Sunday, January 31, 2010

Filling Vacuums

When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her. -Adrienne Rich

My latest idol in Colombia is Juanita Leon, the founder of La Silla Vacia. What translates into “The Empty Chair” is an online portal of Colombian political news and commentary, often nicknamed the Colombian Huffington Post. Educated at University of the Andes Law School and the Columbia School of Journalism, Ms. Leon reported for the Wall Street Journal Americas before returning to Colombia. Her account of conflict in Colombia in the 21st century, Country of Bullets, is one of the few English-language books on this complex topic.  I first met her at a dinner to discuss political developments in Colombia, as well as how her website came to be, and was immediately impressed both by her commitment to understanding the conflict and relationships of power and by her resourcefulness, quick-wittedness and determination.

On discovering and following a passion for journalism
She had always enjoyed writing and initially reported on paramilitary groups and the outbreaks of violence for various Colombian print newspapers. She discovered that the stories and statements she could not or should not write about intrigued her and further realized that she was keenly interested in the dynamics of power and the making of decisions. Years later, these thoughts fermented into La Silla Vacia – a metaphor connoting vacuums of power and the processes by which they are filled.

As her early interest in the conflict manifested itself further, she acknowledged the need to move beyond reporting and into a more involved role in the media. Her father once asked her what the price for buying the Espectador was, which is one of the largest Colombian newspapers. Juanita found out it was laughably and prohibitively expensive, but she also realized with amusement that it was her father’s way of encouraging her to ‘think bigger’ than she had been, to imagine herself and her work in a different realm.

On media in the age of the internet
After a few years working at La Semana, another major publication, she became head of the online version. She recalls that her colleagues at the time thought this was a demotion; in Colombia, the power of the internet still remained partly unharnessed and, even though she had asked that she receive the same rights and treatment as an editor-in-chief of a print version, she stated that nobody paid particular attention to the online version until it created a problem for the newspaper.

When one of her stories stirred controversy, she remembers her boss calling the Managing Editor in fury and yelling to “take the article out of the computer!” and being extraordinarily baffled by the concept that the article was already “down the tubes” and could not completely disappear. Ms. Leon thus arrived at two conclusions: First, media personalities still understood very little about how the internet worked and, at the same time, they were just beginning to acknowledge its capacity to become a forum of political discussion and dissemination of information.

On Harvard and the importance of expertise
The recipient of a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University, Ms. Leon was ecstatic to be able to attend and deliver lectures and draw on the wealth of information available at the university. She spent most of her time reading and absorbing all the sources that had previously not been as readily available. She read up on Colombian history and politics, relationships of power, and the intersection of media and the internet. While this part of the narration of her life story was not as some of her other witty anecdotes, it was one of the most subtly powerful points she made all evening: It is important to become an expert in something; once one knows what she is passionate about, it is time to go out there and couple all the hands-on experience of practicing her passion with learning just about everything there is about it.

On starting La Silla Vacia: ideas, money, legitimacy
During her time in the United States, Ms. Leon noticed and followed with keen interest the emerging popularity of online blog-news portals, such as the Huffington Post and later The Talking Points Memo and Politico. The example of the latter two was particularly useful, as she was aware that she “neither knew or cared to write about sports, horoscopes or fashion, so there was no point in starting an all-encompassing newspaper;” her own interest lay in politics and if she were to have her own an online newspaper, she would devote it entirely to discussions of the power engagements behind that.

There was still the question of money. In this sense, she reminded me of Greg Mortenson and Paul Farmer in saying “if you have a good idea, the money will come.” And sure enough, it did – from Soros’ Open Society Institute. It is the good idea that is hard to generate and it seems like Ms. Leon had been fine-tuning channeling her passions and carving out a new niche in political discourse for years.

Even though she had had diverse experiences and had by this point written for multiple publications, Ms. Leon still thought she was a ‘relative nobody’ in Colombia at the time and, therefore, believed that if La Silla Vacia were to be successful, she would need to establish her and her nascent project’s legitimacy by association with prominent political figures. She thus started a debate section at her online space and invited Colombia’s major political figures to publicly opine on issues on the internet. She approached one such figure with trepidation and was told that he would probably not blog, but she was welcome to use his name there. That was all she needed – one participant brought on the other and her idea was off the ground. Soon enough, she has certainly become a strong voice in political commentary in her own right.

On Uribe and atonement
According to Ms. Leon, one of the common themes of Colombian politics has been that leaders often focus their concern not on what happens inside the country, but on the perception of these developments abroad. She joked “we seem to be concerned not about the scandal of the falsos positivos, but that Obama will find out about it!” (Accusations have emerged that the army was killing civilians and presented them as rebels in order to show the soldiers’ commitment to securing the peace. Much like similar claims, it is nearly impossible to verify the veracity and a public embrace of one side or another can be quite dangerous.)

