2011: Year of the Protester

Since this is the last post of 2011, I`d like to take few minutes to say goodbye to an year that has been truly amazing (sometimes in a scary way, too).

Most of the things I thought would be very unlike actually happened in 2011, the good and the bad things. When I first got an sms by a Tunisian friend last 14 January 2011 I could not believe what I saw on the mobile screen: we, the Tunisian people, are going to celebrate tonight for the dictator is gone.

credit: Time.com

I screamed and cried when I saw my computer screen streaming pure live joy from Tahrir square in Egypt, on February 11th cause another dictator was gone.

I walked the streets of my dear Damascus last February, curious to see what would happen in the Syrian days of rage and saw nothing. Yet, only few days later, and few meters away from my house, I saw a spontaneous explosion of anger, a protest for dignity called by real streets and not by Facebook. Then, again, as unexpected as that one, another unexpected thing happened, again near my house, again in Old Damascus. It was the 15th of March, and people said Syrian revolution was beginning.

I dont believe in slogans and in Internet calls for revolutions, but what I saw was the street revolting, real people being hurt, not avatars.

Since then, Syria has never been the same. People are still fighting for their freedom and dignity, in many ways, the most unexpected, the most creative, the bravest.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

And then Libyans won their fight against Gheddafi and started to rebuild their country. The brave people of Yemen have been hitting the streets since January and are still there. A tough crackdown on Bahrain and the silence of international community have not stopped the people from asking their rights to freedom and equality. Women have been driving change in Saudi Arabia, and Kuwaitis have occupied their Parliament to demand reforms and an end to corruption.

And then Jordan, Morocco, Algeria. And Palestine, of course, always in our hearts.

The most amazing thing is that Europe for the first time took the energy out of the Arabs and shouted. Spain has been leading with the indignados. In my home country the situation is different, and I wish I could tell you we the people ousted Berlusconi -and not the international finance-. But we occupied public spaces and gave them back to the citizens. And we still have our jewel up working, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome, where a new form of collaborative art and culture has born, and more to come.

There is something I will always remember of this almost gone 2011. When I was in DC, a month ago, at the #occupyDC camp, a blond haired guy told me, proud of himself: “I do not fear teargas: I am Egyptian”. So I answered in Arabic and I was surprised to hear that he didnt speak any. Then I discovered he was not even of Arab origin. He was just pretending to be an Egyptian, this guy, a W.a.s.p. American!

This solidarity, this empathy, this brotherhood I saw throughout the world, from the Arab Springs to the #occupy movement to the indignados, is the hope I want to take with me in 2012, despite all the bad things still happening and yet to happen.

 Kull 3amm w entu be kheir.


illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

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My friend Dahnon, the “salafi” of free thinking

In the old days in Damascus, Dahnon (as all his friends used to call him: too many Mohameds around!) and I used to sit and engage for hours and hours in discussions about poetry, literature, philosophy. He didnt` have an easy life: he comes from a huge family from Idlib and studied at the Faculty of engineer, despite having a great inclination for literature and poetry. He used to write poems and novels. Despite his passion for literature, he tried to find his own way to make a living by doing different jobs. Life is hard for the “shabab” (youth) in Syria, especially for those like Dahnon, gifted, talented, but without any “wasta” (recommendation).

Yesterday night I got the terrible news that Dahnon was arrested, while he was at a demonstration in Midan, central Damascus. He was a contributor to Lebanese publication as-Safir  where he used to write in the section  dedicated to youth culture.

Dahnon is not a salafi, he is not a terrorist or an agitator. He owns few weapons, though: his words and his thoughts. The Syrian secret service, or whoever arrested him, wants to take these “weapons” away from him, as from the other Syrian people who are only asking to think freely and express themselves.

A massacre was committed yesterday in Idlib, Dahnon`s hometown, while he was arrested. We dont know the exact number, but it`s something outrageous, around 200. Nobody can verify, cause independent reporters are barred from Syria. Those who are inside, like Dahnon, fighting with their words for their freedom, are arrested and prevented from speaking. Who`s gonna tell us the truth if people like Dahnon are taken?

Who`s gonna defend Syria if Syria does not defend people like Dahnon, literature-lovers, free thinkers and not salafis?

