An aid workers impressions as she travels the world building toilets.
Latest public adventure: to be determined.
Poems, photos and ramblings abound.

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May 28, 2012

Ch - Ch- Changes

It's time for some changes around here.

* * * 

Looking outside my window, I see we are in the middle of a presidential election here in Egypt. There are signs for candidates on everything. Their smiling faces photo-shopped over images of construction and a prosperous Egypt.  Posters that look almost home-made plastered on cars, bill boards, flying over the each square and fountain at each round-a-bout.

The polling is finished and a runoff between the top two contenders is sure... but not before some of the candidates challenge the first polling with irregularities and whatnot.

Oh it's complicated, but maybe not that complicated. And it is changing. The revolution hasn't made it all better yet, but it's changed the country. It seems people are starting to understand that it's going to take some time, but they are still impatient. One of the more outspoken Egyptian bloggers seems to have a pretty good idea about what's going on here... here's a link to his latest rant (definitely worth the read).

* * *

If you were outside looking into my window, you'd see that in the next three weeks we're leaving Cairo. We're off to the next adventure. There will be a short pause between family installations, but this little home we've known is gettin' stuffed into boxes as we speak.

I'm not sad this time. I don't have the nostalgia of having worked or invested much emotionally here - which is funny because it's been one of the most emotional times of my life (having a baby and all).

* * *

They say babies change fast, but this is ridiculous! In the past week my new baby son has learned to crawl, to sit up from laying or fall down to sitting, and to pull up to standing and cruise around. I've enjoyed watching him discover gravity and friction and gyroscopes.

And he got his first two teeth.

* * *

In other news, which is not a change: I am entering the Foundling Review's Pachas 50 word short story contest again. (That's the writing contest in which I got honorable mention in last year.)

I'd been told that my writing has good imagery, but needs to be worked more. So, since the first Pachas contest, I've chosen another number (i.e. not 50) and am re-writing several old poems I had written. I find the word limit (not more, not less) is fitting to force me to whittle down and shape some of my pieces and make them better. I've also done away with the line breaks on some. I must not be good at line breaks yet because I think that they often come across as pretentious.

* * *

April 17, 2012

A little awesomeness

I enjoy participating in “blog-action campaigns”. They are for causes I believe in (like good science and good aid) and they give me motivation to tell a quick story. 

* * * 

This year some of my favourite aid bloggers are organising the second annual “Day without Dignity” campaign aimed at highlighting the dignity of people aid is trying to help. The theme this year is Local Champions and you should check out the call to arms and the other contributions, which are generally more awesome than my own. 

* * * 

Sometimes I joke that I measure the awesomeness of a project by the number of sacks of cement that were used, but in all seriousness the awesomeness of most water and sanitation projects is derived from the local masons. Masons are the dudes who mix up the cement, who slap it around on broken trowels to build up foundations and to build down wells. But they do a lot more than play with cement.

* * *

Meet Joseph. He’s a mason. He’s organized. He’s short and he smiles a lot. He likes meeting new people. He’s also a beneficiary of aid: he’s been labelled an “internally displaced person” and lives in a crowded camp in a crappy tent. When I met him I worked for an NGO building toilets, showers, and such things in his camp in Kenya. 

He is what made our project awesome. 

He helped us with our toilets: made sure we built enough, made sure they were easy to build, and made sure people would use them.  He helped us with the shower grease traps. He helped us find more good masons. 

But he did more than just build stuff and play with cement.

He initiated a successful system whereby any of the IDPs could borrow the NGO tools if they needed them for work they wanted to do on their own plot.

He got involved in health promotion activities and trained others.

He started his own NGO or masons cooperative to help with building up the resettlement areas, especially championing the importance of sanitation.
For months after our project was finished he called me to tell me about what he was doing and it was always awesome. 

* * * 

Meet Nur. He’s a mason. He’s also short, and more rotund than Joseph. He has a round face and wares a beanie. He doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak any Somali, but we liked each other. I met him in Mandera in Northeastern Kenya and I got to know him over several years.
Telling you about Nur and how he made the projects awesome is harder than for Joseph because he was subtle. I had great affection for Nur because he treated me as technically competent in a world where the engineering advice of a young white woman was not always welcomed by teams of old black men (understandably). When he needed to talk to me he would sit with someone who could write in English and write me a letter, then he would come to my office and deliver the letter to me by his own hand. He continued to write me letters even when I was based in Nairobi.

He started as a daily worker mason, but soon it was clear that he was a quiet leader, that he was technically competent and smart, and that he was honest. He was soon running several sites, keeping track of materials consumption, and basically doing more than his share of work and sometimes doing it better than his superiors. Needless to say, as our team grew over the years he was hired as the only full time mason position.

He was what made our projects awesome. 

He improved the well and tank designs. He taught other masons how to improve their works. 

He trained lay community members on hygiene, maintenance, and use of their water supply. 

He helped ensure that the community feedback was incorporated into the project properly by interpreting it (not the language, but the ideas, which is harder than it sounds).

He was a community leader himself. 

He was awesome and he made our programs awesome. 

* * * 

Water and sanitation projects generally build things, which is part of why I love my job. I get dirty. I stick together piles of rock and sand with water and cement powder – but really I don’t. 

I don’t build anything. 

The masons do. 

They build everything. 

They also build the community and are often the key to how sustainable a project is. 

And they’re awesome.

February 24, 2012

A rant or two...

Recently a little article entitled "7 worst international aid ideas" from the Matador Network has been making the rounds on the Facebook and the Twitter. A friend of mine shared it, then her friend commented on it. Then I filled up her page with counter-comments... then I deleted them because I thought they needed a blog post, rather than a discombobulated commentary on Facebook. 

A long blog post at that: Aid is criticized in the media (and it should be, like anything), but often people focus on things that are exaggerated by some sexy, dramatic, shocking story and hence myths are born. Here I'll comment on the article, then I'll talk about exaggerated issues. As an aid worker, I obviously believe in aid and I think you should too, despite its issues.

First, I like the article: I think it did a good job of choosing several higher-profile examples of dumbassery that occurs everyday (1, 2, 3, 4, and 6), as well as highlight two bigger issues (5 and 7) that no one really talks about, but should.

Second, the article is talking about bad aid ideas, not problems with aid. There is a subtle, but important, distinction here. 
> Bad aid ideas like this: What should we do to help the poor? Oh, let's send them used underwear.
> Problems with aid are more like this: Why isn't aid working? Oh. Shit. That's a hard one, but let's blame the NGOs. 

* * *
The 7 Worst Ideas + 2 more bad ones

#1 - SWEDOW, or "stuff we don't want", a now ubiquitous term coined by my favorite aid blogger Tales from the Hood (though I like to say "shit we don't want"). 'Nuff said. The article got it covered,  just to say there are a bazillion examples of this: used bras, pillow case dresses, motel soap bars... the list is endless. 
I personally would choose another as the WORST example: old, outdated baby cribs "that do not pass new safety standards".  Most mamas living in a poverty stricken slum in Nairobi don't want a crib, don't have room for one in their home, and much less one that could perhaps strangle their child. 
(Here is some more on SWEDOW from Good Intents are not Enough, an excellent blog about aid. I couldn't get the link to Tales from the Hood to work... sorry.)

#2 - TOMS shoes is SWEDOW, but with a hint of bad CSR (corporate social responsibility) - or vice versa. Not much to add here, this probably is one of the WORST examples because it is so popular. TOMS raised a hullaballu in the aid-blog world sparking the "Day without Dignity" campaign by Sandra over at Good Intents (my contribution to that campaign). 

