Romania’s myths, legends, warts and charms

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Romania defies many of the unflattering stereotypes associated with the country. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light.

Monday 17 November 2014

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

When I told people that I was going to Brașov and Bucharest, reactions varied from “be careful” and “nice girls” to “isn’t it just full of Gypsies?” and “where is that?” So I just said I’m visiting Dracula in Transylvania, and they just laughed. What did poor little Romania do to earn such scorn?

Don’t get me wrong, Bucharest and its environs have no shortage of forlorn grey buildings and decrepit streets that you would expect of the former Eastern bloc. But whereas East Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Riga, etc. have airbrushed out most remnants of that period with a post-EU makeover, Bucharest is still very much wrestling with its past.

A bit poorer than other former communist countries and with so much more ‘socialist development’ to undo – namely the widespread ‘systemisation’ of villages and towns across the country – much of Bucharest still evokes its communist past.

But that could be a blessing in disguise, if you think hard about it. Foreign investment and the rampant changes that big money brings to urban landscapes has been slower to arrive in Romania, and the complex legal wrangling over ownership of confiscated properties in what is left of the city’s old quarter has slowed the cancerous spread of cranes over Bucharest’s skyline.

Romania is also still not in the eurozone, and seems unlikely to be allowed to join for some time, despite promises to the contrary made in Brussels when the country joined the European Union in 2007.

For tourists this means two main things: Bucharest remains a relatively cheap European city trip, especially with low-cost airlines like Whizz and Ryanair now plying the route with some frequency; and it is a refreshingly authentic and richly diverse destination.

Why does authenticity matter? Well, if you travel often enough, you will know the answer to this question. European cities are all starting to look or feel a bit samey: the same chain coffee shops, strip malls lined with familiar clothes stores, the feeling that the medieval or Art Nouveau houses were finished by urban colourists.

So much slower to paint over its communist past, Bucharest is left with an opportunity to embrace the story, and what it means to modern Romania. It is a sensitive subject, no doubt, but hiding or glossing over the past is rarely a good recipe for thriving.

City planners could or perhaps should think about drawing a circle around that part of its recent history to mark the spot, as it were, where many memorable things happened. Yes, many bad things – deprivation, a systematic crushing of cultural identity and murderous actions – during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. But also ‘monumental’ things; legacies such as the building of the so-called ‘Popular House’ (more on that later) which dominates a massive swathe of the city centre, and the Parisian-styled boulevards the former dictator created may, after some decades of healing, become tourist beacons in the league of the Eiffel Tower, White House or Taj Mahal.

There are signs it may already be happening. I took an official tour of the Palace of Parliament – as it is now called after the Romanian government agonised as to what to do with this White Elephant following Ceaușescu’s downfall in a dramatic and bloody revolution in 1989 – and learned first-hand that embracing the past (it’s good and bad aspects) doesn’t come easy to some.

“It was cheaper to make it into the Parliament and use the building that so many Romanian craftsmen and women worked hard to build than pull it down,” the tour guide offered dryly in answer to the question of how Romanians now feel about this towering hulk of a building, knowing how it came into existence.

Touted as the second-biggest free-standing building in the world after the Pentagon, ‘Madman’s House’, as it is also referred to behind closed doors in Romania, covers a whole city block. Churches, hospitals and thousands of houses were demolished in the 1980s to make way for Ceaușescu’s monolithic ode to socialism, which to most who witnessed or ‘volunteered’ to build it spoke more to his and, perhaps more so, his wife’s megalomania.

In the nearly one-hour tour of the bowels of this 1,100-room monster, which only took in three of the reported 12 floors and just a small sample of the various halls, chambers and endless corridors, not once did the tour guide mention Ceaușescu’s name. Nor did she explain the backstory to the December 1989 uprising. This was an ‘official’ tour, and the guide was either careful not to discuss politics, as it were, in what is now the Houses of Parliament or she was just not very good at her job.

Intrigued by the probable side-stepping of the questions by our guide, it didn’t take much searching to learn that praising the crimes of “so-called totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims” is forbidden by law in Romania. So that would then apply to the Ceaușescu regime, I presume. Indeed, TV journalist Dinel Staicu reportedly received a hefty fine for praising Ceaușescu and airing pictures of the former leader.

Two sides

Not so careful was the guide on a private bus tour to Brașov in Romania’s central area, which is more famously known as Transylvania. The much younger, rather chirpy, guide (certainly for 7:45 am) breezily described the chain of events leading up to Ceaușescu’s ill-fated last speech on the Piata Victoriei, the ensuing riots, civilian deaths and eventual capture, two-hour trial and summary execution of Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989.

“That was Romania’s Christmas present that year,” said the guide. “Not many mourned the death of the second dictator, who made the first communist dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej who died in 1965 seem like a nice guy!”

But Ceaușescu, who led Romania from 1967 to 1989, didn’t start out that bad, she went on to explain. He became increasingly erratic and distant from the people during his decades-long rule. Something many Romanians blamed on Elena and their lack of education.

The fact that they both came from very humble beginnings gave them a common touch to begin with but that changed as Ceaușescu’s personality cult grew. He gave himself such titles as ‘Conducător’ (Leader) and ‘Geniul din Carpați’ (The genius of the Carpathians), and by the time they returned from a visit to North Korea, witnessing the grandiose avenues of Pyongyang and the socialist-inspired urban landscapes, there was no stopping them … well, almost.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

The other figure in Romanian history with an equally complicated back-story is that of Vlad Țepeș (1431-1477), alias Vlad the Impaler and inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula. A story so convoluted by folktales, legend, stories of witchcraft, eerie castles, fictional characters and a grain of truth, Vlad Țepeș is a larger-than-life character in Romanian history. But with the benefit of romantic hindsight, and a growing understanding of the bankability of such stories, Romanians clearly more easily embrace some parts of history better than others.

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, is being celebrated this year as Romania’s great protector and unifier following his bloody campaign (neatly rounded to) 555 years  ago to rid Wallachia and surrounding territories of the Ottoman Turks. Vlad was born in Sighișoara, a city on the Târnava Mare River, and raised in Târgoviște in south-central Romania, together with his brother and father, Vlad II Dracul(ea), who was Voivode of Wallachia – now a province of Romania, with Bucharest at its centre.

Time to settle once and for all the confusion between Vlad the Impaler and Dracula: The castle that hordes of tourists see in Bran, just south of Brașov, is not Vlad’s castle. It may not have even been the castle Bram Stoker had in mind when he wrote Dracula in the 19th century, as the Irish author apparently never visited the area, but rather concocted his story from a heady blend of geographical facts, patronymic borrowings (his father was a member of the Order of Dragons, or ‘drac’ and ‘ulea’, meaning ‘son of’) and regional mythology.

“In Romania today, schoolbooks and historians extol [Vlad Țepeș] as a patriot and a champion of order in lawless times, while the outside world knows him as the vampire count of a thousand cinematic fantasies … a spoof figure or a ghoul,” write Rough Guide Romania’s authors. “Horrible though his deeds were, Vlad was not accused of vampirism during his lifetime. However, vampires were an integral part of folklore in Eastern and South-eastern Europe, known as vámpír in Hungarian and strigoi in Romanian.”

Some attribute the ‘vampire’ phenomenon to regional folklore concerning a ‘flying one’ or Zburator who enters people’s homes and tortures young women coming of age with bites, pinches, tickling and worse. There are also tales of vampire-like behaviour in battle, with a victor ‘tasting’ a victim’s blood to take in his power. “Even to this day, some villagers in Romania are known to encircle their houses in salt and put up garlic against evil spirits,” our guide offers with a wry smile.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 work, which taking bits and pieces of fact and fiction, managed to stoke (sorry about that!) the imagination of a growing reading population (this is before film and TV) who were gripped with excitement and fear over such real stories as Jack the Ripper in London. Anyway, it makes for a good story and even better source of business for a nascent tourism industry.

Gypsies and sleaze

I have yet to address the other two stereotypes thrown up at the mention of Romania. On the bus to Brașov, the guide asked the dozen or so travellers what their impressions of Romania were before coming to the country.

The Israelis sitting nearest the door said “attractive girls and casinos” without blushing in the slightest. Some Americans – no sorry, they said “we’re from San Francisco” like it was a country – said they had heard of Vlad and Transylvania with a hint of embarrassment. The Italians and Spanish said they connected Romania mostly with Gypsies. I said rather pompously, as a resident of Brussels, most of my impressions were about Romania’s entry into the European Union and the “Roma question”, thinking the politically correct term would be appreciated. Nope.

