Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Harpaxophobia: Fears and almond blossoms


On the last day of summer break before my senior year at Harvard, I was sitting at my brother's balcony, stroking his dog's head with one hand and cradling a glass of wine with the other. "I think I am facing a quarter-life crisis," I said in my best "My name is Roxanne and I am a 20-something" voice. My then sister-in-law tried to talk me through it, telling me that pre-graduation jitters are common and that I was sure to do great things in the world if only I believed it etc. etc. My brother, on the other hand, let out a guffaw. "A quarter-life crisis? For f&ck's sake! They invent a term for everything. That's made up sh*t. That doesn't even exist. Goldman Sachs made it up to make money. A quarter-life crisis!" More guffawing.

As I was sitting on a different balcony last night, I could already hear my brother's piercing laughter if I were to tell him this: My name is Roxanne and I am harpaxophobic.

Harpaxophobia is a term for which my brother can thank our fellow Greeks, not Goldman Sachs. Etymologically, it means "fear of being snatched." The term refers to a fear of being mugged, robbed or otherwise witnessing or being part of violent wrongdoing. On Sunday, I stepped out of the Middle East to conduct a one-week workshop in the Balkans, renew my passport and get some siren-free sleep. Instead, I am practicing for my new career as a full-time Giant Shnauzer or Doberman or [insert guard dog of your choice here].

Around midnight the floor creaked. I fled the bed, flashlight in one hand, phone in the other, ready to report an intruder. At 1 AM I thought I heard the front door opening. At 1.20 I could have sworn there were footsteps. By 3 AM, I settled into the rocking chair on the balcony - there is no prettier sight than blossoming almond trees in the night and no greater vantage point from which to clarify that swooshing branches are not, in fact, thieves climbing a rope ladder.

When I tell stories of bomb shelters, ex-combatants, Colombia, or any aspect of conflict zone living, people always ask "are you not scared?" The truth is: All the time. Some of the first books I ever read as an English-as-a-second-Language learner were the Nancy Drew adventures. For a brief period at the age of nine, I wanted to be Nancy Drew: auburn-haired, shrewd, loved daughter, supportive friend, loving girlfriend. And she solved mysteries and fought crime and picked locks with bobby pins, people! I did not even know how to put bobby pins in my own hair at the time, but I lay awake at night thinking of Bad Bad People Evasion Plans nonetheless. I fell asleep with the bright yellow hardcover books on my nightstand and never truly encountered Bad Bad People for another decade and a half.

I have now lost sleep to an armed robbery and wailing sirens. I have heard shuffling in the night - real shuffling. I have fallen asleep to gunfire. Walking down the street in Guatemala, a friend remarked I am the most vigilant, paranoid night walker he has known. I mistook trash cans for drug gangs. I have become the girlfriend whose last words before "I love you" at night are "have we locked the door?"

I do not experience harpaxophobia or anythingphobia when I am knee-deep in conflict zone life and work. When I am doing the work I love, the work that brought me to the field of conflict management and gender-related development, armed rebels and robbers and snatchers are not on my mind. Immersion placates fear. It is only at night, in bed, in the quiet of an apartment at least a little separated from conflict or at a narrow cobblestone street that the fear manifests itself in footsteps heard and hushed voices.

It turns out my brother was right that summer before my senior year of college. I did not have a "quarter-life crisis"; I was a somewhat melodramatic immigrant who had not had enough wine, dreaming or confidence on a campus in which blades of ambition were always sharp. His then-wife was right too: Everything would be okay. Unlike the false alarm of the quarter-life crisis, I know the fears that have stemmed from one too many exposures to conflict to be real. In dealing with them, I have done away with the Nancy Drew fantasy and instead hope to learn something from the 20-year-old bundle of nerves stroking a dog's head on a balcony all those years ago: Acknowledge the fear. Sit with it. Talk about it. Talk to both those who will listen and those who are qualified to help. Have some faith. Love and let others love you - nothing defeats fear quite like it.

And, if all else fails, sit on a balcony at 3 AM and look at the almond blossoms. Their unadulterated beauty cannot help but be a part of the cure.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From the bomb shelter to the Dead Sea

We were fighting the bed battle. The "why do you always have to hog the blanket" - "why do you take up so much space" - the "take your elbow off my pillow" one. We were tired and dawn was just breaking, so it was a battle fought in silence. I reclaimed my pillow under his elbow. He kneed me closer to the edge of the bed. The race for territorial control over the mattress left us both more alert than we otherwise would have been at 5.25 am.

