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Dew Point

This blog is dedicated to sharing my every-day discoveries of how the light and beauty of Islamic spirituality can be part of a modern, well-rounded way of life.

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Arab culture

Translating Love’s Confusion: Hollywood and Misreading Rumi

The 2010 Hollywood celebrity fest chick-flick Valentine’s Day opens with Reed Bennett, a florist played by Ashton Kutscher, proposing marriage to Morley (Jessica Alba), as she wakes up on Feb. 14.

Evidently startled, Morley initially accepts, sending Reed on a joyful mission to let everyone know his sweetheart said “yes”! But his elation is short-lived. A few hours later Reed finds Morley in his apartment packing her bag as she hands back his ring and walks out on the relationship entirely.

Just then, as movie’s downtrodden protagonist leaves the scene, the narrator — a radio show host named “Romeo Midnight” — drops a word of wisdom that sounds a tinge sufi.

“It’s Romeo Midnight back again.
And if those topsy-turvy feelings have got you twisted inside out, think of the poet Rumi who 800 years ago said: `All we really want is love’s confusing joy.’
Amen, brother.”

 

When I watched this movie shortly after its release, I was bemused at the irony of hearing a 13th-century Islamic poet and scholar quoted in a cheesy American blockbuster seemingly unwittingly. A Persian poet of love, Rumi is often uprooted from his historical context and polished for resale for Western audiences who may not realize his object of affection isn’t a romantic love interest, but the Divine Beloved.

livlu-ghemaru-heart-of-steel
Heart of Steel, by Livlu Ghemaru

Rumi writes in a transcendent and inclusive way about love and loss, so his wide-reaching appeal isn’t surprising. Yet it can be frustrating to see him conspicuously taken out of context. Not only is he often divorced of the Islam, or Self Surrender, his poetry conveys, Rumi’s words can be used to propagate unrealistic ideals of how romantic love is the magic key to personal fulfilment and happily ever after.

I’ve certainly been swept up in these sentimental pursuits, especially in my 20s. My upbringing combined Egyptian influences and North American popular culture (Hollywood and Disney included), particularly in the late-1980s and 90s, both of which dictated I needed to find love, get married and have children to be whole.

Measured against these standards, I was a failure. Before 25, I’d broken off two engagements, and for many years after that my love life was one long dry spell punctured by a handful of dates and a couple of agonizing encounters with unrequited love. A resentful inner critic insisted I was to blame, and that persistent hollowness in my core could only be filled with romantic love, which I felt I couldn’t be worthy of; I couldn’t get the part. Continue reading “Translating Love’s Confusion: Hollywood and Misreading Rumi”

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My favourite things in the UAE: a bittersweet blog

About four months ago I started photographing some of my favourite things in the Dubai, and neighbouring areas, where I’ve lived for the past eight years. I took snapshots of locally available food items, unique restaurants and cultural and social spaces that have become dear to me over the years and, in the end, have made this place feel like home. I planned to compile the photos into a blog, along with a short description of each of my choices, to give others a glimpse into some of the valuable little discoveries that have enlivened my daily experience living in the UAE.

I didn’t realise when I started the creative process that by the time I actually got around to putting this blog together, I would be less than 10 days away from leaving Dubai indefinitely. This project ended up being more for me than anyone else – a way of capturing some of the fleeting colours and flavours of my daily life that are easy to take for granted, but that I will miss dearly when I move away early next month.

Continue reading “My favourite things in the UAE: a bittersweet blog”

Art of the streets


On my first visit to Cairo since last year’s popular uprising overthrew Hosni Mubarak following three decades of rule, I was inspired and moved, sometimes to tears, by the graffiti and public art that now decorate the city.

Campaign materials strewn across the city by key candidates in the country’s first free presidential election also took me aback. The last time I visited in September 2010, only photos of the long-time dictator, or his wife and heir-apparent, could be seen adorning Cairo’s streets. Continue reading “Art of the streets”

Sweet reward

 
My mom’s basbousa recipe below:)

Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of the Islamic month of fasting, is all about consuming sweets. Well, at least that’s what I grew up believing –and I have happily upheld this tradition up to today. After a month of fasting from sunrise until sunset, which tends to constrict your appetite, pastries, sweets and cookies are served up in large quantities during the three days of Eid al-Fitr (the festival of breaking the fast). The best part is, after cutting down consumption during Ramadan, I don’t feel guilty about devouring these rich, sweet, buttery desserts.

