Tweetup & Open Mic Night this Friday

Now there are two regular events that I look forward to in Cairo: the Open Mic Night (which was held before at Makan) and the Cairo Tweetup. This month, both are happening on the same night. But the good news is that both are happening at the same place: Darb 1718.

Like Jelly are performing (I said next time they go on stage I’d be there). And on the comedy side Ahmed Al-Mojadidi is making his debut (I guess). I haven’t seen him on stage before, but I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s HILARIOUS.

According to Mo-ha-med, Tweetup Guru, you can call Mojadidi ‘Dodi’, even though he might not like it. But you have to do what Mo says anyway. No questions asked or you’ll be banished from Tweetup Heaven.

So here you go, you can rediscover and support local talent while meeting very interesting tweeps, all at the same time.

We’ll be the geeks with the name tags. We wear them with pride.

Come along and say hi.

For more info, check the Facebook event or Mo’s blog post. And here’s the map.

What’s racism?

What’s racism? This is not a question about the manifestations of racism, the tangible actions that can be pointed out, that can have an impact on other people. It’s a question about the step or stage before that. What are the feelings people have that can be classified as racism and that might or might not materialize in action later on?

When people see another fellow human being of a different skin color, ethnicity, religion, etc, what do they feel? Is it disgust that drives them to choose another seat on a bus? Is it fear of something unknown or foreign to them? Is it a sense of superiority that fuels their call for stripping this ‘different’ person of his/her rights, or not giving them those rights in the first place? Is it just a feeling of discomfort due to a mix of fear, disgust and superiority?

Today, racism has become an unacceptable term. Even those who are racist don’t want the labeling.  They often find excuses and explanations to justify their actions as logical reactions, rather than bigotry-fueled stupidity. Something along the lines of “I’m not a racist, but I don’t like those people taking our jobs.”

Even though there remains a long way to go, many countries have outlawed racist practices. Prejudice and intolerance have, to a large degree, been confined to social and communal circles rather than legal texts. It still can be argued that the same members of a generally intolerant community are the ones that write and amend its laws, which means that traces of bigotry can be found in legal systems.

It’s a valid argument that I agree with, but what I’m trying to demonstrate here is that with more confines on the tangible display of racism, it’s the feelings that precede the action that count. Sometimes racism remains just a feeling, evident only through passivity, probably due to illegality or general unacceptability of it. Which brings me to my starting question, what’s racism? come

The purpose of this post is not to express my opinion; I’m seeking answers, clear or vague. This curiosity is fueled by a story I’m writing that slightly covers the issue of racism, but was initially spurred by a friend’s experience:

My friend and her friend, both Egyptian, discovered a carpooling website in Germany and used it to travel across the country. They split the cost of the trip with the car owner, who also avoids driving for long distances alone. After the initial pleasant small talk, the trip looked promising. But it was short lived. The driver just stopped talking after learning that the two women with him are Egyptian. And for the rest of the 500 km trip, there were hardly any conversations, as the man kept his responses to one-word answers.

After playing the incident in her head several times, my friend concluded that the reason for the man’s sudden change in attitude towards them is racism. What I’ve tried to figure out since hearing this story is this man’s feelings. Was he disgusted to figure out that his companions were from an African country? The Middle East? Was he suddenly afraid of them when learning of their nationality? Did he feel that he’s sharing his personal space with two women of an inferior race, unworthy of his company?

All definitions I’ve come across so far point to a sense of superiority. The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines it as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” and “racial prejudice or discrimination”. There is more here.

I’m inclined to think that there’s more to racism than a sense of superiority, whether such feelings are expressed or not. What do you think?

Sovereignty or complicity?

Or is it just a case of outsourcing gone wrong?

Early in 2009, I got a call at the office from an angry reader, not happy that we ran a story from a news agency in which Egypt is described as an ally of Israel. The man, in his 40s or older, wasn’t making an argument that depended more on teenage enthusiasm and idealism than on information; on the contrary, he rationally and quietly explained that having signed a peace treaty with Israel doesn’t make us allies.

