Thursday, January 28, 2016

Happy first anniversary, Istanbul!

One year ago, I got on an unmarked Egypt Air plane for my one-way ticket bringing me (back) to Istanbul. Leaving Cairo was a difficult decision--I was leaving my friends, leaving the place that had been home for years. Unlike when I left the year before, this time I knew it would be very unlikely I would return as a resident.

Me and little baby Ziza monster, Istanbul bound!
What changed in that year? While I love Egypt, the move was a long time coming. The rise of Sisi brought a crackdown on dissent and a feeling of morose among those who considered themselves revolutionaries. My friends, both Egyptian and foreign, began to leave. The difficulties of every day life, namely the harassment, were no longer manageable. Or perhaps before I was better able to deal with it because there was hope, the promise that things would get better, a feeling that I was in a place moving forward. But Egypt stopped moving forward. Instead, it went backward. The crackdown on dissent, the disappearances, the extrajudicial killings. It's all worse than under Mubarak.

A few days before I left, leading up to the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution, activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh was killed while trying to lay a flower down, peaceful protest. Police shot her at close range with bird shot. Seeing her image, the sadness in her friend's eyes... I went home and drank a bottle of smuggled wine because I just could not deal with it anymore. I internalized Egypt's politics too much. I asked some of my formerly active friends how they dealt with it--they said they stopped caring. But I kept on getting angry. I kept on getting sad. I began to think only distance would make this feeling go away.

Egypt's infamous sexual harassment also took its toll. I could no longer walk past a male on the street without tensing up, getting quiet being scared, without bracing for physical contact. When I moved to Egypt, I wasn't a violent person. After a year, I started to want to hit the guys on the street. Then I wanted to shoot them. At the end, I didn't want to shoot them. I wanted to make them suffer, to really feel the pain and fear they inflict on women every day. I wanted to kill them slowly and painfully. Not normal.

It got to the point I didn't like any kind of physical contact, any kind of compliments after being sexually degraded on the streets for so long. At the end of my stay in Egypt, I stopped going out completely. Fuck it--not going out to be sexually harassed. I'll just sit at my apartment with my fur ball.

I was once in Vienna, Austria, and a group of Austrian teenage boys were walking behind me. I got so angry--why were they there? What were they saying? My heart was racing. Borderline PTSD.

Now, one year later, I can walk past groups of men--old men, young men, middle aged men--and not think twice. For the most part, people don't even look at me. Sometimes I meet eyes with a male stranger--and nothing. He doesn't take it as a come on. We just look away. Sometimes I notice that I'm passing by a group of shabaab-looking kids--and they don't even look at me. They just continue doing what they're doing.

I love the fact I can walk in the streets here, ride the metro, and be anonymous. I'm just another person, just like everyone else. In Egypt I felt like a peacock.

I no longer get scared. That is probably the most important change, and something I would never give up again.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

“Please don’t step on the bones”

Between 1975 and 1979, over a span of fewer than four years, 3 million out of a population of 7 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge. An astounding number—nearly half the population. But this number discounts those killed from overwork, from starvation, from disease, from long marches. The true number of those lost is much higher.

I knew the basics about the Khmer Rouge—communist authoritarian regime that killed a lot of people. But until I came to Cambodia, I admit I didn’t know much.

Bones collected on the side of the path.
Clothing of the victims emerging from the ground.
Over half the population was wiped out. Today, Cambodia is a very young population—very few people over 40. They lost an entire generation. I’ve seen a lot of people with missing limbs, likely taken off from landmines. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, one of the biggest killers of Cambodians was landmines.

I’ve been to concentration camps in Germany, to Schindler’s factory in Poland, but neither of those trips left the same impression on me as the killing fields in Cambodia. The country is littered with mass graves, some yet to be discovered. Outside Phnom Penh is Choeung Ek killing field where mass graves containing the remains of  8,895 people were found—some headless. One mass grave full of babies. One of women and children. There's a tree there against which they swung babies to kill them.

The impact isn’t from the sheer number of bodies found. It isn’t from the monument that acts as a resting place for the exhumed bodies—skulls, bones, on display.  The impact comes from the fact that the field continues to be littered with bones, with bits of cloth, that the rains and erosion have pushed up. As you walk, you have to look down to make sure you’re not stepping on bones. Brightly colored clothing is partially visible. I was literally dodging the dead. There were even bones lodged in tree roots.