How are we expected to believe  the official “salafi conspiracy and armed groups” theory, when each day we see people armed like Dahnon, with thoughts and words, being arrested and silenced?

* A note on the margin: as-Safir, the Lebanese newspaper Dahnon is a contributor to, is traditionally a pro-Syrian regime publication. The last capital injection also confirmed this position. Few days ago, his main investor, Talal Salman wrote an interesting article where he asked the bloodshed and the arbitrary arrests to stop in Syria.  He asks if Bashar al -Assad would be able to put the interests of his country (al watan) above his regime`s (al nizam) interests. I think the answer to this question is pretty clear now that so many old friends are “un-friending” Syria. See also what Saudi backed London based Al Hayat newspaper says today about Hamas and the rumors that his leader Meshaal will be leaving Syria soon (his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzuk, is reported to have left already  for Jordan where he is getting hospitality in exchange of media silence).

Wrapping up the Third Arab Bloggers meeting

I`ve just returned after a long week  of travels, the most exciting of them being the days spent in Tunis for the third Arab Bloggers meeting (#AB11).

I attended the second one in Beirut, 2009, and thought this was awesome. The atmosphere at the time was that of “something in the making”.

It was two years ago and that feeling has proved right. This crowd has been the protagonist, each of them in his/her own country, of  this phenomenal 2011. Each of these people, together with the Arab youth of each country, had proven to be able to contribute, online and offline, to the shaping of a new future of the Arab region.

Two years ago I felt there was a kind of “cultural panarabism”, a feeling of unity pervading the meeting. This time it was even stronger.

When the Palestinian bloggers and activists were denied the entry visa by the Tunisian Ministry of Interior (without giving any acceptable reason), all the other Arab participants have raised in solidarity. We have made petitions,formal statements, press-releases, got all the mainstream media to talk about this (the evidence: when, few days ago, I walked into my Monaco hotel to join the jury of the Anna Lindht award, all the people there -a totally different crowd from the Arab bloggers- pointed out: it`s a real shame that the new Tunisia prevented the Palestinians to join the #AB11 meeting!). We have had a Skype call with them to let them join the sessions and put all their pictures on empty chairs in a symbolic protest for their unjustified absence.

picture by Ibtihel Zaatouri under CC BY license

I`ve attended so many conferences where officials make statements about Palestine and Palestians, and inter-Arab solidarity. This is the first time I`ve felt people being together, despite not being physically together.

There is something this Arab youth shares, beyond rhetoric. The Arab Springs have strengthened this feeling which has been in the making during the past years thanks to physical meet-ups but of course thanks to the Internet and the social networks.

Now there are best practices shared, together with pictures, videos, links, information.

This Arab youth is truly Pan-Arab. One`s revolution is everybody else`s revolution. One`s freedom is gonna be everybody else`s freedom.

The tools are there. Again, the #AB11 is a great mix of tech training (whether it is about learning cyber security or how to live video stream from the streets) and learning from others` experiences and direct participation. Sami Ben Gharbeia, Malek Khadhraoui and Astrubaal `s reflections on Tunisian revolution and the role played by their portal Nawaat have enlightened and inspired so many people in the #AB11 crowd. Bloggers from Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, have also contributed to the debate by  bringing focusing on each of these countries and on their own direct experience in terms of citizens and activists. Pearls that you will never get on mainstream media.

But the novelty of this edition is how do we move to the next step, i.e. how do we empower people to do a better and citizen-media based cover for the upcoming elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and generally speaking how do we get people actively involved in the democratic process of rebuilding the institutions and the country itself. A very interesting panel, coordinated by Global Voices` Solana Saurus, has been held at the #AB11 on this very issue, with lots of insights coming from Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans,too.

For me one of the most interesting panel was the one which featured the Tunisian bloggers who are running for elections debating about their different visions of the constitutional assembly, the alliances among them or with other groups, their ideas towards mobilizing people, etc. Thanks to Jillian c.York we have great notes of the session.

The key question during the upcoming months is exactly this: how do we turn the regime change that was accomplished in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, into political and social change? and how do we turn the blogging and activism that was “in opposition” to dictatorships into a proactive force that reaches out to the ground and helps democracy to emerge?

