Danielle Capalbo’s Blog

Tomorrowland

Posted in Cultural differences by Quiet Giant on June 3, 2009

If Qatar were a guy, instead of an emirate slightly smaller than Connecticut, he would be a bachelor who watched a ton of sci-fi movies then hit the lotto for jackpot. And if Doha were a district in Walt Disney World, instead of the emirate’s capital city, it would be Tomorrowland. In the heart of the city, the buildings are tall and – like everything else – impeccably shiny. And just off the edge of the island, a combination of futuristic architecture and neutral desert tones makes for a decent life-size replica of Tatouin.

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Qatar is nothing like the first two Middle Eastern countries we visited; it’s part of the elite gulf fraternity.

With the discovery of vast natural gas and oil reserves in the mid-20th century, Qatar transformed from a sandy appendage off Saudi Arabia to a bastion of highly-concentrated wealth and prestige. Now, it boasts the second highest GDP in the world. Last year, while the majority of the international community was reeling from the recession, Qatar reported another budget surplus.

In practical terms, that means Qataris generally lead plush lives without the friction of financial stress that’s hijacked everyone else, everywhere. So much so, there’s no guarantee you’ll meet a single indigenous Qatari while walking down the street. Instead, immigrants fill shops, restaurants, hotels, airlines and cabs to serve a population of plutocratic gulfies in crisply pressed gellabiyas.

Walking down the street, I get the impression that Doha can’t keep pace with its fortune. Almost the entire city is under construction, and finished buildings predict an aesthetic that, when completed, might betray the city planner’s unhinged obsession with Philip K. Dick.

Despite a gorgeous skyline, friendly people and five-star everything, Doha has something else in common with Disney World (sorry! Talk about unhinged obsessions): It’s a little like the landscapes that line the streets in MGM. From a distance, they seem three-dimensional and lively, but up close, they’re cardboard cutouts staggered to create an optical illusion of depth. Sure, everything here looks just as grand up close as it does from a distance, but on the ground, the city lacks the sort of things – like cafes, character and sidewalks – that drew us into Cairo and Damascus.

I’m not necessarily complaining. Every time I walk through the hotel’s front doors, it’s like I’m boarding a spaceship. In one of the elevators, the entire back wall is a Miro painting coated in resin or something. We have kitchenettes, a complimentary water and fruit supply that’s replenished every morning, panoramic bedroom windows that overlook the city and a hot tub and a sauna. I guess, in general, the trappings of life in Qatar match the trappings of life in the West, if you were doing pretty well for yourself. So it’s comfortable and cushy.

But it’s gratuitous. And I wonder if the gulf states feel any sense of responsibility for their inland siblings, hamstrung by poverty. Not necessarily the governments, but the people. If not, they should. For one thing, the ratio of people to money is totally disproportionate. And the socioeconomic contrast between Doha and Damascus, or, more pointedly, Doha and Cairo, is unreal. One glimpse out the window is proof enough: The cars zipping down the street were produced in the past couple of years, not at least five decades ago.

Which is just one minor detail in a much greater division: In some ways, time has forgotten Cairo and Damascus, while Doha is racing toward the future faster than its carpenters can lay down the titanium bricks.

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Talking heads

Posted in Cultural differences, Encounters, General Updates, Miscellaneous by Quiet Giant on May 28, 2009

In a couple of hours, we’ll meet the Syrian Minister of Information. Pretty incredible, but I’ve got a hunch it’ll seem familiar.

Since Monday, we’ve had unique access to a staggering number of high-ranking officials. Different people from different departments. Sort of.

They’ve all had the same stunning gift for sidestepping (or bulldozing, really) critical questions, and ultimately, they’ve all delivered the same carefully packaged, quality-controlled message about their country – from the minister of Foreign Affairs to the minister of Higher Education. Even the president of Damascus University eschewed real answers for aggressively one-sided fast-facts about the Syrian Accountability Act (SAA) and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s like there’s a short list of really specific statistics embedded in the collective consciousness.

