Monday, January 31, 2011

Dear Conspiracy Theorists

Firs of all, and in order not to alienate you, let me just say one thing before I start: I am much like you. I believe there is a lot going on behind the curtains of the international political scene; things that we're not supposed to know of, but we have hunches about (people like you and me), and sometimes receive proof of.

That having been said, let me move on:

Before you let your mind go wild after recent claims by some newspapers (read: The Telegraph) that the US is backing Egyptian activists and start drawing unsubstantiated conclusions that the US in fact is behind the whole popular uprising in Egypt (or maybe in the whole Middle East?!), take a moment to consider two points:

1. The hard evidence we have is a leaked cable from the US Embassy in Cairo. This is what the Telegraph bases its whole conspiracy theory friendly piece on, that appeared on Friday the 28th.

Have you actually read it? The cable, that is. If not, please do.

The cable does not in fact prove any widespread support for Egyptian political activists at all; it simply states that the US Embassy in Cairo has asked the Egyptian government to free three detained activists, and it has protected the identity of one particular political activist from the 6 April movement when he traveled to New York to attend the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit.

The Alliance of Youth Movements is not exactly a secret training camp for dangerous insurgents; it is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization that brings together digital activists from around the world and work to
"Support  digital activists through in-person trainings, online tutorials and best practice guides, and leveraging's relationships with technology leadership to generate direct support for activists’ activities and help grassroots movement to build capacity."
The Movements is also not exactly funded by secret government-toppling organizations; its sponsors and partners include MTV, Google, Youtube, Facebook, Pepsi, National Geographic, Columbia Law School and the US Department of State.

According to the cable, the unnamed activist was detained at Cairo airport as he came back from the summit in New York, and had his notes from the meeting confiscated. He apparently contacted the US Embassy in Cairo and told him about a secret unwritten plan that he and some other activists had drawn up at the summit. A plan to overthrow the Egyptian government before the 2011 presidential election and replace it with a parliamentary democracy.

The cable states that the US Embassy is "doubtful of this claim."

It also says:

"April 6's stated goal of replacing the current regime with a parliamentary democracy prior to the 2011 presidential elections is highly unrealistic, and is not supported by the mainstream opposition."

Now. You say, "Okay, but they still supported them, didn't they?"

Let me tell you exactly why this doesn't even almost suggest that the US is behind the uprising in Egypt:

I work at a Palestinian NGO and we receive money from the US government to train young Palestinians in media. We also have a project training young Palestinians in communication skills, advocacy and lobbying funded by the Canadian government. Imagine that tomorrow there's a third intifada here, and one of our trainees proves to be an activist engaged in the revolt, particularly skillful in lobbying and using the media to reach out with his or her message.

Is that proof that the US or Canada is behind the third intifada?


But the Telegraph would have to publish another article about how the US supports anti-government activists in the Middle East.

You have no idea how many thousands of small non-governmental projects like these the US government and pretty much all Western (and some non-Western countries) support around the world. That does not mean that they're actively trying to topple the governments in the respective countries.

2. The second point I invite you to consider is: pretending that the cable actually isn't so utterly unexciting as a cable can possible be for a conspiracy theorist, and believing for a moment that there is proof for US backing of the Egyptian protests, what is the motivation behind it?

Hosni Mubarak is one of the United States' most important allies. This is why the US pours in something around 1.5 billion US dollars a year for him to be able to stay in power with all means available to him (hundreds of thousands of police, torture, strict control of the media).

Moreover, Mubarak keeps Egypt's peace agreement with the most important ally (not really, but the US seems to believe it is) Israel.

Mubarak keeps Hamas safely locked into the Gaza strip.

Mubarak keeps the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt behind bars.

Mubarak works with the US in its fight against  what it decides is terrorism.

Mubarak makes sure that the Suez Canal - a vital canal that keeps the oil flow steady - remains open to the West.

Why, please tell me why, would the US actively support a revolution against this man?



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A Great Cooperative Project

Over the past few days, sitting glued to my Twitter feed, a very encouraging picture of what is happening in Egypt emerges.