The tour guide nodded thoughtfully and quick as a whip said, “So, more Gypsy stereotypes!” She went on to explain where the Romani came from and touched on the complicated relationship Romania has with a community that numbers between 650,000 and 850,000 people, depending on who you consult. Faced with discrimination both at home and abroad, many Romani do not declare their ethnicity in the official census and often don’t carry or own identity cards or birth certificates.

Upon joining the EU, many hoped that the plight of this minority in Romania and elsewhere in the expanding EU would improve. Despite vast programmes, and funding for worthy projects aimed at education, skills and ‘inclusion’ – through the likes of the European Social Fund – evidence of continued high levels of discrimination remain. Progress in Romania itself seems to take the back-burner to wider efforts to spruce up the economy (and the streets of the capital, it has been suggested!).

The tour guide didn’t hide the fact that she regretted her country’s reputation is hurt by its association with the Romani, and the challenges they present to what is effectively a developing country in Europe’s midst.

Wisely, she made no mention of mass deportations, periods of slavery and other privations throughout the centuries that the Romani have lived in the land now called Romania. Alas, it was a trip to visit pretty towns and Dracula’s castle not a debate on the ‘Roma question’, but I was pleased to have gotten as much information as I did from such a trip.

Taxi drivers were more forthcoming about politics and sleaze – and for many a formative impression on the tourists by ripping them off during the trip from the airport to Bucharest. My driver when leaving the country – a friendly and open fellow, as almost all contacts in Romania had been – said he had been driving taxis for 16 years and despite clear improvements in everything from the roads to the ‘luxuries’ in the shops, he felt his chances of getting ahead were slim.

“It’s the rule of the first seven years,” he offered philosophically. “It gives all the chances later.” So, that’s the foundation for success in Romania, I paraphrased. “Yes, the foundations, as you say; the rich ones have the sports cars and think it is their right to be like they want to workers; they have power.”

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

I asked him, then, if he will be voting for the socialist candidate in the election the following week (15-16 November). “No, he will destroy us … like the first socialist we got after Ceaușescu!”

That was frank, I thought to myself. So it seems the economically liberal PNL party headed by an up-and-coming city mayor Klaus Iohannis of the Christian Liberal Alliance would be his preferred presidential candidate over current Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who is leader of the Social Democratic Party.

“So, Iohannis is the better choice,” I offered. The driver looked in the rear-view mirror, raised his eyebrow and said, “Yes, better, not best … but I will vote for him.”

Go-go gone?

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

And as to the suggestion of cheap liaisons in smoky pubs and go-go clubs. Well, I admit I had imagined something like Prague or Budapest, but the historic quarter, which is the main tourist hub (the bit that was spared Ceaușescu’s socialist revisionism) had only a smattering of such joints. I was approached once on my second night by the stereotypical black-leather jacketed guy offering girls and more, but that was it. Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg … these are more sordid cities than Bucharest.

I never felt intimidated by anyone. The metro, though bleak, was by no means scary. The trains ran on time and the information boards were clear. Romanians respected your space but were happy to help when approached. They didn’t tout for business or force conversations on you. They were getting on with life, as it should be.

Altogether, Romania defied many if not all of the obvious stereotypes. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light. It is definitely a tourist destination on the up, and it deserves a ‘better’ rap, if the not the ‘best’ rap.

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The social media’s Islamic state of terror

 
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By Christian Nielsen

ISIS has skillfully manipulated social media as a powerful propaganda tool.  Should the online community self-censor to deprive it of free publicity?

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Tuesday 30 September 2014/Update Tuesday 18 November 2014

Quality media outlets – with their hierarchy of editors and codes of conduct – have the ability to hold or indeed withhold stories, in what they may consider the public good. Whether for ethical, legal or other reasons, though reasonably rare, there are historical precedents of newspapers and television stations, for example, choosing not to provide much-coveted coverage of terrorism events like a hijacked plane.

But the internet has proven a disruptive force – both in the positive and negative sense. Disruptive in that it gave a voice and opportunity to mostly young people in the Middle East to finally speak out against corrupt, incompetent or incorrigible rulers during the Arab Spring. But today it is also giving a loud voice – and gory platform – to a fanatical few who are intent on shocking and cajoling the right-minded world into a war which it sees no immediately viable way of avoiding. They say you should not shoot the messenger, but if social media is not part of the cause it should be part of the way out of this morass.

Is self-censorship an option?

This is a naive question, perhaps even an abhorrent one, for journalists to be asking, but it’s out there now, so let’s look at it more closely.

Of course, it is technically possible to censor social media from the top down, as amply shown by authoritarian states. This is an altogether different and unwelcome scenario. Here, I am speaking more of social media developing its own set of ethics or code of conduct beyond the people’s court of opinion after the offensive material has already been put out there.

Internet’s not insignificant influence

Already by 2008, just decades after it entered our lives, the internet had taken over traditional newspapers as a prime source of news, Pew Research reported, and for young people, it rivalled television as the main source of national and international news.

Back then a lot of the content still came from traditional sources, “usually those working in struggling newspaper companies and media outlets”, according to Global Issues in a debate broadly covering the changing media influence on society and democracy. But the online world is moving fast, with the growth of citizen journalism and blogs generating original content, and the ascent of video news and sharing sites.

Today, it is social media that seems to provide the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and its ilk with an ideal forum for broadcasting their vitriol through cruel acts of violence, including horrific executions in the heart of war-torn Syria and Iraq, as well as further afield, such as the beheading of a French mountaineer in Algeria by IS-linked fanatics. It is a frightening frenzy of copycat behaviour fanned by a medium that has no genuine filter befitting the gravity of the acts.

The ability to easily film and almost instantaneously upload footage of these crimes brings into question the role of today’s one-to-very-many media as a possible conduit for a whole new level of terrorism. The more intense the reaction, it seems, the greater the appeal of the medium and the greater the likelihood of repeat offenses by all manner of offshoots, affiliates and IS acolytes.

How much can we blame the media for this new wave of glorified “me-too” terrorism? Can and should video-streaming sites refuse to allow – or be more stringent in their rejection of – violent content of this nature? How much should the holders and managers of these platforms be held responsible for this shocking content in much the same way as Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is being scrutinised for providing a forum for state “secrets” to be disseminated?

Some tough questions, but ones that most definitely need posing. Where is the debate on the role of new media as a seed for the decline in responsible reporting. As a supporter of the liberal press and freedom of speech, this is a hard thing to even write about, let alone contemplate. But maybe the new media have a responsibility like the old media once displayed, refusing to show the graphic, the abhorrent; reducing terrorists’ ability to promulgate their propaganda with impunity, and stopping the marketing machine that is IS from recruiting disenfranchised youth from East and West to its distorted call for a Caliphate.

I once described terror (in my now rather quaint book Tourism and the Media) in terms of its communication goals; and overlaid the way it works on people – remember terror is by definition to instil fear not necessarily to wreak carnage – and their perceptions in terms of basic communication (‘Terrorism represented as basic communication’ p157).

In the book, I touched on the early writing of PA Karber who in his unpublished paper ‘Terrorism as social protest’, introduced the communication dimension in how we conceptualise terrorism, “as a symbolic act”. In other words, the message (terrorist act filmed) being sent by the communicator/sender and received by the audience (the terrorist’s true target) whose feedback (recipient’s reaction) is communicated back to the sender.

The reactions in the case of IS are expressed in different ways, including, it now seems, the greater resolve of governments, both in the region and beyond, to stop them, in the knowledge that public support for aggressive measures is broadly accepted. The general public also “reacts” in concrete ways which “express” the fear now successfully instilled by, for example, changing their travel plans. Authorities in the West also react in terms of altering their perception of a region or people of Muslim faith or “men of Middle-eastern appearance doing nefarious things”. This kind of profiling has dangerous and far-reaching consequences on tolerance in multi-ethnic cultures like Canada, the USA, Australia and many parts of Europe. Examples of racial profiling are already coming out in Australia where the Guardian has reported a storm brewing over sensationalist journalism, press freedom and media hysteria about terrorism.

