Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sidi Bouzid

Last week I spent some time in Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolutions. It was here where an unemployed fruit and vegetable seller self-immolated after his cart and scales were confiscated. His act sparked the protests that spread throughout Tunisia and ended with the resignation of the dictator Ben Ali. Actors in other countries were inspired by the success of the Tunisian revolution and tried their own, with varying success. But the fact is, it started here. And I was lucky enough to talk to many of the people instrumental in making it happen.

Despite expectations of a "Marshall Plan" for Tunisia's poor regions like Sidi Bouzid, very little has changed. Poverty and unemployment are perhaps even worse now than they were in December 2010 when this all started. People talk of a need for a "second revolution."

Here are some of the more interesting sights from Sidi Bouzid:

This is a memorial to Mohammed Bouazizi who started the protests when he self immolated. This is a representation of his vegetable cart. I noticed it already was broken - perhaps inadvertently representing the neglect of the area. Or, it could suggest that the Bouazizi family has fallen out of favor in the area.

A banner to Bouazizi, with pictures of protest in the Middle East and worldwide inspired by the Arab Spring.

Some graffiti. In blue "we will not forget you (our) martyr" and in yellow "17 December, Revolution of Freedom and Dignity." This is apparently the street where another Sidi Bouzid resident killed himself in protest.

This one, from the nearby city of Kasserine

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Martyr's Day in Tunis

Today is Martyr’s Day in Tunisia, a holiday to commemorate the fallen in the fight against French colonialism. The streets near my house were empty from rush hour traffic, but downtown on Habib Bourghiba street, there was lots of action. The road was blocked off from traffic on both sides, and people eventually filled the streets with colorful signs, chanting slogans, etc. The police were ready for anything. I saw lots of them milling around, and I saw some rows of riot police with shields, batons, and tear gas guns waiting at the ready. Fortunately, they were not needed. From our vantage point of the outdoor café next to the Internationale Hotel (directly across from the National Theatre) we could see all the action.
Group chanting that the poor were "tricked"

Nida Tounes supporters chanting "The people want a renewed revolution" (possibly referring to their opposition to a controversial draft law to ban members of Ben Ali's regime from politics).

Socialists (I think)
Nobody told me who this is, but based on the newspaper article I read, it is probably the families of the martyrs.

The Nahda party and its allies set up camp in front of the municipal theatre. 

The leftists would march behind them on the other side of the street and occasionally stop to taunt the Nahda supporters. They were not separated by anything. I was worried that some clashes would break out, but fortunately the groups only taunted and nothing got bigger than that happened. Apparently last year there was some violence at Martyr’s Day activities, though it doesn’t sound like it was conflict between camps, but instead conflict between some protesters and the police.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Politics of Apology

AP Photo Nasser Nasser

Did the US Embassy in Cairo (part of the "Obama Administration" according to Romney) issue an "apology"? According to (and just about anyone who read the statement) it was nothing of the sort. It did what our politicians should have done: distancing the American government from the anti-Islam film that was the cause of the protests. While people have the right to say abhorrent things  -it's called free speech - we need not endorse the views of the hatred-mongers.

The film seems to follow a familiar pattern. If you have been paying attention recently, a veritable industry of anti-Islamic propaganda has been creeping into the media and public discourse. Much of this seems to be driven by right-wing Christians who view Islam as a religious threat and are selling it as a threat to American values. Think not just of Pastor Terry Jones, but Ayaan Hirsi Ali and numerous less visible others who promote anti-Islam through books, articles, TV shows, movies, wherever they can. Lest we forget that people actually read/listen to this stuff, recall Michelle Bachman's specious claims that the Muslim Brotherhood (not a terrorist group) was infiltrating the US State Department. According to US News and WorldReport:

But all signs point to the likelihood that Bachmann didn't develop these ideas on her own.

Rather, it looks to be the brain child of Frank Gaffney, the president of the American Center for Security Policy, a nonprofit that received $4,084,750 in contributions in 2010 to educate Americans on the "Shariah threat."

Why don't we call out these hate-mongers? They have the right to spew hate, just like anyone else, but it is our responsibility to point it out as what it is: hate speech not representative of the American people. When racists burn crosses, for example, and spew racist bigotry, responsible people distance themselves from it. 

Recall after 9/11, officials from all sides of the political spectrum called upon Muslims to disavow violence and distance themselves from extremists. Can we not return the favor?