#3 - Crazy dudes with guns claiming to save kids. Bad. Very Bad. Crazy dudes without guns are bad enough. I am glad there are not very many examples of the armed type, but sad to say there are too many of the unarmed type. I'd put the hot aid-worker marrying a warlord in this category as well. The article definitely got the WORST crazy dude example, especially since this one was made into a movie... (nice transition to #4).

#4 - Crazy celebrities and their stupid ideas, perhaps a subset of number 3? I might say that when Nick Kristof purchased the freedom of 2 prostitutes maybe a WORSE example. 

#5 - USAID "buy American" is indeed the WORST example because this is a government (and a big one), not a corporation, but this is basically an example of bad CSR. Grants for aid (by a do-gooder government or corporation) who then says "Okay but you gotta use (or even worse, you gotta promote) our products in your project" whether or not their product is the most appropriate for the project or context. 
  Some commentary on the Facebook feed mentioned that USAID has loosened their guidelines on this recently, but not by much.

#6 - Food looking like landmines. Oh god, say it ain't so. Definitely the WORST example of confusing packaging of aid products. Other examples that I have seen include oral re-hydration salts and water purifiers that look the same, chlorine tablets that look like medicine...

#7 - Aid as foreign policy. This one is a little heavy and really beyond my expertise. But I agree, it is evil (though not only American).

So, that's my take on the article's 7 WORST ideas. I would add 2 things to the list... 

>  Orphanages: Please read more by Good Intents who asks "Does funding orphanages crate orphans?" and has many other enlightening posts on the subject.

>  Products that don't always work: I hate the LifeStraw because, while it may work for a little while, it is going to ware out and get gummed up pretty quick. I also think it's a little un-dignified to walk around with a straw around your neck. Another example is the bio-sand filter, which seems cool because it can be made by local masons, but which doesn't always clean the water. Both of these would often give the idea that the user is drinking safe water, but that in fact she isn't. Dangerous.

* * *
7 myth-buster comments on Why Aid Doesn't work

My subtitle is a little misleading: I do think that aid is helping. Aid is making the world a better place, although I would have to say that poverty is not being eradicated: the subtle distinction between "helping" and "working" that I won't address here. 

Anyway, let's get on with it. My goal here is to address a few misconceptions highlighted about how aid works (or doesn't work). 

> 1: "Emphasis on building large dams" - First, I don't think there is an emphasis on dams in development. No grand conspiracy to dam all the rivers of the world. Second, sorry to my environmentalist friends, but dams have the possibility of being an excellent project for a developing country to alleviate some poverty. I don't like dams either, and no they are not always good, but they aren't all bad either (electricity, jobs, exportable commodity...).

> 2: "NGOs that crowd out weak or disinterested governments": NGOs substituting for governments is indeed bad news and happens all too often. But sometimes the goal is to save lives, not to develop the country, in which case substitution can be appropriate and acceptable. Also, NGOs don't have as much power as this statement implies. NGOs are more often manipulated by governments for political gain than the other way around.

> 3: "The creepy emphasis on combating the 'brain drain' ": Well, it works both ways - aid can increase and decrease brain drain. In the long run, it probably will decrease it. Again, there also isn't any hidden agenda on this.

> 4: "The principle of paying immense salaries to mildly-qualified foreigners and putting them in charge of local specialists": Oooooooh, a touchy one.  When this happens (and it does) it is indeed bad. Very evil white men. Neo-colonialist. Bad. Bad. Bad.  
  (Full disclosure: I am a foreigner paid to be in charge of aid projects.)
  BUT, it actually doesn't happen that often in NGOs. The basic fallacy in this statement is "mildly-qualified" and "immense salaries". Foreign aid workers are brought in with skills that the host country doesn't have. You might not think so, but host governments regulate this pretty well, and NGOs are pretty transparent about it too. Addtionally, local hire salaries and expat salaries aren't usually very different for the same job. (Full disclosure: expat benefits are often significantly better than for a local hire.)
  The other fallacy this brings up is that aid-workers have to suffer to do good work. How ridiculous is this idea. So for me to do good aid work, I need to be a volunteer? To get good people, you need a living wage. I volunteered for 2 years (Peace Corps), then I needed to make a living. And I do. And I am not ashamed of the money I make. I deserve it. I'm good. You want me out there doing aid work. Trust me. (And by the way, it isn't a lot. But it's enough.)

> 5: "Spectacular programs to eradicate various diseases, instead of spending much less money to provide the basic medical services that would control them, and take care of many other ailments as well": Says he who lives in a country where malaria has been eradicated... First, eradicating certain diseases can be the most cost effective program ever, especially in the long run. Imagine how much money in curative care that would be saved if malaria were eradicated globally, not to mention savings in terms of deaths and suffering. (I've had malaria, trust me one suffers.) Second, providing basic medical services that would control them also is VERY expensive and complicated.

(The next two are not in quotes because these misconceptions didn't come from the Facebook comments, just one I know exist.)

> 6: All those NGOs with high overheads are inefficient, ineffective because they are just lining their greedy pockets: Basically, overheads are necessary to do good work and the "overhead figure" is easily manipulated. Again, I'll refer you to Ms. Sandra and her wisdom over at Good Intents here or here. She has basically written the book on this myth. No need to really re-hash it.

> 7: There is one solution that will alleviate poverty: Nope. That's the thing. It's complicated. 
   Something that worked in India won't always work in Africa. In fact, something that worked in village X might not work in a village 5 miles away. 
   It won't just take more money. That money needs to be well spent. 
   A little technological gadget won't solve it. Not even the cell phone. 

* * *

But you know what'll help? Continuing to question aid, continuing to think about it, and continuing to do it.

January 28, 2012

One year more... or less

One year on from the revolution of January 25th here in Egypt.

We asked
the delivery guy
if he was going
to Tahrir square.
He said
"No, this is not
the time to go to the square.
This is the time to work.

* * * 

January 21, 2012

What's on the roof?

Roofs are more interesting in Egypt than at home.

In the US, roofs are mostly gabled. We might have tar paper or shingles or skylights, and in some cases even solar panels - but that's about as interesting as it gets.

Roofs that I've seen lately are flat and much ado is had upon them. A lot of buildings are half built... (speculation as to why: Did they run out of money? Do they leave them like that for tax reasons? Is it just the normal pace of construction?) ... and the top floor of a half built building is a lot like a flat roof.

In Syria I mentioned the satellite dishes, nestled across every bare square inch of rooftops, searching for the mother ship. In Damascus they changed the law and now there is just one dish per roof. More developed? I say, not as interesting.

In Egypt there is no such law. Roofs are littered with soft circles of all sizes as far as the eye can see, gazing towards ArabSat or NileSat, sucking in billions of channels. A half built building with no heating or windows will already have the dishes starting to sprout.

On our roof there is an elevator motor house, some water tanks, satellite dishes, a sunny sitting area, and a picnic area with a stove and some decrepit stationary bicycles. On a clear day you can see the big pyramids across the Nile. I would enjoy it more except that it is extremely dusty.

The staples of an Egyptian roof are (of course) the aforementioned dishes, the water tanks, and bird houses. We have speculated about the bird houses. Are they for foul (roof-top livestock)? Are they for the swarms of pigeons that seem to occupy them anyhow? Do people hang out in them? It seems people put a lot of care into them. Designs and gay painting. Large structures of wood.

