Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chasing anemones and penmanship

My father had a lot of expectations of me when I was growing up and expectations came with Rules. If my handwriting was not neat enough, he would tear out the page of my homework and make me rewrite it with rounder o's and straighter t's. He once threw a whole notebook into the fireplace because of poor penmanship. On sunny days I prided myself on the fact that my handwriting rivaled that of my elementary school teacher and on gloomy days I told myself the lie all of us told ourselves at that age: "I refuse to ever put my children through this."

There was one expectation my father held that I never dreamed of failing, in part because over the years, it became my expectation too: He, my mother and I would sit down and share at least one meal every day. My two brothers were exempt from this requirement, having fled to a different city where pretty handwriting was optional and eating in front of the TV was allowed. My mother felt she should contribute a Rule too and she chose orange juice. I had to drink a glass of orange juice at this meal. Not the delicious full-of-preservatives sugary goodness you can buy at the store. The kind that you squeeze and, if you leave out too long, turns grey-ish, bitter, and undrinkable. Nobody can fault a mother for ensuring her stubborn daughter take in her Vitamin C, but I certainly did at the time.

My least favorite part of the orange juice ritual were the seeds. I reasoned that if I am made to drink orange juice, it should at least be strained. My mother patiently put it through the strainer - twice, to catch the strays. Every time she gave me my smooth, seed-free, pulp-free glass of juice, she would remark that I was of the "cereal, central heating and computers generation" and how would I ever live in the world.

Nearly two decades have passed since those days. I have learned to share my stomach with parasites. Gone to bed hungry because of food rations and shortages. Woken up to gunfire, rockets, burglars. I lost my MacBook to a hurricane. Every time I wrote on a blackboard during a field work project, someone would tell me my handwriting is pretty and every time I was offered juice, I would stay away from orange. Pomegranate, mango, and strawberry beat out the fruit of choice of 1990s Greece.

This past weekend, Elijah read in the paper that there are anemones blooming in the desert. We live in a region in which blooming flowers make the news. So, Elijah rented a car and made it our mission to find the anemones. I was shy to pronounce them; my Greek origin triumphed over my command of English and I put the stress on the 'o' syllable - with the nes rhyming with the first syllable of Nescafe. We drove to Haifa to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to the coast to the border with Gaza to the barrier with the West Bank. To villages and kibbutzes and gas stations in between. One of those kibbutzes was filled with orange trees. My loved one pulled over and bought a whole bag of fresh oranges. I proceeded to do the worst possible job of peeling an orange for a driver, resulting in sticky hands for both of us, orange stains on clothes, and the rental car floor carpeted with seeds.

Today I ate my first full orange since the days of penmanship and family dinners and strained orange juice. I made sure to pick out the seeds one by one. Somewhere up there, my father must be smiling and I hope that my mother is too.

Remaining tight in the bud
Anemones growing two by two
Crusted mud felt and sounded like clay under our feet.
Blooming anemones 
Afternoon light in the folds of a dress
Hello, caterpillar!
Running towards the anemones
In a field of anemones
Flowers are not exempt from the barbed wire here.
Barbed wire reflected in the mud

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sexual harassment in Egypt

Under the Luxor sun, the brain melts into mush. It was the kind of heat that caused linen pants to stick to the seat from which I attempted to get up. My female friend and I both looked modest; modest was very important to us in Egypt. Long sleeves, long pants, a pashmina, and rivers of sweat.

And yet, as we made our way to the Valley of the Kings, we were greeted with the familiar sounds that accompanied our walking down the street in Egypt: First, the hissing, then the sound of lips being pursed together to blow kisses, then the all-time classic "how much do you want for one of your sisters/beauties/wives?" to the male friend walking with us. He was offered camels, chickens and a Ferrari -- though it was hard to ascertain whether the gentleman who had asked for our hand in marriage actually owned a Ferrari. To this day, the sound of blowing kisses causes the hair on the back of my neck to stand upright. 

My friend and I were not the first to experience harassment on the street in Egypt. Even what we thought was remarkable -- such as my getting groped by a policeman in uniform in broad daylight -- was, in fact, trite and had happened to someone before with no regard for whether the recipient of the dirty words, hissing, kissing, grabbing or groping was Egyptian or foreign, a woman in a hijab or a girl in jeans. The phenomenon is so widespread that there are now online maps of street harassment incidents in Cairo.

