Plastered with Gaza Posters

Posted in Uncategorized on May 3, 2009 by unfetteredeyes

It’s been more than 4 months since the Israeli Massacre in Gaza. These pictures were taken in Syria and Lebanon where posters, billboards and photographs like these are a backdrop to daily life. While for the rest of the world the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is old news,  in the cities of Damascus, Allepo, Shatilla people’s grief and rage has yet to abate.

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Aleppo

Aleppo

Yarmouk Camp

Yarmouk Camp

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Sabra and Shatilla

Sabra and Shatilla

Damascus

Damascus

There’s No One Damascus

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on February 22, 2009 by unfetteredeyes

 

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He’s a lot friendlier than the average cab driver.

 

“I’m hungry,” I tell him from the backseat of his vehicle in my child-like Arabic, “Where’s shawarma?”

 

Soon we’ve pulled over at a small road-side restaurant and the owner is sawing chicken off the 5-foot long metal roasting stick on which he impaled 25 chicken carcasses that morning. The meat has been slowly cooking all day and is tender and thick with grease.

 

We continue down the clogged, smoky streets of Damascus. I slouch down in the backseat of the cab and disappear behind a book. Ten minutes later, dragging my eyes from the page, I look around and realize we are in the outskirts of the city.

 

“Where is Mezza,” I ask, “Close?”

 

“Yes,” he smiles, and turns down a dirt road lined with trees, no other cars in sight. I start to get hot under my conservative yet fashionable Damascus-style blazer, “Problem?” I ask, a little feebly.

 

He tells me there is no problem but I decide to call a friend who speaks better Arabic anyway. My friend answers I and hand over the phone.  They’ve been talking or about 30 seconds when I see the freeway ahead. Ah, he’s taken a short-cut. How nice. Sigh.

 

We don’t say much for the next ten minutes. After all, I’ve just about exhausted my Arabic and he’s probably hoping not to freak me out any more then he already has. By the time we arrive at my friend’s apartment it’s as if those uncomfortable moments on the dirt road happened between a different foreigner and a different cab driver.    

 

I learn over to hand him his money and our eyes meet, his jovial, mine placated and a little embarrassed.  Now he speaks to me in English, “You scared?”

 

“No, no,” I try to assure him.

 

A slow smile creeps across his face, it reminds me of standing on the balcony of my apartment and watching the morning light inch across Damascus.  The sun sparkles in his warm, green eyes and his complex-web of wrinkles are like the densely-packed streets on the city’s own dimpled face.

 

“I cab driver, “ he looks at me seriously and pauses for effect, “no terrorist.” 

 

We both erupt into laughter.

 

This is Damascus. 

 

The hazy sketch of Syria we get in U.S. becomes progressively more hazy as to almost loose all definition once you are here. Dangerous? Conservative? Anti-American? Oppressive to women? Backwards? Extremist?  It’s not nearly as simplistic as that.

 

Nothing here fits neatly into my preconceptions. Hell, after 5 months here, nothing even fits neatly into my post conceptions. It is easy as a visitor to mistake Damascus as a relatively open, modern, tolerant society.  It’s also easy to dismiss it as a backwards, repressive dictatorship with secret police on every corner. There some truth to both.

 

An interplay of freedom and constraint in this complex society makes it difficult to determine who has the power and who defines the parameters. People who seem afraid to talk to me will wordlessly pay for my bus fair and look away when I try and thank them. Everyone hates America but everyone loves Americans. It’s a socially conservative environment where I find myself at lavish, all-night dance parties on a pretty regular basis. Nothing is permitted and yet somehow every thing is done.

 

Mujahareen (The Immigrants)

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We live on a hill, a 10 minute walk up steep cobblestone streets, the last of which many vehicles even refuse to attempt. Muhajareen was originally populated by Armenians fleeing the genocide in Turkey in 1912, hence the name.  When you get to the top of the hill there is a view of Damascus that at night stretches out like fields upon fields broken glass. Fragments of color shimmer in the darkness and hide behind a dull, gray veil of fog and dust during the day.

 

From my roof on a clear morning I can map out a path of the places I’ll go that day: the old, walled city where I go to school, the fountain by the juice stand I like, the place where I sit on a park bench smoking apple-flavored tobacco out of a water-pipe, the mosque obscuring my favorite bath-house where I get scrubbed down for a small price every other Sunday.

  

Syrians speak softly, drawing their words in the air in elaborate, swirling calligraphy and sometimes rounding off a particularly good sentence with sweet, high-pitched inflection. Shopkeepers in outdoor markets swoop their arms through the air like dancers, beckoning the passerby with lavish gesticulations. When people kiss on the cheek they make a loud, smacking sound.  Even foreign ministers on T.V. in their stiff suits kiss each other three times on each cheek, muah, muah, muah.

 

Young men have impeccable style. They grease back their carefully groomed, sometimes shoulder-length hair and go the barber-shop twice a week to get the perfectly lined stubble on their cheeks trimmed for a rough and sexy look. The average guy wears tight jeans and a flashy shirt, usually with the top two (or sometimes three) buttons undone and a tangle of chest-hair spilling out.  

 

The way that men are affectionate with each other blows me away. When a man sees another man he knows on the street they immediately touch hands. It’s not the brief slap we’re used to, it’s a gentle clasp that may last for 2 or 3 minutes while each one inquires about the others family, health and business. Then it’s drags out for another 2 minutes as that berate each other for not visiting more often.

 

For a briefer encounter, men will clasp hands and then kiss the spot where their hands met or sometimes a man will grab another man’s chin and pull down, drawing his fingers together like the invisible strings of a coin purse and then bringing the tips to his lips for a kiss.

 

Secrecy and Descent

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“How much is the fare?” a woman on the bus asks me.

“Ten lira, where are you from?”

“I’m from Iraq.”

“Really? I’m American.”

 She nods. We sit in silence.

“Stupid Bush is a son of a dog,” I offer in my rough Arabic.

“True. That’s right.”

“He’s finished.”

“Thanks to God.”

 She turns to me for the first time and looks at me carefully.

“American people are good, your government is bad.”

“Some Americans are good, some are bad.”

“True, thats the same in every country.”

 

It’s not hard to connect with people here when it comes to their disdain for governments, be it the U.S., Israel, Iraq or pretty much any government in the region.  It never ceases to amaze me what a clear and compassionate distinction people I’ve met in the Middle East make between American policy and its people. It’s our governments that are warring over large, mostly economic issues, not us.

 

“Bush bad, you good.”

 

It’s something I hear on a regular basis from friends and strangers alike. It’s far more difficult to discern how people feel about their own government. Large, reassuring shots of President Al-Assad adorn almost every shop window in Damascus. At every rally, play, concert or hip-hop show there’s a part of the evening devoted to an intense display of nationalist fervor. Large crowds of people will spontaneously erupt into chants about the president and poets will recite ethereal verse in his honor.

 

How much of it is deeply felt? That’s not really talked about in polite company, especially considering that people tend to get thrown in prison here for next to nothing. In wealthy neighborhoods mukhabarat (secret or not-so-secret police) are stationed at every corner wearing black suits and expressions as cold as the steel of their weapons. Sometimes they will stop to ask you where you’re going, why you have been standing in one place for more than ten minutes or simply why you are pointing at something. Countless books and a whopping 50,000 internet sites are banned, including face book and u-tube.  It’s something you get used to, a culture of secrecy marked by an incredible openness at the same time, you just have to learn when to be which.

 

The Family

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My high school students are reading a novel.  A young city boy is lost in a forest. He’s been walking for days when another boy of about his age finds him. The boy is very concerned about the lost traveler so he finds a cave for him to rest in and then dresses his bloody, blistered feet. I ask my class, would you do the same for a complete stranger? Is there anyone in the world whose feet you would wash?

 

“My mother” one boy says with a solemn look and instantly the other boys nod their heads approvingly and chime in in agreement. I raise my eyebrows in surprise, after all, I usually can’t trust these boys to give me a straight answer. They do everything they can on a regular basis to derail my lecture, including physical intimidate and sexual harassment. Even if they appear to be listening to my lecture I suspect most of them are actually ogling at my breasts.

 

“Teacher, of course I would wash my mother’s feet.”  

 

People’s lives revolve around their families. Some of my male friends in their 20s still have to be home by ten o’clock to eat dinner with their parents. Every night. Another friend’s family plays cards and watches T.V. together 7 days a week until 2 or 3am. My students write about their favorite place in the world being “at home with my family” where everyone understands them. Another friend had me over for dinner and his sister explained to me that “Muslims girls don’t stay out late. If we did, what would we do? There no reason to be away from home.” Her extended family all live within a few blocks from each other, “For us freedom comes from within,” she smiled at me, “it’s different from the West.”

 

Bodies and Art

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Two inches of skin followed by 3 inches of shiny black leather heels peek out from underneath a long, conservative coat. Her headscarf is a thin-effervescent thing tucked into her collar, her dark-red lips and black-sunglasses are stunningly set-against smooth white skin.

 

The way a typical Muslim Syrian woman dresses would be a complete scandal in Yemen. Though, on the other hand, there’s no such thing as a typical Syrian woman. Some look classy enough to blend into the crowd at an art gallery on the lower-east side of Manhattan; others wear their hijjab drawn around their heads and then literally pinned under their nostrils so that only eyes and nose peek out. Long coats usually serve as the traditional abeya, even in the summer. Some of them are made of silk or some other shiny material and worn tight around the body, others are drab, loose and intentionally unremarkable.

 

Women cover their bodies with art. The key word being “cover.” The most awesome and sexy you can possibly look is entirely acceptable as long as you are “covered.”  It’s common to see women in hijjabs and skin-tight jeans bumping and grinding to hip-hop at night clubs and young mothers in high-heeled leather boots laced up to the knee with silk shopping in street markets with two kids in tow. As long as your wearing a hijjab you can pretty much follow it up with whatever you like. It’s like they are saying, “What? I’m covered, who are you to criticize me?”

 

Of course, clothes are just clothes. They don’t necessarily say much about the person underneath. One one hand, the sheer diversity that meets the eye and the sometimes shocking extravagance displayed on the streets of Damascus makes me want to understand the structures that lie behind those choices. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s a clear equation that indicates a woman’s religion, family or social status based on her appearance.