In writing a profile of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, she discovered he was a unique case. Profiles, she said, tend to attract glowing comments from friend of the individual she writes about and derogatory remarks from his opponents and enemies. Uribe is remarkable in that his friends and enemies talked about the exact same traits – “at least he is consistent!” she said with some surprise.

With regard to the conflict, Ms. Leon highlighted a theme that is making transitional justice, including my own work here, very challenging. Legislative developments in the late 1990s and early 2000s essentially led to a declaration one day that “the paramilitary was no more.” There was no clear sense that there was a war, that it was over, that there was a peace process – and hence, there is no sense of atonement, of completion, of justice and memory reconciliation. As the cases of South Africa, Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda have instructed international justice officials and development workers, it is very hard for a country to heal the wounds of the conflict and move forward peacefully without the atonement that Ms. Leon believes Colombia has not yet gotten.

On the difficulty of understanding this conflict
“There is something that comes up and you think you should cover it, but then you realize it is like a telenovela: There are really three main stories and the rest is just episodes that will be the same six months from now. The trick is getting your head around those three main stories.” And how is that to happen? Ms. Leon quoted a saying: “You have been in Colombia for a week and you think you have figured it out.” You are in Colombia for a month and you are totally lost once again.”

I heard her say this when I had lived in the country for just one week myself. Although I was far from understanding the conflict and the path to its resolution, I once again realized the power of a compelling, inspirational life story--indeed, of a role model or a mentor--to make one introspect and feel motivated to ask questions of herself and the world around her.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Eat Until You Beg for Mercy

Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon. - Dalai Lama

To a Greek, nesting in a new home and community is a process that goes through the esophagus. This weekend I had the chance to cook in the Colombian countryside, in the company of a loving, warm, extraordinarily hospitable Colombian family. On Saturday I witnessed the process of making paella from browning the onions to slow-roasting all the seafood, while on Sunday I teamed up with my new Algerian-American roommate and our friends to prepare a Greco-Algerian meal to thank our hosts for their fantastic hospitality. And because some may still remember the (not-too-remote) days of my setting a recipe for Greek melomakarona on fire while filling T's apartment with cinnamon, (low-quality) photographic evidence of this weekend's culinary expeditions, synonymous to my falling in love with Colombia, follows:

Saturday's Paella

Sauteeing the onions and tomatoes for the paella
Adding the rice, peas, saffron, chicken broth
Small fish, calamari and chicken drumsticks go in first.
Baby shrimp into the mix
It's alright, pup, I had half a baguette while I was waiting for it to cook too.
Time for the peppers, shrimp and other big shellfish  
Mussels and red peppers - watch it absorb the water! 
The finished product: Paella for 10 people!

Sunday's Greco-Algerian lunch
Ground meat, rice, herbs, onions, garlic 
Stuffing the carved peppers with the mix 
Our full stuffed peppers pre-cooking 
Carved potatoes and carrots with our stuffing 
Our bruschetta straight out of the oven
Finished product: stuffed peppers 
Finished product: stuffed carrots - definitely the hardest to carve 
And the potatoes - my preference! 
Colombian treat for dessert: Slow-fried, buttered and sugared plantain. 

[Note: The images are of a disappointingly low quality because that is all Blogspot will allow one to upload from this bandwidth. Full size images do exist, as do the recipes.]

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Intense Holiness

[Lest malarial hallucinations wipe away my experiences in conflict zones, I decided to share my holidays with loved ones in Israel and the West Bank. This is the second post in a series chronicling some of our experiences.]
Jerusalem is a merry-go-round spinning and spinning
from the Old City to all the neighbourhoods and back to the Old.
And you can't get off it. Whoever jumps off takes his life in his hands.
And whoever gets off after one turn has to pay again
to get back on for turns without end.
-Jerusalem is a Merry-Go Round, Yehuda Amichai (wistfully remembering SKM)

I have bad [travel] karma. This is no news. There were the lost suitcases of the 25,000 Rupee debacle. There was the car breakdown in northern Syria. There was the time I slipped on a Jerusalem stony street in the rain and found myself bidding 2009 farewell with a blue behind and bruised pride. And yet, I have never in my life missed a flight of my own accord. Apparently, 2010 was the year to challenge myself on this front – without being able to blame karma (I blame Gummy candy, but that is a story for another time). For now, suffice to say that four hours prior to the time I was slated to depart from Ben Gurion, two of us were attempting to rush through the Old City of Jerusalem.