But I’m glad we met them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t believe the extent of this government’s concerted effort to appear functional and wrongfully vilified.

It’s mesmerizing, how precisely the Syrian political machine controls its image. Every morsel of information we consume, anywhere – from government buildings to our own tour bus – is shaped and delivered by someone with ties to the government.

Nick put it pretty well:

I didn’t take this trip to ask ministers to elaborate on a public relations pitch. There’s this notion among some of us that we have to evoke quiet respect and adoration, as these same Syrian authorities are our host. But I call bullshit! … I take warnings that we’re being watched as reason to give them something to see!

It’s important to recognize our nation’s faults. Like the SAA. I’m opposed to sanctions on principle, because they disproportionately affect the wrong people. One well-recycled talking point here does actually move me: Because no imports to Syria can be comprised of more than 10 percent American parts, hospitals lack crucial equipment and medicines, and schools across the country struggle to update their technology systems. Not to mention, America erected this embargo in 2003 for all the wrong reasons. Weapons of mass destruction? Nope. Supporting terrorism? No one here perceives Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

But it’s not like Syria is just really misunderstood. Things have to change here, even for the sake of honoring basic human rights.

And the notion that we’re playing into these officials’ hands – setting them up to wax rhetoric on the SAA’s impact without asking about its origins – is especially scary since we have the unusual benefit of getting to ask questions in the first place. Myself included, some of us started to drink the super-strong Kool-Aid without tempering the information we receive. The stories are loaded, aggressive and compelling. So, that’s part of it. But maybe it’s also because we yearn to seem human here. To show these people we didn’t support our last administration’s bizarro agenda. We compassionately yearn to say sorry – to apologize for the way our country has misrepresented Arab citizens.

But we don’t owe that apology to this government.

Anyways. This blog’s been a little heavy as I try to make sense of the schism between appearance and reality. Sorry about that.

Getting serious

Posted in Cultural differences, Encounters by Quiet Giant on May 25, 2009

This afternoon, in a meeting at the Ministry of Higher Education, Ammar Saatti asked our group to imagine this scenario: In open fire, Israeli soldiers kill the wife and two young children of a Syrian man. The incident occurs in the ongoing struggle between Syria and its southwestern neighbor over the contentious Golan Heights territory.

The next morning, that guy wakes up and straps a bomb to himself. He boards a bus carrying Israeli soldiers. Then he explodes. The soldiers blow up, too, along with a civilian.

“There isn’t a single household [here] in which a family member hasn’t become a martyr to the cause,” explained Saatti, head of the National Union of Syrian Students. (It’s worth noting this group has a serious political axe to grind. As Saatti said, here, it’s inevitable that even a group devoted to higher education would adopt a position of staunch anti-Zionism.)

In the past month, we’ve occasionally had to address the reality of suicide or martyr bombings. Not personally, of course. I mean, in conversations: with students, with speakers. Not because they’re dangerously wild religious zealots with a blithe disregard for the value of human life, but because here, those things happen. There is an element of everyday conflict and combat that’s foreign to us.

A couple of AUC students leveled our stereotypes of a radical Muslim obliterating innocents in the name of Allaah. To describe the psychology of suicide attacks, and the impetus, they used words like “desperation” and “hopelessness.” They talked about a young Palestinian woman whose last weapon was her body.

“Can you imagine how far you have to be pushed to take your own life?” one of the girls asked.

Before I continue, this post needs a belated disclaimer.

Please try to be objective. I am trying to be objective. Trying to stretch my brain, not for the sake of acceptance, but to recognize a new perspective. This topic really challenges my heart and mind, more than anything I’ve confronted in the Middle East. It’s just hard. Hard to talk about, uncomfortable, sensitive. Hard to articulate anything meaningful, for fear of sounding either too narrow-minded or too conciliatory toward something that ties thick knots in my stomach. By the same token, these attacks fit into the culturally crucial conversation about defining terrorism. In many ways, that definition is completely different here than it would in the West – not necessarily because of disparate value systems, but because of disparate realities. Think of Hezbollah. Think of Hamas.

