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”.   

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. 
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.
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.
Tiếng Việt ở đây 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The cultural appropriation Google and million others are going to make on Feb 8

Let me make it quick and clear, that is to say it is the Chinese New Year. 

On Feb 8th, nearly two billion Asians will celebrate their traditional spring festival, welcoming a new year according to their lunar calendar. And guess what, millions of Korean, Vietnamese, Singaporean and Japanese are supposed to be thankful when people wish them a good … Chinese New Year (!) 

For most non-Chinese Asian living broad, it is their usual if not daily experience to be greeted “Ni hao”, to be assumed Chinese without even asked, or worse, to be wished a Happy Chinese New Year. If some dare to claim they are not Chinese, people often brush it off: “Oh dear, you guys look the same anyway” — a comment supposed to be understood as cute. Some others get offended, completely oblivious to the fact that they had offended others in the first place: “I’m giving you a blessing! Be thankful! You are supposed to appreciate it”.

Most Asian are natural at hiding their emotion by a physical facial shield: a smile. It takes a cultural expert or a very well-traveled person to decode the meaning of each smile. So, terribly offended as they are, what they give the offender is a gentle smile, while their stomach churn with annoyance, anger or disgust.

Every February my Japanese friend Masako received a handful of festive postcards from various business partners and colleagues. Some of them are completely ignorant of the complex history between the two countries or the ongoing territory dispute, and temporarily re-branded her identity as Chinese. Once, she had enough of it and silently stepped out of a potential trade deal. 

For two other Vietnamese friends of mine, being wished a happy Chinese New Year is like getting salt rubbed on a fresh would. Some of their family members were killed in the 1978 war with the Chinese, and another 19 year old cousin is now serving as an infantry in one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea. 

Yet, some people may argue that the lunisolar calendar was created by the Chinese, so all countries who celebrate lunar new year should just swallow the hard truth. However, many cultures in the world used lunisolar calendar such as the Hebrew, Hindu, Kurdish, Germanic, pre-Islamic Arabia, or the ancient Hellenic, Coligny, Babylonian. Lunisolar calendar has been developed, evolved, used, changed and adapted by many great cultures, including the Chinese, with their oldest calendar dated 4000 years ago. The cyclic turn of 12 animal signs based on the old Sino-Turkish system is still being debated among scholars on which was earlier: the Turkish 12 animal calendar or the Chinese one. Many sinologists think it is of Turkish origin, and the Chinese borrowed it at later stage. Great as they are, the Chinese did not single-handedly create lunisolar calendar, but have a unique calculation method that influences many other Asian communities in the moment of celebrating new season. 

The same counts for solar calendar, which was firstly used by the Egyptian, and then developed into Hellenistic and Julian, and finally Gregorian calendar. Still, we do not raise the glass and say: “Happy Egyptian/or Hellenistic/ or Roman new year”, do we? Re-branding the lunar new year as the Chinese new year is akin to forcing the majority of the world to celebrate Roman new year every January 1st. 

Ironically, there is no such term as Chinese New Year. Even the Chinese themselves call it the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year. The new name started with the Chinese communities oversea and has been promoted to strengthen the Chinese cultural soft power worldwide. By claiming and taking away the shared cultural asset of many other Asian ethnicities, the name is a new product, a by-product, and an inappropriate product of globalization.

The Korean, Vietnamese and many Asian communities celebrate their new year by saying: “Happy Lunar new year”. For foreigners with good intention, it is wise to remember that good intention does not justify ignorance. It is unfair to turn a shared cultural tradition into the property of a majority and influential population, hence, stripping the more marginalized cultures of their own right of heritage.
In the end, it is not about who created what, but also about respect in a world so diverse. It is simply incomprehensible to wish a non-Chinese person a happy Chinese new year. Strictly speaking, it is not even entirely correct to give such a greeting to a Chinese since the Chinese alone don’t monopolize the celebration of the Lunisolar or Lunar new year. The non-Chinese Asians share the calendar, but do not borrow the Chinese tradition. Similarly, a great part of the world share the Gregorian calendar, but do not borrow new year's traditions from each other. 