There are so many varieties of sweets served across the Arab world during Eid. Kahk (or maamoul) is a particular favourite in Egypt and other countries: small pastries stuffed with dates, walnuts or pistachios and doused in powdered sugar. Ghorayebah biscuits, baklava and kunafeh (a Middle Eastern pastry made from a vermicelli-like pastry) are other crowd favourites.

During Eid, extended family members generally visit one another to congratulate each other on a successful Ramadan and pass along Eid greetings. These sweets, often bought at bakeries, will be served as part of the celebrations.

Apart from my sister, I haven’t any family or extended family in town this year. Hence, we have no major socialising events to attend. I suppose because of this, it slipped my mind to stock up on pastries at the end of Ramadan. I woke up this morning realising there wasn’t a traditional sweet in the house to help us celebrate.

So I pulled out my handy compilation of mom’s dessert recipes and decided to make basbousa, a sweet pastry made from semolina and coconut and drizzled in syrup. While I have had this recipe on file for years, today was the first time I tried to make it on my own.

The basbousa turned out quite well (I ate two portions before dinner). As usually occurs when I try one of my mom’s recipes, however, the basbousa wasn’t quite the same as when she makes it. This never fails. I can follow my mom’s main course or dessert recipes to a tee and yet they will always turn out a little off, as though her touch triggers a latent flavour in every dish that cannot be replicated by anyone else.

In any case, the basbousa is still yummy enough to share, so I’ve included the recipe below for those interested in indulging in some guilt-free dessert consumption this Eid.

While Ramadan is over, many Muslims will continue to fast with less frequency in Shawwal, the lunar month that follows Ramadan on the Islamic calendar. Eid is declared once the sighting of a new moon marks the start of Shawwal. There are said to be spiritual benefits for fasting six days during the month of Shawwal, following the Eid celebration. Fasting outside of Ramadan is one way to help carry the spirit of the month through the year, which I elaborated on in July in my blog entry, ‘Fasting to Feed the Soul’.

A joyous Eid to all and happy eating!

My mom’s basbousa

Ingredients

Cake

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup wheatlets (semolina)

1 cup coconut

3 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup butter or margarine, melted

¼ cup to ½ cup yogurt

Syrup

1 cup water

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla powder

Juice from ¼ of a lemon, freshly squeezed

Directions

1) Preheat oven to 180C.

2) Prepare the syrup. Combine sugar, water and vanilla powder in a saucepan at high heat. Bring to a boil and then simmer for five minutes to form a syrup. Leave to cool.

3) Mix together flour, wheatlets, coconut and baking powder in medium bowl. Fold in butter and mix until well-combined. Add yogurt to mixture and combine until batter is smooth.

4) Spread the mixture into greased large circular or rectangular baking dish and pat down until it is evenly spread across the pan. (I used two square baking dishes this time, but would have preferred making it in one larger pan)

Take a sharp knife and slice cake into diamond or square shapes. Arrange almonds on top so that each cut slice will hold an almond.

5) Bake for about 30 minutes until golden.

6) Remove cake from oven and immediately pour the syrup over the cake while it is still in the baking dish. Allow basbousa to absorb the syrup and cool down before removing from tray and serving.

Enjoy!!

 
Remove from the oven once it is golden…
 
Then drench the cake in the prepared syrup..
 
And leave it until the syrup is completely absorbed. Ready to eat!

Let’s keep the spotlight on Egypt’s sexual harassment crisis

The insidious prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt found itself at the centre of a very public, global discussion this year, and I could not be more pleased that this issue has emerged from the shadows.

CBS reporter Lara Logan’s account of her physical and sexual assault by a Cairo mob and news that women detained during the Jan. 25 uprising were subjected to forced virginity tests have given male offenders a sampling of the negative glare and condemnation they deserve.

These incidents will surely make many tourists think twice about travelling to Egypt and should force society and the government to bring to an end the practice of turning a blind eye to acts of violence against women. For decades, too many men in Egypt have become progressively more cruel and deliberate in their mistreatment of women in public places.