 

A Little Context

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My teacher told me out of his 9 sisters only one chooses not to wear a hijjab.  Her family criticizes her for it, but her decision is accepted. About 20-30 percent of women you see on the streets of Damascus don’t wear a headscarf. This may be because they are Christian, Allawite, secular or it may be that they are Muslim but simply prefer not too.

 

Today it seems relatively rare for a woman to be forced to wear the hijjab. Of course there’s an element of social pressure, but from what I’ve heard many mothers prefer that their daughters don’t cover. The fact that in 2009 the vast majority of Muslim Syrian women are choosing to wear head-scarves, perhaps more than ever before in the last 70 years, leads one to wonder, why?

 

The last generation of Syrian women came of age in the 1970’s. In those days it was a rare thing to see women with their head covered. After all, Syria was a self-proclaimed socialist state that promoted religious tolerance and secularism.  In the early 1980s a brutal chapter in Syria’s history began. A fundamentalist group called the Muslim Brotherhood become a threat to the Allawite-dominated Baathist regime and the president Hafez Al-Assad’s brother, Rifa’at, responded by brutally repressing Muslims. There was a very brief period when police threatened women in the street wearing hijjabs. If they wouldn’t take off their head-scarves willingly, they would be torn off. 

 

Today Syrians are living in a different era. Many of the political parties, groups and leftist movements that thrived in the 70’s have failed. After 9/11, the Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan and the deterioration of the Palestinian situation, many people have lost faith in political groups to defend the Middle East from outside aggression.

 

The result has been a conservative backlash and a resurgence in the importance of religion. “People have no dream” a friend explained to me. The economy is bad, Hamas and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) have weakened, “when people find nothing, they look to religion.”   

 

Souk Hamidiyya

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The steel roof of the enormous souq blinks down at me with a thousand eyes. Fragments of blue sky escape from small holes, forming a constellation of stars over the long, oblong tunnel. Scores of people bustle through and desperate salesmen beckon from their shops on the sidelines.

 

A spectacular rush of color, strong perfume, shouts and rhythmic thumping fills the air. A little boy sends a red balloon with heliocopter wings sailing up to the vaulted heavens. He throws his head back and blows at particles of dust floating in the beams of sunlight.  Bikes swish by, the smell of brewing espresso trailing in their wake. A man zig-zags through the crowd carrying 5 ice cream cones, clumps of cool, sweet cream and pistachios nuts running down his arms.

There’s no one Damascus. Syria blows the stereotypes I held about the Middle East right out of their shallow water. It’s a rubric of life that I’m sure my ten-cent version can hardly do much justice.

 

Looking out over my new city, I watch scores of pigeons dip and turn over the steel-grey buildings, their light, airy bodies taking on the wide, blue sky with inexplicable grace. It’s not an easy city. Sometimes from my roof I see old men and women sitting on white, plastic chairs on their balconies, catching a moment of solitude amidst a vortex of dust and exhaust. Amber sun streams through their hair and a gentle breeze smooths their weary faces. 

 

 

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All Our Love for Gaza

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 9, 2009 by unfetteredeyes

Burning Israeli Flag

Protest in Damascus against Gaza Massacre: Burning Israeli Flag

I drag myself out of bed on auto-pilot and stumble through the early-morning darkness to make tea and turn on the T.V.  The news flashes across the screen: plumes of smoke and more bloodied bodies.  It’s been 15 days and people in Gaza are still under attack.

I’m a mere 120 miles from the 25-mile-long strip of land where 1.5 million Gazans live behind 8-meter-walls made of concrete and steel, but I can’t go there.  No one can.  The borders are militarized, Gaza is sealed. All we can do is sit here and watch as scene after hideous scene unfolds.

Screams and endless images of carnage play in every bean and hummus shop in Damascus. Everyone has their T.V. turned to Aljazeera. Protests rock the city daily and anguished voices reverberate over the airwaves, “Gaza need guns not bread!” or “Shame on Arab governments for doing nothing!”

For 15 days Damascus has been a city possessed by periodic mourning and explosions of deep rage. It is the most potent and unanimous show of support that I have ever seen, anywhere. On New Year’s Eve all celebrations were called off as many people prepared for a night of prayer. On day 3 my teacher said his mother’s health failed and she had to go to the hospital; another friend found his father alone in their courtyard, collapsed into the floor and crying his eyes out.

Before and After Dec 26h

“You can’t blame Gaza, they wanted bread, that’s why they started this!” my friend screamed the day of the first attack. At the time of the launching of rockets in Israel on Dec. 26th there was only one bakery open in Gaza City, with hundreds of people lined up in front of it for hours at a time.

Gaza has been suffering under an economic blockade since both Israel and Egypt sealed its borders in 2007. For the last two-and-a-half years fuel, flour and medicine shortages have been increasing. After a 6-month cease-fire with Israel ended, Hamas refused to renew it. Hamas’ demands have been clear from the beginning, Israel must agree to end the blockade and the slaughter of Gazans, until then the rockets will not stop.

Before 2005 Gaza was occupied by Israel for 38 years. A year after Israel withdrew, Hamas won what many consider to be the first truly democratic elections in the history of the Middle East. Israel’s reaction was to deny the results of the elections and hand power over to their rival, Fatah, who Hamas drove out of Gaza in 2007. Since then, Gaza, one of the most populated places in the world, with 47% of its citizens below the age of 14, has been turned into a virtual prison, with military control all but forbidding Gazans from venturing outside its borders.

Little kid flashesme the "V" for Victory sign.

Little kid flashesme the "V" for Victory sign.

The Media

“They show the scenario, but they don’t say who wrote the script.” (a friend)

On Day four I’m in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp that’s been in Damascus since in the 1950s. On the way to a friend’s apartment I saw Israeli flags painted on the sidewalk and watch people ritually stomp on them as they walk by. I’m sitting in my friend’s apartment with a bunch of people watching Aljzajeera. Footage from an infra-red camera shows little neon green men with guns slung over their shoulders marching through the black night into Gaza. Ground troops are entering Gaza for the first time, something that up until this point no one thought would happen.

Many people here ask me why the images we see here aren’t on U.S. T.V, “In America you will show naked women on T.V. but showing these murdered women and children (in Gaza) is haram (forbidden). How can that be?” (a friend)

There’s nothing more painful than seeing these images yet many people I talk to here are convinced that if the same images were shown in American, the public would do something about the U.S.’s blanket political and economic support of Israel.

I agree with them to an extent. If Americans were watching the footage from inside Gaza it would be impossible for them to feel “tired” of this issue, it would be impossible for them to deny just how drunk with power, and what a threat to the planet, Israel has become.

Yet somehow Aljazeera, the only media outlet inside Gaza, continues to be demonized in the U.S. The 2-year-old Aljazeera English news station is the most engaging and comprehensive news program I’ve ever seen. Probably one of the simplest and most important things that people can do in the U.S. is demand that local T.V. stations air Aljazeera English(http://english.aljazeera.net/) and watch it, tell your friends to watch it, let U.S. citizens see for themselves

Walls and Borders

“Israel wouldn’t do this if they didn’t know that they could get away with it.” (a friend)

Gazans have been effectively isolated from the rest of the world, but the tanks, guns and towering walls serve not only to keep Palestinians in but also to keep the rest of the world out. Many Arabs are desperate to fight; but what forces are at play to prevent them? Here are some reactions I got when I posed this question to a few of my friends, teachers and students here in Damascus, whose named I’ve decided to omit:

“If they opened the borders (to Palestine) I can guarantee you 2 million Arabs would go in to fight. I would be the first person to go to Israel and blow myself up. I want to go make Jihad, everyone does, but we can’t just go there, the borders are militarized.”

“My body feels like a volcano but nothing can come out, there is no where for it to go. Even though I’ve never even been to Palestine and I don’t have family there, I feel it in my body, something that is killed inside of me because we can not do anything (to help them).”

My friends tell me that Jordan and Egypt have long co-operated with Israel to seal its borders and that with Syria and Lebanon it’s the U.N. that controls who enters. Due to this, people in other Arab countries are limited in what they can do and have to rely on their governments to take action.

Middles Eastern countries are divided into western-friendly monarchies/autocracies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and the anti-U.S. dictatorships of Lebanon, Syria and Iran. The former get power from their alliance with the U.S., while the latter tend to control their populations with an iron fist.

“They (Arab governments) don’t want people to go to Palestine (and fight) because they would loose control and this movement would force them to loosen their policies. America wants these regimes to control the people, kill them, it stops them from fighting back.”

“There are two kinds of motives from governments in the Middle East. In Syria, the government wants everything to be under their control (so that) it can’t be developed in the future and used to overthrow them. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia feel embarrassed about their American/Israeli alliance, that’s how they get their power, without support from America their regimes would collapse.”

“The border between Syria and Palestine is the only safe border for Israel. There is an agreement between the Arab governments and Israel. There is an agreement between the Syrian and Israeli governments, if I want to go to Palestine, who will stop me? The Syrian government will kill me before Israel will!”

Two Syrian Girls at a Leftist Protest

Two Syrian Girls at a Leftist Protest

Arab Governments, Arab People

I am walking through the dark, narrow streets of the center of Old Damascus with a group of Syrian, Palestinian and foreign friends. A musician carrying his Oud approaches one of my friends. “Hey,” he asks him “aren’t you Palestinian?”

“Yes, I’m Palestinian.”

“Please, can I play a song for you?”

Since the War on Gaza began, many people I’ve talked with are amazed at how unified Arab people are. Not just against Israel/America, that’s a given, but against their own or other Arab regimes for failing to do something decisive in Gaza’s defense.

“This is a new reaction, people are blaming Arab governments for the 1st time, they are telling Egypt and Saudi Arabia that they have to do something.” (a friend)

Protest

“The biggest obstacle is the (Arab) dictatorships because people can’t express their anger the way they want to.” (a friend)

“The government will blame Israel by talking, they let protests happen but nothing else, they don’t fight Israel directly.” (a friend)

Yesterday, I went to a government-organized protest with ten of thousands of people. In a still-shot, especially if you don’t read Arabic, it might easily have looked like a pro-government rally. Despite the fact that hundreds of pictures of Syrian President Al-Assad were being waved in the air, there was more going on beneath the surface.

