Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Heart Goes Out to Gaza

The world watches. The UN Security Council waits. All of our hearts should be breaking with the hearts of the mothers and the fathers, the sisters and the brothers, the children, the aunts and uncles, the vendors, the journalists, the ambulance drivers, the grandparents, the doctors, the fishermen, and every single person inside the tightly controlled borders of Gaza as the Israeli army wipes out their every chance at a decent life.

As the Israeli army wipes out their lives.

Keep yourself updated on

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Good Bye, Bathroom View

I turn off the lights and walk over to the elevators. Just one last time. It's late, I'm among the few still left in the office on this Friday evening, but there's time for one last time.

I press down the handle, open the door. Enter. The lights are on, it's empty, it's quiet. I walk up to the my reflection in the window and see myself superimposed on the New York City skyline. Smiling at myself, I stretch my neck and look down on the streets. All the lights. All the cars.

The view from the ladies' restroom. The perfect metaphor for this journey I took as a step to get a clearer sense of the world--a better view, as it were. Spending two months on the 37th floor of the UN Secretariat building gives you a whole new perspective. Or rather, walking down the corridors of the world's only universal forum for discussion, deliberation, argumentation and a somewhat democratic solution to the problems we face--attending conferences and briefings--gives you a new perspective.

Like today. When I grabbed a sandwich outside the conference room on the 12th floor of 777 UN Plaza (where International Peace Institute had hosted a two-day conference on the implementation of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in South Asia--very interesting stuff) and ran to the elevator, hurried over the street, through the security check, and over to Conference Room 9 to listen to a person with a very particular view of the world.

An ambassador for the state of Israel.

Oh, how I wish I could say that he gave a balanced, grounded impression and came with sensible, to-the-point observations. But with the gravest of faces suggesting that Israel is the weaker part and the victim; that the UN is biased and run by a Palestinian lobby and that the UN has lost all connection to the real world for this reason, is (and forgive me for being insensitive) nothing short of dimwitted and ignorant. Yes, the General Assembly does pass resolution after resolution condemning Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands; Israeli denial of the inalienable rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories; the illegal wall built on Palestinian land; the unlawful transferal of Israeli population into the occupied territories and the establishment of illegal settlements; the excessive use of force and the use of collective punishment against the Palestinian population. This is true. (But the Assembly also condemns Palestinian militants and Palestinian terrorist acts, mind you). And yes, there is a General Assembly Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People with a Division for Palestinian Rights in the UN Secretariat. But I daresay that none of this would be needed at all if Israel complied to international law and ended their occupation, or at least lived up to the Fourth Geneva Convention concerning the protection of victims of armed international conflict, and civilians under occupation.

But I don't mean to write the ambassador off completely. He was indeed right on one point, and that is that neither the General Assembly resolutions, nor the Security Council resolutions that have been adopted in spite of the USA to this day--after all these years--have not changed anything on the ground. But to claim that they are therefore unimportant, or even lack legitimacy, is to miss the point completely: the resolutions have not achieved change on the ground (or in "the real world" as the ambassador calls it) for two reasons:

1. Israel chooses to continue violating them and putting itself above international law.

2. This is allowed by the international community without sanctions being imposed on Israel, because a permanent member with veto power (well, who do you think?) in the Security Council (the only UN body that can adopt binding resolutions and impose sanctions) blocks any attempt to hold Israel accountible for their actions.

Even if the Assembly would be biased against Israel, and the Secretariat too (which I still would argue with fervor against, since they are simply defending international law and human rights), the only UN body that counts when it comes to real power (that is to say, the Security Council) is under the command of Israel's unswerving ally and adamant protector, the USA. Talk about biased.

But these allegations against the UN can be tolerated, after all. It is just an organization. But when the ambassador goes on to not only claim that it is completely acceptable to deny UN relief services entry into Gaza and cut off food medicine, and energy supplies to about 1.5 million innocent civilian Gazans (which is being done as I write this) as a response to the firing of rockets by militants into Israel, my heart is pounding and my body tingling with indignation. Because, you see, the Gazans brought this upon themselves--Israel left them to govern themselves, and look what happens! (That Israel in practice still occupies the Gaza Strip by controlling the borders, denying Gazans even the slightest freedom of movement, completely cutting off all their relations with the outer world; and, together with the help of the US and the EU that contribute by withholding foreign aid to Gaza since Hamas took over, has created a humanitarian crisis that is among the worst imaginable, is besides the point).

My heart is pounding still as I write this.

But the room was full of interns who, like myself, shook their heads and smiled in disbelief. And we could voice our different opinions regarding these matters and counter the ambassador's world view with our world views. And this is what I mean when I say that spending time at the UN gives you a whole new perspective. The whole world is tucked into one little area where everybody's world view interacts, interbreeds, confronts each other, changes and adapts. Mine, too, has changed and I see some things differently, others more clearly.

I look at my face in the window one last time, turn around and walk out of the bathroom and take the elevator downstairs. For the last time. My internship is over and I said my goodbyes. My supervisor and her boss thanked me for all my work and said (if you'd allow me to toot my own horn just a little) that I am one of the best interns they have had.

I'm glad.

New York is dark, yet filled with city lights; humid, mild and noisy. Cars honk. I walk down 42nd Street all the way to Times Square and for the first time, I feel a sense of love for the city. Not just admiration for its fame or for its prestige, but love for its spirit. Maybe because I'm leaving soon.

Friday, November 7, 2008

To Friends and Wives of Friends

Apparently people find their way to this blog. I mean, apart from you--Mom, Dad and Mirja.

And apparently people call people up at ungodly hours because of things I write.

But first, let me tell you about about Ali. Because Ali and I have a special bond, it seems.

It all started yesterday at lunch.

(blur into flashback)

I was fighting to keep my eyes open in front of the computer screen; trying to make my brain concentrate on conflict and terrorism in Central Asia. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and fundamentalists and water rights. Finally I just couldn't do it anymore, and I decided it was time for lunch.

At about the same time, Ali and his mom and dad must have decided it was time for lunch too, because as I came down to the UN cafeteria and made my way past all the men in suits and the women in high heels, I heard a man speak Arabic. I don't hear it a lot here, so I reacted. Looked over to where he was standing, and then went over to the salad bar. Didn't notice his family at that time.

I got a banana, paid for my lunch and went to find a seat. As it so happened, the Arabic speaking man had placed his suitcase at the same table that I sat down at, and not before long he came and sat down with his wife and his son.


Ali and I exchanged looks in secret. He smiled. Mom and Dad got the plates organized. Ali started eating with his fingers. Mom said, "Use the fork." In Arabic. I took a bite of my stuffed grape leaves. Ali looked at me. He laughed. I looked at him. Dad went and got napkins. Mom gave Ali a piece of chicken. Ali looked at me and laughed. I smiled. Ali laughed and spilled rice on the table. Dad came back. Mom smiled at me. Ali laughed. I started laughing back. Ali laughed even more and slid under the table. Dad said, "He's shy." Ali got up again, took one look at me and started laughing again. I started laughing. Ali started laughing even more. I started laughing even more.

"Ali," I said. I had heard his parents call him by his name. "Men ween enta?" Where are you from?

Ali laughed so much that he couldn't get a single word out. Dad said, "Allah Allah, you speak Arabic?"

And so I made friends with an Iraqi ambassador and his family who just recently came to New York. Mom and Dad didn't find a school for Ali yet, so they take him with them wherever they go. Lucky me. I swear, wallahy, I have never met a person--4 years old or 44--that made me laugh so much before we even started speaking. To be sure, we didn't speak very much at all, but every time we looked at each other, Ali and I, we laughed. And Ali laughed so much that I'm afraid he got more food on the table than into his stomach.

Now, you may think this was just a coincidence --that I should go for lunch just at the same time as Ali and his parents did--that we should sit down at the same table by chance. But today, I was going to meet with Ammar Hijazi (hi Nour!) outside the Delegates' Lounge, and the security guard stopped me all the way over at the escalators and wouldn't let me go any further. I was stressing out a little bit, because I couldn't see whether Mr Hijazi was waiting for me already or not from where I was standing. I tried to win the guard over, but he wasn't amused.

"You can't go anywhere on this floor unless you're escorted by a delegate."

And just at that moment, who comes walking but Hanan (Ali's mom) and Ali! I go, "Hanan!" And, "Ali!" Ali laughed, of course. I walk with them over to the Delegates' Lounge.

Hanan says Ali didn't stop talking about me yesterday. He told his brothers about me and calls me sadiqty. My friend.

I don't tell them, because I don't know how to say it in Arabic, but I started laughing to myself everytime Ali came into my thoughts yesterday. On the subway going to my aunt. On the street waiting for the light to change. I saw Ali in front of me, and I couldn't help but laugh.

It's two days in a row we meet without planning it--you tell me that Ali and I don't have a special bond. We do!

In any event, Ammar Hijazi and people who call people at ungodly hours to talk about my blog:

We sat down to have lunch in a dining room I haven't been to before (when you're escorted, you can go to all sorts of interesting places at the UN), and Mr Hijazi goes: "You have a blog, right?"

