Friday, June 6, 2014

Because Qatar, you must know: this is football

One week from now, the football World Cup 2014 will start in Brazil. One month of action, drama and emotions – and in the end, the home team will win. There I said it: my prediction for the world's most popular sport event.

However, although there was and is a lot of talk about Brazil 2014 – the enormous costs being in the center of it – there is even more talk about a World Cup that is scheduled to be held eight years from now: in Qatar in 2022.

Ever since Qatar on December 2, 2010 was appointed by the FIFA as host for the 2022 World Cup, the critics of this decision haven't stopped to criticize. How come that a tiny country like Qatar with no football history gets to organize the biggest football event there is? Who bribed whom, with how much? Can you actually play football in Qatar, in the desert, in the heat?

And how is a World Cup that will draw up to one million of fans from all over the world to Qatar compatible with the new dress codes – don't dress too light or too tight and respect our culture - that Qatar intends to enforce with expats living on the peninsula?

Today I say, khalas! Enough. Qatar, give back the World Cup 2022 – for your own and everybody else's sake.

Because Qatar, you must know: football attracts unpleasant people. They hang around stadiums, they even watch the games. They pretend to love football, but they don't. Instead they use the sport to further their own goals. And no, I am not talking about Sepp Blatter only here.

No problem you say, Qatar? You are used to put up with nasty people; you support the Jihadist rebels in Syria, you negotiate for the Taliban of Afghanistan and you shake hands with Washington's global power brokers? So this will be the easy part for you when you deal with the byproducts of the World Cup 2022.

Because Qatar, you must know: a football World Cup is a burden for the poor and a boon for the already rich. Street vendors in Brazil will not be allowed in or near World Cup stadiums where only FIFA-approved merchandise can be sold. The benefits will go to Coca Cola and McDonald's, not to Maria or Pedro from the block.

No problem you say, Qatar? There are no poor Qataris and it will be too hot for street vendors in Qatar anyway? Good for you again.

Because Qatar, you must know: football is prostitution. Football players will play for any team – for Borussia Dortmund one year, for Bayern Munich the next year – as long as the money is good. The same goes for officials: no money is bad money.

Prostitution on the field leads to more prostitution off field. Ahead of the World Cup, Brazil is currently worried about sex tourism and child prostitution, with an estimated 600'000 foreigners expected to descend on the country.

No problem you say, Qatar? Your streets are clean? But you are building a lot of new hotel rooms in Doha these days.

Because Qatar, you must know: football is racism. Go ask Balotelli, go ask Dani Alves. Go stand with the common fans during a match and hear them shout racist slurs from minute 1 to minute 90 at players and referees.

No problem you say, Qatar? Racism in Qatar only exists in regards to brown skinned people, people from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka? These are crickets nations anyway, not football. And the primitive guys with the little brains in the stands? The sky high ticket prices will take care of those poor creatures. 

eating a banana: football is racism 

Because Qatar, you must know: football is party. People want to dance, want to get drunk, want to show their breasts. Some even want to make it onto the lawn, bare naked, to chase Rooney or Lampard or anyone else they can get their hands on. Your laws, Qatar, aimed at preserving the culture of boredom, will be a killer for the atmosphere that is as much a part of football as goals and fouls.

No problem you say, Qatar? Come World Cup 2022, you will move your entire population out of the country – to Syria, to Geneva – to make room for the European football barbarians to invade? Well, that's a whole new approach to the cultural diversity that FIFA so eagerly contends to promote.

Because Qatar, you must know: football is homophobia. There is no openly homosexual player in any team present in Brazil 2014. It's just too dangerous for players, and the possible consequences too unpredictable, to come out of the closet. Football – and professional sports in general – is the last heterosexual bastion standing.

No problem you say, Qatar? You don't have a problem with homosexuality unless people are gay? Perfect! That masquerade will at least go on for another eight years then. Coming out before Russia 2018 (where the World Cup will be played four years from now and Putin is the Czar)? Rather not!

Football is a sport for men. And always will be. These lesbian players kicking it for the German and American female teams? Maybe they shouldn't let women play football anyway. Gay football players will have to wait for the end of their careers, or grow a beard and wear a skirt, to be what they are.

Because Qatar, you must know: no matter what, Champions League comes always first. That's where the dice is rolling. After the World Cup in Qatar, players need to leave the country and return home to start competing for their clubs again.

Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Champions League: I'm sure that there will be enough stadiums in and around Doha to play all these leagues in Qatar. But I'm afraid that playing in air conditioned arenas all the time will have Paul Pogba contract chilblains sometimes down the line.

No problem you say, Qatar? All the players can leave the country anytime? Except the ones that will have their passports confiscated under the Kafala sponsorship system, of course. Zahir Belounis was not such a good player anyway; why else would he have come to play in Qatar? Nobody missed him in the Champions League. So what's the fuss?

