Monday, January 31, 2011

Voices of Democracy: A Third Paradigm for the Arab World

Cairo, Egypt - 2005

We have been back from our trip to the Middle East for almost a month now, settled back into work and our daily routines of life in London. I mentioned in one of my posts on Lebanon about how quickly things can change in the course of only a few weeks and tonight, as I write, my words ring truer than ever before and I cannot stop thinking about the events that have unfolded and which continue to unfold to my greater surprise each day in countries that I have spent much time and where I still have many friends. Aside from the recent parliamentary change of government in Lebanon resulting in the newly appointed Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire and Executive MBA Harvard graduate who also happens to be endorsed by Hezbollah, among other groups, the wider Arab world is once again at a pivotal point in its history.

Beirut, Lebanon - 2010

For some reason I am reminded of an episode of “Mad Men”, a show that, aside from its tremendous commercial and popular success, has become accomplished at subtly placing the show’s characters and storylines along the backdrop of key historical events, showcasing real time perceptions then of what we know now in hindsight to be moments of major significance. Little Sally Draper, who watched live on television from her living room the self-immolation of an antiwar monk in Vietnam, an image we have all come to know very well, could not have known then the enormity of what that act represented and the events that would soon follow into the next decades, changing the world forever. To the Drapers, and to other families around the world, this sudden and inexplicable act in a faraway land may have gone largely unnoticed as they went about the drama of their daily lives, but it changed the world forever.
Marrakesh, Morocco - 2009
On December 17th 2010, it also went largely unnoticed to most of the world when a 26-year old, university educated man set himself ablaze in the city if Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Forced to man a fruit and vegetable stand in the absence of real economic opportunities, Mohammad Bou Azizi was like scores of other young, educated Tunisians, facing a hopeless economic situation, devoid of viable options for the future while a complacent, autocratic regime treated the country like their own personal ATM. Just like Vietnam in the 1960s there are many who might struggle to point to Tunisia on a map, but what has transpired since has had massive ramifications for the greater region as a whole and will undoubtedly draw both Europe and United States into a diplomatic and security conundrum in the days and years to

Giza, Egypt - 2005

This public suicide was the ultimate act of protest against consistent catastrophic levels of unemployment, high inflation, and an entrenched, established, and elitist government that has continued to profit privately while its citizens fall deeper into economic troubles. What resulted in the following days started out as small public demonstrations which eventually developed into mass protests and finally a rebellion across the country, resulting in the “Jasmine Revolution” and the abdication and escape of President Ben Ali after almost twenty four years of hard line rule. Although characterized as authoritarian by Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Protection International, and ranking 144th out of 167 countries studied in The Economist’s Democracy Index, Ben Ali was often backed by the West as a stable governing force in the country, but who is now being pursued by Interpol in Saudi Arabia along with his wife (who managed to take 1.5 tonnes of gold from the Central Bank
before fleeing the country) for alleged human rights abuses and pervasive corruption.

Streets of Cairo - 2005

In the following days, inspired by the change that was proven possible in Tunisia, protests and public demonstrations of varying degrees hit Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and even Jordan and Syria. Further acts of self-immolation occurred in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, and Algeria in parallel demonstrations and protests in those countries. Currently, as I write this, I listen to live reports of the chaos hitting the streets of cities across Egypt, the voices of the people calling for reform and the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak after thirty years of unchallenged rule since the assassination of Anwar Sadat. It hits close to home when I hear journalists describing chaos in Cairo neighborhoods that I have spent much time including the upper class Mohandissen and Zamalak areas which seem the unlikeliest of places to foment revolution. For the first few days I enthusiastically followed on Facebook and Twitter friends who live in Cairo, digesting information and personal experiences, until they were suddenly silenced and disappeared from the Web entirely when all internet service and mobile providers were shut down by the government.
Cairo, Egypt - 2005