Egyptian women have sought for years to stop sexual harassment
Sexual harassment of Egyptian women is, sadly, ingrained in the cultural fabric of society to the extent that we have accepted it as an unalterable reality, one that women have been forced to adapt to. I certainly became numb following repeated exposure to harassment while living in Cairo after university, and during periodic visits since then.
As a young, cash-strapped journalist when I first moved to the Egyptian capital in 2002, I would take mini buses and vans to and from my family’s apartment in the heart of the Pyramids district to my office in the more upscale neighbourhood of Mohandiseen. The commute took about an hour in the morning rush on Cairo’s congested Pyramids Street.
I was always careful to wear ankle-length skirts or pants, and the sleeves of my blouses would usually extend below the elbow. All but my hair and face were generally covered. Yet not a day would go by that I wasn’t glared at, subject to inappropriate often sexual remarks, objectified, and sometimes touched or stroked by other male passengers.
My cheerful disposition quickly transformed; I became very stern, unsmiling and cold in order to dodge harassment as much as possible. I learned to avoid eye contact with men, instead focusing on a book or out the window as I eagerly awaited my stop each day. It was exceptionally difficult to feel comfortable in my own skin when defiant stares concentrated on every part of my body.
Such an experience is the rule rather than the exception. Some 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women said in a 2008 poll by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights that they faced sexual harassment while in Egypt. A staggering 46% of Egyptian and 52.3% of foreign women faced harassment daily – and 72.5% of the well over 2,000 women surveyed wore some form of a veil.
Women have little recourse to report abuse
Needless to say after about five months of taking public transportation, I was relieved to be able to afford regular taxis that would pick me up and drop my off. Until today I cannot fathom how women endure the abuse of men every day on public transport; I applaud their courage and strength. My experience in the workplace, at functions and meetings  tended to be more respectful and comfortable.
Yet even after I stopped taking public transportation, men would find ways to do the most appalling things. Once I was waiting for my morning taxi on the street corner in front of my apartment building, and a young man of less than 30 passed by. He stopped a couple of metres away from me at the corner of the fence that bordered the property next door, pulled down his pants and underwear and began masturbating while facing me and staring. Horrified, I ran up the walkway of my building and waited at the top of the stairs until my driver called to inform me he had arrived. From then on, I wouldn’t leave my apartment until a missed call signalled the taxi was downstairs.
It was not always easy to escape quickly when faced with inappropriate behaviour. Often when my hands were full of groceries as I walked home from the nearby souk, young boys would challenge each other to run by, touch my bottom or breast, and then run away. Lecturing them to have some respect or fear of God would induce only laughter. These boys had learned that it is alright to objectify women who are not their sister, relative or family friend. And they faced no consequences for doing so.
The walk to my office, home, grocery store or mall would often be interrupted by a slow-moving car whose driver was scouting the streets for prostitutes. And I don’t even want to remember the remarks I heard and touches I suffered when I once missed the door to the women’s carriage of the Cairo subway and found myself in a subway car teeming with men, many of whom had no concept of respect or courtesy for the opposite sex. What consistently shocked me was the lack of intervention; not one time did a man who very publicly harassed me face any criticism from others standing in the vicinity.
The tides are beginning to change with initiatives such as HarassMap, which allows women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment by sending a text message to a centralised computer. This initiative is absolutely imperative to start altering the culture’s tolerance of sexual harassment by documenting its frequency. The media is catching on as well. Al-MasryAl-Youm said this month it would feature pieces each Wednesday to “dissect the reasons behind sexual harassment”.
I was very excited by women’s extensive participation in the Egyptian revolution, especially when I heard anecdotally that harassment was rare in Tahrir Square. I thought the revolution would offer a sincere challenge to the patriarchal structure that for so long had condoned sexual harassment. In recent months, however, it seems the condition for women has reverted back to what it was before, and by some accounts harassment has gotten worse as part of a concerted effort by the military to shame women away from protesting:
“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and drugs.”
This blatantly incorrect, ignorant and shameful comment by an army officer did not surprise me. Such perceptions are suggestive of the damage caused by the disintegration of moral values in Egypt in the last 40 years. Virtually every Egyptian woman over 55 will recount stories of how she and her friends wore short dresses and sleeveless tops in the 1950s and 60s—and no man dared to harass them.