Mid-dash, we came across a procession. A small woman was carrying a cross, retracing the path that is marked as Jesus’ last steps on the way to his Crucifixion, passing and Resurrection. I remembered TV specials about devout Christians who underwent the passions of Christ in Jerusalem at Easter, but did not quite imagine a version of this unfolding shortly after New Year’s Day. But that is Jerusalem for you: a bubble of religious intensity.

Few, if any other, places in the world boast the kind of triple religious significance that Jerusalem does. For Muslims, Christians and Jews, the city is home to foundational milestones in the history of each religion and the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Dome of the Rock extend beyond defining the city’s skyline to seep into its character. Although I consider myself a believer, I cannot at this point in life say in good faith that I follow the credo of any specific dogma with dedication or that I can articulate the shape and extent my belief takes; as such, in Jerusalem, I felt like a distanced outsider. It was as if the place so sacred to so many pushed me invisibly to its periphery because I could not fully immerse myself in its holiness.

My (disquieting) failure to relate strongly and concretely to the religious character of the Old City aside, I continued to be blown away by the way in which devout believers adhere to custom. One of my favorite memories of the entire trip unfolded on the evening of Christmas following our return from a day in Ramallah. After the buses stopped running for the start of Shabbat, we found ourselves walking in the crisp freezing night from practically one side of Jerusalem to the other. Along the walk, I peeked through windows (creeper) to see families and friends dining together well into the night. Children were dressed more formally than usual and walked in the streets, which were almost empty of cars. It was a different Jerusalem and I was moved by the effect religious requirements bore on the rhythms of the city in a very similar way to my being charmed by Cairo during Ramadan. In both places, the constant car honking quietened and, as a dear friend had put it back then, “there is a sense that when you are eating, the whole city is eating with you.”

One can hardly escape religion in Jerusalem. A Jerusalem Veteran had warned me on our first night that the sanctity of the place can weigh on one after a while, something I failed to understand until we took off for our journey through Northern Israel, still the locale of multiple strong faiths, but in a way that does not seem to stamp most aspects of daily life. Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, one can experience religion with all senses: seeing the religious attire believers display, being jostled by the pilgrims who have traveled to worship, catching the drifting aroma of candles and incense. As the bus ascended the hills of Haifa, past Chinese food chains, lounge bars, sushi restaurants, bakeries, movie theaters and residences that again reminded us of Ft. Lauderdale, the contrast was unmissable.

There is indeed a way to experience Jerusalem without constantly immersing oneself in religious ceremony and conversation – in the same way that there is a type of life in Israel that does not require a daily experience of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The next post will tell the story of how we witnessed the conflict.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An Accidental Date in Colombia

Location: Bogota, Colombia
Reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Listening: Hard to Explain, The Strokes

Here we go again, Square 1. I know nobody here, I have never been here before, and yet, this is my home for the next three months. This post chronicles this literal search for a home, as already narrated to those who promised not to react with histrionics.

Prior to arriving in Bogota, I signed up for an online apartment listing service that connects potential tenants with landlords who have available rooms. I perused the site once or twice a day and set up some apartment viewings for the day of my arrival.

That is how I find myself on the corner of Calle 13 and Carrera 30. I am supposed to meet a Luis, who is supposed to show me his lovely apartment. Alas, I do not know what this Luis looks like and because this is not Love in the Time of Cholera (yet - Gabriel Marcia Marquez is Colombian, after all), I cannot show up at a street corner holding a thorny red rose, so I do the next best thing: Scan the intersection for other people looking similarly aloof who are clearly waiting for someone.

I spot someone who fits the description, walk towards him and ask "Luis?" He responds"Yes" and I introduce myself as Roxanne. He asks "From the email?", I smile and nod, confirming that indeed, I was the girl who had emailed him earlier that day to inquire about the apartment.

We start to walk and are chatting about life in general, while I am impressed by the sweetness and attentiveness this Colombian is showing a foreigner (as AJM humorously pointed out, they call this "being tricked by your positive attitude" - a pitfall to which I will succumb over "being trapped in your negative one" any day of the week). We get to the apartment, Luis gets me coffee, and we sit on the couch talking about the kind of music we like, my work and other interview-like matters. Nothing seems out of the ordinary; after all, roommates often want to know what Eurotrashy tunes may be blasting from their prospective new tenant's bedroom.

