Sunday, 4 December 2016

From dressing up a child to building up a strong person

Published by A Family


Don't you think like I do? "Great pic, flying in the face of stereotypes: A little girl in blue, unisex clothes, and (gasp) aliens print of some sort. Who needs princess and fairies?"

A few days ago, Facebook CEO’s daughter turned one. I couldn't help but notice a consistent message from Mark and Priscilla. Baby Maxima often wears blue (stereotypically a boy’s color), unisex style, without gender abiding prints - aliens, in this picture. When Maxima was born, she was photographed with the book “Quantum Physics for Babies.”

We are all influenced by subconscious stereotypes, and in turn, project them onto our children. How often do we buy dolls, cooking and nursing toys for girls but cars, building blocks and superman costumes for boys? What really makes us praise girls as “pretty” and boys as “smart”? Why do we chastise daughters for being “unruly,” but feel that "active" sons as nothing short of natural? How often that girls are taught to do chores while son are free to play videogames? Why do we overprotect daughters to the point of near captivity but let boys roam around to gain experience? Why girls can't be girls but "boys will be boys"? How often do we expect our girls to focus on raising family and boys on becoming breadwinner? We say: "everyone makes a choice", but can we face the fact that all choices are influenced by the social environment, and the very choices of parents, friends, celebrities, and everyone else? Go to the very bottom of that question, is it a baby's own choice to be born, to be raised in a certain family and culture, to get the first toy, go to a certain school, read a certain book and uphold a certain value?

Upbringing and education are often characterized by cultural values and subconscious bias that will influence and weigh on children for life. Even when parents are conscious of stereotypes, it is hard to escape them from a society full of gender biases. Children take role models from friends in kindergartens, television, grandparents, and every single other adult around them. Humans are social animals. When a child sees boys playing with cars, girls playing with dolls, their mother busy with housework and their father with driving…etc., the child would slowly change their thoughts and behaviors accordingly.

The media surrounding children is full of biases and stereotypes. In movies and fairy tales, young pretty girls wait for their princes to come so their life can be fulfilled. Men should be rich, royal, or warriors to stand any chance to mate (!). Turn on the TV and most advertisements take advantage of lazy stereotypes to find way into consumers’ brain. If an ad for detergent features a husband, consumers may have a slightest chance of cognitive dissonance. And so, let’s avoid it.

Children are much more insightful. In a viral video, a girl points out the blatant gender bias. T-shirts for boys have “Be a hero” and for girls’ are “I need a hero”

However, companies are increasingly aware of this social change. Campaigns have been based on progressive values of equal opportunities to attract highly educated and liberal parents. For example, Toy R Us now has catalogus with girls playing soccer and boys cooking. In “Frozen,” both princesses are strong and confident women. A prince is not even the final goal of life, and the ultimate power is sisterhood.

The dangerous thing about gender bias is that it creates a terrible gap between being men and being women, so much that these two seem like completely different species. Popular books such as “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” or “Why Men don’t listen and women can’t drive”, or the whole gaga of “male brain” and “female brain,”… etc. completely miss the latest advance in neuroscience and the idea of "brain plasticity". It sells the simplified idea that biological gender identities are hardwired from birth, and if a girl grows up in forest, she would still like pink clothes and wait for a prince to come (fairy tale shows it). Well, truth is, if left in a forest, her best scenario is to be rescued by wolves, and to end up being a feral child who crawls in all four. Culture is the driving force of humankind. It is stronger than genes when it comes to behavioral adaption. In fact, the only thing that separates human and animal is that animal is guided by genes, and humans are mostly guided by a culture. A great book on this subject is Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel, praised by Nature to be the best book written on culture so far.

Evolutionary biology and neuroscience have shown us that there is no such clear biological borderline for gender. Male and female are only two lazy labels we put on to simplify a very dynamic interaction between biology and social environment. In fact, everyone has the potential to become a very complex being, with both male and female stereotypical traits.

Back to our story: So if humans are mainly guided by a culture, why don't we create a culture that has fewer stereotypes and prejudices for children? Instead of letting subconscious biases control us, we can consciously minimize the consequences. A child can play with dolls and learns to care for others, play cooking and learns to help parents with chores, play teacher and learns how to share knowledge and communicate effectively, or play superhuman to understand the value of compassion when having power. These qualities are gender-less. And progressive parents will understand that toys are crucial to carve personality.

Of course, our children will grow up and stereotypes-ridden societies will continue to influence them, just like us and everyone else. No one can escape subconscious bias totally, but we can definitely become AWARE of the fact that we are all under its spell. From then on, we would pay more attention to our words and habits. It can all start with the kind of clothes we dress our children up, or the first toy we put into their hands.
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Tiếng Việt tại A Family

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

When diversity does not mean inclusion


Do Trump supporters include those male white middle-class who feel their resource is being taken away unfairly?

There have been critiques that the benefits received by underrepresented people should not come at the cost of the others. In the graphic, this means that the boxes on which the tall person stood should not be removed and given to the shorter, technically taking away the resource and reducing her status, and hence, potentially causing resentment. In fact, this is backed up by research. In a study where half of the job seekers were informed about the company’s diversity policies and the other half not, white candidates expressed concerns about being treated unfairly in the former condition. In comparison with those who were not informed about the company’s pro-diversity policies, they also made a poorer impression during the interview and endured more stress, as shown by their cardiovascular responses. This suggests that diversity messages can be very sensitive for high status individuals because it triggers identity threats.

At this point, we need to emphasize an important criteria for diversity management, which is inclusion. Organizations should find ways to make all employees feel included and engaged, unless they want to face the burden of “reverse discrimination”, the polarization at work place, the reduced morale and bitterness among those who perceive themselves as being excluded or even victims of the policies. PR “window dressing” diversity programs will not bring in the expected benefit and can be counterproductive for the workplace morale. That is to say, effective diversity management goes hand in hand with significant changes in the organizational philosophy and vision with regard to the role of diversity. This is the ultimate test of an organization’s commitment. It requires the (re)construction of a comprehensive framework for leadership and management, one that can systematically bring down the deep-seated institutional barriers and drive the changes from inside.

