Monday, June 25, 2012

Coming to Houston

This is another post from my US reporting tour, I decided to publish my Texas posts first before my Washington DC posts.

We arrived in Houston after a not-so-long drive from Austin. About an hour and a half after leaving Austin, we entered the town of Brenham. 

It is a small town, by small I mean tiny. The kind of town where houses are colorful and lawns are mowed.

We left the bus fast as we had 30 minutes to find a place to eat and come back to the bus.  As we walked around, it seemed that we invaded the town. Everytime I looked around, it was us, the 34 foreigners in this little town in Texas. 

We walked into a restaurant and overwhelmed them with our orders. The waiter was running around and told us that they were focusing on getting our orders. After that, he told that it will take sometime to pack our orders to go!

 I actually got up and walked to the kitchen offering to help pack our lunches as we had little time.

I found another guy and the chef working hard to pack our orders. I don't think they've ever received as many guests.

We left the restaurants, I went with another girl to a little deli to buy ice-cream. I felt so overwhelmed by the ice-cream flavors , I ended up getting a pie. I also didn't go for anything fancy like pecan pie or key-lime pie , I went for a classic apple pie and it was the best choice I made.

We arrived in Houston, a large city with many sky-scrappers at about 5 pm. I went up to my room, rested and came down at 6:30.

About ten of us left the hotel, walking aimlessly hoping to find an open shop or restaurant. 

I looked around and told the group that I felt like we are in a movie. It was the weird post-apocalyptic American films where a modern city is hit by something (flying spiders/ some weird endemic) and we are the only survivors walking around to find other survivors.

Yes, it was a quite city and we were trying to find people. 

Today, as we were sitting in a meeting room with a young network. We were told that the heat is driving people indoors. 

"They are sitting in air-conditioned buildings or the tunnels." she said.

I only explored the tunnels on my last day in Houston. I was sitting in my lobby checking my email when a bunch of friends from the tour asked me to hurry and come with them.

I packed up my belongings in a hurry and ran upstairs. From the second floor of the hotel, we walked from tunnel to tunnel. It was our last day together and we were sad, but the 45 minutes we spent in the tunnels trying to get to a high-rise building and then back to the hotel were just wonderful.

I was with Rabab, the opinionated Egyptian girl who always takes care of me. T.C, the quiet Liberian  who can really walk in stilettos. Andrew, the first Jamaican I've ever met and also one of the funniest guys I've ever met. There was also Somaya from Oman, I've grown accustomed to her loud, expressive and fast way of talking and her kindness. Kwabena, the gentleman from Ghana who was a favorite to all the ladies because of his sweetness. And Farrah , the short Jordanian girl who braided my hair on Monday and makes-up really funny words. 

We walked really fast from tunnel to tunnel, all the way making fun of African stereotypes. Kwabena kept telling Andrew to forget about the stereotypes the minute he sets foot in Jamaica. They tease each other all the time, but they grew really close really fast.

When we first reached Houston, we kept wondering why it is so empty. We walked around like we are the 10 survivors looking for other people. Now , I know why…people are literally undergrounds.

The tunnels have a life of their own..newsstands, little cute cafes and other services. 

Finally, we took an elevator at a high-rise building. There was only one option to choose, 58. Once you hit that button, there is no way out. After a short-elevator ride, we were all there on the 58th floor of a building (don't remember the name). The view was spectacular. We saw Houston clearly and invented a new job called "the parking spotter". Because up there, we were able to see empty parking spots and parking everywhere is a problem.

On the way back to the tunnel leading to our hotel, we got lost. As much as we were all stressed out about being late as we all had flights to catch and some had to finish up some packing…I was happy that we had more time to spend together…

Meeting Mary Gonzales

I met Gonzales at Campaign Academy, an academy where high school students and college students come together to mobilize voters for the democratic party. She was a key speaker that day and we were there to listen to her speak as part of the election reporting tour I'm part of right now.

Gonzales didn't speak for a long time but left a lasting impression. She has engaged in social activism from a  young age seeing that she grew up in "Colines" they are similar to shanty-towns and people there have no access to water, gas, electricity and sewage.

Growing up amidst this poverty, she worked hard, graduated from college and is currently pursuing a PhD.

She is now running as a Democrat for State Representative in District 75 which is El-Paso. She arrived with little fuss. A short woman with her hair in a  bun and the kind-of American accent I heard on sit-coms.

By calling herself a "fighter" for South Texas, the poverty-stricken area she is from, she began her engaging talk. 

Gonzales explained that activism and dedication to a cause has a Last year, she made 17,000 USD and spent 10,000 on tuition. Even now, her work  and campaign are taking a toll on her.

When asked about how she does it all , she said jokingly.

