While dueling camps of protesters swell the streets of Cairo, Fatima Ali is fighting a different battle.
“It’s a daily war for me to just live my life,” says Ms. Ali, who has been attacked by women in downtown Cairo several times in recent months. “I suffer from harassment, like everyone, and racism, because I’m black. Defending your own thoughts and mind is just hard.”
The women pinned her down and tried to cut her waist-length hair until finally some bystanders rescued her. Ali, who was a runner-up in the 2010 Miss Arab World contest where she represented Sudan, says she tried to defend her right to go to the police and press charges. But she was told at the police station that if she went through with the case nothing would happen, and she could even go to jail.
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“I like to participate in the society, but I feel like the society doesn’t give back anything but harm,” says Ali, who participated in both the 2011 protests against former president Hosni Mubarak and the June 30 protests against now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi. “So I’ve had enough actually.”
She is not alone. Many Egyptians feel the streets have become less safe since Mr. Mubarak was ousted, and the situation is getting worse. Robberies in particular are on the rise, with men on motor scooters routinely grabbing women's handbags as they ride by – even in broad daylight and in Cairo's toniest neighborhoods.
Ali sees the upheavals of the past 2-1/2 years as part of an uprising, but not a real revolution. That will take another decade or two, she says.
“For me, I’m waiting for the big fight between the military and the Islamists – between Egypt and the Islamists,” she corrects herself. “I’m just one random person who hopes for this country to achieve democracy.”
Some 30,000 Palestinian applicants want a job at PalTel, a company that employs just 3,000, and it’s easy to see why.
On a ridge overlooking Ramallah, with its haphazard traffic, salesmen weaving through cars hawking their wares, jumbled power lines, and potholed roads, PalTel’s soaring headquarters is a microcosm of modern professionalism.
So despite the fact that CEO Ammar Aker has long had to take a Twister-like approach to his job, coming up with innovative workarounds to various Israeli restrictions on the Palestinian telecommunications sector, he finds deep satisfaction in working here.
“What keeps me going is to see those young men and women in my company who are building a future,” he says. “Regardless of all these obstacles, we have managed to build an institution, a corporate environment, where everybody in the country looks up to.”
As an international businessman with a Canadian passport, he’s no stranger to such professional environments. In the West Bank, however, business is not just business; it is also an avenue for grooming a young generation that many hope will fulfill their parents’ and grandparents’ yearning for a state of their own.
“We always try to build a model institution for the Palestinians that we are hoping to make this institution a cornerstone in building a modern Palestinian state,” says Mr. Aker, who also hopes to expand into an international company one day. “What keeps me going is when I walk in every day and see people smiling and saying good morning and they dress nice, they look nice, they serve customers in a professional way and I just say, you know what, we made it but we still have to do more.”
Much of the economic boom in Oman, where apartment blocs are rising from earth with impressive speed, is fueled by cheap labor from the Indian subcontinent. But unlike other Gulf countries, where these foreign workers are often downtrodden and sometimes forced to work without salaries, time off, or the ability to return home, Oman treats this crucial labor force better.
On a recent baking Arabian summer day, Mohamed al-Kitani, Sami al-Baloshi, and Assad al-Zakwani scour the streets of the capital for foreign laborers, handing out bottles of cold water and stopping to converse with them about their work and time in the country, where summer temperatures often reach 120 degrees F.
“When we find them and give them water, we explain this is from us, to thank you for all the work you are doing in the country,” says Mr. al-Kitani.
Al-Kitani and his colleagues are among 1,000 volunteers who work for The I-Care Initiative, a community project that began three years ago when Shorooq Abu Nasser, a Jordanian expatriate, decided to distribute water to outdoor workers improving the road in the area where she lived.
“The reason I started the initiative was very simple. I just wanted to thank [them] for working in the heat to make it easier for me to reach home, because I know I wouldn't do it myself,” she says. “I wanted to tell them that they are not invisible and that they are as important as any other working individuals.”
