Table of Contents

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

When you don't know why you're here...

Sometimes you end up in places and you’re not sure how or why. Coming to Egypt was like that for me. 

Egypt has always intrigued me, but for some reason I never thought about moving here. That is, until, almost by accident, I travelled here for a little over a week in May. I had been living in Tunis and working as a journalist for over a year, and was supposed to be traveling to Egypt with my Tunisian friend. Plans fell through, as they often do, and suddenly I was going there alone, completely dependent on the hospitality and kindness of new Egyptian friends.

It turned out that Egypt was the perfect place to be when I needed to rely on others. With the help of my friends, I fell completely in love with the people, culture, history, and tempo of Egypt. While Tunisia is one of North Africa and the Middle East’s hidden oases, Egypt is the pulsing core. They are connected to everything: in history, trade and foreign relations. And Egyptians know it. I’ve never met a people so proud of their heritage and ready to share it. 

I went back to Tunisia to do a freelance project and continue searching for a full time job. When the “Rebel” movement happened in June, overthrowing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from office, I was itching to be in Cairo, waiting by my phone to hear if everyone was safe. I couldn’t wait to get back, and in July I travelled there again, this time for a month. 

The month was a whirlwind. In Cairo there were curfew parties, late-night checkpoints, and long nights spent watching movies and playing games with friends, who kept me far away from danger. In Alexandria, I saw a different side of Egyptian life. At a local NGO, Christians and Muslims worked together at a mother and child daycare and training centre, offering up love into the lives of less fortunate. Then my friends and I escaped to another world in Sahel, the North Coast, which reminded me more of a Florida resort and beach party than Egypt. 

When I got back to Tunis, most of the people I loved there were gone- on holiday, or working somewhere else. The city felt empty and lifeless. I had been without full-time work for months, and I was getting desperate...and bored. It was time for me to move on. Within ten days, I had two job interviews scheduled, packed up my life, and got back on a plane headed to Cairo for the third time in four months, this time for good. Even now, almost four months later, my head is still spinning from how fast my life turned completely upside-down. 

I’m a journalist. At least, I thought I was until I found myself applying, interviewing for, and then accepting a job as an English teacher at an American Egyptian school. You see, it turns out that where I live became more important than how I make a living. Loving people and making a difference in the world became more important than my chosen method of doing so. 

I’ll be honest- I am often frustrated that I am not moving in the direction I wanted to in my career. By now I hoped to be heading up a field branch of an NGO communications team. I’ve worked long and hard to achieve this dream, and I am not sure why it always seems to be just beyond my reach. 

There is also the fact that living in North Africa has taken its toll. Life here happens on a different level than it does in Canada. In Canada I was never afraid that my friends would be killed or injured when they went to a protest. In Canada I didn’t work in a place where the cleaners could die if they got sick because they don’t make enough money for the doctor. In Canada life, joy, and sorrow happen much more quietly than here- and so relationships happen on a higher frequency in Egypt too. The arguments are tenser, the love is stronger, the feelings are deeper...and it can be exhausting. I’ve learned more about myself, about God, and about real love and sacrifice in the past four months than I have in four years. 

Enjoying the view over the Nile
Photo by Ahmed Badawi
I still don’t know why God led me to be a teacher in Egypt...or not led so much and pushed me over the ledge headfirst. But when a mother tells me that her little boy framed the birthday card I gave him, and told her, “Look Mom, a teacher finally likes me!”, the why becomes a lot less important. And when a father who has been frustrated with his son’s love of football...and not of school, watches his child perform in the winter play, then looks me in the eye and says, “Today, I was proud of him,” I forget to question whether I should be here or not. On days or nights I am the only who is there to listen to a friend, to show them love, and to tell them I am praying for them, I don’t care about my career goals. Because I know there is purpose in what I am doing.

