Saturday, April 07, 2012

What the world doesn't understand about the Arab Spring

A few months ago, I took the boat from Andalusia to Morocco. From the Spanish port town of Algeciras to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta (Sebta) behind Jebel Mousa. From Babylon to Zion. From Europe to Africa.

As the boat broke through the waves linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, I went up to the top deck to marvel Gibraltar. The mountain rock that is Europe's southern edge, on the very edge of which, a huge white minaret stands today.

Jebel Musa - this is Africa! 
In my younger days, I have studied about Gibraltar, in Arabic "Jebel Tareq" in reference to Tareq ben Ziad, the general who extended the Islamic empire into Iberia in 710 AD. Once he landed with his army upon Gibraltar, he cast the boats back into the sea, or burned them, and said to his soldiers, "You have two choices: the sea is behind you, and the enemy is ahead of you." The same method and the same line were used later by Spaniards in their conquests of America.

Travels through Andalusia, Portugal and Morocco have shown me an extent of how civilisations really influenced one another, Arabs, Africans, Europeans, Latin Americans, they all have had a stake at building these lands. They've always exchanged knowledge and goods, through colonisation, through trade, through travels, through war, peace and love.

However, today, in a fortress world, the old beacons of prosperity in Europe and North Africa are now exchanged with post-modern, consumerist societies in unjustly banked systems, societies of human-bots under growing surveillance. Yet the future is not beyond hope: emotional intelligence will always defeat IQs and artificial intelligence.

Alhambra - Granada. A beacon of co-existence during  the Islamic
Empire days in Andalusia.
While the world's diverse cultures are still caught up in discussing sin and sainthood, smaller fractions in all societies are rising beyond this debate to discuss enlightenment and ignorance (read in post-modern terms).

Before heading to Andalusia, Portugal and Morocco I have been earlier in Jordan and Egypt, carefully witnessing a subtle transformation from authoritarianism to democracy. From Cairo's Tahrir  Square, to Amman's coffee houses, to the Medinas and Casbahs of Fez, Tetuan and Tanger, there's an unbreakable urge to re-establish prosperous societies, like the ones Arabs, Moors and Spaniards had in Cordoba and Granada.

The real revolution is happening in the minds of these people, not only in the political circles nor at the voting centres. For the first time ever, during my whole 30 years of growing up in the region and revisiting it often since I moved to Sweden in 2005, there's an abundance of new air around the people of Jordan, Egypt and Morocco - and I can only imagine what it is like in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere in the region.

Friday Muslim prayers at Tahrir square.
Arab spring in Tetuan, Morocco
The first great milestone is breaking taboos. There are no longer topics that are taboo. Everything is discussable: in every taxi cab or other means of transportation, in cafes, villages, mosques and most importantly at homes, the very values of democracy are weighed against the apathy and fear that have plagued the region since the establishment of these make-shift states after World War I. People are no longer hesitant to discuss any societal, political issue at the house hold level - where democracy begins in any modern, civil, and prosperous society.

The rise of the Islamists is nothing to be too wary off. In the midst of this huge bazaar of ideas, discussions, and with all the feelings that are finally being let out after decades of oppression - the Islamists came out as the only organised former opposition parties - and they are voted in to take command in the haste of having to re-establish order in these societies, which do have deeper roots in Islam than in any other ideological matrix.

The Islamic parties will now have to think in technocratic terms. They will soon have to drift away from discussing sin to think about GDP and GNP, about resources, about climate change, and about trade and welfare. Their success or failure to lead these societies towards the long aspired destination is intensively monitored and scrutinised in social circles, on social media, in traditional media, mosques, and other forums - and they know it, they feel the pressure, and will eventually leave the talk of morality and get into business. They will have to neutralise, or fail.

Dana village, Jordan. Coca cola knows more
about non-judgemental global investment than
most politicians today.
Meanwhile other parties will be established and will gain wider support. Those who are next in line, are those who really struck the nerve that started these revolutions: the youth with an unwavering longing to a civil and just society, to equal opportunities, and to prosperity. It is the youth in the Arab world that the world should bet on, invest in, and encourage to lead the future of these societies into one where alliances are made across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, further east and further south. Alliances to build on personal enlightenment, economic prosperity, and social equality.

The western industrialised world will soon trap itself in a protectionist fortress with high walls, unless it can keep up with the changes in this region and others. China and India are already rising, and the revolutionary fever is breaking through Africa, Latin America, and is even echoing within the fortress west itself. The real challenge ahead is to not to regress into discussions on morality (which entails superiority) but rather not to be judgemental of global changes, and invest in an sustainable manner.

Globalisation is unstoppable, but to reap its real benefits, we will have to move beyond thinking in national terms. Approaching the 2020s, we will have to think more in planetary terms. And in order to do so, we have to invest in forces that align societies together and create wide-spread order based on self-determination.

We need to recreate our societies to allow everyone an equal chance to prosperity, like they did in Andalusia, like they do in many modern nations and other nations of old.