Frustrating as it was to feel uncomfortable in public, we took care to clarify that we understood this was not what we were taking away from our time and experience in Egypt. We emphasized the kindness of strangers, the hospitality, the incidents that make you love a country, not resent it. I stand by those sentiments, but I am growing unwilling to tolerate that treatment under the guise of cultural relativism.

What marked the shift in my attitudes was the Lara Logan sexual assault. Lara Logan is the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for CBS News and has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the night of February 11, she was covering the jubilation in Tahrir Square following Hosni Mubarak's resignation. She was separated from her crew, mobbed, beaten and sexually assaulted. She was eventually saved by a group of Egyptian women and soldiers.

I understand those who say that this incident mars an otherwise peaceful protest. Many women, including foreigners, reporters and friends on the ground in Cairo, claimed they felt safer on average and were treated more respectfully during the protests than they had before. Protesters, too, are devastated because they tried to protect the message of the protests by restraining fellow countrymen whose actions could undermine the spirit of the movement. 

However, there is a particular aspect of the coverage of Lara Logan's assault that infuriates me. In response to the news, individuals ranging from anonymous blog commenters to well-known pundits have expressed some variation of this: "Lara Logan is pretty." "Lara Logan's sex history suggests she could be promiscuous or provocative." "Lara Logan brought this on herself." Such comments, many of which are reprinted or summarized here, prompted NPR to republish its commenting guidelines, including "Blaming the victim is an old tired game. Please don't." 

Lara Logan is a seasoned war correspondent, accomplished in her own right, and yes, very pretty. That last bit absolutely does not merit her being assaulted and suggestions that she invited it, or even deserved it, by virtue of being a pretty woman reporting from Cairo are ill-informed and, frankly, nauseating. The fact that this is a popular sentiment in the comments of blogs and articles on her assault baffles me because it suggests a slew of misunderstandings about the nature of sexual assault, the role of female correspondents in areas of conflict, and the particular accomplishments of Lara Logan.

Logan is one of the few female correspondents who have publicly discussed sexual harassment. Following her revelation, many women working or reporting from conflict zones have come forth to discuss their own stories. Foreign Policy has profiled some of the stories focusing on harassment of women inside the US army, and Judith Matloff discusses others in the Columbia Journalism Review. Both articles seem to agree that many women are hesitant to come forth in reporting such incidents because they are concerned about personal and professional backlash. 

The kind of change that is needed in Egypt is not only constitution-deep. A change of attitude is required, particularly with reference to the perceptions and treatment of women. I hope this transitional period triggers, encourages, and allows this process to unfold. In the meantime, there is something the rest of us can do from home, in addition to understanding the magnitude of sexual harassment in conflict zones and being empathetic of the challenges female correspondents, aid workers or soldiers face. We can be less ignorant, less callous, and less insensitive about the realities of sexual assault, stepping away from the old and tired "blame the victim" mentality and committing ourselves to finding and punishing the perpetrators. Our tolerance of the attitude that "pretty women may invite harassment" is, in itself, a form of compliance with the harsh realities of assault. 

There are very few attitudes for which I find intolerance to be an acceptable response. Let this be one of them.

In addition to the Judith Matloff and Foreign Policy pieces that are hyperlinked in this post, excellent commentary on the response to Lara Logan's assault can be found at Wronging Rights. The Sunday New York Times have also devoted an article to "Why We Need Women in War Zones."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt: Hopes and questions

"We saw mothers and fathers carrying their children on their shoulders to show them what true freedom might look like." - President Obama, in his statement on the new era in Egypt.

I was one of those children in 1989. To call me a chubby child would be an understatement. I looked like a calf, with rings of fat round my knees and arms and cheeks that begged to be squeezed. My legs could not support my weight, so I did not walk until "late" and am thankful that blogs were not around for my mother to be anxiously searching "is it normal for my child to not have walked yet?" I did, however, talk early -- appropriately choosing a cry for milk to be my first word. I have many early memories of my childhood and one of the first involves my father pointing at the TV in our Greek living room and telling me to remember that moment.

I did not understand what that moment was. I did not understand what the Berlin Wall was, or why people were cheering and crying and drinking champagne on it. I only remember that moment  - the moment of my father asking me to remember. There is a photo from that night sitting in an album in Greece: A chubby little Roxanne in a red coat, hoisted on her father's shoulders, among the crowds celebrating a new era for Germany in the streets of Greece.

I feel for the youth of Cairo today. How truly inspiring to muster the power of non-violence to, indeed, "bend the arc of history toward justice." I felt the chills and cried and was filled with the energy of a people who, just one year ago, I had mistakenly thought had resigned to a certain fate and was too apathetic to mobilize and become accountable for Egypt's future.