It will be telling proof to see the impact on travel to Muslim-majority countries by Westerners from the nations who have been loudest and most actively opposed to IS. The terrorist act succeeds if just one person changes their plans to visit Algiers, Petra, Casablanca or largely peaceful nations in the wider region, if people start making decisions based on fear. And with potentially millions seeing these horrible acts, or even reading about them in follow-up coverage, the probability that many more people will give in to the fear grows.

Perhaps the solution is to take out the middle men, remove the ability of these vile characters to get their message out so easily and effectively. It’s a thought. But is it a step too far? Does it take us back decades, or centuries… back to treating the press as a war propaganda machine? It amounts to censorship, one way or the other.

It would also mean articles like this are doing nothing more than adding to the “noise” of material keeping these fanatics’ dreams alive. On the flipside, if no-one reported the events, the support for action against this threat would be so much harder to muster.

Former US President George W Bush’s head-long and ham-fisted “War on Terror” in mostly Iraq and Afghanistan has brought only more trouble to a troubled region. And the loose application of the truth about weapons of mass destruction used as justification to enter this “war” doesn’t help the case for going back into the fray. Which is why the graphic nature of the crimes today (for that is what we are really talking about… Vile crimes committed by a cast of Sunni zealots, killers and misfits, to borrow from a recent story in The Economist) has worked as a wake-up call to the United States and its band of unlikely allies to go back and fix what was broken during the decade-long folly that was the War on Terror.

Now we’re terrified

Now that we really do have terror and the perpetrators are using the most powerful weapon they have at their disposal – mass, cheap, easy communications – to make us afraid. I think for the sake of clarity, it is worth recounting what terrorism is. It has no doubt existed in one form or another for millennia, but in its modern form, we need to go back more than a century.

Anarchist terrorism captured headlines and media attention back in the late 19th and early 20th century. But for modern scholars, it reached the zeitgeist in the 1960s and 70s, and first peaked (in news terms at least) in the 1980s thanks to events such as the downing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and tensions in Israel, Northern Ireland, northern Spain, Central America and more.

Since the War on Terror commenced in the early 2000s it’s impossible to say what an act of terror really constitutes, and whether a death is a consequence of that when all parties would claim to be acting out of righteousness. But to continue on that train of thought would take us into a deep, dark recess of rhetoric and semantics on the distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter; one in which the Northern Irish have for years been digging their way out of. But with the statesman-like send-off that Ian Paisley recently received on the news of his death, it appears history is rewriting certain chapters for all of those engaged in the war/terrorism in and around Northern Ireland.

So back to our (mis)understanding of terrorism. The US government once defined it as “… premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents… intended to influence an audience.” While perhaps ignoring state terrorism in this equation it is a compact and functional definition.

And IS and its acolyte’s violent acts on civilians, journalists and aid workers would appear to fit this description, and its use of the media to “influence an audience” works here as well. RAND, a research think tank that keeps records of terrorism trends, has expressed that terrorism should be identified by the nature of the act and not by the identity of its perpetrators or the nature of their causes. But as I mention in my book, RAND’s description could be taken too literally by the world’s mass media which keep coming back to the horrors of the act, the visible carnage, and the loss of life which unfortunately seems to boost ratings. The focus here is more on the act than the nature or reasons behind the act.

Hostage-taking, beheadings, bombing, hijackings, assassinations… Audiences risk becoming addicted to the outrage, at the expense of better analysis and understanding of the causes; a trend which is likely only to aggravate the situation. What audiences must understand is that a terrorist act is intended to cause mayhem, confusion, outrage and terror, to rock the status quo.

The mass media, especially social media, needs to take a good look in the mirror and ask how much exposure they want to give these people. How much graphic detail is needed to maintain support for a just ‘War for Humanity’, if such a thing could ever exist, not another improvised ‘War on Terror’? Is the information really in the readers/viewers’ best interest, or the media channel’s?

Let’s stick to the tenets of good journalism, avoid sensationalising or fuelling the terrorists by over-publicising their horrible acts. Let’s try to sensibly limit the “feedback” they are craving.

UPDATE:

New figures published this week indicate that terrorism fatalities have increased almost fivefold since 9/11, and this is despite the US-led ‘war on terror’. The Global Terrorism Index reported some 18,000 deaths last year, a hike of nearly 60% over the previous year. According to the report, four groups were responsible for the majority of deaths; namely Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and al-Qaida in various parts of the world.

“The terrorism index raises questions about the effectiveness of a western counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 that has seen US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and the use of proxy forces around the world,” writes The Guardian. The report’s release coincides with the latest Isis video showing the beheading of the American Peter Kassig, an aid worker who was posted in Syria.

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The liberation of exile

 
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By Khaled Diab

My father’s secret police file reveals that my newly wed parents were right to flee Egypt. But I’m grateful for the liberation of “exile”.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

‘This is your life’ was a British TV show in which special guests were taken by surprise on a trip down memory lane with the aid of a ‘big red book’ of their lives.

Though this format never made it to Egypt, the secret police, diligent to a fault when it comes to documenting the achievements of Egyptians, ran for decades its own Orwellian biographical service, accumulating clandestine archives on the “enemies” of the state.

That such documents existed would surprise only the most naïve Egyptians, as most dissidents, opposition politicians, political activists and critical writers and journalists have long suspected there was a binder with their name on it lying in some dusty state security archive or dungeon. On occasion, I have been curious whether I, or other outspoken members of my family and circle of friends, had an unofficial state biographer and what information my unauthorised biography contained. Who knows, perhaps I am privileged enough to have multiple biographers, including an Israeli one chronicling my sojourn here.

The idea that anyone would ever be able to lay hands on their file once seemed like a distant fantasy. But in the mayhem and chaos that followed the collapse of the Mubarak regime, revolutionaries were able to enter a number of state security fortresses – which some likened to the storming of the Bastille – and get their hands on numerous files before they could be destroyed by panicked agents.

It turns out that state security’s prolific biographers had profiled my own father. A dissident for the greater part of his life now, he entered one of those ransacked “temples of torture” and a revolutionary who recognised him handed him 25 partially scorched pages from his police file. The fragments of my father’s unauthorised biography, while containing a smattering of facts, were mainly a work of creative fiction. In addition to detailed information about his family in Egypt, the file contained a number of far-fetched claims – foremost among them was that he had once led a militia in South Lebanon.

“I never even learnt how to shoot a gun,” my father, whose poor eyesight had got him out of military service, told the BBC, his tone reflecting his utter disbelief. The mere suggestion that my bespectacled, somewhat corpulent old man – who has come no nearer to commanding columns than those found on a newspaper page – was some kind of Arab Che Guevara or was capable of wielding anything more threatening than a pen is truly amusing.

My father regards the very existence of his state security file as a sign of the state’s profound insecurity and weakness. He also believes that the tall tales it contains were not the fevered workings of a paranoid mind, but were a carefully crafted attempt to fit him up in the event that they ever got their hands on him. “They were preparing something to get rid of me. There was a plan to do something,” he speculated.

If he is right, then my parents’ decision to flee Egypt was a wise one and saved us all the grief of political imprisonment, a show trial, or perhaps worse.

But what my father’s file doesn’t contain is the human consequences of dissent and exile, and the profound role it has played in shaping an entire family.

When my father learnt that he was being watched, my parents decided to get married in a hurry and the nearest they got to a honeymoon was to flee to Libya, which was relatively open and booming in the early 1970s, before Gadaffi had gone completely mad.

I was born in Tripoli (as was one of my brothers) and, though I remember almost nothing consciously of our sojourn there, my birthplace has cast a shadow over my life. For example, exhibiting a comparable level of paranoia to the Egyptian regime, American Homeland Insecurity has quizzed me as to whether my toddler self ever served in the Libyan armed forces, which would give a whole new meaning to infantry.

From Libya, my parents decided to move on to the UK, at a time when it was still relatively easy to immigrate because my folks were against the idea of seeking political asylum. But my mother returned to Egypt to give birth to my sister (the only sibling born in Egypt) among her family while my father sorted out a place for us to live. What was supposed to be a short visit morphed into a three-year enforced stay as the Egyptian regime effectively held us hostage in a bid to lure my father back.

My courageous and versatile mother, who was juggling the demands of caring for three children and holding down a job, took the government to court and the judge always ruled in her favour, yet each time we went to the airport, we found our name on the notorious “banned from travel” list. Actually, I should point out here that, though my father is the official dissident of the family, my mother is the real rebel, willing to go against social convention to stay true to her convictions. In addition, she is the founding mother of our democratic household.