I go: "Yeah, did you find it?" Disbelieving.

Ammar Hijazi goes: "No, but my wife did."

And he tells me the story of how his wife googles him to keep track of any mentions of him in the media, and how she came across my blog. And how she called him up at a time she usually never calls up, and goes, "Who's Ruby?!"

Ammar Hijazi goes: "Who?"

So it seems that I have to start being careful with what I write, if field correspondents at Al Jazeera English read my blog. Especially field correspondents who receive prizes for their work (well, I don't know if that makes much of a difference, but I just wanted to mention that, because Mr Hijazi told me about it, and I thought it was pretty cool--Mabrouk, Nour!).

Well, I have nothing to hide. And honesty always wins out in the end. So Nour Odeh: thanks for letting me borrow your husband for interesting conversations at the UN. He talks a lot about you and his son. About life in Gaza. I didn't make that many friends here, but I feel I have a friend in your husband.

And Ali of course. Sadiqy. Habiby.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dear Mr President

Dear Mr President Barack Obama.

You have won the election and the weight of the world has been put on your shoulders. Walk with a straight back, keep your chin up, and your steps steady and confident. Look forward, but don't forget to look to the sides and see that which others might miss. Look back to learn from those who went before you, but be sure not to repeat their mistakes or get stuck in their footsteps.

Mr President Barack Obama. You have won the trust of the American people, and the support of the entire international community. Live up to that trust and honor that support, but don't always do everything that everyone expects from you. Choose wisely, tread carefully. Work with those who are committed to making this world a safer place, speak to those whose viewpoints differ.

Mr President Barack Obama. They are screaming your name outside my window, they cry tears of joy for you on television. You are the change we believe in. Live up to it.

Bless you, you whose name means The Blessed One.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Special

Witches, bats, spiderweb, creaky floors in old houses, grinning jack-o-lanterns and spooky shadows and flickering candles are for babies.

For those of you who are looking to be really scared, I put this Halloween Picture Special together entitled:

The Glorification of Military Service

Times Square Subway Station at around 6 p.m., 30 October 2008

Set a good example. -Mom

I hope you realize there are starving kids out there. -Mom

Play nice. -Mom

Your face will freeze that way. -Mom

Respect your elders. -Mom

Be good. -Mom

Be home by dark. -Mom

And what if your friends jumped off a cliff? -Mom

Again: I hope you realize there are starving kids out there. -Mom

Mom: you gave them the values. The US army gives them the opportunity.

Subway indoctrination like you never knew it.

Now. I know this is a really well done campaign. Really, really well done. Great shots. Phrases that speak to your emotions. A campaign that speaks to your will to make this a better world--it stills your bad conscience a little and makes you straighten your back and go, "Yeah, we do perform a lot of good in this world." It makes moms proud of what their navy kids are doing out wherever they are stationed. And it makes moms who do not yet have their kids in the navy feel that this is, after all, something you can't be selfish about--you want your son or daughter to stay at home, but look at all the good they can do out in the world.

Like, I said. It's really, really well done. And this is what scares me. Because anybody even remotely familiar with what's going on in the world knows that the US military isn't exactly always playing this good-deed-doer role around the world. Iraq. Afghanistan. What's going on in Syria? (In case you haven't heard, Syria claims that there was a US airborn attack against civilian targets on Syrian territory last Sunday, but Washington has neither confirmed nor denied anything as of yet). I'm not saying that a lot of kids don't go out there with the intention of doing good, I'm sure they do. But regardless of that, the glorification of military service is after all glorification of war, and the killing of countless civilians who most likely don't want anything to do with the whole thing.

I'm sorry if I'm not very patriotic, but the American half of me has to excuse the half of me that is European.

But the European half has to excuse me because it's Halloween and I'm going to have a slice of pumpkin pie and hopefully, hopefully get my aunt to come with me and watch the Halloween Parade.

Happy Halloween!

Lounging with Delegates

New York City is like a giant sleeping dragon puffing out white smoke through hundreds of nostrils in the cold October air. With concrete scales and steel horns. Every day I travel in its veins squeezed together with thousands and thousands of others who have grown used to its smells and its quirks.

Or something.

Today I bought a free newspaper for five dollars. He said he was homeless, and I thought that it would be a good thing to support a homeless newspaper project in this city where people still sleep in cardboard shacks under bridges even though Mayor Bloomberg has done away with most of them. Cardboard shacks, that is. I'm sure the homeless are still around, and probably in greater numbers since the economic turbulence started shaking people out from their homes onto the streets lately.

But when I got the newspaper in my hands, I saw that it was one of the free newspapers that you can pick up everywhere on the streets. I smiled. A man next to me smiled too. A woman opposite me got up as she was getting of and said,

"You just bought a free newspaper."

I said, "Yeah, I know. But that's okay."

Because it really is. It's his karma. I acted in good faith. I even gave him five dollars for something he said cost 2 dollars. But things like this matter little when you're in a place where you've decided that you're really quite content with your life, in spite of the fact that it's not at all what you planned for it to be. But when things happen they probably happen for a good reason. (Well, I don't know about the good reason thing, but at least life is ever so much more interesting than what it had been had we had complete control over everyting that happens--a black homeless guy would never sell you a free newspaper for five bucks if life always turned out the way you had planned).

This Tuesday I met with Ammar Hijazi. The First Secretary of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations at the Delegates' Lounge down on the second floor.

See, I can't really go to the Delegates' Lounge. Mainly because I'm not a delegate. And also because my UN pass has a big brown A on it, which means that my security clearance is restricted. I can only go in through the north entrance, for instance (but I can exit at the south entrance), and I can normally not visit the second, third or fourth floors. This is where the Security Council, General Assembly, and ECOSOC chambers are. And the Delegates' Lounge.

But I became friends with the guard outside the Lounge. He wouldn't let me in first, which was okay because I was early. But then we started talking, and it turns out his sister wants to come to New York for an internship, so I gave him some tips and told him what I thought of the whole internship program. He was nice. From Serbia. And before I knew it, he said that I could go inside and see if Ammar Hijazi was there.

The only problem was that I've never met Ammar Hijazi before. But somehow we found each other, and I got my interview for my thesis. Good, good stuff. And it didn't take long before we became friends, too, and we will have lunch sometime next week.

"I knew right away that I would like you," he said when we walked away from the Delegates' Lounge towards the conference rooms on the bottom floor. (His liking me right away might have something to do with my attempts at speaking Arabic with a Palestinian dialect in the beginning of the interview, but I choose to believe it was because I'm such a likeable person). And then he asked me to be sure to send my course paper on Israel, Apartheid and the UN, and not to forget to set aside one day next week for lunch with him.

For sure.

I also got an interview with Nikolai Galkin at the Secretariat Branch of the Security Council. Very useful information on how items end up on the Security Council agenda; who puts them there, and how things are decided upon. Being here, talking to people and seeing how things work, has changed my entire take on the research project I am to write when I come back to Sweden (on the role of the UN in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). The general arguments stay the same, but they've become greatly nuanced and expanded upon since I came here.

This insight makes me look at this whole New York internship trip in a different light. I might not have found the place where I will settle down and start my life after I graduate, and in fact I might be more confused about where I want to go than was before I came. But at the same time, I see things, I meet people, and I have experiences that all feed into the great database inside me where the map of my next journey is starting to take form.

I wonder where I'll go.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Something From Your Heart

I'm rubbing shoulders with the... well, not rich and famous, but the important government, non-governmental organization, and civil servant people of the world.

Feeling more relaxed? Not really, but I play along. I don't initiate conversation, but will always chat away with anybody who makes the effort to address me. Haven't gotten a hang of that polite, witty, cosmopolitan jargon yet, and I still can't make my body behave as if it's a natural element of the diplomatic surroundings it is in. I compensate by keeping a low profile. Sometimes I try to take on a disinterested look, and hope that it will pass for an I'm-such-an-experienced-UN-person-I-can't-even-be-bothered-with-shaking-the-Secretary-General's-hand look.

I lie. Actually, I always introduce myself as the intern in order to account for my lack of expertise and experience in certain areas. Better to be transparent from the first handshake, than have somebody call your bluff half-way through the meeting. But I do keep a low profile.

I got the veteran New York subway traveler mien down to an art, though. I sweep by lost tourists with a scent of true New York that lingers in their nostrils as they watch me walk away with quick steps towards wherever it is that real New Yorkers go. Sometimes people stop me and ask for directions in heavily accented Englishes and I find myself actually knowing where to point them to.

I don't have this air of experience at the UN, but I noticed that carrying the UN card comes with a certain level of respect nonetheless. Like last Friday at the conference at NYU School of Law, when the lady signing us in was just about to ask me if I had registered for the event when she looked up and saw my UN card dangling from its silver chain around my neck. "Oh," she said as if she had demanded something of me that was completely off grounds. "I'm sorry."

