One year on: Gaza’s hidden psychological ruins

 
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By Khaled Diab

It is not just the landscape that is scarred and devastated, Gaza is an emotional and mental wreck teetering on the verge of psychological ruin.

Gaza is on the verge of psychological ruin. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza is on the verge of psychological ruin. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 8 July 2015

At the Erez crossing.  Photo: ©Khaled Diab

At the Erez crossing. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Entering Gaza feels a little like infiltrating the world’s largest maximum security facility, home to 1.8 million inmates, living on 360 km² of land.

On the Israeli side of the high wall surrounding the imposing Erez crossing, there is a large field of magnificent sunflowers, which looks out of place in these bleak surroundings.

Small, impoverished, overcrowded and trapped between the deep blue sea and the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, Gaza is a stifling and suffocating place. Already confronted with a severe housing shortage before the Israeli military offensive in 2014, the displaced live in whatever available spaces there are: UNRWA schools, tents, heat-intensifying tinplate or zinc containers, with extended family and even in damaged buildings.

With reconstruction work stalled for lack of materials and funds, the deep scars left on the landscape by last summer’s brutal war have not even begun to heal. Almost everywhere you go, the remains and ruins of war are visible, even in Gaza city’s only upmarket neighbourhood, al-Rimal.

Posing in Shuja’iyya. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Shuja’iyya, which was flattened by Israeli forces and became an icon of the war, is still largely a rubble-strewn crater, where the skeleton of the odd building still stands drunkenly like a fallen house of cards. Bulldozers slowly remove the traces of destruction and young children play in the newly vacated spaces, asking us to take their photos.

Given the many rounds of destruction Gaza has endured, there is a sort of geology of devastation. The oldest artefact is the short-lived but once-gleaming Yasser Arafat International Airport. But like Palestinian dreams of freedom and independence, its Andalusian arches lie in ruins. Now a grazing ground for camels, this locked gateway to the world is a poignant symbol of Gaza’s current siege.

However, it is not just the landscape and architecture that are scarred and devastated, psychologically, Gaza is an emotional and mental wreck. “There is a high level of psychological pressure in the Gaza strip,” Hasan Zeyada, a veteran psychologist at the pioneering Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), told me.

Gaza airport, a grazing ground for camels. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza airport, a grazing ground for camels. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

On the surface, Gazans exhibit remarkable fortitude. But scratch a little deeper beneath the smiling, welcoming facades and you quickly find bubbling despair and overwhelming distress afflicting every segment of society.  “This is no life. No-one cares about us,” confessed Samer, a teenager forced to collect and sell rubble to help his now-homeless family.

With large families the norm, people seek whatever escape they can. Gaza’s teeming beaches are popular day and night, even in areas where raw sewage flows straight into the sea. “We go to sleep, we wake up, we take walks on the beach – we fill the time,” says unemployed graduate Saleh Ashour, 24, describing a typical day.

Everywhere you turn, there are many, many children, but few genuine childhoods are visible. With the exception of flashy, brightly lit toy cars on the beach promenade and a few makeshift football pitches, there is little in the way of child’s play, but a rising amount of child labour. And these poor young souls, who make up the majority of Gaza’s population, are the most vulnerable psychologically. “Children are the most sensitive group and they are the most likely to be affected by the socio-political reality,” explains Zeyada.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

And the trauma some have endured could buckle the toughest adult’s shoulders. Take Reda, 15, who lost her mother, a number of siblings and members of her extended family during an Israeli airstrike. Now she must care for her father and surviving siblings, while clinging desperately on to the memory of her mother. “My mum was my friend… I feel that she is talking to me,” the girl, who has shed 8kg since then, her appetite drained by dreams of eating the pizza her mother was preparing when disaster struck, told al-Mizan, a Gaza-based human rights organisation.

The trauma of loss has been tough on the adult population too. “I lost Arwa, the apple of my heart,” confesses Hamida, whose favourite niece perished with 18 other members of her family. “When I used to visit her, her smile would precede her and she would open her arms wide to hug me… Her drawings were so beautiful. I wish one had survived.”

But it is not just the trauma of war and the loss of loved ones which afflicts Gaza’s adult population. With unemployment at 44% (60% for youth), GDP at a quarter of what it would be without the blockade and real per-capita income a fifth of what it was two decades ago, according to the World Bank, the psychological impact of Gaza’s prolonged isolation is immense.

“The whole of life in Gaza is in a state of deterioration. There is no stability for anyone,” describes Hasan Zeyada.

