Morocco Fragments: On The Way To Marrakesh

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Finally on the train to Marrakesh. Everybody insists on talking to me in French, even after I point out that I don’t speak a word of it. I only walked the block around the Casablanca Voyageurs train-station and I don’t like it one bit. I wonder what the city is really like. I want to enjoy Morocco, but it looks like it’s going to be a chore, especially with a budget like mine. The weather certainly isn’t helping. It’s dreary, cold, and wet outside and makes me want to hide in my hotel room for the three days I have in Marrakesh.

Looking out the train window the scenery isn’t that different from Syria, similar vegetation, similar run down towns in the middle of nowhere. For a few seconds I felt like I was back home. The square minarets shake me out of my willful illusion screaming “this is not the land you long for.” But that is another story for another time. Maybe that time will never come.

Feeling desperate for an internet connection. I’m wondering if my last-minute couch surfing requests sent from the airport received a reply. I’m tired and haven’t eaten all day. It’s 2 PM now. I’m torn between checking in at the first hotel I see, or looking for somewhere to get online and maybe with some luck crash on a total stranger’s bed. The clouds are breaking, and sun light makes a brief appearance before getting blocked behind ominous clouds again.

I’m sharing this small space, this 6 passenger compartment, with three other riders. A French middle-aged man and woman, and a younger Moroccan woman who seems to be in her late twenties. I formed my own little francophobic island. My fellow passengers are kind enough to use English or Arabic when attempting to communicate something to me. A T-shirt that says “Je ne parle pas Français” would have been a great idea. Hindsight is 20/20.

Another stop. This compartment might get crowded. I’m crossing my fingers that we won’t have to share this compartment with a young man who thinks it’s a good idea to use his cell phone as a boombox on board the train. A couple of minutes of anticipation then a sigh of relief. My colony on wheels is not accommodating yet another conqueror. Heavy rains now encompass my fortress of solitude. The heat is broken. So much for first class. I could have saved 50 Dirhams and huddled for warmth with passengers in the second class, but then I wouldn’t be writing this. Time to get some shut-eye.

P.S. This post is part of a series of posts I’m writing about a visit to Morocco. I have already left the country. Expect more to come soon.


Internet at Liberty Conference 2010, Budapest

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I will be covering live the Internet at Liberty Conference in Budapest organized by Google and the Central European University.


Freedom for Ali Abdulemam

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Ali Abdulemam is the founder of the very popular forum BahrainOnline.org, and a Global Voices Advocacy author. He was arrested on September 4th after receiving an order to appear at a National Security facility. Bahrain News Agency (BNA) claimed[ar] he was arrested while attempting to flee the country.

Ali was arrested once before in 2005 for reasons related with his online activity. His arrest now is a part of a government crackdown on internet websites and forums in Bahrain. A day before Ali’s arrest the Bahrain Center for Human Rights published an urgent call for action[ar] reporting arrests of human rights activists, politicians, and religious figures. The plea included reports of severe torture and prisoner abuse. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) have also reported on a massive campaign to block dozens of websites and persecute activists and political figures.

You can contact Bahraini officials to demand freedom for Ali and other activists by using the following contact info provided by Bahrain Centre for Human Rights:

Sheik Hamad Bin Issa Al Khalifa
King of Bahrain
Fax: +973 176 64 587

Sheik Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa
Prime Minister
Fax: +973 1753 2839

Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa
Foreign Minister
Phone: +973 172 27 555
Fax: +973 172 12 603

Sheik Khalid Bin Ali Al Khalifa
Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs
Phone: +973 175 31 333
Fax: +973 175 31 284

You can also directly contact the Foreign Minister on twitter @khalidalkhalifa


#NetFreedom in Syria, Between Sanctions and Censorship

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Free Syrian Internet - Image by Flickr user azraiman

