NOTE: Super long post ahead. Possible blindness might immediately ensue if you read it all. Continue at your own risk. You’ve been warned.
Phew. It’s been many years since I left the back-then very conservative Arab nation of Qatar, and my family started a new life in Southeast Asia. A lot has changed over the decade – world politics, media and myself.
And with that kind of transformation comes the desire to grasp on a deep level what really happened, what really changed, and if there was anything you lost along the way.
Or maybe whether what you “lost” has always been there within you but you’ve been too distracted to notice it, leading you to assume it’s become nothing more but a mere relic of your past.
Such an introspective exercise inevitably forces you to look within yourself and at times also induces intoxicating nostalgia.
In the case of Beirut, the experience reminded me of what it means to be an optimistic Arab, amongst warm hospitable Arabs, in an Arab city drowned in the sounds of Arabic music.
Deep inside, a part of me has been homesick all along, I realized. It’s always longed for that Arabness that I somehow partially “lost” along the way throughout my “corrosive” years as a young Afro-Arab Sudanese Muslim in a conflicted Diaspora.
The deep Arabness I felt in Beirut was one stripped of its suffocating politicized aspects, and based on language, a rich liberal heritage, music and yummy food.
Awesome introspective and living breathing moments.
Luckily, engaging in this epic mental dance between your current and former self is in many ways an easier, richer, and more intense experience if you’re a blogger or at least someone who keeps a personal diary.
And if anything, this realization has sunk in even deeper after my return from the 2nd Arab Bloggers Summit in Beirut recently.
Sure, it’s cool when you travel for conferences like these to attend some pretty educational and insightful workshops and learn something new. That’s awesome. It’s fun. But what has always excited me more is the prospect of interacting with other like-minded bloggers themselves, especially those I’ve been following for three years now.
Not like-minded in the sense of political stances, but in their impassioned impulse to speak up and tell their stories freely.
To express who they are, to courageously say what they believe in the face of harsh but changeable realities, and to stand behind the most basic of freedoms – the freedom of speech.
It’s usually been encounters with such people that have left a profound impact on me. And the encounters I had the fortune of experiencing in Beirut were no exception.
In fact, they have been amongst the best so far, and here in this post I shall recall some of those wonderful moments to the best of my abilities, while maintaining the privacy of those involved.
Day 1 – Driver George, Hezbollah Territory,
and the Brainstorms
I arrived in Beirut on the 7th of December, 2009. The touchdown was quick and smooth. Seeing the hilly city’s buildings from above as the flight descended reminded me of the scenes I saw on television during the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war, except there was no smoke rising up from bombed structures.
When I began walking into the airport, I expected to see South Asian migrant workers doing things like picking up luggage, but everyone employed at the airport seemed to be Lebanese. Clearly, this wasn’t Dubai, but was it going to be the city I heard notorious stories about when it came to the treatment of darker-skinned Arabs, especially Sudanese?
I wasn’t worried, and if anything, I was actually excitedly curious. “Another entertaining question mark I can tackle. Should be fun,” I thought to myself.
Things couldn’t have gone better. With the exception of the grumpy officer who asked me to refill my arrival card in Arabic instead of English, everyone else at the airport was extremely friendly and welcoming.
Within about an hour, I was outside the airport walking with George, the driver who was holding up a sign with my name inside the airport’s arrival area. The air was wonderful to breath and colder than what it is constantly in hot tropical Southeast Asia, and I loved it.
I loved it even more as the cold breeze blew in my face when George began driving.
“Interesting, looks like the war really affected this area pretty badly,” I observed when I looked around. “It’s Hezbollah territory. The Israelis really pounded it badly, but it’ll get fully rebuilt in no time. That’s how it is here. Every once in a while, the Israelis find an excuse to destroy the Lebanese economy and damage the country, so that many potential tourists will end up in Israel instead.”
“Do you support Hezbollah,” I asked George. “Of course, they’re a resistance. They’ve fought the Israelis and stood up to them when others in Lebanon couldn’t. Hassan Nasrallah is a brave man.”
George continued sharing his thoughts, and I found it intriguing that a Lebanese Christian supported Hezbollah this passionately. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn.
I then asked him what it means to be Lebanese, and if there’s solid unity amongst the people.