On that note, the latest version of our graphic captures nicely this switch of perspective. The existence of the fence creates categories such as “the marginalized” and “the privileged”. It represents the inherent discrimination that is deeply-embedded in the institutional structure and the mindset of the people such as subconscious bias, subtle and micro prejudices, or privileges that have long been taken for granted. Giving support (the boxes) is not the ultimate solution but dismantling the fence which is the root of the problem. When the fence is down, each individual can stand on his own, supporting cost is no more needed, and the view as well as the fun (read. benefit) are much greater.

In another word, true diversity and inclusion effort is about identifying the root causes instead of fixing the symptoms, changing the structure and mindset instead of fixing the people. It is a philosophy of management, and hence, it may requires leaders and decision-makers to constantly challenge their own views and organizations to rethink the whole system.

(This is an excerpt from a textbook on Intercultural Communication I'm writing, which will be published by Amsterdam University Press next year)

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Who will political enemies in Thailand bow down to now the King is dead?


"The King Never Smiles" is an unauthorized biography of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej by Paul M. Handley and is banned in Thailand. It presents a very different view of the King as a willful man prone to violence, fast cars and dubious business deals. In fact, Thai King is the richest monarch in the world, richer than Saudi King, in a country where 11% of the population live under the poverty line.

For the citizens, the King of Thailand is a personification of the country, the unification of a deeply divided people. In the picture, Thai King has two political opponents kneeling down on live TV, urging the then-military government and pro-democracy protesters to negotiate a settlement in 1992. I often use this picture in my Cross-Cultural Management course.

A long time ago, I had a chance to interview princess Sirindhorn. The interview lasted 10-15 minutes, but I had been given a workshop the day before on how to ...knee down in front of the royal.

Now that theKIng has gone, the crown-prince is known to be a playboy (who appointed his poodle Foo Foo an air chief marshal), while the princess who is loved by the people can not take the throne according to palace law. What would be the ultimate power that opposing parties and enemies from both sides of the political boiling pot in Thailand knee down to?

The time of a benevolent guardian is over. It is the time that Thailand should seriously think about why on earth that they have gone down on the bandwagon of one coup d'état and one new constitution every four year.

The King is no more, so enemies can bow down to that ultimate power. That power should now be in the hand of the people.

Democracy index of Thailand: 98/167

Who will political enemies in Thailand bow down to now the King is dead?


Many in the West know about the Thai King through the controversial book "The King Never Smiles" - an unauthorized biography of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej by Paul M. Handley and is banned in Thailand. It presents a very different view of the King as a willful man prone to violence, fast cars and dubious business deals. Thai King is the richest monarch in the world, richer than Saudi King, in a country where 11% of the population live under the poverty line.

But for the citizens, the King of Thailand is a personification of the country, the unification of a deeply divided people. In the picture, Thai King has two political opponents kneeling down on live TV, urging the then-military government and pro-democracy protesters to negotiate a settlement in 1992. I often use this picture in my Cross-Cultural Management course.

Now that he's gone, the crown-prince is known to be a playboy (who appointed his poodle Foo Foo an air chief marshal), while the princess who is loved by the people can not take the throne according to palace law. What would be the ultimate power that opposing parties and enemies from both sides of the political boiling pot in Thailand knee down to?

The time of a benevolent guardian is over. It is the time that Thailand should seriously think about why on earth that they have gone down on the bandwagon of one coup d'état and one new constitution every four year.

The King is gone, and gone as well is the ultimate power that could make political enemies bow down and shake hand in giving cooperation a chance. That power should now be in the hand of the people.

Democracy index of Thailand: 98/167

Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Niqab and My Path Into the Journey of Islam


The opening chapter of my book " Alone, Asian, Atheist in the Middle East", published both in print and online by The Islamic Monthly. If you want to know why I put on a full face veil and threw my life on the road for one year during the Middle East's Arab Spring, here is the reason :-)
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“He who leaveth home in search of knowledge walks in the path of God.”
-Prophet Muhammad

“You are the Ayatollahs of secularism!” 

Laurent Levy could have said that to the school council that refused to let his two French daughters wear the hijab. The teenage Muslim converts fought for their new belief with their father’s support – a liberal and an atheist activist, with a Jewish background. At the school hearing, Levy argued for over six hours, passionately defending his daughters’ right. However, he lost the case as the French law forbids students from wearing “ostentatious” symbols of religion at school.

This story captured my attention in 2003 as I just moved to Holland and Islamophobia was getting intense. In 2002, a left-wing activist murdered anti-Muslim politician Pim Fortuyn. In 2004, a Dutch man with Moroccan origins shot filmmaker Theo Van Gogh eight times, cut his throat and pinned a note of threats to his torso with a dagger. Freedom of speech was reciprocated with freedom of violence.  

Two murders and the backdrop of 9/11 caused half a million Turkish, and Moroccan, people in Holland to be seen as a homogeneous mass. Anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders said the Quran should be banned, headscarves taxed and those wearing the niqab fined, to prevent the country from being Islamized.

 Amidst these waves of fear, I felt lucky to be the perfect “outsider”: a Vietnamese atheist expat. Muslims and native-Dutch citizens find it hard to fit me into any stereotypes of the West vs. Islam discourse, and therefore find it fairly easy to tell me their inner thoughts. It has been a joy to carry the label of neutrality; an interested outsider from a far eastern country, familiar enough to understand diverse cultural patterns, yet distant enough not to be seen as a threat, or someone who readily takes a side.

Then I was dragged into the discussion on the niqab as a mediator between two camps: friends who saw the niqab as a sign of oppression, and those who argued it is a symbol of faith. Shortly after, in one of our frequent gatherings, my Muslim colleague Nailah arrived in a black headscarf. We stared at her, speechless. She looked so different, hardened and tough against the dark fabric contour that covered her ears and neck. Her eyes were intense and alert, but at the same time, so distant from the person we knew. It seemed implausible that a simple garment could make such an impact, and we were all left to do some uncomfortable reflecting.

The fact that Nailah, a woman without a single oppressed bone in her body, decided to adopt the hijab told me that Islamophobia has backfired, causing strong-minded to make a strong and clear statement that it’s their choice to dress however they want. Nailah said that if Geert Wilders pushed through legislation to fine women for wearing niqab in public places she would also veil her entire face.