A delegation of US tech companies and policymakers are visiting Syria today and holding a meeting with President Bashar Al Assad and high-ranking officials. The tech delegation (#techdel on Twitter, and “techdel” hereafter) came after coordination on high diplomatic levels and as a part of the Obama administration’s policy of engaging with Syria, according to William Burns, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

A tweet by Alec Ross, the techdel’s leader, summed up the United States’ attitude towards the visit:

This trip to #Syria will test Syria’s willingness to engage more responsibly on issues of #netfreedom

Of course Net freedom is craved by Syrian users; Censorship is strict and many popular websites are blocked by the Syrian government (Facebook and YouTube to name a couple), and perceived cyber-dissidents have many a time received prison sentences ranging between 3-5 years in most cases. What the techdel seems oblivious to is how much the U.S. sanctions on Syria are complicit in further limiting internet freedoms for Syrian users. Jared Cohen, Member of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff and a member of the delegation, tweeted:

Big gap between older & younger Syrians on challenges to business. Youth blame lack of education, not sanctions

Just to show how misguided that statement is, I’ll draw up a few comparisons between Syrian governmental censorship and U.S. imposed IT sanctions: Read the rest of this entry


توضيح حول مشروع شرق أوسط واحد

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ترددت أخبار مؤخراً تزعم بأني مشارك في مشروع شرق أوسط واحد Onemideast.org وأردت التوضيح على موقعي بأني ليس لي علاقة بالمشروع لا من قريب ولا من بعيد، وتفاجأت بوجود رابط موقعي على موقع المشروع وقد طلبت حذفه. كما أن موقع كلنا شركاء استخدم صورتي  دون إذن بدل صورة عبد السلام الذي طلب حذف صورته من الخبر، وقد طلبت من الموقع حذف الصورة أيضاً.

أعيد التأكيد بأني ليس لي علاقة بالمشروع ولن أعلق بأكثر من ذلك.


Putting Syria on the Map

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I have been doing some intensive cartography lately. Yes, I’m literally putting Syria on the map.

Going to college in Damascus was a frustrating experience for quite a long time. I did not know the city nearly as well as I should have. I didn’t live in the heart of Damascus, but 30 minutes by servees (a microbus used for commuting in Syria) on a good day. When meeting people in parts of the city that I did not know, I was often too stubborn or too ashamed to ask for directions or help getting somewhere. That always ended with me asking questions to people I’m more comfortable asking, but also less likely to be able to help me; or walking aimlessly and asking people in the street who were as clueless as I was. Going to a new theater or cultural center was always a process of finding out the address and the best way to get to and fro the designated activity location.

Well, not for long. Thanks to Google’s Map Maker, other location-recognition-impaired people won’t have to suffer like I did. I’m now one of a group of volunteer users, or citizen cartographers as Google likes to call them, who  have been drawing the entire map of Syria on Google Map Maker. We’re highlighting points of interest, businesses, streets, neighborhoods and just about everything in between. Eventually it will be available on a high quality, easy to search Google map that’s free to use for all people and platforms that have an active internet connection. There’s an intimidating learning curve to Map Maker; roads are hard to draw and they disappear after you first draw them because they need to be moderated before they show up. This means having to draw roads with no visual clues of your previous work. Drawing on water is a close analogy.

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Collateral Murder: Just Another Day On Iraqi Streets

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WikiLeaks has released today a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff. I can’t begin to describe how I felt watching that video, listening to the nonchalant exchange between US soldiers over the radio while they indiscriminately mowed down over a dozen Iraqis; more than half of them were unarmed. Some were shot attempting to aid the wounded. Two of them were children sitting in a van. You can, and you should, watch as much as you possibly can of the video (disturbing content) before going on to read the rest of this post. You can also find the overview page of the Collateral Murder video here.

Have you watched the video? Now here’s the official U.S. army statement in 2007 as it was reported by the New York Times:

The American military said in a statement late Thursday that 11 people had been killed: nine insurgents and two civilians. According to the statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed.