Women in the Streets head towards the Egyptian Embassy

Women in the Streets head towards the Egyptian Embassy

When a splinter group ran off from the larger protest twords the Egyptian Embassy, I followed them. This group was made up of hundreds of young men and women, chanting anti-U.S., Israeli and Egyptian slogans, many of them climbing up on each others shoulders to pose for my camera.

Near the embassy we were met by a wall of military police who obviously had orders to stop us. There was pushing and shouting and soon batons began to swing. It was at this point that it became apparent that although the average Syrian is proud of their government’s courageous show of power against Israel, they are also angry and easily incensed when that power is directed against them.

Soon, there was tear-gas being thrown at us and a massive, frenzied retreat. 5 or 6 guys decided to protect me from the chaos, guiding me to a corner and giving me tissues to wipe my eyes with.

I think it’s worth noting that even though I was the only foreigner there it didn’t even occur to me that I should be worried about the crowd turning against me. When they asked me where I was from I hesitated, but when I told them the truth and they were like, “Wow, are you a journalist? Do you support our actions?” The whole country hates the U.S., but you have to understand that despite everything we’re heard about Syrians and what a dangerous country this supposedly is I have never felt in danger here. Syrians know the difference between people and their government.

Killing Resistance

“This is not a war on Hamas, it is not a war against Palestinians, it is a war against the concept of resistance.” (a friend)

“Why are we weak? The governments have lost the will of the people, that’s why they get their power from America.”(A friend)

This kind of reaction from Arab governments towards protesters has been seen all over the Arab world, from Egypt to Jordan. In Jordan people tried to storm the Israeli Embassy and the military police stopped them. A lot of people seem to recognize the contradiction in this reaction and that only makes them identify more fervently with Gaza.

It wasn’t until I was on the mini-bus on my way home after a day of teaching and street protests, with the sun casting its gold shadow on the streets of Damascus, that it really hit me for the first time. I mean the last 15 days I’d been racked with anger and eaten by impotence. I’ve been glued to the news to the extend that I can barely turn it off to go to bed at night. Every single person I’ve talked to: Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian or foreigner feels exactly the same way.

I was thinking about something my friend told me earlier that day. He said he was sitting in a cafe with a bunch of his friends the night before and they were talking about what they could possibly do to get Americans to wake up and make their country stop supporting Israel. One of his friends leaned over and said “I have relatives in the U.S., what if we could convince them to bomb a school? Then I’m sure Americans would understand what it’s like for us to have so many of our children murdered.”

“I was shocked,” my friend said, “this is a good guy, but then I though maybe you should put this in your blog. After all, this is what happens, the U.N. is doing nothing, the world is sitting by and people begin think crazy things.”

At first I didn’t want to write about what my friend advised me. I feared it would only feed into the stereotype of Arabs as terrorists, but I decided it was too important to edit out. Think about it, if someone was slaughtering our children, 200 of them in 15 days, how many of us wouldn’t want to take revenge?

8 American children were killed in the 911 attacks. Can we still remember how that felt? Can you imagine how people here feel about the 200 children killed in Gaza? How many people in the rest of the world do you think blamed us for 911, saying the loss of life was justified due to our foreign policy, just like Israel and its supporters are saying about Gazans and Hamas?

There’s a big difference here though. We’re are the most powerful country in the world and we were targeted by a small group of individuals. Israel is the the 3rd largest military in the world and they are slaughtering a small, scarcely-armed group. They are using unmanned drones, F16 fighter jets, tanks, troops and god knows what else. There’s an unquestionable difference in what we’re living through right now.

I have to leave you with an image that is everywhere in the Arab media but I’m certain you haven’t seen in the U.S. A man shows the camera the cold, dead bodies of 3 little children, who can’t be more that 3 or 4 years old, each one has a bullet would to the chest. This is not shrapnel, not a errant bullet that hit a leg or arm, these children were shot by Israeli snipers deliberately in the chest.

Israel thinks if it increases the misery of the people in Gaza they will stop supporting Hamas. Pure horror can only create more horror. Why don’t they evacuate these families? Why don’t they at the very least make a safe part of Gaza where people can go?

I can only hope that these shameful, bloody days will forever change the world’s opinion of Israel. I can only believe that people are starting to see through it all.  That the day is coming that powerful governments won’t able to use these  justifications.  The world won’t believe them anymore.

redcloak

Yemen Part II

Posted in Uncategorized on September 26, 2008 by unfetteredeyes

Ramadan Kareem!

phoo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

 

 

 

It’s a few minutes before 6 and the light in the port-city of Aden is beginning to fade. As the sun sinks behind bare, jagged cliffs the city takes a deep, full-bodied breath. Its mouth opens wide, its lips stretch thin and like a great, harmless beast it sucks all the people into its warm, concrete belly. In seconds the streets are empty. Steel-doors are bolted shut, soccer games cut short and kites quickly pulled from the sky. Women disappear into their homes and men duck into small, crowded restaurants.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

No dark clouds mar the blue-grey sky, no sound of thunder threatens in the distance. The population of Aden is driven indoors by the sound of dozens upon dozens of loudspeakers. Mosques scattered across the city’s face erupt into a kind of song that is not song or chant, not beautiful or ugly but awesome and commanding. From my birds-eye perch, 3 or 4 hundred feet up on the backbone of Crater, the rim of an extinct volcano in which the city is literally built, the sound is deafening. It ricochets off the crater walls and collides in my inner-ear like a great, booming storm, “God is great, God is great. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah. I bear witness that Mohammad is Allah’s messenger.” It is the evening call to prayer.

As the setting sun cools the hot, wet air people are breaking their fast indoors before prayer. For the first time since before dawn they drink cool water and enjoy special Ramadan treats like breaded balls of soft potato, creamy pudding, crispy meat-filled samosas and soft, sugary dates. After a few minutes the voices start up again, “Hasten to prayer, hasten to prayer,” and people rise. Women clear the cups and plates from the rooms where they have eaten, then they lay out their mats for prayer. Men wipe the crumbs from their lips, rinse the grease from their hands and head for the mosque.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

 

Ramadan is a month-long daylight fast observed everywhere where there are Muslims, which is pretty much everywhere. Islam is the fastest-growing religion on the planet, the population of the umma (Islamic community) reached between 1.6 and 1.8 billion last year. The world’s concentration of Muslims is in the Middle East and North Africa, where Muslims compromise an estimated 99%, and it is on the rise in Asia and Europe.

by sarah shourd

by sarah shourd

Ramadan is a time to get serious about your faith. It’s not only a time to abstain from food and drink but also to purify one’s thoughts, exercise restraint and practice good deeds. No one wants to get married during Ramadan because it means you can’t even think intimate thoughts about your loved one, let alone act on them. Everyone is encouraged to read the entire Koran and to be benevolent towards those less fortunate; the Koran specifies giving 5% of your income to the poor. Even days before the holiday begins it is common to hear people shouting “Ramadan!” at someone who does something distasteful. I saw a woman without a veil walk up to a man and say, “Don’t look at my face, Ramadan in coming!”

The first time I break the fast is on spacious, air-conditioned bus from Sana’a to Aden. As we traverse a rocky, green landscape be speckled with small homes and domestic animals the passengers begin to arrange their food on the small, plastic tables in front of them. When the sun is no longer visible behind low cliffs the bus becomes dead quiet and there’s tension in the air. No mosques are within hearing range so everyone must consult their Ramadan calendars for the exact time to break the fast. A dispute breaks out when a few men decide to start eating and others say it’s too early. The driver responds by turning on the radio and all doubt is assuaged when the call to prayer is heard crackling over the airwaves.

Everyone hands around a little of what they have, a disproportionate amount being heaped on us. Before we know it we have plastic cups of milk, half a dozen samosas, cookies and a mound of dates 4 inches deep. A man to our left with a very unique way of being friendly holds out a thick, juicy clump of dates and, when we start to refuse he turns his face away from us and keeps him arm extended in our direction.

The Real Story of the Shia

In a few minutes the bus is alive with chatter and shouts of, “Ramadan!” and “God is generous.” A middle-aged woman in front of us turns to my partner and asks him about the book he is reading. It is called, “The Shia Revival.” She wants to know why an American is reading about the Shia. Her assumption is that any book about Shia- a) whose author is not Shia and b) is being read by foreigner -must be full of lies.

“You have questions about Shia?” she asks, “I can tell you the real story of the Shia.” It turns out she’s an Iraqi engineer who moved to Yemen 7 years ago with her husband and two sons to escape Saddam and his brutal form of socialism. She and her husband are both professionals but it was impossible for them to make ends meet. She left behind the shell of a house she was slowly building on the banks of the Euphrates in the center of Baghdad. Little did she know that Iraq would soon become a place far more dangerous than they left it and that their dream home would be blocks away from the Green Zone, the center of the U.S. occupation.

She and her teenage son pour over the book and it isn’t long before they find what they are looking for. “Blood-thirsty, violent” her fingers trace the words on the bottom of the first page. “Why do they say this about the Shia?” she asked. He tries to explain to her that it was a quote and that the author, although not Shia himself, was sympathetic to Shia. She accepts this with a nod but her suspicion is not satisfied. We continue to chat for a while, chewing on dates and sipping tea, and before we arrive in Aden she turns around and invites us to her house for dinner that Friday to break the fast. “Come at 8 o’clock,” she says, “and please bring the book.”

City By the Sea

Every city I’ve ever been to feels different. Aden is built on a peninsula on the Southern coast of Yemen which juts out into the Indian Ocean. Connected to land by a narrow, finger-like isthmus, it was once one of the largest ports in the world. A bridge between Africa and Arabia, Port Aden remains crucial today, especially in the transport of oil from countries on the Arabian Peninsula. Aden is kind of like an Arab version of Coney Island: A city by the sea that never sleeps, awash with spectacle and surprise.