For a closer understanding of the real values and opportunities created by the Arab Spring, watch the Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakol Kurman address these issues during a recent seminar in Stockholm, Sweden. I am helping her with interpretation. Watch the video here:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tracking my family roots

Watching Lawrence of Arabia (the film) for the first time a few days ago made me think about the Arab Revolution that overthrew the Turks as part of World War I, and divided the Middle East into small kingdoms and countries. One aspect that interested me - is the Jordanian tribal history - those who received and fought by Lawrence, and later on received the new Hashemite King.

So I started to search for my own family's history - both, my mother's and father's - and it looks like I have a mix of two bloodlines of revolutionaries, warriors and leaders, and well, some strange surprises.

My father's side
My official last name on paper is Abdelrahman - which is one branch of a tribe called Shawakfeh. Shawakefeh is a name that this family took during a late stage in the Ottoman reign. The name was taken because the family started a timber business - they were makers of firewood - shekaf - thus then name shawakfeh.

Shawakfeh is one of four families that changed their original name " Zayadna " or the sons of "Zaid," simply because they were sought after by the Ottomans and prosecuted, because one of the elderly Zayadna, Prince Zahir al-Omar al Zayadna - and his siblings - started a revolution in the areas known today as north Jordan, South Syria, and extending to Acre on the Palestinian shores. They made Akko the capital of the new Zayadna State and aliged with the largest bedoin tribe in Jordan, Bani Sakhr.

The Zayadna, or the sons of Zaid, came originally from today's Saudi Arabia, and got their name being the sons of Zaid the eldest son of Hassan Ben Ali and Fatima, Prophet Mohammad's daughter. After Hassan Ben Ali signed a treaty with the Ummayyads to give them the rule of Today's Iraq (in the period after Mohammad's death), he returned to Medina and was killed there.

The family then moved west and north - some as far as today's UAE to the west, and the as far as Syria to the north. The Syrian branch then moved southwards into today's Jordan. By year 1516, they started sending messengers to all Arabs and introduced the idea of Arab Unity against the Ottomans. But it wasn't until the early 1700s that their revolution created a short-lived independent state in the area around Lake Tibrias (after aligning with Jordan's biggest bedoin tribe, the rulers of Egypt, and support from Queen Catherine of Russia). Their dynasty came to an end the year 1770 . The dynasty was soon broken as the self appointed Prince Zahir al Omar was betrayed and killed by his own Moroccan aides.

Since then, the family was prosecuted and displaced. Today, tens of smaller families in Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and the Gulf States trace their roots to Zayadna, the sons of Zaid ben al Hassan ben Ali, the first son to the first grandson of Prophet Muhammad on his daughter's side.

One story of significance: when the young Zahir (prounounced Tha-her) al Omar al Zayadna attended a meeting between the heads of Jordanian tribes around the late 1600s, the head of bani Sakhr, Jordan's biggest tribe held his steel arrow and placed it on top of a hard rock. He asked the attendees if anyone knew how an iron arrow could puncture through a hard rock and yet stay straight. No one had an answer, except Zahir who placed his hand on the arrow, above the hand of the elderly wise man, and then he said - the arrow does not puncture the stone, nor can it stand straight, if the arms of the brave do not hold it together. The wiseman was impressed by his quick answer and wit, but feared his disloyalty as the youngster placed his hand above his. However, Zahir won the respect of the attendees, and therefore he was given training and support in arms and politics, until he was able to spark a revolution against the ottoman in mid 1700.

On my mother's side

My mother's side is much more documented in the modern history of Jordan. Her family name is Lambaz, and they come from the caucasian mountains in the south of Russia. They are Circassians, given independence by the Austrian Empire until the late 19th century, when the Russians conquored their area (still an autonomous part of Russia to this date). During the conquests, Lambaz, like many other circassian families, fled south to modern Turkey, Israel, Syria and Jordan. Among the head of the Lambaz family was Jacob son of Simsar, whose son Isaac (my mother's grandfather) built the Hussaini mosque in Amman, and created the first cooperative society in Jordan in the late 1800s and early 1900. His sons, Ahmad and Saleh (my grandfather), built Jordan's first modern hospital in Amman.


Isaac Lambaz, who established Jordan's first cooperative society stands on its Balcony (Picture  from 1910-1920)

A medal awarded to Isaac Lambaz by the Ottoman  Sultan for his charity work.

A medal given to Isaac Lambaz by al Shari Hussain ben Ali, King Abdullah's Grand Grand father and the ruler of Mecca, for his contribution to building Jordan's first big mosque, the Hussaini mosque in downtown Amman.:

Isaac's son, Saleh, my Grandfather - clad in traditional Circassian warrior  gear.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

From Tahrir Square: lessons in unorganised resistence

I spent three days ahead of first round of  Egyptian parliamentary elections since the revolution in the very place that kick started it: Tahrir Square. On Friday, the 25th of November 2011, a so-called "million-man march" was taking place. 

