04 February, 2011

Meanwhile, back in land of cheese & chocolate...

A few random, relatively pointless things from Geneve...
Happy dance due to: ticket acquired to Patti Smith's 18 FEB show. Woot! By the way, go read "Just Kids" - fabulous read.

Appreciating the juxtaposition of: Headline banners on the vending machines for two local newspapers today: resurgence of syphilis amongst Geneva prostitutes aaaaand 50 new pedestrian pathways planned.

Recently admitted, newly developed irrational loves: 1) proud old men in berets (extra points for big, thick glasses) 2) the city-wide army of accordion players (& the occasional stand-up bass or sax player) performing on public transit.

Wondering about: the luxury car dealership on Rue de Lausanne that literally overnight became a shoe wholesaler. Big signs still up for Ferrari & Maserati, but the cars are gone, replaced by stacks of shoe boxes. Hard times, I guess.

Amused by: the video screens throughout the small shopping center across the street that constantly stream a count of how many millions of kilos of cheese and chocolate are currently being consumed in Switzerland.

30 January, 2011

Shameless love letter

"Aren't you scared?"
"Weren't you afraid?"

These are the two responses I'm met with when people hear I've lived in the Middle East and North Africa. Same questions now as when I returned from Morocco in 2002. And I give the same, emphatic answer: "No! Never."

As an American of European descent, I guess I'm not appropriately terrified of the Arab world.
I'm still trying to craft a truly effective "elevator speech" to explain how I feel about the MENA and her people. I want to sit people down, make them tea, and tell them stories, but I usually never have the chance. And, too often I know they're not really listening to my response anyway. You can physically see them loose focus, interest, when the stereotypes aren't confirmed.

When I say I enjoy living in the region and have so much respect and love for the people there, it's not denying there aren't critical issues to be dealt with: of poverty, gender, lack of rights and freedoms, corruption and mismanagement, unemployment, education systems in dire need of reform, class conflict, labyrinthine bureaucracies, environmental issues...The list is long.

But then there are the possibilities, which too many people just don't seem to see. And the main source of possibility for me comes from the people, people like we're seeing take to the streets in Tunis, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. People my age or younger, especially: friends, colleagues, students. A huge part of society with few choices and few outlets, who know they deserve better than they're getting. The energy, ideas, humor, creativity, grace and determination shared with me over the years has been at times remarkable. Not to say any of it was unexpected or that it doesn't exist elsewhere in the world, but it's been wonderful to have a chair pulled up to the table, to be welcomed and made a part of the conversation.

I can only hope to be afforded the opportunity to get back there soon and continue working with the people - not for, never in place of - to improve lives and communities. To be able to do so would be an honor.

Sitting here in Geneva, watching the scenes unfold this week, I hope the energy, camaraderie, grit, and community evidenced in Egypt will help convey a bit of what keeps drawing me back to the region and counter the fears and myths that cloud the thinking of too many.
I hope for the best, for a better future, for a day when my own country will redefine "stability" in their foreign policy lexicon, when friends in the region won't have to wave me out of public buildings before we talk about certain subjects, when peaceful demonstrations are not set upon by an army of thugs, when people can express themselves freely...
Power to the people.

Meanwhile, back at HQ...

Hunkering down to: Work my way back through all my Arabic textbooks. Gotta keep moving forward somehow!
Marveling at: a country that shuts down at 7pm every night and every Sunday. Consequently missing days of strolling the streets and stopping for kunefa late at night in Cham or Cairo.
Trying to: Knock out the last of my class work and get it the heck out of the way!
Lesson learned (again): Don't shop based on pictures on package. What looks like yogurt may turn out to be some form of cheese. Though quark magro is a cool name. Sounds like something they're working on at CERN.

Work-wise, this week has focused on developing the initial surveys for my project. We'll hopefully soon get surveys out to international UNHCR staff and their families both here at HQ and in the field. The organization defines international staff at those not working in their home countries. While there is an admitted schism(s) between national and international staff here, we had to look at boundaries for this project given the time and resource constraints. That said, I certainly hope a similar assessment will be conducted for the families of national staff in the near future.

Still trying to connect with Staff Welfare officers in the field. Their input and assistance will be important and I am interested to hear what they are encountering with staff.

I've connected with the local organization for expat spouses of UN staff, who are thrilled somebody is taking an interest in their lives and challenges. Likely speaking at their meeting later this week.

Slow going, but this initial phase is about building solid foundations for the rest of the project. I just hope I don't get too stalled, given that I'm only here until June. Most people's response to the project, though positive, has been, "So how many years do you have to get this done?"

One interesting thing last week was joining an informal dinner out with the Staff Welfare folks from several organizations, including WTO, WMO, ITU, and others. Really diverse and interesting group, not to mention fun. I'd no idea this element existed with these organizations. Though critical, they remain small, underfunded posts and could, should, be able to do more.

Again, a very interesting internship from the perspective that I get to see how this place works and doesn't.
Hopefully, I can play a small part in helping it work better. Not only for staff and families, but for the people they're trying to serve under the mandate.

Don't believe the hype

As usual, some news outlets and talking heads are freaking out at images of Arabs rising up. Usually, these are the same folks who equate the word Arab with the word Muslim and the word Muslim with the word terrorist.
This is an uprising of all Egyptians: Muslim, Christian and everybody else.
I'm not claiming expert status in any way. I'm not Tunisian, not Egyptian, not Yemeni....They're your experts. I'm just somebody who's lived in the region, loves and respects the people and is working hard to get back there for good. That said, I want to address those who are jumping on the Al Qaeda, Islamic extremist, "trying to bring back the Caliphate" bandwagon in their comments about what happened in Tunisia and is unfolding in Egypt.

Nothing is ever simple and life is painted in grays. That said, there is a lot that doesn't get discussed out the region in the US media.

You know what Tunisia's revolt was about? Rights & poverty. A socio-economic situation so bad a young man with a college education, Mohamed Bouazizi, who could only find work selling produce in the streets, set himself on fire in desperate protest. He died a few days later of his injuries and a lot of us wish he had lived to see what followed.
You want to know what Egypt's about? Rights & poverty. About HALF the population lives in poverty. You want to understand why some people torched police stations? Google Khalid Saeed and see what happened to him (and countless others) in police custody.

This isn't a religious uprising, it's a HUMAN one.

As to the chaos, reports from on the ground from actual people are reporting that the people are organizing themselves to deal with things. The people of Egypt and the MENA have had to find ways to make life work no matter what for centuries. They've gotten pretty damn good at it. There's a slight flavor of post-Katrina coverage to some of these reports and that's not good.

Nobody has any idea how this will all shake out. I sure don't. Though it seems more and more pundits are saying there's no way Hosni can stay. Also, extra factoid of the day, his new VP ran OUR country's secret rendition program in Egypt. Goodness, I can't fathom why the people aren't satisfied with this shuffling of the deck.

Just please don't listen to folks who are all about "bringing democracy to the Middle East" via invasions, but loose it when people rise up and try to get it for themselves. Things don't happen in a vacuum. We've given billions in aid to many of these repressive governments, Egypt first and foremost. People there do not hate us. This is what I have to explain most often and will keep saying it until people really get it. However, they sure don't get our schizoid policies - speaking about democracy while propping up dictators. And they sure don't like getting pelted with tear gas canisters that read "Made in the USA".

Anyway, for what it's worth...
Power to the people.