There are many who are cautioning that it is too soon to celebrate. It is not too soon to celebrate the strength of popular movements and the victory of non-violence; it may, however, be too soon to applaud the arrival of democracy in Egypt. These are critical times and the international community should not turn its eyes away from Egypt as it manages this transition. Here are a few questions that are piquing my curiosity going forward: 

How will Egypt approach constitutional reform and will it create a system of checks and balances? With the military in charge and an Emergency Law in place for decades, the codification and protection of rights in Egypt has been lackluster. Furthermore, its ratification of international treaties, notably including the Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (CEDAW), is only valid for articles that do not run counter to Islamic Sharia law. Adding to the legal complexities is the dearth of oversight bodies whose mission is typically to work towards the minimization of corruption and the safeguarding of citizens' rights. The lack of a clear, rights-based legal framework and of a 'checks and balances' system facilitated government abuses in the past decades. How will the transitional government, new parties, and future leaders respond to these issues and will brain drain, which has drawn many of Egypt's leading constitutional scholars abroad, be a factor? A good starting point for reading on this subject is the Comparative Constitutions project.

How will women organize to sustain the momentum of female public presence?
While I was working in Egypt, my primary focus was on designing a program for the training of female parliamentarians. Even after the government instituted a quota for female representatives in the parliament, there was a lot of hostility towards an increasing public role and platform for women. I had written at the time about MP Gamal Zahran, who then expressed his concern that the empowerment of women would have dreadful consequences:
“We can now expect women to go out to work and men stay at home waiting for their wives to return. People can also expect to see mustachioed wives with downtrodden men at their side pushing baby buggies.”
Women participated in the protests, in numbers and ways that would have seemed unimpressive by Western standards but were astounding for Egyptian realities. As Anna Day told me in an interview for the Peace x Peace Network, women would sometimes lead the chants or walk in front of the police because they thought the police would be less brutal. Images and other first-hand narratives corroborate this account.

Will women form their own political party? Will they become vocal as the elections discourse evolves? Will they make gender-related demands for reform and, if yes, what will those demands be and how will they advance them?

What role can journalists, observers, and foreigners play in the democratic transition?
Whether one agrees that this was the Facebook/Twitter/televised revolution, the momentum that Egyptians and foreigners generated online and in social networks was considerable. It is now critical for foreigners and journalists to continue observing the developments in order to ensure that military rule is temporary, peaceful and transparent and that it gives way to a democratic government. As the referendum process in Sudan has demonstrated, the presence of international election observers, existence of voter education programs, and development of community organization initiatives is instrumental for the conduct of free and fair elections and the creation of a clear choice for voting citizens.

Some worry about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in upcoming elections and speak of Egypt as the 'new Iran'; Nicholas Kristof, Foreign Policy and Akhila Kolisetty do a good job at explaining why fears of an Islamic theocracy should not overshadow the magnitude of the accomplishment of Egyptian protesters. I, too, am curious to see how political parties will re-organize, what the chief demands for reform will be now that the main demand of Hosni Mubarak stepping down has been met, and how the Egyptian populace will continue to remain invested in the democratic process.

For now, I am hopeful and thankful. I am grateful for those who brought the revolution to us, from Al Jazeera Online to my dear friend Merrit whose photos kept me living vicariously. And I am grateful to the people of Egypt for defeating cynicism - their own or ours - and for inspiring and re-invigorating the movement of non-violence and the fight for human rights and justice.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Stories of Conflict and Love

Έτσι μιλώ για σένα και για μένα is the title of a poem by Greek Nobel Laureate Odysseas Elytis in the collection "The Monogram." Born in Greece and raised to appreciate the sunshine, sea air and Odysseas Elytis, I adopted his words - which translate as "And so I speak of you and of me" - to title my journey at this site.

After two years of this homage to my homeland and its beautiful poets, it is time for change. 
  1. This space has been renamed "Stories of Conflict and Love" and the corresponding new URL is www.storiesofconflictandlove.com
  2. Google Reader and other feeds should maintain your subscription, but there may be glitches, so I suggest updating your feeds and bookmarks to www.storiesofconflictandlove.com
  3. If you have included a link to this space in your own site, thank you! If you could update that link to www.storiesofconflictandlove.com , I would be most grateful. If you would like to link to this site, there is a new blog button and a code for you in the sidebar.
  4. This transition may take 72 hours to complete, and I apologize in advance for any interruptions you may experience in the meantime. If you are still having trouble accessing the site after 72 hours, contact me either through Twitter or by sending me an email. Embedded links and the archives will be in transition as well.
Everything else stays the same. I will still write about conflict, gender issues worldwide, writing, love, international development, travel and wandering - and occasionally about flushing toilets and brushing teeth, too. I am just going to be a little less shy about what defines my life right now: living and working in conflict zones, in stories, and in love. 