Today was another conference Friday. This time it was at the UN, in the ECOSOC Chamber, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (yes, the very same Ban Ki that I didn't shake hands with), Henry Kissinger and a bunch of other distinguished speakers convened to discuss concrete steps to achieve global consensus on disarmament and weapons of mass destruction. I was there to take notes of anything that might be relevant for the UN counter-terrorism work.

I'm becoming quite the counter-terrorism expert. After weeks of extensive research and briefings for my supervisor, I was asked to write the first draft of an article on the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force. Of course, it's all still very confidential at this stage (of course), and it's just a first draft. I suspect my supervisor will have lots of comments and things she wants to go over and change, but that will have to wait until next week.

Oh, speaking of things I can't tell you about, I spent the afternoon in a room on the 7th floor of the Ford Foundation building on 43rd Street in an informal, but confidential, meeting on how to address the issue of regional imbalance and proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and how to achieve a nuclear free zone in the region. Quite interesting (and I got to shake the hand of the permanent representative of Egypt to the UN--take that Ban Ki).

Something I can tell you, though (I think... to be honest, I have some difficulty knowing exactly what is off the record, what is confidential, and what is public, but I'll take a chance on this one), is that I was at a brownbag meeting with Richard Falk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, where he presented the report he was handing over to the General Assembly the following morning. It was strange to have all these places and events that I visited or heard about this summer being referred to and recounted to you in an official UN report.

The little Palestinian boy who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers. The increased so-called flying checkpoints that Israel sets up all around the West Bank at will, apart from the permanent ones that are always there. The Jenin students who were killed in Nablus. The peaceful demonstrations against the building of the Wall on Palestinian territory that were cracked down on by the Israeli military. I mean, I had to pass those checkpoints. I've seen the Wall and the way it tears through the landscape and breaks people's lives. And in the mornings on my way from my little apartment atop the sheep to the taxi station, Samer would stop me outside his store and tell me the latest news on where the Israeli soldiers had done their nightly raids this time, if they had arrested somebody. The times they had killed people.

When I introduced myself at the meeting with Richard Falk I decided to throw my low-profile approach in the bin.

"I'm Ruby," I started. "I'm an intern at the Department of Political Affairs."

And then. To hell with it.

"I spent my summer in Palestine, and I decided to write my thesis on the role of the UN in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when I get back to my university after this internship. That's why I came to this meeting."

And it paid off. After the meeting a very nice lady from the Division of Palestinian Rights started talking to me and asked me about my thesis. Without mentioning names (you know, this whole confidentiality thing... it's driving me nuts), she is by far the most helpful person I've run into at the UN since I came here. She invites me to her office, sends me articles, goes through her archives, refers me to others who can help, suggests topics.

I got some new ideas that are really useful for the development of my thesis, in part thanks to her help. But I think the most important thing she said, was right before I got into the elevator to go back up to my floor (she's on the 33rd).

"Look at these articles, and check these websites, and come see me next week. I think it will be useful for you," she said. And then she paused for a moment and added, "You have to do something from your heart."

She is right.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Winds are A-Changing

Walked up the stairs of West 4 subway station yesterday morning at around 8.40 am to a scene of blinding golden sunlight bathing a street of autumn leaves made of gold and an old brick building painted an English red. The air was a little chilly. I walked towards all that bright sunshine to find my way to NYU Law School's Lipton Hall and thought to myself that maybe, but only maybe, the air was different than before. I took a deep breath and squinted against the sunlight to try to make out the street signs.

It must have been the night before that the air started changing, come to think of it. I got home when it was dark and all the street lamps shone orange and the pavement was a dance court for yellow leaves that swirled around each other in a mad autumn dance. The wind had picked up and there was a sense of freedom in the air. That must have been when it changed, because I find myself having stopped counting the days because I want them to pass quicker, and having started counting them because they're running away so fast and by counting them maybe I can control them a little and slow them down. Because New York is after all a city where little 17-year-old braided boys say "Take care, sweetheart," when you get off the train for no other reason than to be nice.

And even the UN is probably quite another place than what I've experienced so far. On Thursday morning I got two invites within the course of maybe 10 minutes. First, it was the young woman sitting outside my office who said we should have a cup of coffee in the afternoon (but both of us were busy, so we'll do it on Monday), and then it was the freckled man who always says hi to me in the corridor. He started talking to me on this day, and said that we should go for a drink sometime when I'm not busy working on the counter terrorism thing.

But I'm busy working on the counter terrorism thing. So busy that I spent 8 hours yesterday inside Lipton Hall with about 80 or so Afghanistan experts, government advisors, Pentagon people, Afghanistan ambassadors and journalists who have had tea with the Taliban, had meetings with the Taliban, been kidnapped by the Taliban (one of them in that exact order).

Aside from the fact that I need to build up tons and tons of confidence in this area (that is to say, in the area of meeting with government and NGO people that all are wearing suits and exchanging business cards), the experience of attending that conference yesterday was really good. When Joanne Mariner from Human Rights Watch spoke of the prisoners picked up all around the region by the US and put in the blackest hole that exists in justice (yes, even Guantanamo pales in comparison)--where they are hidden away from the world without charge and without being heard, under physical and psychological stress and duress, where everything that is known about what's going on is pieced together from those that actually eventually get out and can be tracked down and interviewed by Human Rights Watch--I decided I want to work with that. Reviewing governments' practices and uncovering human rights violations.

Then when Clare Lockhart from Institute for State Effectiveness talked about the problems with the thousands of aid projects and programs in Afghanistan that lack a common strategy and fail to achieve any real change because of this. It's mostly just a bunch of overlaps and projects that work against each other, and in the end the village people are left with empty school houses but no teachers, tomato fields but no way to get around the corruption and actually enter the market without going through Pakistan. When she talked about this, I decided that aid and civil services is really what I should get into. But in Palestine.

And finally when Sean Lagan told his story about how he had tea with the Taliban, and met with different Taliban leaders several times, and reported home, and made documentaries, I decided what I really, really want to be is a journalist like him. And shed light on things that look dark to some. Make them see that we're all human when all is said and done. Tell stories from places that few people dare to go. Except I don't want to be kidnapped by the Taliban, and I don't want to see people get executed and beheaded.

But today is another sunny day in New York and I should probably leave the future to the future and concentrate on what I have right now, right here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Developed Country's Cairo

Welcome to Ruby's Zoo. Nice of you to stop by. Cockroaches by the kitchen faucet and in Ruby's middle drawer (the one in which she keeps tops and tees). Spiders in the bathroom. Mice under the kitchen sink. Please do not feed the animals. Pictures without flash only. Be sure to visit our gift shop on the way out. Thank you!

I know I just ate, which might have something to do with it too, but I kind of lost my appetite.

One month, habibty, one month left.

I criss-cross my way past a thousand bodies on the streets after work, some wear suits, some wear jeans, some wear the hejab, some wear crosses around their necks or the kippah on the top of their heads. I stand in the subway and look into pink, brown, olive colored faces. I hear a symphony of a dozen muffled songs that leak out through iPhone headphones. I listen to a medley of a handful of spoken languages wherever I go. I eat Chinese buckwheat noodles and Arabic hummus and Italian fresh pasta. I think to myself that in a city such as this city, you must be open-minded or you'd move. There's little space for people who are intolerant and discriminatory (but there has to be some space, or else the rest of the inhabitants would be intolerant too).

There's a debate between the two presidential candidates on tonight, and somehow it seems that the entire city of New York supports Obama with Obama t-shirts, Obama earrings, Obama bumper stickers, Obama pins and Obama everything. I saw one lady with a McCain t-shirt the other day.

I think she was an out-of-towner.

My Cairo music composer friend Moustapha Halawany sends me this link on msn:

It's Cairo traffic, it's Cairo people. It's beautifully shot. And the music is perfect. Hani the Egyptian intern says that Cairo is like a chaotic developing world version of New York. Dad says Cairo is like the New York he remembered from when he was growing up.

Today at lunch we had a brownbag meeting with Martin Pratt from the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University. Maritime border disputes. Rivers. Resources. Conciliation. Negotiation. Track Two Diplomacy. Just before he was wrapping up I said to myself: I have to ask.

"Excuse me," I said. "Is there time for one more question?"

Not really, but they consented.

"Is demarcating physical boundaries the only solution to territorial disputes? Or do you have any other ideas on ways to settle such a dispute. I'm thinking of the question of Palestine whose prospective territory is not only split up, but also perforated by all the illegal Israeli settlements."

Martin Pratt gives you the impression that he thinks he doesn't have as much to say as he actually does. His cheeks flush and he gets a little jittery when he speaks. But his words are stable and they go something like this:

There are a number of ways we've tried to solve territorial and resource problems without resorting to demarcating physical boundaries over the course of the past century or so (before that, borders really didn't matter as much, but since the whole world was divided into separate nation states European style in the last century, states got really picky about where to draw the line--and this is essentially because national borders decide what resources are legitimately yours, which peoples are legitimately your citizens (and similarly which peoples don't have the right to a share in your resources).

We've had buffer zones and internationalized territories, and soft borders sound nice and fluffy enough, but when it comes down to it, the only thing that really matters in the long run is clear, agreed-on physical boundaries that are recognized by all parties. It costs so much in terms of personal freedom and human rights, and it requires such a heavy military presence to enforce any other type of solution we've thought out so far.

