Monday, 30 April 2012

Syria- The war within and between


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Many have asked me to give a briefing on Syria as I am there myself. Well, here it is, in a VERY simple way as my thick head can understand. Sorry, I am an Interculturalist, I'm not a war correspondent here. 

To many people, the war in Syria is just another Arab Awakening. Being in the country myself, I realize that this is not at all the case. There are at least 3 conflicts going on:

1. A true Arab Spring from young liberals regardless of religious backgrounds, demanding regime reform and democracy;
2. A war between two Islamic sects, the Alawite led government and the Sunni opposition;
3. A political game with hidden agenda among the big boys (US, EU, Iran, Israel and Saudi)

As a result, main stream media in the West will be more likely to feature the war number 1, manipulate the war number 2 in the advantage of the war number 3. Those representing opposition that appear on CNN and BBC look liberal, westernized and almost victimized.

Next, media backed by (Sunni) Saudi will call for jihad to provoke the war number 2. I saw with my own eyes an opposition’s channel broadcasting from Saudi called “Sunni blood as one”. Note that Syrian president is not Sunni Islam, he is from Alawite, a small sect of Islam.

Last, micro media, social media (blogs, twitters, forum…ect) and words of mouth will keep circulating around zillions of conspiracy theories and guesswork about the war number 3. For example, one of them: “The West does not want to topple the government, they just want to keep Syria in conflict to the point that would benefit Israel and weaken Iran - who is Syria’s big ally”

In this age where images and video clips dominate and cloud the thinking, one easily looses the big picture and falls victim for the vivid power of visual effect. Please pay attention to the hidden bias.

As a journalist, I have the power to CHOOSE what to report. Is there something called “complete objective journalism”? I doubt it.

I have seen demonstration for and against the regime. Which one would I report? Most secret journalists in Syria would choose to capture the opposition because they and their news (sub)consciously support the war number 1 and 3.

I’ll make a counterbalance here to share with you a view on the war number 2. This is the picture of the regime’s supporters who gathered to celebrate in cheerful music and dance. Quoting a local from the crowd: “To be honest, our president is not perfect. But between him and the Sunni extremist opposition, I would go for the lesser of the two evils”.


Syria - Thù trong giặc ngoài.

Biết tôi đang ở Syria, nhiều bạn bè và đồng nghiệp liên tục hỏi han yêu cầu cung cấp thông tin. Vì vậy tôi post ở đây một phiên bản cực kỳ đơn giản và dễ hiểu về tình hình Syria. Hiện tại có ít nhất là 3 cuộc chiến đang diễn ra:

1. Một mùa xuân Ả Rập theo đúng nghĩa của nó với những người trẻ tuổi đầu óc tân tiến biểu tình yêu cầu cải tổ chính phủ và đòi hỏi dân chủ xã hội. Họ liên kết với nhau không phân biệt màu sắc tôn giáo.
2. Một cuộc chiến tôn giáo đẫm máu giữa hai giáo phái của Islam: chính phủ cầm đầu là tổng thống thuộc dòng Hồi giáo Alawite và quân nổi dậy thuộc dòng Hồi giáo Sunni.
3. Một cuộc chơi chính trị giữa các ông lớn của thế giới: Mỹ, Tây Âu sát cánh với Israel, đối đầu với Iran, cộng thêm Saudi và khát vọng bành trướng tôn giáo.

Vì vậy, báo chí phương Tây sẽ ra sức ủng hộ cuộc chiến số 1 và lái các thông tin của cuộc chiến số 2 theo thế có lợi cho cuộc chiến số 3.

Tiếp theo, giới truyền thông được Saudi (Hồi giáo Sunni) chu cấp sẽ kêu gọi thánh chiến để ủng hộ cuộc chiến số 2 nhằm lật đổ chính phủ theo dòng Hồi giáo Alawite. Tôi đã tận mắt theo dõi một kênh truyền hình phát sóng từ Saudi mang tên: “Dòng máu Sunni đại đòan kết”

Cuối cùng, các mạng xã hội phát tán vô số thông tin và giả thuyết về cuộc chiến không chính thống số 3; phán đoán các ngón bài chính trị ẩn dưới chiêu bài “ủng hộ dân chủ” của các đại gia phương Tây và chỉ tên kế sách bành trướng tôn giáo của các đại gia Trung Đông. Một giả thuyết thu hút sự quan tâm nhất hiện nay: “Phương Tây thực ra không muốn lật đổ chính phủ Syria. Họ chỉ muốn Syria lụn bại ở một mức độ nhất định. Đơn giản bởi Syria yếu thế cũng có nghĩa là đồng minh Iran (kẻ đối đầu với phương Tây và Israel) yếu thế”

Với tư cách là một nhà báo, bản thân tôi cho rằng cái gọi là “báo chí tuyệt đối khách quan” là gần như không thể trong thực tế. Quyền năng của nhà báo nằm ở quyền được chọn lựa thông tin để chia sẻ với bạn đọc. Tôi hiện đang đứng trước hai cuộc biểu tình: một phản đối chính phủ và một ủng hộ chính phủ. Tôi sẽ chọn cuộc biểu tình nào? Phần lớn phóng viên ngầm ở Damascus chọn cuộc biểu tình thứ nhất bởi họ (vô thức hoặc có ý thức) ủng hộ cuộc chiến số 1 và số 3.

