I’m not even sure where I should begin given the many cool highlights of this experience. To make it easy, allow me to go about it day by day. So, let’s get started.
Day 1: Saturday, 20th October.
I arrived and checked into the hotel at about 5.30pm. By then, I was aware that the organizers were going to take us the bloggers out for dinner. By 7.00pm I was downstairs at the lobby waiting, unaware that the Arab guy waiting nearby was none other than Lebanese blogger, Mustapha of Beirut Spring. A few minutes later, the Egyptian Sandmonkey showed up. I was already expecting his presence after reading this post on his blog.
It was really cool finally getting to meet Sandmonkey whom I’ve been reading religiously for almost two years. He’s as crazy and entertaining in real life as he is on his blog.
Two CSIS staff members approached us. We thought Mohammed of Iraq The Model, the most well-known and ehm pro-US Iraqi blog in existence was joining us. He wasn’t.
20 minutes later, the five of us, Sandmonkey, Mustapha, the two CSIS staff members and I were talking blogging and politics at the restaurant. It was great. Two hilariously true and memorable quotes are the following:
- “We are not sensible people. We are emotional people.” Sandmonkey.
- “China deals with the world as it is. America deals with it as how it would like it to be.” Mustapha of Beirut Spring.
We finished dinner early and I didn’t want to head back to the hotel so I suggested shisha. The provocateur and controversy instigating Sandmonkey agreed and so we both left to the nearby Adams Morgan Street.
Here we were, the Sandmonkey and I sitting down and chilling face-to-face after almost two years of reading each other’s blog and exchanging occasional emails. I have to say it was a profound experience. It’s funny how it felt like I knew him for ages even though I had only just met him for less than three hours. The feeling was mutual. Not surprisingly, we talked and laughed a lot.
Given the nature of his blog, a number of people have seriously suggested that he’s some kind of CIA agent. After all how can an Egyptian have such unthinkable opinions? Well, the reasons – some of them personal – become very evident after you meet him. More importantly, the missing pieces of “the puzzle” become easy to fill in.
The shisha was good. We were satisfied and so I returned to the hotel while Sandmonkey left to meet some of his friends.
I had made arrangements that night to leave to New York by train to meet one of my best friends there in Manhattan. Thanks to bad planning and one-way ticket prices going up from about 40 to 70 dollars, I had to cancel. I then spent the night depressed and trying to cheer up myself by watching Bill Maher. What a funny guy!
Day 2: Sunday, 21st October.
I woke up late still feeling slightly depressed at not being able to meet my friend in New York. She couldn’t make it to DC either. “Too bad” I thought and so I decided to explore Washington DC.
I took the train from L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station to China-town (which has nothing really Chinese about it except for a few decorative structures).
Speaking of Metro Stations, Washington DC’s subway system is clean and nicely organized. New York’s by comparison is a total disaster!
I returned to the hotel after it started getting dark. The TV, my iPod and the book “Globalization and its Discontents” by Joseph Stiglitz all kept me entertained until I dozed off.
Day 3: Monday, 22nd October.
The conference began. I arrived at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center half an hour before the first session started.
While conversing with numerous bloggers who included the charismatic Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, Sandmonkey suddenly pointed out to me “dude, Irshad Manji is here. Look, she’s right there”.
I knew that was my chance and so prompted by my curiosity, I immediately went up to the notorious Irshad Manji and introduced myself. (more juicy details on this and my second pre-scheduled one hour long conversation with her
in an upcoming and separate post right here).
The first session began. It was a speech by the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Irene Khan. She is the first woman and Muslim to hold this position. She spoke about her work with Amnesty, the increasing terrorist attacks carried out against civilians regardless of nationality and the importance of defending human rights.
She said something I liked to the extent of, “extremism in the defense of liberty is good and moderation in the pursuit of justice is bad” or something like that. She was basically commenting about the title of the conference, “Overcoming Extremism: Protecting Civilians from Terrorist Violence”, and its scope of definition especially in regards to the words “extremism” and “terrorist”.