"Very little sleep and a lot of coffee,"

Creating change and making a different has a lot of personal sacrifice, she told us. 

Having seen many activists struggle on a personal and financial level in Sudan made me relate to her. It is a different kind of struggle, but its still the kind of struggle that is so personal and its very difficult to communicate it to other people.

Gonzales brings people together. She is a woman representing youth and is openly gay, the first openly gay representative in her district.

Her candidacy came at an interesting time when America is going through many changes in the area of LGBT rights.

Just last month, Obama was called by Time America's gay president after he said that he will make it possible for LGBT to get married.

To me, her sexual orientation defines her , but also does not define her. She is open about her orientation and appeals to the LGBT community, but she also appeals to other people. She is active in the Hispanic community, as she has latino origins and she was also active organizing graduate students as a student. 

Her method is mobilization is simple. It comes down to being grass-root. I had the chance to ask her about grass-root engagement and how sometimes you become disengaged and find yourself in your office away from your base. 

She told us about block-walking. She walks to different blocks, knocks on doors and talks to people about their issues. 

She said when she block-walks, all the stress goes away.

The stress, I believe is always there. When you are campaigning and reaching out to people, you become the center of attention..and when you become the center of attention, you are bombarded with daily criticisms. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

US tour

As you know, I'm in the US for a reporting tour focusing on "youth in politics". I have a number of unfinished blog posts. I should post soon....

It turns out…. I'm not the crazy one…..

I'm having a difficult time now that I'm in the US for a few days and mass protests are breaking out in Sudan.
The protests began on Saturday when female protestors from the University of Khartoum dorms protested the ever-increasing food prices and transportation costs. They walked over to the male dorms and male and female students left the dorms in large numbers.

The protest was aborted by the police who attacked the students in an attempt to disperse them.

The students did not succumb and continued protesting the rest of the day and on Sunday, the situation escalated and the police entered the university campus. 

The students were beaten and viciously attacked, however, they fought back and kicked out the police from the campus.

The protests continue and have spread to Sudan and Ahlia Universities and there are reports of protests in Jackson Square in downtown Khartoum, in Kober (a neighborhood in Bahri) and Burri (a neighborhood in Khartoum).

I'm trying my best to tweet and retweet to connect Sudan to the world and spread awareness, but I feel really sad that I'm not there.

When I left Sudan, over a week ago, I was very down. I visited a friend who is a journalist the day before I left and she told me that sometimes she thinks  we , the activists, are the crazy ones. 

"Why are the people not out there on the streets?" we have been asking this question for sometime now. We are probably one of the most revolutionary people in the world, we have revolted a number of times in history against the colonial powers and against two military dictatorships in 1964 and 1985, why not now?

So today when I got up early in the morning to make calls, send emails and read the latest news, I couldn't help but burst into tears. 

I was very happy that students are finally rising and my disappointment is replaced by a lot of positive energy.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Conversation with a taxi-driver in Austin

We had about two hours before our next appointment. My plan was simple, take a taxi and go to Book People, an independent bookstore in Austin, the capital of Texas. I didn't have time to go to a bookstore in DC and I've read about Book People. 

At Book People, I bought books and a magazine, had a quick bite with a friend and we rushed out of Book People to make back on time. Yes, there was a small digression when my eyes fell on Anthropologie. We stopped there for 5 minutes and then crossed the street to find a taxi.

We waited for about ten minutes before a taxi van finally came our way. We were running late and thanked him for being at the right place at the right time.

Since I'm in the US as part of a pre-election reporting tour on youth and politics, I began talking to him about politics.

The taxi driver was in his early 30s and the first thing you notice about him are the tattoos. His hair is shaved and there is a big tattoo on his head. His arms swell are covered with tatoos. 

This is a rebel, I thought…

Are you following the elections? I asked and indicated that he is listening to a radio show discussing the elections.

"I am not…….  I'm an anarchist, I don't believe in governments. I don't like authority," he said.

I've read about anarchism recently out of interest, but I've never met an anarchist. I became even more interested and asked about his political color or leaning.

He identified as a libertarian, but in the elections, he leans towards the democratic party.

Part of him saw the Republican party as the 1%. 

"If you are the 1% , you are in your yacht, eating fancy food and you don't want to help the people starving on the streets, I think of you as a punk," he told me.

The taxi-driver was a Texan. He grew up in what he called the "Hilly-Billy" areas,  a little town a few hours away from Austin. He grew up in a conservative town where religion was a big part of life.

Ever since he was old enough to make decisions, he began distancing himself from that lifestyle.

"I'm a vegan now, I do not hunt and I don't like people using religion to tell me what to do," he told me.

Just before he dropped us off, he told me that he will vote this year….for the first time in his life.

