The Revolution Within

It started on January 25 and hasn’t ended yet: the revolution that was 30 years in the making –the popular uprising of millions, young/old, male/female, in Egypt. What the peaceful protesters in Tahrir – Liberation – square want is the remove of the 82 year old dictator Hosni Mubarak. Implicit in his stepping down is the conclusion that his son, Gamal, will not be immediately ushered into office, or indeed ever hold an official position in the Egyptian government. It is the end of an era — of U.S. backed foreign interests in the Middle East, of a population so downtrodden many described them as “lazy”, of life long dictators siphoning national funds to finance their vacation homes abroad.

Living in Qatar brings me geographically closer to the eleven day old uprising than my home base on the East coast of the U.S. Working for a Middle Eastern company and with a largely Arab staff (three people from Egypt) brings it directly into daily conversation about the well being of loved ones, fact versus rumor, waiting and hoping, hoping and waiting that “he” (aka Mubarak) will leave.

Add to this the larger circle of friends and colleagues at surrounding universities with ties to Egypt, mix in the excellent 24 hour coverage by Al Jazeera English on TV, the radio, via Twitter, and bake in the heat of friends posting status updates live from Egypt and you have a region more or less glued to the breaking-news ticker.

Against the backdrop of this history-making bravery, people I know personally are writing in international newspapers like The Guardian about being teargassed while trying to protest peacefully. Against this milieu of people saying what they mean, standing for what they believe, and in general living while they are alive, my petty irritations and conflicts seem so small.

In the midst of  international tumult and the constant broadcasts of pent up desire for freedom, it’s not entirely surprisingly that this week, after a long self-enforced silence, I broke and said what I was really thinking.

What I actually said may not be that important ( this isn’t like saying don’t think about elephants) but rather the way that I came to say it.

I had enough with the lack of respectful practices, disorder and chaos a particular set of people kept bringing into my life.

Since July I thought of ways to get out of being tied to them: over maternity leave, I was hoping we’d grow apart.

And as we started sleeping regularly again, I realized nothing had changed – though I had a seismic shift in my own life with the introduction of our new baby. With said baby, an odd thing happened. Instead of making me the crazy person everyone warned me of, the baby actually brought stability. Suddenly I wasn’t checking email all day and most of the night; I was home for meals instead of wandering from event to event. His presence called me home>

But more than being around. He gave me a reason to live a better life. I wanted to be more for him – happy, present, living up to my ideals.

Yet the difficult group relationship continued, with them walking through personal boundaries and in general wrecking havoc in a way that kept me fighting to stay positive and upbeat.

A long Christmas vacation during which I contemplated how to end this increasingly negative interaction. Returning from a long holiday — was difficult but I was much stronger than I thought. I was able to minimize the ever present irritations better than before. Though things were not perfect, I convinced myself to make the best of it, holding the baby close, and real friends closer – the rest receded a bit.

In the background though, like piano keys stuck together, a discordant note kept plunking.

They weren’t going to change. And my ability to ignore them was wearing thin as their discord further intruded into my resolution to live a life worth living while alive.

Last weekend the world couldn’t look away, and I was no different, watching mouth agape as pro-government thugs storm into the square astride horses and even on the backs of camels, beating those they came across with whips. It brought back childhood memories of students standing in front of tanks in another T-named square, Tienanmen. Unlike the Chinese, the pro-Mubarak supporters, paid thugs or undercover police, didn’t have the honesty to wear their uniforms into the square but came in dressed like everyone else to dilute the reputation of the peaceful protesters.

Like the Egyptians over the years, I had grumbled and complained about this group crowding my happy days and happiness. But I wasn’t ready for action. I wanted change but I didn’t know if I could deal with the discomfort. Was it easier for things to stay as they were? Could I weather the storm that this major shift would bring in my life, the life of my family?

In the middle of this week I, alongside  the example of millions of Egyptians who had finally tired of dictatorship above all else, had enough. We were ready to pay the price, come what may of having our say and reaching for impossible dreams. That of self-sovereignty.

I finally said what I had to say. Without emotion or drama or shouting. In a clear, unshakable voice, I spoke what had been on my mind for several months.

As the flags wave in Tharir square, we don’t know what will happen. And without this toxic group in my life, I’m not sure what will come next.

