Friday, April 30, 2010

Heartbeat of the Eternal City

A few nights ago I was walking home along Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue leading from Castel Sant'Angelo on Rome's Tiber river to the Vatican. There's something ethereal about the Vatican at dusk. The shadows in the nearly 400-year-old duomo deepen as the shade of blue in the sky darkens. Streetlights echo the same orange glow the setting sun reflects on the clouds. The magnificent dome looms larger with each step down the nearly deserted avenue. 

The daily mob of tourists is something I gladly avoid, but there's something I love about living a stone's throw from the Vatican Wall.

There's something I love about just being in Rome. The torturous cobblestones that will catch your heel or turn an ankle in a moment reminisce of ages long past. Smoothly painted buildings with tiburtine accents, old beams and bricks strategically revealed to curious eyes. There's a lazy feel to the city. Motorinos weave around cars and pedestrians in a pattern somehow instinctive to all three.

I'm part of the pattern, too. Part of the fabric of the city. The city has claimed me, and I claim it in return. The construction sites always devoid of workers, the cafes with their espresso machines. Old women walking slowly home with their wheeled shopping bags while old men sit with cigarettes and coffee in the afternoon warmth. The ever-present group of tourists making its way through, oblivious to the pattern of the city but no less a part of it.

Strollers and bicycles, cigarette butts and beer bottles, graffiti and uneven cobblestones, ancient foundations and modern creations... all of it belongs to the city, owns the city, is the city.

Now that I as well am the city, I can leave - knowing the city will always be a part of me. Somehow, my heart will always beat with the pulse of this city. Because it does that, you know. The city works its way into your blood, into your veins, until it simply becomes part of your consciousness.

I know I can leave, because I will never truly be gone. Or something like that.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Repost: A Muslim's Passover

I came across this article today, and found it interesting enough to share:

A Muslim's Passover
Mohammad Ali Salih

WASHINGTON, DC: Except for a casual mention of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian lands and the tensions they recently caused in US-Israeli relations, my Passover Seder last week was very spiritual –another adventure for this Muslim.
After 9/11, as some Americans started to learn more about Islam, I embarked on a journey to learn about Christianity and Judaism.
When I came to America several years ago at the age of 31 years, I didn’t know any Jews. Even now, I don’t know one well. And until this Passover my attitude towards Jews was clouded by Israel’s expansionist policy in the Middle East.
A black man, with a foreign accent, a Muslim name and Arabic my native tongue, I was a little nervous when I attended Passover celebrations at Adat Reyim Synagogue near where I live in Burke, Virginia.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Temporary stopover...

Hello all,

I'm out of Egypt for a few weeks. One of those necessary stop-overs in life. But I shall be back soon enough. For a reason unbeknown to me, the universe is conspiring to keep me in Egypt for a while, so to Egypt I shall return.

I'll still be posting, though, when I have internet access.. No internet at home here. I have some reflections that I think are worth posting, whenever I can get my head wrapped around them.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Another protest...

More later, but here's a brief for now:
  • Around 1,000 protesters showed up - pretty impressive number
  • Reps of: Kefaya, al-Ghad, April 6, Karama, National Association for Change, + others
  • Multiple protesters were pulled out of the security boundaries by police and beaten
  • More of the political elite present: Ayman Nour, George Ishak, Hamdeen Sabbahi, and other MB/ Socialist/ liberal leaders
  • ElBaradei nowhere to be found, as usual
  • Ayman Nour and al-Ghad Chairman bodily pulled an unconscious protester from under the feet of police
  • Complaint of police brutality taken directly to a judge by Ayman Nour and others
Will give you a more comprehensive report later.

UPDATE (14/4): I would like to clarify a few issues from yesterday:

  • First, Ayman Nour's son was NOT harassed OR beaten by police. These rumors resulted from a misunderstanding and despite being widely promoted via Twitter and other means they are NOT true. Noor is perfectly fine and safe.
  • Bahaa Sabr, who was arrested yesterday and beaten severely by police, is currently in the hospital. Twitter story confirmed by multiple bloggers, although it has yet to be reported elsewhere.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My run-in with Egyptian state security

Today I witnessed a fraction of what Egyptian activists face.

Today is the second anniversary of the April 6, 2008 protests, which were the first simultaneous nation-wide protests in Egypt. The 6 April Youth, who became known after the protests, planned another strike for today. It was supposed to be a peaceful protest march from Tahrir Square to the Egyptian Parliament a few blocks away.

The Government was ready and in no mood to deal with protesters.

Another American journalist and I met at Ayman Nour's apartment in Zamalek at 10am. As we prepared to head downtown, one of Nour's people gave us a few suggestions: don't wear gold jewelry, and memorize someone's number in case you are arrested and they confiscate your phone. I rolled up my sleeve and wrote a few numbers - without names - on my arm. My friend did the same. My roommate and her roommate - non-political friends - and my editor.

Police standing outside the Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo
As our taxi neared Talat Harb street, the government's preparations were obvious. Uniformed police lined the streets. Large green military trucks were parked end to end on side streets, as many as eight in one place, each full of soldiers. The atmosphere was already tense.

Our initial destination point was the al-Ghad party headquarters on Talat Harb street. Before going to the headquarters, however, my companions and I decided to take a look at what was happening in Tahrir.

At around 11am we were walking from Talat Harb through Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo (where the Egyptian Museum and the American University are located). My friend and I stayed a dozen meters in front of our al-Ghad friends, figuring we would have more freedom to snap pictures as 'tourists' if we weren't associated with them.

As it turns out, that wasn't really the case.

I snapped a few pictures of the police lining Tahrir as we entered the square and then turned my camera off. My friend panned her camera around the square and toward the police. Suddenly, three angry men were coming straight toward us. It was immediately clear that these were plain-clothes security, and they were not happy.

