Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fighting the Good Fight, with Energy to Spare

Walking the shoreline along Beirut’s Corniche, I ponder the fisherman as they cast, watch, and wait. From traditional dress to professional-casual, the men along the rock wall could be on break from University or a day at the office, or this could be a daily ritual to wile away the hours. No one seems even mildly concerned that only one year ago the seafloor was a blanket of oily tar, and an obsidian ring of petroleum sludge defined the high tide line. In a country frighteningly devoid of environmental controls on industrial pollution and where tons of litter is discarded directly on the beaches, the idea of the natural habitat as anything other than something to exploit is counter-intuitive to mainstream Lebanon. Attempting to overcome these entrenched views is a staggering task; it’s easy to simply let things continue as they have. C’est la vie….

Easy for some, anyway. It amazes me how often some form of good comes from trauma, pain, and disaster. Last year, the July War and the oil spill were devastating for Lebanon - economically, ecologically, and emotionally. But the oil spill gave birth to a new vision for environmental action, born right here in Beirut from – no surprise – the inexhaustible Wa’el Hmaidan and Zena El-Khalil. If you followed this blog last year, you’ll recall Wael and Zena as the energy behind a grass roots effort to clean the oil spill from the beaches. They hosted me for one month while I volunteered on the oil spill in November 2006. Frustrated with the lack of freedom and inevitable bureaucracy that evolves within non-profit organizations – as well as in government, private industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – Indy Act was born. This union for independent activists (thus, “IndyAct”) serves as an umbrella non-profit for independent thinkers. Members can qualify under IndyAct’s non-profit status for grant funds. They have IndyAct’s organizational resources, interns, and volunteers available to them. Yet, they are free to pursue their own projects and solutions without the oversight and restrictions that come with most non-profit organizations. In a single year of operation, IndyAct has assembled the talents of three independent activists (“league members”) from Lebanon to achieve numerous successes within their three environmental, social and cultural campaigns . With local interest growing in global climate change issues, their volunteer ranks recently swelled from 50 to 80, and their staff of interns will grow from eight to twelve by January.

This week Wa’el and this storm of volunteers are putting the final preparations on their 9th December Walk-a-thon for global climate change awareness in the Arab world. In preparation for the event, they’ve strung “seawater level” tape around Beirut’s neighborhoods, as a visual reminder of the potential effects should Lebanon, the Arab nations, and the rest of the world decline to take action. They’ve created murals around the city (see 1st photo) to spread their “Draw the Line” theme. This is IndyAct's first major public education awareness campaign. It's concurrent with a global event timed to coincide with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The road to renewal is painful. During my work here last year, the Ministry of Environment’s lead officer told me quite bluntly, “Why do I care about oil on the beach? Cleaning the oil will not feed my child.” I cringe, curse under my breath. How can he be so selfish, so short-sighted? I resist the urge to mention that the fat boy on his screen saver hardly looks hungry. Instead, I remind myself that it took fires on streams and in landfills, the near-disappearance of several animal species – including our national symbol - and Rachel Carson’s strident writings (insert link to Silent Spring) before North Americans began to rethink the benefits of “better living through chemistry.”

It’s easy to understand the nation’s collective exhaustion with their country’s nearly constant role as the world’s battleground since the 1940s. It’s easy to understand the lack of interest in any future that looks further than tomorrow. Last year, I walked every day through Rafiq Hariri’s pet re-building project – the downtown Beirut Central District (BCD). Though it had a disturbing Disneyland quality to it, it was a hub for the faux riche and provided jobs for quite a few Beirutis. Brought to life after 10 years of post-civil war re-building effort, now it sits silent, evacuated, with Hezbollah’s empty tent city in place of its outdoor cafés. Political persuasions aside, no truly human member of the global village we call Earth, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Confucian, Agnostic, or Atheist, could peer into this scene with anything other than disgust.

There is a long, bumpy, pothole littered, bombed-out road to travel from an age-old habit of disregard for the Lebanese coast, to Lebanon’s tiny (but energetically) emerging environmental movement and ecotourism industry. The Lebanese who truly hope for clean air, water, and beaches have a challenging road to walk. Yet projects like the Eco-Village , an environmentally sustainable holistic retreat, and the Al-Chouf Cedar Reserve show the promise Lebanon holds. Protected areas are growing and Lebanon is using these areas to attract the coveted eco-traveller. Al-Chouf is a forest preserve established to protect the last of the brutally over-harvested cedars that signify Lebanon’s ancient history and decorate the nation’s flag. Together with Lebanon’s largest remaining wetlands area, Aammiq Wetland, they comprise a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. All three of these projects testify to the power of the people in Lebanon who truly value their country and its unique gifts, and are committed to passing them on to future generations. I took the 2nd and 3rd photos during our visit to Al-Chouf this week.