My mom feeding a giraffe with friends at the Cairo Zoo in late 60s, when harassment was rare
Ironically, my mom was more comfortable walking on Cairo’s streets as a striking 20-year-old in a mini skirt than she was as a conservatively dressed woman in her late 50s. After buying groceries at a neighbourhood shop a few years ago, she was approached by young man who offered to assist her with the bags. When she declined his invitation, he made an obscene comment. Needless to say my mom gave him a well-deserved and very loud lecture on morality and Islamic values before he was able to escape the vicinity.
Society must begin naming, shaming and ridiculing male perpetrators of sexual harassment in newspapers, on television and online. These offenders must face legal consequences for their actions so Egypt’s youth are conditioned over time to change their disgraceful ways. Allowing the harassment problem to continue to fester threatens widespread social and economic ramifications, including for tourism.
New campaigns that target a man’s honour, preach respectability, and teach men to treat all women as they would their sisters must happen widely and aggressively before meaningful change takes place. Egyptians are persuaded by the ideas of honour and shame they are exposed to on the news, television programmes and movies. The onus of upholding honour has always fallen on the shoulders women. The time has come for men to share the burden.

Look forward to your comments!

Matrimonial penalty box

There is a scene in the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary where the single Bridget is attending a couples dinner party at the home of her only married girlfriend and is warned that she’d better hurry up and “get sprugged up” because the ubiquitous ‘clock is ticking’. Bridget is then asked the question that women like her – over 30 and unmarried bachelorettes across the world – dread to answer.

“Why is it there are so many unmarried women in their thirties these days, Bridget?” asks the smug husband of an acquaintance from across the table, with his pregnant wife at his side. Silence falls on the dining room as everyone sets down their utensils and all eyes converge on Bridget, almost expecting her to answer on behalf of every single woman in her thirties, everywhere.

Bridget belts a brief chuckle at the absurdity of the question, and says with a smile, “Oh, I don’t know. Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.”

Sometimes I wish I could respond as she did at that moment when emotions of anxiety and embarrassment come together in piercingly sharp force in the centre of even many a resolute woman’s chest. Yet it is not always easy to take questions of postponed marriage in jest and good cheer. The stigma attached to being a single woman above 30 prevails in various cultures, which is why many of us can relate to Bridget, even if the cultural circumstances may differ tremendously.

Arab communities are particularly unforgiving of women who have not tied the knot by 30, and preferably many years younger. I was dismayed by the marriage question six years ago at 25 and I still wince when it is asked today at 31.

The obsession with marriage has made women view forming a family as the only culturally and religiously acceptable way to live their lives. Under this logic, no matter what she may have accomplished, a young Arab woman is doomed to be pitied and feel incomplete without a husband and kids. Some women are pressured to marry early and, as the years pass, to regard any man who has a job, is single and under 45–regardless of whether he happens to have a complementary personality– as a suitable match.

The preoccupation with marriage has caused many women to focus their happiness and fulfilment on securing another person’s affection, rather than realising peace within themselves beforehand. There is no use in crushing women’s self esteem as they get further into their 20s and enter their 30s simply because they have failed to cross paths with suitable men.

In an extreme example, the poster below, found in a Saudi elementary school, recently did its rounds on Twitter. It outlines a series of threats facing Muslim women, with an ominous image of a woman who appears to be gushing blood after being stabbed. Among warnings against listening to music and travelling abroad, proper Muslim girls are advised against “refusing or delaying marriage”. Rather than engendering a love of God in young girls they are taught to fear the wrath they would face if the pursuit of marriage is not their top priority.

By almost every measure outlined in the poster, I would be doomed – even though I hold family and marriage in very high regard. Family is the cornerstone of society. At a number of points in the Quran God advises us to be good to our parents, treat each other with respect and even informs us that He has created for us mates with whom we should deal with love and mercy. I hope to start a family and, if God wills, have children of my own.

But I struggle to find compelling religious justification for marrying young. Often, I would hear people say that children and wealth are ‘zinat hayat al-donya’ (adornments of this worldly life). This Arabic phrase excerpted from the Holy Quran has been regularly cited in my life as a justification for starting a family as early as possible; building a family unit is the primary purpose of a virtuous life.