Something else worth noting: Did you know that some police controls in Egypt stem, in part, from an acute awareness of how little this region can afford to corroborate its reputation in the world as violently radical? In Egypt, religious proselytism is actually illegal. One Muslim cannot even technically suggest a less devout Muslim wear a veil or pray more often. The Muslim Brotherhood strives to distinguish itself from extremist groups like Al-Qaeda as a moderate alternative. In other words, no one here is oblivious.

Having said that, suicide attacks or martyr bombings (even the wording is controversial) are not inherently religious. Yes, the ongoing conflict between Syrians and Israelis, or Palestinians and Israelis, hinges on the holy sanctity of certain parcels of land. But in the moment – the moment when a man or woman detonates a bomb that he or she is wearing – religious fundamentalism probably isn’t the driving force. It’s probably a moment pregnant with fear and rage and anguish, an act that someone’s mother or father or spouse or kids wouldn’t encourage, but an act that seems to someone, at some point, the only possible outlet. The only possible anything, period. The only way to make a sound.

I don’t know what that means. I just know it’s an idea no one ever shared with me until now.

“Cultural compass”

Posted in Cultural differences, Encounters by Quiet Giant on May 24, 2009

In a rush of interviews and articles, plus the looming awareness that our time in Egypt was quickly expiring, I forgot to blog our meeting with New York Times correspondent Michael Slackman. His coverage has spanned the whole Middle East, but he’s based in Cairo.

Slackman fielded our questions about the future of international journalism and the hurdles of reporting from a police state. But his unofficial manifesto was my favorite: To put everything into context.

The most important thing foreign correspondents do is help people sitting in Southern California or New York or Boston or Kansas or … Hong Kong to understand how people in Lebanon react when the president of the United States refers to Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.”

Although he’s stationed in the belly of a raging political fire, Slackman doesn’t advocate. He doesn’t try to change the world with agenda-driven reporting or activism. He doesn’t even strive to make the Western world embrace the Eastern world. His task seems simpler, but it’s actually tremendous. Because geography is hardly the most important element dividing the Western world from the East. He just wants us to know the essentials. Then our interactions are informed, at least.

Case and point: Last June, Slackman choreographed a social experiment in Cairo based on his failure to ever yield accurate directions from people on the street. They would volunteer to help, of course. They’d tell him where to turn, what buildings he should look for as landmarks. But usually, two different Egyptians would confidently deliver two different sets of directions. Oh – and they would usually be wrong.

The result of his experiment was this article, and the realization that an apparently inconsequential social transaction carried a lot more weight to Egyptians because of its context in their culture.

Turns out, “It was more of a shame to say, ‘I don’t know,’ than to send you in the wrong direction,” he told us. “I think the guys who are sitting around the decision table with Arabs in Washington need to know that.”

For sure.

The directions debacle is just a microcosm of a much greater cultural conundrum, which brings me full circle to the his mention of Hezbollah. In Lebanon, the organization has members in government and runs health care systems. It supervises a telecommunications system. Here, they function as a resistance group; a political body. Meanwhile, America relentlessly identifies the group as a terrorist organization. That sort of complete disconnect – the super power’s disregard for a reality separate from its own – causes hostility and, in turn, prevents any meaningful cooperation.

“I’m not advocating a position,” Slackman said. “I’m saying, if you’re going to sit down and talk, you have to understand where people are coming from.”

Under surveillance

Posted in Cultural differences by Quiet Giant on May 24, 2009

As I gratuitously pointed out already, in one of my first posts from Cairo, you can’t help but see everything new – at least initially – with the influential knowledge of what you’ve seen before. It’s always there, lingering somewhere.

That’s probably why, right now, my image of Syria is just a mosaic of comparisons with Egypt.