As my interest in the subject grew, an Indian colleague at the university gave me a wonderful tool that enabled me to continue the investigation with a different approach: a niqab. That evening, with trepidation, I put it on. As I gazed at my own massive black shape filling the bathroom mirror, my heart missed a beat and I felt an adrenaline rush. Through a tiny narrow slit revealing its eyes, a mysterious creature was staring at me. I then rushed to call every friend on my Skype list and filmed their stunned reactions. There was a lot of cursing, high-speed questioning and then (relieved) laughing after they learned they had been framed.   

Inspired by the response, I brought the niqab with me on a holiday in Switzerland. My friend lives in a conservative German-speaking region where the niqab is absolutely not welcome. To me, this sounded as though it could be an interesting place to wear the niqab. A friend volunteered to follow me around with a camera and record the event.
As I walked into downtown Luzern, covered from tip to toe by the black niqab, I felt nervous, excited, and naked. I was completely covered by the flowing niqab, but at the same time brutally exposed to the public because of the unusual outfit. I tried to look calm, knowing this was unnecessary since my whole face was hidden, but my heart continued to thump quickly. I wondered if people could actually look through me, read my thoughts, feel my nerves and silently laugh at my fear. I also felt guilty at the deception, as if I had stolen a faith.

As I merged into the throng of people, I was conscious of stolen, confused and possibly angry looks. Having walked past me, many could not resist quickly turning around and venting their emotion less subtly. A group of elderly women purposely bumped into me from behind and walked straight away, chattering loudly. A man shouted something to my face as he hurried after his dog. A mother grabbed her child’s arm and swung the confused girl away from me as they passed by. In the supermarket, I met a large Muslim woman with a colorful headscarf. She looked up and stared at me with surprise. As I walked by, she stopped picking up tomatoes and followed me through the fruit department, pushing her empty trolley.

Slowly, I started to experience an unpredictable and rapid change inside: I was excited. At the outset, the sensation was of nakedness; now the feeling was of liberation. Very quickly I had realized that nobody could see me while I could see everyone. I was “hidden” and everybody else was “seen,” and thus, vulnerable. In the end, I didn’t have to care who I was in others’ eyes: I was neither beautiful nor ugly; young nor old; chic nor shabby. Nobody could see if I was happy or annoyed or take advantage of any physical or emotional clues I happened to express. There were no reference points that others could ascribe to me, rightly or wrongly. I had become an entity devoid of some earthly human baggage. The contrast of being invisible and visible at the same time was both comforting and exciting. Never before had I been able to tap into the emotions of strangers all around me and my own ego in such a profound way.

That said, I did not have an identity when I was dressed in niqab. In places where the niqab is more prevalent, I would have been just one of many black-robed shapes. This thought struck me as I returned home. I was so numb at the idea that I immediately had to stop and force myself to reason. Why do we need to reveal our physical appearance? Next to nobody would care if I wore jeans or a long dress, looked happy or annoyed. Whenever I don’t have time to do my hair and need to rush out for some groceries, I often cover my face with a pair of massive sunglasses. When it is my turn to pay at the counter, I would take them off and hope no one I know would recognize me.

Of course I could keep the glasses on, but that would be very antisocial and impolite, wouldn’t it? In the end, people don’t care if you wear sunglasses and walk around, but they do care if you have a meaningful conversation while having those glassy shades cover your eyes. Maybe that’s the point. Facial integrity matters the most when people need to communicate with each other. This got me thinking and the chance to test these thoughts revealed itself on the way home.

As I stepped onto a bus, the passengers almost froze looking at me. I approached an empty seat next to a middle-age woman in a glowing silky red suit. I then slowly took off the black veil covering my face, gave her a broad smile, looked straight into her eyes and politely asked: “Madam! May I sit here, please?” 

The woman’s jaw almost dropped. I could feel that everyone in the bus seemed to have the same sense of surprise. For them, I probably did not just take off my veil; I stripped myself naked. The woman gave me a quick nod and I settled in next to her. She uncomfortably tried to fix her gaze outside the window. I looked out as well and spotted soft and misty snowflakes.

“The winter here is much colder than in Holland,” I said, rubbing my freezing nose.
The woman turned to look at me, nodded and then looked away. After a few seconds of silence, she looked at me again, seeking eye contact. I turned to her and smiled. She then pointed to a huge pile of gray snow on the sidewalk and said: “And it is not always romantically white, is it?” We both chuckled, and quickly started to talk cheerfully about weather, traffic, shopping and fashion, at which point she felt comfortable enough to ask the burning question: “I thought those Muslim women who choose to veil would only show their face to family and friends?”

I replied: “But you are my friend now! Are you on Facebook?” 

Back in Amsterdam, I gave my niqab away. I would never deny the empowering experience I had, but I was also convinced that I should be aware of others’ feelings. The reason was simple: people in non-veiling cultures have been accustomed to socializing through facial cues and body languages. Not revealing my face means not giving people enough clues for trust building or hints for action and reaction. The lack of facial expressions instinctively triggers suspicion and withdrawal.

I know the conversation I had with the woman on the bus could never have been so smooth had I kept my face veiled. I wouldn’t mind veiling in a culture where people have become experts on picking up social cues from behind a cover, but I would be reluctant to trade my newfound feelings of empowerment for something so crucial in non-veiling cultures. I’m living in a place where facial cues are sources of effective communication and a template to build trust. In the end, isn’t that the beginning of everything that connects humans with one another? 

The experiment in Luzern helped me to realize that wearing niqab was only way I was able to come close to the heart of the matter: to feel, think and reason with a completely different mind than an observer. As my perception of the niqab changed, I wondered how much of the understanding I had about Islam could also change if I dared to shrug off assumptions and prejudices and walk in someone else’s shoes (or niqab.)

I wrestled with such thoughts until one day, something happened that launched me into action. That day, I came to my class and asked my students to provide words associated with “Islam.” To my gasping surprise, all of them gave “terrorism” as one of their first three entries.

The next day, I went to my manager’ office and announced that I wanted to take a sabbatical in the Middle East. “Middle East?” he asked, eyebrows raised. “Yes, Middle East!”