“Gaza has endured multiple losses, what we call multi-traumatic losses,” elaborates Zeyada, who became the patient as well as the doctor when he lost his mother and five other close family members during an Israeli airstrike. “People in other places usually endure a single loss: the loss of a home, or a family member, or a job. Many Gazans have lost them all.”

This prolonged and continuing stress and trauma have resulted in a growing plethora of psychological difficulties. These include low self-esteem, self-blame, displacement of anger, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorders, mood swings and full blown depression.

Displaced feelings of anger and frustration have also led to a growing level of domestic violence and more aggressive public behaviour, notes Zeyada.

“I’m sitting around, and this guy’s sitting around, and that guy. We’ve all had it up to here,” says Saleh Ashour. “If someone comes and cracks a joke with me, I find I get all serious with him.”

Faced with this economic, social and psychological wasteland, large swathes of Gazan society are possessed with the overwhelming urge to take flight and escape. “If they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs,” said unemployed graduate Amer Teemah, 24. And true enough, even successful Gazan academics and journalists I met want to leave, temporarily, they say, but they fear they may decide never to return.

Teeman and his lifelong friend, Ashour, paid $3,500 each to smugglers to get them to Europe, but failed.

“You are condemned to be a failure before you can even start,” says a crest-fallen Teemah, who has no clue what to do now that his outlandish plans to build a new life in another land have failed, and only landed him in debt.

Despite the immense emotional and psychological strain, Gazans are remarkably tough and resilient survivors. Thousands continue to work, despite not having received a salary in months, and there is an air of relative law and order, considering the dire circumstances.

But if the status quo continues, Gaza faces the prospect of total psychological ruin, with unforeseeable consequences. Ultimately, Gaza’s psychological and emotional malaise is of an entirely manmade nature. “Many of the psychological problems in Gaza are reactive. They are a reaction to the present situation,” observes Hasan Zeyada. “That means that mental health in Gaza is connected to the political reality.”

Gaza’s cure lies in Israel and Egypt’s hands, who need to urgently seek counselling regarding their irrational paranoia towards the Strip. Catastrophe can be averted if the blockade is lifted, which will provide the Gazan population with what it desperately misses the most: hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 13 June 2015.

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ISIS’s war on women in Mosul

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Before ISIS began targeting Iraq’s minorities and cultural heritage, it set to work veiling women in a new dark age, reversing decades of hard-won gains.

Despite ISIS' attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Despite ISIS’ attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

When I was growing up, the women of Mosul had the freedom to pursue whatever path they chose to follow. They had the right to work, study and dress as they desire. Women were empowered participants in the community. Growing up during the early 1980s in Mosul, I witnessed the freedom women had. Perhaps it was less than in the 1960s and 1970s, but certainly more than the current sorry situation. I was surrounded by female relatives who all worked after completing their university degrees. They drove cars, went out and travelled abroad alone and refused to get married, preferring the single independent lifestyle. Even at home, when I opened my eyes to the world, I saw my mother going to work everyday as a teacher. The stay-at-home woman was an alien concept to me as a child, and I assumed everyone had to go to work.

Mosul, unlike other Iraqi cities, was a blend of conservatism, tradition and modernity, a balance between the fairly modern and free Baghdad and Basra, and the strict and conservative Najaf and Karbala. Nevertheless, in all the years I spent in Mosul, I came across only one woman who wore a headscarf, one of my primary school teachers. I’m not sure whether the absence of the veil was down to Iraq’s secular rule or whether it reflected a more confident society not yet torn apart by economic sanctions, wars, occupation and sectarianism – all of which are contributing factors to the social change that began to take place in Mosul even before the ISIS invasion.

During the 1960s and 1970s, women were free to wear trousers, mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses. By the 1980s, this was beginning to change, and Mouslawi society started to be critical of such styles. Not everyone complied with the new conservative mores and some carried on wearing what they wanted but most decided not to become the talk of the town.

Just as the Islamic State (ISIS) has striven to destroy Mosul’s heritage and cultural diversity, the group has been working to devastate the position of women. Before the jihadist group began demolishing places of worship and archaeological landmarks, and before they started their campaign of ethnic cleansing, it issued new rules for women to follow, including a repressive dress code. ISIS recently imposed further restrictions on what women are allowed to wear – the new “Law” demands that women wear an almost tent-like cape which covers them from their eyes to their feet. There have even been reports of women falling and fracturing their legs as they struggle to walk in such attire.