“There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad.

Nice cover up, No? Weddady explains on twitter how this could happen: “NYT is only as good as their sources when reporting on unseen events. US military sources –> US military official line.” I wouldn’t expect the army to behave any differently; Armies protect their own no matter what. Disgusting, but not uncommon. Defendants of the soldier’s actions are saying that the Iraqis had guns and what appears to be RPGs. Jacob Appelbaum clears things out a bit saying “When I was on northern Iraq in 2005: I had a camera over my shoulder, and a guard with an AK-47. This is very common in Iraq.” I also have to add that RPGs used by the insurgents are anti-tank weapons and not a ground-to-air weapon. Trying to hit an Apache with these is similar to trying to kill a flying wasp with a slingshot. Suspecting the journalist’s camera to be an RPG which is quite an outrageous mistake to make and still does not hold as an excuse for the trigger-happy soldier operating that 30mm machine gun. Read more about how they’re actually used in Iraq here.

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World Day Against Cyber Censorship

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Today, March 12, is the World Day Against Cyber Censorship. Thus, it’s a perfect timing to finally pen down some of the ideas on the topic that I’ve intended to write for so long. Threatened Voices is a Global Voices Advocacy “collaborative mapping project to build a database of bloggers who have been threatened, arrested or killed for speaking out online and to draw attention to the campaigns to free them.”

As you can see from the map, Arabic speaking countries are a ‘hot area’ where many voices are threatened. I looked closely at the data to see what I can get out of it. My approach was to select a sample of the worst offenders and do a little comparison. I chose the following regimes for this mini-research project I did: Assad of Syria, Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mohammed VI of Morocco, Saud of Saudi Arabia, Al Nahyan of UAE, and Sabah of Kuwait. Now wouldn’t it be interesting to see comparison between a regime’s years in power opposed to how many voices were threatened in those years? I thought so too and here’s what I found:

Voices Threatened vs. Years in Power*

Voices Threatened Vs Years in Power Read the rest of this entry


Call 911! There’s an Arab on the Train!

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A couple of years ago, an American friend of mine asked me: “Would you want to live in the U.S. ?” I replied in the negative: “Why would I want to live in country where I’m treated as terrorist until proven otherwise?” She said that my expectations were inaccurate; that I would blend in, and go unnoticed in an international city like New York.

Being the skeptic that I am, I had to see for myself before I could make a final judgment.

I arrived in Boston on June 20th, 2009, knowing that I would have to go through “Secondary Screening” at the airport. The waiting room had a weird mix of people:  a Lebanese kid (he looked 16); a Russian young man with missing papers that was trying to weasel his way in; a bunch of disgruntled Spaniards, including a plane crew, that were irked by the fact that they would have to go through the humiliation of secondary screening. My experience was not so bad, I waited for a little over three hours before my turn came up and I was asked a couple of trivial questions about my parents before being allowed out. That was anticlimactic. It was an inconvenience, but it was still easier for a Syrian national to be granted entry to the U.S. than to some Arab countries.

Up until last week, my stay in the U.S. had been one smooth ride. I had been pleasantly surprised to have no incidents, no one with nasty prejudices. I had been treated as any other human being. Then came a trip to Washington D.C. where I opted to take the train because flying for a Syrian in the U.S. does not go without hassle. To my surprise the train  had no WiFi so I unfortunately chose to watch an episode of Al Jazeera documentary in Arabic called The Story of a Revolution ( حكاية ثورة Hikayat Thawra) on the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression and occupation, and yes, the oppression of the various  Arab regimes that were trying to use Palestinian suffering for domestic political gains.