I go a little sad, but I realize he's probably right. As long as we entertain the idea that we are separate peoples and that we as these separate groups of people have the right to self-determination (which makes sense if we see ourselves as separate peoples), there's no fair and just way of organizing our self-determined enclaves that's better than the territorial solution.

Sorry all nomadic peoples.

But managing two groups who wish to exercise their right to self-termination on one and the same territory will, all other problems aside, leave you with one very complicated issue: namely that of how to decide who belongs to which group. This is a question that's not easy to decide as it is--what if you have parents who were born outside? Or if you were born outside but grew up on this territory? Or what if your parents were born here, but they moved and you grew up somewhere else? Deciding who is a rightful citizen of a territorial state is pretty tricky as it is, but imagine not having the final sort of territorial test to fall back on. How do you decide? Hair color?

Let's say that you settle on having one territory, but two governments and two sets of law. They could, in a best-case scenario, negotiate which government gets access to what resources and so forth, but how would they decide who--that is to say, which individuals--has a right to these negotiated resources? Who has a right to their national health care plans? Who is subject to which set of law? Hair color obviously won't work. But neither will religion. Or ethnicity. Because all identity boundaries are essentially fluid when it comes down to it, and this is why territory provides us with an easy, all-but neutral way out.

If you're born within these and these lines, or if you later on come here and create a life here, you have the right to this and this and this, and in return you have to do this and this and this.

I know that the Israeli state is trying to settle these identity issues with ideas of religious and national heritage (or conversion or affiliation-by-marriage), but this is obviously going against most ideas of fairness and justness that have developed in the past half century or so.

In any event, I have scheduled an interview with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations in two weeks. They kindly consented to assisting me in my research for my master's thesis. I'm excited.

My supervisor wants to see me before I go, because this is "a controversial issue." It's not like I'll be representing the UN when I see Mr Ammar Hijazi, but I don't mind talking to her.

The debate between Obama and McCain is over. If Obama doesn't win this election, I think New York will have to refer to the international law on self-determination and declare its indepedency.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On the UN and Marilyn Monroe

There's a crack in the UN building. Just at the base, in the window pane. I saw it yesterday, and acquired evidence today:

As you can see in the background of this picture, the flags are down. I never thought of it before, but I guess they must take them down every day around 5 pm. Can you imagine having to wake up at the crack of dawn every day and hoist 192 flags in time for when all the civil servants start their day at around 8 or 9, only to go and take each and every one of them down again a few hours later? Every day.

Poor guy.

Yeah, I know. But anyway, I noticed the crack on my way out of the Secretariat building yesterday after work, and immediately my mind started making all kinds of connections. Or actually mostly one, and it went something like this:

"Hmm. Could it be that this crack at the base of the UN Headquarters is a symptom of the state of the Organization?"

And in my ear-popped state (you try going down from the 37th floor in an elevator that might stop at one or two other floors in the thirties, but always goes directly from 28 to 1 (there are other elevators serving the other floors) at a stomach-turning speed, without having the change in pressure seriously affect your hearing) I was walking out to the avenue thinking about this. The symbolic crack, not my ears.

See, some people asked me that before I came here. If I thought that the UN would continue to exist for much longer, considering how weak it is, and how little it does, and how certain super powers don't think so highly of it and all. And yes, the UN is restricted in many ways because, just like a Realist would predict (in International Relations Theory, pessimists are rather confusingly called Realists... and sometimes Marxists, but that's another blog post altogether), Member States won't give up enough power and control for the Organization to actually be able to achieve any real and structural change in the international system. Hence the weakness of the Organization when it comes to real "high politics".

But let me tell you a few things that might convince you that the rumor of the demise of the UN is greatly exaggerated.

1. Exactly because the structure of the UN makes it comparatively weak, or "toothless", when it comes to sanctions against dissident states, intervention in critical situations, etc., it can sleep dreamless sleeps at night--why should anybody want to dismantle an organization that essentially never meddles with their affairs? If it can lend you legitimacy.

2. Which brings me to my second point: The UN still does lend legitimacy to policy implementation of all kinds and sorts, and perhaps more importantly, it lends legitimacy to the absence of action too. "We couldn't reach consensus, so there's really nothing we can do about this conflict/crisis/situation." And then, all you have to do is shrug your shoulders and walk away. Who doesn't want a scapegoat like that when times get rough and your conscience weighs you down?

3. The third reason why the UN isn't going to fall to pieces any time soon, is that it's way, way too large an organization, and there are way, way too many people and governments that have way, way too much invested in the Organization, and it is way, way too institutionalized to just fall apart. Institutions like this get a life of their own and keep going no matter what those who started it might think, and no matter how toothless or bureaucratic they may become.

4. I don't know if this is a reason why the UN won't crumble, but it's a small effort from my part to defend the UN and provide a reason why it shouldn't be allowed to collapse, if it were the case that it was. And this defense is as follows: Even if the UN looks like it has a toothless grin when it takes on new tasks, or when it speaks out about situations, this doesn't mean that there aren't healthy teeth in the back that we never get to see.

On my first day , I sat in a meeting (for reasons of confidentiality, I can't disclose any information on what the meeting was about... and yes, that makes me feel very important and privy to the real stuff of high politics) where they were discussing the success of previous UN-lead peace negotiations, and concluded that only the failed mediation efforts make it to the news, or at least the very problematic ones. When the UN is successful or when things run too smoothly, nobody really picks up on it. And, trust me on this one, there's a lot more going on than we get to read about in the papers. It's not secret work or anything--most of the things that go on at the Organization become available in the form of official transcripts or reports online eventually. It's just a matter of finding your way through the information jungle on their vast set of web pages (mirroring the confusing amount of programs, agencies and sub-organizations that make up the UN).

And the UN is more than a peace resolver and a conflict preventor, too. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different programs aimed at fostering sustainable development, providing economic relief, combating poverty, reducing child mortality, addressing health problems, supporting youth and women. Certainly, these programs can be criticized, but it would be wrong to say that the UN isn't doing anything, because there's lots going on all around the world.

And this August, when I met Jan Eliasson (the Swedish diplomat/mediator/ex-foreign minister who was the president of the 60th UN General Assembly a few years back) on a Stockholm subway train (I wasn't sure if I should walk up to him, but I did... and put myself through that month's most embarassing moment when I realized I had completely forgotten his name--"Excuse me, aren't you... didn't you use to work for the UN?"), he said that people expect too much of the UN. They don't realize that it just doesn't have the mandate to do all those things that people expect it to do.

Anyway: 5. The last reason why the UN isn't going to fall apart is also a reason why it shouldn't:
during the General Debate that opened the 63rd General Assembly the other week, I kind of almost fell asleep from listening to statement after statement by president after prime minister, but I walked away with one lasting impression. That all of those who spoke there, respect the UN. And take it seriously. They wouldn't bother to even come out here, if they would rather see the Organization be put to sleep. I think many take pride in speaking in front of the Assembly.

I walked away (or I stayed at my computer, but figuratively speaking) thinking that if nothing else, then at least the UN is a fantastically managed machinery (if a little rusty here and there) that brings together leaders and people of power and of conviction from all over the world and provides a forum for them where they can present and defend their opinions, come with suggestions, disagree on things, agree on others, compromise and argue. Even people without a state can send a representative to speak for them--Mahmoud Abbas was there!--and even non-state actors get to have their say on a regular basis.

And do you know what the most amazing part is? That it may look like they're speaking to a half-empty General Assembly, and that most of them get very little media coverage, and that nobody cares much about what they have to say. But in that 38 storey building in which I currently inhabit a small space on the 37th floor, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who actually listen to them. And follow up on it. They plan policy based on wishes expressed in the General Assembly; they analyze the statements put forward; they set up working groups; they device new projects.

Heck, they don't, we do. That's what I've been doing since I got here. Even if I don't get to have the last say. But neither do they--because the Member States do.

So do you know what I concluded on my way away from the UN building, westwards on 42nd Street? That the crack I saw in the window will be fixed sooner or later--probably sooner than later, for security reasons and whatnot--and this, this will be a symbol for the prospects that the flaws in the Organization will be fixed, too, and that the restructuring and democratization called for by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as several Member States will actually take place in the near future.

Then I yawned and my ears popped back and I decided to go to Sephora and check out some perfumes before I took the subway uptown.

In other news, living in New York is a little bit like finding out that life is pretty much like a movie when all is said and done. Or that movies are like life. Only my movie keeps changing the story line and the setting ever so often. But nevertheless, I have all these movie moments. Or movies have life moments. Either way, when I got out of the subway and walked over the ventilation metal bars, a train went past underground and a puff of air caught hold of my skirt and turned me into a brown-haired, black-skirted Marilyn Monroe for a second.

Go to and check out my roomie Galia. She's the one on the left.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ode to a Laundromat

My UN office computer (that first saw the light roughly about the same time as my little sister was born... she's now 23) and I have developed a special relationship. It will take about five minutes to start up (which by today's standards is an eternity), I will politely sort out papers and place my lip balm and my cell phone (put on silent) on the desk in the meantime.