I could see that my program manager was trying to comprehend why, of all corners of the world, I would choose such a volatile one. I started to share my experience and intention for the sabbatical. As we talked, a few pale hairs on his bald head sprang up like curious antennas. Later, as he walked me to the door, he could not resist throwing in some comments that helped explain his few moments of speechlessness: “Well, I’m jealous, you know! But I’m worried too! Come back in one piece please!”

After my niqab experience, some people I met would say, “Oh! So you are the crazy girl who terrorized the poor old folk in Switzerland.” However, that fascination frequently turned into confusion when they heard about my Middle East plans: “Don’t you think it is too early to have a midlife crisis?” “As a thirty-something unmarried girl, you are supposed to (re)read Bridget Jones’s Diary or Eat, Pray, Love.” “But you are Vietnamese! And you’re female.” “Why Islam?", "Why the Middle East?",  "Why now?”

Indeed, nothing explicitly links a yellow-skinned, single, atheist Vietnamese woman with a prophet in the Arabian desert in the seventh century. It seemed that my birthplace and gender predestined me live as a stereotypical Asian person: study hard, work hard, marry a lawyer, give birth to two more Asians and stay away from trouble. The privilege of discovering the world, exploring unknown paths, pursuing individual passions and embarking on unusual missions are reserved for the white man. I reckon if I were a tall Dutch guy with similar interests and excitement on the subject, fewer people would think my sabbatical was weird.

As I slowly revealed my travel route, many friends became worried. It involved some of the countries that convince the world that hell is real and it is on Earth. They couldn’t comprehend why a girl would want to wander alone in a place where they believed the sound of gunshots is more frequent than the sound of laughter; where news is inevitably of conflict, terrorism and kidnappings; where a drop of wine is enough to put someone in jail; where music is banned; where women are supposed to walk five meters behind their men; where “infidels” like me deserve a place in the hell fire. All in all, I would do much better to stay where I was, according to them, being a good lecturer and telling my students good stories.

As I packed my bags, the Arab Spring was making miraculous changes across the Middle East. Three of the countries on my travel map were without governments, one was practically at war, and protests and conflicts characterized the daily life of the whole region. There weren’t going to be many holidaymakers on this trip.

But I was full of excitement and anticipation. My heart raced whenever I contemplated my journey to the very heart of Islam. In the desert of Saudi Arabia, a religion was born, and went on to conquer much of the world. Like the spreading wings of a powerful eagle, Islamic warriors headed west, across northern Africa and deep into Europe. Muslims put the glorious Persian Empire under the shadow of their wing in the east, and crossed through India reaching the heart of Asia. This was what I wanted to explore, following this route of conquest, city by city, first westward, then eastward. I spent long days and nights reading the timeline of Islam’s conquest, linking all the main battles together. I was overwhelmed to find that nobody seemed to have documented traveling this route before. The thought was energizing, and I became impatient, restless even.

I didn’t tell my family about the journey. My mother thought I was sipping tea in my sunny Amsterdam apartment while I was aboard a plane to Saudi Arabia, watching a TV show in which an Imam was explaining why young faithful Muslims can absolutely marry without love.

As the plane took off, my heart throbbed loudly and my mind numbed with excitement. The man next to me smiled, reached out his hand and introduced himself as an Indian businessman working in Jeddah. We talked and he was amused with my travel plan. I shared with him the mantra I have been telling myself: “I come from the East, live in the West, and now am trying to understand the Middle. Must be quite a fortunate balance, mustn’t it?” We high-fived.

And so my journey along the path of Islam as an Asian atheist woman began.