As I grow deeper in my faith, the particular cultural emphasis on marriage and children puzzles me. When I read the Quran for the first time last year, I realised that the second part of that phrase was excluded from the popular discourse I had often been exposed to. “Wealth and children are (but) adornment of the worldly life. But the permanent righteous deeds are better in your Lord’s Sight (to attain) rewards, and better in respect of hope.” (Quran, 18:46)

God appears to be advising us to avoid becoming fixated on the pleasures we find in the money we earn and children we have. These things offer us a comfort in life but what endure for God are our righteous deeds, not our pursuit of family or wealth. God further calls on us repeatedly to be tolerant, to accept all of His blessings with gratitude and challenges with patience. So by extension, there is no contradiction in being single and being virtuous.

People’s faith in God-granted destiny (naseeb) often wavers when it comes to marriage. Our communities are prone to placing the onus of blame on the shoulders of the single women themselves rather than trying to address the real challenges facing our societies with meaningful solutions. From the perspective of myself and other single Muslim women, there are a limited number of options available for us to meet like-minded Muslim men. Introductions happen quite infrequently as family or friends take a more and more inactive role in our personal lives.

I am lucky to have very supportive family members, including my mother, who would not pressure me to wed. Nevertheless, there are moments of weakness where I am advised on how ‘a mediocre marriage is better than no marriage at all’. I have had my fair share of experiences with ill-fated love and awkward rendez-vous with men who had little compatibility with me other than that they happened to be single.

Single Arab women are often assumed to be too difficult, too picky, too ambitious or too head-strong to qualify as marriageable material. Quite to the contrary, most of the unmarried, over-30 women I know are considerate, intelligent, attractive, tolerant, family-oriented and chaste. Very little differentiates them from married women and most of us are not going around rejecting every guy who comes by. The point is that ‘the one’ – be he Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, or Mr. Adequate– hasn’t yet come a knocking for whatever reason.

Last year, I was having lunch with an acquaintance, a young Arab woman some five years younger than myself, who told me she did not want to become that girl who is alone at 30 (she assumed I was about 27). She appeared almost terrified at the prospect. I consider myself to be successful, compassionate and more attractive now than I was at 25, and yet so many women fear the cultural marginalisation they would face if they turned out like me.

More and more, I regard such perceptions about the suitable age for marriage as a sign of cultural distortion and oversight of faith. Finding men who are willing to consider choosing a 32-year-old over a 23-year-old has, sadly, frequently turned into a search for the exception to the rule in Arab Islamic circles.

Yet when Prophet Muhammad ﷺ recounted his monogamous marriage to his first wife Khadija, 15 years his senior, he did so with unparalleled reverence. Their 25-year marriage was full of harmony, and he is known to have described Khadija as his intimate friend and his wise counsellor and companion. Responding to one of his later wife’s claims that God had blessed him with better, more youthful brides than Khadija after her death, the Prophet ﷺ has been cited as saying: “Indeed Allah did not grant me better than her; she accepted me when people rejected me, she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me; and Allah granted me children only through her”.

There are simple lessons in this: we must have faith in the spirit of God’s message, and be tolerant, patient and progressive in our expectations when dealing with issues of marriage. If a woman is destined to marry at 40 and have four children, as Khadija did, it will happen. If God wills her to marry at 23 and be barren, that too will come to pass. Just because most women fall somewhere between the two extremes does not diminish the importance of accepting that God tests each of us in different ways. Marriage is not a magic ticket to salvation.

The next time someone asks me why I am not married yet I hope I can come up with as witty a response as Bridget’s, something that will, with any luck, cause the person to pause for a moment and call into question their question.

——
Look forward to your comments!

Unveiling the bride

It was reaching the moment the crowd of 2,000 attendees had been anticipating for more than two hours: the bride was about to be unveiled. I use the term ‘unveiled’ because she was literally uncovered from beneath what I can only describe as a gigantic circular curtain, in the shape of what looked like a four-layer cake decorated with ruffles and lace.

 
The background music was forceful; my sister said it reminded her of the theme music used during battle scenes in the movie Lord of the Rings. For some reason the intense tunes seemed an entirely appropriate way to capture the occasion, which was truly momentous at least for the families involved. One layer at a time the curtain rose from the floor of the podium situated in the centre of the giant exhibition hall where the wedding was held. An exquisitely dressed young Emirati bride of about 20 emerged from beneath the rising curtain, sitting on a small cream-coloured couch made for two, the sweeping train of her glittering wedding gown carefully placed on the floor around her.
 