It will do as told (albeit somewhat reluctantly) the first half of the day. It's not the fastest collection of ones and zeros in town, but I can handle it.

In the afternoon it will grow slower and slower, and I will grow more and more impatient and open more and more browser windows so that I can have several things going at the same time so that it feels as if I'm filling the seconds of idle waiting with something productive. But of course this just makes it go slower and slower until it reaches a point where it just collapses in a fit of senility and forgets what it's doing at either one of the windows.

I start sighing.

But all of this, really, is okay. You must be patient with friends, and I am a patient person. (No witty remarks, thank you very much).

But when it starts telling me what to do. That's when I have to put my foot down.

"Sorry, you do not have permission to press this key" my butt.

In any event, this trip is a never ending string of first times. I just came back from my first time ever at an actual coin operated laundromat. It's about half a block down on my avenue, and nobody in there seems to speak English, and since I seem to have the kind of look that blends in no matter where I find myself (I haven't found myself in Sub-Saharan Africa or the Far East yet), the nice lady who works there tried to explain things in Spanish to me.

I improvised.

And now my little room smells of fresh laundry. O, how thy sweetly scented breath lingers on my garments, and thy warm murmuring sounds still ring in my ears. O, Laundromat, may thy existence be long and fluff-free.

I also had my nails done properly (not amateur style like the last time) after work last week. Manicure and pedicure. Done by a Chinese lady. That was also a first. But I messed up my toe nails the first thing I did, and managed to chip off a piece of the white on my French manicured left ring finger when I was making salata arabeya (super delicious cucumber, tomato and mint leave salad). But still.

And I had pancakes with maple syrup (actually containing a certain percentage of real maple syrup) at a diner out in Montauk on Saturday morning. That was probably a first and a last. American pancakes ain't my style.

And it wasn't really a first, because I vaguely remember having pancakes on a diner on a roadtrip from Seattle to San Diego when I was little. But that wasn't in Montauk.

And to complete my list of first time experiences for this time, I got my first real assignment at the UN yesterday. I've had plenty of semi-real assignments that have had one thing in common: they've all been more time consuming than they have required brain power. But yesterday I got an assignment that had a 24 hour deadline and involved actual analytical skills on my part.

My brain leaped with excitement.

It's still having to do with counter-terrorism, much in line with the work I've been doing for the past three weeks. But unfortunately, I can't tell you much more than that. I'm bound by a signed contract not to disclose any information pertaining to the meetings, documents or work I come across during my internship to third parties. Unless this material has been published already, of course. But my work is top secret, hot off the presses, high priority stuff, so... I'm sorry.


Friday, October 3, 2008

The Start of Something New

The things you hear.

Yesterday evening, after having gone all the way down to 23rd Street in some weird diary writing dream world, when I was really supposed to be heading up to 103rd Street... I looked up, perplexed for a split second or so to see the numbers 2 and 3 outside the subway window, and not... I don't know, 9 and 6--the station right before mine?

I realized that I had gone down the downtown stairs, when I really should have gone down the uptown stairs (that also go down, confusingly enough), and that I had gone several minutes worth of subway traveling time in the wrong direction.

I quickly collected my things and jumped off right before the doors closed behind me. I looked around. No Exit. Exit Only at Middle of Platform.

"But that will take me out on 7th Avenue. Not to the uptown platform."

Stupid crappy loud rackety no-good crowded construction-site New York subway system.

As I finally had found my way to the uptown train and got out on Broadway and 103rd (with my diary now safely tucked away in my briefcase--because, yes, I have a briefcase), I clickety-clacked my way home with my black office style shoes, scarf wrapped around my shoulders.

"Aw, man. You and I could never rob a bank together."

"Sorry?" I turned around to the short-ish Hispanic looking man I had just passed on the sidewalk.

Did I tell you I live in the outskirts of Spanish Harlem? In any event, there are lots of people with Latin American descent on my portion of the Avenue.

"They would hear you coming a mile away."

Like I said. The things you hear. I laughed, and said no problem, I could take them off. Just for that occasion.

"Yeah, I'd have to get you a pair of rubber shoes." His intonation pattern an African-American sitcom actor's.

I laughed and walked on. Clickety-clacking my way to my cockroach apartment.

Oh, and if you would like to know what somebody who had their yesterday go down in history as the day they actually did shake hands with the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has to say?
He's the Egyptian guy in my office I've been telling you about. My life jacket in a sea of suit-wearing, sit-up-straight (some would say stiff) UN colleagues. Actually, to tell you the truth (because who would dream of doing anything else) others are beginning to warm up a little in my presence (or is it me who's beginning to relax a little?), but it's still nice with somebody you share a piece of history with. Because even if we never knew each other in Cairo, we've been to the same places, we've eaten the same food, drunk the same juices (well, actually, he's never had peanut juice at Toot Eksbress, but you can't have everything).

I just saw that they passed the bill. The House of Representatives voted 263-171 in favor of spending 700 billion USD on buying up bad Wall Street debts and throwing a bone or two to Main Streeters.

Georgia Democrat John Lewis said it well: "I have decided that the cost of doing nothing is greater than the cost of doing something."

Now let's see if this will turn things around so that we get to see our stock markets pop their heads out of the water and gasp for some air. Because after all, the end of an era (if that's what this has been, or is, or whatever) never comes unless something new takes its place.

Anyway, this week's bathroom update:

The view is still amazing. The windows just as large. I told the new intern--Julius from Germany--all about it, and was still laughing about some joke we had made when I opened the door to visit the ladies' room. Another lady was just in front of me, so in an effort to explain my mirth about going to the restroom (man, there are so many different ways to say it, and I've only used the polite synonyms so far), I said I was telling all the male colleagues about what they're missing.

"Oh yes," she said. She wasn't wearing a suit, by the way. Her clothes are relaxed, colorful and stylish. Her hair is Hennah-colored. There are some others like her. Some women who wear saris with beautiful patterns and colors; some men who wear galabeyya-type dresses from African countries I've never visited.

"Oh yes," she said, "they don't have anything like this at all." (So the rumor about the men's room seems to be true!)

She told me that as it gets colder, though, the view gets even more spectacular. I should wait until December perhaps (I won't be here, but I'm hoping she confused the months and really meant November... after all, they do rhyme with one another), and go to the bathroom (yeah, I'm avoiding the less polite words for said room) at around 5.30 P.M. "And look down there," she said and pointed downtown. "The sky will be all golden and red from the sunset. Especially on cold days. There is something about the cold that really brings out the colors, you know. And look over there, you can see all the way to the river on the other side."

So you can. The entire street with Grand Central in the middle; tiny yellow cabs going, stopping at the lights, turning down the avenues; and all the way to the other side of Manhattan and Hudson River.

I'll end with what my dad always says when New York is the setting for some movie, or in the news: What a city!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The End of an Era

This day is the day that will go down in history as the day I almost shook hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outside my office.


But this being my history, and the room being full of about 100 Department of Political Affairs staff, and me being... well, me... I only almost shook his hand.

See, the thing is that I suffer from the disease of always having to act unaffected, I think. While others treated him somewhat like a rock star and asked to have his picture taken with them as he walked around the room and shook people's hands as a way of thanking them for all the hard work during the General Debate last week, I didn't even feel comfortable stepping forward and stretching out my hand. I mean. He's just a normal guy.

Anyway, I just discovered we have cockroaches in our apartment. I saw one in the kitchen. I pretend that they don't come into my room, or if they do, only when I'm away.

And the world economy is crashing. I really do pick strange times to go to New York. The last time, four planes crashed into buildings and in the fields of Pennsylvania and the world hasn't been the same since. This time the financial system is crashing down around us and the US Congress don't seem to think they need to do anything about it.

But if September 11 threw the US into a frenzied spiral of Taliban hunting, WMD seeking, dictator toppling, democracy spreading, war mongering attempts to control the world, the current financial crisis is like a sluggish cold that you've felt coming creeping for weeks, but nevertheless catches you off guard when it finally breaks out. There's just no way to prepare.

I wouldn't be too quick to herald the end of US world dominance, however. Mainly because those who did so before always seemed to have their statements come back and bite them in their butts. After all, the US remained a global power to reckon with even after the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, and the partial collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary system as the dollar no longer was directly convertible to gold in the 1970s.

But this time, there is something. I'm not going to try to foretell the future, or even assess the magnitude of what is going on. Because you just don't know the significance of something until after it has happened, and you see in which direction the waves ripple out from the center.

But look: the international terrorism threat and whatever else keeps the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, is eating away at the US, and has it spending billions of dollars on military operations. Military operations that swallow resources like black holes eat energy, without even generating the sought-after outcomes.

Great powers of before used to have to give up their colonial quests when local forces became too burdensome in their fight for freedom.