Because Qatar, you must know: the World Cup given away to you will change football and Qatar in more ways than people now can imagine. Are you sure that you want this? It's still possible to preserve Qatar as it is. It's still possible to give football a second chance. It's still possible to make a U-turn. And while you are busy turning, Qatar, turn Sepp Blatter and his gang over to Interpol.

This post was first published in Voix magazine, here


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Orb: bringing immortality to life

My Beirut in 2050 is a a place that gathers two kinds of human beings: the perfected ones and the brain dead ones. There is no place for a third kind. And if there is a third kind they are immediately killed.”

That Beirut is 'Orb'. Darine Hotait's 'Orb'. With her new project, Lebanese American film director and screenwriter Darine Hotait proposes a vision of Beirut in the year 2050 through a genre that is almost non-existent in the Middle East: the science fiction movie.

Darine Hotait was born in Beirut and settled in the United States at an early age. Her short films such as 'Beirut Hide and Seek', 'The Far Side of Laughter' and 'Command or Truth' have been officially selected and awarded at international film festivals. For directing the animated video of 'Ashur', promoting the musical work of her husband, jazz pianist Tarek Yamani, Darine Hotait was a finalist for the Emmy award in 2012.

  interesting and educated: Darine Hotait, director, producer, writer

Darine is also the founder of Cinephilia Productions, an independent film production house in New York. Cinephilia is in particular producing movies for a Middle Eastern audience, with an emphasis on high visual standards.

And now 'Orb'. “What is happening in 'Orb'?”, I asked Darine Hotait when I interviewed her a few days ago. “In 'Orb'” Darine told me, “a mother loses her child in an accident. However she is given the chance to bring him back to life. The only downside is that he will become immortal. The mother has a chance: she can choose to have him for her lifetime with his real body and a robotized brain, or she can let him go.”

How significant is it that your movie is set in Beirut, in Lebanon?” Darine’s answer made much sense to me. “In Lebanon”, she replied, “there is the militant, the martyr and the innocent civilian. The culture of death is strongly stressed in the experience of this society. In 'Orb', death is treated as immortality.”

Is there a political message that you want to convey with 'Orb'?”, I continued my interview. “Can you do something non-political at all when talking about Lebanon? Or do I, who hasn't grown up in the Middle East, over-analyze the setting of your film?”

Well, kind of”, Darine said, “and then again, no. The social and the political are not separable in Lebanon.” But she went on by explaining to me that the political message in 'Orb' is not really political: “The film is too human to talk about the faux art of politics that Lebanon endures.”

Darine Hotait is a very interesting, very educated person who has a clear opinion about film making. In a recent talk with the Buro 24/7 magazine, she defined the screnplay, the concept and the theme as basic ingredients for a good short film. “If you have a well-written story conceived within a great concept to get an novel message across, you got it”, she elaborated. “However, there is no specific recipe that makes a short film good.”

But let's go back to 'Orb'. “How is the Beirut of your sci-fi movie different than the Beirut of today?”, I wanted to know. For her answer, Darine reached deep into the field of technology: “in 2050, immortality is accessible through the technologies that enhance the humans' life span. In 2014, we sort of have reached a point where we can stop the appearance of aging but we cannot stop the body from dying.”

a sci-fi movie made in Lebanon: ORB

In 2050”, she went on, “artificial intelligence will have gotten to a point where humans' minds can be uploaded to systems providing them an immortal life.” This strongly reminded me of the American science fiction author Philip K. Dick who identified the question “what constitutes the authentic human being?” as one of the major themes of his work.

The interesting thing is”, and with that Darine Hotait concluded our conversation, “that Beirut 2050 is not very different from Beirut 2014. More people are looking for perfection through continuous services that are being offered. More people are becoming brain dead due to the lack of freedom of thought. Consciousness is buried under the dramatized empire of capitalism.”

Now here's the problem with making 'Orb'. Even a renowned director and producer such as Darine Hotait can't disconnect herself entirely from capital and capitalism. Darine, and more precisely her movie-to-be 'Orb', needs your donation to have the film produced.

If you want to support a great art project, here is your chance. If you are one of those people who think that nothing good ever comes out of the Middle East, here is your chance to have the contrary proven. Go here and give Darine Hotait the chance to bring 'Orb', her film about immortality, to life.

This post was first published in Voix Magazine and in Your Middle East online media.

Qatar's National Vision 2030: blurred lines

Maybe one day Qatar will regret this day. The day - December 10, 2010 - when Qatar was appointed as host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Ever since then, Qatar is in the spotlight. How did the tiny country of Qatar become the organizer of a sport event as big as the football world cup? Is it possible at all to play football in Qatar, in the desert, in the heat? Who will build the new stadiums that Qatar needs for the games? Migrant workers from Nepal, Pakistan and India, we hear. Are they well paid, well protected and respected?

Much has been published about Qatar since that day. However, most of the information that the media has given to an uninformed audience in Europe and the United States was wrong. “How come the press is reporting about migrant workers being abused, even killed, when constructing the new football stadiums?”, Robert, a diplomat serving in Qatar, asked me when I talked to him while visiting the country at the end of March 2014. “The construction hasn't even started yet.” “But there is no question about it”, Robert continued, “the migrant workers are really badly treated here.”

