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Some thoughts on the unrest in Egypt

The news and images coming from Egypt this past week have been unsettling for most.  Scenes of protesting and violence in the streets, so close on the heels of the the Tunisian protests have led many to wonder if we are on the brink of upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East.  Foreign governments have called for evacuations of their citizens from Egypt and have begun arranging for special flights to get ex-pats out of the country.  The wealthy have been fleeing as well.  While middle-class travelers have been sleeping on the floor of the airport waiting for flights, over 60 private planes have taken off, apparently including one carrying one of the most famous names/faces in the Arab world – pop star Amr Diab.

Of course, the majority of the Egyptian population do not have the means or interest to flee the country.  This is a popular uprising fueled, in part, by economic discontent and the huge gap between the haves and have-nots in the country.   Officially around 20%  of the population lives on less than $2 a day.  These are old statistics and unofficial estimates are that closer to 50% of the population live in poverty – unable to provide for their basic daily needs.  Unemployment is high, even among university graduates.

I know many Egyptians here in Jordan.  They fuel the service sector of the economy working as janitors, car washers,  garbage-men, waiters, cooks, and guards.  Restaurant workers tend to work 12-hour shifts for less than a Jordanian Dinar per hour.  Our building guard doesn’t even get paid by our landlord – for his hard work his family of 5 gets the privilege of living out of two tiny rooms and collecting a small monthly stipend from tenants.  For 6 or 7 Dinars Egyptians will wash Jordanian cars 2 or 3 times a week for an entire month.  Compared to life in America these “jobs” and rates of pay are so sub-standard its hard to even categorize.  However, every Egyptian I know here says that life and work conditions  in Jordan are far superior to opportunities available back in Egypt.  They would rather live as 2nd-class citizens and work for next to nothing here in Jordan than face the lack of opportunity in Egypt.

So it is no surprise that the those struggling with poverty and daily existence are now protesting in the streets.  The wonder is not that it is happening now, but that it has taken so long for it to occur.

It is hard at this point to tell if change will be for the better.  Many of the Egyptians I speak to here in Jordan view the unrest as a very positive thing.  They are hopeful that it will prompt true political change for the better.  However, Christian Egyptians (in the vast minority), are very nervous.  Copts in particular have been the victims of much violence over the past several years.  In the midst of the current unrest members of the radical groups who advocate such attacks have been freed from prisons.   Many are speculating that more radical elements will fill the power void that appears to be developing in Egypt.

Of course the media plays of the fears of a radicalization of the Islamic street in Egypt.  The reports of vigilante justice and mob mentality sounds pretty scary.  However, one American friend of mine says he is appreciative of the club-wielders on his street.  With the breakdown in police services and spread of unrest families and neighbors have been looking out for each other.  Curfew starts at 2:30 PM.  After that strangers are not welcome on the street and private citizens will do what is necessary to protect themselves.  My friend is known in the neighborhood and is not really concerned for his safety.  Egypt is a collectivist society and it is not, like some Americans might imagine, truly “every man for himself.”  Just like in the rest of the Middle East, family and tribe and neighbor and guest are words that hold important – almost sacred – meaning.  What may seem like a dangerous man with a club or knife on television may actually be a father standing ready to protect his family and guests.

Of course, my prayer and hope for Egypt is peace.  In the short term that senseless violence and looting would cease and that order would be restored.  However, true peace will not come to Egypt without justice.  Economic justice.  Social Justice (to use a phrase demonized by conservative politics in America).  Political Justice.  And solutions that recognize that all people deserve dignity and opportunity and the ability to not just survive each day, but to thrive.

Of course these problems are not just present in Egypt.  The gap between the economic and political haves and have-nots has been growing steadily around the world.  Personally I am afraid that “every man for himself” thinking has gotten us into these situations, but will not get us out.

Check out the Festival of Alternative Arts!