It shouldn't come as news to anybody who knows Egyptians, but it is still very worth dedicating a blog post to:

The Great Cooperative Project that the Egyptians Are a Part of

It was Ahdaf Soueif who called it that - a great cooperative project - and I can't find a better way to put it.
‎"Once... my son, watching a young man run to help an old man who had dropped a bag in the middle of the street, said: 'The thing about Egypt is that everyone is very individual, but also part of a great co-operative project'. Today, we are doing what we do best, and what this regime has tried to destroy: we have come together, as individuals, in a great co-operative effort to reclaim our country."
This is but a small collection of tweets over the past week from people describing how people are working together in the midst of the uprising to protect each other and their country, clean and cook for each other:

Cairo residents remove passwords from wi-fi routers so protesters can communicate with world #jan25 (before the internet was shut down in Egypt)

@saidboudriz: Christians were out protesting/protecting Muslims while Muslims prayed Jummah. #Egypt people are standing together! #Jan25

@_yaz: Al Jazeera: Protestors create a human shield around the Egyptian Museum to protect it. #egypt #egipto #jan25 (when looters, reportedly identified as police officers in plain clothes, threatened to break into the Egyptian Museum)

@RNN: Areesh: no forces exist and civilian movements form teams to protect banks and public buildings #jan25 #egypt

@Sarahcarr Amazing scenes in Cairo. Tanks in Salah Salem, citizens directing traffic (& doing a great job). Joyful atmosphere #jan25

@Sandmonkey women carry sticks &join volunteer protection committees on the streets of Heliopolis. Ppl saluting army. It's great. #Jan25 

@amunati: just talked to my uncle in cairo. they are all doing good, every1 making breakfast for whole neighborhood. #Jan25

@bencnn Profound respect, appeciation for Egyptian, foreign neighbours patrolling all night long in dark and cold to keep us safe. #Jan25 #Egypt

@IvanCNN Far more soldiers and tanks in the streets today. Military was distributing bread to poor people from a truck off Tahrir square.

@RNN - Now Muslims protesters are praying in Tahrir SQ, while Christians are protecting them, you can hear 'Ameen' very loudly!

@DannyRamadan: She was cleaning Tahrir square."I believe some should protest and others should clean",she says.#jan25

Still not entirely sure what I'm talking about? Watch this video clip:

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My Egyptian Friends

I can't get a hold of my Egyptian friends. The internet is still down since the night of the 27th, as everybody knows, but the cell phones should be working again. The sms service is reportedly down, but I've tried calling. But nothing. I called landlines too.

I'm worried, because I know at least some of my friends were out in the protests the first couple of days, before it got so chaotic.

The only news I have is through my little sister's husband who manages to talk to his family. The men are out on the street, protecting their neighborhood from looters (who are, according to hundreds and hundreds of reports, apparently mostly police officers in plain clothes); his father, actually a police officer, but not a looter, brought his gun home for the first time in his life to protect his family.

And my little sister's husband's cousin is at home, recovering from the police beatings he was victim to on Friday the 28th when he took part in the protests.

And I'm waiting. Hoping to hear from the others somehow. Watching the brave Egyptian people, out protesting for the seventh day in a row.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

A Tale of a Tremendous Uprising

When I’m old, I will be the aunt who lived in another age and my nephews and nieces will sit around me and ask me to tell them stories about the how the world was when I was young.

It will be like a couple of years ago when I went to visit my aunt in New York, and we sat together one evening and looked through old photo albums. There were pictures of my dad as a baby, of aunts and uncles I’ve never met, and of my grandfather who died long before I was born, when my dad and aunt were still teenagers.

From one of the photo albums, an old passport fell out. It was my grandfather’s. I opened it and for a moment it was as if I finally got to meet him. It wasn’t the old black and white photograph; it was the stamps. His visas. My grandfather had been a little like me, I thought. Like me, he had also been drawn to the Middle East when he was young.

There was an Iranian visa. An Iraqi visa. And something I had never seen before; a visa from the United Arab Republic.

The United Arab Republic?

I had to google it. Yes, of course. It was the short-lived Egyptian-Syrian union at the end of the 1950s. His visa was from 1959; one year after the creation of the unsteady union and two years before it fell apart.

My grandfather died before I got to ask him what the Middle East was like back then, but insha Allah, I will be alive to tell my nephews and nieces what I have seen.

They will sit around me and ask,

“Please tell us a story from when you were young.”

And I will tell them. About how I lived in a land known to the world as the occupied Palestinian territories when I was in my late twenties. About how we, if we wanted to go anywhere, had to pass through military checkpoints with Israeli boy and girl soldiers acting as if it were their country, and we were intruders.

“Who were the Israelis?” they will ask.

“Mostly European, American and Russian Jews who drove out the Palestinians from their homes, and occupied their land.”


I will continue and tell them about how Palestinians were arrested at night; killed in their beds. About how Israel stole our water and sold it back to us; how the Jewish settlers were allowed to burn olive fields and throw rocks at school children on their way to school, with soldiers standing by, only watching. And how Israel then put 12-year-old Palestinian boys in jail for months and years for throwing rocks at the Jewish settlers who were stealing their land.

