Category Archives: Middle East Politics

The longest 111 Minutes

Egyptians everywhere are waiting for the Presidential Electoral Commission’s election results due to be announced at 3:00pm today (Sunday, June 24, 2012).

The candidates are far from ideal. On one hand, we have former prime minister to Mubarak during the last days of the January 25 18 day revolution, Ahmed Shafik. And on the other, we have the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Dr. Mohamed Morsi. In what I have been recently referring to as the Egyptian telenovela, both candidates have been claiming victory according to their own sources.

In true telenovela fashion, we’ve witnessed a former president (Mubarak) die only to be resurrected shortly after. We’ve had two candidates claim victory and, of course, accuse the other of lying. And the state media has managed to embed the possibility of a civil war breaking out in Egypt due to the election results causing mass paranoia and panic. And all government offices and institutions were encouraged to go home early (at least someone gets to benefit from all of this).

In reality, all doors lead to hell in this case! We are held by the throat by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has recently unveiled addendum to the constitutional declaration giving it more power.

Tik Tok…until 3 o’clock!

My science debut at BioVision 2012

I was honored when my long-time mentor and friend, Bob Berg, invited me to speak at a panel on “Fostering Science & Technology in the Middle East” at this year’s prestigious BioVision conference at the beautiful Library of Alexandria. The conference is usually focused on life sciences and brings in an impressive array of professors, researchers, academics, and even Nobel Laureates.

The conference was extremely well organized and the library staff and volunteers could not be more accommodating and helpful. All attendees, participants, and speakers were given name badges with ribbons…different color ribbons. Speakers got red, students got green, volunteers and staff got yellow, etc. This automatically meant that if you were a bearer of the red ribbon closed doors were opened for you, you can claim reserved seats and you can even jump at the front of the lunch buffet line. This made me a little uncomfortable to say the least.

My talk went really well and was very well received especially by younger student attendees.

Speaking on “Fostering Science & Technology in the Middle East” at BioVision 2012 in Alexandria, Egypt.

I met some amazing people from all over the world working on fascinating things. In most cases, other speakers were welcoming and inviting. Especially because I came from the technology side and didn’t have a solid science background. I found myself enjoying conversations about life and philosophy with chemists, physicists and biologists.

There was a small “but” though. In true scientific terms: I discovered something during BioVision 2012 – the Older Male Scientist Syndrome (OMSS)! Let’s examine the OMSS together:

Signs & Symptoms

Patients with OMSS are usually males in their late early 60s to early 80s. They usually suffer from arrogance, intolerance of new ideas and young people alike, heightened sense of self-importance, and a consistent pattern of self-recognition. Less specific symptoms may include: grey hair, an over usage of the words “my researchers”, and the mastering of heavy-text slides.

Causes

Most cases of OMSS are of unknown or unpredictable causes. OMSS can be associated with a lack of self awareness. Other causes of this condition include being set in your ways, a decreasing recognition of others’ opinion and value, and of course being boosted up by others.

OK, enough of the OMSS talk – I think it’s fair to say that variations of OMSS could be found in every field.

I’m still extremely grateful for having been part of BioVision 2012. Some of the people I met there were extremely inspiring.

Looking Back at 2011: The Egyptian Revolution

In light of the upcoming “anniversary” of the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution on January 25, 2011 my colleague Alicja Peszkowska, who is on the Net2 team and blogs regularly asked me to do an interview to talk about the Egyptian revolution, the use of social media and the role it played in driving and influencing the revolution.

I will be heading back to Cairo in a few days to join the millions of Egyptians who are going to take to the streets and say NO to the rule of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Read Alicja’s original blog post here.

Why are they there?

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Every time I have entered Tahrir Square over the past few days I have seen the crowds grow bigger, their chants become louder, their sense of cause become more determined. But despite all of those things, I’ve kept asking myself ‘why are they there?’ Why are they so determined? Why are they so loud?