I have simple dreams. I'd like to visit one of these exciting roofs.

January 14, 2012 turn

One adventure has come to an end. I entered 10 writing contests or tests of some kind. Here's a link to my kick off post from more than a year ago. I know I took my time, but I wanted to find a variety of interesting contests. (Honestly, I was also lazy at times and busy at other times, but that's life.)

I got a little ego boost because I won one of the contests I entered. Of course that means I didn't win nine of them, but I didn't expect to win any!

I entered essay contests, poetry contests, some with different kinds of judging, some contests were goals I set with myself to beat, I submitted to a variety of literary magazines. There is a summary of contests 1 through 7 here. Number 8 was a 50 word essay contest - and the only one I won! Numbers 9 and 10 were poetry submissions to good literary magazines, and none were accepted for publication.

I did this to learn: I wanted to learn about what sort of online writing opportunities are out there and I wanted to see if I could win anything. I am really happy with what I accomplished. I had a lot of fun looking for different contests and things online, there are a ton of fun things out there.

What I learned about myself and my own writing is that I need to  make it a habit. Those pieces that were recognized as "good" by outside sources were those I had worked on for a while.  Feedback I got often was some version of "Nice imagery, but needs to be worked more."

So what's the conclusion? It is that I need to make it a habit. Let's see if I can do that:
A blog post a week for the month of January... This one counts for week 1, but I'll do another in a few days (it's been brewing already).

December 1, 2011

Next page

Be forewarned, some not so PC phrases and four letter words will ensue shortly.

* * *

Tahrir square is full again. Is gassed again. Is exaggerated again.

Elections started in Egypt on Monday. It's complicated. This infographic tries to explain the election process. There are party candidates or individual candidates, professional or worker seats, and about 19.000 symbols for each one. To me it seems even more fucked up than our own dear electoral college (which is retarded). I mean not fucked up in an evil way, but in a confusing way. Why do people come up with crazy election processes? Just get the people to vote, count the votes, and majority wins. Maybe it can't be that simple, but it also doesn't need to be quite so complicated (and I'm not just talking about Egypt here).

I've been following these elections and those in the Democratic Republic of Congo on the Twitter. Well, all those Egyptian activist complaining about irregularities here should check out the Congo scene.
People died.
Just sayin'.

* * *

Inspiration comes from other bloggers. My friend T. over at About the Bees blog just had a baby boy too, and she's blogging.  On the other hand, J. over at Tales from the Hood seems to have let it go.

I've been busy or lazy, depending on your perspective. Thinking about these two respectable folks motivates me a little.

Not to be like them, but to be like them.

To say something despite my new found obsession (i.e. my son) and to say it until I've said it so many times in so many different ways that I am done saying it.

* * *

September 24, 2011

Evil for good

Serendipitous events have encouraged me to write about work: The mighty Mr. J. over at Tales From the Hood blog has initiated an Aid Blog Forum. His goals are to generate conversations around certain topics relevant to aid work. You can see his call to arms here.

His first topic up for discussion is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR, if you're an acronym junkie). As J. points out, there are many forms. Here's my low down on a couple.

* * *
In the USA

In everyday life in the States, it seems we generally think of CSR as something "certified," for example fair trade coffee or conflict-free diamonds or pretty much anything having to do with REI.

This is marketing, pure and simple - and it works. Prices are raised a little. People choose to pay a little more and support "goodness". Profits are made. That's cool.

But are we (consumers) thinking about it properly? What does "certified" mean? In my examples above, certification means there is some kind of control or regulation of the process by which the product is produced. It's never black or white, but I know that sometimes this "certification process" is totally bullshit.

Those local farmers in Rwanda, Kenya, or Ethiopia who made your fair-trade coffee probably didn't get the global market price for their coffee and still have trouble feeding their kids. In certain contexts it's pretty easy to bribe someone to get "evil diamonds" mixed in with a batch of "good diamonds", and they sparkle just the same.

It's not to say to hell with CSR in this form, it's just to say that it's not always such a pink and shiny simple solution to the world's problems. It is a step in the right direction. It gets people thinking about world problems. And sometimes "certified" might actually mean something. But I doubt if we will save the world this way.

(You may have noticed I didn't bash REI... eh, I admit I'm a fan. NOT for their CSR BS, but rather 'cause they make good shoes and gear, and it's worth it when you get a good sale on.)

* * *
In Aid Work

In aid work, I think of CSR generally as philanthropy by a corporation and can come in two forms: stuff or money.

Stuff has a high probability of being categorized as SWEDOW (stuff or shit we don't want, copyright J.), and usually that means the "needy" folks being "helped" don't want it either. (See Footloose post for an example.)

Of course sometimes there are products that could be useful to the "needy" folks and then donated by a corporation, and can thus do some good. An example: A water quality expert was on his way to a big disaster brought some machines to donate to local chlorine producers to increase their production capacity of this much needed product. Why this is a good example: The product was needed for the context, the recipients were already using the product, basically the whole donation was made with forethought about contextual need and appropriateness (and in fact communication with some folks on the ground before hand).

But if forced to get off the fence, I'd say that stuff donated for CSR is pretty much stupid. No, not categorically, but usually. And when I say usually I don't mean 51% of the time, but more like 95-99% of the time.

Money donated by a corporation can have negative connotations associated with it in the aid world, but money is money is money. If it's donated well and used well, then to hell with idealistic hang-ups.

A colleague once said "I wouldn't want to put a Wal-mart logo on my wells..." Why the hell not? We put US-AID or ECHO or OFDA or whatever other humanitarian donor logo you like on our wells. We put our silly NGO logo on the well. Why not Wal-mart? Because they are big and evil? Fine they are evil, all the better to take their money and use it for good! (Evil laughter ensues.)

Good donor-ship is a huge topic in and of itself, as is good use of donor money (i.e. good projects), but if there is a little common sense employed, aid can really benefit from a diversification of donors - including corporations.

The sad thing is that common sense isn't always employed. To save the world, NGOs need money. They don't often have the power (or the balls) to say "No" and don't often have the time (or the money) to educate a new corperate donor of the real needs of a strong project. This too often leads to bad projects, or worse to harm.

* * *
Corporate Social Responsibility isn't going to save the world, but like anything, if used intelligently it can be part of the solution and I am all for harnessing evil for good.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as my blog post makes it out to be.
-Fist of all, I am being pretty naive to think we can harness all evil for good. A lot of corporations don't give a rat's ass about saving the world, but rather focus on taking over the world.
-Second, I have assumed NGOs know what they are doing (not always the case) and that "normal" institutional humanitarian donors are some sort of saints (not always the case).
-Third, I've left out some important scenarios... but you don't really want to read 75 pages of blabber anyway.

Saving the world is pretty complex shit. Read the other posts in this CSR series by clicking here, and new information will be brought to light, man.

September 19, 2011

Sitting here in limbo...

Some of my posts are about writing.
Some are about personal things.
Some are about work.

Lately I've sort felt as if I am in limbo, between here and there, in all these subjects.

(Some of my posts are about places too, but there is no limbo about that. I'm in Egypt.
Egypt, herself, may be in limbo, but I'm simply an observer.)

* * *
On writing: 

Well my 10 contest adventure is coming to a close. I have now entered 10 contests online... Actually 11: I submitted an extra one because a previous entry seemed to be to a defunct organization. So, on the countdown, I will cut out the defunct submission and now say 10.... Results so far: 1 win, 8 losses and awaiting 1 result.