At the start of the approximately 30 minutes long Q&A session, a passionate Lebanese professor questioned why state-sponsored terrorism by the United States and Israel weren’t included in Irene Khan’s speech. It seemed to me that she was more interested in venting out her frustrations publicly since she repeated the same emotionally-charged statements during another following session.
The Secretary General didn’t respond coherently. However from what I could gather, she was basically saying that Israeli collateral damage should be strongly condemned. Another guy, a Palestinian it seemed given by his statements, walked up to the microphone and began making emotional proclamations. An Israeli from Palestinian Media Watch, took the microphone on the other side of the amphitheater and attacked Irene Khan for apparently doing the propaganda work of Hamas by what he saw as “drawing a symmetry between what Israel does and what terrorist organizations such as Hamas do”.
The room continued to heat up but things eventually calmed down. Damn it, how disappointing. I was actually expecting a boxing match or at least a smack down. Now that would have been amusing to watch.
Next after the break, we had to pick one of three workshops which were unfortunately held at the same time, “The Evolution of Terrorist Tactics”, “the Changing Media Landscape” or “Community Responses”. I accompanied Sandmonkey to attend the one about terrorist tactics since it’s the subject we had the least knowledge about. The workshop was amazingly juicy and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Thankfully I still had time to go and attend the workshop “Community Responses” towards its end. The speakers were Irshad Manji, Geoff Loane from the Red Cross and Dr. Hany El Banna who is the President of Islamic Relief Worldwide, an organization possessing no qualms in cooperating with Jews or Christians to facilitate much need humanitarian aid. I have great respect for what they do. There’s more though:
What has been your most challenging experience in development?
It is increasingly clear that there is distrust of Muslim-run charities, particularly amongst INGOs. IRW has had to exert greater effort than other organisations to be open, accountable and transparent, which has contributed hugely to our success. We are now working to encourage other Muslim-run NGOs to do the same through the Humanitarian Forum. We hope the Forum is a platform for all types of organisation to come together in a spirit of mutual respect and willingness to co-operate.
I managed to meet Dr. El Banna after they wrapped it up. Being someone who was educated at al-Azhar and honored by Queen Elizabeth II, I was curious to talk to him. I loved the guy. He’s inspired by the true teachings of Islam to do what he does and is vehemently opposed to the politics and heinous violence of ignorant Muslim extremists.
The second round of workshops was about to commence and so I picked “Arab and Western Media Perspectives”. By its end, I had zero regrets. It was excellent. Philip Bennett, the managing editor of the Washington Post didn’t speak much. The most impressive speaker in my opinion was Salameh Nematt, a Middle East analyst and journalist, and a person who is very committed to the goal of democracy in the region from what I can tell. He singlehandedly managed to erase various doubts I had and changed some of my opinions in regards to Iraq. Spare some time, read these two articles here and here, and you’ll probably know what I mean.
As someone with a lot of experience in the field, he explained that Arab media is largely state-controlled. Hence, it’s no surprise that they solely focus on everything that is ugly with post-invasion Iraq. The goal behind this biased reporting is to basically connect the words “bloody” and “democracy” together, simply because it’s in the interests of the neighboring undemocratic regimes who control the media to do so. What a simple, yet very smart observation many of us fail to see!
He affirms that today there is a decent functioning democracy in Iraq and even if the government is corrupted, it isn’t more corrupted than the other neighboring undemocratic regimes. Furthermore the elections are legitimate and have been witnessed by the largest number of election observers in human history. He further says that there are now more than 100 newspapers and publications in the country. Previously there was one voice – Saddam’s.
I have been critical of America in regards to Iraq in the past, and is some cases harshly but I ultimately want to see progress. In my opinion the real fundamental challenge for America – and Iraqis – is bringing real security on the ground. The two must work together. We might just be beginning to witness that. I am cautiously hopeful thanks to various factors, especially a nearby country ruled by a lovable regime – Iran.
During Salameh Nematt‘s speech I could notice people in the audience nodding agreeably and others disapprovingly. During the Q&A a comment was made on the convergence taking place between traditional and the largely uncontrolled new media, and whether there are any serious potential innovations to propel “liberating change” in the Arab media faster. From his answer and my following short conversation with him after the workshop, he is very skeptical that anything positive will happen in the near future with Arab media but that there is a good potential of things going out of the regime’s controlling hands eventually like what is happening in China now. I agreed.
