Thursday, February 24, 2011

Afloat in the Middle East

Day 3 of the trip and the rest of the group is off to see camels (2 and a half hours by bus and no thank you). We decide to explore Abu Dhabi, starting with the hospital - Wally’s eye bulb (as the doctor calls it) is acting up. He’s fine, hospital is clean modern efficient. Wally now has his Abu Dhabi health card. 
Lunch is as much exploring as we have time for in Abu Dhabi, the boat is leaving. Hmm......nope, we get on the boat. 
At cocktails we have a talk about the robotic camel jockeys. It’s funny but we all think it’s a put-on. 
Day 4:  Dr Lina Khatib from The Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford on The Changing Face of the Arab City, or as she calls it, “The Perils of Doing Fieldwork in the Middle East”.
I had been stressed about reading up and keeping up - no worries. Lina is fascinating, clear about the confusion that is the Middle East, funny, thought-provoking, and a wonderful storyteller. We are privileged to have her here. 
If you’re not interested in what’s happening in the Middle East skip down to On A Lighter Note
 She tells us: 
Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Iran, Syria. The media used to report events, now it drives events - none of what’s happening would be possible without social media. 
The Syrian government infiltrated Facebook and Twitter and put out a rumor (untrue) that the planned demonstration was really a government trap, so no one came. Then they said “okay, you guys - go ahead and use Facebook and Twitter” but everyone knows it’s not safe, the government is watching.
Why the unrest? Miserable living conditions, massive unemployment, most of the population is under thirty, corruption is epidemic (In Tunisia the family of the dictator’s wife owned everything. Really everything.) Tunisia has the highest level of internet control in the world, topping China. Scary. 
Need more reasons? Autocratic rulers, no opportunity for expression, and minorities have few rights, even if they outnumber the ruling sect/tribe/nationality. 
On a social level things are pathetic - Presidents act like monarchs: Qadafi has ruled Libya for 42 years, Muhbarak ruled Egypt for 32, and they position their sons to rule next. Elections are theatre and everyone here knows it, the pro-government demonstrations are really hired thugs who beat up the protesters. And the rest of the world doesn’t seem to get it. But the bloggers and dissidents don’t give up. 
So why have they tolerated these dictators for so long? And why protest now? The people were hopeful when colonialism ended, but they became cynical and disillusioned, the dictators were as bad as the colonials, and one dictator was worst than the last. And the people were poor; if you don’t have enough to eat you’re more interested in feeding your family than freedom of expression. But Tunisia has an educated viable middle class, and if you remember that’s where this all started.
SO what does the government do when the protests start? So far they’re all the same: 
they dismiss the protests as insignificant, then they crack down. Then the send in the hired thugs (calling them pro-government) instead of the Army (that would be repressive and bad PR). Then they appear on TV and make false concessions. And they all use the same bad hair dye.
So far the US has supported stability over democracy, our rhetoric does not match our actions and it’s no secret here. We mouth human rights, freedom of expression, but we wait to see who wins and then we say “Oh yeah, we supported him all along.” We are fast losing what credibility we have left. 
So what’s next? Libya is tribal and the two biggest tribes have come out against Qadafi, so it’s likely he will fall. But the smartest minds in the Western world and the Arab world did not see this coming. There is and old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” These are interesting times.
She also tells us the both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been purposely designed with no gathering place, no central square. No critical mass, no revolution. That’s planning ahead!
On A Lighter Note:
In the afternoon we go by Zodiac to Sir Bani Yas Island, Sheik Zayed’s private game preserve. Imagine loading the entire Day Lounge of Sunrise Assisted Living into bouncing zodiacs off the back of a rocking ship, then bouncing them half a mile across the waves and you get the idea. 
Is this a snipe hunt? No, with our driver Amer (from Jordan, remember the locals don’t work) we take off in an African safari Land Cruiser to see Arabian Oryx, Gemsbok, Eland (huge, horse like) Giraffe (skittish), Cheetahs sleeping off their Gazelle breakfast (lethargic) Peacocks, Frankincense trees.
Had a gazelle sexing lesson. It’s the horns (isn’t it always?) There is a fancy resort, Anantara on the island. 
I am truly in the mobile unit of Sunrise Assisted Living. At the evening lecture fully half of the people fall asleep - the sound of soft snoring can be heard over the talk. 
Rocking to sleep
Quiet - you can’t hear your neighbors
The staff is efficient and Jane said “They are like Golden Retrievers, so eager to please.”
Sailing at night, exploring during the day.
The caliber and accessibility of the Stanford Faculty Leaders. Have a question? It will be answered over breakfast, cocktails, or while wandering the souk.
That flipping loudspeaker. You can turn it off in your room but not in the hall.
Wake-up calls. Am I late for school? Puhlease! If we’re late leave us behind: you’ll only have to do that once.

1 comment:

  1. Nothing like the the lovely blue haired to make you feel really young! Glad Wally is okay.