Eventually, I ask a very logistical question - something like "does the rent include utilities?" or "do you have a washing machine?" Luis looks at me with mild bewilderment and asks why I would want to know. I pause, thinking I probably misspoke in a foreign language, since the whole conversation has been taking place in Spanish, a language I have not spoken in three years and which I have managed to pepper with Arabic expressions at every turn. I say slowly "because that is important if I am to live here?" Luis looks mortified: "You are moving in?!"

I respond... "well, you did post an apartment listing, did you not?", to be met with an incredulous "Apartment listing? I was on a dating website!"

As it turns out, Luis had indeed exchanged emails with a girl whom he arranged to meet at that street corner, which is apparently a popular meeting point. The girl had used a screen name, so her real life name could have been Roxanne or Lorena or Annabel Lee for all he knew. The second he realized this, he bolted off the couch and dashed to said street corner, in case the actual girl of his dreams was still waiting for him.  I hope she was.

Update: Tomorrow I will move into my new apartment, with new (non-Luis) roommates and yes, a washing machine. And what do you know, utilities are included.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Defamiliarizing the Familiar

[Lest malarial hallucinations wipe away my experiences in conflict zones, I decided to share my holidays with loved ones in Israel and the West Bank. This is the first post in a series chronicling some of our experiences.]

"For being a foreigner Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy -- a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity of from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect." -Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
With Cairo a 7-hour drive behind us, we watched the sun rise over the water at the Eilat border crossing into Israel. As we took in the landscape of sharp-peaked mountains and glistening water with Jordan in the horizon, we caught sight of a soldier in khakis and a sweatshirt smoking a cigarette - with a sizable gun strapped to his back. Tellingly, this was not the most bizarre match-up of attire, circumstance, demeanor and ammunition we encountered in our time in Israel. Thus forms a recurrent theme of my travel experience in the country: militarism, religion, surprises, and a casual simplicity weaved into one.

After 16 consecutive hours of travel, the bus ground to an abrupt halt in Jerusalem, leaving us outside in the mid-afternoon with backpacks, blankets, suitcases and guitars to realize immediately that we were on starkly different territory: It was refreshingly chilly and there were hills. [I also had another belated realization: Moving your life’s belongings across an international border overland in three buses while you are slipping in and out of malarial hallucinations and feverishly mumbling that “if the postman comes, please give him his carrots” is idiotic. There is a reason there is trauma associated with years spent trudging through Sinai. Though far less biblical, it was still not wise or enjoyable in the 2000s on 3 different buses with a year’s worth of clothing and books to boot.] The fact that Cairo is flat as a pancake combined with 3 months of inhaling the aromatic blend of apple sheesha and the pollution of a city of 18.5 million meant hill-climbing caused more than one esophagus to burn and set of calves to ache embarrassingly. The contrasts to worlds we had each experienced in the past few months, whether in Cairo, Uganda or the Indian monsoon, had been apparent throughout our transition from Egypt to Jerusalem; echoing similar sentiments, a fellow first-time traveler to Israel astutely remarked that “coming here feels like stepping into the future.”

Cementing this perception of a ‘new age’ world, a long-time Israeli resident joked that “all Israel is good for is gadgets and technology.” As such, a pervasive sense of foreignness is not the first impression the country imparted; rather, it was a return to a familiar world. Wireless internet, seat belts, people who speak English and Western food and clothing chains abound. As we soon found, the futuristic quality could be mildly disturbing. A morning walk through Zikhron, one of the wealthiest towns near Haifa oozing with well-manicured quaintness, led us to an ‘ergonomic playground’ that featured aluminum-colored contraptions that should have come with a user’s manual, a list of the ways in which playing with them expands each neuron of one’s brain and an accompanying list of the hazards of adults attempting to decipher the field of play of a different generation. As I tried to dismount a spinning cylinder (seriously), I wondered whatever happened to colorful swings and a slide. I was further stunned in Akko, a small, historic town in the Northern part of the country whose tone was distinctly and understandably not in line with the metropolises we had been exploring. At a small sheesha café in Akko’s historic old city, I used a bathroom that not only had toilet paper and a toilet bowl disinfectant, but also boasted a new plastic seat cover for every visitor. To illustrate my astonishment, the rules elsewhere in the Middle East have typically been:
(1) Your favorite sheesha café likely does not have a bathroom (or two chairs that look the same and have four functional legs); if a bathroom miraculously exists, your privacy is guaranteed by a curtain and not a wall.
(2) If you are a woman, you do not use the facilities.
(3) Bring Your Own Toilet Paper (and soap, and occasionally toilet).
(4) Love the place to pieces regardless.

