Archive for the ‘Encounters around the world’ Category

Anti-social Networking: can sexual thugs be democrats?

Monday, February 28th, 2011

New media leave brutish, sexist values untouched in Mideast

The power of social media like Facebook and Twitter has been part of the giddy, feel-good narrative of the Arab uprisings. And we Americans have a tendency to think that as our technologies and pastimes spread, so will our values. But it’s equally true that technologies are fitted into existing social forms, benign or otherwise.

When news broke of television reporter Lara Logan’s abuse at the hands of an Egyptian mob, I felt instant regret: When writing a story a few days earlier, I’d edited out references to beastly conduct by some Egyptian men.

During a long-ago visit to Egypt, men would shout to me in the street asking whether I wanted to have sexual intercourse. (They used a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word.) They asked even while I was bicycling with my boyfriend.

During the recent uprising, though, this sort of thing seemed at first to be ancient history. Women participated in the Tahrir Square demonstrations and the groping that they often meet with on the streets of Cairo was absent in the square.

And so I wrote of my visit to Egypt not that I had been constantly harassed, but that “what struck me was the lack of civility in the public street.”

Then the story of the Feb. 11 attack on Logan broke. The boorishness I experienced in 1978 was not outdated at all. And that is bad news for Egypt.

Democracy doesn’t develop just anywhere. It’s nourished by certain kinds of civil society. It’s hard to imagine a strong democracy in a country where, say, 50 percent of the citizens routinely abuse the others. And Egypt seems to be this sort of place. An oft-cited 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found not just that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in Cairo had been harassed, but that 62 percent of men admitted to perpetrating this abuse.

It’s not just a few bad apples, but 62 percent of Egyptian men. Sexual harassment isn’t even a crime in Egypt. The Egyptian Parliament was supposed to consider criminalizing it, but then the revolution came.

The Logan incident has a few more bitter lessons for those of us who support democracy in the Middle East.

If 62 percent of Egyptian men are sexual thugs, it’s likely that some of those Facebook- and Twitter-using, democracy-supporting Egyptian men we’ve been seeing on TV are sexual thugs, too. Nor should this be all that surprising. In the U.S., teenagers have driven other teenagers to suicide by online teasing, and the persecutors in such cases probably believe in democracy and the Bill of Rights.

Technologies like movies, television and mobile phones have increased the general knowledge base in developing countries, and allowed poor people more economic options. Anglo-American pop music has had real cultural effects in the rest of the world. But social media let any given society be itself more efficiently — not something better. Social media may “empower” ordinary people in repressive societies, to the extent of making it easier for them to gather together and protest. But social media leave basic power relationships and habits intact. They are egalitarian in the sense that any literate person with access to a computer can use them — but they don’t make societies more egalitarian. (Nor do they determine who becomes literate or has access to a computer.) You can just as easily tweet a call for genocide as a report of police brutality.

Technology doesn’t change a traditional society. As I’ve seen in Afghanistan, where I spend a few months a year, you can be a mobile-phone-mad university graduate with a Facebook page, and still unquestioningly accept that your parents will choose your spouse.

Kabul has movie theaters that show foreign films, but only men go to theaters in Afghanistan. You can buy a frozen chicken from China in Mazar-i-Sharif (in fact, it’s cheaper than a fresh, locally raised chicken), but the chicken buyers are men, because women don’t shop for food in Afghanistan. And while Egyptian men are part of the online community of Facebook, women in the streets of Egypt are not treated the same way as they are in the West.

I wish the democrats of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and other Arab nations every success. But some of the men in those protests need to get out of their own way — and that of their women. The democracy they say they want involves a level of respect for women that isn’t in evidence. And as Americans watch the inspiring events unfolding in the Arab world, we need to remember that having a Facebook page doesn’t make a man modern, or ready for civil society.

Serena Confidential: Intrigue at Kabul’s Only 5-star

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

“It’s like high school,” I said to Matt, “with people gossiping about who’s walking with whom or sitting in the lunchroom together.” We were in the coffee shop of Kabul’s only five-star hotel, the Serena.

Matt lives there while on assignment in Kabul; I was on my longest stay to date, eight days of luxury in the midst of Afghan squalor.

We’d been debriefing one another, gossiping about our fellow guests–-Ambassador Zal, it seemed, had just checked in to a room down the hall from Matt’s, while our mutual friend Tawfiq was checking out, heading to Dubai, it later emerged.

I’d seen Tawfiq, a businessman with connections high in the Karzai government, the night before at a party by the British Embassy’s pool, and he hadn’t breathed a word about his departure—but then, I hadn’t even told him I was coming to Kabul. When we ran into each other in the Serena coffee shop, he barely contained his surprise.