The limbo: Am I encouraged? Am I discouraged? In the scheme of things, am I a loser or a winner? Hell if I know. 

* * *
On Personal Things:

Limbo at it's finest. Somewhere between being a daughter and being a mother.

Building a cabin with my mom and sister.
Building a baby with my husband.

Both make the earth shake in strange ways that I like.

* * *
On work:

As a workaholic, the past months of not working have been a little hard for me. I admit it. I miss working. I miss toilets. I miss staff. I miss being on the phone for 18 hours straight. I miss logical frameworks. I miss bullshit meetings.

I read a lot about work (about aid work). I read technical documents that I never had the time to read. I read aid blogs. I read criticism of aid work. And there is a lot of criticism out there. Sometimes it tires me. Sometimes it excites me. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I think it's crap-dribble from ignorant people... (and not only when I disagree).

But why's that put me in limbo?
Because I know I am lucky as hell to be able to take this time off to be pregnant and to be a mom for the first time, but I still miss it.

* * *

I have a choice: either be okay with the limbo or do something. I don't much like conclusions, but as long as they are vague enough, maybe they can be useful. So since I've been reading a lot about work, since I don't know where to go with my writing adventure and since my mom is coming to visit me for a while and will probably motivate me...
I should just try to write more about work here.
We will see. I don't want to end up a crap-dribbling idiot.

August 16, 2011

You win some...

I haven't won any of the 10 public writing contests yet.
Feeling like a loser.
But life goes on. . .

And Ha!
The results for Contest Number 8 are in and I got an Honorable Mention!
Okay, so I didn't get the 1st prize for 100$, but I am counting this as a win in my adventure. (As always, I make the rules.)

The Foundling Review is a bonified, professional online literary magazine, and as honorable mention the piece is published there.  The contest was judged by professional editors and a guest author. So, to me, an honorable mention is a win: it is some recognition by strangers, by professional writers and editors that what I wrote is somehow worth reading.

* * *

The piece itself, as you remember from Eight is Infinity, is a 50 word short story entered in the "Pachas 50-word Fiction Contest". My entry is called "Painting" and started a while ago as a poem that I wrote for my wonderful friend Adrianne for her wedding day, she will recognize it. You can read my 50 word short story here on The Foundling Review website - and also read the winning entry and the 2 other honorable mentions because they are all very cool.

* * *

For the last two contests, I decided I would submit poetry to online journals to see if anything would be accepted for publication. This decision came about because in undertaking this adventure I have found that I, personally, hope more for publication in a journal than winning a contest. So a very personal feeling which maybe tells you about how my goals have changed.

Also, it has been more than a year that I have been on this adventure, and while I will continue to write and submit stuff to contests and other things online, I sort of want to wrap up this 10 writing contest thing. 

* * *

Contest #9 will be a poetry submission to The Foundling Review. (I chose this because of the last contest... seems if those editors liked the 50 word story, maybe I have a better chance?)

Contest #10 will be a poetry submission to Le Petit Zine. (I chose this one because I really like the style of most of the pieces they publish - vivid and interesting. The authors all seem to have a grasp of where to end lines, which is something that is hard for me so I probably have no chance.)

Each submission will consist of a few poems, as per each magazine's guidelines.

* * *

P.S. Today is my birthday. Puts me in limbo? More on that later.

July 12, 2011

Sum of a summer

They've been calling it The Arab Spring.
It is turning onto summer.
Sunshine. Stagnation. Stifling heat.

* * *
Egypt is hard to characterize. Even those speaking loudest ask themselves questions: "Are we socialist?" or "Are we liberal?" or "Are we secular?" or "What do those terms even mean?" or "What do we believe in?" Exciting to define political parties and hope for elections, but difficult to imagine what is coming together from a million directions.

Sporadic art exhibit in the metro station near Tahrir.
Protests persist, sporadic and punctual - though last Friday was particularly large and specific. The peoples pressure continues from that iconic focal point of Tahrir square. Tents are up and staying, flags, talk of hunger strikes.

Without taking sides, I say this is a good thing. Change won't happen by the revolution itself. Or another way to look at it is that maybe the revolution, as an event, was A change; but defining THE change is gonna take a while and a lot of work.

* * *

Most people haven't seen their lives change yet. There are not more jobs or higher pay. This shouldn't surprise anyone.

Inequality can be subtle or blatant, but it's always there.

There is a man who by day sits in front of the metro station under a bit of shade from a tree. He sells lettuce. His spot is washed and cared for. He has 4 healthy basil plants that he sets out to outline his spot. He sleeps there.

There is a man and his son who have a cart and donkey. They sell tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and onions. Their cart is clean, they have a scale, the donkey is skinny. They move about calling constantly a repetitive song announcing their arrival.

There is an old man, fat and content, who has a small shop that he locks at night. He sells 3 kinds of lettuce, 2 kinds of eggplant, 3 kinds of onions, 2 kinds of garlic, fennel, celery, spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchini, squash, rocket, herbs, about a dozen kinds of seasonal fruit, eggs, and often he has frozen shrimp or whitefish fillets. He has some refridgeration. His son does most of the work, with their 3 other employees. The older man sits in his chair, says hello to everyone and smokes.

There is a shiny mall with 6 floors and a 3-D cinema. In the mall is a huge supermarket. The vegetables are frozen and wrapped in plastic. They are all imported.

* * *

My last 2 lessons in Arabic class were the most useful so far (this will tell you something about what I do with my time these days). We learned the numbers and about the vegetable seller. How to say "Where is my change?" and all the fruits and vegetables. I still suck at speaking Arabic, but with this lesson under my belt I am really going to impress the fat man and his son.

I've been out of the academic environment for almost 10 years now, but when I was there I was a nerd: I always had good marks, maybe not #1 every time, but top 3, top percentiles on standard tests. I was never outrightly arrogant about it, but B's upset me and I just always expected myself to be at the top.

But alas, we grow up and have to learn things that are more useful than calculus or physics. Like new languages.

Learning French in the Peace Corps, I was the worst, or at least bottom 3 (at least I stuck to my pattern there). Today I am learning Arabic at the American University and I suck. Suck. SUCK.

Humility is good for the soul and has a practical purpose as well. Re-evaluating priorities. Physics happens weather or not I understand it, but can I purchase a head of lettuce?

* * *

June 20, 2011

Eight looks like infinity

Writing Contest Update!

Check out post "Seattle Seven" for a complete summary and links to all past contests. I'm not doing so good, but still having fun.

So, contest number 8 has been entered! Results should be known by mid-July, as per the contest announcement.

It is sponsored by the Foundling Review literary magazine, and is called the "Pacaas Contest." From the website:
"Foundling Review's 50-word Fiction contest
Pa.chaas [pah-chaas] - noun Hindi fifty.
50 words. No more, no less."

As usual, I can't put the piece up until after the results are announced, so you'll have to wait until mid-July for that.

* * *

In the mean time, I like the idea of 50-word fiction. In entering this contest I wrote another piece, which was a bit too cliche, so I will share that here, just to keep you entertained. I don't know what is special about 50-word pieces, but I like it.

I think creative writing should be about using as few words as possible. If the word isn't needed get it out of there.  If you get rid of a word and lose meaning, then search for better words. I guess that's why word restrictions are cool to me.