If any of us still don't get the picture, imagine every year you would receive greeting cards of Happy Roman new year, the fireworks in your country will celebrate Happy Roman new year, and you will hug and kiss your loved ones will genuine blessing for a happy Roman new year. Don't feel quite right, do you? 

Kudo to Obama, NY mayor, Huffpost, SBS Australia and many other European media who ran that headline in 2015 and start to acknowledge their diverse readers, clients and audience, that not all Asian looking face are Chinese. Thumb down to many metropolitant cities (including my home town Amsterdam who is so proud of its international poplation) but not so inclusive in its thinking by boasting a big Chinese new year event and therefore exclude and offende its many other inhabiants. Shame for Google who is so wellknown for diversity policies, but in 2015 was not culturally competent enough to feel the obvious blunder. Can’t blame, it’s just an engine!
(Đăng laị status facebook năm 2013)

Thật không gì khó chiụ băǹg mỗi dịp Tết ̣đến là laị bị chúc năm mới TRUNG QUỐC vui vẻ. 

Nhiều bạn lý luận lịch âm dương -lunisolar- do người Trung Quốc sáng tạo ra nên nói ăn Tết Tàu là đúng rồi. Lý do này sai. Âm lịch không do người Trung Quốc sáng tạo ra. Các hệ thống lịch lunisolar hoặc lunar (tức là âm lịch hoàn toàn) được dùng trong nhiều nền văn hóa cổ khác nhau. Hệ thống 12 con giáp cũng đang được tranh luận là bắt đầu từ lịch của người Thổ và sau đó người TQ mượn lại để phát triển cao hơn. Kết luận tạm thời là lịch âm-dương cổ có từ rất lâu, và mỗi nền văn minh lớn cũng như mỗi nền văn hóa nhỏ lại dựa vào đó để phát triển, thay đổi cho phù hợp.

Người TQ có thể không sáng tạo ra lịch âm dương, nhưng có nền văn hóa mạnh nên CÁCH TÍNH lịch của họ ảnh hưởng đến cách tính lịch của nhiều nước châu Á khác. Suy ra, người Việt và nhiều nền văn hóa châu Á đón năm mới theo lịch âm có CÁCH TÍNH ảnh hưởng từ TQ, chứ chưa chắc đã phải lịch của TQ. 

Những nền văn hóa/tôn giáo lớn khởi đầu một tập tục văn hóa, sau đó tập tục văn hóa đó vượt biên giới quốc gia, được phổ cập ra các vùng rộng lớn hơn là điều rất bình thường. Chúng ta cảm ơn những nền văn hóa/ văn minh/tôn giáo đó, ghi nhận sự đóng góp cho nhân loại. Khi đã vượt ra ngoài ranh giới quốc gia thì nó đã trở thành tài-sản-văn-hóa-chung. Ai ai khi sử dụng cũng có nghĩa vụ trân trọng ghi nhận nguồn gốc của tài sản văn hóa đó, nhưng không nhất nhất phải chèn tên của nền văn minh/tôn giáo gốc/nguyên thủy vào mỗi dịp tập tục văn hóa đó được thực hiện. Vi vậy, se rat vo duyen khi nói với người Nhật, người Việt, người Hàn, Mông Cổ và hàng trăm nhánh cộng đồng khác là "chúng mày ăn tết Trung Quốc vui vẻ nhé". 

Lịch dương Gregorian là kết quả của sự phát triển từng bước từ lịch dương Ai Cập cổ, rồi đến Hy Lạp cổ, rồi đến La Mã cổ. Gần như cả thế giới bây giờ đón năm mới theo lịch Gregorian, nhưng KHÔNG AI nói với nhau: Happy Egyptian/Greece/Roman new year cả. Điều tương tự có thể nhìn thấy ở ngày lễ Valentine, ngày của Mẹ, ngày của Cha... Không ai chúc người yêu của mình "Chúc em yêu một Valentine La Mã/Thiên Chúa hạnh phúc", hay chúc mẹ của mình: "Chúc mẹ kính yêu một ngày của Mẹ kiểu Mỹ thật đầm ấm". Sự chia sẻ về cách tính thời khắc năm mới không có nghiã là sự VAY MƯỢN về truyền thống ̣đón chào năm mợ́. Gần như cả thế giới chia sẻ cách tính thời khắc năm mới cuả lịch dương, nhưng không dân tộc nào vay mượn truyền thống ̣đón năm mới của nhau cả. 