My sister and I had arrived 45 minutes earlier at 10:30 p.m., about two hours late but just in time for the tail-end of a dinner comprising traditional Emirati and Asian cuisine consisting of briyani with mutton, chicken masala, a variety of grilled meats and a dish known as Harees, which has a thick porridge-like consistency combining wheat, meat and salt.
 
As the attendees finished dinner, munched on desserts and sipped Arabic coffee, the anticipation was evident. Everyone was eager to have their first glimpse of the bride at this women-only affair (that is, apart from the male Gulf Arab musician, whose name I did not catch, giving a live performance during dinner).
 
Traditional Emirati weddings are held in two ceremonies, the first for the groom, which I have heard typically involve a grand dinner party held within a week of the women’s gala. The men’s ceremony is supposedly much more basic, with festivities saved for the bride’s night. On this particular occasion, the groom’s bash took place the evening before.
 
In all Emirati weddings I have attended, toward the end of the women’s ceremony the groom comes into the hall, often with his father or another male member of the family, and walks across the stage toward his bride. They sit together briefly for photographs with close family and then the two depart to commence their lives together, often going home to a villa festooned with lights.
 
Over the past few years, I have attended a number of weddings for Emirati couples, including a group wedding where about 70 employees of a local bank tied the knot at a single ceremony paid for by the bank. Depending on the financial capabilities of the families, Emirati weddings vary in their size and ability to dazzle. There is one common thread that runs through all of them, however, and that is that I am always under-dressed. I stopped trying to dress appropriately for UAE weddings because no matter how hard I try, my wardrobe and hairstyle are simply too minimalist to fit in.
 
Many of the women look so glitzy and sensational they would put actresses on the Oscar Red Carpet to shame with their fabulous, colourful gowns  and the remarkable hairstyles they are able to accomplish with their unbelievably thick, long and lustrous black hair. (Masha’Allah) Others look too gaudy and flamboyant for my tastes, although again I imagine that to be very much like a night at the Oscar’s. At weddings, local women tend to let some of their guard down. I often find myself stunned at the size of the emeralds, diamonds, rubies and sapphires dangling from their ears, on their necks and around their wrists. One can see small groups of young ladies dancing together on the stage, supposedly exhibiting their goods for potential mothers-in-law in a way they would not be able to on a daily basis.
 
This wedding last Friday, which was arranged by the families, was particularly extraordinary. I will refrain for naming the families involved for privacy reasons, although I can say that the bride and the groom were from two different emirates of the seven that comprise the UAE federation. We were prohibited from bringing in our mobile telephones to the extravaganza, and as the bride strutted her way across the stage, not a single camera flash could be seen from the crowd, other than that of the professional camerawoman hired to capture the affair.
 
So, back to the bride, because she’s the reason we were all there. Directly before the cake-shaped-curtain contraption was lifted from the floor, there was a performance that I must describe because it was so bizarre. Remember C-3P0, the shiny golden robot from Star Wars? The two performers who took to the stage looked like C-3P0, except wearing skirts shaped like metallic cones. The performers swayed to music similar to what I described earlier, appearing to glide across the stage, waving fans made of golden feathers in their hands.
 
Once their unusual 10-minute performance was complete, the bride emerged from beneath the curtain, adorned in a gown that glittered so immensely it was as though diamonds and crystals were stitched into every crevice of the dress, from the chest to below the knees. As the young bride made her way slowly down the catwalk, and all eyes in the room were glued to her, six assistants followed her to adjust the train, a daunting task requiring huge coordination to fix the heaps of fabric that trailed behind the bride for three metres or longer.  I cannot imagine how heavy the dress must have been. Yet, the petite bride smiled the entire time, her face and eyes beaming at her family, relatives and friends as she relished in the 20-minute spotlight that marked the beginning of the next chapter of her life.
 
At that point, I had joined a crowd gathered at the tip of the catwalk to get a closer glimpse of the dress, the hairdo, jewellery and makeup. I realised then that while the traditions may vary widely, a truly universal thread runs through virtually every wedding of every culture, in every part of the world: the wedding ceremony is the bride’s moment in time to steal the limelight and rejoice at one of her life’s milestone achievements. This bride, at least on the surface, certainly did radiate.