Such codified restrictions were alien to a society where the long struggle for female emancipation scored many notable victories.  Iraq has always been at the forefront of female emancipation in the Arab world, with a wealth of famous women who have left a mark not only on Iraq’s history but on the world stage too. Figures like the writer and traveller Maria Theresa Asmar, who wrote a book in the early 19th century describing her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Armenian-Iraqi Beatrice Ohanessian was Iraq’s first concert pianist and one of the few women to become a director of the Piano Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Other prominent Iraqi women include Nazik Al-Malaika, considered by many to be one of the most influential contemporary Iraqi poets who was the first poet to use free verse in Arabic, Zaha Hadid, the renowned international architect, who is in fact originally from Mosul, and many more.

It seems ironic today that Iraq in the 1950s had the first female cabinet minister in the Arab region.  This remarkable woman, Naziha al-Dulaimi, was probably one of the most respected and recognised Iraqi women. An early pioneer of the Iraqi feminist movement and co-founder and first president of the Iraqi Women’s League, she studied medicine at the Royal College of Medicine in Baghdad and, at the age of 19, she was one of few female students at the Medical College. During her government career, al-Dulaimi was instrumental in turning the vast slums of eastern Baghdad into a massive social housing project and helped author the secular 1959 Civil Affairs Law, which was way ahead of its time in liberalising marriage and inheritance laws to the advantage of Iraqi women. She was also a prominent member of the international feminist movement and an active participant in the Iraqi and world peace movements.

It is hard to imagine how a country that has made such progress can be expected to to return the dark ages where women who do not meet ISIS’s requirements are often sold into slavery or forced to marry one of its fighters. The rest of the women who are not targeted for sexual/slave trade are segregated from men in all aspects of daily life.

Anyone who contravenes ISIS’s draconian rules faces heavy repercussions, but some locals are defiant, despite the risks. One friend witnessed a so-called “hisbah” patrol stop a woman who was with her husband because she was not wearing the “right” clothes. Within minutes, an ISIS member raised his baton to strike the woman when, in a fit of rage, the husband shouted: “In ten years of marriage, I have never lifted a finger against my wife. Do you think I will allow a fanatical foreigner to degrade and hit her?” The man my friend witnessed wrestled the baton out of the patrolman’s hand and started beating him with it.

To avoid such situations, many women have opted to stay at home and not venture outside or go to work. But not everyone can afford this luxury, especially with the soaring cost of living. Even girls as young as 11 cannot escape these draconian rules. Fearing for their daughters’ safety, many families have kept girls home from their schools and universities. One mother had no choice but to stop her 14-year-old daughter from attending school after an ISIS patrol stopped the chauffer-driven car that was taking the girl and her younger brother to their school demanding to know why the girl’s eyes were not covered. Apparently, the fact that her entire face was veiled was not enough. When the ISIS militant started to question the girl as to why she was out with “strange men”, the driver explained that the young boy was her brother, which provoked the patrol to ask who the chauffer was. By this point, the girl was so scared that she lied and said he was her uncle. The girl was so frightened that she told her mother she never wanted to leave the house again, even though she had been defying her parents to pursue her education despite the ISIS presence.

ISIS members have also prohibited female students from attending classes because their attire was considered “un-Islamic”. The only accepted attire for female students is the one-piece black burqa. And it is not just girls who are dropping out in large numbers. Boys reportedly are too.

It should be pointed out that there is significant local divergence within Mosul, in terms of rules, and how strictly or leniently they are applied, which often depends on the ISIS militants in the area. “I witnessed several women in the market areas without niqabs,” one local said. “[This] appears to be a change in strategy following a number of attacks perpetrated by disguised men in niqab.”

Iraqis, particularly women, are resilient and adaptable. Iraqi womenhad to endure years of wars without a man in the house, as often they were on the battlefield and many never came back. Women also had to improvise throughout the long years of sanctions to ensure their children and loved ones got fed. With the arrival of the US invasion, women faced a new challenge of protecting their family from foreign invaders. Similarly, despite all the atrocities and savage acts ISIS commits, people try to get on with life in Mosul. Women still go out – provided they are covered from head to toe – they drive to work (though at work they are segregated from men) visit each other and go to the shops. Beauty parlours and hair salons have been banned, and various cosmetic and hair products are no longer sold in shops, driving women to find alternatives when caring for their appearance. Despite the restrictions, three weddings took place last month, two of which were hosted by my old neighbours in Mosul. And that is the contradictory nature of the city, while some women are fleeing, others are being defiantly normal.

There have been reports of public executions of women, notably ones who were politically active. For example, two former candidates for the Iraqi parliament – Ibtisam Ali Jarjis on the Watanya list and Miran Ghazi, who was a candidate for Arab List – were sentenced to death by ISIS’s Sharia court.

