egypt has been defined by the name of its leader, Mubarak. Now, three days after the ousting of this man and its streets still full of victorious protestors, it's defined by the Arabic word for congratulations, mabrouk.

Mabrouk, Egypt. After three decades of corruption and state terror, you came out on top. We're all praying that you stick to the path you're on, and become the first (or second, after Tunisia) real Arab democracy.

I think the best way to highlight this special moment is to share the experiences of an Egyptian friend who celebrated the fall of Mubarak with her fellow citizens at Tahrir Square.

Here is a note Yasmin Nouh wrote on her Facebook profile earlier today. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

If you want democracy, you will find it in Maydan Tahrir

First, May God reward the Egyptians with a smooth transition into democracy and a just leadership. Second, this post is a little overdue.

--- Parts from a day in Tahrir -- Wednesday, February 9, 2010

Although the entrance was lined with tanks and gun-clad soldiers, I felt like I was entering a sanctuary. A group of young men welcomed us with cheery chants, rhythmic drumbeats and warm smiles.

If you want democracy, you will find it in Maydan Tahrir – free, open and safe. I had entered a realm that did justice to one of the revolution's slogans: 2eed wahid. One hand. I found myself among artists, poets, doctors, engineers, farmers, the rich, the poor, families, children, Christians, Muslims, youth activists and those who were previously indifferent, the secular and the religious, all united against injustice.

As one poster in the square put it, "May God forgive you Mubarak. You made us Egyptians all love one another."

The people entering the square were divided into two areas – one where the men searched men and the other where the women searched women.

I was searched at three different checkpoints, one after the other upon entering the square. I was searched not by the army, but by the protesters. My broken Arabic made the first two women smile.

“I forgot my ID at my house,” I said.

The lady at the last checkpoint laughed at me, and said the same thing as the first two women.

“It’s fine. It’s fine. Not a problem. Just bring it next time, okay?” After a pat down, I was let through and entered a world completely different from the Cairo I had been living in. Clean, vibrant, and for the first time, I saw smiles emanating a fight for hope instead of a sorry acceptance of loss.


Inside Tahrir, you will find a makeshift medical clinic near the entrance. It wasn’t located in the center of the square, because the fights between the pro-democracy protesters and the pro-Mubarak thugs took place near the entrance.

You will find multiple memorials honoring the 300+ revolutionary martyrs who died during the clashes.

You will find a large poster of the youngest martyr – a boy of nine – hung up behind the main stage area, along with many other signs with revolutionary chants written on them.

Outside Maydan Tahrir, in the rest of the city, you will find enormous piles of trash on the streets and their corners. Inside, you will find young men and women picking up newspaper remnants, garbage and plastic bottles, separating wastes from recyclables. They will ask you whether you have any trash, substituting the word trash for Mubarak.

“Do you have any Mubarak you would like to throw away?”

No. I had nothing on me, not even a small scrap. I looked at the ground to find a piece of newspaper, anything to throw away the regime, but there was nothing.

You will find men and women in sleeping bags nestled at the foot of a few army tanks.

"So they don't move," they explained to passerbys. And the tanks did not move - neither them nor the people camped underneath.

And when the time for prayer came, thousands formed into straight rows. And around them, others locked arms to protect those who prayed from the overwhelming crowd of people. Chainsmokers locked arms with Muslim scholars, and businessmen with villagers. Christians, even though they weren’t praying with the Muslims, would repeat the Imam’s takbeerat*, because it was so noisy, to help the Muslims in the back rows follow the prayer.

Inside Tahrir, you will find children on their fathers’ shoulders, waving shiny Egyptian flags, leading chants among the protesters. I saw one boy, maybe no more than 10 years old, with a bright face, but an aged voice.

“Ya Mubarak Ya Khasees, dem al-Masri mish rakhees.” (Oh Mubarak, You betrayer, the blood of an Egyptian is not cheap).

You will find women in niqab yelling at the top of their lungs, “Mish hanimshee, huwa yimshee.” (We’re not going away. He is going away). They broke stereotypes imposed on them (by the West and East alike) in minutes. They were not quiet nor meek and the only thing that had been oppressing them was their government, not the veils wrapped across their faces.

You will find women walking in business suits, some were foreign journalists and others were Egyptian workingwomen.

You will find vendors selling bread and traditional Egyptian desserts.

“Want Kentucky?” Some of them would jokingly ask.

(Some people claimed on Egyptian state television that the protesters were being paid and receiving free meals from KFC to protest against Mubarak).

You will find young men carrying bags of cheese and meat sandwiches, asking people in the crowds if they had eaten lunch. They would do the same thing later on for dinner.

You will find people selling red, white and black headbands - the colors of the Egyptian flag.

You will find white-bearded men side-by-side with youth chanting underneath a large Egyptian flag “Al-sha3ab yureed isqat al-nitham.” (The people want the order to fall down).

You will find groups of men and women with anger in their eyes, sitting down in the middle of the square and staring out into the crowds. You will find others with their heads down, reading the Egyptian newspapers. And others jogging across the square screaming chants.

You will find an old fala7i (villager), selling his shoes for seventy billion pounds (the same amount that Hosni Mubarak allegedly holds in his assets).

You will find groups of young women, who, for the first time, looked safe, in the place that was once infamously known for incessant cat-calling and hoot-hollering from men who had nothing better to do.

But now those same men had something better to do. They finally had an outlet, a way to express their frustrations in a dignified manner, instead of through self-demeaning cat-calls.

You will find a city of tents, where people of all different classes, ages and colors camped out, and were being served tea and sandwiches. Some looked calm and content; I could hardly see what the past 30 years had done to them. Others looked apprehensive and worried, waiting to revive a strong memory of better days that were too far behind them (Egypt used to be known as the Paris of the Middle East).

At the main stage area, a group of well-known Egyptian academics and leaders from various opposition parties spoke, ending each speech with a revolutionary chant. And although they were prominent and well-respected, it was clear who the real leaders on stage were - twenty and thirty-something year olds directing the stage, announcing updates in between speeches and paying close attention to the crowds' movements.

Right before maghrib prayer, a man from an opposition party said something I can never forget: "They say we can't have a democracy. They say we don't know what democracy is." He paused and pointed at the crowd. "We say, look at Tahrir sqaure. Look at everyone in Tahrir square, and right here is where they'll find the real democracy."

His words were immediately followed by cheers and then the mantra for the day echoed throughout the crowd, "2eed wahid. 2eed wahid." One hand..