The global structure is changing. Not only are other huge nations growing stronger economically (and therefore politically) as we speak--China, Brazil, India--and not only is Russia flexing its muscles again in its Georgia gym, but the food and fuel crises are potential restructuring sparks that might set the whole North-South/Developed-Underdeveloped divide on fire and change the world system as we know it. Yes, poor people are hit hard by the rising food prices, but so called developing countries are also food producers. =They will ultimately gain from increased revenues from their food exports, and their fuel generating crops.

Hegemonic powers of old used to tumble as other actors gained speed on them and as the global structure was reorganized.

And then there's the current financial crisis. This crisis is undermining the economic strength of the US (obviously) and will therefore limit its power (at least for the time being). But it might also have much deeper consequences than this. This crisis is a potential crippling blow against the very ideology that has been the organizing principle behind our entire economic system that was more or less put in place by the US about 60 years ago.

If the US House of Representatives will indeed accept the 700 billion bail-out plan, then that means that the US is going directly against its own recommendations to other countries that have faced financial crises of their own. The policy is always: privatize, free the market--it will take care of itself. So what happens if the principal promoter of this ideology suddenly decides to nationalize economic institutions and regulate the market? What can they say against socialism and communism then?

Great powers need three complementing power sources: military, economic and ideological might. If the economy is collapsing, the military will have to cut back. And if these two pillars cave in, the ideology pillar cannot carry the weight on its own.

But. Having said all this, things don't just collapse over night. And the US, as well as capitalism, have a history of bouncing back. Adapting. And there are, we must not forget, countless other actors, state as well as non-state, that have considerable stakes in the current system. The EU, anyone?

But one thing is probably for sure: that things are changing. Even if the power structure should remain largely intact in the foreseeable future on the international scene, things are still changing. And this isn't just a lone intern in the outskirts of Spanish Harlem making things up. It's on the BBC website: there is a sense of an end of an era.

Go look:

One last thing before I sleep: Melvin the Doorman from the Dominican Republic said that there is no need to worry, after all. Not even if people are lining up at the bank to get their savings all the way over in Sweden. Things will pick up pretty quickly again. We're all alright.

With that: good night.

Monday, September 29, 2008

On the Edge

I'm finding myself counting the weeks and days here.

On Saturday evening, Chris Rock was on TV, and he said that some people have careers, and some people have jobs. If you have a career, you never have enough hours in a day. If you have a job, you find yourself having way too many hours in a day. You begin your day by counting down the hours until the day is over. And you start your week by counting the days until the weekend comes.

Chris Rock has a career.

I start my internship by counting down the weeks. I'm on week three. Day 11. It's Monday 29 September, and I have until 14 November at the UN. Until 18 November in my new apartment.

That's seven weeks left here. Tomorrow is a UN holiday (we don't follow US holidays, but have our very own, and tomorrow is off because it's Eid el Fitr--the end of Ramadan), so that leaves three and a half days this week, plus the coming 6 weeks, which gives me 33.5 days in total. Or approximately 268 hours. The exact days and hours in the apartment isn't calculable, though, because my evenings and weekends aren't all pre-planned. All I know is that tonight, I'm invited to Uncle Ron's mom's place for Rosh HaShana Eve dinner (the Jewish New Year); tomorrow, Auntie Toni and I are going shopping, and then we'll meet up with Step-Grandmother Marianne who is here in New York for a few days; this Friday, I'm staying over at Toni's place, because we're leaving early Saturday morning for the easternmost tip of Long Island, Montauk, where we will stay until Sunday evening... so it's all a bit unclear exactly how many days and hours I will stay in my new apartment.

My new apartment. Uncle Ron drove me up there yesterday afternoon with all my things plus some more. Auntie Toni saw too it that I got clean sheets, a pillow and a blanket; her fat free blueberry and apple muffins; all-bran cereal; a pair of slippers and a candle... so that I will feel a little more at home. Then she went shopping with me so I could get some fruit, hempseed milk (I'm so looking forward to trying that), paper towels and soap and some other things.

My new apartment is on the third floor in a walk-up building on Columbus Avenue. The stone steps are worn by all the feet that have walked up and down for years and years and there are pigeons outside the windows. My room is closest to the front door, away from the other rooms and the kitchen and living room, but close to the bathroom. There's a bed, a desk, a closet, a dresser, and a window.

My new roomies seem nice enough. David works in advertising, Brian is a bass player. I didn't see Galia yet, but she's a singer songwriter. They seem to be keeping to themselves most of the time, which, I suppose, is a good thing when all is said and done.

But still, I count the weeks. Mostly because there are other people's hairs in the sink and the bath tub, and other people's crumbs on the kitchen table. And because I feel like I'm spending my days always on the edge of my comfort zone. It's not bad, but not where I want to be.

And this morning I almost got lost on my way to the subway, and then again getting off it on 42nd Street that wasn't Times Square where I was supposed to take the shuttle to Grand Central (all trains go to 42nd, but apparently one of them doesn't stop at Times Square on 42nd, and that was the one I had to take). Luckily, I have a good memory and a sense of the Manhattan map in my head to make up for my crappy sense of direction, so I could find my way to Fifth Avenue and from there make my way to the UN.

Neale Donald Walsch (a writer and a philosopher) says that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. And I know it does. If you never upset your routine, you will never grow. But living on the edge is. Well, it's just not comfortable, and if it weren't for the fact that it's going to look good on my CV with a UN Headquarters internship, I'm not so sure I'd think it was worth it.

And also, I'm not so sure that you necessarily have to live on the edge of your comfort zone at all times in order to grow as a person, and truly experience life. Take this summer. I did find myself out there on the edge several times, but all in all, I knew that this was exactly where I wanted to be. On the West Bank. Working with Fair Trade and sustainable development. Going to Ramallah on Thursday afternoons to spend my Fridays with Mahran swimming in Jericho, or loitering in the shade, or eating fatoush at Ziryab on Rukab Street in Ramallah.

The only time I felt really, really uncomfortable, was when I decided I needed to see Israel too to get a better idea of things, and went to Haifa on my own. If I hadn't learned from the time I went to Alexandria on my own, I got the message this time: Ruby don't do single traveling well.

After I had pushed myself to stay on the edge for three days, I packed my things and took the first bus after the Shabat back to Jerusalem. As the landscape changed back to the dry, stony, hilly, cypress lined, ancient ruin dotted, olive tree fielded beauty that seems to belong better in the region than the irrigated lush flower beds and Eastern European styled houses and buildings of Israel, my blood rushed back and I'm sure my cheeks were flushed as I ran up from Damascus Gate to the Arab Bus Station, and jumped over the fence, lost my sun glasses, and caught the last bus to Ramallah just as it was pulling out from the station.

I cried as I sat there in the back and looked out the window.

The sweet notes of Arabic song sounded from the speakers. It was dark outside, women with headscarves and men with lots and lots of hair gel sat around me. Some were standing. We were driving through the dark evening streets of East Jerusalem, stopping when people wanted to get off or climb on, regardless of whether there were bus stops or not. I felt as if I had come home again from long and arduous travels to distant shores, and finally felt safe. These were tears of surrender as I sank into the comfort of being where I wanted to be.

This is the comfort I'm longing for now. When I'm not busy talking to Toni and I forget to think about the feeling that keeps coming back to me: as if I'm constantly tiptoeing on the edge of my comfort zone. It's not that I don't like it here, it's just... maybe I don't belong in this place.

I don't know whether I will sink back into the comfort of being where I want to be until I get my butt on a plane and fly back to the Middle East.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Death by Kunafa

Woke up at this morning to a dark, wet New York, pouring rain and the roar of the wind. The streets were full of rubber booted and raincoated New Yorkers on their way to work. I splashed my way from Grand Central up to 46th Street and 1st Avenue, trying to avoid the worst puddles, huddling against the wind, holding on tight to my umbrella.

Ella, ella, eh, eh.

Or actually, it's Auntie Toni's umbrella ella. She offered me her bright yellow raincoat and her pink rubber boots, but they kind of didn't go very well with my black pants, my smokey violet shirt, my wool pullover and my steel gray shawl. So I went with her purple umbrella instead.

I'm still going through all the General Assembly addresses for references to terrorism. Trying to fake my way through some French statements that haven't been translated to English. I'd like to think I'm doing pretty well. (Key words being I'd like to think).

Meanwhile, I'm also reading the news and came across a Ramadan murder plot that unfolded today in Nablus, the biggest city on the West Bank. A Palestinian metal worker walked into one of the kunafa bakeries (Nablus is famous for its kunafa) and ordered one large platter of this syrupy sweet pastry filled with cheese. He said he was going to send it by taxi to his mother-in-law for the breaking of the fast on this last Friday of Ramadan, but most likely didn't mention that he was convinced that this same mother-in-law was behind the recent divorce from his wife and that he had vowed to avenge her.

The metal worker asked to be present when the bakers prepared it, slipped in (as you do when you're plotting to kill your mother-in-law for having destroyed your marriage) some rat poison when nobody was looking, and probably thought he was doing pretty well with the whole murder scheme. But then the bakers (oh, these proud kunafa bakers) noticed that the color of the cheese was different than usual, and wouldn't for the world sell inferior kunafa and risk damaging their fine reputation, no matter how much the metal worker insisted that he was absolutely fine with the unusual looking cheese and didn't want it exchanged for another platter.