Political prisoners were sent from a prison in downtown Phnom Penh, a complex that was once used as an elementary school. Today, you can visit the elementary school and see the mugshots of the prisoners.

Mugshots found in S-21, the elementary school turned prison complex.
After weeks of torture, victims were sent to the killing fields for immediate death. They were not shot—they were not worth the bullets. Instead, their heads were bashed in, their necks broken, their necks slit with palm leaves. They were made to dig their own graves. Those who survived the beating either suffocated to death in the pit or died when the Rouge poured chemicals on the bodies—to get rid of the stench and to kill off anyone who may have survived. They left no survivors.

Despite all of this, despite the fact Cambodia remains a poor country, Cambodians are happy, smiling, welcoming. I don’t feel hostility as a tourist, as an American (the US supported the KR, a Chinese-supported commie party, as a counterbalance to the Soviet-supported Vietnamese commies. If you play the communists against themselves, the ideology will not spread). People come to talk to you. They offer you their wares at the tourist shops, at the stalls, but if you say no thank you they drop it. No hassling, not pushy.

Today, the prime minister is a former KR official. The Cambodians have sought the path of reconciliation—if you killed my father, what will killing your father do? Will it bring peace? Or eternal war? As would be expected, hard feelings remain. Our tour guide who took us through the complexes told us how the regime killed his father, tore apart his family. After Pol Pot, the leader of the KR regime, died, our guide went to the site where his body was cremated. He said he wanted to piss--he said it with anger, with pain, with sadness, with resignation. Coming from a religious man, I could feel this meant a lot. Yet he could not, because the site was littered with offerings--a sign that to this day, there are those in the country who still support the Khmer Rouge.

Monday, June 15, 2015

My finest moment

I'm on a lovely holiday in Portugal. Over the last three days, just about everything has been great--the weather, the food, the wine.

I noticed a lot of harassment. The old men would come up to me. The young would say something under their breath as I walked by. I laughed it off initally--oh, nothing can be as bad as Egypt. Child's play.

Tonight, my last night in Porto. I went out to a great restaurant on the Douro River. Got a delicious octopus dish. Great scenery. The sun was setting. I finished my dinner and headed out.

As I walked out of the restaurant, three older men were sitting out and made a hissing noise as I walked by. Conditioned to this, I kept on walking. Halfway through the next restaurant, I stopped. Why am I putting up with this shit? I went back and thoroughly bitched them out. They said they were just trying to tell me that my eyes were beautiful. Blah blah blah. I can call the cops if I want.

I don't give a shit. I stood my ground.

Every woman who saw gave me the thumbs up. They can go fuck themselves. At the time I felt satisfied, vindicated.

After years and years of this shit, I finally said something. Even more, all these women were on my side.

About two minutes later, I stopped. I called my mother. Why is it that this is the norm everywhere I go? Why can't I go to the grocery store, or to a restaurant, or to the corner kiosk without getting hit on? Why is it that no matter where I go-- Egypt, Turkey, Portugal/Europe, Dc/USA, I'm never a person, but a woman? And even more so, why is it that every woman who saw this felt the same--yet none of the men did?

Years and years in Egypt, I would be harassed, followed, groped. You don't say anything--when you do, it escalates. It becomes physical. It's better to be quiet. When I resisted, I got dragged from a moving vehicle. But there's worse.

There was a girl who caught the headlines in Turkey. She was murdered for resisting rape.

I told my mom that I wish the men who acted this way would die. I wish they would experience a slow painful death. I wish that they could feel the fear, the pain of all the women gang raped. Murdered. I want them to feel the terror those girls felt. And seeing that written out is scary--the girl who never believed in corporal punishment.

The feeling of being a second-class citizen is overwhelming. My entire purpose of being is to please others. My eyes are beautiful, my ass is beautiful, and that makes me not even worthy. But, I'm there.

Is this normal? I don't even know anymore. All I know is I spent the last day in Porto on the phone with my mom. Never saw the sun setting on the Duoro. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A tale of golden toilets

Turkey's parliamentary elections are around the corner, elections that could be considered the most important in history. Not only is the parliament in the balance, but the parliamentary system is as well. Ex-prime minister and current president Erdogan announced plans to turn Turkey into a presidential system (what a coincidence! Now that he's president, he wants to put all the power in that office).