#AB11 variety of panels and voices has given a great contribution to this debate. In two weeks Tunis will make the first move, by hosting the first democratic elections in the Region since long time. And the Tunisian bloggers and activists will play an important role in these elections which hopefully will later be a key role in the future of the country, too.

 

You can find a great coverage of the meeting on the Arab Bloggers official website, on Global Voices and on some blogs (like Jillian C. York`s).

Arab Bloggers site has also collected many interesting videos from Tunisia Live and hopefully will publish soon the sessions that have been filmed.

Ibtihel Zaatouri has a great Flickr stream of the meeting and there is also a Storify report about it.

Thanks to Sami and the Nawaat team, all the wonderful Global Voices people, Doreen and Hiba from Heinrich Boll for organizing this inspiring meeting.

 

“Ruwwad”, an ongoing dialogue with the community

Thanks to @fadig and @toosketch today I had the opportunity to visit Ruwwad, an NGO which is situated in a poor area of East Amman, mostly populated by Palestinians. I spent hours and hours sitting and talking with Samar, Fares, Tareq, together with Eman and Issa from the Jordan Open Source Association.

The key, simple concept they are working on is: don`t give money or education to people according to what you like and think, rather ask them what they want. And make it sustainable. Not money, but rather a mindset which helps to build up an individual, a free-thinker, maybe a self-entrepreneur. Ruwwad is the first NGO I`ve met in the Middle East who doesn`t work within a sort of “welfare” or “subsidizing” mentality. It rather establishes an ongoing contact with the community of the people living in Jebel Nathif and asks them what they would need to improve their lives. And this way they have built a secondary school, the post office, a library, a children workshop, a ceramics workshop, a computer lab, places where  an ongoing process of continuous education is happening.

I wish all the NGOs who got subsidized by Western countries would do the same. Listen to people and to their needs, instead of jumping there with a top-down approach.

 

A look into Amman`s growing cultural scene

Today I was out in Amman and had the opportunity to breathe the city`s growing cultural scene. Jordan is certainly not the most well known Arab country when it comes to cinema production. Nevertheless, since some years ago a group of very energetic and passionate people at the Royal Film Commission (RFC) silently started  building up a film infrastructure in the country. When I first visited RFC two years ago, I had the feeling that the place was plenty of good vibes. Hard working people, young people who are the real resources of this “non-oil” country, were restoring an old Ammani house in the beautiful area of Jabal Amman, building up a library and fulling it up with international and regional film titles. Local artists designed the screening room with talent and originality, and students were starting going there for workshops on filming, editing, scriptwriting.

Today I saw their first fully in-house produced movie “Transit cities” by Mohamed Huski (his first long feature film) starring Sama Mubarak (which I am quite familiar with because of her acting in Syrian musalsalat). I was happily surprised to see that the premiere was held at Cinema Rainbow, one of the oldest Amman`s movie theatres that they have recently restored. The restoration is beautifully done, and the cinema has an “arty European” kind of touch. Old cinema projectors are displayed and on the walls a brief history of the beginning of movie theatres in Amman is told. I am quite familiar with the history of movie theatres in Damascus or Cairo, but this is the first time I read about Amman and I was impressed by the number of screens that you could have access to in the Amman of the 50s. Unfortunately later on, in Jordan as much as in many other Arab capitals, cinema culture has decreased and almost disappeared for a number of reasons (mostly political). What reigns in the Arab world now is the TV, home screen culture, and musalsalat.. private consumption over public social opportunities to screen a movie.

I think RFC proved today that they are seriously trying to build a cinema culture in the country, both on the consumption and the production sides. There are two other Jordanian RFC produced films to be out soon, and this is the signal that something is happening in the country. Young people who are doing this deserve appreciation for the efforts and passion they are putting in it.

After the screening Eman Jaradat, one of the leads of Creative Commons growing community in Jordan, took me at the Amman stand up comedy festival, which is running these days for the third time in the country. Tonight it was the “Arabian night” with stand up comedians from the Arab region, mostly Egyptians and Jordanians.