The group is part of a dynamic new civil society in Oman, with initiatives sprouting up across the country. This idea of civil society, while new, is especially attractive to young, globalized locals who can start projects close to their heart with little capital and soon grab the attention of bigger players.
“At the beginning, people were just buying water from their own money but now we are seeing big companies contact us and donate bottles,” says al-Kitani. At the last event, a local bank contributed nearly all of the 10,000 bottles of water that I-Care distributed that day.
Logistics for The I-Care Initiative are handled by nine Omani team leaders, including Amira Al-Rawahi, who say she was inspired to help out the cause when she returned home from studying abroad, feeling that foreign outdoor workers deserved more respect from the local community.
As al-Kitani puts it, “Distributing water is the least we can do.”
This summer, Yoav Farhi has been on the money.
Armed with a pick axe, metal detector, and wide-brimmed hat, he’s found more than 60 ancient coins at this archaeological site overlooking Israel’s Valley of Elah, where the Bible records the battle of David and Goliath taking place some 3,000 years ago. Among them are weighty coins from the time of Alexander the Great, imprinted with the face of the Greek goddess Athena.
Even with the help of a metal detector, it can be tedious work looking for tiny bits of metal amid the wheelbarrow loads of dirt unearthed by excavators, or in the excavations themselves.
But for Farhi, it’s the fulfillment of a childhood passion, rooted in a land criss-crossed by Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, and Ottomans long before he was born.
“I was a very curious kid, reading encyclopedias … collecting coins and stamps,” he says over a tahini-and-date-syrup breakfast sandwich, the Middle Eastern equivalent of PB&J. “All my way to school was over potsherds.”
So in sixth grade, he participated in his first excavation, at Tel Qasile in Tel Aviv. That led to graduate work in archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, with a PhD dissertation on the coinage of Gaza in the Roman period.
While Israeli citizens haven’t been allowed into Gaza since Israel withdrew from the Palestinian territory in 2005, he has sought to piece together a picture of Roman times based on coins that were found there and are kept today in public and private collections around the world.
Gaza may have been the first city in the area to mint coins as early as the 5th century B.C. and became perhaps the most important Roman city in southern Palestine, he says, due in part to its role as a port for spices brought from the Arabian peninsula or beyond.
But despite the clues that have endured until today, such as coins, it’s still a challenge to piece together such ancient history.
“To be an archaeologist, you have to have a good imagination, that’s for sure,” says Farhi.
Hamad al-Amari starts out his main stand up comedy routine wearing a traditional Qatari thobe and headdress, and speaking in broken English, offering the sort of observational comedy about life in Doha you’d expect from a 20-something Qatari. Only a few minutes into the set does he switch to his natural accent, which is thick and Irish.
A Qatari who grew up in Ireland, Mr. Amari’s comedy is as much about his own mixed identity as it is about the ethnic melting pot that is Qatar. The tiny nation in the Persian Gulf has about 2 million residents and under 15 percent of them are native Qataris. Outside of the office, there’s often limited interaction between the locals and expats, something that bothered Amari when he resettled in Qatar.
“When I came back I realized that everyone was speculating. Qataris had their views about expats and expats had their views about Qataris, but they never talked to each other,” he says. “I felt like the medium of comedy was good so people would relate to you and understand the issues that you’re talking about but can also have it presented in a light-hearted manner. You’re not being told off.”
Most of Amari’s material is inside jokes about life in Qatar, like a story about incorrectly serving coffee to an older family friend at a traditional gathering or good-natured ribbings of different expat groups. One of his biggest laughs is a joke about Qatari drivers who speed up behind other motorists and flash their brights until the car lets them pass.
Amari has only been doing stand up for about a year and a half now, but he’s already developed enough material to perform for up to 45 minutes. He’ll be one of the first people to tell you that his act is still a little rough around the edges, but for a beginning comic in a country without a real comedy scene he’s managed to make considerable headway.
He’s considering spending time in Ireland developing his comedy act the way all comics before him have: the painful process of trial and error in front of a live audience, but he says with the amount of opportunity for young, creative people in Qatar right now he plans to be here long term.