Người TQ ở đại lục vẫn nói là ăn tết ÂM LỊCH. Người TQ ở nước ngoài nói là ăn Tết Chinese để quảng bá quyền lực văn hóa của mình. Người nước ngoài nói Happy Chinese New Year với tất cả dân châu Á đơn giản là do ảnh hưởng của quyền lực mềm từ văn hóa ấy. Họ không hiểu được rằng bên cạnh sự CHẤP NHẬN văn hóa (người Á đón tết có nguồn gốc từ cách tính lịch lunisolar của người Tàu), thì còn cần có sự NHẠY CẢM văn hóa nữa (sẽ rất chối tai khi chúc một người Việt/Nhật/Hàn ăn tết TQ vui vẻ). Hai vấn đề này (chấp nhận ảnh hưởng văn hóa và / nhạy cảm văn hóa) rất quan trọng, không chỉ riêng chuyện Tết, nhất là trong một môi trường đa văn hóa, đa sắc tộc
Các tập đoàn truyền thông lớn và đặc biệt là các công ty có người châu Á làm việc hoặc khách hàng là người Á bắt đầu nhận thức ra được điều này và chỉnh sửa những lời chúc Tết của mình để thể hiện sự tôn trọng. Obama cũng chúc Happy Lunar New Year chứ không phải Happy CNY. Một cách đương nhiên, không ai thích thú gì khi người nước ngoài cứ thấy da vàng mũi tẹt thì cho là dân Tàu, hoặc bản thân là người Việt, Nhật, Hàn, Đài Loan mà cứ đầu năm là nhận được thiệp và email bị/được chúc ăn tết TQ sung sướng, dù tất cả có thể dùng chung một hệ thống lịch đại với thời khắc năm mới theo cách-tính của người TQ. 

Sự khó chịu này áp dụng chủ yếu với những người Á sống ở nước ngoài. Tôi va bạn bè người Á mỗi lần tết đến là hậm hực, hầu hết đều cố gắng ý nhị giải thích (Thanks, but no thanks! I am Korean/ or Vietnamese/ or Japanese), một số khó tính hơn thì thậm chí không thèm làm khách hàng của công ty đó nữa. Sự thiếu nhạy cảm văn hóa trong môi trường đa sắc tộc là nguyên nhân của một phần lớn các thất bại về kinh tế là vì vậy.

Tuy nhiên, một số người Việt hẳn hoi mà nói mình ăn Tết Chinese thì là do tự ti văn hóa. Tôi chỉ nói riêng về Songkran (từ chữ Sanskrit saṅkrānti) thuộc cổ Ấn Độ (lịch dương cổ Hindi). Năm nước khác nhau (Cambodia/ Lao/ Sri Lanka/ Thái/ Myanmar) cùng ăn tết theo Songkran nhưng không nước nào tự ti văn hóa đến độ nói là tao ăn tết Ấn Độ cả, và cũng chẳng có thằng tây nào bị ảnh hưởng của quyền lực mềm Ấn Độ đến mức chúc dân của 5 quốc gia vẫn còn (hơi hơi) nghèo nghèo hèn hèn ấy là chúng mày ăn tết Ấn Độ vui vẻ nhá. Nói ra khéo cái bọn vẫn còn tý teo nghèo hèn ấy nó đánh cho mẻ trán, chứ không phải như mấy bạn Đại Việt lại còn hớn hở, chắc có ý khoe tao nói được tiếng Anh nên cứ oang oang "Ối ăn tết Chai Nít Sờ thật là happy". Nẫu.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Can Egyptians unite around their ancient history?