Again, I was happily surprised by the talent and the passion of those youngsters. Ola Rushdy from Egypt delighted the audience with the irony of being a pregnant woman in the Arab world and with all the expectations that  one “who is expecting” generates -she is herself expecting a baby, performing on stage with quite a big belly-. Many different Jordanians stand up comedians have mocked the “Jordanian type”, his attitude towards food, guests , family and the Parliament. Facebook, of course, was part of the jokes, as much as TV, videoclips and pop cultures in the Arab world.

My favourite was a young Saudi -whose name unfortunately seems not to be written in the program- who delighted the audience by performing in various Arab dialects, from Jordanian to Lebanese to Kuwaiti to Sudanese, and linking every local dialect to a certain social “attitude” and behaviour. The joke started from the decision to dub the “Godfather” into Syrian dialect, as to give the American masterpiece a sort of “Bab al hara” touch.

Television is so predominant in the Arab world and dialect spoken musalsalat so widespread that there is now a kind of common background and a sort of “mood” related to each local variety of Arabic.

For me, it was very interesting to see how we can laugh about jokes made in different dialects, conveying different ideas of culture and social behaviour. Stand up comedy is a new language in the Arab world but, judging from the audience`s reactions today, quite promising in the Region.

If Amman continues to build on these activities and motivate its young crowd, it is very likely we`ll hear about “Ammani nights” again and again even more in the next few years. The Arab world needs to strengthen a cultural industry made up of local made original products, made by Arabs and in Arabic, I believe.

Creative Commons Jordan launch and first Arab world Salon to be held on 15-16 nov in Amman

Creative Commons is finally due to launch in Jordan next sunday 15th nov with a big gathering of law experts  from all across the world and the Arab Region. Ziad Maraqa and Rami Olwan, CC Jordan leads, have organised a conference at Talal Abu Ghazaleh business Forum that will frame the debate around the launch of CC Jordan in the broader context of copyright reform, and will focus on how CC could be applied to business, artistic, entrepreneurial activities in the Arab world by showcasing case studies as the CC AL Jazeera repository.

Science Commons will be introduced for the first time in the Arab world.

The conference will start at 10 am at the Talal Abu Ghazaleh Business College at the German Jordanian University, Mekka Street, Amman. Conference will be opened by Ministry of Justice Aiman Odeh, and will feature opening remaks of Joi Ito, Ceo of Creative Commons, and Talal Abu Ghazaleh. Then the Jordan team will present the work they have been doing over the past years on the translation and porting process.

Other speakers include Diane Peters (General Counsel of Creative Commons), John Wilbanks (VP of Science Commons), Prof. Brian Fitzgerald (project lead of Creative Commons Australia at Professor at Queensland University Of Technlogy, Brisbane).

On the 16th Creative Commons will celebrate the first ever CC Arab Salon. Event is due to kick off at 6pm @Al Balad Theatre in Downtown Amman.

The Salon will feature media organisations, artists, bloggers and creative people from the Arab world who have used CC licenses and would like to share the results of opening up their work.

The Amman Salon is going to be a major step going towards fostering the creation of original Arabic content and encouraging the people to share it with the entire world.  To this extent, the enthusiastic support of the Royal Film Commission who is co-organising the event under the Royal Patronage of Prince Ali bin al Hussein has been extremely key and encouraging.

A big thank to the enourmous efforts of the wide variety of passionate people and hard workers that were involved in organising this, and of course to the pioneer artists from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Qatar that are going to showcase their “CC under” works! and thanks to the Jordan Open Source Association that has designed the logo of the Salon and set up an online contest to vote the most popular option which proved to be this one:

 

 

cc-salon-logo

 

And that’s the final programme of the Salon. It’s going to be lots of artists and lots of fun! Spread the word and join us in Amman!