If you listen closely to the voices on the streets, the anger they express come from the inability to influence or impact any meaningful reform on the policies enacted by a government that does not change and which has not put the interests of the people first. Dishonest and despotic at worst or detached and incompetent at best, the leadership of much of the Arab world is being called into question by people who want a role in deciding their social and economic futures, secured by a guarantee of fundamental human rights. This movement which continues to grow in intensity each hour is not fueled by a centralized religious extremist rhetoric, but rather by a grassroots political message against a damaged system that has proven its inability and unwillingness to address the problems of its citizenry. In any case, it has become drastically apparent that an open and honest dialogue is required, not just by the citizens and their current government, but also by outside powers that still maintain a significant degree of control and influence in the region out of various interests ranging from regional security to the Suez Canal.
Tonight no one knows what the outcome of this will be or when it will be resolved. The man who is slowly beginning to look like a major opposition leader, former head of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, himself declared that “what we have begun cannot be reversed”. And indeed he is correct. No matter what comes of this, nothing can change the enormity of what the last several weeks have proven; that the world must not be complacent and accept only two diametrically opposing, but equally flawed forms of government in the Arab world which bring no benefit to anyone and for which progress and long term stability are not possible. The voices of opposition in Cairo are proclaiming that the only alternative to an autocratic and corrupt secular regime need not be an equally oppressive fundamentalist religious movement, but that there can be a third way governed by the principles of civic representation, participatory democracy, and universal human rights. What we are witnessing now, just as Sally Draper did in 1963 from her living room, is one of those opportunities in history where revolutionary change seems possible. It would be a shame if the world went about business as usual and failed to pay attention.

- K.V.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Weekend in Rotterdam & Amsterdam

It’s been awhile since I’ve stepped foot on Dutch soil, the last time being a 7 hour layover on our way to Cairo in 2005, and before that on a post-uni backpacking trip with my college friend in 2004. Only a 40 minute flight from London, it was inevitable that we would eventually find our way back to Amsterdam at some point during our time in London.
Last weekend Keenan and I found ourselves once again in The Netherlands, this time for a New Years event organized by one of the divisions in my Rotterdam office. They kindly invited the IDD team and our spouses/partners to attend the “Asian Tiger” themed party (yes, very Dutch…that is to say, very quirky) in which Asian attire were required. Keenan and I wore our matching turquoise blue Indian sari and kurta to the event, while other colleagues wore Japanese yukata, traditional Indonesian or Filipino outfits, or Vietnamese ao dai.  The evening featured a beer tap pouring endless pints of Amstel lager, Asian food, and you wouldn't believe it, Dance, Dance Revolution…yes, very quirky, but it was good fun socalising with colleagues outside the office.
Since I have never been to Rotterdam before, I arrived early on Friday to explore the city and do a bit of work before the event in the evening. Rotterdam, Holland’s second largest city and Europe’s largest port, was severely bombed during World War II in Hitler’s quest to conquer The Netherlands in a single day, thereby securing strategic position for his planned invasion of England in the Battle of Britain. Today Rotterdam is completely rebuilt as a modern port city with a touch of Dutch quirkiness.
The company put us up in a hotel near the Old Harbour, a good base from which to explore Rotterdam. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative; it was rainy, cold, and windy – the worse combination. Armed with my trusty “brollie,” I quickly walked to the harbour to see as much as I could without getting drenched or blown away by the wind. I managed to take a few photos around Rotterdam, including the famous Cube Houses, which were featured in Jackie Chan’s Chinese movie “Who I Am.” It’s ashamed that I didn’t get to see the rest of Rotterdam… next time. 
Taking advantage that my company paid for the IDD team's flights and our partner's too, most of us decided to stay in Amsterdam for the weekend. So Saturday afternoon we made our way to Amsterdam, but thought it was best to part ways as we all had different agendas and interests during our short city-break trip.   

Not much has changed in Amsterdam in the last five year – bicycles still dominate the streets, canal houses still retain its picturesque charm, gouda is still the king of Dutch cheeses, and of course there is still the whiff of a certain “skunk-like” smell in the air. Ahhhh....good ol' Amsterdam.

Keenan and I spent Saturday afternoon wandering around the canals starting from our hotel off of Rembrandtplein Square to the Noodermarkt food stalls near the eclectic Jordaan neighbourhood. Holland is famous for its brightly colour tulips, and Amsterdam even has a picturesque Floating Flower Market near Leidenplein selling tulip bulbs among other assortment of plants and flowers. Tulips are spring-blooming perennials so if want to see the crayon rows of tulips in full bloom, visit Holland in late spring. It is suppose to be quite pretty. Noodermarkt was okay; I expected it to be like Borough Market with loads of food stalls for a walking lunch, but it seemed like a lot of vendors were closing down for the day as it was approaching 3:30 pm by the time we arrived, plus the weather wasn’t great. 