“We Lebanese, we come in many different sects, and in general, we’ve always lived in peace. It’s our enemies who are determined to divide us. And once a few members of each sect begin attacking the houses of worship of other sects, things get out of control. It’s unfortunate. What can you do?
Those political leaders in this country, they just make things worse. They only care about themselves, and so the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer,” ranted George with frustration and slight despair.
We continued deeper into Beirut, and with Hezbollah territory behind us, it was now hard to notice the damage of war. It was as if nothing had happened in those inner areas of Beirut we were now driving through. Not a single clearly visible scratch.
Minutes later I arrived in my hotel, and I was hanging out with Sami Ben Gharbia, director of Global Voices Advocacy. It was really good seeing him again after I first met him at a previous new media workshop we both attended earlier in 2009.
He’s become like a big brother to me within this growing community of passionate activists, and is someone I have a lot of respect for.
Sami Ben Gharbia on Internet Repression
Half an hour later, a big bus arrived to take the the trainers involved with the summit sessions to the Beirut office of Heinrich Boll Stiftung.
HBS co-organized the event together with Global Voices Online, which is why on the bus, I was super happy but not surprised to meet fellow Global Voicers like the constantly-giggling Amira Al-Husseini whom I had fun practicing my rusty Bahraini Arabic dialect with.
I also had the honor of sitting next to famed Iraqi blogger, Salam Pax. Naturally, our conversation focused on the US-led invasion of Iraq and the Iraqi blogosphere. Pretty cool dude with a ton of interesting things to share. I’m sure Global Voicer, David Sasaki who has an awesome post about Salam Pax would agree.
Wael Abbas, the respected Egyptian blogger responsible for campaigns against police torture in Egypt, sat nearby as well, and was fun to converse with.
Wael Abbas on the Egyptian Blogosphere
At the HBS office, we were warmly greeted by Doreen and Hiba. I’ll never forget their heartfelt generosity and hospitality.
Through their loving embrace, I fell in love with Beirut and its people, and I am forever grateful for everything they’ve done to make our days throughout the event memorable and extremely meaningful.
“Hey Drima! Wonderful to see you, thank goodness you arrived safely, I’m so glad you didn’t have problems at the airport. You were the one I was worried most about,” told me Doreen.
I thanked her for all her help and told her about my conversation with George.
“Ah, this is the problem here. Lebanese people are obsessed with he said, she said politics, obsessed. Oh well, what to do,” she remarked.
Eventually, everyone sat down around a big table, and we proceeded with our brainstorming session on planning the days ahead. A lot of opinions and ideas were exchanged, but one in particular stood out.
Tunisian blogger, Slim Amamou, was commenting on the need for a workshop focused on what he thought is the biggest form of censorship in the Arab world. Nope, not online censorship, religious censorship or government censorship.
He was talking about something that didn’t occur to me and wasn’t obvious enough.
It was a significant “aha” moment for me, and it got me thinking a lot about the many times in the past when I hit the backspace button on my keyboard before publishing a certain blog post.
I wasn’t alone. Many in the room could relate.
Following the first brainstorm session, we swarmed the streets of Beirut, and headed towards a restaurant nearby Al-Jimeyza.
So far, so good. Actually, no. Make that, so far, super good.
By then, I was already comfortable and feeling at home in good company.
Still, I couldn’t predict the kind of impact the next five days were about to have on me.
Day 2 – The Imaginary Red Lines
The conference started with numerous simultaneous workshops in the Barcamp format. All were aimed at helping participants understand how to practice free speech online better, more effectively, and safely for example in countries like Tunisia where online censorship is crazy tight.
I noted down some learnings during and right after some of those sessions.
For the first, I joined Wael Abbas, Noha Atef, Jamal Eid from ANHRI, and a few more people for a discussion on why we blog. We shared our motivations and perspectives with each other. We also talked about Islam on the internet.
According to Wael and Jamal, before blogging, Islam on the internet was dominated by Islamists who ran major centralized websites like Islamonline.
Later on, because of blogging’s individualist nature as an activity and autonomous independent design as a medium, it attracted a more liberal-minded crowd open to conversation.
Social media after all is about being social, and having a two-way open dialogue. Hence, that’s why many Islamists dislike it and aren’t big fans of its usage.