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Đây là chương mở đầu của Con Đường Hồi Giáo. PM trích lại một đoạn bằng tiếng Việt nhé. Bản tiếng Anh thú thực là phải viết lại gần như hoàn toàn vì logic suy nghĩ và nền tảng cảm thụ của bạn đọc mỗi nền văn hoá vô cùng khác nhau. Viết song ngữ mới thấy dịch thuật quả là một công việc khủng khiếp, vì vừa khó, vừa không bao giờ có thể đảm bảo tinh thần của ngôn ngữ được chuyển tải chính xác. Tác phẩm viết là sứ giả của một nền văn hoá, ta chỉ có thể cảm thụ được tác phẩm viết đúng nhất khi nền văn hoá đó là một phần trải nghiệm của chính mình.
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Sếp tôi là một anh trung niên hói đầu. Những gã tóc vàng hói đầu thường rất khó che giấu cảm xúc. Thứ nhất là lông mày không có tóc mái che đậy nên vui buồn gì cũng để lồ lộ ra. Mấy ông cảnh sát không phải vô căn cứ mà được đì-zai toàn kiểu mũ che sụp chùm kín lông mày để tạo cảm giác công tư phân minh của các nhà chức trách. Thứ hai là làn da đầu mong manh dễ tổn thương của mấy gã tóc vàng cứ hễ cảm xúc động đậy là lập tức đổi màu. Như bây giờ đây, sếp giương lông mày nhìn tôi, mấy sợi tóc tơ trên chỏm da hồng lựng dựng đứng lên như một khóm ăng ten.
Rồi sếp băn khoăn nguệch bút vào giấy xin nghỉ không lương của tôi, nghỉ hẳn gần một năm. Lúc tiễn tôi ra cửa, không kìm được, sếp phọt ra một câu: “Tôi vừa ghen tỵ vừa lo lắng cho cô. Come back in one piece please!” (Trở về nguyên xi một mảnh, đừng có sứt mẻ gì nhé!)
Trước hôm lên đường hai tuần, Shree, một đồng nghiệp gửi tặng tôi một bộ áo choàng đen và khăn đen trùm đầu. Tôi mặc thử, soi vào gương hết hồn khi nhìn thấy bản thân. Bọn bạn trên skype hú lên kinh hoàng khi tôi tiếp chuyện chúng nó chỉ lộ hai con mắt. Nhân dịp sang thăm Ngọc, con bạn nối khố ở Thụy Sĩ để chào nó trước khi biệt tăm cả năm, tôi vận nguyên xi bộ đồ niqab tiến thẳng vào trung tâm mua bán Luzern, tim đập thùm thụp cầu trời cho cảnh sát không tóm cổ vì niqab che kín mặt đã bị cấm hoàn toàn. Chưa bao giờ cuộc sống quanh tôi thay đổi khủng khiếp đến thế. Những ánh mắt nghi kỵ, những cái nhíu mày giận giữ, những cái ngoái cổ kinh hoàng. Một nhóm phụ nữ luống tuổi cố tình đi đâm sầm vào tôi từ phía sau. Một người đàn ông dắt chó quát vào mặt tôi cáu kỉnh. Một bà mẹ kéo xệch con gái mình tránh xa khỏi tôi như một con bệnh hủi. Lang thang gần hai tiếng quanh Luzern, khi tôi đã quên phéng mình đang trùm khăn kín mặt thì những ánh mắt kỳ thị luôn làm tôi phải nhớ rằng mình là kẻ dị dạng.
Tám tháng trước khi lên đường, công cuộc xin visa Saudi của tôi bắt đầu. Saudi không xuất thị thực cho khách du lịch. Đất nước đóng cửa hoàn toàn. Chỉ có hai nhóm người chủ yếu có thể nhập cảnh Saudi: công việc và tín đồ hành hương. Toàn bộ hai thành phố Mecca và Medina thậm chí chỉ dành cho người Hồi giáo. Trên đường cao tốc tới địa phận hai thành phố này có đặt những tấm biển báo lớn “Muslims only”. Một người bạn của tôi bông đùa bảo cách duy nhất để tôi có thể vào Mecca là kết bạn với một trong những công chúa hoàng tử của vua Saudi và trốn trong cốp xe Mercedes của họ.
Hàng chục email gửi đến đại sứ quán Saudi không tăm hơi, hàng chục cú điện thoại không người trả lời. Quay trở về Hà Lan là tôi gõ cửa đại sứ quán. Tiếp đón tôi rất vui vẻ là một nhân viên của đại sứ. Ông yêu cầu tôi về chuẩn bị một bản tường trình rõ ràng mục đích của việc xin visa. Tôi hoàn thành trong một ngày, hớn hở vì nhận được một cuộc hẹn với Thư ký thứ nhất của đại sứ quán. Cuộc gặp rất vui vẻ trơn tru và tôi được yêu cầu viết thêm nhiều bản tường trình khác. Tập hồ sơ tôi gửi đến đại sứ quánĐS dày gần 50 chục trang với đầy đủ tên họ, địa chỉ, nơi chốn của những người tôi muốn gặp, những nơi tôi muốn đến thăm. Ông Thư ký tiếp nhận hồ sơ rất lịch sự, bảo rằng, cô cứ chờ khoảng 2 tháng nữa, có-khi-may-ra-thì- được.
Và trong khi chờ thì tôi gặp George.
George là người Đức, tóc vàng mắt xanh, nhưng cải đạo sang Hồi giáo từ khi anh mới hơn 20 tuổi và sang Saudi làm việc. Tôi ghét George từ cái nhìn đầu tiên. Anh phá lên cười sằng sặc khi biết về dự án của tôi. Rồi anh bảo: “Cô em ơi! Làm sao mà cô lại mơ đặt được chân vào Saudi? Cô vẫn còn ở tuổi sinh đẻ mà!”
Tôi đờ người vì ngạc nhiên. Gì? George hí hửng tiếp: “Phụ nữ ở Saudi không được phép lái xe, đi khám bệnh phải được đàn ông trong nhà cho phép, ra ngoài đường phải có đàn ông đi cùng. Cô em đặt chân đến sân bay mà không có người ra đón thì có visa cũng đừng hòng được nhập cảnh. Với lại, nói thêm cho cô em biết, người châu Á ở Saudi rất bị coi thường vì toàn là dân lao động làm thuê. Đàn bà châu Á thì bị coi như là con điếm cả lượt mà thôi! Hỏi tò mò chút, cô em thừa tiền hay sao mà lại đi vác tù và hàng tổng thế này?”
Tôi chưa bao giờ ghét ai lâu như George. Ghét hẳn mấy tiếng liền cho đến tận lúc chào ra về sau cả một buổi tối cố sức khiến cho một kẻ thiển cận như George hiểu rằng trên đời có những chuyến đi hoàn toàn không vụ lợi cá nhân. Một thương nhân tầm thường như George không thể tiêu thụ được cái sự thật là một cô gái Việt Nam (rất không liên quan!) đã lao động cực nhọc suốt gần một năm qua, không mua một xu quần áo mới, trở thành một kẻ bủn xỉn vắt cổ chày ra nước để dành tiền cho một chuyến đi nhiều hiểm nguy hơn vui thú, một chuyến đi không hề liên quan gì đến niềm tin tôn giáo của cá nhân cô ấy, cũng không phải do sự đồng thuận văn hóa, hoặc thậm chí cũng chẳng phải là đòi hỏi công việc. Một chuyến đi chỉ đơn thuần với một mục đích để hiểu biết, và nếu gặp kẻ cùng kênh thì chia sẻ sự hiểu biết ấy đến mọi người. Đơn giản bởi cô ấy tin rằng Trung Đông không chỉ có thuốc súng mà còn có phấn hoa, không chỉ có chiến trận mà còn có dạ vũ hoan ca.
Hợp đồng thuê nhà ở Amsterdam của tôi hết hạn trước khi tôi kịp nhận thêm bất kể thông tin gì từ đại sứ quán Saudi. Tôi quyết định rời Hà Lan, và trong khi chờ đợi thì lang thang ở Ấn Độ nơi cuộc sống tôn giáo và tâm linh có lẽ đậm đặc nhất trong tất cả những vùng đất tôi từng đặt chân qua. Vả lại, cuộc sống rẻ mạt ở những ngôi làng nhỏ quanh Mumbai tiết kiệm cho tôi khá nhiều tiền thay vì phải trả khoản thuê nhà cắt cổ ở Amsterdam. Thêm nữa là Mumbai cách Jeddah chỉ một chuyến bay thẳng.
Có hôm vào facebook, tôi thấy George check-in một shop đồ hiệu nổi tiếng của Amsterdam. Tôi biết anh ta đang lùng mua một bộ khuy cài cổ tay áo trị giá gần bằng cả năm tôi làm việc. Chỉ một cái cúc trong bộ khuy ấy thôi là đủ để hất đi gánh nặng tiền nong trên vai tôi cho ngân sách cả một nửa dự án vẫn còn trống hoác và một vài đồ tác nghiệp chưa tìm được người tài trợ. Nhưng tôi không ghét George nữa, chỉ thấy thương hại cho một thương gia tầm thường với tiểu xảo cải đạo nhỏ mọn để được chấp nhận và có thể chiếm dụng lòng tin dễ dàng trong xã hội Trung Đông nơi niềm tin tôn giáo còn thiêng liêng hơn cả tình máu mủ.
Bởi tôi biết còn có rất nhiều điều thiêng liêng hơn niềm tin tôn giáo, ấy là niềm tin vào sự ràng buộc cội rễ của giống loài; vào sự giống nhau giữa người với người hơn là sự khác biệt về đức tin; vào lòng tốt; vào sự đồng cảm và hướng thiện.
Tôi tin là một khi đặt chân đến Trung Đông, với trái tim này mở toang không che giấu, những người Hồi rồi cũng sẽ mở lòng với tôi – một cô gái Việt Nam vô thần.
(Trích chương 1- Khởi Đầu Gian Nan)
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Note 1: Tôi vẫn chưa thể đặt chân vào Saudi đúng nghiã ngoại trừ vài tiếng transit ở sân bay với trải nghiệm bị quấy rối tình dục.
Note 2: Shree, người tặng tôi chiếc niqab đã qua đời cách đây hai năm. Anh bị mắc bệnh ung thư, nhưng trong những tháng cuối cùng của đời mình vẫn đăng ký học Tiến Sĩ. Khát khao kiến thức đến hơi thở cuối cùng, Shree không chỉ là một đồng nghiệp tuyệt vời, anh là chiếc là cuối cùng trên cái cây của O Henri, đến phút chót vẫn mãnh liệt gửi đi cho đời một thông điệp sống nhân văn, làm người có ích cho đến khi tan vào tro bụi.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Yemen is a forgotten Syria