To read my conversations with taxi/amjad drivers in Sudan..go to:

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

لا للتعذيب

"قامت مجموعة من منسوبي المؤتمر الوطني بالإعتداء على الطالب مختار بدر الاهليه، و قد تم إقتياده من قبل أمنجية المؤتمر الوطني في الجامعة الأهلية تحت عيون و آذان الحرس الجامعي و مجموعة من الطلاب و تم تعذيبه بصورة وحشية لا تشبه أحدا سواهم ، و الأدهى من ذلك قاموا بكتابة لفظ الجلالة عل رأسه عن طريق (موس) مما سبب له إلتهابات حادة و قد قاموا بفعلتهم البغيضة هذه داخل مسجد الجامعة الأهلية ، هذا و يجدر الإشارة إلى أن المستشفى الذي قام الرفاق بالذهاب له لإجراء عملية فحص للرفيق  
رفضت إستقباله


Last week, on Friday to be specific, was my birthday. 

I'm known for my big parties. Every year I have a theme. For my 21st , it was Ice-cream and people dressed according to their favorite ice-cream flavor and last year, it was called Toub Chiffoun and White Jalabeya and I wore a colorful toub. 

If you know me, you would think I'm always happy, an eternal optimist they call me.  But, I was so down on my birthday, I wasn't planning on leaving the house to be honest. I ignored messages and phone calls until a friend kidnapped me from my house at just after 6 p.m.

I turned 23 last week. I was born exactly 29 days before the coup. In total, only 29 days in my whole life were under a democratic rule.

My birthday festival continued, thanks to my wonderful friends, they showered me with gifts, bought me nutella and organized a boat party for me. I'm grateful for having them in my life. I'm grateful that in 2012, although my grandfather passed away, my mother's health has been good so far. I'm grateful for that.

At a friend's house, between sips of grape juice and eating fries, we talked about the lack of men in Sudan. It seems that many guys we know have left Sudan in the last two years or so.

One of my good friends called from Dubai to say happy birthday. Another friend also called and texted, he left Sudan in 2009.

Cousins have left for the gulf, others are looking for jobs abroad. They all want out.

Its not only men. It seems that people are leaving Sudan…… Its as if we are in the early 1990s , a time when my parents and all their friends left Sudan. We lived in Egypt in 1991-1993, hoping to end up in Canada. The procedure was going very well until my father voted against it. "I don't want my girls to become Canadian, I want them to remain Sudanese," he told my mother. 

We remained Sudanese and we moved back to Sudan. 

In early April, I was walking to Jackson with my friend who is also a journalist. She told she was laid off work. A few days later, my editor told me that they can't afford my section anymore. I made $100 a month writing and editing the english section on a weekly basis.

I had another job, so it wasn't such a severe blow. Over the weeks, my other journalist friends were getting laid off, some were quitting.

"The work environment is so unhealthy", told me one friend.

They all want to leave Sudan. Their lives have stopped. Some have security problems and can't find another job, some want to runaway to save their marriages and lives. Some have given up on Sudan. It is hard to remain hopeful for more than…23 years.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

تهكير موقع وزارة الداخلية السودانية

رسالة في الصميم تعكس معاناة المواطن السوداني

The Activist Community and Its Discontents

I've always taken a strong stance against injustice. Whether its the wars raging in various parts of Sudan ,  the displaced people who have no home to call their own and the torture victims who are traumatized for good….

I think it all started when I read about El-Daein massacre of 1987. 1,500 Dinka were massacred, but it wasn't the number that caught my attention. It was the way they were massacred, every time they tried to escape, the killers caught on with them until they finished them off. I remember reading the details of the massacre from a book called Emma's war to my sister and her telling me "wow, they were so adamant on killing them".  

When I moved to Sudan for good at 20, fresh out of college and ready to elect Yasir Arman ( that is another big post), I found myself part of a community of activists. Since I was against injustice and in my opinion, this regime was an impediment to peace and social justice in Sudan, why not advocate for change?

All of a sudden, I found myself an "activist". I was interviewed and quoted as a human rights advocate and invited to events because I'm "active". 

The more "Active" I became, the more critical I became of the activist community. From an idealistic, point-of-view, I would not have written this post in February because I thought that as activists we should not give the regime a chance to smirk and poke fun at us for any reason. Maybe this is why I feel conflicted writing this post…I digress...

But then again, I write this with good intentions. I will point out some deep flaws I've observed in the activist community.