When you enter Tahrir Square you’re usually met with huge masses of men…particularly young men between the ages of 15-35. They’re university students, cab drivers, college eductaed professionals that are  unemployed, etc. A generation that was born and have lived all of its life under the Mubarak regime. A generation(s) that was given no opportunities and resources to excel in a hobby or encouraged to think critically throughout their education. A generation(s) that was often described as corrupt, useless, ignorant, and more. It’s a generation that was robbed of its creativity, individuality, but most importantly of its sense of purpose.

When you walk around Tahrir, you find many of these young men assuming roles that lend them legitimacy to claim and feel  a sense of purpose. You have the ambulance line human shield guys, who are constantly telling people to walk behind the rope and leave the road empty for the ambulance. You have the motorbike ambulance guys, usually two guys on a motorcycle that rush in to the frontlines to rescue the fallen ones and bring them back to the field hospitals. You have the sign makers, who are usually writing signs like “Hospital” or “Clear the Road”. Then you have the field hospital guards, those are the ones that guard the field hospital from random bypassers and direct them to take another route. You also have the people collecting donations and supplies from different meet-up points and taking them to Tahrir. And of course you have the heroes who make it to the frontline, get attacked and hurt and go back for more.

For people like myself that wondered why are they there…that’s why! They want to feel needed and wanted. They want to contribute and be able to get recognition for it. They want a sense of purpose that makes them want to do something. And guess what they are doing something that several generations behind them weren’t able to do.

You all found your purpose; keep fighting for it!

Easing Two Country’s Tension with a Song!

Between the summer of 2009 and early 2010 Egypt and Lebanon made many headlines. Tensions were high starting in the summer of 2009 when Hezbollah members were arrested and tried in Egypt for supposed spying and terrorist attacks plotting on resorts often frequented by Israelis.

The tensions kept rising and in early 2010, at the height of the blockade on Gaza, stone-throwing demonstrators made their way to the Egyptian embassy in Beirut to voice their anger against claims that Egypt began to build a deep metal wall along its border. Reports claimed that when it is finished the wall will be 10-11km long and will extend 18 metres below the surface.

It is worth mentioning that after the Egyptian Revolution earlier this year, the Rafah Crossing Border has been reopened after pressure was placed on the interim military government in Egypt by the Egyptian people.

As art is often used to defuse emotional tension and create peace in it’s own way, this song was released in the summer of 2010. I have loved listening to this song during my stay here in Lebanon.

The song is between an Egyptian woman and a Lebanese man. They both are singing about cultural and historical monuments and places in their respective countries and at the end they both confess their love and appreciation to each other and the country’s they both come from.

Working out = Our life is so much more fun!

This past Sunday after a 2 days of a good amount of going out and partying Beiruti-style, I was able to miraculously wake up at 7:00 a.m. and get myself to Martyr Square for to meet up with a group of folks to go hiking in the south, in Hasbaya.

On our way on the bus we stopped to take a look at Qala’at ash-Shqif Castle/Beaufort Castle, which is a historical castle from the 12th century that was used by Israelis and Hezbollah for military lookout over the past decades. There are now federal plans to renovate it and open it to the public.

Qala'at ash-Shqif Castle/Beaufort Castle is a historical castle from the 12th century that was used by Israelis and Hezbollah for military lookout

We started our  6-hour hike by walking through the narrow alleys and streets of Hasbaya, a predominantly Druze town in the South of Lebanon. Older and more traditional Druze men, often referred to as the ‘Uqqal (the Knowledgable Initiates) wear baggy black pants that are tight at the ankles.

Druze man in traditional clothing in Hasbaya

The trail overlooked large portions of the UNIFIL line (also referred to as the Blue Line), beautiful mountainous scenery and large amounts of crops and trees of all sorts of seasonal fruits. Our guide helped us pick at trees along the way to try the different seasonal fruits that were all over the trail.

Views of South Lebanon from Hasbaya

After completing our 6-hour hike we stopped at a local Restaurant/Bar in Hasbaya where we all had little snacks and refreshments after the long hike. Shortly after everyone enjoyed a short rest Nadine, the hike organizer, and Wael, the hike guide, started a small Debke party with quick lessons. I’m in love with the Debke and wish I knew all the steps better, but I’m determined to keep taking advantage of joining in on the fun anytime Debke breaks out in my presence.