Published on Your Middle East

It needs no argument to conclude that ancient Egypt boasts of a glorious civilization. In modern times, when Egypt as the first Arab country began to produce Arabic-language movies during the 1920s, the country instantly became Hollywood of the Middle East, shaping the trends and influencing contemporary Arab culture. Nasser – the undisputed leader of Arab nationalism – was both an Egyptian hero and an Arab leader. His immense charisma and the ecstasy of Egypt leading united Arabs against foreign oppressors practically made everything Egyptian desirable.
But is Egypt still the lighthouse of the Middle East? 

In 1967, amidst a conflict between Syria and Israel, Nasser rushed to support Syria. The Six-Day War was such a devastating failure that it effectively dragged the whole nation through a painfully long psychological trauma. Nasser lost his shine, the Arab nationalism lost the momentum to the point of no return, and the status of Egypt crumbled down to that of a third-world country.

The 1970s continued with more bad news for Egypt’s longstanding domination of Arabic-language culture and mass media. The oil-rich Gulf realized the significance of soft power and started to pump money into movie and TV industries. Once dubbed “Paris on the Nile”, the worldly city of Cairo has lost its glamour, slowly replacing its vibrant air of creative and modern energy with suffocating crowds and impoverished slumps. Cairo’s old Opera House has been replaced by a multi-storey parking block. 

Beyond the cultural scene, in the Gulf, Egypt has changed from an emblem of national economy to a source of cheap migrant workers. It is no longer the political gravity of the region, giving that role to the Gulf, which played the powerful hands behind the Arab Spring. From a country with influential movements of Arab nationalism and Arab-Israeli conciliation, Egypt is now the birthplace of modern Islamic militancy. It is decidedly a third-world country with 33% of its women being illiterate, 40% of the population living below the poverty line, with a high unemployment rate (26% in 2015). There is a strong sense of confusion and resentment among the young population as they strongly link the reality with national defeat and loss of dignity. They lack a role model, an honest and mutually accepted narrative of the history, and a reason to be proud. An Egyptian student told me: “The past makes me proud, the present pulls me down, and the future points me into nowhere.”

So here is the question: Is it true, that Egypt was important? And that neighboring people still relate and care about Egypt not because Egypt would change anything in their life but simply because they fear they would be the next Egypt?


After the New Kingdom (around 1000 BC), as Egypt fell under every invasion, Egyptians were reduced to the status of second citizens or outright slaves in their own land. Slowly, the essence of ancient Egyptian identity faded away, with its religion, language, and ethnicity being replaced by those of foreign rulers. As a result, the country was imposed with, and then adopted different identities. But there was one that remained a profound factor to which citizens embraced in order to connect with one another and with their motherland: beingEgyptian. This unifying identity was developed into a movement called Pharaonism during the colonial time in the 1920s-30s when Egypt needed an ideology as a base for the nationhood against Western colonizers. Egyptians were said to be inextricably connected by this unequalled past. Being Pharaonic is the most profound thing all Egyptians share, and thus the most significant factor to build up a foundation for unity.

Pharaonism disappeared from Egypt’s political discourse the moment Nasser became its first native leader after thousands of years being ruled by outsiders. However, the moment Egypt was born anew was also the moment it was renamed with a different identity, one that had been foreign, identified as from invaders, and even regarded as inferior to the natives: Arab. As Nasser envisioned Egypt as a leader of Arab nationalism, its official name became Arab Republic of Egypt, and its official flag suddenly has Saladin’s eagle on it as a symbol of Arab revolution. Ironically, Saladin is not an Arab. But to serve the propaganda of Arab nationalism, he was transformed from a Kurdish leader fighting the Christian crusades into an Arab leader fighting the Western invaders. Until today, Saladin’s eagle – a non-Arab icon – is the coat of arm on the flags of Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and (former) Libya as a unifying symbol. Putting the whole country under the charm of a foreign identity, for the sake of a greater future is an unbelievable feat. And only a legend like Nasser can make such a novel combination ring true: Egyptians, proud to be Arabs, loyal to a Kurd.