Eventually, the court was able to impose its will and we finally made it out of the country, only to embark on a long tour of the Middle East trying to find a country which wasn’t pissed off with my father where we could meet and finish the paperwork to move to Britain.

For the next decade or so, we lived in London and were unable to visit family in Egypt. During that time, my mother lost her mother and one of her sisters, losses made the more painful by distance. The memories I have of my favourite grandmother are shrouded in mist: I recall her lovingly tending her birds, kissing the food into their beaks, in her intriguing rooftop pigeon coop, and the frenzied activity she coordinated on the eve of Eid to produce delicious homemade sweets.

In a way, our return to Egypt did not end my sense of “exile”. Although I felt a strong bond of belonging at a certain level, some aspects of life there remained foreign to me and quite a few compatriots viewed me as an honorary foreigner. In addition, my years abroad had bred in me a certain wanderlust and I eventually departed the banks of the Nile once again.

Despite the challenges of distance, I do not share the sentiments of many Egyptian and Arab political and economic migrants who lament their estrangement and long passionately to return. But, unlike for some, such as Palestinians and Arab Jews, my “exile” is an entirely voluntary one and, hence, different.

The unusual circumstances surrounding the formative years of my life have played a part in shaping my personality and identity, and gave me an early object lesson in the importance of being your own person and thinking your own thoughts.

Despite the occasional conflicts between them, I am thrilled by my multiple identities (at once Egyptian, Arab, British, Belgian, European and, above all, human). Each has its own distinct voice in my head, reminding me that the world is a complex place that can be viewed from so many different perspectives. Learning other languages can also help you savour the various accents of life with different tongues.

Being one half of an international couple has been a hugely mind-expanding experience, involving, as it has, tripping round the world with my wife. Our toddler son’s multicultural background is already showing signs of instilling in him a sense of adventure: he is currently missing travelling and has been loudly demanding to go on a plane, switching languages to make his point absolutely clear.

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I spent its entirety in Egypt and I usually conclude that it would have been much the duller. I am profoundly grateful for the kaleidoscope of experiences the accident of my birth has opened up to me. Though I feel quite out of place everywhere, I can also make myself at home just about anywhere.

—-

You can follow Khaled Diab on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DiabolicalIdea

This column first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 9 July 2012.

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Social media and the end of nationalism as we know it

 
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By Osama Diab

As social media strip away the space and time separating like-minded people, is the notion of “nationalism” becoming too small for us?

Friday 8 June 2012

Not in the very distant past, the media and media platforms were mostly specific to individual countries, and the interactivity and communicativeness of traditional media was very minimal. Unlike social media, people from two ends of the world were unable to communicate directly and form communities using traditional media, such as radio or TV. The rise of social media has given rise to virtual spaces in which virtual communities can be formed and flourish. But what effect will this have on actual physical spaces and communities that are based on geographical proximity?

The idea of cosmopolitanism can be traced back thousands of years at least to the time of ancient Greek philosophy. However, historically, cosmopolitanism was confined to philosophy and was limited to haughty debate among philosophers, sociologists and academics. This might be changing now, and due to the renewed interest in globalisation, cosmopolitanism might find its way to the grassroots level. Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist argues that “[cosmopolitanism] has left the realm of philosophical castles in the air and has entered reality”.

Nationalism, based on geography, wouldn’t have been possible if it had not been for the mass media. Benedict Anderson, the Irish scholar, argues that print-capitalism laid the bases for national consciousness by creating “mechanically reproduced print-langauges capable of dissemination through the market”. Today, the world is becoming more compressed in terms of time and space, crushed by faster transportation and communication, and the closing of distances this involves. When we take into consideration the speed at which data travels, time and space actually almost completely collapse.

Will our unprecedented ability to communicate through time and space increase the scope of imagined “national” communities? If nationalism in essence is the ability to identify and belong to a people in a particular geographical area, what are the factors that determine the size and the scope of this area of community?

Benedict Anderson famously argues in his book Imagined Communities that speakers of the different variety of English, French, and Spanish who would often find it difficult to understand one another, became able to communicate and understand through print and paper. They then became aware of the other similar people in their ‘langauge-field’, forming the so-called imagined communities. Driven by the capitalists’ desire to enlarge markets, they pushed out the boundaries of their community to form larger communities.

Anderson links the emergence of nationalist ideologies with the emergence of print capitalism. According to Anderson’s theory, the limit of which people will imagine a community is, at least, partially dependent on the media they share and the interest of media owners (the capitalists) in unifying factors, such as language, in order to get a larger amount of people to consume their products. In this process, many minority languages and cultures might be suppressed, but nevertheless, bridges of understanding and empathy are arguably built. So what happens when the media cross national boundaries to cover the whole globe and the interests of capitalists becomes transnational?

In a similar manner to how profit-driven capitalism encouraged the “assembly”, or convergence, of vernaculars into a single language, enabling people identify with a larger community for the first time, the modern multinational corporation and global media encourages people to “learn” a global language. This phenomenon is like Anderson’s print-capitalism but on a much larger scale.

Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese corporate strategist, states that global firms must share a common language and that mother country identity must give way to corporate identity. The emergence of English as a global lingua franca inevitably intensifies the level of communication and shared cultural experiences between people from different parts of the world at an unprecedented rate.

Ulf Hannerz, the Swedish social anthropologist, argues that in order for a transnational corporation to operate in a global world, it must not have ties with any particular location and develop a more decentralised approach by getting rid of the central headquarters mentality. The global forward-looking firms must create a system of values to be shared by company managers regardless of their backgrounds or whereabouts to replace “the glue nation-based orientation once provided”.

This is why in multinational or transnational corporations, who in some cases, are bigger, wealthier and more powerful than states, the role of the human resource management is to create a culture and identity for the company which will develop a feeling of loyalty similar to that citizens feel towards a state. In this model, the corporation an employee works for becomes part of their identity in what Hannerz calls the “transnational source of identity”. The same applies to social and political movements which share the same cause. The “we are the 99%” slogan is mostly associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but was used in many other Occupy camps around the world.

Paradoxically, the very regime that created and was the engine behind globalised free trade is now being fought and criticised using the tools and weapons it created. If we take Occupy activists from two different countries as an example, they would probably communicate and coordinate in English using Google Mail, Facebook or Skype and transfer money through an HSBC account and they might even book a conference hall in the Hilton for their annual meeting. This makes the anti-globalisation movement quite globalised and highly reliant on transnational corporate brands to express its anti-corporate sentiments.

It seems inevitable that we, and more certainly future generations, will be less likely to identify ourselves primarily in terms of a narrow geographical areas, and more likely to associate along more cosmopolitan lines, according to political or cultural identity, for example. This will require a new approach to studying these phenomena such as Beck’s “cosmopolitan sociology”.

It might be useful here to draw on Raymond Williams theory of the three cultural moments: dominant, emergent and residual. In the age of global de-territorialised media, we could perhaps define cosmopolitanism as the emergent, nationalism as the dominant and tribalism as the residual. Just as the spread of nationalism didn’t completely stamp out tribalism, the collapse of national psychological barriers and the rise of cosmopolitanism will also not abolish nationalism overnight.

Cosmopolitanism is no longer a naïve and rosy vision that the world will become more pacifistic and a better place to live, but rather a perception of the self where national borders play a less significant role in the modern person’s identity, or rather multiple identities. It is also useful not to view cosmopolitanism and nationalism as conflicting and mutually exclusive. Human beings are capable of ‘hosting’ multiple identities. Therefore, the growth in cosmopolitanism doesn’t instantly suggest a decline in nationalism, but would just add a new layer of empathy which is the ‘cosmo’, or the globe, that wasn’t commonplace before due to the relative limitation in means of transport and communication.

It is likely that divisions, conflicts, and differences will remain but they will gradually become less along national lines and more across lines which are political, religious, ideological, etc. Empathy, accordingly, might become less based on geographical proximity but rather on ideological proximity. An Egyptian Marxist might be able to identify more with an Italian Marxist than with a ‘fellow’ Egyptian Islamist. Amid the increasing importance and impact of virtual places, geographic spaces will begin to face some serious competition. Sharing your concerns with someone thousands miles away from you while thinking of your next door neighbour as a stranger might be an increasing phenomenon in the near future.

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Robert Mugabe and ethical tourism

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Was Robert Mugabe’s appointment as UN ‘tourism ambassador’ an unforgivable travesty or can ‘guilt-edged tourism’ trigger reform in dictatorships?