I wanted to agree with him – maybe out of the same juvenile idealism that he had distanced his argument from – but reality forced me to disagree, also quietly. I promised him to look into it; we had a busy day ahead and thus no time for me to have this elaborate argument: even though the phrase is daunting, it’s how the world sees Egypt’s foreign policy.

The argument would have taken hours, simply because Egypt’s policies vis-à-vis Israel are shrouded in ambiguity. On the surface, our Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Aboul-Gheit is relentless in his criticism of Israel’s officials, led of course by his counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, the man who said President Hosni Mubarak could go to hell. At the same time, the very same Mubarak is entertaining Lieberman’s bosses with his signature smile. It’s politics, someone would say, as if the word automatically indicates an intricate, mystifying ideology we could never understand, and consequently whatever has the ‘politics’ label should be omitted from the discussions, rendered irrelevant.

Well, maybe.

But still, the world often dismisses Aboul-Gheit’s Liberman bashing as typical Middle East blabbing and focuses on the more tangible side of Egypt’s politics and draws the conclusion: It’s an ally. After all, without Egypt, Israel couldn’t have enforced the tight blockade on Gaza, which is always described as the Egyptian-Israeli blockade.


Protesting at the wrong border?

As supportive I am to any pro-Gaza, anti-blockade movement, there was a something a bit off about last December’s demonstrations. About 1,400 foreign activists flooded Cairo en route to Gaza, in an attempt to exert political pressure to end the blockade on the impoverished enclave. So far, so good. This is not new. Cairo has seen its full share of similar initiatives, albeit on a smaller scale. But the thing that was disconcerting about the series of demonstrations and sit-ins in the last week of December 2009 was the absence of a parallel and equally forceful series of demonstrations in Israel.

Last March, when US pro-peace group CodePink wanted to celebrate Women’s Day with the women of Gaza – give a breath of fresh air to women worn down by war – a group was pushing its way through the Gaza Egypt border and another through Israel. Both got in, got through to their target and drew the media attention to the tragedies of a community unable to rebuild itself after a grueling war and the injustice of a blockade.

It seems that some of the ideas that fueled such initiative were lost this December, the first anniversary of the Israeli offensive on Gaza.

This time around, the protests and sit-ins that were held in downtown Cairo and aimed at emphasizing the complicity of the Egyptian government in the blockade have overlooked another culprit, Israel.

The demonstrations on the Israeli-Gazan border were spearheaded by Arab-Israelis and some Jewish Israeli pro-peace activists. Without the “foreign element”, the protests in Israel got minimum coverage, as the world focused on Cairo.

This is not an argument to exonerate our government from responsibility; it is as the foreign activists keep noting complicit in the blockade. But maybe they should have listened to themselves a bit. Complicit implies another perpetrator is involved, maybe a worse offender.

Egypt’s role in keeping the blockade should be continuously highlighted and criticized, as loudly as possible. Even if arguments like more is expected from Egypt because it’s a fellow Arab country with a shared history and conscience are taken into consideration, this shouldn’t distract those critics from bounding Israel with the same, if not bigger, accusations.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Egyptian government was portrayed in international media as the source of all evils – which I usually don’t find anything wrong with, especially that our police didn’t hesitate in proving the world right when it eventually cracked down on those foreign protestors with its signature brutality – but at the same time, it seemed as if Gaza shared a border with one country, as if Israel didn’t control most of its borders. It seemed as if the world has come to terms with the fact that Israel can commit atrocities without a shred of accountability, while other (less) complicit countries should shoulder the blame.

Those heroic protestors – and I’m not being sarcastic here because I do respect all of them – should consider taking the fight, or part of it, to Israel. They should attract the world attention to the government that enforced the blockade with the backing and blessing of other governments.