CC SALON @RFC SCHEDULE

Opening greetings: HRH Prince Ali bin al Hussein, Chairman of the Royal Film Commission

Greetings and overview on CC: Joi Ito, Ceo Creative Commons

Use of CC in the Arab world. The pioneers:

CC for media:

Moeed Ahmad, Al Jazeera (Qatar)

Nora Younis, Al Masry Al Youm (Egypt)

CC for visual artists:

Naeema Zarif (Lebanon)

Ahmad Ali (Syria)

CC for comics:

Maya Zankoul (Lebanon)

CC for a creative economy

Nadine Toukan and Yusuf Mansur, Urdun Mubdi3 (Jordan)

CC for filmmakers:

Cyril Aris and Mouna Akl (Lebanon)

CC for Social Media Community Projects

Ramsey Tesdell and Lina Ejleilat 7iber.com (Jordan)

CC for user generated content and Internet start ups:

Laith Zraikat, Jeeran (Jordan)

CC for poetry:

Emad Nasser, Seejal (Jordan)

CC for geeks:

Bassel Safadi, Discover Syria (Syria)

Eman Jaradat, Jordan Open Source Association (Jordan)

Music remix and live act by Rejon (US-China)

 

Why the Arabs are lost in translation..

I would like to spend a few words in response to the blog post written by my friends at MeedanWhy Middle East social-web projects miss their target audience“.  You’ve touched one very weak point -maybe the weakest- concerning the state of the Arabic web: the language issue. The gap Arabic/English is there, and you’re right when you say that basically “when in Rome, do what the Romans do”. Anyway, the point is exactly here: what are the Romans (the Arabs) doing right now?

All the qualified training programmes -particularly in media field, but also in science, engineer, etc- all across the Arab world are.. in English! Go visit all the most important universities in the Arab world and you will see that the majority is offering courses and training in English. It’s not by chance that many foreigners that want to learn the Arabic language go to Syria. I had myself the privilege to experience both Syrian public university in Damascus -Faculty of Journalism- and the very qualified Syrian International Academy which gives the best and professional training in public relations and media related-issues..in Arabic (btw, thanks for the compliments about my Syrian Arabic, but it’s exactly for those reasons here above that I can speak, having learned it in a place where media training in Arabic is still strong).

It’s true,  social-web trainings such as the one we did with Royal Film Commission in Jordan would deserve to be done in Arabic, in order to include people from countries -like Iraq-where students are not so comfortable in English as they are in other countries like Lebanon or Jordan.  But I don’t think we missed our target audience. Joi Ito, the trainer and Creative Commons’ Ceo, speaks English and I don’t think a live translation would have been so effective as his words were, directly, to the students. There are “places” sometimes in human interaction where translation can’t go too much further, in order not to start to be literally “lost” in that translation.

We are thinking, next time, to offer a training in Arabic for Arabic speakers only, but it would be a different one. Arab trainers -or foreigners who speak enough good Arabic- should train the students, I personally don’t think translation can be effective in all the human interaction situations, and having even a live translation of such a workshop done by an English speaker would never be the same, cause something will be irreparably lost in translation.  Instead, we should maybe encourage Arabs and Arabic speakers to train in Arabic -despite of the difficulties of translating the web 2.0 into this beautiful language-  by tailoring the contents of the training itself directly for an Arabic-only speaking audience. Language has got a culture inside itself and, again, having followed journalism training in Arabic I think I can guess some of the nuances that will always be lost in translation.

Speaking about that, it’s very important to remind the work of organisations such as Social Media Exchange in Beirut and the Arab Digital Expression Foundation in Cairo that are putting lots of efforts in doing web 2.0 training directly in Arabic, with a different methodology and not only a different terminology due to the translation.

But, again, I guess the problem is bigger than it seems: how we can have more Arabs speaking Arabic and producing content in Arabic? How we can encourage this process? Is this only a matter of translation -or is it rather a matter of establishing the culture itself of training in Arabic, a culture that most of the Arab world itself lacks?

Jordan Media Institute, the soon-to-be-open media training school in Jordan, is putting together one of the few available journalism curricula in Arabic. Syrian International Academy has been doing this for many years now. Al Jazeera does have a very high level training in the media field and in Arabic, of course. But what about all the other existing universities all across the Arab world?

If the Arabs themselves consider Arabic to be the proper language only for literature and poetry, while media and journalism should be left to English, no translation in the world would ever been able to fill any gap.

Because, as I’ve heard in a theatre play while in Damascus:  “Without Al Jazeera and  the foreigners  desperately trying to learn the language, nobody would ever speak Arabic in the Arab world“.

Sadly, it was supposed to be a comedy.