Published on Your Middle East
As you are reading this article, Yemen is in a state of despair. Five years after the Arab Spring, the country has gone from an impressive revolution to a leaderless state. When the new President, who had been elected in 2012, failed to create consensus among the country’s many fractions, the Houthi militants in North Yemen transformed from a separatist group into a fierce force of rebellion, advancing towards the south, forcing President Hadi out of office, and consolidating power while the President had to live in exile. As the Sunni Saudi Arabia has never been comfortable with the Shia Houthis right next to their border, a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen to defend the chased-off President. More than 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict within one year, half of them civilians. Everyday, 8 children die as the world looks on. Yet, Yemen rarely makes the front news. A Yemeni girl brutally pointed out: “We have little oil, we are the poorest country in the Middle East, and the bully is Saudi – an ally of the West. So, here we are dying, and nobody bats an eye”.   

A PREY CALLED YEMEN
Back in 2012, although the dictator was overthrown, fear still lingered. Like a patient after a painful operation, Yemen laid bare before eyes. Every inch of its body was vibrating in a rhythm both hopeful and nervous. Victory was in the air but reality worried even the most optimistic soul. And up until this moment, it hasn’t gotten any better.
It is poverty, to start with. Long gone was the time when ancient Yemen was so wealthy from the spice trade that the Romans called the land Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia). Yemen is now the most impoverished country among the Arabs: Half of the population is trapped below the poverty line. The ongoing violence and blockage have resulted in a humanitarian crisis with 80% of the population in need of assistance, more than half the population are food insecure, and millions of children have been deprived of education. 
The fact that Yemen has an average of 6.2 births per family is not helping either. Some even consider family planning methods such as contraception as the devil’s work, secretly meant to wipe out future generations. Being an extremely conservative country, just a tad below Saudi Arabia, 14% of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 15, and 52% before the age of 18. Nearly 65% of Yemeni women are illiterate. Conservative interpretations of Yemen's revised constitution, which calls women "sisters of men", set the tone for gender discrimination. The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index ranked Yemen's disparities among the world's worst positions in education, health, and economic and political life.
The current war aside, the situation has worsened by a staggering rate of unemployment with 60-70% of Yemen’s youth wandering around without a paid job. With 70% of the population under 25, the country is a ticking time bomb. Another gloomy day is also waiting just down the road when the oil reserves that Yemen is so heavily dependent on will be depleted in 2017, and Yemen will be the world’s first country to run out of water in the next decade.