Indeed, many young Qataris like Amari see unparalleled opportunity to fulfill their goals, debunking the widespread misconception that Qatar’s wealth has made the young generation lazy and unambitious.
On the contrary, he says, the nation's natural resources provide a "safety net" that allows Qatar's bright young people to explore their talents. “If they feel safe," he says, "the things that they’ll come up with can’t be measured.”"
As Yael Katsir tells it, the Israeli army makes it possible for civilians who live along the border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to have their cake and eat it, too – almost.
She and her husband moved down here five years ago to take advantage of the affordable agricultural land so he could fulfill his dream of becoming a farmer. Now, he cultivates cherry tomatoes on a moshav, Kmehin, and she works as a graphic designer from home.
"As farmers, this is heaven for us," she says.
This piece of heaven, though, comes with a bit of barbed wire for protection, a reminder of the smuggling and jihadist activity just across the border.
Just this week Ms. Katsir was at a birthday party with her daughter. They were just about to cut the cake when she got a text from the local security team warning of a potential border incident.
"We almost got to the birthday cake but everyone had to take a little piece and go home," she says. "Nobody wanted to get stuck if they close the area."
After nearly 35 years of quiet on the Egypt-Israel border since the 1979 Camp David accords were signed, smuggling and jihadist activity has caused Israel to take greater precautions in the last few years. Groups affiliated with or at least inspired by Al Qaeda roam the canyons, caves, and desolate terrain of the Sinai, which has an average population density of one person per square mile. After eight Israelis were killed in a brazen attack two years ago, the government accelerated plans to build a 150-mile fence – already in the works to stem human trafficking – and completed it in record time.
Smugglers will still throw bags of hashish over the fence, says local security team member Anon Seaon of the moshav Kadesh Barnea, who is responsible for the text messages that keep citizens informed whether at birthday parties or in their fields. Often there are as many as 20 alerts per day, though most pertain to smuggling activity rather than terrorist actions.
But last week school was canceled after a reported breach of the fence. Katsir and her kids made cookies for the soldiers who work nearby.
"I tell them, 'People are trying to hurt us, but the army is protecting us, so let's make the most of [the day off],'" says Katsir, who says she also has confidence in the Egyptian army’s efforts to protect the fence. However, she adds later, the recent upheaval in Egypt has put her more on guard. "I'm alert, more alert than other times."
The Middle East may be roiled by civil wars, sectarian violence, revolutions, and counter-revolutions, but for some people there are more important developments to worry about.
“Have you seen my sheep?” an elderly toothless woman asked me while I was out hiking recently. “I've lost three of them,” she said, holding up three calloused fingers in emphasis.
This unexpected encounter occurred in the barren mountain wilderness of central Lebanon, a forbidding sun-scorched rocky terrain pitted with deep cone-shaped sink holes and broken outcrops of limestone. There was not another person for miles around. Then I spotted a tiny black speck moving against the sepia-hued landscape. As I drew near I realized that the figure in a voluminous black dress and headscarf was a Bedu woman.
The Bedouin are transnational Arabs whose wanderings across the Middle East are set to the rhythm of the agricultural seasons. In summer, their dusty canvas tents are a common sight beside the few roads that cross the Lebanese mountains. The Bedouin shepherds, usually wiry youths with heads wrapped in red-and-white keffiyahs, roam the mountains, demonstrating much the same unflagging agility as their flocks of goats.
They are on the whole generous and hospitable, if simple, folk. Once one who came over with an AK-47 to see if my camping friends and I were sheep rustlers heard a strange language and asked what it was. English, we told him. “English? What's that?” he responded, having never heard of the language nor the country from which it came.
On another occasion I ran out of water while hiking in the wilderness. Fortunately, I stumbled across a shepherd's camp. He and his wife gave me a jug of icy spring water and then insisted I share with them some maqouq, a papery thin bread cooked on a domed oven, homemade labneh, a tart yogurt spread, and fresh goat cheese.
