Saturday, 23 June 2012

A window into Syria [Jerusalem post]

My op-ed in Jerusalem Post on Syria

For most Syrians, I seem to have an identity crisis. I was born in Vietnam, look half African and hold Dutch nationality.

Syrian army helicopters [file]Photo: REUTERS
For most Syrians, I seem to have an identity crisis. I was born in Vietnam, look half African and hold Dutch nationality.

The position of being a complete outsider gained me the trust to make them open up and lower their guard in a country where even family members may not freely express their political point of view among each other. Entering Syria as the only tourist going there these days, I spent three weeks listening to different stories and restructuring my judgment.

Among all the people that I met, the story of Hani – a 32-year-old from Aleppo – struck me the most. Zillions of narratives have been reported in the media, but very little was told from the Alawites, who are ironically the focal point of the war. Hani belongs to their 2-millionstrong community which accounts for 12 percent of the population. Although the Alawite religion is rooted in Islam, the religion is a mixture of belief. They have a trinity, drink wine and recognize Christmas. The women do not usually cover their heads. The Assads have been working hard to promote Alawite as a sect of Shia Islam in order to be accepted in a Sunni-dominated country.

In the story he shared, Hani recalled that his mother was furious because the Alawite sheikhs were encouraged to deny the divinity of Ali (prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law). This is a serious betrayal to Alawite idiosyncratic theology since divine incarnation is the foundation of Alawite belief. A new mosque was built by the government in their home town and his family was asked to go and pray with other Sunni.

For Hani’s family, their Alawite community has given up their religion, or more accurately, converted to Sunni Islam, for the share of political power and equality in the nation.

When Hani was small, his teachers would tell other students that the Alawites forced sisters and brothers to sleep together, and that they all have tails: “Oh God! I don’t have a tail. This means I am not Alawite!” – Hani remembered running home crying, deeply scared because he obviously did not have the “proof” of being Alawite. His childhood memory tells him that despite the great lengths they took to pretend to be Sunni, Alawites are not accepted as decent Muslims. In fact, some unofficial surveys show that half of the Syrian do not see them as Muslim.

Now at the age of 32, Hani is experiencing a déjà vu as he again sees how Alawites are demonized as the civil war between the Alawite-led army and the Sunni opposition escalates. Last year, Hani was part of the Arab Spring where young liberal secularists, regardless of religious backgrounds, demanded regime reform and democracy. “It is over. It is dead!” – he said – “now it is all about Alawite versus Sunni. Last week a neighbor suddenly asked me if I was Alawite. I said yes, knowing that it is the beginning of my end. Now a bullet can be in my head anytime!” Hani showed me the apartment he lives in Aleppo. It was all closed up. The windows were shut, sealed and nailed.

Having gained more than 30 kg. since he lost his job, he now lives like a fat scared mouse in this prison of his own.

In the afternoon, he often tries to call his three sisters in Homs who have not stepped outdoors for months. His brother-in-law, a wall-of-a-man, almost 2m high, serves in the Syrian police force. He belongs to one of those, who according to popular narrative in Aleppo, are believed to be capable of murdering civilians brutally because he is a Bashar’s man. One day, this massive guy hysterically broke out in tears confessing with Hani that he pees in his pants every day. They report that many of Alawite girls have been kidnapped and raped by the armed gangs from the opposition.

In Hani’s apartment, the only source of connection with the outside world is a laptop with internet. However, Hani, as well as many other Syrian I talked to, is confused at best. The mainstream media in the West have been embracing the (dying) Arab Spring against the dictator.

However, to say the least, the government’s army did not initially seem to have a fair presentation in the media.

They were portrayed as absolute demons while the opposition was victimized.

There is a lot of nuances and gray area in between. Last week, BBC World News editor Jon Williams admitted that it is unclear who was behind the killing. Journalists should report what they know as well as what they-do-not-know. Some Western officials went as far as to describe the opposition’s YouTube communications strategy as “brilliant.” According to Williams, this is likened to so-called “psy-ops,” brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true. To put it simple, a demon does not pee in his pants every night.

The second source of media backing for the opposition comes from the (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and has been calling for jihad, provoking sectarian war.

Hani showed me an opposition’s channel broadcasting from Saudi called “Sunni blood as one” sending hostile speeches towards Alawites: “Freedom! Freedom! Until we crush all the Alawites to the bottom.”

Then comes Al Jazeera. Despite all the suspicions, Al Jazeera is simply a true news hunter that focuses on “anything that moves.”

Based in Qatar, a country with heaps of money and no identity, Al Jazeera belongs to numerous attempts to establish Qatari influences in media. Hence, believe it or not, the channel has no clear agenda, if not just want to see itself as endorsing regime change in the Arab world. In February, the network’s server had been hacked and some of it secrets were released to the media, including some email exchange’s that indicated widespread disaffection within the channel over its “biased and unprofessional coverage” of Syria.