The list continues with a protracted Syrian conflict that has brought about 100.000 Syrian refugees to Yemen, adding to the swelling population of 2 million refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia. In a country teeming with poverty and conflict, they seem to be “jumping out of the frying pan into the fire”. Since the Arab coalition launched air strikes in March 2015, Syrian refugees have been back to square one, being catapulted into the same type of conflict they were fleeing.
However, what really makes Yemen vulnerable is how the country has always been a battlefield for proxy war between regional powers. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has been casting a shadow over Yemen for decades. A report of NOREF summarizes the troublesome relationship between Yemen and its northern neighbor:
“Keep Yemen weak”, King ‘Abd al-’Aziz allegedly advised his sons on his deathbed in 1953. Saudi Arabia’s founding father had fought against Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din for control of Yemen’s Northern provinces, which eventually became part of Saudi Arabia after a war in 1934. The imam was forced to sign the Ta’if Treaty, which meant that the Yemeni provinces Asir, Jizan and Najran became part of Saudi Arabia. However, the treaty contained an unusual clause: it had to be renewed every 20 years… Until the border dispute was solved permanently in 2000, Riyadh preferred a weak regime in Sanaa in order to secure the upper hand in the renegotiations of the Taif Treaty.
Saudi Arabia opposed the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, and when the country united, Saudi funded insurgent groups. Many tribes remained on Saudi payroll. Long before the revolution, Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative brand of Wahhabism alreadyflourished in the birthplace and heartlands of Shia’s Zaydi. Religion aside, Saudi is always concerned about its unruly neighbors who at any given time can claim the historical right to regain land that is said to have been “sold” to the powerful Saudi royals in rather shady circumstances. Those lands turned out to hide in their bellies vast reserves of oil. Saudi can single handedly influence the Yemeni economy just by a simple move on the policies of labor import which will expel thousands of Yemeni guest workers and deal a big blow to the ailing economy. In his book After the Arab Spring, John Bradley pointed out that it is in Saudi’s interest to have Yemen kept in a state of semi-poverty, “not too strong, not too weak”, a barely functioning state with relatively strong central government. This way, Yemen stays pro-West, remains a safe oil transfer route, easy to manipulate, and poses no threat to the Kingdom next door.
It’s a cunning political game, and also a dangerous one to play. The current Saudi-led attack on Yemen proves that this country is not an easy prey. Historically, Yemen was ruled by successive Imams from the Zaydi (Shia) sect for over 1,000 years, up until 1962 when Nasser-inspired military officers led a coup in an attempt to overthrow the Zaydis and establish a republic. The Imam was eventually toppled, despite the support of Saudi, who ironically backed the Shia Imam since it didn’t want Yemen to be a republic. In a twist of history, the very Shia militias who Saudi pumped arms and money into now form the backbone of the Houthi Shia rebels Saudi Arabia is desperate to quash. If this sounds familiar, it is because it reminds us of how the U.S. used to support the mujahidin in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet Union, and soon after found out that the very same rebels later became Al Qaeda. Making strange bedfellows based on the wisdom of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” can backfire quite painfully it seems. 
Yemen has a special make-up where the Shia and Sunni populations are divided loosely half-half. This sectarian line naturally draws Saudi and Iran to compete in their never-ending battle for influence. Although never engaging in a face-off directly, they seek to exploit the turmoil in countries with Shia-Sunni split such as Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen to further their geological reach. It is conventional knowledge that while Saudi bombs the Shia Houthis, Iran arms them. For the last two years, Iran has even been working with the Sunni Hirak movement in southern Yemen and militarily supporting it in its calls for independence of a Southern state. If Yemen is divided again and the independent South becomes Iran’s ally, Iran will be in complete control of Bab al-Mandab and the Straight of Hormuz, which serve as main chokepoints for global oil shipping, access to the Red Sea and the Suez Channel, which are chokeholds on the global economy– all in all, quite the compensation in case Syria falls.
Saudi Arabia certainly wants to blame Iran as the aggressor for supporting the Shia Houthis. However, despite the sectarian tone, the conflict is unmistakably a national power struggle. The Houthis have long been voicing their grievances as they suffer the socio-economic marginalization and political oppression by the Sunni government, exacerbated by the strong influx of Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi propaganda. Saudi Arabia may want to make the world think that it is saving a country from rebel attack, but in fact, it is capitalizing on Yemen’s internal conflict to maintain its grip of influence. This is first and foremost a Yemeni civil war, in which Saudi and other Gulf states have chosen to dramatically intervene.
Last but not least, being the ancestor land of Bin Laden, Yemen not only gives him a wife but has also become a training camp for Al-Qaeda. Since the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1989, Islamist radicals have awarded Yemen a special status due to its miserable poverty, extreme tribal makeup, lack of central authority, uncontrollable arm markets, and the location of a crucial route for oil transfer. The government is fully aware of this danger, but officials admit that the security apparatus has been infiltrated, not so much for ideological reasons but because their low salaries make members of the security apparatus vulnerable to bribery.
In the current war, Al-Qaeda has been benefiting from the chaos and gaining control of three provincial capitals, robbing banks, capturing army camps, tanks, airfields, a presidential palace, oil facilities and flying their black banners on governmental buildings. They also released 300 inmates from the prison, including top Al-Qaeda commanders. 
GUN CULTURE
On the night of election day back in 2012, I cruised voting points in Sanaa with a senior Yemeni politician. It was clear that he was known and powerful. Through his connections, I had a rare chance to talk in privacy with Yemen’s former Prime Minister Abdul Karim Ali Al-Iryani, the UN envoy of negotiation, Jamal Bin Omar, and the Minister of Finance, Jalal Omar Yaqoub. I knew that he was very close to Saleh and that he himself was badly injured during Saleh’s failed assassination in 2011 as he was standing near the former President. He showed me the massive burns on his shoulder and belly. But instead of his wound, I was instantly captured by a short gun tucked neatly under his shirt.
As we came back to his house to have a drink with some friends while waiting for news of the election, he emerged from the bar, one hand holding a glass of wine and the other a Russian Kalashnikov. As I reached for the wine, he handed me the rifle instead and half jokingly asked if I knew how to use one: “Just in case! The election has been quite peaceful but I have received death threats so many times that I’d better be prepared”.

Photo: The rifle I was offered for self-safety stands next to me during my visit on the day of the election.
Obviously, I was not the only one who had to deal with the cultural shock brought by the massive amount of weapons carried by civilians. Some 30 kilometers southeast of Sanaa, Jihana is renowned as Yemen’s biggest arm market. In the village, weapons are displayed in much the same way as apples on a fruit stall. It does not take much time to arm oneself to the teeth with sniper rifles, Libyan black rifles, pistols, AK47s, M16s, glocks, bazookas, tank artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and nearly anything except the actual tanks and aircrafts. My friends generously promised to buy me a Chinese Kalashnikov for just a few hundred dollars. I politely refused the favor. With the current conflict, arm markets have become ever more popular and the gun culture has dangerously fueled the civil war.
In Yemen, it is estimated that there are 60 million firearms for a population of 25 million. Children and women apart, each adult Yemeni man stocks at home and tucks around his belt up to 10 pieces of weaponry, and that is excluding the ornamental dagger (jambiyas) that is an essential part of the traditional Yemeni outfit. Political science professor Ahmed al-Kibsi has said: “Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun”.
For the Yemeni, guns have joined daggers as markers of social status and prestige. They are not merely instruments of hunting, defense and attack, but symbols of status, power, manhood, responsibility, wealth and honor, and, to a certain extent, similar to the wearing of swords in Europe. Many fathers would rush to the weapon market and proudly bring home a gun for his newborn son. A boy will remain a boy until he gets his first weapon. It is then quite understandable that children here sneer at the plastic made-in-China gun toys. In a mountain area near Sanaa, at the sight of my approach, two boys jumped and fired their AK47 into the sky. I was speechless, but immediately assured by my friends that the boys were just excited to see the return of the first tourists, very much the same as when men punctuated weddings and all sorts of celebrations with joyous outbursts of automatic gunfire in the air. As we passed by, the boys broadly smiled at me and excitedly waved their hands with two fingers forming a V – victory and peace. Unfortunately, the ongoing civil war has pushed many boys like them to the frontlines. A UNICEF representative in Yemen said thatone-third of fighters in the armed groups are children.

