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.