Then I will tell them about the bombings in Gaza; about the house demolitions and about how Jewish settlers used to spit at us when they walked past us in the Palestinian city Al-Khalil.

Finally, I will tell them about the roads. The good roads were for Jews only, I will say. The bumpy roads for Palestinians, who weren’t allowed to fix them.

“And the world leaders,” I will add, “the world leaders mostly stood by and let Israel do what they wanted because they were the only democracy in the region, they said, and they had a right to defend themselves. Sometimes they would come with creative ideas such as ‘Instead of having separate roads, let’s make separate lanes!’ or ‘I know, since we don’t want to force Israel to allow the Palestinians to return, let’s move them to South America!’”

Then my nephew will ask me,

“Then what happened?”

And I will reply,

“Then something tremendous happened. A few years before, I had lived in Egypt where I would see people so poor that they would eat from the garbage and sleep on dirty blankets on the side walks.”

“In Egypt?!” they will hardly believe me.

“Yes, Egypt was different back then.”

I will tell them about how Egypt was also under occupation; but a different kind of occupation.

“Egypt was ruled by a despot who thought he could fool time with enough plastic surgery,” I will say. “This despot, called Mubarak, employed his own people as soldiers and set them up at checkpoints, hired secret police to spy on their neighbors. If a taxi driver questioned the legitimacy of his regime, he would be thrown into jail. If a man would dare to run against Mubarak in one of his charade elections, he would be thrown into jail. If a blogger would publish photos that proved the wide-spread corruption in the police? He would be brutally beaten to death.”

Then my nice will say that I’m exaggerating, because Mubarak surely couldn’t afford having that many police officers it would take to control everybody at all times.

And I will say,

“You’re right, he couldn’t afford it. That’s why the then-world power the United States of America paid him billions and billions of dollars.”


“Yes, billions,” I will say. “Billions and billions of dollars to keep Mubarak in place.”

“But why did they like Mubarak so much?”

“Because he promised not to attack Israel even though Israel was literally killing his brothers and sisters. The United States really liked Israel. And he promised to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in jail and out of the government, and the United States really didn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“So what happened?”

“Then something tremendous happen,” I will say again, because I got sidetracked and forgot to tell them about the tremendous thing that happened. “Then the people of the Arab world had suddenly had enough.”

“What did they do?”

“It started with a spark in North Africa, that ignited a full-blown, country-wide fire in Tunisia. Then the fire spread to Jordan, to Egypt and to Yemen. The people of all Arab lands took to the streets armed only with placards demanding their rights.

“Only placards?”

“Well, some had rocks. The people marched. Day and night. They shouted slogans and they used their mobile phones to get the news about what was going on in their lands out to the rest of the world. I would sit glued to Twitter and Facebook. And the Arab dictators – because there were more than just Mubarak – sent out all of their police forces on the streets, but they themselves stayed inside, shivering in their palaces.”

“Not before long,” I will continue, “they fled. First, the Tunisian president fled; then Mubarak. It was as if the whole Arab world had joined in one massive uprising and finally shook themselves free.”

“So what about the Palestinians?”

“Their lives changed too, of course. But it’s getting late and I will tell you what happened tomorrow.” 

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Story from a Revolution in the Making

One of Egypt's best contemporary writers, Ala Al Aswany, tells a heartwarming story from the January 25 protests in Egypt:
A young demonstrator told me that, when running from the police on Tuesday, he entered a building and rang an apartment bell at random. It was 4am. A 60-year-old man opened the door, fear obvious on his face. The demonstrator asked the man to hide him from the police. The man asked to see his identity card and invited him in, waking one of his three daughters to prepare some food for the young man. They ate and drank tea together and chatted like lifelong friends.
In the morning, when the danger of arrest had receded, the man accompanied the young protester into the street, stopped a taxi for him and offered him some money. The young man refused and thanked them. As they embraced the older man said: "It is I who should be thanking you for defending me, my daughters and all Egyptians."

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January 25 Protests in Egypt

For the first time, I'm finding myself glued to Twitter. I tried using it before, but never really understood the advantage it had over Facebook.

Then the protests in Egypt started.

I was urged by a friend in Cairo to go to Twitter and search for #jan25; the search term for anything relating to the Egyptian mass protests that started on January 25.

From then on I was addicted. I am addicted. I discovered the intoxication of receiving instant, uncensored updates from people who are actually out on the streets, protesting against Hosni Mubarak's undemocratic (to say the least) regime.