There is an interesting man who I "know" professionally, if only briefly by email. None the less, I have some respect for the dude. He seems to be smart, with critical, yet proactive and practical ideas about the work we do (or try to do) in coordination. I regret not getting to meet him in Haiti. His relevance to this post is that, as well as being a cluster guru, he is a rad poet of 50-word poem essays. I like them and I like to see this personal, creative side of someone whose name I see a lot professionally.

* * *


Archetypal pterodactyl egg transmogrified into lizard, into monkey, into man. I make you rumble, jerk and pee, scraping your insides with virilocal nails and lenient bones. I breathe your blood in and out and in, while you cry, sucking solid air. We will meet and you will love me.

May 9, 2011

Why ask why?

First advice I received from Mario upon arrival to Egypt: "Do not ask why."
Of course, my response was: "Why?"
The response to me was: "Yes."

* * *

Depending on where I am going in Cairo, I take a taxi or the metro. I like the metro better because it is such a good deal! A taxi ride is cheaper than in the states (maybe 10$ across town, only 5$ to downtown), but it is still more than the metro. The metro costs 1 Egyptian pound, about 20 cents. 

The metro has lady cars, which is nice. Ladies can ride anywhere, but men can't ride in the lady car.

* * *

There is a 15-20 minute walk from my house to the metro station. It's a nice walk, but no matter where you go outside the air pollution gives you black bougers. Sidewalks exist - but it is like that old conundrum... we park in the driveway, and drive on the parkway. 

In Cairo, cars park on the sidewalk and folks walk in the street.

In my Quest for Why? I have come up with a hypothesis. 

The sidewalks are about a foot high off the street (that's almost up to my knee). So, as you are walking along and the sidewalk ends (for a cross road or what not), you have to make this big ass step down (KER-PLUNK) then a big step up on the other side (ooOOF). I know I am not the only lazy walker on Cairo streets, because many people have set up little rag-tag pieces of rubble to make an intermediate step.

* * *

As it is in traffic, on the metro, it is not uncommon to see people that walk through the cars selling things you might need. Band-aids, gum, coloring books, blow up guitars, phone credit, stickers. Sometimes the seller will yell out his/her wares, sometimes he/she will throw them in everyone's lap only to make another lap around the car to collect them all back, sometimes they are real sales people with a show.

One day I was sitting (rare) on the metro with my Ipod listening to This American Life watching this Egyptian life. There were two ladies selling household items like hangers, knives, shower curtains, loofas and what not. They apparently were quite good because people kept laughing as they talked about their merchandise and demonstrated the practicality of the loofa on a rope to scrub your back.

And they had potato peelers. 

An old, large woman in a black hijab at the back of the car beckoned to the young ladies, she was interested. The saleswoman showed her the item: high quality, she assured her. There was a thin, Coptic woman next to the old woman. The thin woman reached in her bag, pulled out a potato and handed it to the older woman to try out her peeler. 

* * *

As for the revolution. I need not speculate on what will happen in the future, but today the revolution has affected the metro. 

As in many metros around the world, in the cars there is a schematic map of the stations along the line. There once was a station called "Mubarak."
First, the station name was scratched out, as if with a boys pocketknife or with a marker or a ball point pen. 
Then, home-made stickers appeared in some cars, with a new name. 
And now a law has been passed to officially rename it. 

Oh the wonders of democracy.

* * *

So why ask why? 
Because sometimes there is an answer.
Because sometimes it is entertaining.
Because sometimes no answer is really just a million answers.

April 1, 2011


Loose, footloose
Kick off your Sunday shoes
Please, Louise
Pull me offa my knees
Jack, get back
C'mon before we crack 

Sometimes on Facebook or here I link to blogs or information on aid work and discussions about improving aid.  Here on my blog I tend to talk about what I do, on Facebook I try to steer my friends toward information on good giving. Today's post sort of connects the two.

One of the blogs I've shared before, "Good Intentions are Not Enough" from Sandra, has started a blog campaign to counter a silly advertising campaign. This post is in response to her call to arms. I suggest reading the whole thing, and the comments at the bottom are worth a gander as well.

But here's a summary of the counter campaign from her page:

"It’s time again for TOMS Shoes’ annual advertisement (awareness raising activity) called A Day Without Shoes. Every year TOMS gets celebrities and college students to walk around barefoot so that they are more aware of the plight of people without shoes. And of course, what better way to put shoes onto the feet of these shoeless people than to purchase a pair of TOMS Shoes.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not a fan of this annual event. So this year I’m proposing a counter-campaign called A Day Without Dignity.
On or around April 5th – the same date as A Day Without Shoes – we’re asking aid workers, the diaspora, and people from areas that receive shoe drops and other forms of charity to speak up in blogs, on twitter, or at school."

* * * 

Dr. Strangeshoe or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Shoe Shopping

I come from modest hippy roots, ripe with barefoot, naked, free-loving childhood memories. After a teenage bout with Guess? jeans, hairspray and make-up (my form of rebellion), I returned to my roots, joined the Peace Corps and wore nothing but home-made clothes and Chacos. When I got a paying job as a professional aid worker, I expanded my wardrobe (peace-drobe, as my uncle says) to include NGO/donor branded t-shirts, flip flops and gum boots.

As I moved up the ranks and out of the bush, I had a "need" to look nice for donor meetings, coordination meetings and "representation". The dirty aid worker look wouldn't hack it. So, for my highest goal of saving the world, I went shopping.

I was a big spender. I bought red Converse low tops from the rasta DJ for ten bucks. I bought wooden wedge heels from the fat mamma on the corner for five-fifty. I bought basic black flats from a nondescript guy for a dollar. Despite haggles, I am sure I paid the "muzungu price" (foreigner price), probably twice of normal.

"Have I sold out?" I asked myself, as I put on black linen slacks and name-brand button up shirt.
"No, it's for the children." I justified to myself, as I tied the laces on the super-stylee red Converse. "You're gonna wow those donors! You're contributing to the local economy, feeding those people's kids," I added to really convince myself. I added a locally-made red beaded necklace to complete the look.

* * * 
 You're playing so cool
Obeying every rule
Dig way down in your heart
You're yearning, burning for some...

So, what's wrong with TOMS barefoot "awareness raising" (advertising) campaign? Isn't it cute? Not really. I'll just point out two things:

It perpetuates the image that poverty stricken people live undignified lives of squalor and need any handout they can get. "Those poor African children don't even have shoes!" Um, Maybe they don't even want shoes.

Generally, if you're really trying to help people - giving money is better than giving stuff. Even if you're dead set on shoes, send money to buy them locally - it's cheaper and more efficient and the person you're trying to help can choose the stylee shoes she likes herself.

The issues and debates are long and complicated (and really interesting!), so I encourage you to look around Sandra's Good Intents site, as well as the other blog posts participating in this campaign.

It is sexy to give in these "trying times" of earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, floods, epidemics, civil wars, revolutions, ongoing conflicts etc. So do. But also have a good conversation over dinner about it. Disagree with me. With whoever. Just ask questions. And keep your damn shoes on.

Everybody get Footloose.

February 20, 2011

The Seattle Seven

Writing contest update time!

For anyone new, last April or so I embarked on this adventure to enter 10 online writing contests. So far I have entered 6, and well it was Friday, but today I will report on number 7.

So far, 7 contests entered, 0 won, but still waiting for results in 1.

* * * 
Past Contests Summary: I'm a loser baby.