But the sight of Christians protecting Muslims gives me hope that Egypt won’t be overrun by the islamists as everyone is saying. Rather, unlike Iran or Iraq, Egypt will rise out of this revolution strengthened and renewed for the first time in three decades. This may sound idealistic, and no one is saying it won’t be messy. If you haven’t already seen the images of protesters with blood soaked handkerchiefs, then you don’t know the lengths people are willing to go to have their say.

The people of Tunisia and Egypt and have inspired me and even youth all over the Middle East region.

We can all create a life that we want, rather than the script the West (read: those who thought they were in charge of us) write. We don’t have to be puppets of anyone. It won’t be easy. In fact, it will be the hardest thing we’ve done.

But we know what life under dictatorships is like. The promise of freedom is too compelling to turn away any longer. Live the best life you can. After all, you know what the other option is like.

In what areas do you need to have a personal revolution? And from what parts of current or past history can you garner strength?

A New Generation for War Guilt


I’m at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week; the World Cup, Super Bowl, World Series of all book fairs. The scene at book fairs would surprise most readers because it does not involved authors or readers but rather agents, publishers, and distributors. There are stalls in the tradition of all vendor gatherings where companies display their brightest wares. Whether the Cairo, Abu Dhabi, or Frankfurt book fair, there are deals being made by the back offices of the publishing industry from rights sales of books into various languages and markets as well as bookstores agreeing to take on specific numbers of copies of various titles.

Being in Germany is always interesting and this trip is no different because there is always a small shadow that falls across a conversation that includes references to the Second World War, Hitler, the death camps, or any combination of the above. In my current job I only have two German speaking colleagues but also many people with ties to Germany living in Qatar. I know this generation feels no personal guilt over deeds done long before they were born; movies/books such as THE READER are examples of the disgust and horror the younger generations feel about what happened.

I was as surprised as anyone last night at dinner when a reference came up to a Nazi run labor camp that I suddenly felt a similar twinge of guilt. Not for Germany’s misdeeds but America’s in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last near decade of America pursued conflict has left me cringing anytime anyone mentions recent presidencies as well as shrinking away from questions about why Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.

I am fully aware of the depth of the next sentence but will write it anyway: in the last few years it has been embarrassing to be American. If you’ve been to a comedy night at the Ramada in Doha you’ll hear comedians call out everyone in the room by nationality. When it’s the Americans turn things are uncharacteristically silent. There’s always a joke about this and a lot of ducked chins and sheepish grins around this time. I’m suggesting for a moment that two Iraq wars and incursions in Afghanistan equal anything near the death machine of the Third Reich; the comparison is not to scale but rather as symbolic. At the very least, as in recent observation, the result is the same conversation stopper for the person of that nationality during a discussion.

The good news is that regardless of the Nobel committee’s motivation – leftist conspiracy to under Obama or international prodding to hold true to promises – it is easier to lift my head in the world as an American now than It was in 2005 when I moved to the Middle East.

But our sins are not erased, they are just diminished.  I do pray for wisdom for the man who might be the most scrutinized individual in the world. He has become president at the lowest moment in American history. But already he is demeanor, passion, and character give me much to be proud of.

If you've lost your way…

Traveling in London I’ve found a sure fire technique for never getting lost. Ask a street cleaner for directions. They are everywhere, have fantastic maps, and also know the city better than most.

My coworker last night shared that this piece of advice is true not only for the complicated rabbit warren alleys of England but also Cairo.

"My mother told me to always ask a cleaner," she said smiling as we waited for our other friend who was asking a cleaning gentleman for directions to the nearest outlet of our desired restaurant.

I began wondering if this was the sign of what is really at the heart of a society: the willingness to acknowledge and attribute knowledge across all segments of society. Was it because we were all non-UK nationals, able to see outside the class conscious society of the UK? Or was it because of our generation – we were a mix between Xers and Mellenials – so even any UK twenty or thirtysomething would feel comfortable doing the same? Dare I raise the specter of gender: was it because we were three women that we stopped for directions?

Whatever the case, we did stop for directions, each of us comfortably perched near the edge of upper middle classhood and thanked the gentleman for his help.

Perhaps this is the sign of an eglaitarian mindset on which a society could be built.

Perhaps having a voice, even to give directions, is tied to having a large social presences, like having your voice count?

Hopefully the Iranian people who have been patient are rewarded for their efforts.