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.