This works for us because in the Arab world there’s no chance of a normal sleep-schedule during Ramadan. In Aden people work until 4 or 5 in the morning and sleep until 2pm. All night long the streets are thick with day-laborers lined up for work, their tin-buckets full of tools and paint brushes. Men circle up and squat around platters of food or chew qat and play pool in the street. Women and children, many of them Somali refugees or black Yemenis, are shopping or begging. Old, half-naked men with brown skin covered in a thin, downy coat of white hair pose like cats on small squares of cardboard anywhere they can stake out a few unoccupied feet of sidewalk.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

All over the Arab world people shorten the fast and make up for the lost hours of work during the day by staying up late. From what I’ve heard, Aden is already relatively nocturnal due to the heat, and now it has the most vibrant night-life (minus the alcohol, dance clubs and freak shows) that my short-term memory can recall. In Aden waiters serve shisha (in California we call it hookah) on the beach and you can smoke the sweet, apple-flavored tobacco till dawn. People eat chicken and rice in crowded restaurants where the waiters give you tissue paper and douse you with bottled perfume when you finish your meal. All afternoon children run up and down its rocky cliffs or stand on rooftops setting kites free to soar hundreds of feet into the sky.

photo by shane bauer

The next day I walk out into the slow, sumptuous heat at 2pm and find only a few, shirtless men in the streets. Not long ago South Yemen was its own country and it still feels that way today. From 1970 to 1990 there was a period socialism that left its mark on society. In Aden the legislation concerning women and minorities was decades ahead of neighboring countries and education was free, integrated and open to everyone. This progressive period ended during the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. This was followed by a civil war in ’94, which the North won, and political and economic power has been concentrated in the capital city of Sana’a ever sense. In the last year rumblings of a separatist movement initiated by Ex-Generals has been gaining momentum.

The race and gender hierarchy remains less harsh in Aden than it is in the North. African immigrants occupy a lower economic position but are more integrated into society as a whole and there appears to be little consciousness of race among children or adult peers. Gender norms are also comparatively liberal; it is common to see women walking around without veils and some even wear colorful hijabs. Men flirt with me openly and are less likely to use my (male) partner as a go between when there’s something they want to say.

photo by sarah shourd

Nada’s Hospitality

Nada is on the phone explaining how to get to their apartment. They live outside of Crater in much more tame neighborhood where posters of president Saleh tower 15 feet high, the sidewalks aren’t crammed with people and the Chinese restaurant serves beer and vodka. There are 12 concrete apartment buildings stacked in a row and we stop to ask a kid which one is number 10. When we arrive at her door and meet her husband and two sons, Nada asks, “How did you find the apartment building?” “We asked a boy,” I reply. “Which boy?” She has a way of being blatantly suspicious of us and hospitable at the same time. “Just a boy,” I smile and hand her a plate of sweets we brought, offering peace.

Nada lived under Saddam Hussein’s police state for most of her adult life. Saddam openly despised Shia and they returned his sentiment. The way he was able to keep their anger at bay and prevent them from overthrowing him was by killing thousands and thousands of them who tried to resist. When Nada’s family returned to Iraq in 2005 to visit for the first time since the American occupation her youngest son, about 14, was seized by American soldiers during a raid. They were arresting every young Arab man unlucky enough to be in their path. In prison they held a gun to his head and threatened to kill him.

Somehow he got out alive but his family is still very protective of him. (Nada later confides in me that he yelled at her before we came over that night, “The Americans occupy our country and now you invite them to our house!”) He is the only one in the room who doesn’t speak English and is exceedingly jealous that his handsome older brother is getting more air-time. Nada pleads with me to try and speak Arabic with him and I somehow get out a few, hard-earned sentences. After a short while he warms up to us and starts clowning around, laughing at us because we don’t know who Michael Phelps is, the recent American Olympic Gold-Star Medalist. “You probably haven’t even seen his picture,” he shouts at us, “Tell me the truth, have you seen his picture?”

At some point during the meal it dawns on me that this is my first time sitting around a table with Iraqi people. Realizing this, I tell them that everyday I feel ashamed at what my country has done to their country. I say something about the protests I have helped organize, the books I have read and the t-shirts I have worn, wanting them to know that American people have expressed opposition. It all sounds so small and paltry in the presence of people that have lost so much. Even though I am proud of some of the anti-war work I’ve been a part of, I am ashamed sitting there that I haven’t done more.

As much as I thought about it, I never had the guts to stop paying taxes during the 5 years that we have occupied Iraq. That would be a statement. I tell her about the day we shut-down the Oakland Port in ’04 and stopped them from shipping out weapons for 24 precious hours. Feeling a little more positive after remembering that proud day, I talk about why we are moving to Syria. There are 2 million Iraqi refugees living in Damascus, surely there must be something that can be done to help them? At the very least I can help get their stories out. They accept my words with a nod, they understand how unsympathetic the U.S. government is to the opinions of its populace, they’ve heard it before. For a few moments we sit silently and an unspoken question weighs heavily in the room: Why did it have to happen like this? Why didn’t we do more to stop it? Why wasn’t there a strong, mass-based, long-term response to this war like there was against Vietnam, why wasn’t a movement reborn?

Why Don’t Americans Wear Make-Up?

The white, sandy beaches just outside of Aden are colonized by thousands of crabs. Transparent and swift, they weave and dance along the calm, blue coast. For the last few days we’ve been camping on the beach and now we cram ourselves into the back of a cab to travel 400 miles across the endless burnt, rocky expanse between the coast and the interior of East Yemen. Despite our close contact, the 7 friendly but serious types that we share the cab with don’t talk much for the next 6 hours.

photo by sarah shourd

We pass by grand turquoise-domed mosques in minuscule towns and several versions of road-side calligraphy that spell out “Allah” with rocks on mounds of dirt. As we glide through check-point after check-point I start to get a bit giddy from the excitement and nervousness of entering a more highly militarized territory. We enter a dead, rust-colored canyon and I finally get the guy next to me to crack a smile when I try and say, “I want to ride a bicycle” in Arabic but instead “I want to ride a chicken” comes out.

We’ve only been in Seyuun for about an hour and already people are gearing up to break the fast. We find a few empty seats outside of a restaurant full of dozens of men sitting behind long tables with identical plates set before them stacked with delicacies. This time there is no discussion, as soon as the voices start up everyone is eating. After the meal nearly all of the men leave to pray and we sit at our deserted table drinking small cups of strong, piping-hot tea.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

 

 

There are so many times that I’ve laughed in wonder at how localized and specific cultural norms tend to be. In Seyuun when people drink tea they pour a little from the cup into the saucer and let it cool before they sip it straight off the plate. Makes sense, right? But no one would be caught dead doing it in Aden or Sana’a. My mouth dropped the first time I saw a woman and her daughter sitting side-saddle on the back of a motorcycle here, something no respectable Sana’ani woman would do. Actually the men in Seyuun sit-side-saddle too, apparently they think it’s kind of sleazy for men to wrap themselves around each other here, but everywhere else it’s completely natural.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

The next day I’m woken by the sunrise prayer being called from a mosque right outside the window of our hotel. Not happy to be up before noon but curious enough to get out of bed and take a peak, I step onto the balcony and see dozens of men walking single-file towards the mosque. They have just finished their last meal of the night and after they pray most of them will go home and sleep through the morning.

That day we go to a town called Tarim that is located in a lush wadi (chasm between mountains once cut by a river) filled with date palms. There is a well-known religious school in the town and Muslims come from all-over Asia, Africa and America to study here. There was a shoot-out with the government here a few weeks ago, resulting in the death of an Al-Queda leader, one of few government anti-terrorist success stories in recent years. Around noon, when it gets too hot to stand in the shade-less streets, we sneak into a palm grove where we can sip cold energy drinks, talk politics and sample sun-warmed dates.

photo by sarah

photo by sarah

We are 2 of maybe 5 foreigners in the town and everyone knows what hotel we are staying in. Later that day a man we met in a cafe calls the hotel to invite us to break the fast with him and his family. We only have a few minutes to get ready so I thrown my long, black abeya over stretch pants and a tank-top, wrap a scarf around my head and slip into my sandals. When we get to the house I am ushered into a room upstairs crowded with women and Shane vanishes down one of three flights of stairs branching off in different directions. The women are totally immersed in breaking the fast. They sit around platters of snacks in loose, colorful dresses, and motion for me to join them when I enter the room.

We exchange names and greetings and after a few minutes the plates are carried away and mats spread out for prayer. Someone motions for me to sit in the back of the room and I watch as each woman takes a large bundle of cloth out of her bag, puts it on over her head and emerges a dark, shapeless form. This garment, worn only for prayer, is even more modest than anything I’ve seen before. The only opening is a small round window at the top where their faces peek out.

I’m so grateful to finally see women pray. Five times a day men lay their mats out behind work counters, on busy sidewalks, alongside their vegetable carts and in the far corners of open markets. Men settle for any place they can find and pray without modesty. Even the doors to mosques are left gaping wide so that any passerby can see dozens of bent forms lined up inside.

Up until now I’ve never heard a woman say, “Allah Akbar,” (God is Great). Now I hear it repeated again and again, echoed in unison by the 15 women in the room. It is here, indoors, that women’s voices resound. Not over the loudspeakers of the mosque or on the radio or T.V. but in the privacy of their own homes. The prayer leader, her voice strong and purposeful, instructs them to bend, press their foreheads to the mats, then rise again to their feet. It’s something they’ve done 5 times a day, everyday of their lives since they were children and yet I can’t find anything equivalent in my life to compare it to. After a while people begin quietly reciting the Fatiha, a chapter of the Koran, individually and at their own pace, then they sit in silence.

The first woman who finishes takes off her robe and immediately gets to work. Peering into her small, hand-held compact she puts on face-powder, applies lipstick and thick eyeliner. She runs a brush through her hair and drapes a glimmering shawl around her shoulders. More women come into the room and each one greets every person in the room by exchanging a few brief words and smelling the back of her hand. My guess is that this has to do with perfume, which is extremely important in Yemeni culture, but I’ve heard nothing to confirm that. The younger ones wear silk and lace and are laden with gold: on their arms, around their necks and dangling from their ears. I later find out that the two fanciest young women are newlyweds and this dinner celebration is for them.