Finally, the kunafa bakery argument resulted in the metal worker's arrest for plotting to murder his mother-in-law, and the man has confessed and is currently waiting to be prosecuted.

As if taken directly from Arabian Nights, I know. But it's true. Check it out on

Saudi Arabia has requested a Security Council meeting on the issue of the Israeli settlements in Palestine. President Mahmoud Abbas is speaking to the Security Council right now. I'm listening via the UN webcast site. He's showing maps of how the Israeli settlements divide the West Bank (and thereby the territory where a Palestinian state will be formed, if it will be formed) into four cantons, which really isn't a very good base for a cohesive state at all. Especially when these cantons would be separated, not only by the settlements themselves, but by electric fences, concrete walls and settler roads that Palestinians aren't even allowed to access. And in spite of the agreement in Annapolis, Israel continues with its settlement policy and settlements have in fact increased since the Annapolis agreement.

And now Israel's representative. Settlements are not the primary obstacle, Gaza bombings are. For sure, this is counter-productive indeed and there is never an excuse for killing human beings.

Ahmadinejad is. Yes, he is saying some very untactful things (like Condoleezza Rice just noted you simply don't say "in polite company"), but if Abbas can't control Ahmadinejad's statements and Iran's foreign policy, there will be no peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority?

The kidnapping of Gilad Shalit is. Yes, this is an obstacle, but so are the about 11 000 Palestinians prisoners held by Israel, hundreds of which are children.

And finally, settlers have a historic bond to the biblical land. Whereas Palestinians who have lived there for generations don't?

In the words of Costa Rica's representative to the Security Council: we cannot ignore that the conduct of both sides is motivated by the conduct of the other.

In my own words: but that shouldn't prevent a recognized state and a member of the United Nations to comply with international law, adhere to Security Council resolutions, respect the Geneva Convention and cease to transfer portions of its citizens into the territories it is occupying.

In the words of Italy's representative: it is in Israel's own interest to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

Okay, back to my real assingment. The General Assembly and references to the UN Counter-Terrorism Task Force. I'm noting a very clear pattern: blaming terrorism on under-development and poverty. Did everybody collectively forget that those behind the two attacks that have shaken the West the most and took place in New York and London were well-educated middle class men? Do people actually believe that if you have to struggle to feed yourself or your family, you can't pay for healthcare, you can't send your kids or your brothers or sisters to school, you're going to bother with raising money and organizing and orchestrating international terrorist attacks?

I don't know, but I think there are other reasons behind terrorism, even if that shouldn't stop us from dealing with poverty and under-development, too. But for other reasons.

Well, I'm off to the bathroom. I have no window in my room, remember, and I'd like to see if it's still pouring down outside.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Q&A with Ahmadinejad

So Jude Law didn't show up. That's just like him. Pfft.

But Ahmedinejad was there. (I always knew Iranians were a trustworthy lot). And about 400 UN interns from around the world, and university students and professors from all over America. The Iranian Mission to the UN never expected this many of us would sign up for this event, so the Manhattan Ballroom at Grand Hyatt on 42nd St was over-crowded--all the breakfast tables were full, every chair in the back was taken, and people were standing around the room up against the walls, between the tables, and by the breakfast buffet.

He's kind of small, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And he smiles a lot.

The first question he got from a guy in a pink shirt at the very back, was why he continues to damage his reputation by refusing to acknowledge the state of Israel.

Now, it didn't take a genious to anticipate that the answer would be long and elaborate and include many of the human rights violations and deviations from international law that the Israeli state has been guilty of in relation to the Palestinian people and their land.

"I'm told this is history, forget it," he said. "I tell them, yes, but this is what got us to where we are right now." Women are still being killed, children imprisoned, the occupation continues. "We must not live in the past," he said, "but without our past, we are like trees without roots."

And then he said something that actually made sense, in a twisted kind of way. He said that we forget that 60 million died in World War II. Why did the world decide that the killings of the Jews somehow should matter more? Now, I'm not suggesting it shouldn't matter, and neither do I buy into Ahmadenijad's dimwit suggestions that the Holocaust might never have happened (he says he never actually said it didn't happen, only that he would like to research it more, but people won't allow him... not that I know who's stopping him, but that's what he says), or that the entire world is run by Zionists (because I normally do not buy into wacky conspiration theories in general), but a quick search on gives me figures to ponder.

About 27 million died in the Soviet Union. 27 million! That's a 2 and a 7 and 6 zeros. We very rarely give them a second thought in our part of the world.

Japan murdered somewhere between 3 to 10 million (mostly) Chinese people. When do we remember them?

"We are sorry for the Jews that were killed, we are sorry for everybody who was killed--Jewish, Christian, or whatever."

Yeah, we should be. And even though he brought it up to sort of make us think less of the Holocaust, it still made me think of all of those we normally never think about when we speak of World War II. If there is such a thing as collective guilt, boy do we have lots to make up for. Not that you and I did these things, but our grandparents did.

But anyway, after explaining why he risked his reputation to stand up for the Palestinian people, he suggested a rather... interesting solution. According the UN Charter, all people have a right to self-determination, and therefore there should be a referendum for the Palestinian people so that they can finally be allowed to decide what they want to do with this situation.


Even I who have personally experienced the occupation, have seen what it does to families, have gone past the fields of black sad stubs sticking up in dried-out lands, where once Palestinians harvested olives from silver green olive trees. Even I who have seen the Wall, got stuck at the Israeli check points, read the local news about the kids that were shot dead by the Israeli military, about the old women who were beaten up by Israeli settlers... about the new fantastic idea to spray demonstrators against the Wall with toilet water (yes TOILET water, because it causes infections--go to for daily coverage on what actually happens in the occupied territories, deaths, names, everything).

Even I, even I would never in my wildest dreams suggest that Palestinians should be granted sovereignty over the entire territory (which is the most likely outcome of a Palestinian referendum, I guess, if they were actually given that option). That's like suggesting that the Native Americans should be allowed to have a referendum on what to do with all these settlers that have taken over their country. No matter how just the cause may seem in light of past events, it just doesn't work that way. Sure, without our past, we're rootless trees. But you can't cut out all the branches or shake off all the leaves that get in your way, because the tree would die.

Think of it as a Bonsai tree, if you will. With careful pruning and lots of love and care and patience, we can bend the branches the way we want them to bend. But it's a fine balance, getting the tree to live and grow, because if you cut too much, you kill it.

And just because some branches and leaves used to bite off all these other branches, and has, for the past 60 years, bullied a bunch of branches that were left on the tree... if you'll excuse my cannibalistic Little Shop of Horrors bonsai tree metaphor... doesn't make it right for us to cut out all branches connected to these bullying branches. Because most of them are really only regular branches and leaves, and cutting them off, would be like...

Okay, I give up. The metaphor sucks. But the point is that the Israeli families have lived there for generations now, and no more than their grandparents should have expelled those who lived there before them, and destroyed entire Palestinian villages, cut down their fruit trees, should Palestinians today chase the Israelis out of their homes. This is a very delicate situation that calls for very delicate measures. Any solution must involve all parties, with equal say on the final draft for the future political structure.

But back to Ahmadinejad. He's a good question dodger, that man. Every inconvenient question on human rights violations, public executions of gay people (well, he didn't really dodge that one as much as he just expressed his view that homosexuality is considered to be wrong in Iran, and therefore punishable by law), women's rights, was successfully circumvented with smiles, jokes, and examples that didn't really satisfy anyone who has read the simplest reports on the situation in Iran. But on the other hand, he did have a point. We haven't been there, so we don't know. He invited us all to come and see for ourselves, because the way Iran, and just about all Arabic countries too, are presented in the media, with endless stretches of sand dunes and maybe a camel or two (or screaming mobs of angry Qur'an waving people, crying mothers in traditional clothing, stone-throwing kids), is not in actual fact a very good depiction of what the Middle East actually is. And this is true. Never take somebody else's word for it. See for yourself.

But still. Student uprisings are being quelled, people are being killed and put to prison (not necessarily in that order, though), and no matter how many examples that he brings up of what the US is doing wrong or worse, it doesn't take away his responsibility to see to it that his government adheres to human rights laws within his own borders. Because somehow I don't quite trust him on his remark that Iranian prisons have turned into hotels these days.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I Missed Jude Law

The security these days is crazy. They start checking our badges out on 2nd Avenue, have us walk between all these fences and police cars, check our badges again, then we pass all the press people setting up their equipment for the day, then they check our badges once more, and then we walk through the regular security with the scanners and metal detectors and everything, and then we can't get into the Secretariat building the normal way, but have to go down a flight of stairs, walk through the whole complex, then walk up one flight of stairs again to get to the elevators that go up to floor 37 and my windowless office. And my bathrooms.