Later in the evening, we planned a fun dinner at Tempo Doeloe, an Indonesian restaurant on Utrechtsestraat, to celebrate ten years as a couple. We splurged and ordered the 25 plate rijsttafel istemew (rice table) paired with a bottle of crisp white wine. The little dishes of Indonesian curries were presented in order of spiciness – mild, medium, and hot. Keenan, a food lover of all things spicy, couldn’t wait to tickle his taste buds with some chili spices and curry powder. Every thing was delicious and the atmosphere was fun and intimate. The last dish, decorated with a yellow habanera pepper, was smothered in chili seeds. I didn’t dare, but Keenan did, and it was so hot that he immediately started beading sweat down his forehead and chugged down a large glass of water. Be warned, and don’t let me tell you I told you so…
There’s so much to see and enjoy in Amsterdam besides the “coffeehouses” and the Red Light District, but if that’s what you’re after, no judgment at all. Amsterdam also has some vast urban parks and a string of world-class museums, including the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum (partially closed for refurbishment). Having done the museums in the past, we made it a priority to see Anne Frank’s House over the weekend regardless of how long the queue was. 
The tour of Anne Frank’s House, hidden in the secret annex of her father’s office building, gives an intimate insight of how the Frank family lived hiding from the Nazi forces. Tipped off by an anonymous individual, the Nazi eventually arrested and shipped the Frank family to Auschwitz, where Anne, her sister, and mother died just months before the liberation in 1945. The only survivor, her father Otto, later found her diaries and spent the remaining years of his life transforming the old house into a museum, campaigning for peace and justice, and turning Anne’s aspiration of becoming a writer a reality. The Diary of a Young Girl, chronicling the last two years of her life, was published in 1947.
Brunch at Pancakes!:
Our short-city break was unfortunately coming to an end. We stopped by Vleminckx, a hole-in-the-wall stand famous for its crunchy French fries, before heading back to the hotel to pick up our bags and bid farewell to a lovely weekend in Amsterdam. Until next time...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In the Holy Land: Jerusalem

Exhausted, hungry, slightly ill, and getting grumpier by the minute, our patience for the delay was wearing thin. The long hours of waiting were made bearable only by our dry sarcasm about the current predicament and the knowledge that we would eventually be released. Finally, having made it towards the tail end of our trip we had three countries behind us, two border crossings, and numerous passport and security checks. This however, our third and final border crossing, would prove to be the most difficult, surprising, and ironic of all. 
Waiting on the Jordanian side:
To cross into Israel from Jordan is actually quite common and ever since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1994, tourism in both countries has boomed.  Despite this, and although we anticipated and built-in a contingency for potential delays, I did not expect to face so much opposition.  Our problem wasn’t that we were crossing into Israel from Jordan, but rather that we had stamps from Syria and Lebanon in our passports from the same trip, thereby alerting Israeli border control of a perceived security, or even worse, public relations threat.  It is important to note that Israel does not have an official policy prohibiting admission to people who have traveled to states that are considered hostile, such as Lebanon and Syria among others.  However, if you have traveled to these countries, be prepared for a very unofficial hassle including a potentially long delay and interrogations.
Yamakas at Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem:
Jaffa Road & Ben Yehuda Square, Jerusalem:
Although my passport was confiscated by the authorities, I was forced to wait six hours, and I was questioned about my personal religious beliefs, my parent’s racial and national origin, my political views, and whether or not I spoke Arabic, I did not get it nearly as bad as some of the friends we traveled with.  In fact and with much irony, this was not something I had encountered at all entering into Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan, but only at the Israeli border, where as American citizens we faced the most difficulty and hostility in the entire region.  We were not alone, joined by Japanese tourists, a Scandinavian family, an old Dutch man, fellow Americans, dozens of people of Arab descent, and even an elderly Catholic bishop.  It seems that the border control and security forces were having a bad day as they were convinced that we were there not for tourism, but rather to film a documentary on human rights abuses in the West Bank.  Confident in the fact that we had not broken any laws and that we were indeed there just for tourism, we eventually gained access into Israel with yet another fresh perspective gained on what we already knew to be a very volatile and sensitive region.   
Damascus Gate - East Jerusalem:
Touring City of David:
Jerusalem was our primary purpose for going to Israel and with our negative border experience behind us the marvels of one of the most significant historic cities in the world awaited us.  You don’t have to be a religious person to appreciate the spiritual power of this place; the holiest sites in the world for Judaism and Christianity and the third holiest for Islam share a very small area with one another, sometimes appearing to nearly sit right on top of one another.  It seems that every which way you turn there is a story, part of a long epic narrative which inherently links and intertwines these three great faiths together into a single tapestry whose shared past and future seem mutually dependent upon one another and whose foundations are built within the walls of this city.
 Old City Jerusalem:

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in all of Christendom, is the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection.  Encompassing the hill upon which he was crucified all the way to the cave in which he was entombed the church has a unique layout and shape with an ornate interior build out.  Here the deep emotional expressions of Christian pilgrims from all over the world can be observed as they kneel before the altar of Golgotha (the rock upon which the cross was embedded), touch the rock slab upon which he died and enter the tomb of his burial and resurrection.  Equally shared among the major traditional Christian sects (i.e. Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Roman Catholic) the church is a model of interfaith collaboration.  Under an Ottoman dictate originating in the nineteenth century to prevent fighting and bloodshed amongst the major Christian sects over who would gain rightful control of the church, the keys were handed over to a Muslim family to watch over the site and to open and close it daily to ensure its safety and security.  The same Muslim family has held this responsibility for generations and the tradition known as the “status quo” continues to this day.      