Now the real meal is brought in, platters heaped with rice and meat and little porcelain bowls filed with green and red spicy sauces they call “bisbas” or “pepper.” I am a lone, black-clad figure in this spectacular and elaborate display. A few of the younger women take interest in my appearance, they motion for me to take off my abeya and laugh when they see I only have on pants and a tank-top. One woman speaks English better than the rest and she takes mascara and powder out of her bag. “Americans no make-up?” she asks. I try and persuade her that many of us do wear make-up, accepting copious amounts myself, but in that instance, as in many others, I can’t find the right words to explain my culture.

I’ll Come Back to Yemen

This has been a difficult dispatch for me to finish because just days after we got back to Sana’a there was a terrorist attack on the American Embassy about a mile and a half from our house. I heard the blast when I was walking to the bus station and didn’t think much of it. An hour later I was interviewing a posh lawyer about the women’s movement when she got a phone call. Her friend told her to turn on the T.V. and it was then that we discovered what had happened.

photo by sarah

photo by sarah

I don’t think terrorism has been this real to me since I woke up to another phone call on September 11th, 2001. That time it was my mom screaming over the answering machine, “They’re going to start a nuclear war!.” This event has given me much pause and a chance to reevaluate my own views. My first reaction was to blame the Bush administration for its ridiculously irrational strategy in the war on terror, but many Yemenis have challenged me, saying my analysis falls short. They say that I am too apologetic towards the terrorists, framing them as victims rather than the perpetrators of these ugly crimes and I think they are right, I have been guilty of that.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

 

 

I think it is critical to understand that Yemenis themselves are the ones that suffer the most from these attacks. 16 people were killed, 14 of them Yemeni (6 of which were the attackers themselves). Yemen is an obscure place to most of the world and the actions of a few small, concentrated groups become emblematic of a whole population. A blow to the tourist industry is a blow to the economy and is followed by vicious cycle of poverty and government repression.

There is a lot of discontent breeding in Yemen, the majority of the people are poor and unhappy with their government but most don’t support extremism or view the loss of innocent life as a viable strategy to change anything. People say that local terrorist groups like Al-Queda are made up of uneducated youth that have no upward mobility and are easily manipulated and convinced to sacrifice their lives by highly-sophisticated groups with foreign funds to back them up. They want leverage to assert their religious and secular demands and, though Yemen is supposedly a democracy, feel that no other channels are open to them.

Yemen receives an average of 40 million a year from the U.S. to fight terrorism, someone I talked to that works at the American Embassy predicted that after these attacks that amount would probably triple. This problem has local origins, but there is no doubt that the U.S. is exacerbating the problem by throwing money at a corrupt authoritarian regime. Everyone in Sana’a says that the 30-odd people that have been rounded up and arrested after the attack were randomly selected as a show of force, largely to impress the U.S. and project an image of being hard on terror.

If the U.S. wants to fight terror in Yemen maybe it should support social services, fight corruption, find ways to bolster their economy and help them solve their food crisis. There is no way strengthening a government despised by its population is going to change anything.

Here’s an article I liked:

Violence a Symptom of Deeper Problems in Yemen
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94757733

Yemen

Posted in Uncategorized on September 11, 2008 by unfetteredeyes

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

We approach Yemen on a 3 story cattle boat, the bulk of it pulled below the waves by its heavy cargo.  There are four women on the boat, maybe 20 men and 345 cattle. One woman is covered in black almost from head to toe. She even wears fitted black gloves along with a loose, black abeya, waist-length cape, head scarf and veil. Judging from her eyes she is probably in her late 20s. After a few weeks in Yemen, I will become attuned to the subtle details of a woman in an abeya. I start to notice the expression of a woman’s eyes, the way  she walks and the texture of her voice, adding dimension to someone I meet on the bus or pass by on the street. For now, my unaccustomed eyes pick up on very little and in my shyness and ignorance I struggle not to stare. I do glance down at her feet though and I am relieved to find that she is wearing sandals; her bare toes idle under the hot sun.

 

The other two women are a hilarious pair. They are Somali and one has been living in Tuscon  for ten years with her sons. “Bring me food!” she booms to the crew or “Where’s my tea?” No one else expects these busy men to wait on them but she is impossible to ignore.  She blames American culture for making her fat, “All you do is work, eat and sleep. Work, eat and sleep.” “But,” she concedes with a nod, “you’re a good people.”

 

Packed tightly into small compartments, the cows fall all over each other.  They endured a long trip from Tanzania and will soon reach the end of their journey in Yemen.  If one decides to lie down and rest the others around it will either stomp all over it or join suit. If too many lie down at once one of the crew is forced to go down and  drag them back onto their feet. This is achieved by grabbing hold of the septum, the piece of flesh between the cow’s nostrils, and pulling hard.

 

We sleep on the top deck under an ocean of stars. All night the sea moves heavily beneath us and even from the cows there is a respectful silence. The next morning I spend an hour or so sipping tea and steering the ship. The crew is carefree and almost jolly, taking pictures of Shane and I at the wheel, with the cows, under the blue sky. Asking us to pose with them and smile like models. The Gulf of Aden soon begins to narrow and we sail through Bab Al- Mandab into the Red Sea. Yemeni soil is visible in the distance. My first look at the Middle East, marking the beginning of the next year or so of my life, barely registers in my mind.

 

The crew catches a spectacular fish, about 3 feet long with prehistoric fins and scales that conduct all the colors of the rainbow at once. The cook prepares it on the spot with white rice and curry and we devour it greedily. I ask the wild woman from Tuscon to show me how to tie my hijab, or head scarf. She says mine is too small and gives me a bright, gaudy red and black one to wear. My first attempt to conform to Yemeni dress leaves me looking like a carnival side-show, with three or four dissonant, clashing garments pieced together like an old quilt. It’s a far cry from the modest, black elegance I would soon encounter on nearly every woman in a public place for the next month and a half. 

 

Yemen

 

We leave Al-Makha, a small, port town and enter a vast, uninhabited stretch of desert. The Tihama is dotted with dry shrubs and the occasional wide, flat trees. Plastic bags bloom on branches, torn and tattered by the wind, as we fly past small villages and oddly-shaped, craggy mountains in the distance which grow larger and larger as we approach. 

 

Through the window I see men on rustic motorcycles, most with unnaturally large bulges in their cheeks that look painful and tumorous to me at first. Six men are crammed into the back seats of the cab and Shane and I are up front with the driver. He welcomes us to Yemen and hands us each little bundles of qat, an herb with mild methamphetamine qualities that is chewed voraciously in Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia. The tender leaves and stem of the qat plant is chewed and then stored in the cheek, causing a large bulge, where its chemical properties can flow directly into the blood-vessels of the soft, permeable lining of the mouth.

 

Shane asks the driver if it’s strange for me to be chewing in public. “No problem,” he says, “Women chew everywhere, you just can’t see under the veil, ” he thinks for a minute, “We have democracy in Yemen, no problem.”

 

There are women walking along the road, covered in black, balancing yellow plastic jugs on their heads. The black looks pure against the dusty landscape. My eyes sink eagerly into its depth, searching for definition but getting nowhere. The women have a strong effect on me. They are there but they are not there, seen but not seen. I am drawn to them, but feel oddly intimidated at the same time. They have an aura of religiosity, walking in groups of 5 or 6, they appear to occupy a spiritual or cultural dimension that I know nothing of.

 

We come to a small town and stop at a gas station that looks centuries old. I fiddle with my hijab in the mirror, tucking in wisps of hair that escape like small, slippery fish from a net. There are packs of young boys hanging around by the road, men in wrap-a-round skirts, colorfully painted buses and a group of people hacking at gnarled, old logs. To our right we are flanked by a wide forest of palm trees; to our left tall, stone houses with brightly painted doors and stained-glass windows shaped like half-moons are stacked closely against and up cliff sides. Apart these splashes of color the houses blend perfectly into their surroundings, made of the same earth and stone that they stand on.

 

Farther down the road there is an open market with landslides of tomatoes, onions and potatoes cascading from trucks into carts. There are mountains of ground spices, dried sardines and raisins crowned with tin cans for measuring and divvying up. There is a huge, oblong vegetable I’ve never seen before that looks like a squash but I later find out it tastes like a cucumber.  A woman passes by without a veil, her face open and intent on what she is doing or thinking. She is clearly chewing qat and, emboldened, I stuff more leaves into my own cheek. Just outside the town there are piles of rocks erected to showcase dark, brown jugs of honey for sale, with hives not far behind.

 

Funny how I don’t mind the taste of qat anymore. Only weeks ago I felt the need to dilute its bitter taste with a constant flow of sweet apple soda. It has a mild, euphoric effect along with a heightened sense of awareness and focus. Most people feel very talkative and social for the first 3 hours of a chew, then some get introspective for a bit and others get horny. The only side effect is the occasional night of fitful sleep and stressful dreams. The worst that’s happened to me is once I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning studying Arabic. Bring in the law! The use of qat is so widespread in Yemen that the streets and markets clear out around 3 o’clock and pick up again at 7. People usually chew with their friends, sometimes once a week and for many it’s a daily habit.

 

A lot of the criticism around qat use has to do with Yemen’s shrinking water supply.  Yemen is using water a lot faster then nature can replenish it and 40% of this water goes to irrigate qat crops. Farmers grow qat because it is far more profitable than food, you can make 20x the profit you’d make selling potatoes. As a result Yemen is forced to import most of its food and is dependent on the international market to feed itself. Last March there were food riots in the city of Aden in S.Yemen. This happened when global oil crisis caused food prices to shoot through the roof. In Yemen rice and vegetables went up 20% and wheat doubled overnight. The rioting went on for 5 days and military tanks were deployed to stop it after 2 police stations were burned. The thousands of protesters in Yemen were not alone, people around the world were protesting in Mexico, Uzbekistan, Morocco and Haiti (just to name a few) at the same time for the same reason; they could no longer afford enough food for themselves and their families.  

 

The next taxi driver, from Ta’izz to Sana’a, makes the first one look like driver’s Ed. He drives like he has utter faith in a higher power to protect us. Shane and I squeeze hands secretly in the back seat as he barrels through mountainous terrain, passing trucks and lines of cars in the pitch-black for five, relentless hours.