At 5.30 the Tzeva Adom (Color Red) alert sounded. Two-toned sirens began to wail. I had always wondered whether I would hear them at night, given that I am a heavy sleeper. There is no missing these sirens. This type of alert indicates there is an incoming missile. I reached for my pink slippers, remembering what a former boss said was the Number One Rule of Conflict Zones: Always wear shoes. The neighbors were making their way down the stairs to the bomb shelter. Until a week ago, a closet blocked the entrance to it. The space has now been cleared and we all file in. Elijah stands near the door as the siren goes quiet. Seconds later, we hear the rocket hit the ground. A muffled boom, followed by another.

In Walking Israel, former NBC News Tel Aviv Bureau Chief Martin Fletcher narrates his passage through coastal and southern Israel as such:
An elderly man sitting alone calmly informed me, as the stranger in town, while we waited for the rocket to hit. "If it's a quiet thud, it means it fell in a field. If it's a sharp crack, it fell in the street. And if it's a whine and a whoosh, you're dead!" We all laughed and cocked our ears like terriers. I hadn't learned this from walking down the coast, and I wondered which was closer to the true nature of life in Israel - lazing on the beach with a book or running to the bomb shelter with a baby? And if it's a bit of both, then truly, this place must drive you crazy - like a serial bungee jumper guessing when the rope will break. 
Unlike this excerpt, the premise of the book is not to scare: Rather, it is a book motivated by a journalist's desire to bring the "other Israel" to light. Martin Fletcher chose to walk away from reporting on the conflict and, instead, walk the entire length of the Israeli coast from the Lebanese border in the north to the border with Gaza in the south. This is distinctly not the conflict trail, though the writer unearthed plenty of conflict, strife and sorrow along the way. Along these stories, Fletcher told the stories of natural beauty, human kindness, humor and normalcy.

Like anyone who has experienced that Israel, I too surrender to its beauty. This weekend, an old friend of Elijah's came to town and made it his business to bring the beauty to us, or us to the beauty. We drove and drove: from the sandy hills of the Negev Desert to the Mitzpe Ramon crater, to the southernmost tip of the country, to the lowest point on Earth, to the beaches of Yafo. We touched the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean in 24 hours. We saw a pink, full moon rising behind the Jordanian mountains and over the Dead Sea. We bobbed happily in saltwater.

It was magic - and it is magic that feeds my faith in humanity when the sirens rouse me from the bed.

Standing at the edge of a canyon in Ein Avdat
Makhtesh Ramon, the largest crater in the world that has not formed from impact with a meteor.
Mitzpe Ramon through the cracks in the platform above it.
The crater is 40 km long and 2-10 km wide and forms an elongated heart shape.
Climbing statues for a better view
Love everywhere
Floating in the Dead Sea at sunset.
Mountains across the Dead Sea in Jordan take on a pink hue. 
How they tell you *not* to float in the Dead Sea.
Dead Sea moon rising: The closest it has been to the earth in 18 years.

Update: Since this post was written, another siren alert sounded, another rocket landed, and there was a bus bombing in Jerusalem. Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post have extensive coverage. We are safe, but worried and we keep monitoring the situation. Please keep us in your thoughts.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Storytelling and Silence: Narratives of a conflict zone

Quiet in the Bahariya Oasis - Sahara Desert, Egypt
Photo credit: Nadine Ibrahim
A friend recently asked why I hesitate to write about my own experiences of conflict. "You work with women affected by conflict, you live in conflict zones and you own a domain with conflict in its name. What gives?"

Colombia taught me a lesson about "the stories you cannot tell." Journalists and aid workers alike were careful not to reveal identities or talk about their passions in a way that could alarm the omnipresent domestic surveillance apparatus. I learned to do my work with the hairs at the back of my neck raised and my lips tight.

Shortly after I left Colombia, a wiretapping scandal came to light, revealing that the secret police intercepted the emails and phone calls of aid workers, journalists, judges and even government officials. The recent raid of the State Security building in Cairo has revealed a similar thoroughness to the mechanism of domestic surveillance in Egypt. In an article titled "Egyptians Get View of Extent of Spying," the New York Times showed that surveillance was constant and not necessarily related to the subject of one's work: 26-year-old Salma Said found photos in the State Security archives depicting herself and her husband at a party on a friend's balcony. I have lived and worked in both Egypt and Colombia and they have taught me to err on the side of caution when narrating conflict. That is how I have come to write about my pink fuzzy slippers or blooming anemones.