There is a downside to encountering shepherds, however, and that is their dogs – ferocious, hulking brutes that seem to treat any passer-by as a cross between an enemy and dinner. Usually, when I hear the distant clang of a bell around the neck of a goat signaling a flock – and its canine protectors – I head in another direction.
There were no dogs accompanying the elderly Bedu woman, however. She carried nothing but a plastic pint-sized bottle of water, which I noticed was empty. Her skin looked as dry as a strip of beef jerky.
“God give you strength,” she said in greeting.
“And God's strength to you,” I replied.
Then she asked about her sheep. I could understand her concern. A fully-grown sheep can be worth between $150 to $200. That meant somewhere in this wilderness was the ovine equivalent of up to $600 lost amongst the rocky crags.
I told her I would keep an eye open for them.
“If you see them come and tell me. I'm in the first tent at the bottom of the mountain,” she said pointing a gnarled finger toward the south.
I offered her water but she shook her head and stumbled away. Twenty minutes later, I looked back over my shoulder and once more she had turned into a tiny black speck wandering across the side of a mountain on her lonely quest.
In a part of Yemen where power often seems derived from guns, money, and pedigree, Nasser Muhtam is a rare idealist. Though a scion of a prominent local family – and thus part of a class often dismissed as self-interested keepers of the status quo – he has devoted himself to fighting for change, working to lay the groundwork for a civil society in one of the least developed areas of Yemen.
Mr. Muhtam is blunt when it comes to the problems facing Mareb. In most of the province, the government’s presence is nearly absent. The pervasive lack of security and development, he says, has effectively left governance in the hands of local tribal leaders, while groups ranging from Al Qaeda-affiliated militants to hashish dealers have taken advantage of the power vacuum.
As an attempt to help address such societal problems in an area largely beyond the reach of the central government, he founded the Mareb Generations for Development Organization in 2007.
Its headquarters' unassuming exterior may blend in with the cinderblock structures that dot the sweltering provincial capital, but inside the buzz of activity within the organization’s headquarters shows what the tenacious tribesman has been able to build. Youth activists move between offices, while photographic mementos of initiatives ranging from price-monitoring campaigns to charity projects coat the walls.
It’s a rare oasis of peace in the troubled province, but Muhtam admits that the world outside its walls is impossible to ignore. Family members often call on him to aid in resolving tribal disputes, while the general lack of security essentially requires him to carry a weapon when he leaves the center of the provincial capital.
“It’s an internal conflict,” he notes hesitantly. “I’ll leave my gun in storage for a month, for two months, but with the situation, it’s sometimes necessary.”
The tense political and security situation in Yemen, which is still looking for its footing after the 2011 Arab upheaval ended the 33-year rule of a president who often seemed to value his government's stability over the stability of the nation as a whole, may have forced Muhtam into a reluctant pragmatism. But he stresses his hopes for a better future for his homeland.
“My dreams are like anyone’s dreams,” he says. “Comprehensive development, people living in safety and security, with peace and dignity."
Amid the smoke of battle in Syria, a sign of peace has emerged – literally.
Over the weekend, young Israelis constructed a giant peace sign on the slopes of the Golan Heights in an effort at citizen-to-citizen diplomacy.
The Syrian civil war has killed close to 100,000 people in the past two years, as an increasingly violent rebel movement seeks to overthrow the heavily armed Assad regime that has ruled for four decades. While the war is not directed at Israel, there is growing worry that the violence could spill over into the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors.
In recent months, numerous mortars, rockets, and small fire have landed in the Golan. Rebels briefly seized the Israel-Syria border crossing in Quneitra in June and cross-border fire set off sirens just two days ago.
One night this spring while hearing the bombing from his bed, Golan resident Amir Sade decided it was time for Israeli citizens to convey a message of shared humanity to their beleaguered neighbors.
“I thought to myself … I am sleeping here, two kilometers (1.2 miles) from there, for two years already, and I thought that we need to tell them what we think … They should know what we want – not the [Israeli] government, not the politicians, but the citizens in the Golan.”