 

Sana’a

 

People take risks in Yemen, but they also have tremendous skill. I wonder how much being socialized in a heavily religious environment factors into that. So much of life is unregulated;  motorcycles whiz by with three, unhelmeted passengers, kids crawl around inside of cars with no belts let alone car seats, exhaust pours from cars like smoke from a fire. Most of these things are “bad” but there’s also something that I like about it. People grow up strong and sturdy in this environment, they court danger from an early age and they come out carefree and capable. I’m not saying we should do away with all our precautions but there’s something to be said for a society where you can work on your car on the side of the road without hassle or yell at the top of your lungs in front of your friend’s apartment instead of ringing a doorbell.  In the streets of Sana’a children play outside all day long in the dirt and chaos, cars honk without refrain and it is common to see people sitting in groups of 5 or 6 sharing a steaming bowl of beans on a busy sidewalk.

 

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

 

A part of Yemeni society that may be easier to appreciate is that absolutely everything,  everything is carefully decorated and beautifully arranged.  From fresh fruit at a juice stand strung together and hung from the ceiling like chandeliers to stray bricks at a construction site stacked high with architectural design, everywhere you look there is attention to detail.  Motorcycles are dressed in fur with feathers dangling from their antennae, reams of cloth flowers spill out of barbershop doors and bare candles are placed inside sacks of dates so they glow like lanterns in the night. Even the walls of mini-buses are lined with soft, velvety cloth and tassels put the final touch on just about anything you can think of.  Yemen is the kind of place where if you order a bowl of hummus you can expect the cucumber on your plate to be cut into the shape of a heart.

 

Old Sana’a

 

The old city is a teeming stew of color, life and beauty.  It is surrounded by a 30 foot wall that used to mark its borders but now the walled section, over 2500 years old, is only a fraction of larger Sana’a.  Yemen has one of the fastest population growth rates in the world and in the past 50 years its capital city has exploded outside its original boundaries. In Old Sana’s cobblestone streets circle through a maze of stone buildings, many still held together with mud, that tower five stories high. Each one is a home made up of winding stone steps, unbelievably small doors you have to duck under to enter, soft white rooms of all shapes and sizes, stained-glass windows, mysterious cubby-holes and roof-top views that span for miles and miles.

 

photo by Shane Bauer

photo by Shane Bauer

 

 

Life in Yemen is largely segregated along gender lines. Men are in charge of the pubic and women the private sphere.  Men work in the small shops and restaurants; they drive the buses and cabs and are the mechanics and delivery men.  Of course many women work too; I’ve seen women working as teachers, nurses and travel agents. I’ve also heard of judges, activists and all manner of things. Women participate in public life but their identity and individuality is at least partially disguised. The abeya and veil, along with projecting modesty and upholding religious beliefs, create a kind of visual anonymity. Even after a month in Yemen I have only been inside a few homes and I still don’t really know how most women dress or look under the abeya. From what I’ve heard when women are at home all bets are off and they wear whatever they like.

 

The streets of Old Sana’a respond to my curiosity with lace, sequence and taffeta. Shop after shop overflows with human-sized Barbie-doll clothes. I asked my teacher if women actually wear these clothes at home and she doesn’t give me a clear answer. She says these are “specialty clothes” and leaves it at that. Personally, I think the princess dresses and scantily-clad mannequins you see in the street shops have an unintended effect. Besides simply being clothes for sale, they also project an exaggerated and sexualized version of femininity that is otherwise absent in the streets. When you see lingerie, tight jeans, go-go boots and mini-dresses it’s like a glimpse into the secret lives of women, or the fantasy worlds of men. Even Barbies for sale in the toy shops wear hijabs when they’re on display, but the rules change at home. 

photo by Shane Bauer

photo by Shane Bauer

 

 

 

Men wear phallic daggers in their belts with large, ornate handles protruding up from their bellies. The daggers couldn’t slice a melon but they are a symbol of pride and masculinity.  Many wear sport coats with soft, silky dress-length shirts underneath. Most don’t appear to have a shy bone in their bodies. They use every tool at their disposal to get a point across: yelling, gesticulating, banging on tables and frequently calling on God as a witness. Young men are often suave and well-dressed, with their hair slicked back, their skirts hiked up and their bare legs thrown absentmindedly over motorcycles. That’s one thing that I’ll never understand, they are young and juicy, why do they get to be on full display?

 

Children work hard and play hard and seem to enjoy everything they do. Boys wrestling in the street stop suddenly when I walk by to try and sell me perfume or cooking oil. They seem to be in constant training to become adults. Stone plazas are covered with tarps on which people carefully arrange their goods for sale, diligently beating off the dust before it can settle with squares of cloth tied to sticks. Sometimes the police show up and randomly seize someone’s goods. In the midst of a raid everyone instantly scatters to the wind, dragging their tarps or wheeling their carts wildly away.

 

Gender and the Veil

 

My second day in Yemen, I ask Shane to come with me to the market and help me pick out an abeya and hijab. Though plain and identical in every other regard, each abeya has an embroidered flower or pattern on the cuff of the sleeve and at the corner of the headscarf. I spend 20 minutes tearing through rack after rack for one that screams “take me!” I finally settle for one but have a hard time getting excited about it. I don’t wear it everyday, and I certainly don’t have to wear it, many foreign women choose not to. As a matter of fact, there are no laws in Yemen that pertain to gender segregation or dress of any kind. These are all social and religious norms that are widely accepted but not officially enforced.

 

When I wear the abeya and cover my head with a scarf I still stand out in a crowd because my face is bare but I don’t stop as many men in their tracks. I’m not the only woman without a veil, though I’d say a rough estimate of 85-90% of women over the age of 13-14 wear it in public. I wear it because sometimes greater anonymity means more freedom.  I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion of the veil here, partially because it is so controversial and loaded and partially because millions of women could speak to it far better than I can. It’s impossible for me to grasp the cultural complexities of this very wide-spread tradition.  Right now I’m reading Fatima Mernissi’s “Beyond the Veil,” if you’re interested drop me a line in a few weeks and I’ll tell you how it is. She and a lot of other Arab feminists think the dialogue about women in the Middle East in the west is far too narrow and too often centers on the veil and hijab. Check her out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatema_Mernissi

 

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

 

The feminist groups that I’ve looked into, the Yemen Women’s Union and the Women’s National Committee, are struggling for more representation in the government. They use quotes from the Koran to point out that there’s nothing in Islam that forbids women to participate in politics. They are trying to get the government to uphold a UN convention that was ratified in Yemen in 1984 on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Article 4 recommends affirmative action for women “until actual gender equality is achieved.”  Right now they are trying to get a measure passed that would raise the number of women required in parliament and all elected councils to 15%.  Yemen’s track record on gender is more progressive than other countries in the Arabian Peninsula (which includes Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and Bahrain). It was the first of these countries to appoint a female judge to the Supreme Court and has more women participating in political parties. More and more women pursue higher education and have joined the workforce, but education in rural areas is still lagging drastically behind with 62 girls to 100 boys in primary school. 

 

There is one blatant misconception that I do want to challenge though, it is that women wear these clothes or that society is organized this way because men have total power and force it upon them. That is not at all the impression I’ve gotten in Yemen. In the highly traditional cultures I’ve observed women are often central in maintaining and preserving culture through clothes, food and art and I don’t believe that they are forced into this role. In Sana’a, every time a new person gets on a mini-bus there is a shuffle that happens so that no woman has to sit by a man she doesn’t know. If a man hesitates to move, or the new seat arrangement doesn’t live up to her moral standards, it is always the woman who speaks up and demands that these lazy men either move or get off the bus.

 

photo by Shane Bauer

photo by Shane Bauer

 

 

Many women do seem to view the desegregation of social life as an affront on their honor, and others I’ve talked to feel quite differently.  A nurse in the hospital told me she didn’t want to wear the veil, it interfered with her work, but she would have “problems” if she took it off. My teacher would put her veil back on every time there was a knock at the door, just in case it was a man. Restaurants have special “family sections” with curtains or wall partitions so that women can remove the veil and eat at ease. Once, I motioned to an middle-aged woman to move and sit beside me on a mini-bus and she instantly threw her arms around me and kissed my face and shoulders, “We women need to stay together!” she said exuberantly, “It is forbidden to mix with men!”    

 

Yemen is an intensely religious place. Devotion to God permeates every aspect of life, from bargaining to sitting in an internet cafe. In the little time I’ve spend here I’ve observed people to be informed by a moral compass that I can’t help but respect and admire. Once, while bargaining over the price of a movie, my partner said to the shop owner “Swear to God that’s an honest price.” The guy looked at him, took a deep breath and lowered the price.  There’s a problem with men watching porn in internet cafes and a sign on the wall reads, “Before you know that we are watching you, know that God is watching you.”  Women covering is motivated by a deep urge to love and respect God, which makes sense to a lot of people in this religious and moral framework. Praying 5 times a day is a manifestation of that urge. The separation of the sexes outside of the family is widely understood as an attempt to make the world safer and more amicable for everyone.

 

And the streets do feel safe. I admit it, in some ways it’s less of a hassle being a woman here than anywhere I’ve been. There’s very little crime and relatively few homeless. Men are respectful and I don’t feel worried about walking around at night. Sometimes Yemeni culture feels like a peaceful separation of the sexes, other times it feels isolating to be in a world where men are kind but distant and often even avoid eye contact with me. Women I meet in the street are sweet and welcoming, sometimes when I am talking with a woman if there are no men immediately around she will suddenly throw back her veil and go on talking as if nothing has happened. Once, a woman approached me in the street and said she knew me. On top of the language barrier she was wearing a veil so I was a little confused about who she was. I talked with her for ten minutes before I realized that she wasn’t my teacher but someone I met at a bathhouse. The next day my teacher exploded with laughter and said, “In Yemen you must learn to recognize the eyes first.”