Thursday 7 June 2012

Despite no formal title being bestowed upon the controversial ‘dear leader’ of Zimbabwe, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said the association with Robert Mugabe in the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) was “outrageous” and symbolised “what is wrong with the UN”.

So, how did this farce come about? The story goes that UNWTO’s Secretary-General Taleb Rifai recently met the ageing Mugabe, along with Zambia’s President Michael Sata, at Victoria Falls on the country’s shared border.

According to a story in the UK daily,  The Telegraph, the three signed an agreement that UNWTO’s 20th General Assembly would be hosted there in 2013. Both presidents were then invited to “join hands with other world leaders and add [their] voice to our effort to position travel and tourism higher on the global agenda”. Rifai reportedly praised Zimbabwe for its hospitality. “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination,” he said.

But criticism has poured in from around the world about the UN’s poor judgement, not only in this case, but in several other high-profile decisions in recent months. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the US House Foreign Affairs chair, went as far as to accuse the UN of “propping up dictators“, but that it had hit a “new low” naming Mugabe as a tourism envoy.

“[As] if North Korea chairing the Conference of Disarmament and Cuba serving as vice-president of the Human Rights Council had not been enough,” she is quoted as saying. “The continued rewards the UN bestows upon the world’s dictators has reached the point of absurdity. An organisation devoted to world peace and stability is propping up and aiding the very regimes that oppose such ideals.”

In its defence…

The World Tourism Organisation is a relative newcomer to the United Nations table and is perhaps showing its inexperience. And it is not even the only international tourism organisation on the block, with the World Travel and Tourism Council also exerting significant influence in the sector – which may grow if  UNWTO continues to bungle international relations on this level.

The UN describes its association with the WTO, a “specialised agency”, as a global forum for tourism policy issues and a practical source of tourism know-how. “UNWTO plays a central and decisive role in promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, paying particular attention to the interests of developing countries … [It] encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, with a view to ensuring that member countries, tourist destinations and businesses maximise the positive economic, social and cultural effects of tourism and fully reap its benefits, while minimising its negative social and environmental impacts.”

Even a cursory glance at this manifesto reveals a few major missteps in cozying up with Mugabe, despite his country clearly qualifying for much-needed economic development. Under Mugabe’s three decades of rule, Zimbabwe’s economy has deteriorated from a mini-powerhouse of southern Africa to a spluttering basket-case. Crony politics has all but destroyed the country’s once robust and well developed agricultural sector. Combined with a decade of hyperinflation, low growth, massive debt, decrepit public services and knowledge flight, as the skilled and educated seek opportunities elsewhere, and you have a potent compote for a failed state.

According to the African Economic Development Institute (AEDI), President Mugabe’s Land Acquisition Act of 2000, which led to a massive redistribution of arable lands from thousands of experienced white farmers to less experienced black farmers, set the scene for economic failure. The plan was reportedly supported by Kofi Annan, then the UN Secretary-General, who said at the time, “The equitable distribution of productive capital, such as land, is not only economically important, but also essential to ensure peace and stability.”

The AEDI explained in a 2009 report on ‘The failing economy of Zimbabwe’ that Zimbabwe’s Land Acquisition Act had amplified a serious food shortage crisis. “If Zimbabwe cannot provide itself the basic elements of survival, such as clean water and food, there is very little prospect of any economic development,” it concluded.

So, Zimbabwe was in terrible shape in 2009, but what about 2012? There are some positive signs, at least when it comes to the economy. According to Africa News, Zimbabwe‘s economic outlook is bright. “The establishment of a government of national Unity (GNU) in February 2009 and the adoption of a multi-currency regime brought about economic recovery and price stability, and strong recovery will continue this year.”

Agricultural output, it reported, rose 15% in 2009 and 34% in 2010, largely from increased tobacco production. However, growth in manufacturing output slowed down to less than 3% in 2010 compared with 10% in 2009. This year, farm output is expected to increase as more land was put under tillage last year.

Guilt-edged tourism

The pariah state of Myanmar springs to mind as a similar international relations debate to that facing Zimbabwe now: do you prop open the door of a dictator by maintaining dialogue, or in the case of tourism encourage visitors to go there, or do you nail it closed, thus blocking any chance of light or change getting in?

This ‘guilt-edged tourism’ debate (read about it in my book Tourism and the media), has swirled mostly over the skies of Cuba and Myanmar, with the jury perhaps still out on both. But there are signs that greater openness and exposure to tourists and (it should be said) their dollars, euros, yens and yuans, at least opens the door to these notoriously tricky leaderships.

Could the same be said of Zimbabwe? Has the UNWTO acted in the spirit of its doctrine of “promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism” or has it overstepped its mark, or just plain lost its way in a misguided attempt to sew up the world’s tourism patchwork?

In my humble opinion, the door needs to be open just enough to nourish any grassroots democratic and economic seeds worth reviving. Zimbabwe is clearly showing some signs of improvement since the GNU entered power in 2009, with opposition figure Morgan Tsangeri as prime minister. But there is too much bad blood – both internal and with the international community – with Mugabe still on the political scene.

The ageing leader will clearly jump on any warming in international relations at this stage of his career. At 88, he will be looking at legacies. Forgotten is his earlier role as the statesman who steered the country out of colonial rule. Remembered will be his role in the country’s economic decline and political repression, and perhaps even his newly bestowed title of tourism “ambassador” with a small ‘a’. Another dictator addicted to power goes from hero to zero.

 

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Egyptian in the holy land

 
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By Khaled Diab

As a rare Egyptian in Jerusalem, I have felt something akin to being a B-list celebrity.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

The Dome of the Rock. ©Khaled Diab.

Loathe thy neighbour is the unwritten rule which, despite exceptions, generally governs the relationship between Arabs and Israelis. Despite living together on the same land, few Israelis and Palestinians interact on a personal level. And with travel restrictions and the political baggage of mutual hatred, fear and distrust, there is little traffic between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.

Even between my native Egypt and Israel, which have had a peace treaty for almost as long as I’ve been alive that, at least in principle, allows mutual travel, few venture across the border in either direction.

So, what made us decide to come here?

In 2007, I visited Israel and Palestine to express solidarity with the Palestinians and extend a hand of understanding and empathy to Israelis, and partly to learn more about the socio-cultural reality behind the geopolitical situation which I’d been interested in and writing about for years.

Since then, I’ve toyed with the idea of returning to spend a longer sojourn. My wife, too, has a profound interest in the country – not only is she an Arabist, she has also researched creative ways of breaking the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So when my wife was offered a job in Jerusalem, and with the portable nature of my profession, we jumped at the chance.

Despite the outright opposition or reluctance of most Egyptians to travel here, family, friends and acquaintances have been generally positive about our move, even in light of worsening bilateral ties, especially following the deadly terror attack launched from Sinai and Israel’s violent, sovereignty-defying retaliation which sparked anger on the streets of Cairo, culminating in the trashing of the Israeli embassy.

“I admire what you’re doing,” a good Egyptian friend said. “But personally I couldn’t do it. I have too many moral objections and I don’t think I could cope with the occupation.”

Nevertheless, some Egyptian friends have expressed excitement.

“Damn, spring in that greenish, dynamic city. Sounds like a wow to me. Cuisine, lingos, music… and tension,” another close Egyptian friend enthused, though he did express concern about the “anti-Arab, anti-Muslim or anti-Egyptian” sentiments that I might encounter.

Fortunately, until now, my main experiences of discrimination have been at the hands of officialdom, the army and the police, but rarely on the individual level, at least explicitly. In fact, in places where Israelis and Palestinians are thrown together by accident, such as the controversial light railway in Jerusalem, they tend to be polite and respectful to each other.

When paths cross in Jerusalem. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“Wow” is perhaps not the word that first crops up in my mind when describing Jerusalem – “surreal” seems more appropriate. For an agnostic whose only interest in religion is social, political and historical, the spirituality – and fundamentalism – of the city holy to the three Abrahamic faiths is somewhat lost on me. Although I’m of a Muslim background, the Dome of the Rock complex fails to shake my soul, even during the intense spirituality of Ramadan. That said, its architectural grace is sublime, as is the artistic beauty within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – while, to the unspiritual eye, the Western Wall is, as its name suggests, just a wall.