We landed two days ago, and my first thoughts were relative: It’s cleaner here. The sidewalks are level and whole. Taking a deep breath doesn’t necessarily pose a respiratory health risk. Neither does crossing the street; everyone seems to be following traffic signs and speed limits. Stuff works right. When Katie and I walked into our hotel room and flicked an entire row of light switches, it was a real gamble. We waited for the anticlimactic moment we’d gotten used to – when at least one crucial element fails to function. (Which doesn’t bother me anymore, really. The forces of the universe are totally coddling people whose appliances don’t explode or just sit around in disrepair.) But after a second, the whole room was bright.

Weird.

Of course, there’s a trade off: The Syrian government has a complete stranglehold on its citizens.

Which brings up another point of contrast. In Egypt, uniformed police officers lined the sidewalks with AK47s tossed over their shoulders as casually as, I don’t know, lethal messenger bags. But everyone quietly knew they weren’t loaded. Here, some of the guys carrying weapons are wearing jeans and T-shirts, with extra ammunition visibly strapped across their abdomens. At Denis’ apartment last week, New York Times correspondent Michael Slackman called Egypt a “mellow police state.” On the other hand, he said, Syria is the kind of place where people still disappear in the night.

In Cairo, we watched Denis regularly cope with government-issued brown suits. They knocked on his door. They called him, over and over. By Western standards, the situation was far from comfortable, but it was transparent and, by contrast with Syrian surveillance, limited.

Here, we are constantly watched by people we couldn’t pick out from a crowd. Undercover agents, basically. This morning, for instance, when we climbed into our vans, one of the guides made it clear that he knew we’d “had some fun” last night. And later, our travel agent called Edwin with details: He knew where we’d gone for drinks and spoke with bartenders there.

Other than that, Syria is every wonderful thing I mentioned above: clean, organized, ostensibly functional and safe.

But at what cost?

Everyday inequality

Posted in Cultural differences by Quiet Giant on May 17, 2009

Egypt is pretty complex. You know, like every other country on the planet. I needlessly make that point on a regular basis, but there’s a little pressure to understand how I feel about Cairo, and it’s going to take a while. Because, on one hand, it’s rich with some of the warmest, most generous people I’ve met.

On the other hand, it’s impoverished by bogus, systemic flaws.

Like when the managers at GOAL make Karim pay a 20-pound minimum just to SIT here, in the glorified company of American tourists, because he’s Egyptian.

“At this point, you have more rights here than I do,” Karim said on the walk home.

I can’t imagine how I’d feel if my country looked past me like that, or through me. Or worse: directly at me, then decided I don’t deserve as much as a stranger.

Souq al-Goma

Posted in Cultural differences, Encounters by Quiet Giant on May 15, 2009

I kissed Mohamed on both cheeks after we negotiated a fair price for some 7-inch records I found scattered on the shelves of his family’s shop in Souq al-Goma. He was only 11 or 12, but he ran a hard bargain and acquiesced with a self-congratulatory smile.

So, yeah, I bought four records. But I need to amend the “record shopping” claims I made in a couple of previous posts. We didn’t go record shopping today. By any stretch of the imagination. Even before we climbed out of Yassir’s cab in Souq, our premonitions for the day – and the open-air market – had transformed. This was hardly about browsing for tangible things to take home.  This wasn’t the Khan.

It was a neighborhood. A series of homes and makeshift second-hand stores:  sidewalks lined with vendors who mostly offered medleys of old or used things, from shoes to boom boxes and bags, clothes, random trinkets, pieces of wiring and radio parts, antique statues, framed black-and-white photographs of strangers, semi-functional or dysfunctional televisions, gramophones and cassette tapes. Some people sold fresh spices that smelled delicious, or fish from the Nile whose bloody stomachs were yawning pretty wide and smelled disgusting. There were snakes and cats for sale at one end of the market and, near the other end, gorgeous, handmade dresses, fabrics and blankets.

Despite that attempt, our visit to the market was inexplicable. Mostly because, whatever wonder we derived from a 30-minute walk up and down its network of dirt streets had no association with the mind-boggling number of things for sale.

“I don’t think I can even talk about it,” Katie just said, when I told her I’m struggling to make sense of the experience. “It’s a feeling.”