Not everyone was happy of course. Egyptologist Wassim Al-Sissy once moaned that Nasser’s revolution “erased the Egyptian character” and “created a nation of slaves”. Nevertheless, this identity was successfully promoted. The only condition was that it must revolve around the immense charisma of Nasser as the custodian of the Arab dream against Western colonizers and Middle Eastern monarchies. Since this Egyptian identity relied on the image of a mortal man, the moment Nasser failed was also the moment this identity was shattered to pieces.  

And then came the Islamism, an identity which was born in the same time as Pharaonism but only emerged strongly much later when the state failed miserably on domestic policies. This Islamist momentum became irresistible after September 11 when Muslims perceived themselves to be demonized by the West, when Islam appeared to be under attack, and the Middle East’s ruthless dictators were seen as the West’s puppets. Where the state failed to provide its citizens with decent life, failed to protect them from external assaults, and failed to give them an identity to be proud, Islamist organizations found a fruitful space, and religion became a means to shape one’s image, pride and dignity. “You are what you have to defend”, wrote author Shibley TelhamiFor many Egyptians, claiming Islamic identity is not about faith but about asserting the right to not become a carbon copy of the West, a challenging and defiant act in the face of what they perceive as Western assaults on their religion. In such a context, it is “especially difficult to separate religious identity from popular defiance”.

Advancing on that emotion, Egyptian Islamism brewed an Egyptian identity that is not only a radicalized version taken from the country’s previous invaders (the Muslims) but one that shamelessly rejects and condemns the country’s history, by calling the pharaohs “infidels”. When radical Salafi party Al-Noor won 20% of the votes in 2011, Egyptian Islamists campaigned to erase pre-Islamic history, even wanting to cover the pyramids with wax or destroying them outright, for they are considered idol worshiping. When pressed to talk more about Egypt and less about Islam, the former General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Akef, openly declared: “Tuz fi Misr” (to hell with Egypt), indicating that the interests of his country are secondary to Islam. Vandals placed an Islamic veil on the statue of Umm Kulthum and decapitated the statue of Taha Hussein – both are Egypt’s most significant cultural icons. In 2013 when Morsi was overthrown, a gang of his supporters retaliated by attacking the Malawi National museum, destroying and looting Egypt’s proudest treasures. All in all, the identity that Egyptian Islamists present is not only anti-Egyptian but also one that is devoid of any national context and heritage.

Moving from being predominantly a Pharaonic, an Arab, a Muslim, or an Islamist, this “Egypt’s identity crisis” has been addressed by Shibley Telhami as a choice of the “vehicle most able to deliver their key aspirations. They are at once Arab, Muslim, and (…) Egyptian (…). They will rally behind any of these identities when it is assaulted”.

In a social gathering, an Australian businesswoman shared her feeling: “I come from a country so young that we even have to preserve ugly 40-year-old buildings because they are ‘history’. If we had a man-made structure of 400 years old, we would go banana and name our country after it. If we had something as majestic as a 4000-year-old pyramid, we would make it a religion, put the thing on the flag, and force all babies to have ‘Pyramid’ as their middle name”. We all laughed, and one Egyptian later added: “Of course we are proud to have Pharaonic ancestors. But our corrupted despots do not make us ashamed in the name of Pharaonic descendants. They make us ashamed in the name of Muslims. And so Muslims have we become”.

So Shibley Telhami is right, that Egyptians take a certain identity because their dictators have represented themselves in the way that “looked nothing like who they (actually) are”. 


However, it is baffling to see how the Pharaonic identity lost the “game” so easily. The pyramids still stand high, the Sphinx still guards the city, and the West’s obsession with ancient Egypt never fades away, but it is all a disconnected past. I often wonder why ancient Egypt is studied mostly by non-Egyptians. Egyptologist Wassim Al-Sissy told an interesting anecdote: “The English philosopher Francis Bacon, when asked how a backward Europe in the 16th century could progress, said that it needed to have a history, and since Europe didn’t quite seem to have one, they would need to borrow it from the Greco-Roman history. Shakespeare obviously did it, so 12 out of his 37 works are based on the Greco-Roman context. Things are different for Egyptians, for they have the most magnificent history, but people ‘despise it’”.