The list of strangely Western experiences of modernity goes on. We arrived in Haifa—on a train with plush seats and automated station announcements—late at night to find the train station empty but for dizzying graffiti and the adjacent bus station populated only by weeds, eerily connoting the opening scenes of I am Legend. After locating the proper bus stop at which to wait, a friend and I both remarked that we could have been in Ft. Lauderdale, complete with palm trees and condos. Two fellow travelers sipped beer under a modern art installation of fluorescent lighting as fountains gratuitously spewed water in similarly ‘artsy’ formations in the empty street, causing a sensation of beautiful surrealism. One of the said travel companions adamantly refused to jaywalk, for fear that he would incur the same fine his friend suffered for indulging in my favorite sport weeks earlier. As these anecdotes suggest, Israel demonstrated a type of development, urban planning and enforceable laws to govern interactions that rang familiar to a Westerner, hence not immediately accentuating a traveler’s foreignness.

And yet, I caught myself feeling incongruent at times, as if the world in which one holds on to dear life every time she dashes across the street as a taxi speeds toward her with spite only to brake at the last minute was my world, my home, my standard way of facing life. I missed my boda-boda rides on Kitgum road where the motorcycle humped over a giant dead snake and evaded a pothole a minute, leaving me covered in red soil every time aid workers’ trucks overtook the boda. I virtually expected intuitively that the process of sending an email would take half an hour and most every meal would cost the equivalent of $5, even though my travel research had prepared me otherwise. This feeling of disorientation was not just the consequence of a wave of nostalgia, which admittedly did overcome me, courtesy of being a ‘stranger in a strange land’ over the holiday season. Rather, my sense of incongruousness was telling, perhaps alarmingly so, of how my fellowship work and travels have reset my internal compass of what is familiar, what is home, what is my environment, my world, my expectation of what a city looks like, of how people conduct themselves, of what defines the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

In the passage of a commencement address describing Harvard’s General Education curriculum, University President Drew Faust articulated its aims as follows:
 to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar . . . to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.
When I first read the speech, I instantly craved this unsettling, the defamiliarization, the disorientation – and hoped for the reorientation Faust envisioned at the end of the tunnel. I know I am far from reorienting myself geographically, professionally, personally or really, in any other significant way. Yet, the first days in Israel sharply revealed that my world has been vacillating from environments in dire need of development work to those at the cutting edge of innovation, from worlds populated with relics of what the West has left in the past to Zikhron’s new age playground, from the clinic in Paicho IDP camp to the loveliest, plushest, warmest bed in which I have slept this year. I consciously experienced for the first time, and with immense gratitude, that unsettling of presumptions and defamiliarization of the familiar. Israel also facilitated my realization of a corollary: I struggle to clearly identify what my responses are to all I am learning and observing amidst the contrasting images, whether that involves expressing coherent thoughts on the effects of an experiment in microfinance or speaking with any conviction about my feelings surrounding  the wall around Ramallah. I am still struggling with wrapping my sentiments around the shifts, simultaneous co-existences and contrasts, my mind around the shape of a normal ‘day in the life…’

If lifestyle were the only consideration, certain parts of Israel would seem to make for an easier transition for a Westerner than India, Egypt, Uganda, or any of the other places in which I have lived, worked and traveled this year. This realization would have made my waves of incongruousness more puzzling had it not been for my slowly experiencing two defining elements of life in Israel and the West Bank: the prominence of religion and the way the Arab-Israeli conflict can color many an interaction. Both of these ignite strong sentiments, from Akko to Ramallah and Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and play a key part in setting up the (perhaps false but undeniably existent) dichotomy of belonging and otherness. It is this dichotomy that I will explore in the next post.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Birthday Abroad in Photos

There are some days when it is difficult to be away from those you love. I am a stranger in a strange land (who has never loved birthdays to begin with), but I will happily say this birthday conformed to themes of my fellowship journey: It was filled with gratitude, sweet company, delicious food, the kindness of virtual strangers and beautiful skies.

The birthday started with a home-cooked meal at 11.30 PM with a nod to Greek cuisine, graciously prepared by an expert chef (and wonderful new friend) in Israel. Exhibit A: Lamb. Check out Avi's blog for details.

Token healthy portion of dinner: Caramelized carrots and sauteed eggplant

French Fries: the key to my heart. 5 pounds of them, to be precise.

A walk through Tel Aviv exposed me to more fascinating graffiti. (This one reads: "The complexities of salvation is when we use different names for the same thing." What?!)

Afternoon apple cider with wine and cinnamon across a poster that simulates Leonardo Da Vinci's facebook status, "liked" by the Mona Lisa.

Discovering guitar sheet music on a wall

The end: a beautiful Israeli sunset.