Riot police in Tahrir Square
"Give me your camera," said the man in charge. "Give it to me. Let me see." He roughly grabbed my friend's camera, trying to pull it away from her.

"You can't do that!" She said, pulling away from him.

In the few seconds the exchange took, we were surrounded by plain-clothes security. One grabbed my arm, attempting to pull me away from my friend, while the first attempted to pull her camera away again. She held onto her camera and I held on to her, and we tried to walk away. Security blocked our path. "I'm an American citizen! You can't do this to me!" my friend shouted. The security pressed in closer. "Somebody help me! I'm an American citizen!" We were drawing looks from passerby. One of the security men waved his arm and we were completely encircled.

After a few intense minutes of arguing, we were ushered against the wall of the building behind us (Hardees). We were less conspicuous there, but we were still making a scene and the police were not pleased.

They also didn't believe a word that came out of my friend's mouth. They weren't terribly interested in me, possibly because they hadn't seen me taking pictures, but they interrogated my friend endlessly. Where are you from? What is your job? Why are you here? They didn't believe her story - that she was a student and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (later, when we saw the same security men in a coffee shop around the corner, the head man said flatly to my friend: "You are a liar").

Finally a female security officer in uniform came over (this is the first time female officers have been deployed during a protest, and later in the day they proved just as brutal as the men). She went through our bags piece by piece. The first man had already taken a copy of my friend's passport (which we never saw again), but I had no identification on me. Looking back, I'm glad - they don't know who I am.

The whole time, my friend had been on the phone with our al-Ghad friends and others, letting them know that while we were being detained, we would be okay. Whatever happened, we did not want our al-Ghad friends to show up: if they did, our story about being in the wrong place at the wrong time would be shot. As it was, the officers were demanding to know who we were on the phone with. "Who is Badawy?" they demanded.

After another ten minutes or so, another plain-clothes officer arrived. He was better dressed and clearly had more authority than the officers who had been dealing with us so far. He was smiling as he ambled over.

"What is the problem?" he asked.

"I've been all over the world, and I've never had problems with the police!" fumed my friend.

"You still don't have trouble with the police," said the man, still smiling amiably. At this point I was shaking, half from nerves and half on purpose. He looked directly at me. "Why are you frightened?" he asked.

Eventually he 'explained' to us that there were demonstrations, and it was a security matter that we weren't allowed to take pictures. After a few more minutes of this back-and-forth, someone said, "okay okay, come this way." We were ushered around the corner onto another street, and when we looked behind us we realized we were no longer being accompanied by security. We were free to go, it seemed.

Needless to say, my friend and I were a bit shaken up. Our encounter with the police had been pretty intense.

What we faced was only a small taste of what Egyptian activists face: as Americans, the regime is less likely to physically harass us.

Even so, we knew going back to the protest was going to be a bad idea. We finally made the decision not to go back into Tahrir. We considered moving to the al-Ghad headquarters, but my friend had a bad feeling about it, and luckily we went with her gut: around the time we would have arrived, there was a confrontation with state security outside the headquarters when Ayman Nour and his supporters attempted to leave the building. They were eventually forced back inside and the door was barricaded for over three hours, with no one allowed out. Ayman Nour's eldest son was briefly detained by security, and the scratches and bruises on his neck are a testament to the way he was manhandled by the plain-clothes officers.

Noor Ayman Nour, eldest son of Ayman Nour, arrested near Talat Harb.
Photo by Al-Jazeera.
It's too soon to really say if the day was successful or not, but... here are some thoughts and facts:
  • Over 80 persons were arrested and moved to the police station in Nasr City.
  • There were violent confrontations between police and protesters in Tahrir and also outside the parliament; there were even female police beating female protesters, and two women sustained broken arms.
  • More than 70 people were locked inside al-Ghad headquarters;
  • Violent clashes occurred in Alexandria;
  • Mobile phones and gold jewelry were confiscated by security around the parliament;
  • ElBaradei was completely absent from the scene, and there is a possibility that this will hurt his reputation here. Already there has been much criticism on both Facebook and Twitter.
I'll get back to you on some of this soon... there's so much I want to say, I don't really know where to begin.

Breaking news: April 6 events

Will write more later, but for now, here's what's going on:
  • more than 70 people arrested in Tahrir Square and in front of the Parliament
  • more than 70 people locked inside al-Ghad headquarters on Talat Harb Square, including party leader Ayman Nour
  • two al-Ghad members briefly detained, released, including the son of Ayman Nour
  • Amnesty International member arrested
  • people being beaten in Tahrir Square
  • reports of sexual harassment and confiscation of mobile phones
State security is everywhere.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Labor Protest in Cairo

Today I covered a labor protest in downtown Cairo with a filmmaker friend. Egyptians are protesting for a higher minimum wage. The current minimum wage is 35 EGP, the equivalent of $7 USD per month, and was set in 1984s. Laborers are asking for a minimum wage of 1200 EGP, roughly $200 USD.

The following video was shot by my friend, Lillie Paquette.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Radiohead and MTV EXIT

If you've followed this blog over the past year, you know human trafficking is an issue I've written about fairly frequently. Today I stumbled upon the MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking) campaign while watching a music video on youtube.

According to the MTV EXIT website,

MTV EXIT is a campaign to raise awareness and increase prevention of human trafficking in Europe and Asia. Since the campaign launched in 2004, MTV EXIT has created various programs and activities that informed and empowered millions of young people both from source and destination countries about the issue and take actions within their communities.
The video I was watching was recommended by a friend - All I Need by Radiohead. Here it is:

Human trafficking and exploitation CAN be stopped. The first step in the battle is awareness. Trafficking is probably occurring right in front of your eyes.

Be aware.