According to officials from Mosul, the two candidates had repented in one of the ISIS mosques in Mosul to spare their lives, but the Islamic judge overruled their repentance and the two women were re-arrested. Isis militants also publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a leading lawyer and human rights activist, after she was seized from her home for allegedly “abandoning Islam”, whereas in actual fact her kidnapping took place after she had posted messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul. The militants then tortured al-Nuaimi for five days before killing her. Al-Nuaimi left behind a husband and three children. There are many more tales of women being publicly executed, such as the three female doctors who refused to treat ISIS militants. ISIS militants recently paraded two sisters and a man who were accused of adultery before stoning them to death.

Life under ISIS for the women of Mosul is unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history. But tough, patient and resilient as they are, these women will continue to resist.

 

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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Egypt’s other revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

Revolutionary disappointment in Egypt has concealed the ongoing social revolution whose shifting sands are likely to result in a political earthquake.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

The fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution “brings back memories of what might have been,” a relative of mine remarked.

And for those who were there, on Tahrir Square and in pretty much every town and village across the country, those memories are precious and magical. “I’m proud. We did good, we did right,” said a friend who was active in the 2011 uprising. “True, we lost [and] the villains are back in power… but we were right, and we tried.”

At the time, Egyptians discovered their latent and long-dormant power to rock the president’s throne and unseat the pharaoh – all in just 18 days. In addition  to elation and euphoria, this led to a sense of near-invincibility, that the revolution could surmount any obstacle and transform Egypt into a vibrant, free and equitable society.

In light of the brutal and deadly efficiency of the counterrevolution, four years on, even the most optimistic are disillusioned and disenchanted, with people I know calling it the “cruelest joke”. Some even wonder whether the revolution was just a mirage, an illusionary oasis for the thirsty millions stumbling through Egypt’s dry desert of oppression.

But the political revolution was real, though it has been derailed and delayed, and I am convinced it is not over, not by a long shot, but it, like its French predecessor and others, will be a multi-generational project.

This is because, despite popular belief, the issues are not just political – they are social, economic and cultural too. Ever since the start of the revolution, I have warned that we must curb our enthusiasm because the uprising would not succeed without an accompanying social revolution, without the unseating of Egypt’s million “mini-Mubaraks” stifling society and without addressing the country’s centuries-old leadership vacuum.

And even at a time when the political revolution is fatally wounded, the social revolution, largely unnoticed and unappreciated, is, at many levels, in full swing. One area where revolutionary socio-economic change is visible is the organised labour movement.

The uprising of Egyptian workers actually predated the revolt in 2011 by a few years. In addition, Egypt’s independent unions, despite the attention lavished on middle-class youth activists, played a pivotal role in the revolution, organising thousands of strikes and mobilising workers.

Moreover, the al-Sisi regime’s efforts to contain and break the labour movement, and to co-opt some union leaders, have not succeeded. In 2014, despite the controversial anti-protest law, understated official figures show that Egypt witnessed 287 strikes, with independent estimates suggesting that the country was shaken by 2,274 incidents of industrial action. And continued failure to tackle this economic bottom line could well prove to be the current regime’s undoing.

Beyond Egypt’s workers, another long-marginalised group, which constitutes half of society, has also been up in arms. Tired of generations of having their rights deferred in the service of this or that greater cause, women are actively and muscularly agitating for change, both collectively and individually.

In a phenomenon I call Egypt’s “underground sisterhood”, women are fighting Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic, including support networks, challenging the social stigma associated with being single, and even struggling to become mosque preachers, not to mention the growing number of “feminist” men, even from traditional backgrounds.

In addition to the huge ranks of women involved in every line of activism, this is reflected in the rising number of women rejecting the hijab or headscarfed women choosing lifestyles previously associated with their “liberal” sisters, as well as those who break away from convention by living alone. Then there are the women intruding on traditional male domains, such as the traditional men-only tea houses, and even the iconic photograph of a public kiss between a girl in a hijab and her boyfriend.

Despite the risks involved, even previously unrecognised minorities, such as atheists, are beginning to demand attention and rights.

While the social ground shifts and quakes, political activists are digging in for the long haul and trying to learn from their mistakes. “That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the now-banned 6 April Youth Movement, was quoted as saying. “At the end al-Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”

In fact, I sense that al-Sisi may find himself unwittingly presiding over Egypt’s transition to democracy. This is not because the Egyptian president is ready for democracy – none of them have been – but Egypt will be.

With the social ground rumbling beneath his feet and oppositions forces regrouping despite the repression, al-Sisi will eventually find himself faced with a stark choice: reform or perish. Given the weakness of the state and the fact that the repression machine is already working at full throttle, pragmatism and self-preservation would require al-Sisi to recognise Egypt’s pluralism and make major concessions.