Now, I don’t think this applies to all Islamists, especially the younger more open generation as we’ve seen in the blogosphere of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Still, the bulk of the online Islamist movement is from an older generation with rigid thinking, and they prefer online forums with administrators.
Ultimately, what was clear to all of us is that the internet has helped erase the illusion that red lines exist when it comes to discussing certain critical topics. This reminded me of what Tunisian blogger, Slim said the previous day about self-censorship.
I think in a lot of ways, it is we ourselves that give those mental red lines power by fearing them, and blogging has helped many of us overcome that fear and push the boundaries of free speech.
Later in the day, Razan Ghazawi gave a presentation critiquing a study of the Arab blogosphere conducted by the Internet and Democracy Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which is where Global Voices Online began.
A Short Video of Razan’s Presentation (Shot by Hamzoz)
As far as I understood, Razan’s main critique centered on the way the Arab blogosphere was segmented into what she saw as inaccurate, simplistic, and misleading categories (more here at her blog).
Jillian C. York from Berkman Center responded that it is indeed unfortunate that the Arab blogosphere was largely seen through an American lens. However, she also clarified that the study included Arab researchers and that there are valid questions that she’ll forward to Berkman.
Meanwhile, an Omani dude in the audience said such readings of Arab culture or Arab phenomenon need to stop because they’re dangerous. He also added that the inclusion of Arab researchers is no justification for the mistakes that occurred, and draws a comparison between the research center and biased American mainstream media.
Noha Atef tried to stress that Berkman Center is an academic center and that it has no political agenda such as that contained in the bias of mainstream media. She says Berkman is open to feedback and will gladly correct inaccuracies, because at the end of the day, it’s concerned with academic pursuits.
During the session, an Iraqi guy in the audience jumped in to say that we should stop seeing such things as a conspiracy against Arabs. The Omani dude responded and clarified that he wasn’t alluding to conspiracies but to the inherent dangers of distorted thinking which leads to viewing issues through distorted lenses and hence contributes to ineffective solutions.
The most entertaining and memorable part, was when the Iraqi guy objected to Razan’s use of the term “occupied-Iraq” during her talk. He passionately explained that Western media has done a better job exposing human rights abuses in Palestine compared to Arab media, and that legally speaking, Iraq is not an occupied nation, so it shouldn’t be called as such.
Saudi Jeans, who was also present, blogged his opinion on Razan’s presentation. Here’s the part worth noting:
Razan Ghazzawi gave a critical look at the report issued by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Razan had some problems with the language and context of the report, which she found unfairly biased. Although I think Razan has made some good points, I believe that most of her critique seemed to focus on minutiae that seemed irrelevant in the larger context of the report, which is based on data mining and aims to draw a map from that data without attempting much to draw any radical conclusions. The report was about trends and links, not political analysis.
The first day continued with more workshops, genuine heartfelt interactions, and a lot of laughter. It ended with a super fun group dinner at an awesome seafood restaurant, lovely live Arabic music, and jolly dabke dancing.
Day 3 – Taboos, and Heartfelt Optimism
By the third day, we were getting used to the flow and most of the 80 or so participants began bonding. Jillian presented to all of us Herdict, a website that gathers information on blocked websites through crowd-sourcing. It has an Arabic version with an explanatory video on Ikbis.
At a later workshop, Ghaida’a from Yemen told us about her admirable project, EWAMT, which is supported by Rising Voices. The project is focused on providing tools and encouraging selected female Yemeni participants to blog, and express themselves. It also educates them about the importance of citizen journalism and how to engage in it so they can be heard.
I asked Ghaida’a if they faced any kind of opposition from conservative forces within Yemeni society who’ve found out about the project and its nature. She told me, on the contrary, they’ve received lots of support, most of it from men who now also want to take part in what the project is doing.
That certainly cheered me up, although I highly doubt influential conservative figures will be too happy if they found out what the project is about. Plus, the project participants are now increasingly beginning to blog about taboo subjects such as local politics, religion, and sex. Yay!
One thing that really struck me about Hamzoz is his relentless optimism. He believes in the importance of ending all of his blog posts with something positive. Pretty inspiring and enthusiastic dude with a big heart for life. Loved watching him speak.
The rest of the day continued with more workshops and interactions, too many to mention, but it was great.
Day 4 – The Secular Hijabi
Lots of stuff happened that day including the presentation I gave. Saudi Jeans blogged about it and the remaining days here.