Special Note: Tonight (Tuesday, January 25th) there is a debate on life in Gaza being held as part of the Festival.  It will be held from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Al-Balad Theater on the route down from Rainbow street in  Jabal Amman to the balad.  More info here. Unfortunately I can’t make it because of work.  Hopefully someone else can!
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I recently had the privilege of attending a film screening of Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff’s “Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza“.  The documentary observes several slices of life in Gaza after the devastating January 2009 Israeli offensive that left 13 Israelis and over 1300 Palestinians dead.  The film provided little commentary on the events, but simply showed people in their everyday contexts trying to put their lives back together after a month of bombardment and destruction.  I am preparing another post on my thought on the film, but wanted to point out that it is part of a larger event now being held here in Jordan.

From December 2010 through February 2011, the Swedish Embassy in conjunction with many local partners (including the Royal Film Commission who sponsored the film screening) is hosting the “Festival of Alternative Arts” here in Jordan.  The purpose of the festival is,

to showcase and discuss graffiti and other urban alternative art expressions. It aims at contributing to broadening the concept of art as a diverse form of expression, but also hopes to attract and stimulate an interest in urban art – in its different representations – among the large young population in Jordan.

Don't sit at home - attend a festival event!

The centerpiece of the festival is the photo exhibit “Gaza Grafitti” opening at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts on January 26th (tomorrow) and running through February 15th, 2011.  The exhibit is the work of Swedish photographer Mia Grondahl and is comprised of 60 photographs of grafitti art in Gaza over of seven year period (2002-2009).  I am personally very interested in seeing this exhibit as I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 in Gaza.  At that time I was also fascinated by all of the graffiti I saw.  Some of it obviously slogans of one sort or another, but also actual artwork.  The art that I saw in the late 90s took the form of paintings of scenes in some cases, but also amazing Arabic calligraphy.    As in parts of the West Bank where Palestinian artists have used the “security” wall as a canvas, graffiti has served as both an artistic and political release valve for an oppressed people.  I am interested to see what Grondahl observed and recorded during her times in Gaza.

I will probably go see the exhibit sometime in February.  If you are here and Jordan and want to go together drop me a line.

The Festival of Alternative Arts includes a number of other events in addition to the “Gaza Graffiti” exhibit.  A complete list can be found on their Facebook events page.

Some of the ones I found most intriguing are:

Dream Hiding Places at The Children’s Museum until January 31, 2011.  20 Palestinian children will be participating in a graffiti art workshop facilitated by a local graffiti artist.  The artwork produced will be on display at the museum.

Images/Suwar in Zarqa until January 30th.  28 Iraqi youths, refugees living in Jordan, tell their stories through use of the performing and media arts.  The location in Zarqa is not clear from the FB page.  Anyone have any idea?

Refugee Camp Graffiti Art Project on display at Nabad Gallery from February 27th to March 1st.  Workshops will be held with youth in three Palestinian refugee camps here in Jordan.  They will be given cameras to photograph the graffiti they see every day.  Then they will develop their own art.  The results will be displayed in Baqa’a camp and the Nabad Gallery.

If you happen to be in Jordan reading this, I hope you take a moment to attend one of these or other events associated with the festival.  If you’re not in Jordan – just see what you’re missing!  I’ll  try to post on anything I get to attend.

PS – I found out about this event through my new favorite resource – Jordan Events on Facebook.  For those of you who are Facebook users in Jordan it’s a great way to find out what’s going on around the Kingdom!

My thoughts on Ted Williams, homelessness and the value of fame in America

By now you must have heard of Ted Williams, the so called “golden-voiced homeless man” who in the span of a week went from living in a makeshift tent to being interviewed on the Today Show and being offered jobs with Kraft Foods and the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Even 6,000 miles away here in Amman, Jordan I heard about Ted’s story thanks to viral video and social networking sites.  The world is truly a small place these days.

Ted Williams interviewed on CBS

This story struck a chord with me, as I spent 4 years working closely, through a community-based non-profit organization, with those struggling with homelessness and poverty.  I recently had the honor of writing a couple of guest posts on my thoughts on the Ted Williams’ story over at my friend David’s blog, Signs of Life.  If you are interested in what I had to say please click the links below.