Tôi cũng ủng hộ cuộc chiến số 1, nhưng tôi cho rằng với tình hình chiến sự đẫm máu như hiện nay họ gần như không có cơ hội để thu hút sự chú ý chứ đừng nói là chiến thắng. Là người Việt, tôi phản đối cuộc chiến số 3 vì lịch sử nước nhà đã quá đau thương với tư cách con tốt đen trong tay các nước lớn. Hôm nay ngày 30-4, giá có hoán đổi lại lịch sử tôi không quan tâm phe nào thắng phe nào thua. Tôi chỉ mong có một kết cục là nước nhà liền một dải.

Lựa chọn còn lại cho tôi là cuộc chiến số 2. Trong tấm ảnh này, tôi chụp những người ủng hộ tổng thống Asad. Tôi cũng xin trích lời nhắn một người trong số họ: “Tổng thống không phải không có tỳ vết. Nhưng nếu phải lựa chọn giữa Asad và những kẻ nổi dậy cực đoan theo dòng Hồi giáo Sunni, tôi chọn Asad”. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

With love, from war-torn Syria!


WITH LOVE, FROM WAR-TORN SYRIA!

Crossing the border from Lebanon to Syria within 15 minutes, it took me pretty long to convince myself I am actually in war torn Syria. Reaching Damascus, I quickly moved in with Noura and her family, only to find out that they themselves have just miraculously escaped from their home town: Homs – the city that is being bombarded and torn apart by civil unrest. Her brother went to school only 30 days this year. They were trapped in the house for 2 weeks without electricity, each time going to the grocery is uncertain of ever being able to come back. Leaving the internet café - their only source of incomes behind, the single mom and her two children have been struggling to avoid from falling apart. With very limited resource, this refugee family has been hosting me, feeding me, loving me, giving me a bed, escorting me to all sorts of city sightseeing that a tourist is supposed to do. And all that amidst tear, fear, sadness, worries and uncertainty about their future the very day after.

In this picture, me and Noura are under the hooded cloaks visiting Umayad Mosque, one of the earliest mosques in Islam, built on the 3000 year old remnant of an Aramaens temple. The worshiping site was then turned into a Roman temple, later was converted to Christian church and finally was dedicated to Islam in 636 (only 4 years after the death of Prophet Mohammad). The rich history of this mosque reminds us that holy sites should not be seen as monopoly for a religion and that we are the result of accumulated heritage. Looking at the chaos in some of the Arab countries right now, I can't help wishing those various branches of Islam can understand this simple notion. And may the extremely hospitable people of their countries like Noura's family teach them the lesson of co-existence, even in time of hardness.



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Sau đêm đầu tiên không ngủ ở Damascus, ngày hôm sau tôi chuyển đến ở nhờ nhà Noura và gia đình của cô, vô tự lự, hoàn toàn không hề biết rằng họ vừa chạy thoát khỏi Homs – thành phố đang nóng bỏng trên các bản tin chiến sự. Em trai của Noura năm nay chỉ đến trường gần một tháng. Cả gia đình bị bó chân trong nhà hơn 2 tuần không điện nước, mỗi lần mạo hiểm ra ngoài phố mua lương thực dự trữ là một lần đi không chắc được trở về. Đóng cửa quán café internet tại Homs, nguồn thu duy nhất của cả gia đình, người mẹ đơn thân của Noura một nách hai con chân ướt chân ráo vừa mới đặt chân đến Damascus được hơn một tháng vật lộn với cuộc sống mới. Dù thiếu thốn mọi bề, gia đình đang chạy tỵ nạn này suốt hơn một tuần qua đã hết lòng yêu thương đùm bọc tôi, mỗi sáng lại đón tôi ngồi vào bàn ăn với một nụ cười, giấu sau lưng rất nhiều nước mắt, lo lắng, buồn bã, sợ hãi và một ngày mai chông chênh không nơi bấu víu. 