But it’s not just the historical and spiritual backdrop; there are also the conflicting realities of one’s mundane domestic routines carried out in a bubble of relative tranquillity amid the wider context of tension caused by decades of conflict and a rapidly changing geopolitical situation.

Although my previous visit had already convinced me that Israeli society has so much in common with the rest of the Middle East, despite its greater individualism and non-conformism, the Egyptian in me still cannot fully overcome the sense of strangeness of the experience. And, even in my short sojourn here, I have encountered such a diverse array of the weird, wonderful and eccentric – including Palestinians who expressed qualified admiration of Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, and Israelis who criticised him harshly – as well as the good of heart, not to mention the bad and the ugly of intent and action.

Here the political encroaches on the personal with sobering regularity. For example, choosing where to live, shop or hang out raises constant ethical conundrums. The neighbourhood we live in is surrounded by settlements, which, if you lack knowledge of the political topography, you might mistake for well-off suburbs, while the nearby refugee camps resemble the popular quarters of many Middle Eastern cities, though they are walled in on all sides.

With the movement restrictions they must endure, it is often hard to meet up with Palestinian friends and acquaintances. Given the segregated nature of the city, many Jewish friends and acquaintances are reluctant – or even fearful – to come to east Jerusalem, though some do, while those from Tel Aviv and other more secular parts of Israel really don’t like visiting because of the city’s increasingly theocratic vibe.

An Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Ever since we arrived in the unholy mess of the Holy Land, we have felt quite conspicuous, with our particular Middle Eastern-European blend drawing speculative glances from Israelis and Palestinians alike, obviously trying to work out whether we’re one of them or the other side or just tourists. Also, our toddler son, with his blond curls and his mother’s delicate features, disarming smile and socialite swagger, is treated like a rock star wherever we go.

As an Egyptian, I have felt something akin to being a B-list celebrity myself – you know the type whose name no one knows but they’re certain they’ve seen before. Given that so few Egyptians travel to Israel or Palestine, most of the Egyptians Palestinians “meet” are through films, pop music, soaps and talk shows – which seems to endow their more mortal compatriots with a certain glamour and mystique, even if they can’t act, sing or dance.

Despite the criticism my presence here elicits from some Egyptians, Palestinians themselves usually express pleasure that a fellow Arab has come, and they are always eager to know what I think of their society and my take on the situation.

In trouble spots in particular, I am made to feel especially welcome. For instance, quite a few people in Hebron, and especially the shopkeepers, where over 1,000 shops have been shut down in the Old City to accommodate 400 or 500 settlers, told me, “We’re so glad that an Egyptian has come to see for himself what we have to endure.”

In fact, the uprising in Egypt has enhanced the “street cred” of all Egyptians in the eyes of Palestinians. Since we arrived, I have received endless congratulations for the revolution. Even while out researching an article in a tiny Palestinian village effectively cut off from the outside world by settlements, the locals I met got sidetracked from talking about their own plight to wax enthusiastic about the achievements of the Egyptian people.

“You Egyptians have raised the head of every Arab,” Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, told me.

Quite a few Israelis have also been inspired by events in Egypt, despite the fears elicited by Mubarak’s downfall among politicians and in mainstream society. “[The Arab Spring] has made me more eager to dream that the borders will open one day,” Mati Shemoelof, an Israeli journalist, poet and activist told me over drinks. “And I feel that we can only learn from this fabulous, new, brave movement.”

And as if to confirm his point, Israel has subsequently been gripped by protests over soaring housing prices, centred on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, which has been described by some commentators as the country’s own “Tahrir Square”. I recently headed to the Israeli Tahrir to attend the largest demo so far – and probably the largest in Israel’s history – and was impressed by the vibrancy, creativity, diversity and good-naturedness of the crowd. An Israeli I know was keen to find out if I thought the protests compared favourably to those in Egypt.

 Generally, being Egyptian carries a different significance for Israelis, who tend to feel isolated and rejected in the region. And so, when they find out that I’m from Egypt, they are often pleasantly surprised even confounded, such as during the protest in Tel Aviv where I was perhaps the only Egyptian in the crowd.

 “But why do Egyptians never come here?” is a common question I get. “We were so hopeful after the peace treaty that we would become normal neighbours,” a leftist artist once said regretfully.

After explaining the reasons, I often turn the question around and ask Israelis why so few of them go to Egypt, despite the desire of many Israelis I have met to be accepted as normal citizens of the Middle East.

Israelis not only fear the intermittent terrorist attacks that target tourists, they are also unsure of the reception they will receive from Egyptians, with many apprehensive that they will face such indiscriminate hostility that they may simply be mobbed on the street by angry crowds.

However, Israelis I have encountered who have actually been to Egypt have returned with generally positive stories to tell. For example, Ofir Winter, a post-graduate student specialising in Egyptian politics at Tel Aviv university, attended the annual Cairo book fair and not only thoroughly enjoyed the debates and seminars, but was also pleasantly surprised by how Egyptians reacted to him.

“I recall that the warmest welcome I got was in a Salafi book store,” he told me. In fact, so enthusiastic was the welcome that one of the workers tried to convert him, “but in such a tolerant, delicate and kind manner that I could not dislike him,” Winter explained.

And if an Islamist and an Israeli can hit it off so well together, there is hope for the future yet. In fact, I am whole-heartedly convinced that the most under-utlised yet powerful weapon in the peace arsenal is dialogue and joint action across enemy lines that mobilises the massive “silent” majority.

This is demonstrated by the fact that, despite the bickering of their leaders, not only do 80% of Palestinians support the Palestine’s controversial application for UN membership but, surprisingly, so do 70% of Israelis, a recent joint poll found. That said, few Palestinians or Israelis I meet hold out much hope that this latest “game changer” will change the game for the better.

But walls of suspicion stand in the way of greater joint action. “We don’t feel the majority of Israelis care enough or are interested in our plight to do anything about it. Besides, there isn’t enough mutual trust,” one young Palestinian activist told me.

“The Arabs I deal with in my activism are both sympathetic and suspicious of Israelis,” Shemoelof says, noting that the anti-normalisation movement is a great hindrance to joint action.

Although I agree that Arabs should not normalise their economic ties with Israel until a just resolution has been reached, I believe that there is much to be gained for the cause of peace if like-minded Arabs and Israelis come out of their trenches and join forces to build some common ground in the no-man’s land which separates them.

This essay was first published by The Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 26 September 2011.

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Recipe for gourmet camping

 
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ByRay O’Reilly

Who said camping has to be hard ground, twisted sleeping bags and Knorr’s instant pasta dishes? Here’s a recipe for gourmet camping in Burgundy.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

I’ve just scoffed a goose terrine and a fine bottle of Burgundy. In this version of fine dining, there are no snooty waiters, no starched table cloths – in fact no table at all – and no cutlery, glasses or any other standard accoutrement associated with such delicacies.

Ingredients for this dining experience:

-one Swiss Army knife

-one mug

-one artisanal terrine from the region around Auxerre

-one bottle of reasonably priced Henry de Vézelay Pinot Noir 2009

-one fresh baguette

-optional chair, plate, cherry tomatoes, local cheese

Dining ambience:

-roosting birdsong

-mating frog calls

-crickets

-water feature (open spillway)

Preparation:

-shopping itinerary: if the ‘travelling salesman’ algorithm can’t be used to plan an efficient route for visiting cellars and towns in Burgundy, then I suggest you head south for about an hour, taking in recommended sites, then do the same in the easterly, northerly and westerly directions until back to base. You should also:

-take time to visit artisanal shops with local produce (tell them the wines you bought or ask for recommendations on wines to accompany your terrine/cake/cheese, etc.)

-key to the preparations is the right mental state: make sure you are both tired and hungry as hell (I went on a two-hour bike ride around the nearby vineyards and back roads, taking in the terroir, you could say, before visiting the cellars

-back at the campsite: open the bottle and then go and have a shower to wash off the road and freshen up. By the time you’re back, the wine is ready for drinking

-open your jar of goose/rabbit/duck/pork … terrine

-tear off a large piece of baguette (big enough to tear the roof of your mouth) and smear a ridiculous quantity of tasty congealed meat onto the bread

-wash it back with a gulp of Burgundy from your mug

-repeat above step (perhaps adding a cherry tomato or two to lighten the meatiness if you can’t handle it) until you feel totally stuffed and satisfied with life!

Afters:

-a handful of mixed unsalted nuts, dried fruit and broken pieces of plain chocolate

-more wine

Then all you need to do is rinse the cup, wipe the knife and crash in your (wonderfully spinning) tent

Joy.