Quick Debke Lesson after 10km hike

If I had to pick the highlight of the day it must have been our very last stop. We stopped in Kfar Kila‘s Fatima Gate, a border town to check out the border between Lebanon and Israel. Before getting there I didn’t really have an idea of what the border town would look like. Never in my dreams though did I imagine it to be what I saw. The border is essentially a fence with a space the size of a one-way road sandwiched by another fence on the other side. On the Lebanese side, the municipality has completely renovated the border town and built a fun and cool promenade along the fence that is decorated with various exercise machines. When I asked Nadine why that particular theme for a border town, she said “We are trying to show that we are having a great time over here on this side. We can easily see Israeli settlements from right here, which saddens us. But we’re sending a message: Life is great on this side!”

Kathy showing her active skills at the border

One of my co-workers at Al Majmoua is from  Kfar Kila and he told me that the historical urban legend on why the gate is called the Fatima is gate is because one day long ago a young woman was walking home and she was attacked by a snake. She immediately started yelling for her sister, Fatima, who quickly came to help her sister and was able to kill the snake and save here sister. No one knows how true this is, but the gate is named after a strong local woman who saved her sister.

My “I Support Gay Marriage” Sticker in Lebanon

There’s a sticker on my laptop that reads: “I Support Gay Marriage“! I obviously brought my laptop with me here to Beirut; was that a conscious decision? Not quite – this is a sticker that I have had on my laptop for a couple of years now. My friend (a straight female friend) gave it to me at work one day.

Yes, I do support gay marriage! But who talks about gay rights in the Middle East?! To many people’s surprise, Beirut actually has a fairly active and strong LGBTQ scene. There’s a vibrant gay scene community with local clubs serving both gays and lesbians, such as Bardo and Ob La Di. Also, there are some really great local activists and groups (Helem & Meem) who are doing a ton of work on the matter, but I’m not here to talk about gays rights. However, whether I choose to or not my little sticker opens up the subject with anyone who sees it.

The first time I think the first person who saw and commented on the sticker in Lebanon was a good friend of mine. He simply looked at me gave me the thumps-up and said “I do too!” I wasn’t really surprised; he’s a social liberal. It was only a few days later that a friend of his saw the sticker and said: “Hmm…I’m OK with gays, but I don’t think they should be married and have children.” When I asked him why he thought so; he simply said “It’s not natural. A child needs a mother and father.” So, I immediately came back at him with the “what-about-people-with-single-parent” argument. He smiled and said “that’s different” and we were called to join the others for lunch and the conversation simply ended.

At the office at Al Majmoua with my gay sticker

Out of all these conversations, I think comments I have received at work have been the most interesting. One of the first interactions I had with one of the IT guys involved a short, but certainly awkward exchange about my sticker. He simply looked at it, pointed and said “I support gay marriage! Hmm…that’s weird.” I immediately looked at him and said “How is that weird?” The second I reacted I knew that this was very sensitive territory to be entering in my new workplace in Beirut.

Just a few days ago, a former employee came by the office and she was sitting near my desk. She looked at my laptop, looked at me, and looked at my laptop again. Then she turned around and started talking to two male colleagues who were standing nearby “Hey! Hey! Look she supports gay marriage you two can be official now.” Her tone was extremely sarcastic! The two guys laughed it off and I certainly got some attention from other employees who were in the area.

In most of these situations I’m not doing or saying anything, other than potentially provoking thought. I’m thinking even if people think I’m crazy for believing in or supporting such a cause it is still something they see everyday when they interact with me or come say hello to me at my desk.