Yet, concerns about security and protecting the beneficiaries of my work is only half of what motivates my reluctance to talk about conflict as I witness it. In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the sides have dug in their heels -- and yes, there are sides, much as we would prefer to deny them in the name of 'co-existence', the darling word of the 1990s conflict mitigation universe. There are parallel narratives of the same events, sometimes disputing the other side's facts altogether. In discussions about conflict-related issues, my interlocutors often try to discern my loyalties. Sympathy for 'the other side's' argument or the nuancing of the plight of all involved is a sign of wavering and can discredit one's views. Being a foreigner and not belonging to either religion affected by the conflict almost reinforces the perceived need to prove unequivocal loyalty to a side. Other markers of identity can exacerbate the polarization; I am slowly learning that 'humanitarian worker' can be a dirty phrase. While I vow to remain patient and open-minded, conversations about the conflict frequently render me pensive and silent.

There are indeed people who do see coloration and nuance and the "yes, but" mode of argument and I am blessed to be able to converse with them and learn from their example. However, more often than not, these people and I already share similar views and accounts of the conflict. There is a danger to only or primarily discussing charged issues with like-minded individuals who reinforce each other's viewpoints. I shared these thoughts with a beloved friend and mentor of mine and, in response, she wrote:
"I worry sometimes though, especially lately, that too much devil's advocacy distracts from the truth of our own convictions. That balance, I suppose, is one of the finer points of life, especially the lives of people like us, who come up against passion (our own and others'), empirical evidence, emotional evidence, and critical political analysis and must, for our peace of mind and our careers, make sense of it all. It's a privilege, isn't it?"
Indeed it is. Striking that balance is exhausting and head-spinning, but I am committed to seeking it because, as my friend said, it is a privilege to attempt to make sense of it all. Continuing to keep an open mind and an open heart is the first step to making peace with the parallel narratives. Embracing my own silences and being mindful of when they emerge out of fear or timidness to state my view is a next step.

Silence, too, is a part of this land, this conflict, and the many narratives that run through it. I am a firm believer in the power of storytelling and, in this instance, silences have a story to tell.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Feminism of Men and Romance

In honor of International Women's Day (and Feminist Coming Out Day), I will dedicate this week to writing about gender-sensitive approaches to development. I will take a moment to think about my own brand of feminism and will celebrate the advocates, women and men, who dedicate their lives to improving the status of women worldwide. 
This is me on Christmas morning, sharing a rocking chair with my loved one.

I used to shy away from the label 'feminist' for three reasons: First, I was concerned that the misconceptions and negative connotations surrounding feminism would inhibit my ability to be effective in my work, which consists of designing and implementing programs that benefit women in conflict zones. Secondly, I dislike the ways in which feminism sometimes "eats its own" by setting standards of what it means to be a feminist and judging women who fail to meet them. Finally, I believe that men need to be partners in the effort to create equal opportunities for both genders if this endeavor is to succeed and I was put off by the man-blaming rhetoric some feminists embrace as their vernacular. 

Then I had a 'coming out' moment as a feminist. I had witnessed the need for feminism throughout my life. I had experienced the differential reception of women and men in leadership positions. I spent some time listening to the stories of women in parts of the world in which gender-related problems are more basic and pressing than my own. I realized that feminism, in its 2011 packaging that has left bra-burning behind, is both relevant and impactful. So I told myself: First, if you are worried about the misconceptions, identify, confront and dispell them one by one. Secondly, listen to Madeleine Albright: "There's a special place in hell for women who do not help other women." If you want feminism to be more inclusive, put away the measuring tape and let others express feminism in the ways that feel true and honest to them. And finally, if you wish to make men equal advocates for feminism, highlight those who have led by example and create a role for them in this movement. 

That is how I found myself, a feminist, on a rocking chair one day. My feminism makes room for romance. The challenge for someone as stubbornly self-reliant as me is not to stand on my own two feet, but to learn to lean a little. My feminism finds strength not in being an island of a woman, but in investing in building loving and mutually-supportive relationships with men and women alike. 

In building these relationships, I have found that women need not be the only advocates for themselves and what is labeled as 'gender-related issues.' I look to Greg Mortenson, a flag-bearer and innovator in the education of women and girls in Afghanistan. There were few opportunities for the formal schooling of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan before Greg Mortenson made it his mission to correct this fact. More than 54,000 women have benefited from his advocacy, activism, and commitment to the cause of female empowerment. I also applaud Nicholas Kristof and SherylWuDunn for co-authoring Half the Sky, which chronicles the obstacles women face from southeast Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa and profiles the leaders who have committed themselves to solutions.

Greg Mortenson and Kristof's fame is partly due to the reach of their initiatives and writing; there are men like them in our own daily lives who support women and girls in profound and significant ways. The feminism I stand behind resists the urge to generalize, sets aside judgment, accepts the diversity in the manifestation of feminism among those who chose to identify with it and celebrates all men and women who commit themselves to equal rights and opportunities for all genders. 

Do you consider yourself a feminist? What are some common misconceptions about feminism and how would you clarify them? What role can men play in the feminist movement today?