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Tombs for the living

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egyptians’ lavish burial spaces offer comfort to relatives – while 1.5 million less fortunate Cairenes live among the dead.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Egyptians have long gone in for lavish burials. ©Khaled Diab

To highlight the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, an Egyptian newspaper recently ran an article on what it described as “five-star tombs” (see one example here).

Echoing the grandeur of the ancient Egyptian nobility, one of the luxury tombs in Cairo’s upmarket Bab el-Wazir cemetery belongs to an unnamed celebrity and is said to have cost more than 3 million Egyptian pounds (around $500,000) – an astronomical amount in a country where per capita GDP stands at just under $6,000.

 The opulent, marble-faced tomb is surrounded by greenery and a large courtyard. Inside, it is equally well appointed, with a ‘living room’ quite literally to die for and a sumptuous bathroom. But why, the uninformed may ask, would dead people, even stars whose names may outlive them, need these places?

 In ancient Egypt, people did believe that they could take their wealth and status with them, that the afterlife was simply an extension of this one in a different dimension. But that is no longer the case today.

 Actually, these spaces are truly living rooms, i.e. rooms for the living. They are meant to provide family members with the comfort and space to relax and make a day of it when visiting their dead relatives at the weekend or during religious festivals.

Egyptians show little interest in the minimalist funeral rites favoured, for example, by the Saudis. No unmarked grave or simple marker would suffice the Egyptian appetite for honouring the dead. Instead, any family with enough money owns a tomb that, to foreign eyes, would appear to be a house.

These lavish burial requirements, combined with the shortage of land, especially in the capital, mean that the country’s housing crisis plagues poorer Egyptians both in life and in death. The situation has become so acute that a number of affordable burial projects have been established and many cemeteries, like the cities they serve, have low-cost popular quarters.

Though space is becoming increasingly tight for the dead, the living are profiting from Egypt’s burial traditions. According to government statistics quoted by al-Dustour newspaper, around 1.5 million people who cannot find housing elsewhere live among the dead in Cairo’s cemeteries, renting or squatting in the tombs.

The idea of living in a cemetery might seem a macabre choice. However, there is very little of the Edgar Allan Poe about Egyptian cemeteries. Cairo’s oldest functioning cemetery, colourfully known in English as the City of the Dead, could easily be mistaken for just another overcrowded district in the city’s poorer quarters – the main sign of its intended function being the memorial plaques everywhere.

House-like tombs and tombs as homes are likely to reinforce the prevalent idea that Egyptians, throughout their long history, have had a unique, even morbid fascination with death. But is this truly so?

The archaeological evidence might suggest it is. After all, the vast majority of ancient Egyptian monuments and artefacts are somehow related to death, or presumed to be so: the pyramids, the valleys of the kings and the queens, the mummies, etc. – as are many of the grandest monuments of the Greco-Roman, Christian and Islamic periods.

But the apparent plethora of physical evidence can be misleading. “This has more to do with geography (ancient remains were preserved well in the Egyptian desert) and the availability of materials,” explains Ilona Regulski, a Belgian Egyptologist who is currently lecturing at Yale University.

Indeed, although Egyptians buried their dead in the dry desert, they lived on the wet banks of the Nile where millions of tonnes of Ethiopian silt were deposited each year. Nevertheless, what evidence there is suggests that they lived lives remarkably similar to our own today and even had a highly developed sense of humour and irony.

Similar attitudes to death were also quite common in the ancient world. “There were a lot of similarities with other ancient cultures with regard to the whole afterlife thing and how to get there and what it looks like,” Regulski notes.

Even in more modern times and settings, preoccupation with death is all around: for example, church art is replete with gory images of the crucified Christ, as is Renaissance art.

Though Egyptians have lost the inclination to honour their dead leaders with monoliths, the tradition lives on elsewhere. Washington, the capital city of today’s most powerful empire, is like some kind of modern Valley of the Kings, with its grand Washington monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and the Arlington cemetery for the heroes and ‘nobility’.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 23 January 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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Deserts, desolation and development

 
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Amid the sweltering heat and omnipresent dust, Andrew Eatwell discovers Sudan’s hospitable and friendly face – and its rapidly developing capital.

13 October 2010

“Good luck,” the Egyptian immigration official said with a wry smile as he stamped me out of Egypt at the port in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. I was heading for Sudan – a 20-hour ferry ride south across Lake Nasser and a place where relatively few Western travellers dare tread. Given everything you read in the international media and on Western governments’ websites about Egypt’s war-torn, Islamist-ruled neighbour, I felt certain at least a little luck would be needed.

My fears – and those of friends and relatives who worried I would be caught up in one of Sudan’s myriad conflicts or taken hostage by Islamist extremists – proved unfounded. They started to dissipate on the ageing, overloaded passenger ferry that shuttles people and all manner of cargo once a week between the two countries. Crushed in between washing machines, satellite dishes, cutlery sets and the odd metal detector, my travelling companion, Dan, and I quickly got talking to Sudanese travellers and traders. Some were returning from visiting relatives in Egypt, some were there for business, but almost all were bringing something home with them. “Everything is too expensive in Sudan, that’s why we go to Egypt,” one man told me as we sat in the shade of a lifeboat.

We spent the night in that same spot. Two white westerners – a Brit (me) and a New Zealander (Dan, friend and fellow Arabic language student from Cairo) – and a dozen Sudanese guys lying in a row, our backs on the hard, hot metal deck, our legs dangling over the edge of the ferry as the waters of Lake Nasser glided blackly passed. Every square inch of space was taken – filled with cargo or people sprawled on the open deck or on benches or the floor in the stuffy seating areas below. Going to the toilet or the canteen in the dark involved navigating an assault course of human limbs.

We both found the genuine, friendly curiosity of our fellow Sudanese passengers refreshing after months spent in Egypt where decades of mass tourism and too many touts sometimes leave you with the unpleasant feeling that the locals view every Westerner as a walking wallet.

Wadi Haifa

Stepping off the ferry at Wadi Haifa. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

The ferry’s arrival in Wadi Halfa was as chaotic as its departure. People rushed ashore and cargo was hauled overboard onto the small concrete dock before both – almost interchangeably – were loaded onto trucks and busses for the short trip across a patch of barren wasteland to the immigration and customs offices. I was prepared for the worst: a thorough grilling by the immigration police and a full search of my backpack – Britain is not exactly on good terms with the Omar al-Bashir regime. Instead, we were waved through customs with barely a hitch. Our Sudanese visas, acquired equally painlessly at the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo for $100, were checked and the immigration officer stamped us into the country before jovially quipping: “Welcome to Alaska!” as we walked out of the warehouse-like office into near 50-degree heat.

Heat, dust and hospitality

Wadi Halfa, a few kilometres inland from the lake, proved to be a foretaste of every other Sudanese town we would visit. A few dusty streets, a dusty central square, a few dusty cafes and a couple of lokandas – cheap, basic hotels with, yes, dusty rooms and even dustier bedding. Heat and dust are the two defining elements of northern Sudan in summer – air so hot you can feel your lungs warming with every breath and dust that gets into every bodily crevice. Removing it is almost impossible, in part because water is in short supply and a shower – unless your definition of one involves a jug and bucket of brown liquid – is almost unheard of in many places.

Even at night, the heat can be unbearable and joining the locals in hauling your bed outside into the sandy courtyard of the lokanda to catch a slight breeze is often the only way to get some sleep and avoid drowning in your own sweat.

Road to Atbara

On the "road" to Atbara, 150km from anything, except sand and some trees. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

From Wadi Halfa we travelled south through the Nubian Desert to Dongola, then southeast to Karima and Atbara, tracing, as best we could, the course of the Nile and encountering progressively bigger but no less dusty, ramshackle towns.  At times, amid the sand storms that frequently blew up in the afternoons, driving through vast expanses of desert, crammed into the back of a bus, car or minibus, could best be described as voyaging through the insides of a vacuum cleaner. And in that desolate desert environment, there is certainly a sense of being in a vacuum – nothing for miles, eerie silence and no signs of life, or sporadically, life that once was in the form of cattle and camel carcasses slowly decaying by the side of the road.

The fact there were paved roads at all surprised me. From the research I had done on northern Sudan, I had expected gruelling, bone-jarring journeys on dirt tracks through the desert. Instead, we encountered new black tarmac everywhere – the results, locals were only too happy to tell me, of Chinese investment in the last couple of years.