Failure to reform could, at best, spark a third revolutionary wave or, at worst, push Egypt off the cliff into the abyss of full-out civil conflict. Today, as in 2011, the answer to Egypt’s woes remains freedom, democracy, and socio-economic justice.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 24 January 2015.

 

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A graceful exit?

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Exit interviews are ‘in’, but how trustworthy are they in today’s tough market? Is it like forced confession or can it ensure knowledge transfer?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Contracts are harder to come by so companies are downsizing like they’ve got a wasting disease in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. In their haste to save the company’s arse – and often their own – managers are falling into the ‘restructuring trap’ … not securing knowledge transfer and not learning from their mistakes.

Sure, exit interviews come highly recommended to staunch the knowledge loss, but how reliable are they when you consider the person being interviewed has just been told to pack his bags? Isn’t it like a forced confession? Don’t psychologists say our instinct is to mentally burn what we leave to justify our onward journey? Surely that is why we have evolved so well.

And what does a company’s failure to implement exit interviews say about its attitude to staff… or indeed its overall management competence? Interviewing a departing colleague makes good business sense. You can learn what works and what doesn’t in the company; and perhaps more to the point who works well and who doesn’t. Because the chances are that someone left behind will have to pick up the work of the departing colleague – unless of course they really were useless or cruising.

But even then you can learn something: how did they manage to keep under the radar, and does this mask a systemic problem which could explain the drop-off in business? Is their supervisor really on the ball? Does management understand how to win business in tougher economic climes?

There are reasons why companies baulk at looking too closely in the mirror. They could argue the cost of exit interviews during a period of ‘restructuring’ can’t be justified. But this rationalisation most likely masks a deeper problem – failing to implement robust human resource management practices (hiring, training and firing) – which may also reflect on the ‘no-one is indispensable’ corporate culture.

Companies, or indeed their agents (the managers) are also shy about being exposed to criticism, especially during times when it seems almost everyone is under scrutiny. Like this, the ‘honest feedback’ may shine a light on some poor decision-making made at all levels of the company. The default reaction: “Let’s not look too closely, shall we?” or “Let’s blame this person because they’ve already gone, and leave it at that!”

But this attitude misses the point of restructuring, and failure to implement exit interviews misses an even more valuable opportunity not only to learn something new about the company to improve its performance, but also the chance to send out ‘peaceful emissaries’ to the business world. Retrenched or fired staff members may have unflattering things to say about their previous employer. An exit interview gives the employee an opportunity to air their views, to feel their contribution amounted to something. For the company, it’s the last chance to make peace with the departing member of the team, sending them away with more positive impressions.

There is also the matter of what goes around comes around. Many companies operate in a relatively small marketplace and the chances of coming across the employee in another company, as supplier (or even client) are quite high. This works both ways, too.

The writers at Businessballs.com put this quite well: “The adage about treating people well on your way up because you might meet them on the way down applies just as well to on your way out.” So they advise departing staff to approach an exit interview, if it is offered, in a positive way: “Recrimination, blame, revenge and spite are destructive feelings and behaviours so resist any temptation you might have to go out with all guns blazing.” Nice visual.

Talent out the door

There is also the risk that during a rather radical staff-letting exercise a company may have misread where its true strengths lie, or indeed who its true talents are. A decision to let a whole department go which is no longer considered critical to the business – i.e. only making a ‘non-billable’ contribution to the company – can be risky when individuals in that department are rising talents, or already very accomplished. What happens to these skills? The competitors get them.

Forbes writer Mike Myatt highlights the pitfalls of failing to identify and nurture top talent in a company. “Few things are as costly and disruptive as unexpected talent departures,” he says. He questions the culture of a company that doesn’t see the signs of disenfranchisement. And arguably worse still, actively pushes the talent out.

People leave a company (not sacked) mainly because they feel under-appreciated and disconnected. More than 40%, according to the Forbes story, don’t respect the person they report to and around half say their values are different to their employer’s. Some two-thirds don’t feel their career goals are aligned with the company’s plans, and more than 70% feel undervalued and under-appreciated.

Myatt provides a litany of reasons which could explain how talent slips away from a company including: a failure to fire up their passions, challenge their intellect and engage their creativity; not developing on their skills or giving them a voice; providing insufficient support and care; weak leadership and not recognising their contribution to the company; and not delegating responsibility or securing their commitment.