Ted Williams: YouTube, the grace of God, and a slow news day (pt 1)

Ted Williams: YouTube, the grace of God, and a slow news day (pt 2)

While you are over there, take a look at some of David’s previous posts. I’m sure you will find something worth your while.  He’s definitely worth an add to your favorite RSS feed reader.

Peace on Earth . . . Copts in Jordan celebrate Christmas despite attacks in Egypt

Egyptian riot police stand guard near church in Alexandria Egypt during Christmas Eve Services

My phone rang this morning at 12:40 AM.  It was my Egyptian friend Joe.  He and his family were across town at the Coptic Orthodox church attending the annual Christmas Eve prayer vigil.  (Many branches of Orthodox Christianity celebrate Christmas according to the old Julian calendar on January 7th.)  I could hear the sound of many people in the background, the voices sounded festive and happy.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Only a week ago over 20 Coptic Christians were killed and over 70 wounded in an attack on a Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve by Muslim extremists.

Joe was just calling for a ride home for himself, his wife, and three kids.  Taxis are hard to come by late at night here in Amman, and with 100s of other worshipers looking for a ride home it was impossible to find a ride.   I was glad he wasn’t calling with other news.

Orthodox priests in traditional garb

The street corner was crowded with people streaming out of the church; conversing, laughing, and waiting for rides.  The Coptic priest (obvious in his traditional black robes and long beard) was blessing children.  A typical Coptic Christmas if it hadn’t been for the two police officers not far from the priest’s elbow and the cars with flashing lights posted on the street nearby keeping an eye on the proceedings.

Joe and I exchanged the traditional Arabic Christmas greeting “Every year goodness to you.”  “And Goodness to you.”  (Interestingly, this is also a standard Muslim greeting during their holidays.)  The family was happy and dressed in their Christmas best.  4-year old Tony was  dashing in a full suit and bright red tie.  They said that it was the first year that the church had been completely packed.  Every seat, both downstairs and upstairs was taken and there was no room even to stand.   I congratulated them, but expressed my surprise given the recent attacks in Egypt.

Baba Shenouda, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, presides over Christmas Eve vigil in Egypt

Joe replied that first of all, those types of attacks could never happen in Jordan because the government here takes a strong position against extremism and terrorism.  Joe thanked God for the safety his family felt as Christian minorities in this Islamic nation and for the police who were stationed near the church during their Christmas Eve vigil.  Secondly, and more important, Joe said that when people face troubles they turn to God and that is why the church was packed out for the 4+ hour prayer vigil marking the eve of Jesus’ birth.

Persecution of Coptic Christians is not a new thing and the New Year’s Eve attack is just the latest in a long line.  One year ago on Christmas Eve 2010 a gunman shot 7 worshipers (and 1 Muslim security guard) dead at a Christmas eve vigil in Egypt.  In 2009 attacks on both Christmas and Easter Eve services left Copts dead there as well.  And the violence is not just restricted to holidays.  This past April an estimated 3,000 Muslim attacked Christians in Marsa Matrouh in northern Egypt causing hundreds of Copts to seek haven in a church.  Over 50 homes, shops, and cars were destroyed in that incident.  The list could go on and on.

Muslims (on right) stand in solidarity with Christian worshippers in Egypt on Christmas Eve

However, it must be noted that this violence against Christians is not condoned by all.  A group of Muslims gathered near Coptic churches in Egypt last night in a show of solidarity with their Christian neighbors.  The Egyptian government posted riot police and bomb squads near churches and the sons of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak attended Christmas vigils.  Extremists have taken responsibility in the latest attacks and are calling for more.  Thankfully nothing happened last night in Egypt or here in Jordan.  But what will happen when the media attention fades and the security details go back to normal duty?  It seems just a matter of time before another attack shakes the Coptic community in Egypt.

I hope Joe’s confidence in his family’s safety and security here in Jordan holds true.  People of peace from all faiths and walks of life must take a serious stand against religious violence and the murder of innocents.