I arrived just as a couple of hundred thousand Egyptians performed Friday prayers. In this blog post, I will revisit some of the observations I noted during my three-day activist tourism on the square. As soon as I approached the end of Talaat Harb St. leading to Tahrir Square, I came across a "control point" - youngsters have tied a rope across the street, and stood there as a human shield preventing anyone from going in without her/his ID checked and bag and pockets searched for weapons. 

A young man informed me, as is the custom nowadays, that there is no reason to be offended or to feel targeted - this exercise is done to all visitors to Tahrir Square, and guarantees their safety in the occupied area. Then he said something that really struck me straight at the heart, when I asked him how they organised themselves between the different entrances to the square - he said "we're not organised, there's no central unit that gives out tasks, this is all done by volunteers, who keep watch, shift after shift." True enough, even when I re-entered the square two nights later at 4:00 am in the morning, there were different volunteers guarding the same location, with one young man and one young woman tasked with searching the bags of visitors of their respective genders. 

The "unorganisation" of the resistence that overthrew a dictator, took over Tahrir Square, and occupied the entrances to other key strongholds such as the Prime Ministry, the Parliament and the road to the Interior Ministry, etc, was what fascinated me the most. "The only thing that organises us is that we believe in the same thing" -- that thing, being apparently a governance system of integrity and equality.
Tahrir Square was a bazaar for the newly regained freedom of expression, it had a festive feeling. Food vendors selling all sorts of street sweets, cold drinks, tea, koshari, fireworks, etc. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were engaging in all sorts of political debates and other trivia - with views ranging from radical islamism to ultra liberalism. The salafis had their area, press centre and clinics, and so did the seculars, and many other non-aligned groups. 

The real Tahrir "revolutionists," the disorganised organisers, seemed not to follow any particular sect, party or political ideology - but expressed rather deterministic opposition to the governance status quo, and to many of the options that the more organised parties are putting on the table.
Poverty was also something that struck me. A family consisting of two parents and their 6 children, slept on the street, simply because they received free food and blankets from the volunteers. An almost post-apocalyptic scene that I encountered at a later hour, and something that I'll never forget.

The most fascinating aspect of it all is the joy, the determination, the pride, and the strength in many faces - the type of faces that tell you, we're all stakeholders in this. The fresh scent of hope after decades of hopelessness. All with the modest twist of brotherly and sisterly sympathy. This last bit, is something I have never seen before, anywhere, ever. I could go into the political analysis of what is happening in Egypt, but it is irrelevant, in every possible way.  This is the very atom-heart of a long due, generational revolution that will create a parallel world order, if it doesn't really break the rather fragile, illusionary, and patriarchal global political orders.

Anyway, I'll leave you with a voice from the square - here I interview the blogger Wael Abbas - who was courteous enough to take me to the Arab Network of Human Rights Defenders later on, and introduced me to some of the lawyers and publishers working around the clock to help bloggers, journalists and others througout their struggle before and after the revolution. Enjoy:


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Take 6: first to film the worlds largest water conveyance project at Disi

Water excavated is settling behind a sand-dam before being processed at one of the drilling locations.

A true oasis in the desert, billion years old ground water is excavated close to Jordan-Saudi Arabia border, to be pumped along 350 km to the capital city Amman. Truly fascinating experience, almost felt like the movie Armageddon with all the big drilling equipment and the dramatic desert landscape. Managed to also interview a local shepherd and an agro-engineer, both at a very large potato farm nearby that will be shut down as they are forced to close the irrigation wells pumping water from the same aquifer. I think I am very satisfied with todays trip, best tip: wear harder-duty jeans when you plan on going rock climbing in the desert to get the best shot :)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Take 5: interviewing the water journalist

Today I interviewed Reem al Rawashdeh, a journalist covering water since 2005 for the largest Jordanian daily, Al Rai. Reem has a lot of knowledge about dealing with water scarcity in the country on both the domestic and the national levels. 

Some of the highlights of the interview: there is more awareness of the water issue in less fortunate areas, but then again, there's less population growth in more fortunate neighbourhoods. There's also better coordination around the Jordan river basin in the east, than the Yarmouk river basin in the north, and an amicable agreement with the Saudis in the south on the shared Disi aquifer.

She says that dealing with water scarcity is part of every child's upbringing, but much can still be done on raising awareness to improve domestic water saving, rain water harvesting, water reuse, etc. She is quite hopeful that the solutions on the table will contribute much to improving water access for domestic use.

When it comes to water use in agriculture, she mentions workable pilot projects where agriculture uses treated waste water, saving fresh water resources for drinking purposes only.

However, her main concern is with how some interpret the human right to water - she says one of the most chronic problems in Jordan is when individuals steal water, reasoning that it is their god given right and not a commodity. On the other hand, the vast majority of Jordanians is willing to pay a higher price for water access, which is one thing that they will eventually have to do as soon as they start receiving water from the Disi acquifer in the south.