There is plenty I am still shy about. I love to write, but I am hesitant to call myself a writer. I love to take photographs, but I will resist the label 'photographer'. I design and implement programs that benefit women in conflict zones, but 'conflict management professional' - though accurate - feels clunky. 

So, let's continue to explore together in a pursuit of all that feels true, and honest, and just right. Thank you for being here and for sharing your stories and your journeys.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

An American girl in Cairo [or: where I find hope]

Friday, January 29th, 5PM, "Anger Friday": On the way to Tahrir Square, an Egyptian protester celebrates with fellow protesters on top of an armored government vehicle at sunset on the west bank of the Nile River.
Photo credit: Anna Day

Anna Day is a student, activist, advocate, friend, and firecracker. Her causes are her passions and when one gets her talking about them, she does so with a contagious level of excitement and involvement.

When she heard that Egypt was on the brink of a revolution, she knew she had to be a part of it. And so she headed to Cairo.

I had the honor of hearing her story and documenting it for Peace x Peace here.

One of my questions for Anna was what gives her hope about the protest movement. What gives me hope is that there are young people like her - people who care, who are not afraid, who will be part of movements and notions greater than themselves, and who will proudly, boldly and humbly re-tell the story.
I do not have a story right now. My story is that of Egypt. Watch it unfold:

  •  Boston Globe Big Picture images of the protests that leave me speechless.
  • Washington Post and Human Rights Watch report that much of the looting was performed  by paid government 'thugs'. 
  • The FP provides a harrowing account of the afternoon that brought the end to non-violence.
  •  Links on photojournalists' stories can be found here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Egypt: A heart left in Cairo

My Cairo, then: Felucca reflections on the Nile River
At 6.22 PM on Friday, January 28th, The Guardian reported that army tanks were rolling into the center of Cairo.

Cairo was my baptism.

It is where I first worked with the UN. On Friday, prior to the interruption of coverage, I watched the NDP headquarters adjacent to my first UN office be licked by flames.

It is where I smoked sheesha and watched the fog crawl in over the Nile.

It was in a felucca on the Nile -- the quintessentially tourist/expat experience, colored by techno music and neon lights -- that I met the love of my life, my companion, my best friend.

It is where I got groped by a policeman, where I fell asleep too late as the call to prayer bellowed across the street at 4 AM, where I had to exercise tolerance along judgment. I lived in contradictions and paradoxes. I had my faith in humanity crushed and reinforced on the same day.

I am heartened by Egyptians' ardent desire to claim the rights they have not enjoyed in years. At the same time, I worry about the day after in Egypt, whenever that day comes. I hope for a fair and strong democratic process; I further hope that the government this process yields is more protective and respectful of civil rights and, particularly, of the rights of women.

Until then, I will remain glued to my screen, observing, living vicariously.
Here is some of what is shaking me to the core:
  • Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born commentator I respect tremendously, writes in a fantastic article in the Guardian: "To understand the importance of what's going in Egypt, take the barricades of 1968 (for a good youthful zing), throw them into a mixer with 1989 and blend to produce the potent brew that the popular uprising in Egypt is preparing to offer the entire region. It's the most exciting time of my life." Read on for insights on the implications of the protests for youth, as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict. She addressed similar topics in this conversation with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. 
  • Scott Nelson, NYT photographer, expresses feelings that closely mirror my own: "Covering this conflict is humbling — to be able to witness such a historic event on a scale that is nearly inconceivable; exhilarating — to see the enormous hope and optimism the Egyptian people have experienced in the last few days; and also very worrying — as I wonder what comes next in this turbulent process, which is moving quickly towards a chance at real democracy." Ed Ou, a photojournalist closer to my age, walks the alleys of Cairo that I have come to love and tells their stories here.
  • Global Voices Online sheds light on the role of Egyptian women in the protest movement. Egypt was the first country in which I delved into gender-related development work and the fire in the hearts of Egyptian women travels with me today.
  • Incredible photography by Reuters and the Boston Globe Big Picture blog
  • And this AP photo, reposted on the Atlantic Tumblr. An Egyptian woman protester kisses a riot police officer. Coexistence, the breaking of boundaries, and the blurring of lines in one shot.