Trong bức ảnh này, tôi và Noura trùm áo dài thăm Thánh Đường Hồi giáo Umayad, một trong những thánh đường đầu tiên của Islam, dựng trên mảnh đất thiềng nâng đỡ các đền thờ của bốn triều đại tôn giáo lớn trải dài hơn 3000 năm. Những ngôi đền của nền văn minh cổ Aramaens lần lượt được cải giáo thành đền thờ thần của đế chế Roma, sang tên thành nhà thờ Thiên Chúa giáo rồi đến năm 636 cải biên thành thánh đường Hồi giáo Umayad. Thế mới thấy những vùng đất tôn giáo thiềng liêng khó có thể coi là độc quyền của riêng tôn giáo nào bởi hầu như tất cả đều được dựng xây trên vai những người khổng lồ.

Đi giữa Damascus, nghe tiếng súng nghe tiếng bom và khói lửa trên màn hình TV, tôi chỉ muốn những dòng tôn giáo đang choảng nhau sứt đầu mẻ trán kia hiểu được điều đơn giản này. Hoặc mong sao những người dân hiếu khách đến khó tin giống như gia đình của Noura có thể dạy cho họ một bài học về sự cộng sinh và tương thân tương ái, ngay cả khi ở tận đáy cùng của thiếu thốn.



Saturday, 7 April 2012

Curving the Arabian Peninsula: Dubai- Oman and Yemen


Dear all,

I have decided to synchronize all my Facebook posts from the beginning of my journey with this blog for those who don't have or hate Facebook (believe me, it is not that bad :). Thanks again for being part of this Middle East journey.

A warm greeting from extremely hospitable Middle East.


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Helicopter over Dubai - great city where visionary leadership has lead to amazing success. In 1940s, they foresaw the end of pearl industry and proactively invested in trading. In 1960s, they foresaw the end of oil and proactively invested in tourism. Having next to no natural and cultural wonders, they built man-made wonders and make tourists pay big money for it. Outside my window is the tallest building in the world. Dubai boldly colonizes the oceans, aggressively pierces the cloud and greatly balances between modernization vs tradition. Although I have serious doubt on their human resources strategies and many other policies regarding foreign labor treatment, I do have respect for their economy vision. 


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VERY proud of my visa to Yemen. This country is ranked top dangerous at the moment due to domestic unrest. No embassies in Europe would dare to issue tourist visa. However, I approached the consulate in Dubai and got it after 1 week. The people there blamed media for blackening their country: "Madam, it is safe in Yemen. The country is poor but the people are kind"


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There is a dozen of cities in the world boast the nick name “White City” (think Begrade,Ostuni, Arequipa, Lisbon or Popayan…etc). Muscat (Oman) has never named itself as such, but this is the only true white city that is true to the title. Dedicating to the idea of living in harmony with the nature, people are only allowed to paint their buildings in one tone. Not so long time ago, each window still must have an arch (traditional Omani style). No building in the city can rise higher than 9 stories. In the heat up to 55 degree, hundreds of flower beds blossom on the sidewalk. Kids in Oman often do beach cleaning. Most people walk in their traditional clothes. For Oman, as a friend of mine put it: the country is not Westernized, it is modernized.

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Moyed and his friend Ali pulled their car over to ask if I need any help (See how relax they sit?). They eventually drove me all the way far West to my appointment. It is absolutely SURREAL to be picked up at least 3 times/ day by the locals in a modern capital city. You often get picked up by genuine good people in a rural village or a dream, NOT in a super rich Gulf country where most cars are new and expensive, all buildings are clean and shining, and every meal may cost more than an eat-out in Europe). In Muscat (Oman), people are so friendly it almost does not feel real. Together with the beautiful white washed castle-like buildings, Muscat makes me feel I'm in a fairytale where the Good has triumphed the Evil. Modernization does not go hand in hand with dehumanization.


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Happy Valentine day! Let’s meet Hamied, a security guard at the Government Office Building in Salalah (Oman). I talked with him in the guarding booth at his work place. 39 years old and a modest salary of 400 rials (app. $1000), he just married his second wife. With 5 children and 2 jealous women under the same roof, he told me the best way and the only way to manage this complex household is using sweet words (Hey, guys, listen!). I wondered if the first wife was chosen by his family (not very uncommon in Middle East), he said: “I chose both of them. And actually not me, it is my heart that chose them!” – “Are you a happy man?”- I asked – To which he replied “Happiness is not something you can pick it up on the road side. You have to create it!"

FYI: Muslims can marry up to 4 wives, and have to treat them equally. The reason for this is that in the past, wars and battles left many widows behind without proper right. The polygamy practice was to help women regain their social status while respecting their right of property, which is very liberal at the time when other religions did not have clear statements and rules regarding women’s social and business stands. It is of course getting outdated as times goes by. Interesting to know that Prophet Mohammed’s first wife is a widow and a trader who employed him, and even proposed marriage to him.