-The Activist Clique: the activist community feels like a clique, a small community who know each other and share information and about events with each other. This small circle of communication has a strong security aspect to it.  The activists, rightfully, fear the involvement of "sub-marines" or security agents who infiltrate to collect information about activists or sabotage their work. My main problem with this is… kind-off need to involve more people for an event to be a success. For example, I've managed to attract a number of friends and family members to events and solidarity movements just by telling them about the events. I've found out that so many people are interested and willing to come, they just need to know about it!
-The Internet: I've had long discussions about this with some activists. I feel that Sudanese activists are still not using the internet properly. Yes, we can argue that the internet does not reach a big number of Sudanese people and maybe a large number don't own computers, but after the new offer of 1 pound a day for internet , its easy to use your phone to access the internet. I wish many people distribute information on Facebook and through twitter. There is a gap between activists who consider themselves field activists and who look down on "online activists". Why can't you be both? I've had great experiences attracting people from twitter to field events such as the Awadia memorial. 

-Using email: if you are an activist or a journalist, you would probably know that you shouldn't talk on the phone. Phones are bad, need I explain more? It is so easy to tap phones and use anything you say against you , this is why we should rely more on internet. Having an email is not enough if you don't check your emails for days in a row.

-Forums and Events:  I remember going to a conference last October and I was given the mic to give the last comment. I said " I know every single person in this room, whether by name or I have seen you before and I find this very sad". They enjoyed my comment, but then again, the intellectual community in Sudan has a history of holding events to share information. This information, written in very difficult language, does not extend beyond the halls and meeting rooms. There is a great distance between the people and the intellectuals. The academic papers, although important and very rich in information, are given to like-minded people and end-up gathering dust on shelves or desks. 

-Political Parties: Yes, the government has harassed the traditional parties into poverty, inactivity and caused many of their members into exile, but lets get tough on the parties. Our political parties have failed us, they have failed to lead us out of this dark tunnel, this is a fact.

*Here are some thoughts*

-The faces of the parties are old and have already held political offices. I've heard this many times: so if Al-Bashir was ousted, who will come, Al-Turabi or Al-Mahdi will probably come to power. I doubt this will happen, but it doesn't help that they are not delegating to new generations. This makes me wonder, is it because the parties are not attracting youth in the first place or is it because the older generations are power-obsessed? مشروع الكنكشة

-The parties are letting down their own constituencies. The traditional political parties have historically won elections because they had strong-holds whether in East-Sudan, West-Sudan or Northern states, but they are losing them faster than they know it. E.g: The Manasir have traditionally rooted for the Democratic Unionist Party. What did the DUP do during their months-long protest? Nothing

-Removal or reform: Please make up your mind, I am bored. The communist party and the Popular Congress Party are sure about their position, they want regime-change, but the other parties are somewhere in the middle. If parties do not agree on one position and work towards it, they might as well join the government and take-over the ministry of jeans or some random ministry.

-The People: there is anger within the activist community... We often ask: we don't Sudanese people revolt? Are they that apathetic? Just when we think things can't get worse,…we are surprised. Our economy is collapsing so fast, the IMF and World Bank are in shock. It seems that even the upper middle-class is struggling, you find every single family member working but yet families can't save money, they barely keep up with the ever-increasing prices. 

The more I think about it, the more it becomes clear to me. The people don't comprehend what the activist community is on about.  You can not ask an average Sudanese man to come to a solidarity march at 12 p.m. when he is too busy trying to figure out how to make money to feed his family. There is discontent all over Sudan, I've visited North Darfur and Gedarif state this year and from talking to people there, they want change, but we are waiting for it to happen. 

I remember a show-host in Al-Jazeera once said: Sudanese people complain that we don't cover Sudan, but they are expecting to wake up one day and find people on the streets (my paraphrasing). 
No, they are expecting to wake-up one day and watch a revolution unfold on Al-Jazeera.

-The rest of Sudan: there is a huge divide between Khartoum and the rest of Sudan. It is true, change truly happens from the center of power, the capital, however, there needs to be coordination with other regions of Sudan. They, more than any other group, ask: Sudan has endured two revolutions and nothing has benefited us. This is why they have become isolated from the activists in Khartoum. Some took-up arms (Darfur, East Sudan at some point, SPLM-N in Blue Nile and South Kordofan) and some are fighting their own battles (the people of Kajbar). When I was in North Darfur in March, I met a number of young guys, many of them told me that they have joined armed movements at some points because they gave up on change, gave up on life. They were happy I exist, they were happy I came to see them. They told me "we have been waiting for someone from Khartoum to come, to talk to us, to understand how we feel". When I came back and almost got into an argument with an activist who claimed that the people of Darfur don't trust "us" and want to fight their own battle. So, lets be clear here, do we want to change the government or the entire system? If we truely want change, we need social justice and equality not just a different government with the same superiority complex. 

I think this post is incoherent , but I just wanted to touch on a  number of issues. I hope, in the near future, I divulge into them separately and share my observations from my short-time fighting against injustice.