And the things the Egyptians are saying... people are witty, sincere, eloquent:
@SalmaNoshokaty: must be the longest day in Egyptian history, it's the 27th but for us it's still the 25th

 @SherineT: El Baradei: "The Egyptian people broke the barrier of fear, and once that is broken, there is no stopping them," 
@HosniMobarak: Habib just sent me a bbm. He says I should prepare a farewell speech for my citizens. Where are you guys going? 
(I didn't get it first; but it's supposed to be a clueless Mubarak speaking... haha)
@abgemei: Arab World is rising, Israel shits its pants.
(Oh, indeed)
@geoplace: Cairo residents in Egypt remove passwords from their wi-fi routers so protesters can communicate with the world 

(How great is that?)

@adlybazaar: Walk like an Egyptian
@A_MgDee: Please retweet to the world. We are being beaten up to death, arrested for expressing our point of views 
(How brave, to stand up for what you believe in under these circumstances).
@shabab6april: Egyptians calling for a 1 MILLION march All over egypt after friday prayers which end at 1pm share,Retweet,forward,broadcast 
izzy82 Reports that Friday prayers are banned, big mosques closed in central #Cairo to prevent protesters from gathering 
(Oh, but protesters will still gather!)
@ianinegypt El Giesh street looks like a war zone. Burnt out tires and rubble litter the street. Police checkpoint destroyed. 
And my favorite tweet from yesterday:
"Yesterday we were all Tunisian. Today we are all Egyptian. Tomorrow we'll all be free."
Just because I discovered Twitter, however, doesn't mean that I abandoned Facebook. And neither did the Egyptians. Twitter is best for updates, but Facebook is still where people organize themselves. Sonia Verma reports:
"An estimated 3.4 million Egyptians use the social networking site, the vast majority under the age of 25. Egypt is the No. 1 user of Facebook in the Arab world, and No. 23 globally. It is the third most-visited website in the country, after Google and Yahoo. 

With freedom of speech and the right to assemble severely limited in Egypt, which has been ruled under a state-of-emergency law since 1981, Facebook provides one of the only forums for dissent." 
To support the Egyptian revolution (also called the Koshari Revolution on Twitter), join here.

Finally, to remember one of those who sparked the social movement that lead to the protests on  January 25:

@_aser: Today is Khaled Said 's 29 birthday , let's make it a real birthday for freedom. 

Khaled Said was the young Egyptian beaten to death by the Egyptian police last summer, after having exposed corrupted police officers on his blog.

(Redundant observation: the internet is changing our world. Or we're changing our world with the help of the internet).

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Old Lady from Bethlehem

On Monday morning - a bright, chilly Ramallah morning - a tiny, bent woman climbed the steep hill  that leads up to the main road from the mosque in Al-Tireh. She had a coat on to protect her from the wind; a skirt that reached just above her ankles; black stockings, and a colorful little silk scarf tied under her chin, covering most of her gray hair.

In her right hand, she held a brown wooden cane to support her slow, slow, arduous ascent.

When I caught sight of her, on our way to work, something tugged at my heart and I gave Tarek a nudge,

"Honey, ask her if she needs a ride," half thinking that she would never agree to get into a stranger's car. Where I come from, you don't offer people rides unless you know them.

Tarek rolled down the window and called out,

"Sabah el kheir, ya hajjeh." Good morning, hajjeh (a polite way to address old ladies).

She stopped and leaned against her cane, squinted her eyes at us.

Tarek repeated the salutation, and then: "Where are you going, ya hajjeh?"

She couldn't quite hear.

A little louder: "Get inside the car, ya hajjeh, we will drive you."

The little lady obliged, showering us with blessings, mumbling her gratitude to God Almighty as she scrambled her way into the back seat. I helped her with her cane.

"Where are you going, ya hajjeh?"

"To the doctor." Her shoulder was aching, and she was on her way to see the doctor.

"What doctor?"

"The one that is in Ramallah Tahta," she replied.

If I walk from the house in Al-Tireh to Ramallah Tahta, the old part of the city, it would take me at least half an hour.

I looked back at the little lady, her brown, smooth, leathery face. She was old, she could barely hear and her back was curved with age, but there was a whole lot of spirit in her.

"Where are you from, ya hajjeh?"

"Bethlehem, but I moved here 45 years ago." After some quick calculations in my head, I realized that meant that she had seen the 1967 Israeli invasion, the first Intifada, the second Intifada and the 2002 invasion of Ramallah; and she looked old enough to having been a girl in Bethlehem during the ethnic cleansing of what is now Israel, that culminated in the 1948 war. I wanted to ask her about it, but she could hardly hear anything and I got self-conscious about my Arabic.

She looked at me, "Where are you from? She doesn't look Palestinian," she told Tarek.

"I'm from Sweden," I replied.