During the workshop, an articulate and very polite Israeli Jew who lost his daughter in a terrorist attack suggested telling stories about the lives of victims rather than simply reporting statistics. I spoke to him for a while and liked him. He was patient and had a genuine interest in reaching out.
The workshops for the day were over and we then proceeded to the last speech by Aryeh Neier, the President of Open Society Institute. I don’t ever remember coming across him before. Most people, it seemed, saw him as an academic heavyweight and showed him a lot of respect. According to him, there is no line between realism and idealism but that idealism is simply a part of realism.
After the end of the first day of the conference, it was clear to me that the organizers did a good job at selecting an ideologically diverse group of people sharing a common goal – combating extremism and its violent terrorist manifestations.
I returned back to the hotel and at night went out for more shisha with Sandmonkey. We met a journalist and talked politics all night. Needless to say again, it was a lot of fun.
Day 4: Tuesday, 23rd October.
I arrived for the second and last day of the conference 30 minutes late. Before I got into the building, I spotted Sandmonkey outside with an Arab-looking guy. It was none other than Mohammed of Iraq The Model. He made it and I was glad! I finally got to meet the young man behind the arguably controversial blog, but more intriguingly someone who was received at the White House by President George W. Bush.
The two of us sat together outside for about an hour talking about blogging and the situation in Iraq. In fact we completely missed the first session of the day which included John Zogby. (more on my interesting and revealing encounter with Mohammed in an upcoming and separate post).
The second session was by the former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard. He was clearly experienced but the delivery of his speech left me quite bored. Thank God, the second session with Ari Sandel, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker of the hilarious short musical comedy, West Bank Story was great! The vast majority which most definitely included me certainly liked him and his film.
The last session of the conference was by victims of terrorism. There were four of them: an Irish man who lost his son during The Troubles, a Kenyan from the US Embassy bombing in Nairobi, a Russian from the Beslan school siege and last but not least Ashraf al-Khaled also known as “the Groom of Jordan”. He lost his father and father-in-law when his wedding was hit in the Amman bombings.
The conference was officially over after that. I departed in the company of a wonderful Sudanese who in his own words is “a formerly active democracy activist”. It was a great pleasure finally getting to meet him and I am left very grateful for his kind gestures.
I returned to the hotel and took a nap. A phone call woke me up. Someone held on to a promise. 15 minutes later I was downstairs in the lobby with the one and only Irshad Manji. (more juicy details on the one hour long conversation I had with her
in an upcoming and separate post right here).
By the end of my meeting with her, I was happy and thankful for the opportunity given to me by the conference organizers, for it enabled me to meet and network with some very great and interesting people.
I went to the restaurant to enjoy a quiet dinner alone. Coincidentally I was joined by “the Groom of Jordan” himself. We talked a lot and I must say he’s a wonderful and wise guy.
Finally, I ascended to my room and slept like a snoring pig.
Day 5: Wednesday, 24th October.
I checked out of my room at 11am and headed to Union Station to buy a disposable camera since I forgot to bring along mine (I know, stupid indeed). It started raining so I got stuck in the spacious and architecturally pleasant station for a while. When the rain seized, I headed to the Washington Monument and then the White House to snap some pictures.
By then, I was already in love with the city and its people – both the very welcoming liberals and the genuinely kind and curious conservatives. With all its countless flaws and my numerous grievances with it, my belief in America as a nation that is more good than bad immensely solidified.
I snapped more pictures, headed back to the hotel to collect my luggage and sped off to Dulles International Airport together with OpenDemocracy.net‘s founder, Anthony Barnett.
All in all, it was a cool experience but I just wish there was one single thing I could pick out as the best. Ah, forget that. The best part was meeting super hot humble chicks who are so damn smart you could talk politics and blogging with them all day long. It’s an unusual combination. Oh yeah baby!
And damn, this has got to be the longest post I’ve ever blogged!