Tales from Israel: Bus journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

(I wrote this on the bus)

My mother and I are sitting on the very last row on the bus (the last two available seats next to each other). Next to me is a Palestinian man, who has multiple mobile phones and literally seems to have not stopped talking on them since we got on the bus, and next to him a group of the most annoying and obnoxious Israeli teenagers (2 boys at the end of our row, and a boy and girl on the seat in front of them). The annoying group of kids are loud; one of them is playing the music on his phone and people all the way in the front of the bus could hear it. I just turned to him for the second time to ask him to turn down the music.
Two rows in front of us there are two Russian-looking girls, light skin, pointy features, dark black hair and striking green eyes. The girl next to the window has her shoulder-length hair in a ponytail with sunglasses fashionably resting on her head holding her bangs back. You can’t miss the shiny silver eyebrow piercing she has. The one in the aisle seat is wearing a white bandanna over her short black wavy hair. They look young; maybe in their early 20’s.
At one point, the girl with the white bandanna leaned over towards her friend and it seemed like she was examining the the pendant dangling on her chest. The look in her eyes made me think they weren’t just friends; it was more than an approving or complimenting friend’s look. And to my surprise, half a second later, my suspicion was confirmed by a loving, yet subtle lover’s peck on the mouth. It was so natural, yet so out of place!
What was about to come was what shocked me the most! The annoying teenagers caught a glimpse of that innocent kiss and quickly started tormenting the young couple. One of the boys shouted out: Lesbians?!?! They started making kissing noises and calling them names (all in Hebrew, but I could detect the tone). And then they started calling the girl “white bandanna” hoping that their annoyance would pay off and she would turn around and say something. I was shocked, saddened, and above all happy for the young couple for being courageous about showing their love to one another!

Walking the streets of Jerusalem you cannot escape the magnificent Dome of the Rock

Tales from the Holy Land: The Welcome

Step to the side, Miss:

I arrive at the airport at a little past 6pm on Thursday evening. In my backpack, I have a folder stuffed with letters – a support letter from Google stating my position at Google and why I was visiting. Along with that, my friend at the State Department sent me an official state department-issued letter for American of Arab origin. Although many told me to be too worried about entering the country, I definitely had the feeling that it wasn’t going to be a piece of cake, but I kept telling myself that if anything it’s going to be great story in retrospect (as my friend Tim would say). Ok, so back to Thursday evening – I get to the immigration line, I confidently walk up to the Foreigners line, and hand over my passport to the young-looking immigration officer. And this is the conversation that went on:

 

Me: Hi
Officer: Hello. Passport please.
(I hand her the passport open to the personal details page)
Officer: What’s your name?
Me: Hebatallah Gamal (dying to tell her that it is right in front of her)
Officer: Where were you born?
Me: (again thinking – it’s freakin’ right there) Cairo, Egypt.
Officer: Why are you in Israel?
Me: Business.
Officer: Where do you work?
Me: I work for Google.
Officer: in Israel?
Me: No, in California, but I’m here to visit the Tel Aviv office for some meetings.
Officer: Do you have a letter or something?
Me: Yes, sure. There you go.
Officer: Can you please wait here (and she walks off out of the booth with my passport)

I then get asked to step to the side, where I was escorted to waiting room with a TV, vending machine and handful of other foreigners, who looked like they have been waiting for a while. I immediately open my laptop and try to go online in hopes of catching anyone from the Tel Aviv office online, but who was I kidding I was sure no one would be online – it was Thursday evening (the equavilant of our Friday in the US – end of the week). Of course, internet wasn’t working and my laptop was being slow. Ten minutes later I was asked to come into an office, where another officer lady asked me to sit down at a desk across from her and her big black computer monitor. She then started asking me the exact same series of questions the first officer asked. I answered politely and was again asked to go wait in that room. Another 20 minutes later or so, a nice looking man came into the waiting room and gave a young group of 3 (2 young guys and a girl) their passports back and wished them a nice time. He then returned less than 5 minutes later and asked me to follow him. He then brought me into yet another office and started asking me the same questions, although he was a bit more detailed and definitely tried to ask me “tricky” questions, like: What do you do for Google?What’s your title? Little does he know that my freaking title at Google is a mouth-full and a little hard to forget :) What I thought was extremely funny is that at one point he said: You are not a trouble maker, are you? I don’t think you are who we’re looking for, but we have to do this to be sure!

So, I never felt more dangerous in my life, but like I said in the beginning – a story worth telling at the end.