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Khalid AlSiyabi is a very gentle man with kind face and modest way of talking. His car had a flat tire 3 days ago but he's still looking at it hopelessly. Not being able to fix his own car, but Khalid leads a department of 3000 colleagues in the Omani Ministry of Education. He is also the first Omani that conquered Mount Everest. Driving me thru the campus of Sultan Qaboos University, he pointed at groups of female students wearing black abaya and signed: "Look at those black creatures! Why they put on something so depressive? Nothing in Q'ran says a woman needs to wear those ugly things. I hate it. If you wear black you think black. Islam is not about the appearance, it is about what it is in your heart which goes straight to God. That's why I call imams TRANSLATORS of Q'ran. We have good and bad ones. The best way is to learn the language yourself.


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I arrived in Yemen just 12 hours before the election. As a single female traveler, the airport police did not let me out until they could appoint a driver to take me to my friend’s house. Nobody left the airport untraceable.

The election has only one candidate, Mr Hadi, and it is interesting to see that this election aims at non-violence and a peaceful handover of power rather than genuine democracy. Many Yemeni activists told me that 5 other candidates were denied by the government. They were furious, of course.

However, looking at the turmoil that Yemen has been through, I can also see the reasons behind this seemingly undemocratic election. Being a very delicate and fragile country, Yemen needs stability and its people need to know that democracy goes steps by step. The country is like a patient after a big operation. He needs soft food and milk instead of steak.

I am happy for Yemen, that the country has moved one step away from dictatorship, being in a transition of moving forwards to a real democratic election in the near future. Democracy is a process, and it needs a lot of patience and dialogue.



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I always thought Venice is my favorite city until i entered Babal Yemen - the giant gate of old Sanaa. The city is named after Sam- the son of Noah (Bible's Noah with the ark that saved his family from the great flood). With 3000 years of history, Sanaa competes with Damascus and Aleppo (Syria) to be the oldest inhabited city in the world. You can call Sanaa the world's first city with skyscrapers. Magnificent buildings of 5-8 stories lean on each other, creating a magical scene. I have been spending days deliberately getting myself lost in the labyrinth of old Sanaa, soaking in the mysterious beauty and the amazing hospitality of the locals, knowing that they see me as a sign of a better time ahead: tourists will eventually come back to Sanaa.


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Open a new window now and google “Socotra” – one of the most beautiful islands I’ve been to. Socotri people are not only as hospitable as the mainland people but also very open. Seeing me approaching with a male tour guide, this girl in the picture stood up to her feet, came rushing to stop us on the road and started talking with both her hands and her body. She then wanted to send my tour guide back to the camp site so she could invite me home. Later on my tour guide told me he was actually……well,…scared. He has realized that with the revolution girls have turned somewhat less conservative. He has never seen someone that open before.

After months of traveling in the Middle East, I have learned that the black veil can easily mislead our opinions. Until now I still can't get used to the fact that all my Yemeni girl friends came to visit me like a big shadow devoid of identity. The moment they step inside, black abayas are taken off and they turn out to be very modern young people with perfect English. They know the lines of most MTV hits, they sometimes swear like a rapper, dance like Beyoncé and at the same time they can engage in serious debates and discussion of the most sensitive topics such as homosexuality and prostitution. The youth that started the revolution in Yemen may look like oppressed women according to Western perceptions, but they are exceptionally brave. Look at what they have achieved: A transition to new power without too much violence: the only peaceful Arab spring so far in the Gulf.



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The first impression of anyone arriving to Yemen is probably the massive amount of weaponry carried by civilians. I imagine that children here probably sneer at the plastic “Made in China” toy guns. In a picnic area near Sanaa, I was shocked to see young boys of about 12 years old firing their AK-47s into the sky. They broadly smiled at me and furiously waved their hands with two fingers forming a V — sign for victory and peace.

 It is estimated that there are 60 million firearms owned by the population of 25 million. Children and women aside, each adult Yemeni man stocks up to 10 weapons at home or tucked into his belt. And that excludes the ornamental daggers that are part of the traditional Yemeni outfit. Quoting political science professor Ahmed al-Kibsi: “Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun.

However, despite the deeply-rooted gun culture, it is amazing to see what the Yemeni revolution has achieved so far, with a relatively low death toll (approximately 2000) compared to Syria (at the moment estimated at 30,000 and still rising).

One person who greatly contributed to the transition of power in Yemen is Jamal bin Omar — the UN envoy who orchestrated the negotiation process. One day after the election, I had the honor to meet up with him in a casual private gathering. Looking exhausted but calm, he agreed with me that Yemen stands now at the perfect position to transfer away from its gun culture, as security has to be the most important job for the new government.

In the same evening, I also talked with Cathy who is Jamal’s assistant. Overwhelmed with the very limited violence during the election, she told me that what is happening in Yemen is a miracle, given the country’s complex situation and its extreme gun culture: “There must be something very special in the makeup of the people here!” – Cathy explained to me – “They may scare the hell out of you with the loads of weapon they carry around, but they genuinely want peace!”

Strange but true: for Yemeni, weapons do not necessarily mean violence.