Even in tough economic times when lay-offs are unavoidable and perhaps justifiable, there is always a good case for carrying out what needs to be done with professionalism and respect. The benefits far outweigh the costs, regardless of what the balance sheets say in the short term. Business is – or at least should be – a long-term investment, and that goes for the handling of staff as well.

Equally, parting employees – regardless of their talent or whether they had a choice – also have a unique chance to exit with grace and dignity. Who knows, they may find themselves back in the same office when business picks up again.

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Greece and the euro – a Trojan tragedy

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Greeks are putting a new spin on the legend of Troy by snubbing the fattest gift horse they’re likely to get from the weary euro club.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Violence continues to rock the streets of Athens, as anti-austerity protestors vent their anger at what unions see as meddling outsiders “covertly abolishing or eroding democracy and national sovereignty” in Greece.

Last week, the unions called a 48-hour strike – the latest in a series of anti-austerity actions which have taken place since the European Union and International Monetary Fund began bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 – and sporadic violence erupted as some 10,000 unionists rallied around Greece’s Parliament, where leaders are meeting to thrash out the terms of the next installments.

“The tombstone of Greek society” is how trade unionists in Greece describe the €3.2 billion in cuts needed this time to save the country from sliding into the Aegean.

For several weeks, the right-wing Laos party has been deliberately blocking the austerity package – a move many predict could see the country fail to secure the new €130 billion EU-IMF bailout needed to stave off imminent default on Greece’s sovereign debt. Then last week, Laos promptly quit the new coalition government altogether.

Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a technocrat recently chosen to lead Greece out of this mess, still has a majority in the Parliament. But as talks heated up in Brussels last week, euro-club finance ministers insisted all of the main parties – including Laos – will have to sign a pledge to respect the latest round of austerity measures after elections in April.

Greece’s position in the euro zone is very much under threat – rightly so, in my view. Yet despite his party’s clear distaste for outside intervention, Laos leader Georgios Karatzaferis said Greece should remain in the euro, like it was some kind of ancient privilege that does not involve duties too, but not “under the German boot”. “I am very disturbed not by the sacrifices we have to make, but from the humiliation of Greece. They have stolen our dignity,” he asserted.

So, while the rest of troubled euro zone countries tighten their belts, commit to work harder and dig ever-deeper into their pockets to pay for Greece’s profligacy, we should feel sorry for the Athenians who are feeling humiliated. That kind of farce is worthy of Greek tragedy, no doubt.

Just to put Greece’s waste, graft and work ethic into perspective, the latest figures fresh from the Greek finance ministry show that the government has managed to collect only 1% of the €8.6 billion in tax penalties issued over the past two years.  According to media reports, had the government managed to collect even a third of the fines, the new austerity package may not have been needed.

The European Commission is starting to talk tough, hinting in statements last week that it could absorb the impacts of a Greek default and departure from the euro zone. A Commission spokesman said on 10 February that the increased presence of EU and national experts in Greece leading up to the next possible tranche is part of the new bailout deal, helping the government do what the rest of Europe manages to do – collect taxes.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much money and concessions you throw Greece’s way. The ‘good money after bad’ adage keeps bubbling up. Only a few months ago, EU and IMF leaders put an astounding deal on the table for Greece. Under intense pressure from world leaders fearing that an imminent Greek debt default would sink the whole euro zone, member states and banks agreed to wipe 50% off current obligations.

That’s like borrowing a €100,000 to extend your house or expand you business, and then being told: “Don’t worry, you only have to pay half back!” What kind of message does that send to Greeks who already appear to have a distorted understanding of the connection between saving, spending, borrowing and other such financial fundamentals?

And what does it say to other EU members, many of them newly entering the euro zone and some struggling with their own debt demons? No doubt the Hungarians who are having to pay back huge loans taken out in Swiss francs when the euro was strong, would like a piece of that action. So, too, would the Slovaks who earn considerably less than the Greeks and had to make many concessions to enter the euro under what now seems like a fading hope that it would improve their lives.

So, are the Greeks delighted that the rest of Europe is chipping in to help them out? Apparently not. Their pride is hurt, and they don’t like what the gift horse comes saddled with … “austerity measures”, unpopular measures that many other Europeans are also having to endure, despite the social unrest and anger they unleash.

According to the UK’s Guardian, around the time of the last bail-out, some 60% of Greeks thought the European deal was bad for the country. “In most polls, voters have voiced their support for remaining part of the euro, but have increasingly vented their frustration at austerity measures,” the paper noted. “Cuts in the bloated public sector, reductions in pay and pensions, new taxes and privatisations of airports, state lotteries, the Greek water supply and the postal service are part of the deal agreed.”