Something about Kabul makes everyone act like spies, though not, alas, in the high-Bondian style. Because the Serena is dry (think Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or, indeed, high school), its coffee shop occupies the social niche that bars usually hold. And so the Serena doesn’t have the fun quotient of, say, the Al Hamra pool scene I remember from Baghdad in May and June 2003, or the legendary rooftop bar of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel in the 1960s.

Tawfiq seems to live in the Serena coffee shop, telling everyone about an extremely complicated business deal gone wrong. The other habitués run the gamut: dazed-looking Japanese aid bureaucrats, plump Afghan businessmen, small clusters of what my friend Lisa calls “teshukor ladies.” “Teshukor” is the Dari for “thank you,” and it’s the only Dari this species seems to know. They are women of a certain age who do good works, like training Afghan women to sell useless small handicrafts. They veil themselves profusely so as not to be culturally insensitive, and I don’t have the heart to tell them that when you’re sexually hors de combat, no one cares whether you cover your head or not.

Because there’s just one place like it, everyone ends up at the Serena sooner or later, both wealthy Afghans and foreign workers (called “internationals” rather than the quaint-sounding “expats”). Recently, another friend had called to tell me he’d just seen a powerful Afghan political figure materialize in the large, open Serena lobby in the company of an American from Spectre Group. (No, you couldn’t make that up. There is something very literal about Afghanistan. It took me years to realize that the reason some Afghan businessmen of my acquaintance wore black shirts with white ties wasn’t that they were from “another culture”; they dressed like gangsters because … they were gangsters.)

The Serena lobby boasts none of the nooks and crannies of grand old Western hotels—the coffee shop comes closest—so sightings tend to be immediate and journalists quickly start texting and emailing. The hotel is probably wired–-the only question is by whom, and what tolerance they have for tedium. I can picture the bored monitors listening with headphones in some basement: “If I have to hear Tawfiq complaining about his business partners again…”

This was just the second time I’d stayed at the Serena in eight years of visiting Afghanistan regularly. It didn’t exist in my first trips in 2002-2003, the rough times when I’d lose ten pounds on a month-long stay, and then when it opened, in 2005, it seemed decadent to stay there. The cost of one night, about $200 at the “journalist’s rate,” was a decent Afghan salary. Most of us visitors rented rooms at the homes of other internationals, which also provided access to English-medium social life. I sometimes went to the Serena to swim laps in its pool, Kabul’s best, but I resented the $31 charge.

In 2005–2006, when I spent a fair amount of time in Kabul, any stay in town was a guilty pleasure, and even the most modest guesthouse or international’s home was a five-star fleshpot in comparison to the life I led while visiting Afghan friends in the provinces. Hot showers, flush toilets, wireless Internet, espresso, and the chance to exercise were all thrills. (What ultimately drove me crazy about real Afghan life was the enormous amount of time spent sitting.) Kabul social life, by contrast, was great fun, with mad, adventurous sorts and a lopsided male-female ratio to gladden the heart of a woman past her prime.

By the summer of 2007, as it became clear that Afghanistan wasn’t going to grow its way out of poverty and instability until the insurgency ended, I started going on embeds with the American Army. This offered the comforts I was culturally primed to value—the gyms and coffee shops and real bathrooms, and food that didn’t make you sick. Having spent my share of time projectile vomiting or urinating blood in remote locations, digestive calm counted as a huge advantage. I would spend brief stints in Kabul to interview generals and government officials, but my life was once again in the provinces. I had the sense—or perhaps I just wanted to believe—that Kabul social life wasn’t as amusing as it used to be, with free spirits replaced by mercenaries, and then by bureaucrats.

This April, I stayed at the Serena for the first time, between visits to Afghan friends in Khost and Kabul and an embed in Zabul Province. It was mainly the pool that drew me: By April, it routinely climbs to 90 degrees at midday. Every day, I swam a mile or more. Every day, I chose my breakfast from the elaborate buffet, which even includes sushi for Japanese guests. (All the meals at the Serena are buffet style, and its nearest competitor, the Intercontinental, has an equally lavish but cheaper variation. Afghans know that they can’t be poisoned by their enemies at a buffet.) Sometimes I’d fire off an email to a colleague, “E.M. having breakfast with L.T and unknown African American—who?”

But every time I walked through the Serena locker room to the outdoor pool, I thought for a moment about an acquaintance, Thor Hesla, who was murdered there on January 14, 2008, in the course of a Taliban suicide assault on the hotel.