For its future, Qatar has a plan. Organizing the world cup is just a milestone in this plan, albeit a big one, aimed at gaining recognition outside Qatar's usual comfort zones. Qatar is well known inside the diplomatic circles in the Middle East and at investors' meetings in Germany and France. Now Qatar wants to please to the common people.

Qatar's plan is called the Qatar National Vision 2030. QNV 2030, as it is called in short, formulates a strategy for development and sets goals that Qatar intends to reach in less than two decades. Let me walk you through the QNV 2030 and point out some observations that crossed my mind when reading the document after my visit to Qatar.

Qatar is at a crossroads”, the paper starts. “The country's abundant wealth creates both opportunities and challenges. It is now imperative for Qatar to choose the best development path that is compatible with the views of its leadership and the aspirations of its people.”

The leadership of Qatar has views, the people have (just) aspirations: what if they don't match? Is there a political process – democratic, if possible – to make sure that the aspirations of the people become the views of the leadership?

a plan for the future: Qatar Nation Vision 2030

Qatar's national vision rests on four pillars: human development, social and economic development, and environmental development. And what about political development, the critical observer is tempted to ask? Does the Qatari government, the authors of QNV 2030, foresee a broader political participation in 2030? The question is carefully avoided throughout the entire well crafted document.

If Qatar wants to build a stable society that will weather the storms that surely will lay ahead, a strong civil society is a must. “Centrality is not the opposite of anarchy; civil society is”, Robert D. Kaplan stated in a recent article for Stratfor. The success and the failures of the so called Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya certainly prove this point right.

Other questions that are conspicuously bypassed in QNV 2030 are the tough issues regarding the foreign workers. QNV 2030 only talks in very general terms about “the size and the quality of the expatriate labor force”, as if this was merely a question of management. But who in Qatar cares about the labor force's working conditions? Does QNV 2030, and particularly the human development part, also apply to foreigners in air conditioned offices, migrant workers on construction sites and domestic workers? Their share of the Qatari society constitutes 85% of the people living on the peninsula!

An Amnesty International report published in April 2014 that was entitled “my sleep is my break” harshly criticized the conditions under which domestic workers live and work in Qatar. They suffer from extreme working hours and a lack of rest days, which can lead to seven-day, 100-hour working weeks. Their freedom of movement is restricted and they are often verbally harassed and physically and sexually mistreated.

Unfortunately, I was told in March, this is really happening. And Qatari employers – masters, I should rather say – are not the only sources of abuse; expatriate employers can be just as bad. Not least employers from Arab countries among which Lebanese have one of the worst reputations.

The abuse of migrants – and they still come”, The Economist wrote in an article last month. When dealing with migrant workers, the Qatari government can count on the collusion of the sending countries' governments. The case of Nepal is revealing. For all the mistreatment, Nepalese workers earn far more in Qatar they they could at home, according to The Economist. Remittances make up a quarter of the Nepalese GPD. If the Nepalese government were to insist that rules protecting migrant workers in Qatar should be enforced, Qatari employers might look for workers elsewhere. 

"my sleep is my break": domestic worker in Qatar 

These migrant workers are very often poorly educated and therefore an easy target for abuse. Like the taxi drivers I had the fortune to ride with while getting around Doha. They were from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Eritrea, Bangladesh and Yemen. Their language skills were dreadful and although they had been to Qatar for months or for years, I knew my way through the city better than they did, after three days in Doha only.

My taxi drivers made me angry. Why don't these people take language lessons – learn some English, please! - and use a navigation device to deliver their customers where they want it? Do they lack the ambition or the money for their own development? With all its abundant wealth, Qatar could really make a difference on a global stage (if it wished to do so) by giving its migrant workers an education before they send them home again.

When the QNV 2030 talks about social development, it gets bold. “Women will assume a significant role in all spheres of life, especially through participating in economic and political decision-making”, the strategic papers says. And men? Did I miss something? Do all men already enjoy full participation in any decision making process? Not that I had heard of.

Neither had Robert. As he explained to me in March, Qatar is very opaque. More opaque than Syria and Libya, countries where he had served before. Only the few people on top take decisions. Everybody else is a follower.

At least, the Qatari leadership has understood the sign of the times: Arab societies can only be sustainably developed by empowering women. Women need education, women need intellectually challenging jobs, they need to drive. (To be fair: women are allowed to drive in Qatar.) A society cannot outsource its development to highly paid expatriates from Europe and selected countries in Asia.

However, how will the Qatari society react to this empowerment of women? Are they ready for this? Is it possible to overcome “deep rooted social values highly cherished by society”, as it is rhetorically stipulated when QNV 2030 talks about opportunities and challenges? A tweet from Qatar in mid May 2014 makes you wonder. “A Capricorn woman makes an excellent wife”, it said, “attentive, sensual, erotically sexual, plus she's domestic. Headaches never stop sex.”

As of now, the Qatari authorities have failed to give satisfying answers to the accusations made by Amnesty International. Reforms that have been promised to change labor laws are cosmetic at best. While Sheika al-Mayassa al Thani, the emir's sister, was named by the Time magazine as one of the world's most influential people for her work and her passion for art, the art of building an all encompassing civil society remains an “art brut” in Qatar.

Developing a society must go beyond building museums, airports and football stadiums. In its current state, the Qatar Nation Vision 2030 is a comprehensive paper with a long list of desired outcomes. But not more.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

a window into Jazz from Japan

When I visited the North See Jazz Festival in The Hague some years ago, I stepped into one of the various concert halls to check out a pianist I had never heard of. I was amazed to discover the way he played: a spontaneous expression of improvisation based on a deep knowledge of forms, figures and shapes. The piano player was Yusuke Yamashita from Japan and he was working the keys like Jackson Pollock would do an action painting. Similarly on fire was the drummer who pushed things forward, Pheeroan Aklaff. It was left to Cecil McBee, the stoic bass player from Oklahoma, to give a frame to the hitting and beating on stage.

Many years later I discovered another jazz pianist from Japan. Her name is Ai Kuwabara. Ai is young, born in 1991, she is energetic, with a big bucket of musical talent. Ai Kuwabara has an approach to jazz piano that includes elements of rock music, funk and the history of the art, together with the expressionism that I have come to appreciate in Japanese jazz. 

the expressionism of Japanese jazz: Ai Kuwabara

Jazz in Japan has a long tradition. Japan has, according to some estimates, the largest proportion of jazz fans in the world. Jazz began to emerge in Japan during the early 1920s, in the entertainment districts of Osaka and Kobe. During World War II, jazz was considered “enemy music” and therefore banned.

How original is Japanese jazz? Frequently it has been criticized as a poor, unworthy imitation of US jazz, but that is missing the point. Japanese jazz artists are certainly struggling to overcome their “anxiety of influence”, as Taylor Atkins describes in Blue Nippon, his book about jazz in Japan. But what creative person isn't afraid of losing his or her authenticity?

Could the secret of Japanese jazz be found in Zen, the Buddhist teaching of observation and enlightenment? Is Zen the source of extended, intense improvisations, of this feeling of “being in the moment”, that distinguishes Japanese jazz, in my ears, from jazz music performed elsewhere?

In April 2014, the Ai Kuwabara Trio Project released “The Window”, their third album. The project is the mold for Ai's longstanding collaboration with Yusuke Morita, a young, versatile bass player from the Tokyo area, and alternating drummers. The album is the fruit of a very eventful year 2013 which saw them playing their first concerts in Europe and in the United States, winning the prestigious Japan Jazz New Star award and being introduced to a greater audience at the Tokyo Jazz Festival in September where they shared the stage with their long time idol Chick Corea.

In an interview that I was able to conduct with Ai Kuwabara, she told me that 2013 had brought many new experiences for her and that she is now ready for even more musical challenges ahead. With “The Window” she wants to open a multitude of windows for her own potential to fully develop. She thus wrote songs for the album that focus towards her outer world.

The Window” is Ai Kuwabara's most advanced work so far. Ai now has clearly found her own voice which sets her apart from any other pianist in the field. Her piano play is surprising from the first note on; she makes turns when the listener just had relaxed, and then she goes straight and fast again instead of stopping for a break. 

 into the future or the past?: Ai Kuwabara Trio Project

As for Yusuke Morita he can be funky and lyrical in the same tune. Yusuke, who also co-produced the new record, is the David Beckham of jazz if you will, playing smooth, playing rough, the modern man playing a modern bass guitar.

Japanese jazz fans have the reputation of being fanatics. They know everybody and everything about jazz, oscillating between kuwashii – having intimate knowledge about a subject – and otaku, a person with obsessive interests. Obsession has brought about great achievements and great suffering for Japan. Japanese know their blues. Jazz seems to be the perfect outlet of the Japanese line of thoughts, giving room for expression, for improvisation, juggling intellect and emotions at the same time. Ai Kuwabara, Yusuke Morita, and their project's “The Window” are a prime example.

This post was first published in Voix magazine, here.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Defense and Development in Doha

$24 billion! The Qatar Armed Forces went on a shopping spree in the last week of March 2014, purchasing new tanks, helicopters, warships and missiles at the DIMDEX, a major military trade show held in Doha.

I had come to Qatar to learn more about a country that was unknown to many 20 years ago, but will host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. I had a friend who recently moved to Qatar and I wanted to see how she was doing. And while in Doha, I took the chance to visit the DIMDEX, the Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition. I was interested to see the latest developments in naval warfare capabilities.

One of the first persons I met in Doha was Robert, a diplomat from an European country. Robert had served in various Arab countries before coming to Qatar, among them Libya and Syria. “How does Qatar compare to the countries you have been before?”, I asked the diplomat. “This may sound strange to you”, he replied, “but Qatar is much more opaque than any other country I was on duty before.”

And indeed, according to Robert, Qatar was a rough terrain for diplomatic personnel. It was very difficult to meet decision makers. There were only a few of them, half a dozen maybe. It was even more difficult to know where Qatar was heading. The vast majority of the people in Qatar was in the dark.

The 85% of foreigners in Qatar don't know anything at all”, the diplomat went on. “Certainly not the migrant workers from India, Pakistan and Nepal. And the Western expats don't want to jeopardize their favorable positions by asking too many questions.”

Before I left Robert, I asked the diplomat what he thought about Qatar organizing the World Cup in 2022. He paused for a while before he replied. “Qatar is a country with splendid prospects. However, with hosting the world's biggest sport event, Qatar may be punching above its weight. We will have to see”, Robert said, “it is a giant challenge that brings the Emir's management system – centralized to the extreme - to its limits. Organizing a football World Cup is a very complex venture and one man can't do it all.”

The World Cup in 2022 is only one piece in a mosaic that is the Qatar National Vision 2030. It is a huge project that aims to develop Qatar's infrastructure and its society at the same time. The new airport is almost finished, the new harbor partly. The construction of a metro system is just about to start and for the new football stadiums the tenders are out.

With the development of Qatar, there comes an increased necessity for security. Wealthy countries like Qatar need a strong military to protect its interests. Spending $24 billion at the DIMDEX was one cornerstone of Qatar's new defense posture. The national service for all Qatari male citizens was another one. 

in need of defense: Qatar

I met Anwar who told me that he will have to start his service on April 1 when he will check in for three months of basic military training. “Qatar's national service”, Anwar said, “is based on an Emir's decree. Every Qatari male, with a few exceptions, age 21 to 35 will have to serve.”

The Emir pursues several goals with this order: he wants to build up a Qatari army ready to respond to future security challenges. At the same time, the Emir wants to strengthen the Qatari men in general, making them 'real men' actually, by forcing them to exercise in the army. “You know”, Anwar told me, “there are even programs for obese people of which Qatar has a lot.”

And”, Anwar continued, “by transforming boys to men, the Emir wants to fight homosexuality which is widespread in Qatar because of our segregated society.” “Are you serious?”, I asked Anwar, “it is in female deprived environments like an army camp or a prison where homosexuality is most present, regardless of the physical fitness of the soldiers and the inmates.” “I will brief you after I have finished my service”, Anwar replied.

So far, the willingness of the Qataris to serve was minimal. Only a rough 500 out of an eligible 100'000 men had registered for the national service in time. “In any case”, Anwar told me, “the service won't be as tough as it was announced. Qataris won't bear with this.”

Anwar going to the army posed a particular problem for Mona, his wife. Mona was of Moroccan descent, but she was born in France. That's where I had met her for the first time, three years ago. Mona and Anwar married last year and after that, Mona moved to Qatar. In Qatar, and in Gulf Arab culture in general, women can't live alone in an apartment. Both Mona's parents in France and Anwar's family in Doha ultimately demanded that Mona lives with her in-laws while Anwar was in the service.

The reasoning for their demand varied between 'it is said in the Quran' and 'what will the neighbors think'. “Families in Qatar always use one of these reasons”, Anwar explained to me, “whatever fits better.”

you're in the army now: first day of service for Qatari male citizens

The next day, I went to the Qatar National Convention Centre to attend the MENC, the Middle Eastern Navy Commanders Conference, held on the side of the naval exhibition. “Why is the navy so important these days?”, I asked a representative of a Western maritime force. “Because the center of gravity of global security is drifting towards the sea”, he answered. “90% of global trade is done by sea and on ships”, he went on explaining, “the navies must be prepared to promote and protect the use of maritime highways.”

The Strategic Studies Center, a think tank within the Qatari ministry of defense, used the MENC to present its 'five elements to define state power'. Everything in Qatar, according to the presentation, and consistent with what the diplomat had told me, starts and ends with the Emir. The Emir gives, the Emir takes away.

It was the Emir's foreign policy that gave Qatar a political dimension, mediating peace deals in Sudan's Darfur and political agreements in places like Lebanon, Syria and Afghanistan. It was the Emir boosting the economical dimension of state power by bringing the FIFA World Cup 2022 to Qatar. And it was also the Emir who was single handedly responsible for the social dimension in Qatar. The current Emir, Tamam, was shown playing football with children. His father Hamad was depicted riding a camel together with the common population.

Qatar is a good place for mid-level managers”, said Rashed, a Bangladeshi from Boston whom I met on a trip to the desert. “The salaries are good and there are interesting possibilities to move up the career ladder. And on top of that, the expectations from Qatari employers are low: showing up for work regularly and reliably is already considered excellent.”

Vishram, from Australia and with an Indian background, whom I met on the same trip, planned to stay in Qatar for three to four years and then return to Sidney. “I have encountered a lot of racism here”, Vishram told me. “When people realize that I am not from India but from Australia, they talk much nicer to me.”

As for Mona, she intends to stay in Qatar for at least ten years. With her husband gone to the army, she was having a hard time surviving in Qatar. One of her last Facebook posts was telling: “Qataris, hotel restaurant, alcohol”, she wrote, “and then they bitch about how terribly shameful it is for a woman to have coffee outside with one of her girl friends. No wonder Arabs are so behind everything.”

The last time we spoke, Mona talked to me in French, a language that she had somehow negated in our previous discussions. But now the emotions were overwhelming and she needed to speak from the heart. Mona had always thought of herself as an Arab growing up in France. But the culture in Qatar was different. Different than the Muslim culture she had yearned for while living in France. Maybe she was a French woman of Moroccan origin, after all.

What shall it be, Qatar? Defending the wealth and developing the society? Or rather developing the wealth and defending the society that is? It will take more than an Emir's decree, yet probably less than $24 billion, to bring Qatar to the next level.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Turkey after the Twitter ban: an interview

The AK Party government of Prime Minister Erdogan banned Twitter and YouTube but nevertheless won the local elections last Sunday by a wide margin. I spoke with Ceylan Özbudak, political analyst and executive director of Building Bridges, a non-governmental organization.

How would you explain the current situation in Turkey to an outsider? Which powers and interests are colliding?

Ceylan Özbudak: The Turkish political scene has been dominated by conservative parties since 1950. Since 1946, the main opposition left-wing CHP could not get an electoral victory without a right-wing coalition. The Turkish electoral system and political scene is much different than England or the US. While the British and the American political scene is dominated by the two main parties, Turkey is home to 77 (yes that’s right, seventy-seven) political parties.

Despite banning social media the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdogan did great in the elections on March 30. Do we see the country split in two? Is Turkey more divided than ever?

CÖ: The AKP has managed to win three successive general elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011, increasing its proportion of the vote on each occasion. The AKP’s victory was decisive in the latest election of June 2011, with the party claiming 50 percent of the vote, compared to its share of 34 percent in November 2002 and 47 percent in July 2007. This was a clearly exceptional performance by any standard, and clearly contradicts any notion of public fatigue of government, which typically leads to a decline in the electoral performance of political parties after many years in office. What makes the AKP experience unique is that center-right parties are hidden in the Turkish context. 

Turkey harbors many groups of Muslim Jamaats (congregations). These jamaats have a considerable voter base, not only because of their members but also because of the relatively close circle of these members. The AK Party so far has shown a warm attitude towards these jamaats and has been supported by them. The primary opposition left party, the CHP (Republican People's Party), is not popular among the jamaats, not because of the current party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, but because of the CHP's previous politics. Even though Turkey looks very polarized from outside, it is not as polarized as it looks on the inside. If we are referring to the separation between the Fethullah Gulen group and the AK Party, we cannot really call it a separation since the voter base of the Gulen group is not more than 0,2 %.

The reaction of the outside world (EU, USA) to the recent events in Turkey (banning Twitter, YouTube) was rather lame and tame. Why is that so?

CÖ: The reactions to the Twitter and YouTube ban were rather discrete on the foreign diplomacy level because of the reasons of these bans. The reasons made it easier to consider them acceptable. What Turkey wants from Twitter authorities is nothing more than being treated the same way as England, France, Sweden or Spain. Turkey wants Twitter to take the decisions of Turkish courts seriously and act accordingly just like in the other countries. We should not forget that there is a very fine line between freedom of speech and violation of private life and while one is encouraged in advanced democracies, the latter is condemned. This is the same in Turkey too.

 Erdogan fixed the economy: Ceylan Özbudak

When will the social media ban be lifted? For how long will the current state of affairs be acceptable? 
CÖ: Well, let's not forget that in the first hour of the ban, two million tweets were sent. I think that these sites will not be blocked for long. Turkey will not be China or Iran. I hope that in the future we will not see a total banning of any website. It was always about removing certain links, not about blocking an entire social media platform.

Turkey has 12 million Twitter users. Maybe this ban will make Twitter even more popular in Turkey. (the Twitter ban has been lifted in the meantime).

Economic success is important for any government (and its constituency). And I experienced the economic success of the AKP policies myself when I visited Turkey last year, enjoying an excellent infrastructure. But how much does a good economic record excuse any other acts and any other policies a government may conduct? Where are the limits? 
CÖ: Economy is very very important for any country, not only for Turkey. Everywhere in the world, what affects voters’ behavior the most is undoubtedly the economy. Many ultra-secularists voted for the AK Party in the last elections because of the economic success the party brought to the country. Unlike its oil and gas rich neighbors, Turkey has not been able to use the short cut of one commodity. The AK Party established a strong free-market economy with all its institutions and rules, and recognizes the role of the state in the economy only in a regulatory and supervisory capacity. FIXING THE ECONOMY can be only a simple line for many analysts when they are referring to Turkey. However, it becomes a VERY SIGNIFICANT line if you are living in Turkey and you have investments to support, debts to pay, and children’s school fees to think about.

In the last 11 years, AK Party created a new middle class in Turkey and this neo-middle class has higher dreams and is looking to enhance its potential by making new investments. They are taking loans and getting into debts leaning on the well functioning economical wheel. You cannot simply tell these people to shake the economical ground they are standing on without putting forward a viable and compelling alternative. In terms of industrial development, Turkey advanced tremendously in the era of the three terms of an AK Party government.

Turkey now has an university in every city, 22 airports, 18,000 square km of double highways and the first domestically produced Turkish military helicopters, tanks, warships and drones. Turkey has paid off its 23.5 billion dollar debt to the IMF and is in a position to offer loans to that institution. It has also started paying fees for infirm patients and distributed free books and 75,000 free tablet computers to students. Unemployment is under 10% despite the recent influx of refugees.

Many people say that PM Erdogan is destroying his own legacy. What is your comment on this?

CÖ: Please see my previous answer regarding the economy. This is the legacy of Erdogan and the truth is even though restrictions can never be considered acceptable, he is not destroying his legacy.

Why does Erdogan act they way he does? 
CÖ: We have to understand that this is Turkey. Turkey is a Middle Eastern country, situated in the most volatile region of the world. Turkey is not the Principality of Lichtenstein, situated in one of the safest regions of the world. Therefore, we cannot expect people to not take this (the volatile environment) into consideration.

If you take all 75 million plus citizens of Turkey, we can safely say that the AK Party is a melting pot of past and present social and ideological movements in Turkey. Dominated by a traditionally liberal-democratic-conservative mindset, Turkish society likes to preserve and practice the moral values of religion while remaining closely attached to the now-Western values of tolerance, freedom, human rights, education and the rule of law.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

LOST - Lost in Beirut

Previously on LOST: In "Lost in Tripoli", Heba, a Tripoli native, has met Samir when causing a car accident while driving to Beirut. One week later, Samir visits Heba in Tripoli. They have lunch at Hallab and Heba gives Samir a sightseeing tour of Tripoli, a city he only knew via television before. Samir, a busy photographer from Beirut, finds Tripoli attractive. They both find each other attractive.

Heba hangs up the phone. This was Samir, she tells her mother. He can't come to see me this Sunday. He says that he doesn't feel comfortable driving to Tripoli at the moment.

I can understand”, says Salma, Heba's mother. “This country is a mess.”

You know”, she goes on, “your dad is not feeling well in the past weeks.”

His blood pressure is still too high?”, Heba asks.

It is”, her mother says, “and he has a pain in his left leg. He should see his doctor regularly but he can't. It is not safe to go there.”

Those damn snipers.” Heba shakes her head.

Heba and Samir are seeing each other for five months now. Several times Heba has visited Samir in Beirut.

Last Sunday afternoon they went out for lunch, taking Samir's brother, his wife and their children with them. They drove to Zaytunay Bay, a favorite hangout place for many Beirutis down at the Marina. They had intended to have a giant burger at St. Elmo's, but the restaurant was full. Babel at the other end of the row of restaurants was their fallback position. Babel served excellent Lebanese food with a modern twist. The kids liked it too.

In the restaurant, Samir was greeted by Joseph Attieh, the pop singer who had won Star Academy Lebanon in 2005. Samir had photographed him for the cover of his latest album. He hugged him like an old friend.

Until then, Heba had seen Joseph Attieh only on TV and on billboards, announcing his concert on New Year's Eve.

He looked tired. He is more attractive on film”, Heba later said.

They all are.” Samir smiled. “Photoshop works better than Botox.”

Zaytunay Bay was only a few steps away from where Mohamed Chatah, the March 14 politician, had been killed by a car bomb in the last week of 2013. Heba was tempted to walk over and take a look at the scene of the attack. Samir held her back.

Visiting unlucky places will bring bad luck.”

To me it's a mystery”, Samir explained to Heba, “how come his murderers knew that Chatah would take this route on his last day on earth? They must have had an insider talking to them.”

Samir can really talk smart, sometimes, Heba thought that afternoon. But sometimes he takes things too easy.

 Zaytounay Bay, Beirut

Like when they had their first real fight as a couple, a few weeks earlier. After the Chatah bombing, more car bombs had hit Beirut and Heba was really worried. About Lebanon, about Beirut, about everything. But particularly about Samir.

Please be careful”, Heba said, “don't go to these places anymore.”

I have to”, Samir had answered, “I have jobs to do.”

Samir took off his sunglasses. “You remember the famous picture from the 2006 war? Young Lebanese visiting South Beirut to see the destruction there, wearing Gucci glasses. Maybe one day, I will be there with my camera when it happens and then I will be famous.”

Are you crazy?” Heba almost cried. “What about me?”

I love you, and you know this”, Samir said. “But a photo like that could give my career a whole new boost.”

And after the bombings there was Sochi and the Olympic winter games. It turned out that Samir was one of the photographers on the set when Jackie Chamoun's topless pictures were taken.

That little bitch”, Heba hissed. She was jealous. “How many times did you touch her breasts?”

Come on!”, Samir tried to calm Heba. “Not once. I didn't have to. Besides, I was wearing gloves. It was cold.”

That little bitch”, Heba kept repeating. “Where did you spend the night with her? I bet that it was very hot in front of the fireplace.”

She is not such a good skier anyway”, Samir said. “Can we change the subject now?”


I am going to Beirut, mom”, Heba says. “I will take the car and leave in 15 minutes. I want to see Samir.”

Drive carefully, my daughter. And say hello to Samir. When will you present him to us?”

Mom, please. Soon, I promise.”

Just as Heba is about to leave the house, the phone rings. “It's your brother from Qatar”, her mother shouts.

How is life in Qatar, brother”, Heba asks. “Is it as boring as everybody says?”

I am here for the money”, Tarek replies. “Not for the fun.”

Business is bad in Tripoli”, Heba says. “Nobody is investing anymore.”

How much longer can you keep the banks quiet?”

I am afraid that we will run out of money shortly. We struggle.”

I will send you money in the coming week.”

And then, Heba is on her way to Beirut. The Salam mosque that was blown up by an explosion last August is still under construction. And the little department store next to it, a collateral damage of the bombing, hasn't reopened yet.

A Mercedes taxi stops and picks up new passengers. Heba honks the horn. The restaurants on el Mina Street are almost empty. Ashraf Rifi is still riding his horse on the big poster at the end of the street. Since Heba last took this road out of Tripoli, Rifi has become Lebanon's minister of justice.

Justice. All we want in the Arab world is justice, Heba thinks. Maybe more than any other people in the world.

Why is it that justice is so close to our hearts and yet so far from our minds? Heba has no answer.

She is excited to drive to Beirut. She is excited to meet Samir. On the radio they play Joseph Attieh's new song.

My life has changed quite a bit since I have met Samir, Heba thinks. I have finally left my comfort zone. At least, I am trying to leave it. This may be my last chance. After fifty, a woman with no man at her side slowly withers away. That's what my daughter says. It's scary.

The army checkpoint on the highway south of Batroun has a ragged look, as always.

The poor kids still have the same old guns, Heba sighs. The 3 billion dollars that Saudi Arabia has recently pledged to the Lebanese army haven't trickled down to here.

Heba reaches the Casino du Liban and the traffic starts getting heavier.

I wonder what the people here think about the situation that Lebanon is in. Do they still want to be a part of Lebanon?

Despite her thoughts wandering off, she is cautiously cruising between the lanes. She doesn't want to cause another accident. The highway goes from three lanes to two, and then back to three again.

This area looks safe and prosperous. It seems to Heba that she sees a new sushi restaurant every time she passes this area. But everywhere they go from here, they risk running into bombs.

She must brake hard to avoid a collision with a bus that cuts into her path. Do you feel like going nowhere, the billboard opposite Crepaway reads, like your life is too complex? Simplicity is the solution.

Highway to Beirut
On Zalqa highway, the traffic is so congested that Heba has time to check out the many furniture stores on the right side of the highway. I don't like the heavy dark woods of the furniture in Tripoli, she thinks. It's too conservative. But the tacky Italian designs are not my style either.

Why isn't there an IKEA in Lebanon, like in Europe? We have ministers for everything, but no one cares for the things we really need in Lebanon. Heba hits the accelerator.

Then, finally: one last corner and Heba will reach Samir's house. Samir is a really handsome guy, actually, Heba says to herself. With his hair going slightly grey he has a bit of a George Clooney look.

I used to be turned off by men with grey hair. They seemed so old. But with Samir, it's different. Heba feels the happiness rising inside her.

She is surprised to see Samir in front of the house when she arrives. Heba parks and gets out of the car. They kiss each other. Samir appears to be stressed and distant.

What is this suitcase here?”, Heba asks. Samir shrugs and he stutters.

I am sorry that I couldn't tell you earlier but there was no time calling you.”

Telling what? What do you mean?” Heba's face has turned to white.

I just got a call from Sandra, you know, the leader of Sandmoon, the band. Sandmoon will start an European tour tomorrow and Sandra is desperately looking for a photographer and video guy to travel with them. Their regular guy broke his leg in Faraya this morning.”

I still don't understand.” Heba is trying to breathe calmly.

I figured that I take the offer and go with them. I would have loved to spend a cozy weekend with you. But it is Europe, it's a job, it should be fun.”

In a hurried movement, Samir swings his arms around Heba and kisses her again.

Sorry, I have to go. My flight is in one hour. I love you. And we will see each other soon.”

Heba feels like she has never felt before. Something had just knocked her down.

Samir knows too many women, Heba thinks. But that's not it. That's not the point. There is something else that's bothering me.

Here I am. Standing alone on a boardwalk in Beirut. Where shall I go?

From a distance she can hear “Truly Madly Deeply”, Savage Garden's hit record from 1997. It's from her bag. Heba's phone is ringing.