Contest #1 was sponsored on Helium and I did horribly. I should have done well, because it was a subject I know and love (water and sanitation), but I sucked. That's cool. I kept submitting things on Helium, and on subjects where I felt less passionately (like make up tips), I did quite well. The poetry is still doing crappily, but I have made about 20 bucks over the past 10 months.

Contest #2 was an annual poetry contest to raise awareness about land mines sponsored by Poetic Republic. Well, I didn't win that one either. The same poet as the year before won again.

Contest #3 was also a poetry contest, called Best New Poets, and is highly competitive. I didn't have a chance, but it was fun anyway.

Contest #4 was another contest sponsored by Helium, in which the articles compete to be purchased by some magazine looking for articles about "Garden Gifts for Dad this Father's Day".  I didn't win, but I wasn't last.  

Contest #5 was simply a poem submitted for publication to ISREADS, a literary magazine that publishes their stuff outside - like on light posts or supermarket carts. I thought it was a cool idea.  This is the only contest to which I do not have my response. I have followed up with them, but to no avail, and they have not published another issue yet... so I await.

Contest #6 is one I made up to compete with myself to see if I could double the maximum number of hits to this blog in one day. I didn't win. Although I did get a maximum number of hits in one day, I didn't double my previous record. It made for one of my favorite blog posts. I did this post as part of Blog Action Day, which in itself was fun to participate in as well.

* * * 
New Contest #7 Summary: Best of what's around.

I entered contest #7 on Friday, and by far the most fun I have had during this adventure! It was on a site called Words Undone, which is a small online writing group which I am quite liking. You have to be a member to view the forums, which is good because then submitted work is simply critiqued, rather than published (like it is on Helium).

The contest is something they call "Friday Flash" and it goes something like this: There is a prompt. You have 24 hours (but I figure you should do it as quick as you can, I took about an hour). Then members vote for their favorite and give feedback on all the pieces submitted. There were 8 submissions and 10 people voted.

"The following prompts can be combined or used individually as required

Suggested words: Burn, Trees, Lips, White
Or use one of the following titles:
Power Supply, My Favourite Place
Or include any of the following phrases:
The cupboard was bare, Wish I’d thought of that, I found this lying around

Maximum of 500 words

Submissions to be posted by midnight Friday. Once all submissions are in, the thread is open for comments and voting. Winners are proposed to Lorraine for inclusion in the next WU Magazine."

I got 1 vote (Yay! the winner got 3), and some great feedback! Here is my non-winning entry, although I revised it only slightly according to the feedback given (specifically, the beard was "golden", as in the King Tut mask in my head, but someone thought I meant a blonde man and got confused).

* * *  
[out to lunch]

* * *
Ego Summary: Be here Now.

Have to say that traffic to this site has increased. I have profited from the awareness about Egypt, it's place in this exciting region, and the fact that I have the good luck to be here now. I'll take it. Thanks to everyone sharing my link on Facebook and thanks to the Beaufort Gazette for a little more publicity (featured hometown girl blog).

I have some ideas for upcoming posts: more on Egypt, Cairo, and life here, but also some rants on data, dorks, and dumbassery (stolen word).

February 13, 2011

Magic Carpet Ride

After a serious bout with the much heralded aid-worker affliction of righteous indignation, demonstrated in my last post, I will embrace my inner hypocrite and tell you about my visit to Tahrir Square. In my defense (or how I have satisfied my moral dissonance with "revolution tourism"), the Egyptian people have already won their battle.

In all seriousness, it is one of the most amazing events I have ever witnessed, up there with babies being born. Here is one of those iconic images I took on my own camera (which yesterday I mocked).

* * *

Some friends had gone down to Tahrir Square last night, just after the president stepped down, handing power to the military. They had been on the square during the protests for work, and they were really impressed by the change in vibe. Before it was full of tension and edgy, after it was full of joy and smooth.

Saturday morning, I hopped on the Metro and finally got out of Maadi. The ticket monitor dude sat on his chair, looked at me and said "Welcome!" waving the laminated Egyptian Flag hanging from his chest. I smiled and gave him a thumbs up.

My fellow metro riders were also headed downtown to Tahrir square. Many people carried brooms and mops and buckets and plastic gloves.

* * *

From a balcony about 2 blocks from Tahrir square I checked out the traffic. Not unusual in Cairo, but this time full of Egyptian flags waving out the windows and the horns were a little better coordinated into
Beeeeeeeeeeeeep Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep Beep Beep Beep.
I was pretty overwhelmed, even from 2 blocks away.

As we entered the fantastic fray, back at street level, black and red and white swarmed around me.

* * *

I love hippies: old hippies, young hippettes, dirty hippies, but they ain't got nothing on Egyptians today. The joy and good will felt on Tahrir Square today was deep and genuine and unpretentious as I have ever seen.

Everyone was cleaning as they had demonstrated. Everyone. Women, men, kids. People passed out rubber gloves, garbage bags, brooms. Everyone scrubbing off the words, trash already gone, even the dust that settled on the pavement was swept into dustpans.

If the same happened in New York or Nairobi or even a hippy-filled field in California, you would be left with a disgusting shit-filled mess with trampled grass and flowers. Not here.

The dignity and pride of this movement. It has been Civilized from start to finish, it seems.

There was violence, but very little and it was short lived. Many tried to incite more, but that didn't work very well. Everyone expected more. Each time there was a change, the media went on and on and on, speculating about how it could break down, always surprised when it was okay. Communication was completely blocked, but that too was short lived. For the most part, the military respected the peoples legitimate right to protest and the people respected the military.

* * *

One man brought his 3 young sons to Tahrir square on Saturday, maybe aged 6 to 11 or so, dressed in military uniform. He got a lot of smiles.

One group of young man had a sign and chanted something like "With Mubarak's money I can get afford to get married!" An old woman laughed and joked with him. I imagined she said something like "You're still too ugly to marry my daughter, ha ha ha", but really I have no idea what she said.

Dolled up young women, in their best head scarves in the color of the flag, glamorous JLo sunglasses, shiny shoes. Flirting with the boys wearing cleaned leather jackets.

The iconic images of this event were still there, like where a guy had opened up the light post, connected his wires and with a multi-plug, 15 phones were charging at once. Youth on the square with thier laptops out. More flip phones than I have ever seen.

The military men threw candy at the crowds. This reminded me of the Coast Gaurd Santa Ship that would throw candy to the old dock on the island where I used to live.

* * *
As we walked among the back streets, off the square, we continuted to think of Cautious Optimism. Businesses were opening. The streets were being cleaned. People sat in plastic chairs drinking tea and smoking sheesha.

The McDonalds, where on the 25th I had taken refuge when the riot police started marching, has been destroyed. I thought of the McDonalds Indicator of civil strife mentioned in a previous post and decided I would monitor the situation.

I have talked to people a little. The nutritionist and trainer at my gym are worried about the future. A businessman downstairs says he is optimistic for the future. The people on Tahrir square don't seem to have thought that far a head yet. 

Another side that I should share is that people have said that yes, the president needed to change, but that the way he was forced out lacked dignity, that he deserved more respect, that he had done a lot for the country in the past.

80 million people. 80 million perspectives. 80 million futures.

* * *
So there I was.
So I was there.

I am so lucky.

To the right you see, from back to front: burnt out NDP headquarters, cranes in front of the museum, the crowd, veiled women, proud man, sarcastic white woman.