Outsourcing henchmen

British Respect MP and Gaza Freedom March (GFM) member Yvonne Ridley told Daily News Egypt reporter Abdel-Rahman Hussein, “The foreign ministry has scored a spectacular own goal,” Ridley said, “because by throwing the spotlight off Israel and its siege of Gaza it has shed the spotlight on Egypt’s complicity and now the whole world knows the Egyptian government is enforcing the brutal siege alongside Israel because of the behavior of the foreign minister.”

While this doesn’t explain why the GFM didn’t organize protests on the Israeli side of the border, it does shed light on another important issue: why is Egypt readily available to do Israel’s dirty work? I’m not just talking about the blockade, but in other border issues as well. Take the shoot on sight policy the government has been employing regarding African refugees trying to make it to Israel through the Sinai border. When Israel started complaining a couple of years ago – especially following pressure from Israeli and international organizations criticizing the Israeli government for merely thinking of extraditing those refugees that made it to its borders – Egypt started this shoot to kill policy, reminiscent of the Soviet Union that treated people trying to leave the same way it did trespassers trying to illegally get in. Now of course, Israel has no unwanted refugee problem or it has been significantly reduced; it’s the damn barbaric Egyptians that are shooting those seeking asylum in the Israeli haven.

Even with the blockade, the Egyptian government is shouldering most of the international blame and a large part of the security responsibility of enforcing the blockade. And here you can’t blame anyone but the government for this.

On one hand, the Egyptian government is sounding more like a five-year-old, stubbornly guarding its role in the blockade while at the same strongly refuting the simple phrase: “the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza.” Its attitude with the Viva Palestina aid convoy was staggering between complicity and an immature attempt of reverencing its bureaucracy. With statements like we “told them this route not this one,” and “we told them this number of vehicles and not this number”, the government tried to sell its form of arm-guarded bureaucracy as if it’s arm-guarded sovereignty.

Aside from the fact this is the same government that let an American walk without even an investigation after shooting dead an Egyptian in the Suez Canal, it often resorts to the sovereignty argument when justifying the decisions of its leaders, even if it’s irrelevant. Over the past year, I’ve seen serious damage done to the word “sovereignty”; randomly dropped in any argument by any government official to justify anything they please.

On the other hand, while employing the same contrived sovereignty argument, the government (which is on a mission to make enemies of all neighboring countries except Israel) is putting its soldiers on the frontline of protecting this blockade. Ironically, within the same governorate (North Sinai), whose residents complain that the emergency laws that saw many of their activists detained doesn’t protect them from being regularly robbed at gun point in broad day light, one of our soldiers was shot dead at the border. (Never mind those killed by Israeli border guards; they are not as heroic, at least according to our government. This one died by Palestinian fire).

When a proper investigation into the murder of border guard Ahmed Shaaban starts, investigators and the public should also be asking these questions: Did Shaaban die protecting Egypt’s border, or the policies that only serve the interests of its leaders? Did he die protecting Egypt’s sovereignty or warding off the Islamist scarecrow that could endanger the incumbent government? Did he die protecting the Egyptian public or the image of our leaders in the eyes of the real non-Egyptian ‘voters’ keeping them in power?

Those who killed Shaaban should be brought to justice, the same way those who (in)directly caused his death should be held accountable.

Sexuality, Eroticism & Obscenity

For some, these three words are synonymous, for others they couldn’t be more different. Is it the culture that dictates the difference/similarity? Is it the subject at hand? Are the lines generally blurred?

We recently had this discussion at Daily News Egypt, prior to publishing this story: Guns, wars and chadors: the art of Ghada Amer.

Our culture editor Joseph Fahim sent me the two pictures that ran with this story with a note to check them first and tell him if they are fit for print. He said he didn’t see anything wrong with them, but wanted us to give them a closer look.

I looked, I couldn’t find anything unprintable. If you go to the article and scroll down, you’ll find that in the second picture, the multi layered drawing explores the female form, but the sexual connotation might be lost on anyone who doesn’t give it a closer look. But google “Ghada Amer” and you’ll see more of her in-your-face work available online.