On the cusp of revolt

In 2007, as inflation rates across the Arab world, including Gulf powerhouses like Saudi Arabia, soared to record, double-digit peaks, a senior colleague of mine at Reuters News predicted many countries in the region were on the cusp of popular revolts.
At the time, I was the Gulf region’s treasury correspondent, covering news related to economic, monetary and fiscal policy. In late 2007 and during the first part of 2008, we wrote a stream of articles focused on measures taken by Gulf governments to offset the impact of rising prices on their populations. There were riots by migrant workers in the UAE over wages, and pressure mounted on policymakers to take measures to quell popular discontent.
Saudi Arabia, for one, introduced subsidies targeted to help lower income Saudis, state employees received cost-of-living allowances and import levies were lowered on various food items to stem a massive rise in inflation that took price pressures to their highest since the 1970s oil boom. 
Similar measures were undertaken across the six countries in the world’s top oil-exporting region, and North African states like Egypt also weighed in, albeit to a lesser extent than the Gulf due to the their smaller financial cushions and in the case of Egypt, much larger population.
But the popular revolts we had envisaged would unfold in 2008 did not transpire. Pressure from dollar weakness and soaring cost of living dissipated quickly with the onset of the global financial crisis in late 2008. Middle East economies decelerated rapidly as oil prices plunged from a peak of almost $150 a barrel in July 2008 to just above $30 a barrel before the end of the year. Inflation rates adjusted quickly and suddenly the mounting pressure on governments to allay popular discontent eased considerably.
Yet disgruntlement did not disappear – far from it. The global financial crisis perhaps masked the boiling unrest for a short while, but it also served to aggravate grievances of Arab populations. Slower economic growth meant weaker private sector expansion across the region, frustrating the unemployment problem, and leading to a widening of the income divide. Youth unemployment in the Middle East is alarming. At 23%, according to the International Labour Organisation, regional joblessness among young people is the highest in the world.
Even while inflation rates in Egypt more than halved in 2009 and 2010, they remained in double-digit levels and concerns over unemployment, low wages and corruption continued to brew across the Middle East. Even in Saudi Arabia inflation has held almost consistently above 5%, historically high for a country where inflation averaged 0.8% between 1990 and 2006.
Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vender in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, was the instigator of a dramatic twist in the plot for the entire region. Bouazizi publicly set himself on fire in protest of the confiscation of his goods and harassment and humiliation by a municipal official, later dying from the injuries and inspiring a revolution that toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.  The young 26-year-old’s story resonated across the region and has served as a trigger for the popular revolts that my colleague (who also foresaw the gravity of the global financial crisis) had anticipated would take place two or three years ago.
Bouazizi shifted the popular mindset such that Arab youth no longer sought state concessions such as subsidies, higher wages or promises for more jobs. They now demand freedom of expression, a meaningful voice in politics and an end to corruption and repressive dictatorship. Successful popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and the momentum building in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere underpin this new desire for genuine freedom.
It will be difficult for even some Gulf monarchies to silence the calls of their youth by throwing funds from their ample oil wealth at social programmes. This entry by a prominent Saudi blogger underpins this change in mentality: 7,000 people are supporting a call on Facebook for the kingdom to establish a constitutional monarchy, fight corruption, and improve the situation of women. Momentum will have to build more extensively before the population of 27 million (including about 18.5 million Saudis) poses a threat to the regime. But Saudi youth have plenty of reasons to be frustrated with youth unemployment of as high as 39%, as you can see in this study I authored this month.
It is virtually impossible to predict how events will unfold this year, with two regimes toppled in less than two months following decades of political stagnancy, and another appearing on the verge of crumbling amid a violent massacre by Libya’s 42-year dictator Muammar Qaddafi. As Arab youth swallow their reservations and fear of death and rise in peaceful protest, it is fast becoming clear that no dictatorship can cling to the claim it is not a “Tunisia or an Egypt”.