Via Dolorosa - Station IV:
Church of the Holy Sepulchre:
Courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre:
 Stone of Unction:
 Christ's Tomb:
Inside the church:

A short stroll away from the Christian Quarter through the Jewish Quarter will lead you to the Western Wall, the only remains of the original Temple built by Solomon and later improved upon by Herod the Great and the holiest site in Judaism outside of the Temple Mount.  Just on the other side of the Wall and literally on the site of the Temple Mount, you can view the minarets of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest Islamic sites in the world.  The Temple Mount has a long list of importance to Judaism as follows; the original site of the creation of the world and from which it expanded, where God gathered the first dust to create Adam, the site of Abraham’s binding of Isaac and the original site of the first two temples.  In Islam it shares the history of creation, Adam, and Abraham with the Jews, but is also the site upon which Mohammad ascended into heaven.  It is on this site that Judaism claims the third and final temple will be rebuilt, but upon which the Muslim Dome of the Rock already rests, leading to a major point of contention between the two faiths.  Again, in an area filled with so much strife and conflict, it is often easy to overlook the overwhelming similarities and synergies between the faiths and over which they paradoxically clash.        
The Western Wall:
Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall:

The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem’s most prominent structure, is unfortunately closed for entrance to tourists ever since the Second Palestinian Intifada.  While we can roam the grounds of the Temple Mount during the morning hours, only practicing Muslims are allowed to enter the Mosque itself.  The Palestinian attendant to the Mosque probably put it best when he casually and graciously told us, “Sorry, it’s just politics.”  And indeed, I agree, as only political agendas fueled by rhetoric of hate and centuries old animosities could place a wedge so big between faiths in which so much in common is shared.  The painful irony inherent in the beauty of Jerusalem is that the fates of these faiths seem essentially bound together in a Sisyphean game of geopolitics in which an agreeable outcome is unattainable.
Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount:

Just outside of Jerusalem’s Old City is the Mount of Olives, comprising the massive Jewish cemetery, the tomb of the Virgin Mary, numerous Cathedrals, and the Mosque of the Ascension which commemorates Christ’s ascent into heaven.  Religion it seems is everywhere in Jerusalem, whether you’re looking for it or not.  Even for the least religious person, it would be impossible not to be moved by the beauty of the Dome of the Rock, the energy felt by the faithful at the Western Wall, and the emotions of the Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  But perhaps our most pervasive religious experience was enduring the Sabbath…and no less having it commence on Friday at sundown, New Year’s Eve.

Mt. of Olives - Garden of Gethsemane:
St. Mary Magdalene Russian Orthodox Church:
 Mt. of Olives -  Jewish Cemetery:
 Views of the Old City Jerusalem from Mt. of Olives:
Mt. of Olives - Mosque of the Ascension:

I never really understood how serious the Sabbath actually is for the devout.  We spent most of our day on Friday hanging out at the Dead Sea, floating weightlessly and effortlessly on the salty, warm water, but returned just before sundown to a Jerusalem that had been effectively, almost entirely shut down.  Closed shops and emptied streets were the only scene and as we hadn’t really had time to think about our New Year’s Eve plans we found ourselves in a bit of a conundrum.          

Floating Around the Dead Sea:
Fortunately, after inquiring about our options from our hotel on Jaffa Road, we were directed to a small block just a short walk away that was full of restaurants and bars.  Although everything was mostly booked up, we were lucky enough to be able to squeeze into a very nice French restaurant, Adom, which served up a fabulous five course meal including, of all things, an exquisite pea soup with bacon.  Satisfied and completely exhausted by what can only be described as an epic trip of a lifetime, spanning four countries, one occupied territory, three border crossings, celebrations, friends new and old, numerous excursions, challenges, and incalculable rewards, Lily and I wandered back along the empty, quiet streets of Jerusalem on the eve of 2011, and slept peacefully, straight through the new year, thus concluding our remarkable adventures in the Middle East.      

-- KV
Sunset from the Rampart Walk, Old City: