Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Qamishlo House, promoting national unity and inclusivity in the midst of civil war

I was introduced to the Qamishlo House, a refuge for those Syrians who have left their country for their own safety. The house is named after the town of Qamishli in northwest Syria (which is pronounced Qamishlo in Kurdish), and serves as a residence, an education and activity center for children, and a forum for discussion. When we entered, there were four people sitting on couches and plastic chairs, surrounding the wood stove that sat at the back of the room. Those gathered warmly greeted me and my Syrian friend, who had visited Qamishlo House previously.

Children's artwork adorned the walls; the pieces were for sale and the proceeds benefit needy children in Syria. On one of the walls there was a map of Syria with various statements encircling the map that demonstrated the various religious and ethnic groups of Syria.

Syrian Arab Republic

The official name of the state of Syria is the "Syrian Arab Republic," but the title of Syria on the wall of the Qamishlo House reads "Syrian Republic." Luwai, a former pilot of the Syrian Air Force who was imprisoned and mistreated by both the Syrian regime and al-Nusra Front, a Syrian rebel group, before making it safely to Turkey as an asylum seeker, told me that the word Arab had been removed because Syria is made up of various people groups: Syriac-Aramaic, Kurdish, Turkmen, and Assyrian. Syria is also made up of a plethora of religious groups; the majority of the population are Sunni, but there are various Shia sects, including Ismailis, Twelvers, and Alawites, in addition to the various sects of Christianity represented among the population. The declarations written around the map of the "Syrian Republic" express this diversity, while highlighting the need to celebrate national unity over ethnic or religious differences.

I am Syrian, I am Kurdish

I am Syrian, I am Christian 

I am Syrian, I am Arab

I am Syrian, I am Turkman

At the top of the map, the inclusivity of this place is made known to all, "The Qamishlo House is for ALL Syrians."

NPR did a story on the Qamishlo House earlier this year, you can listen here:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Damascus and the dissonance between memories and reality

It's been more than a year since I've blogged, which I'm bummed about. Acknowledging the year gap makes me reflect on what inspires me to write and what are the conditions in my life that facilitate writing. I spent most of the last year in the U.S., which is a bit unusual for me in recent years. I was finishing grad school in Indiana and then staying at my parents' place in Auburn, soaking up my family and my stomping grounds, waiting for my next gig to start. In September, I transitioned from human rights/solidarity work to international development and humanitarian aid. That initially took me to Egypt and now I'm in Turkey for the next two months, lending a hand to our response to the Syrian refugee/IDP (internally-displaced persons) crisis, and then heading back to Egypt.

That was simply an attempt to explain my year silence. Now to the subject at hand...


The war in Syria has been breaking my heart for the last two and a half years. In early 2009, I spent three months in Damascus studying colloquial Arabic. It was a mere three months, but I developed an attraction to the place that I'm unable to fully articulate. Jerusalem was great, Amman was alright, but Damascus captured me. It was uniquely Arab, had a beautiful old city, huge markets with domed ceilings, a beautiful ice cream shop with pistachio ice cream, beautiful mosques, a minibus transportation network that was impossible to figure out but incredibly alluring to explore. There were places to drink and dance, Turkish-style bathrooms where it was perfectly acceptable for men to get pampered, and the city was perfectly walkable. I could go on, but you get it, I loved it. I always tell everyone it's one of my favorite cities.

But my memories of Damascus, and Syria in general, are locked in time. I developed my opinions of Damascus during, what my colleague called, "the golden age." Even though I am routinely reading news about the slow destruction of Syria it hasn't really changed my image of Damascus. If it came up in a conversation tonight, I'd speak in the present tense about how remarkable Damascus is. However, speaking with Syrian friends and being around Syrian colleagues, makes me reconsider the tense in which I'll speak about Syria and Damascus.

"I was in Damascus in 2009, studying Arabic. I loved it. Damascus....was (is?!?!?) amazing."

Do I change the tense of the verb? Do I let them change Syria from a place that is amazing into a place that was, formerly, amazing, or do I do it for them?

When I find out someone is Syrian, I want to share that I lived in Syria and loved the time I spent in their country. Often it's our most notable shared experience, something we could chat about over dinner. But lauding the beauties of Damascus seems insensitive, and must make someone feel like, "yeah, we all felt that way, it's just not like that anymore, you haven't seen what Syria became, you don't get it." And I don't. I can't picture al-Yarmouk camp, where many Palestinian refugees reside in Damascus, completely destroyed due to the battles between the regime and the resistance. When I think of al-Yarmouk I remember the tall apartment buildings and narrow alleyways connecting to the main street which ran through the middle of the camp. I think of my close friends who grew up in the camp, the same friends who first brought me to al-Yarmouk and showed me around. I know that those close friends had to leave the camp, their families were forced to other parts of Damascus, to Lebanon, to Sweden, to Algeria. But my memories are made-up of their smiles, the beautiful lights of the mosques, and the friendly shopkeepers.

Damascus in March 2009

I don't know where I'm going with all of this. It's not exactly stream of consciousness because I've been trying to make sense of this tension between memories and reality and what responsibility I have to those living the reality. What do you do with your great, positive memories of something that has become much more tragic.

I don't want to be a memory imperialist and push my glorious short-term memories of a place that I developed as a visitor and as a foreigner. My memories are real and they're my own, but they exist side-by-side the real, lived experience of people who have seen the horror of war and repression, and the physical and spiritual destruction of parts of their homeland.

I suppose that tension is a microcosm of what war is. It's painful because we knew the beauty of the place, we knew the tolerant and inclusive relations between people; and now we're acutely aware of the dissonance between what this place once was and what it is now. Even harder, we see the pockmarked road that we'll have to travel to rebuild the place into something that resembles what it once was.  

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Probably different than your weekends

This goes on all across the West Bank every Friday.

Protest against the occupation, Nabi Saleh, West Bank, 7.12.2012

Israeli forces use massive amounts of (usually) non-lethal weapons to prevent people from using or accessing their land. Villagers in Nabi Saleh, where this photo was taken, attempt to walk to a natural spring on the outskirts of their village, which has been de facto annexed and controlled by Israeli settlers. The Israeli army prohibits villagers from reaching their spring.  

Monday, October 01, 2012

There are only 50 months left to save the world

From the Guardian
The world has 50 months to go before the dice become loaded against us in terms of keeping under a 2C temperature rise. We asked Guardian readers and public figures what they would do to lead us out of this climate predicament. From mass protest to pensions to personal carbon targets, here are their suggestions...

Below I excerpt some of the more interesting answers (but you should check out all of the answers), my thoughts follow:
Saci Lloyd, Author of The Carbon Diaries
Don’t be timid. When did trying to pull humanity back from the brink of ecocide become confused with Buddhism?

Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive, Oxfam
The hard truth is that our lifestyles in rich countries are not compatible with our efforts to confront climate change. Our over-consumption of resources comes at the cost of the life chances of those who are denied their fair share of access to water, energy and food.

Bill McKibben, Author of The End of Nature, & founder of
We're going to have to work harder - in the next 50 months we're going to go straight at the fossil fuel companies, whose business model means the destruction of the planet's climate system. It's us or them, and I'd rather it be us.

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP
Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.

Ruth Bond, Chair of the National Federation of Women's Institutes
The huge threat we all face from climate change means that the day to day decisions made about the food we buy, our travel and how we heat our homes are more important than ever.
Caroline Lucas' quote stands out above the rest; climate change is truly an "overwhelming threat to national and global security."  There were several answers on the site which suggested that mass movements (a globalized Tahrir square, of sorts) and changes to the consumptive behaviors and habits of the global citizenry are of utmost importance.  I agree that mass mobilization and changes to our eating and transportation habits are necessary and important, but I don't think these changes are of utmost immediate importance for leading us out of our climate change predicament.  What we must immediately realize and emphasize is that big business and the fossil fuel industry are contributing in a disproportionately large way to climate change.  Their emissions must be curbed drastically.

If I decide to grow all of my own food. or buy food with 50 food miles or less, and only ride my bike or take public transportation, I won't put a dent in carbon emissions.  If I convince all of my friends to do the same and we have a community garden and organize our own midnight mass bike rides, we won't put a dent in the projected increase in global temperatures.

But I don't want to discount the reasons why these individual changes in behavior are important.  We will be creating a more healthy world, and will be leading healthy and fulfilling lives.  Our actions will also raise the consciousness of those with whom we interact as I talk about my delicious tomatoes and that day I got two flats on the way to work but my boss didn't care because she thought it was cool that I ride my bike to work.  There is a need to raise the public's awareness of climate change and the negative impacts of our current food delivery and transportation models.  There is a need to start living out more healthy practices and lifestyles instead of just talking about them: growing our own food, driving less (if at all), using non-toxic chemicals in our cosmetic and cleaning products, etc.

However, those changes in lifestyle and advances in the popular awareness of climate change and humanity's role in it will not stall the already increasing global temperature.  We need to push for global legislation and  demand that governments immediately address this issue. We need to take the fight to business and industry. They are the big emitters.  Their profits can afford to come down a few percentage points while instituting more earth-friendly practices.  After all, it's for the survival of our planet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It matters how we choose to remember 9/11

We'll never forget. 

We'll always remember.

Remember 9/11. 

It's right to remember the victims of that day, to build memorials for the victims and the capacity (locally, nationally, and globally) for dealing with grievances in a nonviolent manner. But I wonder who "we" are, and I wonder what it is that we are "remembering."

I assume "we" is meant to be U.S. citizens, people who have lived most of their lives in the United States and identify as "Americans."  "We," in the context of 9/11 remembrance, seems to include those who identify as being in the same community as those who were killed in the World Trade Center. But I struggle with national categories because I've come into contact with the ugly side of nationalism: when it's manifested as xenophobia rather than positively, as a sense of community.  National communities are certainly imagined communities, "socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group."    I also struggle with national identity because I may have more in common with a street vendor from Bangladesh than I do a farmer from Kansas or a banker from California. The farmer, the banker, and I might all know the rules of baseball and the first line of the Gettysburg Address, but the vendor and I might share values and life aspirations (and the vendor probably knows cricket, which is like baseball but with British costumes and weird throwing motions).

I also wonder whether those of us who have mixed feelings about the popular national narrative of 9/11 are included in the "we." What if I'm conflicted about the jingoistic narrative of 9/11 and downright appalled at all that was done in response to the attacks on 9/11?  Which leads me to the politics of remembrance.

What if I think that we should remember the innocent Iraqis and Afghanis that were killed as a result of the wars that my country waged shortly after 9/11? Most of them were innocent just like the firefighters and businesspeople that were killed in the World Trade Center, no? But if I happen to mention the innocent civilians killed, who happen to be of a different nationality, then I am perceived as less than a full member of my own national community.  Those who question the national narrative of 9/11 are dismissed in explicit and implicit ways.  And I'm white. The situation has been downright ugly for many Arab, Arab-looking, and Muslim Americans, even those who haven't uttered a word of critique about the U.S. national narrative of 9/11.

What we choose to remember and how we choose to remember matters. Do we only remember our own, or do we remember all those who were lost as a result of hatred, sectarianism, nationalism, and intolerance: NYC firefighters and police, World Trade Center workers, Afghan women, and Iraqi children. There were hundreds of victims of suicide bombings last week in Iraq, a phenomenon that only arrived after the U.S. invasion of the country, and continues (according to many analysts) as a result of U.S. counterinsurgency policies (such as allying with and arming Sunni militias) which radically fomented sectarian divisions in Iraqi society.


I was recently in New York (for the first time!) and solicited advice for things to do. A couple of friends suggested that I visit the 9/11 memorial as it was quite moving and meaningful for them when they visited.  I thought about their suggestion but decided it wasn't the right time for me to visit the memorial.

I remember all of the details of that morning just like the rest of you, but I don't know how to handle all of the pain that has resulted from the ripples of that day, especially the pain and tragedies that have not been recognized by the American people.  Thousands killed that morning. Hundreds of thousands killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan as the War on Terror has spawned more and more foreign militants who want to combat the War on Terror.

Going to the memorial would make me feel like I was remembering our dead at the cost of forgetting their dead. It matters how we define "we," and it matters how we remember.   

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Must-read on Lonmin massacre

I had the opportunity to visit Marikana, two hours outside of Johannesburg, approximately one week after the massacre of 34 miners at the hands of South African police. I've written a bit about the visit for organizational purpose and unfortunately my ability to provide new thoughts or analysis is worn a bit thin.

But before I offer anything (which I'll do in a later post), I find it vital to read one piece. Daily Maverick reporter, Greg Marinovich, spent two weeks in Marikana, trying to figure out how 34 miners were killed. Information gleaned from eyewitness testimony and from good ol' PI work led him to believe that approximately 12 people were killed when they moved towards police (however, according to many accounts they were running away from tear gas and rubber bullets fired from behind them), and somewhere around 14, or more, miners were killed in cold blood by police. They were targeted and summarily executed; murdered as revenge for police officers slain several days before. Marinovich's piece should make its way around blogospheres and twitter feeds, and should inform reporting by international media. If it interests you, Marinovich wrote a follow-up piece after again visiting Marikana and gathering more information.

Secondly, there was a statement released by a number of civil society organizations, including Centre for the Study of Reconciliation, where I am working, that addresses a number of the issues surrounding this incident and the government's response. An excerpt:

We stand for the interests of the poor and marginalised and believe our Constitution’s greatest strength is its promise of equality and the advancement of the political, social and economic rights of the poor.