An upstart political party called the HDP that was once considered aligned with Kurds and therefore terrorists/separatists but now gaining popularity across the board is in a position to potentially block this--if they reach the 10 percent threshold, Erdogan and his followers won't have enough support for the presidential shift. The HDP is going for inclusivity, fielding a roster of not only Kurdish activists, but socialists, religious Muslims, minority candidates including Roma and Armenians, and a transgender candidate. If they lose, however, the seats they gained will be divided between the winning parties, making the AKP even stronger.

Erdogan surrounded by his Ottoman-style guards

I am not convinced Erdogan will lose this election, even if he loses the vote. Funny business tends to happen during Turkish elections (like a stray cat who got into a transformer and cut the electricity right as vote-counting began in an anti-Erodgan area). He's made it clear he is in charge of Turkey and that he has no intention of compromise, let alone ever leaving. 

A man who was once considered a modernizer now surrounds himself with Ottoman-styled guards in a bizarre and controversial $615 million palace he built on what was meant to be conserved land. His rants about golden toilets are grabbing headlines here, rants that followed him daring those who opposed the construction of his palace to come down and take it from him. He has engaged in verbal warfare with both foreign and local journalists. He singled out the NYT for its coverage, calling it and its former Turkey head and "enemy" of himself and the state. He has sued a local journalist for coverage on shipments of arms from the Turkish equivalent of the CIA to Syrian fighters. That journalist has been threatened by the prosecutor general with a life sentence due to his "espionage." In rhetoric that echos Egypt, he accuses the NYT, CNN, and the BBC of trying to weaken and divide Turkey. While these accusations and actions border on farcical, the stifling effect can be felt. Whenever he speaks, the stock market crashes. 

Erdogan is everywhere despite the fact he's not actually running for office. His face, never a smile, looks down on us in the metro, on buildings, in tea shops. Election propaganda is technically banned from public transport, yet Erdogan's face beams down from buses and inside the metro. Erdogan, as president, technically is nonpartisan, although he admits to having the AKP in his heart. 

Some may pass this off as election season blovating, but I think he actually believes the stuff coming out of his mouth. He sees an enemy around every corner. He believes the opposition parties are conspiring against him (which, to be fair, is true as that is the entire point of being in the opposition). This is an election about him, not about Turkey, not about the Parliament. That his words aren't just rhetoric is what makes the situation so difficult. 

Monday, April 6, 2015


After a long hiatus, I'm back at the blog.

Last June, I returned to Egypt from Turkey. I was burned out from my job in Istanbul. I had no time to make friends or enjoy the city that people told me was awesome. I was generally unhappy. I missed my crew in Cairo, missed the sense of community and the way of life. Things are more difficult there, but at the same time more real.

After six months in Sisi's Egypt, I left and returned to Istanbul. I had been there for his takeover, but this time it was stifling. The cult of personality, the hostility toward those who did not accept the official narrative without question, became too much. People began to joke about being disappeared, informed upon, detained--jokes that are only actually funny when there's a chance it may happen. One day, traffic was stopped for a VIP on a major street in the middle of rush hour. The driver I was with started irately honking--the cabbie next to us half-jokingly told us to stop or we would all be detained. Friends would post things on facebook with the disclaimer "Don't inform on me" (haha).

One night I was out to dinner with friends and we started talking about politics. I told them to hush, to speak quietly. They thought I was being paranoid. We went home and read about how that day, journalists were arrested in a cafe downtown for the same crime. And don't even get me started about journalists. Journalists who do not have international attention--Al Jazeera guys--are left in prisons, forgotten, held indefinitely without charges and without any venue to justice. By virtue of being "only" Egyptian, of having the wrong passport. Of working in their own country.

I wasn't the only one who left. My Egyptian friends began to leave in droves--for masters, for jobs, for anything. Those who stayed largely disengaged from politics. It's the only way to stay sane, one former activist told me.

On the fourth anniversary of January 25, I came home from dinner with my friends, opened Facebook and Twitter, read about a peaceful protester getting killed by bird shot. Social media circulated a photo of her, blood coming out her back and mouth, a shocked expression, with a friend frantically grasping her waist. Later, we learn the police attempted to accuse one of her party members with her murder. Then the Muslim Brotherhood. Police refused to call for help for the shot woman, and also arrested those who tried to help her. They dragged the men away, left her dying, slumped on a plastic chair in the middle of downtown Cairo.

Now, her party members have been slammed with charges of participating in an unregistered protest, with up to six years in jail. This, as the likes of the Mubaraks and Habib al-Adly walk free.