For me personally though, one thing stood out that day, and it was the chat I had with the Egyptian hijab-wearing Noha Atef.
The day I met her and heard her deliver her presentation, I greatly admired her for her audacity. Covering torture in Egypt is no fun business. On top of that, initiating citizen journalism based campaigns that lead to freeing unjustly imprisoned people is an awesome achievement.
Still though, a part of me wondered “eh, a politically active Egyptian girl wearing hijab? Yeah, probably a big fan of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yay, how nice. Isn’t this supposed to be a conference mainly on online freedom of speech in the Arab world? Since when did the theocratic Muslim Brotherhood value free speech anyway? Right, whatever.”
But I didn’t like maintaining that thought, and so when we both went out with a group of bloggers for dinner to Teh-Marboteh in Alhamrah neighborhood, I got my chance to ask her about her political leanings.
“I believe that the nation state needs to be secular” Noha replied to me. “Now, I don’t know what your understanding of secularism is, but my understanding of it is that the state needs to be religiously neutral. In other worlds, Islam can’t be the religion of the state.” she clarified, and I nodded my head in agreement.
“In Egypt, Christians need signed permission even if they simply want to renovate an aging church. This is pathetic. Christians should be able to practice their faith freely, and so should I as a Muslim without anyone bothering me with what I can or can’t do.” she stressed.
“Interesting, ya bintil neel inti, oh daughter of the Nile,” I said smiling.
That’s how the conversation went as best I can remember, and I gratefully thanked her for enriching my mind with a more nuanced perspective. Later on, during the last day, she passed me some pretty cool Arabic music.
Arabic music like this.
Oh well, who knew? Secular hijabi ain’t no oxymoron in Egypt after all, and I surely learned my lesson.
Day 5 – Threatened Voices and Legal Support for Bloggers
Again, lots of stuff took place on that day, and thankfully Saudi Jeans captured the highlights, so here they are.
Although most attendees of the meeting were bloggers (it’s the Arab Bloggers Meeting, after all), it was also good to hear from non-bloggers in this event. Gamal Eid, a lawyer and head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, gave a presentation about the legal support for bloggers. He demonstrated some examples of different cases they have worked on, and explained their approach in dealing with cases where bloggers are involved, especially when they get arrested by their governments.
As for the other presentation on the fourth day, it was given by Jacob Applbaum aka Ya3qoub. The talk focused on circumvention tools, which something Jacob knows a great deal about from his work on the Tor Project.
I found it hilarious when Jamal told us that in Egypt it is now a crime to “exploit democracy for the sake of subverting democratic rule.”
Lovely. How cute.
On the same day, Sami from GV Advocacy also presented Threatened Voices, an impressive website that tracks suppression of online free speech. It is essentially “a collaborative mapping project to build a database of bloggers who have been threatened, arrested or killed for speaking out online and to draw attention to the campaigns to free them.”
At night, all of us went for a group farewell dinner where we were entertained by the music of a bad-ass live band. Here in this post, David Sasaki tells us what it was like being there as one of the few non-Arabic speakers, and how the music felt.
it is hard not to fall for the Middle East, for Arab culture, for the rich complexity of Arabic.
It has to do with music, a constant rhythm and melody behind everything: language, politics, identity, the way people walk and talk.
Pictured above is Palestinian blogger and musician Sa’ed Karzoun (Jillian will soon translate his posts into English.) I sat down next to him at our final group dinner in Beirut and he began to wax poetic about the importance of music in Arab culture. I asked him about his favorite songs and musicians. The list was interminable. “Just listen to it, man,” he said. “They will kill you. You will die.”
He was right. An Arab musician opens his mouth and out pours his soul. It is the kind of music that sounds cheap and ethnic when its played in some American cafe or bar. But there you are in a small restaurant in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut with a three piece acoustic band and it is the kind of music that brings tears to your eyes.
They start slowly with haunting instrumental music or a cappella singing that sounds almost like moaning. But then, inevitably, they hit a folk song that every Arab – from Marrakesh to Muscat – knows by heart.
And that is the point I am trying to make: they know all of these songs by heart. Dozens and dozens of folk songs that are both anthems and protectors of Arab culture. It is, I must admit, an awkward feeling to be the outsider in any group that knows the lyrics to every song. Songs you’ve never even heard before.