So can the shaky Egypt we are witnessing benefit from more genuine attachment with its undisputedly glorious and solid past? For example, to fight against the horrendous sexual assaults, what if instead of looking to the liberal West, Egyptians would search right inside their own history for a powerful inspiration? What if we point out that Egypt upheld the notion of gender equality thousands of years ago, before a single word was ever written in the Bible or Quran? Here is some stark contrast for comparison. While ancient Egypt didn’t even have a word that means “virgin”, the dignity of modern Egyptian women is based on avirginity test. While women of ancient Egypt could inherit, trade properties and run businesses, 82% of non-student female Egyptian youth nowadays are out the labor force, compared with only 13% of the males. While women of ancient Egypt enjoy monogamy marriage, 25% of modern Egyptian men take on a second wife within three years after their wedding. While many ordinary women in ancient Egypt could read and write, and while the Goddess of writing is the female scribe Seshat, 33.6% of modern Egyptian women now are illiterate. While there were female pharaohs and powerful vizier – the right hand of the king, in modern Egypt, the country welcomed its first female political leader in as late as 2014. The historian Herodotus (5th century BC) described that much of the manners and customs in ancient Egyptwas exactly the reverse of the common practices: “women frequent the markets and carry on trade, while the men remain at home and weave”, even “women make water (i.e. urinate) standing up and men sitting down”. In modern Egypt, 99% of the women have been sexually harassed, or 7 times every 200 meters they walk.

If Islam is considered very progressive at the time it was born in the 7th century, in the sense that it allows women to inherit, divorce, run their own business and be equal with other three co-wives, then I would point feminist Egyptians to their own history and see for themselves that their Pharaonic civilization allowed all that and even more to happen 1,100 years before the concept of Islam even exist. 

Similar messages could be sent to the liberals. By calling Mubarak and Morsi “pharaoh”, and matching along protest banners of “kill the pharaoh” or “chase the pharaoh down to hell”, they unwittingly make this ancient title equivalent of “dictator”, and therefore must be overthrown. Morsi was called “pharaoh” when he granted himself unlimited power. When Mubarak and then Morsi appeared before court in iron enclosures, the press exploded: “Pharaoh in the cage”.

For a civilization of the antiquity, Egypt was “far more liberal than others” because it recognized merit and social mobility was strong. Liberal elements made the kingdom a powerhouse of ideas, science and arts. “Pre-dynastic chiefly elites operated in a politically liberal and consultative environment, where they redistributed surpluses to maintain social advantage and power within their communities”. Ancient Egypt law was codified through the concept of ma’at, allowing everyone, except slaves, to be equal under the law. The sense of identity in ancient Egypt was not based on ethnicity but culture, protecting foreigners from discrimination so long as they conformed to the Egyptian way of life. It is fair to say that ancient Egypt had its own liberal democratic and capitalist traditions, as these values are neither solely created by the West, nor a monopoly of the West.

However, ancient Egypt has now been dressed up as a period of despotism with the kings being symbols of oppression and dictatorship. The fact is, bad rulers were not tolerated and there were uprisings against unjust pharaohs. Even the pyramid itself is not a symbol of power but, as Rifaat Lakkousha wrote, “an oral social contract between the Pharaoh and the people, (…) based on a religious conviction (…) where obligations are shared: the Egyptians committed themselves to build the pyramid to help him go to Heaven, in return the Pharaoh is committed to open the gates of Heaven before all Egyptians”.

During the liberal period of Egypt in the 1920s–40s, Pharaoh was a symbol of the nation while oppression was associated with foreign influences. However, Egyptian liberalism dropped this narrative and adopted the Islamist discourse of Pharaonic despotism. Since they equalize Pharaohs with oppression, Egyptian liberals have to turn their back to ancient Egypt. This also means abandoning a great well of inspiration, pride and an authentic national identity. It’s a shame, since Egypt’s own history can unite all Egyptians without the dire need for a common enemy, or worse, a foreign populist ideology.