In most towns, at least as far as we could tell, we were the only Westerners and the locals were genuinely curious about why we were there. A tea or coffee – and it is good coffee! – at one of the numerous street stalls run by brightly clad women frequently resulted in long conversations with our fellow drinkers, usually in Arabic, sometimes in English, and almost always about football. More than once, however, politics came up: they asked about America, the embargo, and about the West. Some said they wanted to emigrate, others blamed the West for Sudan’s problems. No one ever mentioned al-Bashir by name, nor did they want to talk about Darfur or the south. Many, a little surprisingly, said that the situation was improving, that they were struggling less now than in the past to live. In northern Sudan, at least, I came away with the impression from what I saw and heard that things were gradually getting better – though I very much doubt people in Darfur or South Sudan, which I have yet to visit, would say the same.

Begrawiya pyramids

At the foot of the Begrawiya pyramids. Smaller than their Egyptian cousins, but impressive. Photo: Andrew Eatwell.

South of Atbara, about a third of the way to Khartoum and just off the main Khartoum-Port Sudan road, the Begrawiya pyramids rise from the desert. Built 2,500 years ago by the Meroitic Pharaohs when the area was arable and verdant, the cluster of tombs sit half-buried by the sand. Though dwarfed in scale by their more famous counterparts in Egypt, they are just as impressive in their own right – helped by the fact that they are not thronged by tourists. We were the only visitors that day and the sense of desolation and of a civilisation lost was overwhelming as we sat staring out at the bleak desert in the shadow of the ancient tombs.

Khartoum: where the rivers and cultures meet

Stuck without transport in the middle of nowhere, we managed to finally flag down a road train after a waterless hour standing in blistering heat on the side of the road. Six hours later we rolled – slowly, painfully slowly – into the Sudanese capital. After saying goodbye to the affable, talkative truck driver, a Moroccan with a Sudanese wife transporting UN food aid from Port Sudan to South Sudan, we checked into a rundown hotel near the city’s main souq.

The area, like much of the capital, felt like an oversized version of every other Sudanese town we had visited, albeit livelier and more cosmopolitan. The shops bustled with activity during the day and the street cafés were alive at all hours. Along the Nile, not far from where the Blue and White Niles meet, new glass-and-steel office buildings were under construction and from the hostel window we could see a more upscale hotel: the Plaza, its rooftop sign written in Chinese.

We spent several pleasant days between central Khartoum and Omdurman, the capital’s more conservative sister city on the other side of the river, wandering the streets, browsing the souq’s stalls, soaking up the atmosphere over spiced coffee and fresh juices (alcohol is illegal), oh, and rediscovering the luxury of a shower.

For the first time since entering Sudan, in Khartoum I got a feeling that we were leaving the Arab world and entering sub-Saharan Africa. In the cafes, South Sudanese from different tribes sat in groups alongside Arab Sudanese from the north, Christians shopped and drank alongside Muslims. It seemed that in the more cosmopolitan, business-oriented atmosphere of the city, the divisions that have put Sudan on the world map for bloodshed and violence could easily be forgotten – perhaps too easily.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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More to Sudan than meets the West’s eye

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Despite its reputation for war and violence, there is more to Sudan than meets the West’s eye.

24 September 2010

Huge, harsh, desolate, with bloody borders and regions wracked by genocidal conflict, listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and under an international embargo, led by the only sitting leader to be indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, Sudan, Africa’s largest country geographically, is the quintessential pariah state. But there is much more to this land of violence and extremes than the religious fanaticism, gun-toting militias and rebel groups, famine and poverty that is frequently portrayed in the Western media.

Despite having the odds and much of the international community stacked against it, Sudan’s northern region, the largely violence-free area where the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir faces little opposition, is developing at breakneck speed. New roads are carving their way across the vast stretches of desert, glass and steel buildings are climbing skyward in Khartoum, and, at least for some Sudanese living away from the country’s many conflict zones, living standards are slowly improving.

“Here there was nothing but dirt before. Now there are paved roads, all in just a few years,” Hagg Said, the brother of the owner of a roadside café near the northern town of Abri, told me during a recent visit. “We can get around and trade more easily, it’s much better.”

The road running past Hagg Said’s brother’s café, like many roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects in Northern Sudan, was built by Chinese contractors, using local laborers, Chinese foremen and imported Chinese equipment. Some locals are enthusiastic about China’s growing influence – one store owner in the area has proudly hung a photo of Chinese President Hu Jintao alongside one of al-Bashir on his wall. In contrast, many northern Sudanese view the United States with disdain. They see Washington (which bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman in 1998 on the spurious grounds that it was producing chemical weapons and had links to al-Qaeda) and Western nations’ policies as holding the country – and their own lives – back.

While the West has sought to isolate Sudan, banning investment and blocking trade in response to the al-Bashir government’s dire human rights record, China has seized the opportunity to expand its influence. Chinese investment in Sudan accounted for a large chunk of the $5 billion the country received last year and China is one of Sudan’s largest trading partners, a relationship that has helped the Sudanese economy quintuple in size over the last decade, one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Clearly, Beijing is not just interested in selling cheap consumer products, construction equipment and completing infrastructure projects. Sudanese oil – the country is now the third-largest producer in sub-Saharan Africa – accounts for around 10% of China’s oil needs, and Chinese investment in the country’s mineral and resource-rich regions is growing. And it is precisely those regions that have put Sudan under the international spotlight.

Darfur, whose inhabitants rose up against decades of government neglect only to be slaughtered in their tens of thousands at the hands of government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, remains a dangerous flashpoint in the west of the country – one that spread across the border into neighbouring Chad in 2005.

In the south, where 70% of Sudan’s oil is pumped, a two-decade civil war between government troops and separatist rebels representing the area’s Christian-Animist population, claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million people until a 2005 ceasefire brought an uneasy end to hostilities. A referendum on independence for the south, scheduled for January 2011, is likely to be a new flashpoint in the near term.

Just recently, the Abyei border region, an area of rich pasture lands close to key oil fields where a separate referendum is to be held next year on whether the territory should join the currently semi-autonomous south, has been the site of several killings linked to conflicting territorial claims.

In all these regions, people are dying, killed not just by the bullets of soldiers, militiamen and rebels, but by the consequences of those conflicts: famine, poverty and disease. The United Nations recently warned that places such as Akobo, a town in the south-eastern region of Jonglei, is the “hungriest place on earth” with almost half of all children suffering malnutrition. The international humanitarian aid that does get to where it’s needed is essential for millions of Sudanese living in the worst areas of conflict, but international political pressure has so far had only limited impact. Killings continue in Darfur and Abyei, the south is still tense, al-Bashir remains in power – he won a widely ridiculed election in April after opposition parties boycotted the poll – and has yet to be hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Away from Sudan’s many areas of conflict, those countries willing to deal with Sudan and al-Bashir’s regime, such as China, India and some Gulf Arab states, are having far more impact, helping not only their own interests but, by proxy, also the lives of more than 20 million Sudanese (out of a total population of around 40 million) living outside the conflict zones.

Khartoum’s souqs and commercial districts bustle with activity, traders hawk cheap Chinese-made clothes and consumer products, internet cafés abound and mobile phone shops line every other street. New buses now ply paved roads previously only served by bone-rattling pick-up trucks, and satellite dishes beam channels from across the Arab and Western world into rural and urban homes. In the city’s squares, shops and cafes, where economics, rather than politics, governs daily life, people from Sudan’s many disparate ethnic groups mingle with apparent ease.

“I go to Cairo to buy from the warehouses and bring things back to sell in Khartoum. Everything is more expensive in Sudan, but people are buying so I can make a good profit. I’ve been all over for goods,” said Ibrahim, a trader from the capital, as he sat among boxed-up washing machines, flat-screen TVs and ceiling fans on the deck of the weekly ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.

Much of the world has sought to isolate Sudan in order to punish its political rulers. But entrepreneurial Sudanese and the few countries still willing to deal with the pariah regime, regardless of their underlying intentions, have ultimately ensured the world economy and economic opportunity have become more accessible to the average Sudanese.

Nonetheless, the unbalanced development of the country, largely based on oil wealth and with a large disparity between the center and periphery, remains a potential source for conflict and political instability, especially if oil-rich south Sudan moves to secede from the north next year.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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