I’d met Thor at what still passes for Kabul’s raciest bar, the bunker under the Gandamack Lodge, just a month or so before. It was a memorable night, not least because it was the only time I’d kicked someone to the ground outside a martial arts dojo. A fellow American had picked a fight with me about opium cultivation statistics. (Where else but Kabul?) When he called me a “f***ing bitch,” I couldn’t help myself: thwack! An hour later, I met Thor and a much nicer group of Americans. He was funny and smart, and after an hour’s chat I hoped to add him to the list of my Kabul friends. But that was not to be.

Reminders of danger lurk elsewhere in the Serena. The outside-facing rooms are undesirable, not just for the street noise, but because the Serena has been a favorite target for rioters and, at no higher than three stories, the rooms rest easily in the crosshairs of high-powered rifles. Tawfiq liked to talk about a frenemy who boasted that he had the largest room in the hotel. “But when he invited me up there, I saw that he also had the worst room in the hotel—it was right by the street!”

On this pre-election trip, I got to re-immerse myself in Kabul’s international life. I attended a formal birthday dinner at the French restaurant Le Bistro, where the other women’s floor length dresses made me abashed for my clothes, more suited to trailing soldiers around Zabul. Then there was a traditional Afghan garden party at the home of a very gracious Afghan-American businesswoman, and a drink at the Gandamack with an old friend. We agreed that the crowd was more female, younger, and less eccentric. The glory days of Kabul’s social life might be gone.

The pleasure on this last trip came in rushing about trying to stay ahead of events, which moved at a frenetic pace before the end of Ramazan paralyzed the country during a four-day holiday. (“What do you do for Eid,” I asked Afghan friends when I first learned about Ramazan. “We visit our families”. “But you do that every day,” I replied.)

Grab your BlackBerry and your two phones (one for each of the major mobile carriers, for those occasional network outages) and head out to the central bank, or a political gathering, or to ISAF (the Kafka-esque warren where the war is run, guarded by barely-English speaking soldiers from countries one wasn’t entirely certain existed—thank you, gallant little Macedonia). Or NTM-A (the blander, more rational command center for the disastrous mission of training the quite irrational Afghan Army and police), or one of those eerily quiet Afghan government ministries.

Many of my colleagues on the right side of the spectrum still spin every obvious disaster in Afghanistan as an opportunity, but it’s been clear to me for about a year that all the trend lines point Down, and that very little can be done to reverse that without changing the Afghan government. I sometimes wonder how much longer the Serena will be open. And, more to the point, under the regime that sooner or later topples Karzai’s, will they still let women use the pool?

Ferrara for Me

Monday, March 31st, 2008

The understated charm of the “first modern city.”
by Ann Marlowe
03/31/2008, Volume 013, Issue 28

After three decades of visits to Italy, I stumbled upon the perfect small Italian city. It’s a wonderfully livable haven which offers the best case for the Italian way of life, as lived in exquisite surroundings–not uncommon in Italy–but with a rare civility and sense of the common good.

It has a long history of violence and despotism–in 1264 it was the first free Italian city to cede its liberty to what would today be called a warlord–but also of enlightened city planning, art, and intellectual endeavor. Tasso wrote his Jerusalem Delivered here, and Ariosto his Orlando Furioso. Antonioni was born here and, until recently, had a museum devoted to him. Because it was planned, Jakob Burckhardt called it the “first modern city” of Europe: Ferrara, a gem of the 14th and 15th centuries.

The gently curving streets of small earth-toned town houses are interrupted every few blocks by a 14th-century palace or austere Romanesque church that would merit guidebook notice in many towns but doesn’t even make the tourist map here. There are a few major buildings and museums to visit–the Castelle Estense (Este Castle), the Cathedrale, Palazzo Schifanoia, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale–but, mainly, Ferrara is to be enjoyed, and explored over a leisurely couple of days. A college town–the university was founded in 1391–it is full of bookstores and offers an alarming number of cultural activities.

Overshadowed by its larger neighbor, Bologna, a half-hour away, Ferrara is virtually untouristed. I had been to Bologna two or three times before I first visited Ferrara this past summer. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage city, but you can stand in front of the cathedral at 10 in the morning and see not a busload of tourists but small clusters of older Ferrarese men, well-dressed, standing by their bicycles and chatting with each other.

This brings me to another of Ferrara’s virtues: It’s a cyclist’s dream. Compact and flat, Ferrara has one of the highest rates of bike use in Europe: Thirty-one percent of its citizens use them to get around. Many Italian towns are plagued by incessant traffic noise–and the ambient anxiety of being smeared against an exquisite medieval stone wall by one of the cars careening down a ten-foot wide road never meant for motor traffic. In Ferrara, you can walk and think, rather than dodging scooters and cars.