She probes the female form, explores its sexuality, and challenges any form of (self) censorship.

But how would you describe her work? Sexual? Erotic? Obscene?

During the discussion, DNE Editor Rania Al-Malky correctly pointed out that ‘erotic’ is a description, while ‘obscene’ is a judgment, citing literary debates. But in our culture, would such distinction hold?

Many see sexual as erotic and in turn consider both obscene. And it’s not just the conservatism in our culture. Traces of similar attitudes can be seen — to a much lesser degree — in literary venues in more liberal societies. Even though writers like the respected and established novelist and essayist Zadie Smith have written or edited erotic stories (she edited a an anthology of erotic short stories according to her Wikipedia page), many literary journals and consumer magazines in the US and the UK that publish short stories, poems and novel excerpts have the “we don’t accept erotica” label on their publishing guidelines. The genre is often dismissed as lower or cheaper form of literature, even though the word “erotica”  implies art as opposed to mere pornography.

Yet “sexual” scenes in literature are not dismissed or considered demeaning of any good piece of literature. Many classics and reputable contemporary bestsellers freely describe heterosexual and homosexual encounters without fear of denigration.

This distinction between sex-centered work and work that happens to include sex is for the most part non-existent here. Take Ehsan Abdel-Quodous for example. His work, famous for its critique of societal hypocrisies and women-centered narratives, was labeled as “Adab El Ferash” back in the 60s. It literally means “the literature of the mattresses” and was used as a derogatory term in reference to more intimate scenes in his short stories and novels.

Back then the existence of lines between sexuality, eroticism and obscenity was not even acknowledged. Forward 40 years, and the situation isn’t that different. When Alaa El-Aswany first released his sophomore novel “Chicago” in a series in El-Dostor, the tone of readers’ letters got a bit more aggressive as two of the protagonists’ relationship turned physical. The novel as a whole got the criticism of “too much sex”. Needless to say, the phrase itself is used as an insult, implying that the author is using sex to sell his literature.

But in a panel discussion following the release of the novel, Economist Galal Amin came to the rescue. He argued that sex scenes should be viewed through the eyes of the characters involved. If a man sees his daughter having sex, then the emotion shouldn’t be eroticism but the man’s own shock.

Basically, Amin argued for desexualizing the sex scenes, to remove the sexuality, eroticism, and definitely the obscenity that are always associated with similar literary depictions.

Would such endeavor find a lot of welcoming ears here in Egypt?

While it’s more probable to happen in the literary world, other more visual arts might not be as welcoming. I can’t see that the public and the critics would dissociate a local film, for example, from its more intimate scenes. Films that sell through a promise of steamy scenes would be bundled with others of better caliber that happen to include or allude to sex.

And with Ghada Amer’s work, she said she’s not expecting it to be displayed in Egypt any time soon. I’m not holding my breath either.

Video: Exclusive – Anna Baltzer & Mustafa Barghouti Extended Interview Pt. 1 | The Daily Show | Comedy Central

I’m a fan of the Jon Stewart Daily Show and I often take suggestions for the next book to buy from the guests interviewed. But this particular episode was exceptionally good; mainly because two pro-Palestinian activists (one Jewish American, the other a prominent Muslim Palestinian politician) were given time on such a popular mainstream TV show. Apparently, it wasn’t an easy road to the show. Reportedly, angry emails and phone calls preceded the show that the guests were worried about cancelation. Then, as you’ve watched, one of the guests shouted ‘liar’ when Barghouti said that Palestinians are living under occupation. Reportedly, it’s the first heckler in 11 years. It’s the first I’ve seen throughout the couple years I’ve been following the show. After it, discussions of the interview were abundant over the international blogosphere. Some condemned the criticism of Israel and others lauded the decision to give this often unheard pro-peace voice a venue. Here’s a good roundup of the controversy: if you have the time visit Anna Baltzer’s website or know more about Mustafa Barghouti