Days before the Arab Climate walk-a-thon, the IndyAct office is alive with activity. Well into the night, people come and people go. The faces change as the evening passes, but there are always at least 5 people in the office. It’s the final push to get the word out. Their goal is aggressive. In a city that at least superficially seems indifferent to the pulse of their world, IndyAct wants 5000 participants in the walk-a-thon Saturday morning. If any group can do it, I have faith that IndyAct has the passion and the commitment to achieve its goal.

Escaping the Mall to Explore Jihad

I’d read through several travel guides for Kuwait, yet all seemed at a loss for suggesting how best to pass time in Kuwait outside Kuwait’s apparently insatiable yen for shopping. Locals most often asked me, which malls have you visited? The Avenues? The Marina? Al Kout? At some point, it’s impossible to avoid the mall culture that has become the national past time. Meetings outside of working hours are inevitably conducted at mall coffee shops, and most typically, Starbucks. Yes, the world’s worst coffee has invaded the Middle East. The old-world Arab coffee shops tucked along the side streets are small outdoor patio affairs with dirt floors, benches, and a few scattered tables and chairs. Men in pairs, men alone, but men, always men, chat idly and gesture lazily to emphasize their points. As a filthy menstruating female, I am prohibited entry to this world, but I peer inside whenever I pass. I listen to the soft gurgle of men sucking on water pipes. I squeeze back a dry cough deep inside my chest, and hold my breath against the cloying sweet smoke of the sheesha as I walk on to the Marina Mall. Or maybe it was the Avenues. Or Souq Sharq. I don’t know, which. Each mall is a “deja vu” collection of over-priced clothing, jewelry and perfume shops, the recurring line of storefronts occasionally broken with a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee shop. The monochrome field of white dishdashas and black abayas, the dancing script of westerns shop names in Arabic script, and the presence of gender-segregated prayer rooms are the only clues that I am not in Minneapolis or Los Angeles or Dallas or Tampa or Omaha.

Infinitely bored with the mall scene and its expense - one 250-ml (8 oz) Starbucks cappuccino was $4.25!!! - I believed that there had to be more to Kuwait’s nightlife than the malls, there simply MUST be. I’d heard of the Advocates for Western-Arab Relations (AWARE), a local non-profit cultural outreach organization, and had finally managed to attend one of their diwaniyas. This was my first experience with the concept of the diwaniya, a discussion group intended to inspire thoughtful discussion and reasonable discourse among those with various opinions. I was both wary of and fascinated by the discussion topic for my first diwaniya, “Islam vs. Terrorism.” Wary, because I wondered how truly open any discussion of religion can be, yet fascinated to hear Muslims speak their opinions on what connection – if any – exists between their beliefs and the violence perpetrated by some “in the name of Islam.”

After a short and very dry Power Point presentation that explored the international definition of terrorism and its sub-types, as well as references from the Qur’an that prohibit killing the innocent but do allow for killing only in self-defense, the topic was open to the room. Ever the critical thinker, the vagueness of “innocence” and “self-defense” disturbed me. Who decides one’s innocence? Who decides what constitutes self-defense? If one feels oppressed by another nation (e.g., Palestinian resentment towards the presence and/or expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestine Occupied Territories), is it right to assume the “oppressing” nation’s people are not innocent, and that re-taking settled land by force is self-defense? I could see how a devout Muslim might be able to justify to him/herself an act of violence towards Israel as “self-defense” in this context. When Dr. Lesh, the mediator for the diwaniya, affirmed that self-defense and innocence could only be determined in a court of law, my mind went to the many United Nations Resolutions that condemn the settlements (UN Resolutions 446, 452, 465). By no means am I advocating acts of violence against Israel; however, I left the discussion completely unclear on how Islam would interpret such an action.

One Westerner asked, “But what about jihad? What is it?” Muslims in the group insisted that jihad refers to personal or daily “struggle,” not war. Jihad is an element of daily life that can include striving to feed one’s family, to educate oneself, to raise one’s children as good citizens, or any other aspect of life that requires effort. The Muslims in the room felt that fundamentalists had redefined “jihad” for political purposes, much the way that ultra-conservatives in the US have co-opted the word “freedom” to promote military objectives.