I finished a bottle of wine by myself that night. Her death was the nail in the revolution's coffin.

It of course didn't end with me leaving. Ahmed Samih, the director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, a leading human rights activist, was detained following a raid on his office. He is also the head of Radio Horytna and, incidentally, my first employer in Cairo. His case is just one of many in an attempt to stifle civil society. Radio Horytna is a nonpartisan, unaffiliated online news portal. Because Egyptian news is controlled by the government and total shit.

Egypt had become like that--an endless cycle of lost hope, repression, jumpiness. I would open the news and get angry every day. I would drive to my house from the gym--maybe 15 minutes--and get stuck in multiple checkpoints. When I was with Egyptian males, they would get pulled over and harassed by the police. The police were making the point--we are back, and we are back with a vengeance. Their presence was ostensibly about protecting the people, but in reality their presence is keeping the people down. I see that here in Istanbul too-tens of heavily armed police standing in the middle of Istiklal, a pedestrian shopping street, with their hands on their automatic weapons, riot gear in hand. Who are you protecting? Who are you serving? The people you are only too antsy to shoot?

Turkey recently passed a law allowing security forces to use live fire against protesters with firecrackers or anything like that. In the middle of the afternoon on Istiklal, surrounded by shoppers, tourists, and random passers by, I've been in the vicinity of a protest that erupted and firecrackers start going off. What is to happen then? Judging by the police's use of tear gas and water cannons (indiscriminate), I--and many others--are less than comfortable.

There are also reports Turkey just banned Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It's a losing battle, my friend. The information is out and people will always find a way to access it. You will just be chasing your own tail.

But when it comes down to it, who are these governments afraid of? What do they fear? Is it the very people they serve?

NOTE: I write this with recognition of the limitations and acts of violence of the police in my own country. I am writing about MY experience. I don't live in the US so don't accuse me of ignoring brutality elsewhere. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

A cop on every corner

The morning after the removal of Morsi from power, I was astounded to walk down from my flat and see a white-uniformed police officer. After about a year and a half in Egypt, I could not recall seeing one before. As I walked to the gym, I was taken aback by how many there were now—not just one but a handful. Also some APCs, but that was a different issue. Citizens were going up to the officers, shaking their hands, thanking them for their service, and celebrating the ousting of the erstwhile president.

Today, over a year later, the police are still on the street. In recent months, there has been an uptick in checkpoints in and around Cairo. From my house to a location about twenty minutes away, I was stopped at two checkpoints. These checkpoints are often in the middle of busy streets, in the middle of rush hour. Traffic, already jammed, stops. What are they checking for? Ostensibly, terrorists. Since Morsi was removed from office, Egypt has experienced a wave of bombings and armed attacks, mostly aimed against members of the uniformed services. But there’s a sense of unease whenever I have approached a checkpoint, whether I am with a foreigner or an Egyptian.

On the ground, it feels like these checkpoints are aimed at you. You drive up and you get scared. What do I have on my phone? What do I have in my purse? It’s a similar feeling whenever I go through any kind of airport security here. One guy a few months ago was arrested for possessing a drone—a motorized helicopter toy for his kid. There are many stories like this, and after hearing them over and over, you realize it only takes one guy who decides your two laptops mean you’re a spy and ma’salama, hope you enjoy Egyptian prison.

When I first arrived in the early summer of 2011, I was at a grocery store and a policeman tried to cut in line. All the people behind him said absolutely not, you go back in line. He did. Hard to think that would happen now. Because the checkpoints are a show of force, a sign that we’re back to business as usual.

A few months ago, there was a break in in one of the apartments in my building. The victim of the theft, a diplomat at the Russian Embassy, hired plainclothes police to find out what happened (because, of course, regular police can’t do it). For days, random men sat in the lobby. One day, some random guy came up to me and asked who I was, what I was doing here, am I registered to be here, and wanted to see my passport. Random Egyptian man with no uniform—absolutely not. I asked to see his badge, which he did not show to me. He told me he was police only. He followed me into the elevator and rode with me to my apartment. He kept on asking these questions—and only of me, not of my fellow elevator passenger, an Egyptian. Not wanting to get my roommates involved, I gave him a photocopy of the passport when we got to my door, hoping that would be enough. Twenty minutes later, he and four other large, plainclothes men came to my apartment and rang the doorbell. Absolutely did not answer it—never would I answer the door with five strange men standing outside. But they stayed for a long time, kept on knocking on the door. It was threatening, and in no way would it ever be acceptable for five strange Egyptian men to go into a girl’s apartment. My roommate said they were just doing it to scare me—and it damned well did. I messaged my journalist friend who I was supposed to meet for dinner that if I don’t show up, he should write a story about how these guys were sitting outside my apartment. Only half-joking.