Fat chance of that happening while Greece remains hooked up to life support. It’s time to switch off the machine. Let Greece regain its pride without the euro and all these Olympic coaches teaching it how to tread water.

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Baksheesh and social tipping points

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s ‘baksheesh’ culture helps poor people get by and maintains relative social peace, but it encourages subservience.

21 January 2011

One sure sign that I’ve arrived in Egypt is that my wallet and pockets suddenly get fatter as they pile on the Egyptian pounds to deal with the country’s largely cash-based economy. In addition, I always endeavour to carry plenty of lower denomination banknotes to facilitate the prodigious amount of tipping ahead.

With the relative uncommonness of tipping in northern Europe, I experience quite a culture shock for the first few days of any visit. In Belgium, tipping is only common at restaurants and occasionally at bars, though quite a few Belgians I know never tip.

In Egypt, leaving sweeteners at eateries is only the tip of the tipping iceberg. Alongside haggling, tipping is a pervasive feature of the Egyptian economy. Millions of Egyptians depend on these gratuities for their survival and exist in a kind of parallel ‘baksheesh economy‘, abandoned by government and employers alike. In fact, the cynic in me might quip that, with the grinding poverty, neglect, marginalisation and disempowerment that poor Egyptians endure, tips could be the only change, loose as it might be, that some are willing to believe in.

In a country with high unemployment and overflowing with surplus labour, well-off Egyptians tip everyone from deliverymen, unofficial parking supervisors and petrol pump attendants to the even less necessary toilet attendants who hand them a napkin to dry their hands and the bagger who packs their shopping at the checkout.

Expat Egyptians are often expected to go that extra mile, and dig deeper into their pockets and tip at a greater angle than locals. By the end of any visit to Egypt, I experience something akin to tipping fatigue.

My wife speaks fluent Arabic, is streetwise and can haggle better than a local, but the language of baksheesh is one she’s never warmed to nor cared to master. Despite years of experience and my awareness of the economic importance of tipping, I also dislike the practice which, I am well aware, I unwittingly connive in perpetuating.

When I pay baksheesh, I do so partly because it is a social norm but mostly out of a sense of guilt at the wide economic gulf generally separating me from the person I am tipping. And in a society where the LE 35 minimum monthly wage (less than £4) is irrelevant, where labour protection is a joke and where social safety nets are tattered and threadbare, baksheesh helps somewhat to redistribute wealth and, at its best, is an informal expression of social solidarity and cohesion.

But, as my wife rightly points out, baksheesh is neither the most efficient nor the fairest way of seeking greater socio-economic justice. For people like me who believe in equality and egalitarianism, part of the problem is that baksheesh reward subservience, punish dignity and encourage a master-servant sort of mentality between the well-off and the poor.

Though tips may take the edge off poverty and maintain social peace, looked at unflatteringly, they also serve to keep the poor in their place by constantly reminding them of how their economic survival is not down to their hard work but due to the patronage of their “betters”.

In anticipation of a tip, ingratiation and hypocrisy are often the order of the day, though I make a point of tipping less or not at all in such circumstances. Very proud workers might forgo tips which, for many menial service sector jobs, is tantamount to financial suicide, while others will swallow their pride at the altar of economic survival, which necessitates that the sensitive tipper must try his best to be subtle and considerate when tipping them.

Baksheesh also provide employers in the service sector with the opportunity to dump the responsibility for their workers on to the customers’ laps and, hence, act as a disincentive to work, except in circumstances where a tip is forthcoming.

The baksheesh culture makes it difficult to read the intentions of certain strangers and decide whether they’re doing you a favour out of the goodness of their heart or in anticipation of your papering their palm with banknotes. Misread the signals and you could end up unintentionally insulting a generous stranger or being insulted by a mean one. The same can also apply to poorer people you know personally.

Far more troubling is how the baksheesh culture has become endemic, over the past few decades, in the underpaid civil service and public sector, which, one could say, has effectively privatised the government and made it accessible only to those who can pay.

Though I too have been guilty of discreetly greasing some palms to expedite paperwork to which I’m entitled, the occasions on which I have done this have left me with a bitter aftertaste, a sense of self-loathing and a “never again” vow.

Usually, however, I obstinately refuse to pay which brings along its own set of frustrations in the form of stonewalling, bureaucratic origami and long and winding paper trails. A few years ago, my wife and I gave up, in anger and frustration, on registering our marriage in Egypt because it was transforming our holiday into a helly-day, and I’ve yet to pluck up the courage to try to register our son’s birth.