حكاية ثورة - Copyright Al Jazeera

Halfway through the episode I noticed a hawk-eyed middle aged man ogling my screen with a death stare. I did not pay much attention to him and I went back to my documentary. Minutes later I hear him  on the phone talking about me to what I assumed to be 911. He was on a rant about a terrorist watching a video in Arabic, at one point he said something about Jihad as well. He was soon yelling profanity making sure I could hear it though he wasn’t saying it directly to my face, things like: “What the fuck is this shit,” “I’m not putting up with this shit.” He soon proceeded to leave the cart, I assumed he was also going to report me to the train’s staff as well. I took advantage of his absence and called 911 myself and told them that there was a guy acting in a threatening manner because he saw me watching a documentary in Arabic on my laptop. They advised me not to confront him and just move to another cart for my own safety. Read the rest of this entry


العلمانية العربية، هل تعاني الفصام حقاً؟

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كتب أنس أونلاين تدوينة بعنوان “انفصام الشخصية العلمانية العربية !” تساءل فيها عما إذا كان العلمانيون العرب يعانون من انفصام الشخصية بما أنهم يدعمون المقاومة الإسلامية المتمثلة بحزب الله وحماس على الرغم من أنهم يرفضون التصويت لها في انتخابات سياسية وقد يرفض بعضهم فكرة وجود أحزاب دينية سياسية من الأساس.

لن أتحدث عن المتشددين من الطرفين، سواء العلمانيين أم المتدينين، فكما لا يرغب العلماني بأن يفرض المتدين عاداته وطقوسه وتعاليمه عليه، لا يرغب المتدين بالمثل أن يفرض العلماني نمط حياة لا ديني عليه أو أن يمنعه من أداء بعض فروضه الدينية. نقاشي التالي يفترض وجود احترام متبادل بين طرفين يختلفان بوجهات النظر بشدة. صححوني إن كنت مخطئاً ولكنني أعتقد بأننا لا نريد العيش كما في السعودية حيث يتم فرض لباس معين على الأشخاص (يتعدى متطلبات الحشمة بشكل غير معقول) ويمنع فيه الاختلاط والتفاعل البريء بين الجنسين، وتمنع فيه النساء من قيادة السيارات والانخراط في العديد من مسالك العمل ويضرب فيه الناس في الشارع لقسرهم على الصلاة؛ وأيضاً لا نريد العيش في دولة كفرنسا تضطهد الأقلية الدينية المسلمة بحظر الحجاب أو النقاب مثلاً تحت غطاء حقوق المرأة وحقوق الإنسان.

في طرحه لوجهة نظره سأل أنس السؤال التالي:

كل هذا جيد ولكلّ جهة حقها بأن تؤمن بالأفكار التي تريد لكن … لماذا لا يثبت العلمانيون على مبادئهم وأفكارهم بنفس طريقة ثبات المتدينين والتمسك بمبادئهم؟

سأرد على السؤال بسؤال، عن أي المتدينين نتحدث؟ هل نتحدث عن متديني الخليج الذين لا همّ لبعضهم (كي لا أظلم الكل، ولكرهي للتعميم بشكل عام) غير الحديث عن ضرورة مواجهة المد الإيراني الشيعي (أو الفارسي حسب الحاجة والسياق)  في المنطقة؟ أم عن متديني حركات المقاومة الإسلامية الذين تدعمهم إيران نفسها لمقاومة الإحتلال الإسرائيلي الغاشم؟ هل نتحدث عن متديني هيئة الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر سيئة الصيت في السعودية؟ أم عن متديني الأسر الحاكمة في بعض الدول العربية الذين سُرّت أبواقهم الإعلامية بالهجمات الوحشية على المقاومة الإسلامية والمدنيين في لبنان وفلسطين وشمتت بهم بكل صفاقة؟

في النهاية هذا ليس موضوعي ولكني أردت أن أشير إلى افتراض خاطئ في الجملة التي اقتبستها، علينا التركيز على التفاصيل الدقيقة وحيثيات هذه المواضيع، كي لا نقع في مغالطات لمجرد تسرعنا بإطلاق تعميمات أقل ما يقال عنها أنها غير دقيقة.
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