Egyptians need not to look anywhere else but inside themselves. The pyramids shouldn’t be just quaint but irrelevant relics, remnants of the ancient despots, or a source of national incomes. Author Raymond Ibrahim puts it frankly: “Egypt’s future begins when Egyptians see themselves as Egyptians—not Arabs, and certainly not Islamists. This is not to say that Egyptians should resurrect the pharaonic language, dress like Imhotep, and worship cats. Rather, (…) the Egyptian identity needs to be resurrected, thereby allowing all of the nation’s sons and daughters to work together for a better future—without the dead weight of foreign encumberments, namely Arabism or, worse, Islamism”.

Tarek Osman, Egypt on the brink: From Nasser to Mubarak, (Yale University Press, 2013)

Shibley Telhami, The world through Arab eyes, (Basic Books, 2013)
Janet H Johnson, “Sex and marriage in ancient Egypt”, in Hommages a Fayza Haikal. ed. Nicolas Grimal, Amr Kamal, Cynthia May-Sheikholeslami (Institut Français D’Archeologie Orientale, Bibliotheque D’etude, 138, 2003)
Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, (British Museum Press, 1995)

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Refugee crisis tests Islam’s fundamental tenet of Ummah
Published on Islamic Monthly 
German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently stated that the migrant crisis is testing European core values and that Europe is facing a humanitarian crisis that shows no sign of letting up. With Germany expecting to receive the most number of asylum applications this year — 800,000 — Merkel called on all European Union countries to show an equal willingness to help.
Strangely, in the Muslim world, there is a deafening silence from Syria’s neighbor: the Gulf region. The oil-rich countries have not offered asylum to their Muslim neighbors. Not only is the Gulf much richer than many EU countries still deep in the financial crisis, it is closer to Syria, shares the same language and, most importantly, the same religion that dictates a strong community (Ummah) of Muslims as a basic tenet. Yet, the Gulf has closed its doors, turned away from the tragedy, and assumed that giving some money to refugee camps is enough to show empathy.
Since 2011, the U.S. has given $4.3 billion to Syrian refugees, Kuwait $1.2 billion, Saudi Arabia $597 million and Qatar $244 million. Gulf countries can arrange to bring in a large number of expatriates that perhaps would double or triple their population, but have refused to make resettlement or employment an option for a single Syrian refugee.
The media and public are focusing on Europe in calling on it to open its doors to refugees and European leaders are tackling the question, but no such calls are being made of the Gulf’s responsibility, something activist Faisal Saeed Al Mutar calls “the racism of lower expectation.” Ignoring the responsibility of the Gulf means that we expect Europeans to be naturally kinder and more humane than people from the Gulf.
To assume that this difference is a default is demeaning and degrading for anyone from the Gulf countries. We should refuse to accept the assumption that all our friends and colleagues in the Gulf have less empathy, less of a human heart than those in Europe.
The refugee crisis is also testing how Muslim countries are genuinely practicing the true meaning of Ummah. Used by Prophet Muhammad in his Constitution of Medina, the term “Ummah” originally meant a community where people from all religions — regardless of whether one was a pagan, Jew, Christian or Muslim — can live peacefully together. Based on this definition alone, Europe has more potential to become a much better Ummah than the homeland of Islam.