As a form of social solidarity, baksheesh will at best paper over the cracks but can never tip the balance on poverty. On the down side, tips provide poor incentives to work, create subservience and even promote petty corruption. And as inequalities widen, baksheesh will not be able to stave off the inevitable reckoning between the haves and have-nothings.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 6 January 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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Who wants to be a millionaire? I don’t (know)

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Yes, it’s a famous Cole Porter song but an even better ambition for a fading socialist of the 1980s kind.

15 October 2010

Tis easy to have socialist leanings in your youth because you’re usually broke and life hasn’t dealt you enough blows to know the difference. You write off your conservativevoting gene pool as misguided and scorn Gordon “greed is good” Gekko, the devil of Wall Street personified.

You pack up your Renault 12 with all your belongings and move to the city to study LawArts (because just Law could be misconstrued). There, you find kindred spirits. Rich and poor kids grunging it up (or down), railing at inequalities and injustice the full length of Islington.

You get political. You get more ideas. You read other people with ideas, and you pick up the language of action, the language of change. University ends. You’re broke and can’t afford to keep studying.

So you take up a crummy entry level job out of university and the bosses are all bastards growing rich off your sweat and toil.

You sleep on just the mattress, because it’s down to earth, and the Batik wall hangings smell distinctly like stale paraffin and incense. Your friends still pop over unannounced and your repertoire of conversation pieces and quotes include Kundera (most used: “A worker may be the hammer’s master, but the hammer still prevails.”) and a fistful of foreign film titles that you claim to watch sans sous-titres.

Miraculously, you get to work on the stroke of 9 am every morning and then count the hours till your hangover wears off, while inventing evermore creative ways to power nap in the office. Successful methods are shared with compatriots. Favourites include the paperclip caper (PCC), postoffice pass (POP), and the dodgy Somali sauce slip (SSS).

PCC is simple yet ingenious. Spread paper clips liberally under the desk, close your office door fourfifths (fully closed = something to hide), snuggle into a pocket under your desk and nap until revived. If you hear the distinct footsteps of your boss – languid and leather-soled – commence paper clip pickup and bump your head deliberately on the desk as you act startled by his presence in the doorway.

POP works a treat when you really have to join your housemates at the free Tibet demonstration. Pull out the registered mail slip you keep in the drawer and wave it liberally until the secretary and several colleagues have seen it. Then casually leave, saying: “I’ve got to pop out’ (details smell of deceit). Take as long as needed, and claim killer queues for longer stays.

The triple S is the young socialist’s equivalent of a bad prawn at the quayside brasserie, and can be deployed with no backstory or preparation for those moments when the Cheinspired sangria just won’t stay down. It draws ample sympathy and no suspicion as your breath smells of uncooked garlic from the guacamole, not telltale booze fumes.

[You might wonder why young socialists have to be so ‘creative’ with their skiving. This is because the bourgeoisie classics, like letting a tradesman into your house, don’t work when you rent and don’t have any white goods or renovations to worry about.]

You’re 20something and eager to change stuff about the world, about your neighbourhood, about your self. You talk about career like it is social climbing, and you slip in something existential at least twice a week – even if just to say the word – to remind yourself that you are ‘existential’. That the silk tie isn’t you and that being quite good with spreadsheet databases is a handy skill for, say, protest mailouts.

But something is wrong. You forget to send your apologies to the monthly union meeting, again. Your friends pop over as usual and you’re a bit annoyed because you rented a video cassette. And one Monday ‘the man’ calls you into his office. You think the PCC game is up and prepare to deliver your rehearsed ‘fyou’ speech. But it’s worse than you thought: instead of dismissal, he deals your ideals a body blow by giving you a promotion.

Of course, you know deep down your left leanings are straightening out when you catch yourself complaining to a fellow middlingmanager that your staff is punching the clock instead of pulling their weight. Still, you haven’t faced the 4AD music with your friends.

You don’t tell them about the next promotion, either. But soon a work car appears on the scene – much harder to conceal. Next thing you know, you’re eating with friends and their partners at a Thai restaurant. As the bill comes you lift a cheek [of course you’re sitting crosslegged at the table and can’t reach your wallet otherwise] and deftly pull out a credit card.

“You can’t pay for it all!” they protest. Still, noone makes more than a halfhearted attempt to stump up. Then a mate quickdraws his own credit card, then another has one out. Now you start to protest, pulling your trump card… you’ll expense it. Everyone goes quiet.

The broke mate who’s doing his second masters, this time in election monitoring, breaks the silence: “I’ll get it next time,” he says deadpan.

Everyone cracks up laughing. Socialism gets its death knell… and the relief to all in the room is palpable. Bring on the High Society.

©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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