The Muslims in the group wondered, why are only events involving Arabs reported as terrorism? What about the genocidal acts of the Janjaweed in Sudan or the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, or the brutal massacres of Seung Hui Cho at Virginia Tech and Pekka-Eric Auvinen at Jokela School? Aren’t these, too, acts of terrorism? I admit it’s hard for me not to disagree. Why aren’t these reported as acts of terror? Of course, the discussion was about Islam and its view towards acts of terror, not the role that media plays in creating bias. That topic alone could consume many diwaniyas.

One Kuwaiti woman argued, “Westerners know nothing about Islam. When’s the last time you saw a book about Islam in the US?” “Every day,” we answered, nearly in unison. She was not aware that US bookshelves, in stores and in libraries, are flush with books on Islam, and that new ones are released every day. Americans are starved for information about an elusive world they’ve only recently been exposed to, and that’s become part of their daily lives, through the media.

This reinforced the idea that we all censor based on what we absorb from the print, broadcast and Internet media. Everyone, regardless of political, religious, or cultural affiliation, stereotypes each other. When I left I hoped that everyone in the room would acknowledge bias on all fronts, and consider its power in the stories we hear. The diwaniya was intriguing, but it seemed most of us left with more questions than we came with.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Islam, Wasta, and the Changing Roles of Women

What's refreshing about Kuwait is that challenges to tradition - and status quo - are openly discussed in the opinion pages of Kuwait’s two English-language dailies The Arab Times and The Kuwait Times. Muna al-Fuzai is a devout Muslim woman journalist who waves the flag for anyone she deems under-represented. In recent editorials she has openly debated against Kuwait's pro-male dominant paradigm on issues of maids and rape, absurdly spoiled children, graft within the government, nepotism and "wasta" - the assumed benign practice of using influence or bribery to bypass the system. I have never met this woman – but I’d like to. What drives her to risk possible reprimands from her family, or is there no risk? Kuwait is making progress in terms of human rights very quickly for a country under Sharia Law. Women drive, they vote, they are highly educated (often in engineering and medicine), and the Kuwaiti Ambassador to Geneva recently encouraged women to seek seats in Parliament and become more involved in Kuwait’s legislative process. Yet many remain fully covered in public, and once married, live a dull existence with maids to cook and clean for them, au pairs to raise their children, and nothing but time on their hands. Internet Blogs and Opinion pages are heated with the debate over Kuwait’s proposed reinstatement of a curfew prohibiting women from leaving the home after 8 PM, under the auspices of protecting them from increasingly male violence. A few of the western men I’ve met here are disgusted by Kuwait’s treatment of women. What these men don’t recognize is that, at least in Kuwait, these issues are debated and discussed openly – quite unlike in their Wahabbist neighbor to the south.

There is brand of western chivalry in the American men I meet here that irritates me in its ignorance, until I realize that I’ve been guilty of the same before I came to the Arab world. American men erupt when I wear long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, wondering “why the hell I’ve gone native.” Of course, they aren’t the targets of the hard, disdainful stares, the hissed curses uttered under breath sweet with sheesha, or sometimes (though rarely) spat upon. It’s easy for us to become belligerent on another’s behalf, when we don’t personally pay the price for violating tradition.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Kuwait's Broken Families

With typically three and often four generations of Kuwaitis living under the same roof, it's difficult to perceive an anti-family attitude in the culture of this wealthy oil state tucked between the deserts of Saudi and the turmoil in Iraq. Yet for the Southeast Asian expatriate workers who constitute nearly 60% of Kuwait's population - and the breath that feeds her thriving oil economy - living and working in Ku8 tortures their loved ones. Largely from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India, this portion of the expat populace ekes a living on about 100KD (Kuwaiti Dinar, 4KD = US$1 as of 13 Nov 2007) each month. By law, no expat may bring a spouse or child into the country unless s/he earns 250 KD/month. And NOT collectively. So, a two-income household where one spouse earns 245 KD and the other earns 245 KD still cannot meet the income requirements. I work every day with men who left their families 5, 10, or even 15 years ago to come to Kuwait for jobs in the burgeoning service sector (drivers, waiters, housekeepers). They work hard to manage one trip home each year, and their marriages suffer for it. They barely know their sons and daughters, but earning enough to keep their children in school is a price they gladly pay. Until yesterday, I'd only heard rumor of this policy, but Muna al-Fuzai's column in yesterday's Kuwait Times confirmed this ( A mother's deprivation of rights! ). Rage and resentment - long quelled beneath the brilliant smiles and easy demeanors of these critical cogs in Ku8's machinery - is now coming to the surface, and Ku8 will likely have to remedy the situation soon. For many, the income policy is interpreted as blatant racism that belies the sentiment "Come, clean our toilets and nanny our children, but don't plan to have a rich life outside the workplace." Today, with another story on the demise of the family in Kuwait, it feels as if a small social crisis is simmering in this otherwise safe and somewhat sleepy Arab nation ( Majority of families live in alienation ).