With Iraq bordering Syria, the Gulf is much closer than Europe, which is months of walking, a sea of sharks and drowning away. If the Gulf continues to close its border to Syrian refugees, the countries are proving that they deserve the racism of lower expectation and fall behind Western countries in creating a true Ummah. Muslims and non-Muslims, wealthy Western countries and wealthy Gulf countries should show their humanity to this horrendous refugee crisis.
Trong đạo Hồi, khái niệm Ummah vô cùng quan trọng. Khi Muhammad rời Mecca chạy tị nạn đến Medina, ông nhanh chóng chiếm được sự tôn trọng của cộng đồng dân cư ở đây, lúc đó là một thành phố đa sắc tộc gồm rất nhiều người Do Thái, Thiên Chúa, Pagan (đa thần giáo), và những tín đồ cải đạo đầu tiên của Hồi giáo. Họ bầu ông làm người lãnh đạo trong các cuộc đàm phán. Với tư cách là một người ngoài cuộc, Muhammad đã thể hiện sự công minh của mình khi thiết lập Hiến Pháp thành Medina, trong đó từ Ummah được dùng để chỉ một cộng đồng đa sắc tộc sống với nhau hoà bình, hữu nghị.
Từ Ummah sau đó bị bóp méo, và dần dần ý nghĩa của nó hoàn toàn thay đổi, không dùng để chỉ một cộng đồng đa sắc tộc chung sống tương trợ lẫn nhau nữa mà để chỉ bó hẹp trong cộng đồng Hồi giáo, gạt các tôn giáo khác ra ngoài định nghĩa. Medina, Mecca không còn là những thành phố tự trị của cộng đồng đa sắc tộc mà dưới quyền cai trị của chính quyền Ả Rập Saudi (vốn là một bộ tộc ở nơi khác đến đánh chiếm ở thế kỷ 19) hiện nay thậm chỉ chỉ cho phép người Hồi đặt chân vào.
Khái niệm Ummah chỉ là một trong vô vàn triết lý và khái niệm của Hồi giáo đã dần dần bị đổi thay theo dòng lịch sử. Tệ hơn nữa, Ummah còn bị các phần tủ cực đoan dùng như thể một lý tưởng đế quốc Hồi giáo toàn cầu (Islamism) với mục tiêu cải đạo và đặt cả thế giới dưới luật lệ Hồi giáo.
Nếu chúng ta quay trở về ý nghĩa nguyên bản của Ummah thì chúng ta có thể nhìn nhận cuộc khủng hoảng tị nạn hiện nay từ một góc độ rất khác. Trong khi rất nhiều nước châu Âu đau đầu với việc làm sao có thể tiếp nhận số nạn nhân chiến tranh khổng lồ thì những quốc gia giàu có vùng Vịnh đóng chặt cửa, từ chối không nhận bất cứ một nguời tị nạn nào. Những quốc gia này có thể phân phối công ăn việc làm cho một khối lượng người nước ngoài lớn gấp đôi, thậm chí gấp 10 lần số dân bản xứ, nhưng lại từ chối giúp đỡ chính những tín đồ cùng tôn giáo. Ả Rập Saudi sở hữu những chiếc lều hiện đại có cài đặt máy lạnh với sức chứa 3 triệu người, nhưng kiên quyết bỏ không. Lưu ý là toàn Syria có 4 triệu nguời chạy tị nạn. Hài hước hơn, Saudi còn tuyên bố rằng họ sẵn sàng giúp Đức (nhận 800.000 tị nạn năm nay) xây 200 thánh đường Hồi giáo - một cử chỉ thể hiện âm mưu truyền bá tôn giáo cực đoan dòng Wahhabism của Saudi hơn là một nghĩa cử giúp đỡ đồng loại. Xây thánh đường cho nạn nhân chiến tranh thì có khác gì đưa kinh thánh cho người chết đói?
Thật vô lý khi chúng ta kêu gào các quốc gia châu Âu giàu có phải khoan dung, phải độ lượng, trong khi mặc định chấp nhận các quốc gia vùng Vịnh giàu có gấp hàng chục hàng trăm lần nhưng lại có thái độ dửng dưng với nỗi đau của nguời vừa là hàng xóm, vừa là tín đồ cùng tôn giáo. Về nguyên tắc, đây là sự phân biệt chủng tộc, bởi chúng ta mặc định đã là Tây Âu thì đương nhiên là tốt hơn, tình người hơn các sắc dân khác.
Tôi không chấp nhận. Tôi phản đối việc phải chấp nhận rằng những người bạn, người đồng nghiệp của tôi ở vùng Vịnh là những kẻ không có nhiều tình thương và sự khoan dung bằng những nguời bạn và đồng nghiệp của tôi ở châu Âu. 
Nếu căn cứ vào ý nghĩa nguyên bản của Ummah, thì châu Âu đang trở thành một Ummah tốt đẹp hơn nhiều lần chính quê hương của Hồi giáo.