* * *

What lies a head will be interesting and exciting here. The region is on fire. I just hope it is good.

February 11, 2011

Revolution 9

(I don't think John or Yoko will mind if I put their lyrics out of order... sort of their point wasn't it?)

(Editorial note added after: Why is Revolution 9 more appropriate to this Egypt today than Revolution? The song Revolution is before the action, almost mocking it - but Revolution 9 is clearly after the action and dealing with the chaos and the pieces and the potential of change.)

* * * 

Number nine, number nine, number nine, number nine

Take this, brother, may it serve you well
Maybe it's nothing
What, what oh...
Maybe, even then, impervious in London [Cairo]
...Could be difficult thing...
It's quick like rush for peace because it's so much
Like being naked
It's alright, it's alright, it's alright, it's alright

* * *

The incessant horns of traffic have been tuned into an anthem for today. The conductor is blind and invisible. Two long and three short blasts.
Beeeeeeep Beeeeeeeep Beep Beep Beep

I am privledge to have witnessed this event. And not from my balcony, but from street level.

I met a friend at the metro station and we walked to a cafe to have a sheesha and a tea. We chatted over the loud television about the media, about how people want to go back to normal, about how incredible it is. We watched people walk by. There was a quick address, in arabic, so we kept talking - then everyone cheered. We asked for a quick translation.

"He left."
"He is no longer president?"
"Yes. The army."

Firecrackers, I say. My friend thinks it's celebratory gun fire next door. We will never know, but celebratory it is indeed. That's when the cars started honking, rolling by. Where their Egyptian flags had been stuck in windows, they were now being waved by youth hanging out of moving cars.

I walk the 20 minutes back home, the
Beeeeeeeeeeep Beeeeeeeeeeep Beep Beep Beep continues with flags and cheers, punctual but repeated.

At the small roundabout just after the train track, for the first time I have ever seen, the fountain was flowing and lighted. I jump and laugh at myself as a young man throws fireworks in the air.

* * * 
But what now? Wow, this will be interesting.
We are smiling large pumpkin grins with a shadow of
Cautious Optimism. 
This is not Africa, we say. 
Tongue in cheek, but it's true.

* * *
  There was not really enough light to get down,
And ultimately (...) Slumped down
They may stop the funding...
Place your bets
The original
Afraid she'll die (...)
Great colours for the season
Number nine, number nine

* * *

So, I will update quite a bit in the next few days.
Until then, please check out this interview of me on a Seattle rogue podcast show (The Marty Riemer Show). He wanted to talk to me about Egypt, about what the people are saying. I didn't really want to talk about what Egyptians are saying. I guess I see his point of view, it IS interesting, but they are saying it themselves and I thought asking me was sorta lazy.  After the interview I wrote him an email, but I don't think he mentioned it on later shows. That's fine, I still dig him and his show. Check him out if you are from the area.

Here's a sorta wordy excerpt of my sorta wordy email:

"Howdy Yaz, Marty et al.

It is a really romantic idea to go join the protests here in Cairo, (to get out as you said... )
to go collect some iconic pictures on my own camera,
to be one with the people, to make history, and to yell
"Viva la revolution!" (preferably in a sweet spanish accent)
or "Down with zee facists!" (preferably in a sweet french accent).

But it is actually a stupid, not a romantic, idea for me to do that.

Foreigners like me have nothing to offer these protests: it is theirs and should remain by and for Egyptians. It is not my place. In fact, by participating I could undermine their message. By trying to interpret their message I could also undermine it. Their message is getting out by "real journalists" and by their own voices (esp. online), i.e. not by me. 
By the way- you can get an Al Jazeera English app for your smart phone that streams it live  (... and if THAT is not available from Comcast, then maybe our own government should be over thrown... ha ha ha.)

Sorry, I know there are a lot of activists and politically active people out there (a lot of them are my friends and probably your listeners) ... It is good, important and there is a place for that sort of activism. But it is not my style, nor appropriate here. You see, I find it a bit pretentious when privileged white people pretend to "feel the pain" of the less fortunate. I am a privledged white person and I try not to pretend to be anything else. We all want to help people (usually for selfish reasons, in fact, but that's another debate) but sometimes,
the best way to help someone is NOT by protesting with them
and NOT by running down to watch them for our own entertainment and awe,
but by doing nothing.

In Cairo, they don't have any need for me (a privileged, sarcastic, white lady) right now and THAT is exactly what makes these events so powerful and extraordinary - even for my fruit dude.

Take care and I'll keep listening. Love your show.
Maybe after this settles down, I'll have another perspective (a real one) to show you... if you like. I haven't made it to the pyramids yet, but I heard they smell like piss."

* * *
Number nine, number nine
Who's to know?
Who was to know?
Number nine, number nine, number nine, number nine
Number nine, number nine, number nine, number nine
Number nine, number nine, number nine, number nine
I sustained nothing worse than (...) 
* * *

Beeeeeeeeep Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep Beep Beep Beep
has replaced the gunfire that started this and it sounds like cautious optimism.

February 3, 2011

Blinded by the night

there is no sand storm
despite yellow stained rays
creeping up the side of shaky skyscrapers
leaning on poorly built lintels
cracked re-bar exposed
under thick un-mortered walls

* * *

So, in the last post I didn't say it explicitly. But here we are, I must... Heisenberg and Bias. Check out the old post, if you haven't yet or if you are new.

* * *

Last night was really incredible. Of course I mention how peaceful it has been, and then it explodes. Do I keep my mouth shut now?

I will not speculate on Why or How or Motivations or Timings of the clashes. I admit that my view of Tahrir square is from 10 km away.

The pro-government protesters approached the square where the anti-government protesters have been for the past week. They charged on foot, on horseback, on camels. A lot of things were thrown by both sides, rocks, sticks, "gas bombs" or molitov cocktails. The front between the two groups shifted back and forth, back and forth as they pushed each other. It was impossible to tell who was who. People got onto roofs. Throwing off chairs and other things.

There was a line of 3 trucks that had no drivers. They were used as a front line, a shield for both sides. They were pushed and moved as the tide of the line moved back and forth.

But that was last night... today is today... now is now... and when you are reading this it will be later.

* * *

Reputable news agencies in this end of the world keep asking leading questions. Interviewing one side only. Using inflammatory language.

There are 80 million people in this country and probably 80 million sides. I guess they can't get to everybody, but maybe more than one would be nice.

* * *

Ego update: Lots of hits on this here humble blog in the past few days. Leave me some comments here! I would love to hear what you like and don't like.

February 1, 2011

Pollution Revolution

“There is a fine line between freedom and chaos,” the president said.

I promised first impressions of Cairo. Well, it is an interesting time to get some first impressions. It has been a week since the protest started and I am fascinated. I am also frustrated because I am not working, I am not out there and I have to stay indoors a lot.

Adoring Robert Fisk does not make me an expert on the Middle East.
This post is not about the region or the politics itself, just my observations.

* * *

I was going to write about the civilized pollution of 20 million people in the air, in the river, blowing noise in your ears. Street exhaust turns my snot black, yet this city noticeably lacks the scent of piss. A blue toilet ended up on the bank of the Nile, but I have not seen a single turd. Under the eerie orange tinted sun, like a solar eclipse, the never ending din of traffic horns is maddening.