During the Mubarak days, these checkpoints were rampant throughout Cairo. Police would detain random people, torture them, and get them to admit to unsolved crimes. Or just detain them, disappear them for no reason whatsoever. And slowly, that feeling of invincibility of the uniformed services is coming back.

All of this is taking place during a time where press freedom is nonexistent. Local newspaper editors agreed a few days ago to not publish anything critical of the government—we are in a war against terror, after all. All NGOs will have to register with the government under a new law that critics say will infringe on the organizations’ independence, give the government undue sway over what they do. To be honest, democracy and human rights NGOs will be nonexistent or token in Egypt in about a week. Bassem Youssef and other lesser-know open-minded media folks, such as Yousry Fouda, have resigned, silenced by pressure from the government. Egypt’s human rights practices are under fire in the UN, and local human rights NGOs refuse to cooperate with the international organization, saying the pressure and threats they have received from the government is too great. Because what is a better way to convince the world “Egypt is open for business,” Egypt is “moving forward,” Egypt respects human rights than to threaten human rights activists. They talk about—and most likely do—monitor social media, the Internet. To actually see these changes taking place, to feel the fist of the state clamp down on the press, on activists, on any form of dissent or even opinions, is suffocating. 

The government announced plans to create civilian, neighborhood watch-type organizations with the power to detain. They ask people to inform. My friend today posted a story mildly critical of the government, and I commented, “You only say that because you hate Egypt.” He responded, “Don’t report me to the police.” Haha, funny joke.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Erdogan, Erdogan all around: Turkey's campaign season

Campaign season is in full mode in Turkey, which is set to vote on its next president August 10. There is not much suspense over the result-- presently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan will be president. Erdogan, who has been prime minister for the last eight years, looks set to pull a Putin-Medvedev.

Does that logo look familiar to anyone? Yes, we can. 
Visiting Istanbul over eid, the city was covered in huge Erdogan posters. Erdogan's image loomed over ancient aqueducts, over Taxim, along highways. You could not escape him. His publicly financed campaign rallies made headlines, his voice screamed from television screens. He even played in a football (soccer) match at the opening of an Istanbul stadium. The crowds roared as he scored goal after goal.

There were smaller posters seen for his opponent whats-his-face. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu's lack of a chance of winning is evident in the lack of airtime he his given. In the fact his image is unseen in Taxim. In the fact that he does not make crowds roar. His campaign rallies were poorly covered, with low public visibility.

The good "Profesor Doktor"

Ihsanoglu is a technocrat. He's had a successful career in diplomacy. He has little standing in domestic politics. He's got the hopes of a fragmented opposition resting on his distinguished, internationally-respected shoulders (remind you of anyone, Mohamed El Baradei?) I cringed when I saw one of his few campaign posters around--he called himself "Professor Doctor." Again similar to El Baradei's perceived elitism. Does the Turkish street care if someone is a "professor doctor?" Do they identify with "professor doctors?" Do they feel represented by "professor doctors?" My intuition is the answer to all these questions is a resounding "no."

Is Erdogan breaking the law? Campaign-wise, probably not. But that's not the point. You can follow the letter of the law and flagrantly ignore its spirit. You can have an unrigged election produce an undemocratic result when the cards are so obviously stacked against the opposition. Without breaking the law, without becoming a formal dictatorship, you can marginalize the opposition, squeeze them from the public sphere and secure your own position.

Before this year, I criticized my Egyptian friends for boycotting elections. This is why you guys aren't being represented, I said. You have to make change from within. You have to be in parliament, have to make yourself heard. You need an agenda and need to get into grassroots organizing.

But after this year... what's the point? Your voice will not be heard. There is no campaign rigging, but there does not need to be. There is no space for opposition. You're with us or against us. You're for a new Turkey or for a return to the past. Opposition figures are given less airtime. Their images and campaign materials are minimal or absent. The city is plastered by the image of the preferred candidate. Those who dare campaign for an opposite result face harassment and arrest. And perhaps most worringly, few see a problem with that.

I ask again, what's the point?

Is participating giving legitimacy to a sham? Or is it refusing to be marginalized?