For one thing, the area is unbelievably impoverished. Beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Yet no one – not a single person on roads lined with people – asked us to buy a thing. At the Khan, or even Giza, it’s literally impossible to take two steps without a peddler grabbing you and barraging you with stuff. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Meanwhile, the vendors at Souq were discreet and, perhaps more than anything, surprised.

I’ll explain.

I don’t think many Americans, let alone unaccompanied Americans, get to Souq for the Friday market. And by many I mean any, pretty much. Ever. Which isn’t just a hunch. Our cabbie implied the same thing and tried to convince us to opt for a more updated market in downtown Cairo. And Karim reminded us over and over, considerately, to be careful. No one would speak English, he said. Not English numbers to arrange prices, and not English directions to help us find our way.

So we weren’t inconspicuous or anything. Which itself was a bizarre, brand new sensation:  being an emphatic outsider. Walking down the street, everything felt quiet, or maybe peaceful, or maybe reality was suspended. Children got giddy and yelled “hello” and waved, and we yelled “salaam,” and everyone was wholehearted and smiled, and gawked too, probably, and we were deep inside a place we didn’t belong, watching how they lived their lives. And I realized, though I reject the condescending, cushy notion that poverty magically breeds wisdom worth more than money, that everyone was warm and generous despite the hand they were dealt, and that’s powerful.

There were a lot more kids like Mohamed, the miniature salesman, and many even younger. There were fathers leading their sons through the streets by the hand. There were tiny councils of women and their daughters on the side of the street, sitting and talking. There were lots of guys zooming past on their motorcycles. It was a variation on a block party; a community gathering.

We just happened to be passing through.

Cross-cultural dialogue

Posted in Cultural differences, Encounters by Quiet Giant on May 13, 2009

We’ve spent a fair amount of time gaping at really cool, old stuff. Historically significant cultural leftovers that let experts piece together a meaningful narrative of the human story. You know, big deal. But, you know:  thousands and thousands of years old.

Tonight, we caught up with realities of Egypt and the Arab world as they’re unraveling now. Half our group bussed outside the city to AUC’s sprawling, year-old campus and engaged in a two-hour conversation on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with some students.

The dialogue was eye-opening, to say the least. I already had a pretty liberal stance – from a Western perspective – and still left the classroom with a lot to consider.

Generally, the consensus from our Egyptian peers was unsurprising:  The past eight years of systemically destructive American foreign policy also destroyed our image in the Arab world, but Obama means hope here, even if one girl candidly admitted that her heart sank when he named Rahm Emanuel – an Israeli Jew – as Chief of Staff.

“I’m not worried because he’s Jewish,” she said, “but because he’s Israeli.”

(It’s worth noting, of course, that he also appointed Dalia Mogahed, a veiled woman, to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.)

Beyond that, there was the assumption we should clearly recognize our government’s – and media’s – lengthy record of big mistakes. Which made a couple of people uncomfortable but, you know, that doesn’t sound too far-fetched as far as I’m concerned.

Perhaps I’m way too self-deprecating an American, but the reality is:  Mainstream media methodically demonizes Arabs, and publishes stories with a reckless disregard for the whole truth concerning the conflict. Then, mainstream media penetrates households nationwide. Then, Americans practice democracy and vote. Then, politicians (sort of) represent them. So the brains behind mainstream media – not just alternative outlets and foreign papers available online nowadays, because, seriously, how many Americans seek five sources minimum for their daily headline fix –  have a global responsibility to get it right.

“American media – whatever it feeds the public becomes foreign policy,” one of the AUC students noted. “Here, or in Pakistan, we just burn some flags and go home.”

Media also has a domestic responsibility.

“If I hadn’t lived in America for a while, and if I didn’t meet people like you, I would be mad at you,” the same student said.

And who can blame him, when CNN does stuff like bow to Israeli PR policy and refer to the illegal Gilo settlement in the West Bank as a “neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem.” Small concessions like that 1) add up and 2) aren’t so small when they strip a story of vital context or distort the reality of the situation. Plus, they compromise the station’s overall integrity.