For the record, some national media channels have been trying to report (part of) the truth, that the rebels are not as innocent as they seem to be, and that a part of the Free Syrian Army can be described as “a branch of al-Qaida” as anchorwoman Rula Ibrahim of Al Jazeera admitted in her leaked email.

However, as in the story of the boy and the wolf, Syrian people refuse to believe the government because they have been hearing lies many times before.

Last, there is social media (blogs, twitters, forum... etc) and word of mouth in Syria that has been circulating around zillions of conspiracy theories and guesswork about the political game among the more influential countries.

The most famous theory is that 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. Many in the country say that the fate of Syria depends largely on Israel to the point of whether Israel wants to keep Assad (i.e. we are enemy of each other but we accept the game) or dare to face the challenge of a new Syrian government (i.e either more democratic or more extreme); The second theory goes wild as it states that the so-called Arab Spring was all part of a plot by imperialists to absorb mass hatred of the dictators while consolidating their grip on the region.

Amidst this riot of information, there is still a pretty consistent and popular view in Syria that is not properly shared in the media, as Hani himself put it: “The president is not perfect. I would chuck him in the bin if I had a better choice. But between him and the Sunni extremist opposition, I would go for the lesser of the two evils”

The writer is a faculty member at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, she is on a journey through Middle East tracing the path of Islam from where it began. Follow her travel stories at and

Sunday, 17 June 2012

There is nothing new in Egypt ...

Egyptian mobile company Mobinil has found an extremely cheap and effective way to advertise itself in Cairo Airport. Shining billboards welcome foreign tourists and journalists  with very provoking quotes from US president Obama (We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people) and the former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi (There is nothing new in Egypt. Egyptians are making history as usual).

On the eve of the new government, the quote of Obama echoes one of the my most favorite sayings: “When people fear the authority, we have dictators. When the authority fears the people, we have democracy”. Although the young Egyptian people that Obama honored are those who started the revolution and ended up empty handed, it is now clear that the new President, be it Shafiq - an ex-regime candidate or Muslim Brotherhood – a movement that has stolen the Arab Spring, must take its people into account. In short, not another Mubarak.

For Berlusconi, he (for once, thanks God), has a point. Being one of the three oldest civilizations in the world and still standing after 5000 years, making history seems to be a 9 to 5 job of every single Egyptian. Together with the recent court’s ruling to dissolve the parliament, more than ever, Egypt at the cross road is wide open for surprise. 

Thán phục hết nước công ty Mobinil của Ai Cập với chiêu quảng cáo vửa rẻ vừa ngon ở sân bay Cairo. Khắp tường trên kính dưới lấp lánh hai câu nói của Tổng Thống Mỹ Obama “Chúng ta phải giáo dục con em mình để chúng giống như những người trẻ tuổi Ai Cập” và của cựu Thủ Tướng Ý: “Có cái gì mới lạ ở Ai Cập đâu. Người Ai Cập chỉ vẫn đang bận bịu với việc tạo dựng lịch sử như chuyện thường ngày ở huyện thôi mà”.

Cái ý của Obama khiến tôi nhớ tới một câu nói tôi từng rất thích (bây giờ thì nhìn với vẻ soi mói hơn là thích): “Chế độ độc tài là khi người dân sợ chính quyền. Chế độ dân chủ là khi chính quyền sợ người dân”. Mặc dù những người trẻ mà Obama vinh danh khởi đầu cách mạng rồi kết thúc trắng tay, có một điều chắc chắn rằng chính quyền mới dù là thân chế độ cũ Shafiq hay Muslim Brotherhood - tổ chức đã cướp diễn đàn của Mùa xuân Ả rập, đều sẽ phải dè chừng người dân hơn.

Về câu nói của Berlusconi, ơn Chúa là ông ta dẫu sao cũng được một lần phun ra vài từ có ý nghĩa (nhận xét có phần hằn học vì bản thân không ưa Berlusconi J). Là một trong 3 nền văn minh lâu đời nhất thế giới, hơn 5000 năm tuổi và vẫn đứng vững vàng, người Ai Cập quả là đáng nể phục. Trước thềm một chính phủ mới, lịch sử Ai Cập lại đứng giữa ngã ba đường, tiếp tục trò chơi ú òa cho thế giới thót tim với vô số điều bất ngờ dấu trong tay áo.      

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Sleepless in Cairo

Tahrir square (Cairo) at 3 am. Thousands of protesters still occupy the ground. They want a new revolution as dictator Mubarak may get away with his crime in the Supreme Court and his ministers walked free from all charges. I spent the whole night with the protesters, being introduced to everyone by no other than the leader of one of the most important revolutionary movement in Egypt: The free forum for Change. In this picture, you see Layla and her brother wide awake. At 3am, children their age are supposed to dream about Disney land. Tonight they are here learning to support a democratic land. Not sure if they understand it but I am certain they are the youngest protesters on the ground.