The Marikana massacre is a defining moment in our history and cannot be allowed to pass without establishing the full truth, ensuring justice and providing redress for the victims and their families.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The massacre at a South African mine: government in bed with industry, union battles, and substandard wages

South African police opened fire on a group of miners protesting insufficient wages, killing 34 and wounding 78. It was the single most lethal use of force since the end of the apartheid era. The workers were employed at the Lonmin-operated mine (a London-based Platinum corporation) near Marikana, some 50 miles from Johannesburg. It's been all over the news and the photos and videos have caused many South Africans to liken the incident to similar massacres and instances of police brutality that occurred during the apartheid era.

Al Jazeera English has a report:

From the outside, looking in, it probably appears that a group of poor, low-wage workers were disgruntled, feeling their bosses, union leaders, and government, were failing to listen to their demands, and violence ensued when the miners took up arms (mostly machetes) against the security forces. However, the issues are layered, and significantly more complicated.

Some of the issues at play:
  • Dueling unions: NUM vs. AMCU.  NUM is the most powerful union in South Africa, boasting 300,000 members, and is a part of COSATU, the national trade union federation which is allied with the dominant ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).  NUMSA, the second-largest metalworkers union, is left-leaning and advocates for that nationalization of resources, something that President Zuma and mainstream ANC leaders (along with, obviously, the IMF and the World Bank) have opposed. The third-most-powerful metalworkers union in the country is the Association of Mining and Construction Union (AMCU) and there are reports that 25% of the workers at Marikana recently switched their membership to AMCU. Thus there's been a bit of a turf battle between unions that resulted in something quite sinister.   
  • Wages: The underground mine workers are earning 4,000 Rand per month ($480). The work is extremely difficult and dangerous, and the wages are low. The workers also live near the mine in informal housing that does not have water, sanitation, or electricity.  The workers were demanding a 300% increase in wages to account for their substandard living conditions and the taxing nature of the work.  
  • Platinum: The cost of platinum has spiked since the killings -- partially because of the mine's closure, a result of striking workers, that has continued into Tuesday -- now nearly $1500/ounce.  However, this short spike has balanced the price of platinum that had been falling over the last couple of years. As a result of the closure, and some bad press, Lonmin's stock has dropped 13%. Platinum is highly valuable metal that is used for catalytic converters, electrodes, dentistry equipment, and jewelry, among other things.  South Africa is the largest victim-of-extraction producer of platinum in the world.
  • Precipitous violence: The striking workers had killed two policeman and two private security officers in the days preceding the massacre. The heavy presence of police at the mine wasn't completely inappropriate from a public order point of view.  The fact that more than 100 people were shot, while the vast majority of protesters (maybe all of them) did not have guns, is an entirely different matter.          
While these issues are central to the tragic, and large-scale, loss of life, there is an overarching theme that I have yet to mention.  18 years after the fall of the apartheid government, South Africa remains a profoundly unequal society.  Income inequality has only increased since the end of apartheid and a majority of South Africans live below the poverty line, out of the line of sight of World Cup visitors and international businesspeople.

South Africa does have a strong and growing economy, but most South Africans remain poor. South Africa's Constitution, established during the transition to democratic government, is quite progressive, and has economic provisions and guarantees similar to those found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: rights to housing, property, and access to basic amenities. Yesterday as we brainstormed as an office about the implications of the tragedy in Marikana and how we thought we should respond, I was jotting down thoughts.
[To help you make sense of my sketch: I drew a rough outline of South Africa. Money flows out of the country to multinationals and also flows to economic and political elites. Violence and other negative results of the mining operations cascade to poor laborers.] 
Extractive mining operations don't contribute to development in any meaningful way.  Profits largely leave the countries borders and into the offshore accounts of multinational corporations. Also, the level of corruption and cronyism in the South African government suggests that money also flows into the pockets of economic and political elites who allow contracts to be established outside democratic and transparent processes.  While the benefits of mining operations (profits) leave the country and flow to the haves, the have-nots (the miners and their families) are faced with the consequences of the mining operations.  Health complications from years of underground labor, ecological and environmental problems (which tend to disproportionately affect poor communities), and police brutality are forcibly borne by mineworkers and their families as well as the communities living in the proximity of the mine's toxic output.  Expressed differently, the mining operations create a series of outputs; the majority of positive outputs are delivered to economic and political elites while the negative outputs are left in the hands of southern Africa's poorest.  

Update: Their is a good column along these lines -- pointing out the role of inequality and the connections between government and industry -- in the National.