This is a polarizing issue. It’s also emotionally complicated to digest, particularly after listening to the typically muted side. It’s not easy, and it’s not straightforward. But you could at least hear both sides. Coverage could at least be fair.

It should be.

Dirty laundry

Posted in Cultural differences by Quiet Giant on May 12, 2009

Some things are universally embarrassing. Not in the sense that everyone, everywhere, would be embarrassed if they occurred, but that geography and culture are sort of irrelevant when it comes to initially crossing the threshold of humiliation. They’re embarrassing no matter where they happen, or when. Yet geography and culture can determine the degree of embarrassment you’ll suffer thereafter, for sure. So:  always at least level-one embarrassing, but possibly even higher.

For instance, if a middle-aged man rifled through a pile of my intimate apparel in Boston while I stood there, watching, waiting, I’d be freaked out. Boston is home. That man and I would have some vital things in common probably, like an understanding of what’s socially appropriate and acceptable. I’m well-accustomed to how things work there, culturally and otherwise. Doesn’t matter. Underwear crosses the line.

Underwear in the Middle East is even more embarrassing. Unsurprisingly.

Katie and I tried to track down the nearest, cheapest place to get our clothes washed after a week of playing in the sand and stuff, and discovered that washers charge by item count, not by weight. Which made for an awkward couple of minutes while a 40-something-year-old guy dumped my goods onto a small table and sorted them into piles, organized from least mortifying (shirts, pants) to kill-me-now-thanks (undies, of course).

Of course, this was all exponentially more disturbing since completely veiled women were walking down the street outside, and we’ve made such a conscious effort to cover up – no shoulders, three-quarter sleeves, low capris, scarves galore. The juxtaposition of extreme privacy and Islamic conservatism with my striped Gap bottoms in this guys paws made me feel like a cultural offender. Might stick to hand washing from here on out.

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Disco

Posted in Cultural differences by Quiet Giant on May 10, 2009

When you fly across the ocean to a country that houses the majority of the world’s antiquities and find yourself, on a regular basis, standing inches from intricately decorated temples and monuments 20 times older than your country, trying to grasp the physical and psychological enormity of their existence – and survival – life gets a little surreal from time to time.

The discotheque felt pretty surreal, too.

Yesterday, we decided to collectively punctuate a week of intrepid tourism with a late-night jaunt at Tutotel in Luxor. More importantly, it was an opportunity to celebrate Colby and Melissa’s birthdays! Everything ruled, pretty much:  free birthday cakes, two-for-one beers, Ini Kamoze.

But our experience was a far cry from authentic:  Managers at Tutotel specifically shut out “local hustlers,” so, for the bulk of the night, our group had exclusive access to the dance floor. Which was wonderful and fun, for sure, but instead of immersing ourselves in Egyptian culture, we immersed ourselves in ourselves, as sonically represented from middle school until now. The loose timeline was:  Montell Jordan, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga. The DJ’s only technical misstep was “Rock DJ” by Robbie Williams, but maybe he thought we were European.

Anyway, right before the birthday cakes were ushered out, he started spinning “Kids” by MGMT. And that’s when things got surreal.

Tutotel sits on the East Bank of the Nile in Luxor, practically parallel to the Valley of the Kings, where we spent the afternoon climbing into ancient tombs and running our hands over words and images we couldn’t understand. Fast forward, and we’re tucked inside a club pulsing with contemporary indie rock from Brooklyn. Eating free cakes, drinking discount beers. Right outside, guys were desperately hawking chariot rides for as little as a couple of bucks, and 5-year-old kids were walking through the dark streets in rags, thrusting bookmarks and trinkets at passers-by. Earlier, a woman holding a baby simply put her hand to her mouth:  a universal sign of hunger. And we’d just watched a handful of local 20-somethings get turned away for no apparent reason, except to increase the number of tourists who could cram themselves onto the dance floor.

And the chorus of that song kept looping:  “Control yourself / Take only what you need from it.”

This trip is forcing me to reconsider what I need, exactly.