So the next time he had a break in his engineering studies, he organized 30 people from his community, Kibbutz El-Rom, to build a peace sign out of basalt rocks on the lower slope of a mountain near the de-facto border. By Friday evening, it was completed, with a diameter of more than 150 feet.
He confesses he knows little about life or politics in Syria, though he supports the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
“I would like to see the people rising up, but I absolutely don’t know a thing about Syria,” he says in a phone interview. “I’m kind of living in this peaceful area in the Golan but there is war there, I don’t have any idea what they’re going through.”
If he could communicate to his neighbors with words in addition to his peace symbol, what would he say?
“I will say, ‘Let’s live together, let’s make it together. We’re the same people who want the same things,’” he says, adding that he would love to visit their country. “I want to go to eat kenafeh [a popular dessert] in Damascus without [a] border.”
The sweet taste of victory is sweeping the West Bank as Mohammed Assaf, the newly crowned Arab Idol winner, takes to the stage this week to thank his fans and bask in a rare moment of Palestinian euphoria.
In Ramallah, where he kicked off his victory tour last night, young men shimmied up flag poles and tree trunks to get a view of Mr. Assaf as he performed outside the presidential compound to at least 10,000 exuberant fans waving flags and keffiyehs, the traditional checkered scarf.
For Palestinians, Assaf is not only a charismatic singer but also a symbol of Palestinian unity and dignity – two characteristics that they have struggled to maintain, particularly since the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, whom many saw as a successful champion of the Palestinian national cause on the international stage.
“The Palestinian people are very happy with Mohammed Assaf because they feel represented regionally and internationally by a successful person,” says Amjad Sadeddine, who took the day off from his job in a Nablus dry cleaning shop to come to Ramallah last night for Assaf’s first concert.
But despite his handsome face, radiant smile, and reputation as a modest guy, some fans say it’s not so much about Assaf’s personality as what he represents. After all, the Arabic term for “Arab Idol” evokes the idea of the beloved of the Arab world, not the idolized.
“These people here are not coming here for the person Mohammed Assaf, they’re here because they love Palestine and they feel he represents Palestine,” says Hanin Zayed, a recent graduate of nearby Birzeit University in finance and banking who, like Mr. Sadeddine, came early to stake out a front-row view. “He gave a very strong message to the world that the Palestinian people are free in their thinking and their actions.”
Assaf nearly didn't make it onto the show. He was shut out of the auditions in Egypt and gained a right to try out only when he burst into song in protest and a fellow Gazan offered to give up his place for Assaf. Then, against formidable odds in the months-long contest, Palestinians managed to outvote even the Arab world’s largest country to give Assaf 60 million votes, giving him an overwhelming victory over runner-up Ahmed Jamal of Egypt.
And so, the humble, handsome guy who grew up in a refugee camp in Gaza singing at weddings and other local events with his pianist sister has suddenly become a star in the Arab world – such a star, in fact, that Hamas has largely refrained from criticizing the questionable morality of a flashy singing contest, and Israel has made a rare exception to its usual policies to allow a young man from Gaza to travel to the West Bank.
Though even die-hard fans seem sanguine about the challenges of translating such stardom into real political change, his success – and emphasis on unity – is bound to influence Palestinian politicians, particularly the divide between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.
In the opening mawwal, or spoken introduction to his signature song, “Raise the Keffiyeh,” Assaf took each letter of his “beloved Palestine” and used it to expound on an aspect of Palestinian life, such as the plight of prisoners or the mourning visits paid to martyrs' homes.
“It was a very clever idea because he didn’t address one faction only,” says Salam Ahmed, a student at Al Quds Open University.
That is bound to have embarrassed political leaders, says Etaf Abdulwahab, whose husband has been in jail for the last 11 years.
“Even though his background was Fatah, the way he sang and the words he chose shows that he represents all the Palestinian people and that embarrasses them,” she says.
While Assaf’s niche seems to be singing rather than politics, he has clearly articulated his hope to have a broad impact.
“A revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle…. Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit,” he reportedly said shortly after winning the Arab Idol title last weekend. “Today I represent Palestine, and today I am fighting for a cause through my art and the message I send out."