High five David. “The kind of music that brings tears to your eyes.” Right on dude. Nicely put. And thanks for interviewing me.
As for Sa’ed, I love what he’s doing: teaching children in Ramallah music.
Day 6 – Arab Identity, 7iber, and Nizar Qabbani
Day six was pretty damn bittersweet. Leaving Beirut and parting with all the amazing people I met there was not easy. I almost freaking teared up when I had to walk out of Teh-Marbota at 11.30pm to head back to the hotel, and then to the airpot for my flight.
Saudi Jeans has details on how the conference itself ended.
The fifth day of the meeting also had two presentations. First, Ramsey Tesdell of 7iber.com talked about the new media ecosystem and what they have learned from their experiment in Jordan. It was also good to learn of another promising new media experiment under the same name from Lebanon. Ahmad Gharbiea gave the last the presentation in the event and it focused on Creative Commons and how Arab bloggers should deal with licensing issues.
Keep in mind that these presentations were just part of the five-day event. The bigger part of the event was made up of many, many concurrent workshops on many different things and given by many people. Anyone who has an experience that she would like to share with others was welcome to stand up and say: “hey, my name is X and I would like to talk about this!” The meeting mostly took the barcamp format, which made it really fluid and informal. People were free to choose which workshops to attend, and some of the popular workshops had to be repeated or extended.
At the end of the meeting, the organizers invited those who spoke and gave workshops to stand up and the scene was just so inspiring, refreshing, and amazing: the great majority of people in the room was standing up, which means they didn’t only come here to listen, but also to share their knowledge with others. Usually in conferences, you have a handful of speakers and hundreds of silent attendees. This was not the case here. The Arab Bloggers Meeting was an Uncoference, and a great one at that.
I agree. This “conference” was certainly very different from all the ones I’ve attended previously.
With all the interactive workshops, dinners, and consecutive late night partying in restaurants and bars, many of us had gotten pretty close over the previous days.
Intimate stories. Pasts that shaped us. Outpourings of reasons for why we do what we do. Shared passions. Islam. Liberal democracy. Human rights. Internal struggles. What it means to be Arab, and the essence of Arabness. Similar deeply held values, and a staunch refusal to accept or leave things as they are.
All those factors brought us together in a very real way, and at certain points, it felt intense.
My conversations with Ramsey from 7iber, whom I greatly enjoyed hanging out with. Cruising through Beirut at 3am with him, Doreen, and that laughter-machine, otherwise known as Jillian C. York, and eating chicken Shawarma together.
Nizar Qabbani poetry. Chatting with Nasser Weddady from American Islamic Congress, and last but not least meeting in person one of my favorite bloggers in the Arab blogosphere, Naseem from The Black Iris of Jordan, someone I’ve been following closely for over three years now.
It was good chilling with him. We chatted for over an hour at Teh-Marbota, before I had to leave. Cool guy.
Ah, I can go on for days and days, but I need to end what has now officially become the longest blog post I’ve ever written.
If I can sum up this whole experience in one word, it would be this: transformative.
Beirut’s comforting familiar soul itself made the city the perfect host for facilitating those encounters, and I’m glad many of them mercilessly destroyed some stereotypes I never even knew I had in me. More importantly though and above all, I left Beirut inspired, motivated and a lot more optimistic about the impact of blogging in the Arab world.
I left it feeling better connected to the Arab in me. I left it knowing that he’s not “weird” and that there are in fact many out there like him.
On the last day, many of us confessed in the closing round of the conference how we arrived with so many preconceived negative notions about each other. Oh Yemenis are like this, Moroccans are like that. Egyptians are just so bla bla bla. Syrians are seriously yada yada yada.
But, we were wrong.
Instead, what we encountered was a great gathering of some very progressive like-minded people optimistic about the positive impact the web can make within the Arab world, and determined to steer it towards a brighter future in whatever way possible, big or small.
It was also right then in the midst of those confessions that I announced to everyone in the room I’ll begin blogging in Arabic. And it was also in Beirut’s airport on the way back, that for the first time literally in years I bought a book written in Arabic, a book by the late Sudanese author Al-Tayeb Saleh.
I left Beirut healed. I left it with valuable experiences sealed. I left it transformed – no, deeply transformed – for real.