So while Mitt Romney and Republicans in general like to makepolitical hay out of Obama's supposed "apologies" for America, we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot. Not only should we condemn hate speech (even while freedom of speech allows it), we should be aware of the message we are sending with our disgust for "apologies." 

Putting aside the fact that most of these supposed apologies were nothing of the sort, does Mitt not realize that an unapologetic hegemon is hated everywhere. That is exactly where this anti-American sentiment is coming from. We tell others what to do, when to do it, and don't even pretend to understand others' cultures or points of view. If that is what makes American great in the eyes of Republicans, then they obviously don't want allies by our side. And when we need allies to work with us in identifying those people who may truly be threats, I don't want us to find ourselves alone.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering 9-11


Today is 9/11, the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Like many of you, I am moved by the memorials, the moments of silence, and the stories recounted of those who made difficult choices to help others in time of danger. I have listened to the 911 calls of doomed people stuck in the WTC building about to collapse, watched the videos of people hurling themselves from hundreds of stories up in an effort to be in control of their own fate, one last time. It is difficult to see and hear these things without remembering the pain of those who died and their loved ones who remained behind, and of the first responders who tried to help but couldn't save everyone.

As we remember the pain of that day, I would like us to remember not what makes us stand apart from other countries and peoples, but what makes us the same. Instead of seeking vengeance or solace in the idea that the United States is greater than everyone else, why can't we see that 9/11 is something that unifies us and shows us our similarities with others around the world? Whether we realize it or not, 9/11 is something that happens daily in many other parts of the world. While the details differ, the suffering is the same. In Syria today, how many people - children included - will die as bombs rain indiscriminately from the sky? In Gaza, how many children bear the emotional scars of fear and war? In Congo, how many people must die before we notice? Do we, as a nation, need to inflict those scars of war on other people in order to prove we are not cowed by al Qaeda's violence?

What I would wish for us on 9/11 is that we remember our suffering, and we grow in awareness of the suffering of others. That is the first step to compassion. When our nation can be motivated by compassion instead of vengeance, we can truly become a shining light upon a hill.

“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.”  -- The Buddha

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Todd Akin May Be A Neanderthal, But He's Not the Only One

Todd Akin, aka the "legitimate rape" guy, has sincerely and whole-heartedly apologized for his remarks, saying that "rape is never legitimate." I'm glad we got that out of the way, because what he didn't say was just as important: he didn't back off of his claim that pregnancy is less likely when a woman is raped. Akin said he knows ""that people do become pregnant from rape," and that he didn't mean to imply that it didn't happen -- but didn't specifically address whether pregnancy was less frequent in cases of rape.

The Republican party is in damage-control mode, trying to portray Akin's words as an isolated incident. However, it is clear that this myth of women magically avoiding pregnancy when raped has been around the block a few times, despite the lack of scientific evidence. As the New York Times mentions (though I noted this was in a blog post, not a news article), a number of prominent Republicans have made similar claims going back to 1988:

The Buzzfeed blogger who writes as Southpaw traced the idea back another decade, finding a 1988 report from the Philadelphia Daily News on a Republican state legislator in Pennsylvania, Stephen Freind, who claimed that the chances of a woman getting pregnant from rape were, “one in millions and millions and millions.” Mr. Freind gave a version of the same explanation then that Mr. Akin relied on: the trauma of rape, he claimed, causes women to “secrete a certain secretion” that kills sperm. When the newspaper asked a professor of obstetrics and gynecology for a response, he said simply: “There’s no basis for that. That’s nonsense.”
 Where does this idea come from, in a medical and legal sense? Yes, you guessed it, it comes from medieval England.

“The legal position that pregnancy disproved a claim of rape appears to have been instituted in the U.K. sometime in the 13th century,” the medical historian Vanessa Heggie wrote in a blog post for The Guardian on Monday. She explained that one of Britain’s earliest legal texts, written in about 1290, included a clause based on this bit of folk wisdom: “If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman’s consent she could not conceive.”
 Apparently, the folk wisdom implies that a woman must "enjoy" the sex to get pregnant. If she got pregnant, therefore she must have enjoyed it! Ahh, the twisted logic - logic that potential lawmakers share. I hope the voters of Missouri reject this nonsense.

I'm Baaaack!

I'm back to blogging. I hope for real this time. The busy working mom thing sometimes interferes with fun stuff, like spreading my opinions far and wide. No one at home will listen to me anyway. I plan to write on Middle East stuff but when something really ridiculous comes up in another part of the world, of course I'll have something to say about it. For all 6 readers of this blog out there - feel free to comment!