The Kalashnikov culture started when the rival colonial forces of the Ottoman and British empires brought a large quantity of weapons to Yemen. When the British left and southern Yemen embraced communism, the Cold War resulted in a proxy war in Yemen with large numbers of weapons entering both the north (the US and Saudi Arabia) and south (the Soviet Union). When the country was unified in 1994, most of the stockpiles of Soviet small arms disappeared into the hand of civilians. Yemen remains a battle field for another proxy war between the US and Iran, with the former investing heavily in Yemeni military to wipe out Al-Qaeda, and the latter allegedly funding Sunni separatists in the south, this time not because they share religious ideologies but a shared interest in the vision of an independent Southern state.
Understandably, Yemen is often perceived as a culture of unrest and fear. However, the Yemeni deem themselves fortunate to be able to arm and protect themselves from a corrupted government and the very brutal ongoing conflict. Under any dictatorship, a civilian is at risk of being taken away by the government’s security forces but this is not the case in Yemen. Each household is loaded with weapons and even a child can pull the trigger. A reportconducted in 2013 by the Yemen Polling Center shows that although Yemenis perceive the state’s security establishment as notoriously ineffective, doused with criminal activities if not virtually absent, 48% of respondents throughout the country feel “always safe,” while 28% feel “mostly safe”. In the Northern governorate of Saada, the center of the Houthis, close to 80% of respondents evaluated their personal security situation as either “good” or “very good” while 100% of respondents indicated that there was not a single police station in the Saada governorate.
The reason for this phenomenon, according to the report, is that Yemenis’ perception of the security situation obviously does not correspond with the Western perception of a failed state:
People throughout Yemen perceive tribal social structures as a largely efficient provider of personal security. The unwritten rules of tribal society (qabyala) envelope mechanisms of informal litigation and strengthen the role of tribal elders (shaykhs) and local committees for conflict resolution and prevention. People feel safe whenever the traditional social fabrics of Yemeni society remain intact, despite serious conflicts that may arise between their community and the central government. . . For protection, while 41% would rely on themselves, 22% mentioned police and the same percentage resorted to tribal shaykhs.
The stark contrast between the stereotypically violent portrayals of Yemeni tribal people can also be seen through a matter that is commonly associated with violence: kidnapping. Adam Baron described in an article how civil a kidnapping’s negotiation process actually was between the representatives of the kidnapper and the victim’s family. The mediator organized daily meetings in a decorated sitting room that looks exactly like any regular social gathering to chew qat – the leafy narcotic typically functions as a social lubricant in Yemen. The men discussed politics as well as the kidnap’s solutions in an atmosphere of mutual respect, of course with rifles always held at their sides as status symbols. Meanwhile, the hostage had been held for nearly two months. There were no fears regarding his treatment – he was being treated as an honored guest, anything less would bring shame to the kidnapper’s tribe.

Baron concluded that for centuries – if not millennia – tribal custom, more than religious or governmental law, has been the foundation of order in much of Yemen. In the absence of a strong state, most rural Yemenis place greater trust in tribal forms of arbitration than in the governmental version. Looking at the bright side, we can only hope that this code of honor and tribal law have somehow helped the civilians to bear the brunt of the complete anarchy of the current civil war.
THE PEACE THAT NEVER CAME
Many journalists in Yemen in 2012 would kill to have the luck that fell into my hands just one day after the election. In a casual private gathering, I had the honor to meet Jamal Bin Omar – the UN envoy who orchestrated the negotiation process in Yemen. Omar’s mission started when the whole country was on the verge of being capitulated altogether after three decades of economic and social mismanagement. The government had three insurgencies to deal with plus a mass protest on the streets. The only solution was an initiative brokered by the Gulf to grant Saleh a safe exit in exchange for giving up power, but three times in a row, Saleh agreed and then refused to sign at last minute. Two thousand people had died in the conflict. That was the situation when Omar stepped in. He admitted that the whole negotiation process was exhausted; his secretary said it felt hopeless. The mosque near to where he stayed even called on his name the whole night in a desperate prayer for the success of his effort to bring the madness to an end. I wondered if Omar could sleep at all. I did ask and he just smiled.
Then somehow, madness was brought to an end in a way that surprised even the most optimistic person. In our talk, Omar was particularly impressed about the genuine desire for peace from the Yemeni people. Back in 2012, it was the first and the only transition of power so far in which the dictator was patiently persuaded to peacefully withdraw from office with a mutual agreement. Extremely lethal weaponry was laid down and Yemeni protesters wrapped a pink ribbon around their heads and over their shoulders. Pink represents “love”: it was a signal of peaceful intent. “There must be something very special in the make-up of the people here,” Omar’s secretary Cathy explained to me. “They may scare the hell out of you with the loads of weapon they carry around, but they genuinely just want peace!”
Unfortunately, that optimism failed to match the reality. The end of Saleh’s dictatorship was like a happy fairytale ending as he was given a full amnesty. All crimes he committed were dropped. Plusa museum was dedicated to document his 33 years in power, located in a wing of a mosque named in his honor where he was respectably addressed as “His Excellency the leader”. However, this strategy failed miserably. Saleh refused to leave politics, and in the current conflict, he sides with the Houthis.
All in all, after the revolution, Yemen is now even more uncertain and vulnerable than it has ever been. Together with poverty and refugees, three military forces (the Shia Houthis, the government, and Al-Qaeda) tear the country apart. Besides, regional powers keep pressing their teeth deep into its shrinking oil fields. Yemen in transition is open for all, a prey chased by its multiple predators and its own multiple diseases – a tragedy which makes no headline.
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