When you create an industrial society that cannot meet its own workforce needs (only 30% of Kuwait's population are actually Kuwaiti), your expat Laborers bring both the exotic (curry, cappuccino, and cardamom) and the unexpected (belly-dancing, un-shrouded women, and Urdu). Like every nation before it that experienced a surge in "foreigners" - and even currently, with Italy's increasing (and derided) population of mosques and Romanians.

Considering that Kuwaiti women only won the right to vote last year, and learned to drive not long before, the Kuwaitis - like all nations - face the same challenges of globalization that families around the world confront.

Joseph, a Sri Lankan, drives us each day to the Kuwait Petroleum Company complex where I work during this project. Since I work different hours, I'm often the only passenger on the way home in the afternoon. Recently he took the opportunity for a detour to a Catholic church nearby in Al Ahmadi. Since I'm American, he assumed I'm Christian, and since I have dark hair, he probably assumed I'm Catholic. Not a bad guess. Though I left the Catholic Church as soon as moved out from my mother's roof, I was raised tightly in its rituals for nearly 17 years. Though nearly in the majority by nationality, Joseph is acutely in the minority in this Islamic state. It touched me that he thought to take me to Church - and also prescient. Even though I no longer practice, I do try to visit a Catholic Church in every country I visit - only to pray for my mother, who is still deeply devout.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A few more views into Kuwait

Unlike the steamy outfits and wild parties that define the Beirut Central District on a Friday night, Kuwait is a truly alcohol-free Islamic state, under Shiria Law. Along the beach near one of Ku8's many exotic hotels, women fully clothed in black hijab and abaya waltz into the sea, the fabric flaoting around them until, ever so slowly, it sinks into the salty surf and clings to their skin. Surely this cannot contribute to their buoyancy, and I see no women wander further than the surf.

After sunset, the crowds converge upon the main street in Farwaniya, ducking into air-conditioned shops for relief from the still-stifling heat.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ku8 City - a different view of an Islamic state

My first trip to Ku8 was this past July, an oddly cocooned experience at a time when the wise evacuate the 55 degree + (131 F) mid-day temperatures. In this type of heat the silence engulfs you. The random noise of the city is absorbed into a percussive wind that throbs against my ears. Wandering along the shore amidst the surreal plaza fountains (first photo), the strum of a Kuwaiti man's flapping dishdasha echoes across the warm wind. That day it reached 138F. I forced myself out into it - just to know what it would be like if I had to go outside, to live like many in Ku8 do, in unheated metal sheds by the sea with only a stifling hot breeze to wick the perspiration from their faces, throats, and chests. Long flowing fabrics make the most sense in this climate and support a thriving business in cotton shops, tiny glass-fronted stores with shelf upon shelf of white fabric. Are they all the same, I wonder? I am curious to wander inside and feel each piece, look closely at its weave, but this is clearly a man's world. I've yet to see a woman inside. I am surprised how long I manage my walk rather comfortably in silk pants and caftan - until I'm overcome by a wave of nausea, and rush behind a shop to submit to the bile up from my gut. Dehydration - subtle, yet powerful, it overtook me in a mere 20 minutes.

This first trip was rather lonely, the streets of Farwaniya empty until the sun slid out of site and could impose less ill. I did meet several wonderful shopkeepers, including two wonderful pastry bakers. They made real Lebanese beklawa! Their English was as limited as my Arabic, so we made much of swapping hand gestures and gifts - they, fruit drinks and sweets, I Homer-roasted coffee and smoked salmon. I also wandered into a wonderful spice shop, owned by an Iranian father and son (2nd photo).
Again, the Arab - er, Persian - tradition of hospitality lived on in the souq. Shopkeeper and son pumped me full of "cooka-coola laay-eet" (Coke light, the equivalent of Diet Coke), exotic fruit candies, and a wonderful deep roast coffee perfumed with ground cardamom.

A Canadian acquaintance took me out to the coast to meet a boat builder, a master of the Arab Dhou in life size and miniature. He lives and works in the grinding heat of summer (3rd photo)
, and welcomes the chance to run indoors to show me his small hand-made ships. A testament to his craft, each piece is hand cut and secured with tiny dowels. His full-scale work has been in progress for 8 months.

I return to Ku8 in November, and am hopeful this time that I will meet the Kuwaitis who came to Lebanon to help collect environmental samples from the oil spill last year. I look forward to visiting these places again with kinder temperatures. Best of all, I will return to Lebanon - far too briefly - at the end of November, to revisit good friends and a hopefully healing coast.