"From Sweden, Sweden."

"From where?"

"Sweden, ya hajjeh."

"Sweden in Europe," Tarek clarified.

"Ah, Amreeka, yaani?"

"Yes, Amreeka." Close enough.

We drove. Up the hill, past the olive trees, rounded the gas station, passed the UN Women's Vocational College, the Scouts center, the Kol Shi Shahi delicatessen, the video rental store with bootleg DVDs.

When we got to Ramallah Tahta, we pulled over and said good bye to the little old lady.

Then, as she was hobbling away from the car, Tarek suddenly said, "I have to make sure she has money to see the doctor," and went after her. Three strides and he caught up with her.

I watched them through the rear window.

When Tarek came back he said that he had given her a 100 shekel. He had asked her if she had money, and she had replied,

"No, but God will look after me."

Then she had refused to take money from Tarek, but Tarek insisted and finally tucked the 100 shekel bill into her pocket.

She was right. God did see to it that she would be able to pay the doctor's bill.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Creative E-Mail Addresses

So. I work as a project manager at a local NGO in Ramallah, and we have several different development projects for youth in the West Bank with conflict resolution training, media internships, talk shows on TV... among other things.

Anyway, for reporting purposes, we have our participants sign attendance sheets at events and training sessions.

And you can never believe the e-mail addresses kids have these days (how old does that make me sound?).

Therefore, I will list a few:

soosa-BIGBOSS (my personal favorite)





dintistforever (somebody who likes the dentist?)








Haha. Very creative.

(I only listed the fun stuff that comes before the @ for privacy reasons. Plus, many of them had a series of numbers after their name, which I didn't include in the event that evil spammers monitor my blog).

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Monday, January 17, 2011

The Fruit Seller and His Son

Once upon a time not very long ago, there lived a fruit seller in Cairo.

There lived many fruit seller in Cairo, of course, just like there still live many fruit sellers in this immensely large city; but only one who sold fruit on the street corner opposite my sister’s and my apartment.

Every day, he sat on the curb outside of the grocery store on Al-Hegaz Street, in his gray or light brown traditional galabeyya robe with baskets of fruit beside him.

His son sometimes took his place during the long days; and sometimes his brother. Somebody would always be there from early morning until after eleven or sometimes twelve at night.

His son was about twelve years old, perhaps a little tall for his age, thin, had beautiful brown skin. He also wore a galabeyya, and he was cross-eyed, shy and very sweet.

For only half a dollar per kilo, the fruit seller and his son sold huge, firm pomegranates that, when you cut them open, would drip with dark, dark crimson juice and stain your fingers and color your tongue red. They had pale green guavas that would make your whole apartment smell sweet; and large, aromatic navel oranges for less than half a dollar per kilo.

And they sold expensive golden apples from Syria; the most expensive fruit in Egypt that cost a whooping three dollars a kilo.

One day my sister and I stopped to buy oranges and pomegranates on our way home from Arabic school. The fruit seller was on a break, and his son was there instead, squatting on the sidewalk. When he saw us approaching, he immediately stood up, ready to weigh the fruit we wanted on his hand-held scales.

We knew the fruit names in Arabic, my sister and I, even if we didn’t speak the language very well yet. But the fruit seller’s son understood our broken sentences and picked out oranges for us, some guava, a few pomegranates.

Then, while I was trying to put together an acceptable sentence in my head to ask for some of his beautifully red strawberries, he must have been plucking up courage, too. For the moment I opened my mouth, and as he handed over the bags of fruit, he took a deep breath and started,
Ana bahebi…” I love y…

Momkin nos kilo farawla, low samaht?” I never meant to cut him short, but I had the strawberry sentence all ready on my tongue already and I couldn’t stop it.

The fruit seller and his son had no bananas, because bananas were sold off the cart by another galabeyya clad man, cut directly from the stem. Small, yellow bananas, sweet and soft.

The fruit seller and his son also had no lemons. Lemons – the local kind that are the size of a large strawberry, sweeter and more lemony than the “Italian” ones that you could sometimes find imported in some grocery stores – were also sold off the sidewalk, but because they fetched such a negligible price, it was a little bit below the rank of our apple-selling fruit seller.

He had started, maybe 15 years ago, with a small basket of lemons on the same street, saving as much as he could from the small profit he made, slowly working himself up to guavas, oranges, and now even apples. He was doing well now, and a woman a little bit further down the street had filled the lemon-selling void in our neighborhood. Lemon, fresh mint, parsley and spring onions.

If I return in ten years, I wonder if I will find her there still, selling oranges, maybe mangos and apples instead. Who will sell lemons then?

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