 

In Conclusion

 

Sometimes, just when I start to feel that I have a handle on this new reality, someone will say something or do something that totally snaps me back into a state of wonder and incomprehension. I’ll end with a story like that. I was chewing with 6 guys that my partner knew when he lived here in 2005. They were explaining to me how arranged marriage is changing and they don’t think the custom will survive much longer in Yemen. As of now the vast majority of marriage partners are carefully selected by the parents and, though it is fairly common to marry someone you played with as a child, you often only meet as adults on the night of your wedding. These men were explaining to me that now parents are giving the young woman a chance to meet an interested contender for a few minutes and if she doesn’t like him she tells her parents and they will usually call it off. Most of the guys in the room are unmarried and are critical and uncomfortable with the custom as it stands, partly because marriage is arranged and partly due to the large dowry that they are required to pay, which most of them can’t afford.

 

The guy next to me, Sammy, started to tell me a story.  At first it didn’t seem like much of a story, one day he received a random text message and returned the call a few weeks later. It was a woman and, jokingly, she scolds him for not returning her phone call promptly (even though it was a wrong number). At the end of the call he tells her she has a nice voice and she calls him again a few days later. They strike-up a kind of sweet, innocent phoneship until one day they realize by accident that they live in the same neighborhood. Luckily, they still haven’t exchanged names and both agree that it is necessary to stop talking, erase each others phone numbers and pretend like the whole thing never happened. It is at this point that I realize the intensity of this story for Sammy, “Before we hung up we both thanked each other for our kindness. I’ll never know who she is, she could live next door to me and I’ll never know.”   

 

Whoa. A friend of mine in New York asked me to describe my first impressions of Yemen over email and I said that the people are joyful and most parts of life are segregated along gender lines. She said that she couldn’t imagine a world where those two things could exist side-by-side. I can’t even begin to analyze gender oppression in Yemen, let alone compare it to the U.S. I will say that I believe both are systems of inequality that give men an advantage over women, albeit in different ways. I could fill volumes about Yemen and probably never get across the singularity of this culture. In a short period of time it has already stretched my mind in ways that it’s never been stretched before and shown me ways that humans organize themselves and their societies that I never could have dreamed up. And it’s only just begun. The only thing better than waking up from a wild, mind-blowing dream is realizing it’s real life.

 

 

Ethiopia Part II

Posted in Uncategorized on September 8, 2008 by unfetteredeyes

 

photo by Sarah Shourd

photo by Sarah Shourd

 

Ethiopia Part II

Even at 4am the streets of Addis Ababa are busy with life. Through the cab window I see young men poised in the dark like maitre des, holding up woven platters stacked high with hard-boiled eggs. People walk in groups of two or three, I get the impression that a lot of them haven’t slept much. There are old women begging on street corners and younger ones posing seductively in doorways, working the early shift.

The bus station is a bubbling cauldron of people, every driver competing to fill up his bus with passengers first so that he can get going early before the roads clog. People rush at us in the darkness and confusion, demanding our tickets while pointing in several different directions at once. When we finally locate the bus to Gondar there are already two seats being held for us, seats I come to call the “white seats” because they are the best seats to be had, up front with the driver with an extra two inches of leg room, and everyone assumes we will be happy to pay a few extra birr for them.

Our luggage is whisked away, our birr hastily collected and we fall into the white seats. It’s a massive, dilapidated bus (it will break down and demand to be resuscitated twice in the next two days) quickly filling to capacity. The driver is a man with a cartoon-charactered towel wrapped delicately around his head, engrossed in rearranging the items on his spacious dashboard. There are two men, one exceptionally aggressive and the other exceptionally meek, that are apparently in charge of managing the passengers. The first is literally pushing people around, tossing luggage items and personal belongings and yelling at people in Amharic at the top of his lungs. The second lingers at his side, accepting orders with a nod, hovering silently with a fixed smile.

For the rest of the passengers this scene is probably as unexceptional as a Greyhound bus ride. For me it is like watching live musicians, I have to stretch my mind to imagine how each instrument is played and how it fits into the larger fabric of the music. Soon the driver revs up the engine and we begin to maneuver through a sea of people, smoke and animals so thick that only heads, large baskets and the occasional black, beady eyes beneath large, pointed horns are visible from our perch. We leave Addis Ababa and the first hints of morning light guide us out onto the open road.

Outside the City

The road north of is a veritable procession of colorful umbrellas, horse-drawn carts made of sticks and women carrying all manner of things: from huge bundles of sticks to large ceramic pots on their heads or backs. There are an estimated 10, 000 women who bring wood into Addis Ababa everyday, illegally poached from government Eucalyptus groves, and distribute it house-to-house to be used as firewood for cooking.

photo by Sarah shourd

photo by Sarah shourd

Everyone is wrapped from head to foot in long, blanket-like garments, anything from a shocking purple that makes your eyes widen as if to take more of it in, to the colorless fade fabrics take on when lived in, slept in and worked in continuously. At one point we are detained by an old bull sitting in the middle of the road who refuses to budge, another time we stop for an old woman in a hard hat sweeping debris from a construction sight off the road. Pastures of verdant green stretch out like carpets as we slither up steep cliffs and descend into rocky canyons.

There is an life-sized cut-out of a chubby, white baby positioned for maximum visibility on the front window of the bus. I ask Temesgan, who is practicing his English with me, what the deal is with the baby. “This must have some special meaning for the driver,” he says with a slight smirk. In other words, don’t assume that everything you see has a unique, cultural value. As a foreigner it is often tempting to oversimplify everything and come to hasty, often inaccurate conclusions.

Many things that I’ve seen I can’t begin to explain and many questions will never be answered; like the naked young woman painted with mud who was chased from a shop by a woman hurling water and curses. Whatever her story is, I’ll probably never know it. Or the young child in the taxi who said something that caused a group of 6 crammed-in adults to erupt into laughter for a full minute. Much of Ethiopia remains a mystery to me. That aside, the unfettered eyes of an outsider can pick up on some things that a more seasoned observer might miss. Here are a few personal, very general impressions made on the road to Gondar, condensed for your easy consumption into 7 points:

Why Ethiopia is not Babylon

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

1) People walk. The very stretch of tarmac that we travel on, and a few dozen feet to each side of it, is the center of activity for hundreds of miles. Cars are a luxury and very few of them are present in the fight to get out of the city. Many travel by mini-bus or the more economical gargantuan bus like ours; but most people walk.

Men support themselves with a long staff which can also serve as a weapon if need be. Young boys transport loads in make-shift carts make of long, unmilled sticks pulled by horse or mule. Babies ride in slings on their mother’s back. Groups of people sit by the road, families groom each other and friends stroll hand-in-hand. Some seem determined to get somewhere, while for many others the road is the place to be, where the world passes by, and the nexus of everything from commerce to social life.

2) People touch each other and private property is not sacrosanct. People don’t ask before they lean on your backpack, they just lean on it! Things and who they belong to aren’t a big focus of attention. People spill over into common space and stare deeply into each others eyes while talking. The man sitting three rows behind us is sweating out the ride in a thick, dark suit. While re-boarding after a 3-minute stretch break, the woman behind him starts to brush him off. The easy, simple way people interact make the obsession with personal space in North American culture seem puritanical. Bodies are not overly sexualized; physical contact is no big deal.

3) Human life is marked by the presence of animals. There are herds of donkeys and horned cows being whipped to safety by young children. They carry long whips that sound like lightening striking when cracked against the pavement. I was told that these children only work as herders when they are on vacation from school and I struggle to picture these hard, world-wizened youth sitting still for very long in a classroom.

Massive cows with yards of skin hanging loosely from their necks and huge humps on their backs roam in packs. I have been told that in villages animals wander free during the day and are trusted to return home at nightfall. One family may have 50 goats but they have no problem identifying each one (or calling them by name). Donkeys and mules are rubbed raw while hauling sacks of grain or rocks piled high on their backs. Chickens peek out from under skirts and tufts of grass disappear into ravenous goats.

4) Problems are often solved collectively. People are always working things out, be it 5 adults stepping in to break up a fight between kids through dialog or the entire country talking about how to keep everyone fed in the coming year after a season devastatingly short of rainfall. There is always someone willing to jump into a bad situation that has nothing to do with them to attempt and fix it.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

At one point on the bus, people were handing around a crying baby that wouldn’t be consoled. A stern looking man with a gigantic headdress stuck his arm out the window and hammered on the side of the bus, commanding the driver to stop. The woman with the baby got off the bus and walked around for a few minutes until the it was consoled, then we started moving again.

5) Discussion is constant and education is highly valued. Heated public debates are in Amharic so usually I can only guess at their content but countless times people have approached me to talk politics, Ethiopian history, development, poverty, you name it. “Hunger is the second name of Ethiopia in the world,” one man told me with disgust, “We have a lot of knowledge but we don’t have the money and infrastructure for development. Without it, we can’t do anything.” Another time I noticed a man standing in line in front of me at the bank had a picture of Obama on his phone, I asked him if he thought Obama would help Ethiopia if he becomes president, “I am not this stupid” was his response,”We only hope that Obama can make the world a little less extreme.”

A lot of emphasis is put on learning English in public schools, it is the major criterion for a high paying job working with foreign investors in China, India and the U.S. I ask one student why so many Ethiopian speak English and a response rolls off his tongue “English is the international language. We learn it in order to participate in the globalization process and trade with other countries.”

Some people appear to place a lot of faith in globalization, while others are critical of it . Like in much of the world the economy seems to be rapidly spiraling into a recession and famine looms on the horizon. The local staple, injera, made from a grain called tef is about 4 times the price it was 1 year ago due mostly to oil prices. In a country with such extreme disparity of wealth, catering the economy to the international market appears only to benefit the rich.

Older generations are critical of the process of westernization seducing young people away from traditional culture with false promises of wealth and grandeur. This is particularly true for women who are pulled in many directions. Huge changes have occurred for women since Meles Zenawi took power ten years ago. Women won suffrage, affirmative action is written into the constitution and education is accepted as a right that both genders share.