A clean sweep

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As myself and tens of millions of Egyptians jubilantly relish at the victory of toppling a dictator who ruthlessly clung to power for three decades, it may seem unusual that I have garbage on my mind.
Watching footage of the past two weeks building up to the revolution that would depose Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I was shocked to see Egyptians picking up paper scraps and splashing water onto the streets of Tahrir Square with mops and matchless motivation, cleansing their surroundings with a spirit of pure delight and good cheer. This struck me as a key symbol that something had fundamentally transformed in the Egyptian mindset.
A daughter of Egyptian parents but born and raised in Canada, I was always deeply bothered by trash during my usually infrequent trips to my homeland as a child. I couldn’t understand the rationale of throwing cigarette butts, candy bar wrappers, empty plastic bottles out of speeding car windows and dirtying one’s neighbourhood and home. One day when I was 13, during the second family holiday to Egypt that I can recall, I posed the question to one of my cousins Ashraf. We were visiting him and other relatives in the Suez Canal city Ismailia, my mother’s birthplace.
My cousin, then a 30-something lawyer who had lived his entire life in the North Eastern Egyptian city, smiled , looked me in the eye, and said in a matter-of-fact way, “ya habibty ya Daliah, this is not Canada. Our government gives us no benefit for keeping the country clean. This culture doesn’t exist here”. I admit that in the almost two decades that have passed since then, most of the details of that glorious summer holiday spent with family in Cairo, Fayoum, Ismailia, Suez and Port Said have escaped my memory. But Ashraf’s words remained etched in my mind. Egyptians had been denied a culture of civic responsibility by a government that defined legitimacy as its ability to incite fear and indifference among its people.
Each time I returned to Egypt following that trip in 1992, I saw the trash accumulate more prominently; as the streets became more riddled with rubbish, I felt inside that it represented another layer of hopelessness afflicting the population. I worked as a journalist in Egypt from 2002 to 2004, but left as living costs soared wildly in part triggered by a state decision to sever the dollar peg in favour of adopting a managed flotation for the Egyptian currency in early 2003. Inflation mounted in the following years due to currency weakness, high oil prices, swelling global food costs, huge population growth. As the people’s frustrations grew more palpable, the trash piles heaped higher and higher.
But I wasn’t prepared for what I would witness during my three visits to Egypt in the past year and a half. People living in our 10-year-old apartment building in the Haram (Pyramids) district of Cairo were throwing entire bags of trash from their eighth and ninth floor balconies onto the empty plot of privately held, abandoned land behind us. It was covered in garbage. I was shocked and appalled. Only palm trees, not a spot of trash, could be seen on that land just five years earlier.
My brother-in-law, who grew up adoring Egyptian cinema and people from afar, was ecstatic about embarking on his first trip to Egypt this past September. He was, regrettably, taken aback by the filth that filled so many Cairene streets. One day, he went with my mom and nephews to visit the Pyramids and a man with a horse-drawn carriage graciously offered to take them on a tour, but said he would use a short cut. Smirking, he told them they should be prepared to see some wonderful “ful and yasmeen” – deliciously fragrant flowers commonly sold in Egypt. My gullible mother and brother-in-law believed him. Until, that is, the old man’s truly Egyptian humour rung clear; the carriage passed through heaps of uncollected pungent trash, situated just off the five-star Mena House hotel adjacent to the Grand Pyramids. They pressed their noses closed and laughed at the redefinition of floral aroma.
While Egyptians always bring light-hearted humour into every situation, desperation was building. I could feel it on every street corner – the people were frustrated, desperate, irritated following 30 years of repression and years of double-digit inflation met with no meaningful increase in wages. Along with the building furore, I was overwhelmed by how garbage was teeming everywhere. Walking along the Nile with my family one day, police officers tried to force us to erase photographs we had taken of the trash amassing along the banks of the great river. It was disgraceful. My mom cursed the government, and Hosni Mubarak, her criticisms silenced only by our pleas for her not to make a scene. Egypt was, simply, overflowing with the sense of indignity and apathy that my cousin had described to me so many years before.

You can imagine my astonishment watching footage of Egyptians rolling up their sleeves and cleaning Cairo’s streets in Liberation Square this past two and a half weeks. It literally moved me to tears. All it took for the patient, good-humoured, inventive Egyptians was the scent of freedom to restore their dignity and faith in the future of their country, and fuel their resolve to rebuild its glory, one piece of trash at a time.
In my elation at the momentous events of the past 18 days, I imagine that during my next visit to Egypt, it will appear exceptionally cleaner – in form and spirit. I imagine the attitude of civic responsibility will spread through the streets and people will take pride in their supreme accomplishment of regaining their dignity and reclaiming ownership of their land. It will take a long time for Egypt to reverse the damage left by decades of oblivious dictatorship. But I have enormous faith that this newfound freedom will echo in every corner of ‘Umm Al Donya’, an Arabic phrase commonly associated with Egypt, meaning ‘Mother of the World’.

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