I was going to write about the pulse of 20 million people. I walked upstream, south along the corniche, passing resters on benches along the Nile under shade trees. I visited some old churches like a tourist. I wandered through tiny streets filled with baby goats where the dust is packed neatly by old women (still a foreigner, but less of a tourist). I went to the movies at a shiny mall and saw “6 7 8”, a new Egyptian masterpiece about another type of revolution.

I was going to write about how I like this city, but it seems that this here revolution could be more interesting.

* * *

The work week in Egypt is Sunday to Thursday. Sunday and Monday were calm and were spent moving into our new apartment.

Tuesday was Police Day and the day it started; a holiday for the country, a day off from work for all, but protests ensued and so the police did not get their day off.

Wednesday I went into town to register for a continuing studies class in Arabic at the American University. Riot police blocked several streets and intersections; it was calm, but tense and they didn’t bother me. I found the metro station on the main square (Tahrir Square) was closed, so I walked south about 10 minutes to the next station and went home.

Thursday, protests continued downtown. I stayed out of the way and successfully explored my new semi-suburban neighbourhood.

Friday was my wedding anniversary. Mario and I had planned a romantic dinner along the Nile. Friday was named the Day of Rage (or Anger ... lost in translation) because the people had planned mass protests after Friday prayers.

Friday evolved somehow sublime, slow and sneaky; filtered by 10 km of city between our suburb and downtown, filtered by our  suburban expatriate sphere, filtered by the television.
The cell phone network went down.
Then the internet, but not the land-line.
Then we tried the sat phone and it was jammed.
Then a curfew was imposed across the country, announced at 5:30 pm and started at 6:00.
The vegetable seller sold me sweet potatoes, and as usual tried to push his broccoli, while he rushed me out and complained that because of the government he had to close his shop without proper cleaning. He would see me tomorrow, Insh’allah.

* * *

In the midst of this turmoil, protest, uprising, infatada, revolution - whatever you want to call it - Cairo is colourful, exciting, moving and incredible to observe.

* * *

Since last Friday, January 28th, the situation changes quickly, yet a steady rhythm has developed in the turmoil: in the movements of people, in the news, in the sounds of gunfire. The rhythm is somehow correlated to the curfew.

The curfew ends at 8 in the morning. As the week has progressed the curfew start time has been moved up from 6 pm to 4 pm, and yesterday to 3 pm.

When the curfew lifts, people start moving for the day. The first days everyone rushed the markets, stocking up and sounding a little confused; yesterday the streets were full of expatriates waiting on the corner for taxis with piles of luggage to get out; today the gym is open, banks are still closed and foreigners know if they are leaving or staying.

When the curfew starts the city shifts. People head home, but once you are in your own neighbourhood you can be outside freely. The neighbourhood men put back up their blockades, drag their sticks on the pavement clang, clang, clang; start their fires, put on the teapot for the nightlong watch.

During the first days, I was glued to the news constantly flipping between channels because it changed rapidly (Mario translating the Arabic channels). A week on, most of the exciting news is broadcast when the curfew starts until about 9 pm. Al Jazeera had their Cairo offices shut down, some of their reporters arrested (who have since been released) and cameras confiscated, and so their coverage has become a bit more sporadic and less deep.

During the first days, there was little or no gunfire in my neighbourhood at all. Then some throughout the night and then a lot throughout the night. Yesterday, there was less throughout the night but more during the day. Last night was quiet, as is this morning. It is not a civil war, not people shooting at each other, per se. It seems to be people shooting in the air as warnings. At first it was smaller arms, then a bit of automatic fire.

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The most iconic scene has been of the crowds of protesters at prayer time. A chaotic mass of people organically arranges itself in neat lines facing Mecca, all the while standing and kneeling in unison.

But don’t misinterpret the image. These are not religious protests; it is simply that the majority of people in Egypt are Muslim, so they pray as such and do not miss a call.

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In my opinion, the lack of violence so far is astonishing. Yes: tear gas was fired, people have looted, people have been shot, people have been beaten. Not to minimize that, but it is a lot less than it could have been.

During the first days (when the riot police were present) were the worst so far in terms of violence - a dangerous, impulsive, edgy energy prevailed - but even then, the riot police did stop hitting when the protesters retreated.

The police disappeared after the first days. The army has been a constant presence.

The interactions of the army and the protesters is amazing. Tanks are everywhere downtown, they come and go, but the protesters and people welcome them. The tank drivers don’t fire on the people and respect their legitimate right to protest”. There are official statements by the state as to this. There are slogans spray painted on the tanks. The tank drivers and protesters shake hands.

The ruling party’s headquarters were set on fire, next door to the famous Museum of Antiquities. In the beginning, protesters joined hands around the museum to protect it from the fire and looters until the army arrived.

Preserving order and protecting private property in light of chaos has fallen upon the people somewhat. Neighbourhoods have set up “vigilante groups” - a bad translation I think - they are more like a very active neighbourhood watch. Each night they stand guard with sticks, metal rods and some guns. Looking down my long street I can see about 6 stations, where the men have pulled concrete blocks into the road, moved the garbage cans into the street. Cars cannot pass. Walking people, like myself, are not hindered. (Although I have to admit, I live in a nice neighbourhood.)

“Vigilante groups” are not the same a “thugs”. The deciphered Arabic to English vocabulary of Egypt is delightful, fascinating and surprising sometimes.

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It is important to understand that there are several types of security forces. As far as I can gather, the police are under the Ministry of the Interior and the military is separate (Ministry of Defence?). Both command a certain kind of respect: The police are feared, and the military is revered.

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One of the first interviews I saw was with a young woman from the American University in Cairo. She came across as cold, but informed and clear headed. When asked to describe the street scenes, she said something like Today, in the streets I saw more blood than I have ever seen. More than in the movies. And she smiled.

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When it is in front of you, it is easy to see the difference between reality and what is in the media. I am not a skeptic, but I am skeptical.

Sensational sexy stories sell: Camera angles make crowds look bigger. The most graphic images are played and re-played. The most violent quotes are iterated and re-iterated. The most shocking stories are told and re-told.

Control can check conception: Images and facts can also be manipulated to minimize the situation. Numbers and can be misconstrued or can be absolute lies propagated on purpose.  Images of streets with no crowds
present can also be played and re-played.

It is not black and white. And it is not simple. The scene is always shifting greys, with colours fading in and out depending on the angle from which you view the scene (or the quality of your webcam). Each exaggeration or downplay is based on reality, or rather someone’s vision of reality, or rather what was once reality.

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There are some journalists who give and command respect; who are rational and neutral in their use of language, tone and facts. There are also some journalists who employ 'Jerry Springer' style reporting (and indeed they are on reputable stations, during non-editorial shows). They are on both sides.
They threaten the integrity of the action and seem to want to incite violence and anger and emotions.
And they make me sick.

As the government has been dissolved and ministers step down, some reporters have used the word defect instead of resign”.

A woman interviewing a government representative interrupted him at least 5 times, never let him finish a sentence and screamed at him. “... these are not mobs. Men, women and children.”

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I don’t have photos of the protests for this post. I am neither a journalist rushing for a story, nor a foolish idealist who thinks my presence is needed to enhance the voice of the Egyptian people. I have simply observed them from walks in calm areas, from my balcony and rooftop, through television and through conversations.

Now people are talking about economics. Stock market closed. More practically, banks are closed and ATMs are out of money.

As I write this, there is a stand off. No one is moving on either side. What’s next?

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At the top of this blog, you will find a favourite quote of mine, which in context has nothing to do with Egypt, but out of context can be appropriate today.