 

photo by Sarah Shourd

photo by Sarah Shourd

Of course the majority of women who have benefited from this gender-based revolution are concentrated in the city. Poor women without education are widely excluded from this surge in women’s rights, though they are influenced by it, and for rural women progress is much, much slower. Several Oromo women that I talked to in the small town of Awadi complained that their husbands need to get with the times and start helping more with chores and raising the children. They seem dissatisfied that it’s taking so long for political changes to effect social change in their communities.

photo by sarah

photo by sarah

 

As a result, social norms are also changing. Women can now freely express love to men, pursuing who they like instead of passively waiting for men to take the initiative. A few friends of mine in Addis told me that it is no longer necessary for women to be virgins to be marriageable and that many men are beginning to see women with experience with previous partners as desirable. Still, women’s right are closely associated with westernization. Wearing close-fitting clothes and dating are seen as harbingers of the loss of culture and loose ethics.

6) Overall I experience gendered interactions to be far more relaxed than what I am used to. There is a kind of modesty and respectful distance between the sexes that makes relating to men a lot easier. Men don’t gawk at women or flirt too much unless you’re doing something perceive as immodest (ie if you’re smoking a cigarette in public in a small town you might as well be topless). Prostitutes flirt openly with foreign men but other than that interactions between woman and men that I’ve observed are marked by a refreshing and family-like familiarity.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

7) Black/white racial dynamics are entirely different from how I experience them in the U.S. There isn’t the same history of European colonization here as in other African countries, and the resulting dynamic is absent. The Italian fascists tried to colonize Ethiopia in the 40s but were forced to leave after only 5 years. Ethiopia has never been successfully colonized and it shows.
That said, white skin sends a potent message here. We’ve been the only white people sitting in a packed restaurant in Addis Ababa and had the manager come out in person several times to ask us if we are enjoying the food. I am curious how an African-American, or any person of color from the U.S, would experience traveling in Ethiopia. Someone told me that when Oprah first came here to visit orphanages she was livid and almost got back on the plane when her white secretary was treated with more respect then she was.
White people have money, that’s the basic equation. There isn’t the same hostility that you might find in a previously colonized country, but, basically, if you are white everyone wants a piece of you.

And there aren’t enough of us to go around. I’ve had children reach out to touch my skin and then smell their hands. When you give food to one child ten more will catch wind of it and show up. A subsection of poor young men try to make their living off of tourists by latching onto them, scaring them into thinking they need protection and demanding large fees. We had a few really nasty experiences with them, but for the most part racial dynamics in Ethiopia forced me to identify with the global white privilege in a way that’s only been theoretical in the past. Race may be oversimplified in the context of the 3rd world but its by no means devoid of truth.

 

photo by Shane Bauer

photo by Shane Bauer

On to Dijibouti

My month in Ethiopia was ridiculously brief. There’s so much that I didn’t write about, so many ways that I only scratched the surface, that it seems almost silly to send this out. And now I’m in Yemen, attempting in my own humble way to decipher a culture that is so obscure and radically different it almost feels unintelligible to an outsider such as myself.

But never for a second have I second-guessed the importance of being here. There are brief moments that I feel myself stepping outside of my own cultural paradigm and able to witness a very different way that human beings organize themselves and make sense of the universe. Its these moments, and the awesome possibility that they hold, that keep the monster at bay that tells me there is nothing we can do about global politics spiraling out of control.
Its crucial in a world where our country is the strongest imperial power not to interpret the rest of the world through our own cultural lens, but to see other cultures as autonomous and distinct, as having their own history that guides them separate from our own. Lastly, it’s imperative that we look honestly at how totally off the wall and ill-informed many of our impressions of the 3rd world are, and how this ignorance feeds into our government’s inhumane foreign policy in many of these places.

Ethiopia Part I

Posted in Uncategorized on September 8, 2008 by unfetteredeyes

Ethiopia Part I

Addis Ababa has a sweet, pungent smell. It’ s the first thing I notice as I walk out of the airport into the thick, night air. It’s the smell of thousands of small, domestic fires burning through the cobblestone streets. It wafts past sleepers curled up on beds of stone; some are tucked into welded scrap metal boxes while others squeeze into a black plastic bag or huddle in groups of two or three under a thin blanket or shawl.

Hundreds upon hundreds of slim, shadowy figures roam through the night, but I don’t notice them yet. It’s my first night in Addis Ababa and the headlights of the cab only illuminate a few flashes of a city unlike any I’ve ever seen before. I see signs in misspelled English and Amharic, a scarcely-lit club called “Silent Hotel” with Ethiopian music thumping from within; little piles of trash burning on street corners and piece-meal structures in states of disrepair flanked by an occasional 8-story high-rise that looks like a condominium you’d find in Santa Cruz or Oakland. We walk around a bit, grab a hasty bowl of ful (beans, jalepenos, eggs and spices) and retire early for a night of lovemaking in our simple cubicle of a hotel.

We wake up early the next morning and walk for hours through endless, winding streets. A man kneels in front of his house and splashes his face with water from a pink, plastic tub. Some women are wrapped in white, their heads mostly covered, and others click by in modern-looking clothes. Small cooking stoves boil sweet, black tea, old religious men pass by with walking sticks, and healthy puppies jostle on the sidelines. Everyone is going somewhere, people come out of their houses and fall immediately into an easy, steady pace. A man carrying a crate of tomatoes on his head stumbles in the mud, mini-buses with boys hanging out the sides call out a laundry list of destinations and little red and brown birds fly by only to stop and peck idly at scraps of trash for breakfast. My first impression is that I’m surprised at how familiar it feels to be here, like I was expecting to fall off the face of the earth but somehow I found myself on the same planet. Whoops.

Addis is a city of quirks and ironies. It has a sense of humor and it laughs as tears roll down its face. Smiling condoms with strong, muscular arms remind you to turn off light switches in hallways and wash your hands after using the bathroom. Condoms even come in coffee-flavor. Later that day I see a group of 25 people standing in the street watching lions fight on a T.V. in a shop window. I see a boy crawling across an intersection with half a bicycle inner-tube where each of his legs used to be. Fancy couples sip strong coffee at Italian espresso bars, receptionists at seedy hotels greet you in white doctor coats, dried-up fountains yawn in the afternoon heat and hordes of goats roam the busy streets. A local billboard depicting rats caught in traps smiles down at me, warning: “Steal and you will get trapped.”

People are very open and affectionate with each other. Men hold hands as they walk down the street. Women walk arm-in-arm, smile and raise their eyebrows two or three times at me in greeting. You don’t see men and women touching each other as much, there’s a certain modesty, and I later learn that kissing in public is strictly forbidden. We are practically the only white people in the street and almost everyone boasts a bit of English they learned in school, part of a pro-globalization government campaign, and is eager to try it out on us. “Hey , you!” I hear “You, you, you, you!”

People sleep everywhere and at all times. There are groups of men napping on small partitions of grass or sidewalk, some with their hands casually down the front of their pants, and individuals stretched out on thin meridian strips, their feet and legs spilling over onto busy through-fares. Poverty is extreme. I see people with legs or feet swollen two-to-three times their actual size by some sort of disease. A child of two with no parents in sight surprises me by putting his little hand in mine and using the other to pantomime bringing food to his mouth. Police pass by with AK47s casually swung over their shoulders. An old-fashioned scale beckons with a mechanical voice “Weigh yourself.”

Ethiopia is half-Christian and half-Muslim, the only African country besides Liberia that has never been colonized. It is a country that has experienced two famines in modern history due to drought and low crop-yields, attributed much more to corrupt governments and poor organization than any lack of fertile land to farm. Later that day we go to a thriving market, the largest in East Africa, and are swept up in an endless collage of goats, children, trash, sewing machines, donkeys braying loudly beneath heavy loads and people straining quietly under even heavier loads.

It starts to rain and I walk with my face turned up to the sky, trying to make sense of being a rich, privileged person dropped down in a place like this. A young woman quickens her pace to walk beside me, for a brief moment I flinch, preparing to defend myself, then I realize that all she wants is to share her umbrella with me. “Hello, what’s your name?” I say proudly in Amharic. “No,” she says, “speak English.” “My name is Katir. I am 16 years old. I am from Gambela. Is this good?”

Addis Ababa is a city of extreme and growing disparity of income. Many say that development has improved since the Civil War ended in ’92 and the war with Eritrea in ’00 and that economic globalization has brought more opportunities. Others that I speak with argue that that lack of money and infrastructure prevents a educated and motivated population from doing anything to better their situation and that any benefit seen by global trade in recent decades is enjoyed by the very few while oil prices make basic food commodities unaffordable to the poor.

A friend told me today a modestly poor family here survives on 300 Birr a month. This is about what I make in an hour as an ESL teacher. I keep assuming everyone wants something from me and yet I have never before in my life met more generous people. An old man holds out his hands to me, he is offering me a cigarette. The next morning over breakfast two women sit at my table to chat and sip juice and they pay for my bill without my knowledge and give me their email addresses. Strangers regularly encourage me to eat the food off their plates while I wait for my own. How can we be touched so easily and get still be made of this hard, stony substance? When you have everything, how is humanity felt? How is it shown?

When I leave my hotel room the next morning a step into a world of cold, hungry people. I’m munching on an apple that I haphazardly stuck into my bag a few days ago before boarding the plane, I realize that a boy and several men are eyeing it with envy, “I am thinking about eating your delicious apple” one says to me with a wicked smile. I’m not sure what to do, not sure what he means. Somehow, I am unable to really trust or decipher my surroundings. Maybe he was joking, maybe I should turn back now and give it to him.

The last image that burns into my mind is of a woman breastfeeding her child and begging on a street-corner. They are both wet with rain and rocking back-and-forth with cold. If I take their picture how will my friends at home be able to see it? We are inundated with images of poverty in Africa and their impact is often lost. Somehow even simple good-will and charity has been drug through the mud, with stories circulating of aid organizations often deepening divisions between local groups, with only a fraction of our money ever making it to its intended destination. But still we must engage with poverty on an international level. I see a woman on her way to work toss 10 Birr at the mother and child and realize that Ethiopians live everyday with the reality of suffering in their midst. Earlier then day I saw a man teasing a one-legged beggar with 1 Birr (the equivalent of 10 cents), holding it right outside of his reach and getting a good laugh as he watched him stumble after it. This is a landscape of the most extreme callousness and the steadiest generosity. I hand her the rest of my apple, refusing to feel sorry for myself and taking in my place in the world in its entirety, in a way that somehow I’ve yet to do before.

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