Oh, the other day. This was last week. I was walking out from the bathrooms and caught the image of myself in the mirrors (with that amazing New York skyline reflected in the background, just so you know), wearing my formal business attire, with the light blue UN badge dangling from the chain around my neck. And I thought, "Who'da thought?" You know... for a moment there I was kind of infatuated with the whole idea of myself a grown-up business woman working at the UN Headquarters. Business suit and all.

But then the moment passed. And now I'm back to being the unimportant intern who had all these expectations--because this is, after all, the UN Headquarters--that dropped flat on the ground once I arrived at my little room.

And it's not that it's windowless. It's that I wasn't properly introduced, and that nobody seems to care, and that I didn't get any real assignments to make me feel that I'm actually trusted with at least some responsibility, and that the other Rebecca in the room walked past Jude Law in the corridor on her way up to our room today while I was sitting at my crappy computer from 1985 (give or take) listening to the General Assembly speeches (because nobody bothered giving me a pass so I could actually go to the meetings and be there, like some of the other interns) all alone. That's why.

Well, Hani was sitting there too. And he's Egyptian. Which means that I have somebody who feels at least a little bit friendly in that huge building, and someone I can say things like khalas and insha Allah to, and he will understand. That means a lot.

Okay, I know it's my second week, and they're not going to give me all these really fabulous super important things to do until they know I can handle it. But the thing is that they don't even bother to find out if I can handle it or not. Frankly, they hardly give me anything to do at all.

But anyway, the reason for the security wasn't because Jude Law was there (even if you'd think so). It's because almost every head of state from the entire world is there this week for the 63rd General Assembly. Which I'm sure I already told you. But did I tell you I'm seeing Mr Crazy Bastard Iranian President Ahmadinejad tomorrow?

He had like a 9 page speech today (at least double everybody else's) on how everything is God's creation, and how human beings were created from mud in the soil, but how we weren't destined to stay in the soil, and how the hegemonic powers in the world are screwing things up, and how things are still going in the right direction, and how his nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and boy, am I really interested in what he's going to say tomorrow when we meet him. A bunch of other interns and me.

As much as I'm looking forward to seeing him, though, I'd kind of prefer having a morning meeting with Jude Law at Grand Hyatt tomorrow instead. In a private room. Y'know.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Women Smell Sweet, Men Smell Like Feet

So I know the story behind the breathtaking view from the bathroom windows now.

I'm sitting on the 37th floor, in my little windowless office, listening to the opening of the 63rd General Assembly on streamed live on The General Assembly is closed, but anyone can follow it via the UN webcast. I'm monitoring it for references to the UN Task Force on counter-terrorism. My supervisor needs to know which countries think what about the Task Force, to be able to know where to go next. She's away this week and too busy to monitor it herself.

I'm starting to feel a little more comfortable here, but I'm still intimidated by the vastness of this organization. And I'm not quite sure if this is a place I will want to come back to. Mainly because I feel a little bit like I'm just stacked away in some old room, not really important enough to be important, so to speak.

But anyway, the story behind the breathtaking view. Apparently, when the UN complex was first built, they never took into consideration that one day women would step out of their housewife shoes and enter into high politics. And when suddenly they did, there were no bathrooms for the ladies, and no place near the men's bathrooms to install them. So what they decided to do, was to take the only space available--right next to the elevators where those huge windows are. Yay for us!

Rumor has it that the men's bathrooms are just as windowless as my office.

In the words of a dreadlock-ed perfume seller on 42nd Street: Women smell sweet, men smell like feet. Or at least that's the way the UN must see things, or they could have rebuilt the men's bathrooms and put us there, and then built new bathrooms for the men over by the elevators.

I don't know, but I would have put the interns' office next to the elevators, and the bathrooms over here where the interns' room is.

Funny piece of UN history, in any event. Reminds us how long we've come on the path away from thinking that women are somehow not capable of doing things. Even so, everybody who knows me is aware of the fact that I'm in no way a feminist. I get annoyed with women in the West who somewhere along the line decided to blame everything that's wrong in their lives on men, and who find sexism in every other glance, sentence or photograph. Really, what most of the so-called feminists are doing is contributing to the stupidest idea in the history of gender thinking: that women are passive victims in A Man's World. We're not. We hold our destiny in our own hands, and if something's wrong in your life, chances are it's your own fault.

Don't get me wrong. I'm very much aware of the fact that I owe a lot of my freedoms to women who went before me and tore down walls and cast off aprons and demanded to be taken seriously. They're the ones who saw to it that the UN Headquarters has ladies' bathrooms in the first place, and I'm forever grateful to them for being able to pee sitting down during my time here.

But I would still never call myself a feminist. If you tell me that we are equal no matter what our chromosomes look like, I agree with you. If you tell me that we are treated differently based on our gender, I agree with that too. But if you say that men always have the upper hand, you just fail to see that there are disadvantages to being a man in this world too, just as there are advantages to being a woman.

Take trust, for instance. As a woman, I feel people trust me in just about every situation I can imagine myself being in. Even looking for short-term apartments or rooms here in New York, almost every other ad stated that they prefer females renting their place, and the only reason I can think of is that women are commonly viewed as more trustworthy than men.

Oh, speaking of which, I got the keys to the apartment I'm moving into next weekend. It's a room in an apartment up on Columbus Avenue. But I'll tell you more about that once I'm there.

Anyway, men frequently find themselves in situations where they are not trusted. Or so I imagine. Last winter, one of my neighbors who rarely comes out to his summer house stopped to pick me up as I walked home one late, snowy, cold afternoon, and the first thing he feels he needs to say after he asked me if I wanted a ride, is that he understands if I don't want to get into the car, since he could be a rapist for all I know. I'm not sure, but I would imagine that having every other person see you as a potential rapist, isn't an all too pleasant way of being viewed by your fellow human beings.

Because, really, that's what it all comes down to: we're all human beings, and if there's anything we should be working on is to make sure that no matter who you are, or what you look like, the least you should be able to expect from everybody else, is respect. Not because you're a woman, or because you're a man, but because you are here.

That having been said, I had a realization this summer. I never felt that my sex ever put obstacles in my way until this summer. In fact, after I came back from living in Egypt, I made a point of telling people who asked me if it wasn't difficult being a woman in the Middle East, that the way we happen to view women's rights is largely decided by our culture. Most of us don't feel held back by being expected to cover most of our torso, a large part of our legs in most situations, and a good part of our arms. In fact, we think of it as quite natural to wear a pair of pants or a skirt, and a top or a shirt in most situations (unless we're on the beach, when we're allowed to wear our underwear). But other cultures, who don't cover half as much as we do (if anything at all) could very well view us as being held back by our society's expectations by having to cover so much of our bodies in order to be viewed as decent.

I asked them to think of that, before they made judgements about the hejab, or the head scarf. My experience was that it was really quite a natural part of the dress in Egypt, and that those who chose to wear it, did so not to limit themselves, or to allow others to limit them, but because it is a part of their culture.

But this summer. In my little village on the northernmost tip of the West Bank, that I shared with approximately 3 500 Palestinian children, women and men, hundreds of sheep, quite a few donkeys and a few cows and horses, I had a different experience indeed. Most were very respectful of me (except that donkey that would stand outside my door refusing to budge, so that I had to press against the wall to get past it, while nervously observing its every move for any sign that it would kick or bite me... which it never did, but still). Most two-legged beings respected me and recognized that I had compromised and adjusted my clothing out of respect for their culture and wore considerably more clothes than I would have done in Sweden, had it been 45 degrees Celsius. But then there were some, two to be exact, that complained that I needed to change my clothes to respect Islam now that I lived with Muslims. And in a house in a nearby village where I was invited for lunch one day, I was seated in one room together with the wife because I was a woman, while my colleagues sat in another room just because they were men. Women and men have separate wedding parties, too, which never really made sense to me either, even if we have separate pre-wedding parties where I come from as well (but that also never made sense to me).

But all of this, together with the fact that women get married at 19 or 20 or 21 and have three kids by the age of 25 that they take care of, besides doing all the cooking and the cleaning and the washing, really started making me think about how much I owe to the women who went before me and paved the roads, knocked holes in the glass roof, and bulldozed down walls so that their daughters, and their children's daughters, can have the opportunity to choose for themselves what they want to do with their lives (given that all other non-gender obstacles are overcome).

Really, I know I'm lucky.

But if I didn't have those women go before me in my little village in Palestine, I had Mahmoud Abbas walk beside me. Mahmoud Abbas as in Abu Ahmed, not Abu Mazen (which would have been cooler for the sake of this story, I admit, but don't underestimate Abu Ahmed). And he let those two guys who complained about my clothes know that if anything, they were the one disrespecting Islam by not respecting their fellow human being (i. e. me), and if they ever brought this up again, he would... well, I'm not sure what he said, but those two guys never commented on my clothes ever again. But the point is that even this summer, what it really came down to was not gender at all. It's about human beings respecting each other. Abu Ahmed respected me, and he made it clear that those who didn't, did not live by the cultural rules of their society. Regardless of their sex.

If I see that perfume selling rastafarian ever again, I'll tell him he got it wrong. It's really supposed to be: Some smell sweet, some smell like feet.