Maybe I am not saving the world like I dreamed of. Not yet anyway. But I am saving a few kids who the world has already bashed around a bit- the ones whose fathers are leaving, who are new to school and can’t make friends, who have lost parents or friends or siblings. I am trying hard to make a difference in a country whose people will not be defeated. They are teaching me a little something about persistence, about loving even when you think you are too broken and have nothing left to give. And you don’t need God to tell you the whys, the hows, and the whens to know that that is a good thing. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Real Treasures

I have a dear friend who sits on the side of the road just behind my house in downtown Tunis. I wish I had the words in Arabic to tell her how she lights up my day each time I see her. She makes me feel as though I’ve given her the world, when all I really do is smile, say hello, and sometimes bring her a banana or a juice-box. Every time I meet her, she reminds me to be cheerful in all circumstances, and grateful for each little blessing the Lord chooses to give me. Like when she blows me a kiss or calls me “my daughter”- those are treasures that will last long after any material blessings I have go to ruin. May God be with her.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Global Fashion Nomads at the World Social Forum in Tunis 2013

We know it's a little late, but Hend Hassassi and I promised we would do a fashion recap of the incredibly diverse, colourful and creative ensembles we saw at the World Social Forum (FSM) in Tunis last month (March 2013). So here it is!

Meg: The African women at this conference won the fashion contest, hands down. 
Hend: No one said you can’t be an activist while being fashion forward.

Hend: Hamza's pants are off the hook. I also love the Amazigh flag- so beautiful. (The Amazigh are the native people of Tunisia) Meg: Please note he was also wearing grey converse- that's what I call mixing it up. And I love the rainbow band in his dreads. It's so happy.

This is Meg. Please note the epic jam session happening in the background. 

This is Hend. She's reppin' the FSM canvas bag.  Thanks for those by the way, organizers! :)

Meg: Another Amazigh flag. We can't get enough. Hend: This screams awesome. Loving the headband. And she’s rocking the Amazigh colours.

Meg: We hope we will be as stylish as him when we grown up. Hend: Is it John Lennon?!
Hend: Words fail me. Beard, camera, cargo pants...
Meg: He’s got that journalist thing going on. 

Hend: I love this. This is right from every angle. Happy hippy. Both of them.
Meg: This is why we love the Tunis frippe! Because this happens. 

Explanation- This guy was juggling during one of the concerts. 
Pants, top, scarf, hair...all of it is very good. 

This lady was from Egypt and so sweet. 
Hend: Her necklace was a clock. I loved it. 
Meg: I really liked that her hair scarf matched her sandals. 

Meg: These girls were so cute! 
Hend: They rocked the maxi skirts like no other FSM attendees could. There is a fashion lesson to be learned from this picture. 
Meg: These hijabis put our outfits to shame. Check out Ons' Tumblr page

Meg: I had to capture his tweed coat. It was amazing.
Hend: This guy is hipster without being too hipster.
(Our friend Oumayma, on hearing this, said “WHERE IS THE HIPSTER?!” Yeah...we may be a little obsessed.)

Meg: This woman’s painted t-shirts were exquisite. 
Hend: I love her earrings. SO TALENTED! Eeek.

Hend: I think this is a blend of hipster meets reggae/rastafarae. And my bag is in the corner of the picture!

Tunisia Live, present and accounted for!
Hend: Effortless.
Meg: I like their scarves :)

Hend: Can I get a “hey-a” for that skirt?
Meg: Yes you can.

Hend: These pants would be the sister of Hamza’a pants. They would be the cool siblings who love each other. 
Meg: (Is laughing too hard to comment)

Hend: She deserves a prize for the perfect outfit. Bohemian, perfect. Even her shades. She had to be so perfect she made us all feel bad!
Meg: She looks like she’s at Coachella. And her friend’s pants are so cool. 
Hend: I dedicate the song “Something” by the Beatles to this guy. 
Meg: Sometimes simplicity is best.

Meg: I had to add this for the culture in the stiches.
Hend: I love the traditional Palestinian embroidery.
Meg: And their dancing in the background! :)
Meg by a fountain. 

Meg, trying to control her hair on a windy day. 

Hend in the sun's rays.
Meg: Your necklace is amazing! We were both wearing Senegalese necklaces that day :)

Meg: She looks like she’s straight from the 60s. And I don’t know where they guys behind her are from, but they are hilarious. The whole thing is very Brady Bunch.
Hend: Yeah, definitely 60s vibe. And the guys- matchy-matchy at your age? You should be ashamed. 

Meg: I took this picture for Hend.
Hend: Those shoes! I’m already in love with the Oxford trend, but what I like about these is the mixture of tan and brown. They’re unique.

Hend: This one, seriously. It’s beyond being effortless. It reminds me of Rachel Bilson. Or a model. 
Meg: This is what I want to look like every day. The end. 

Hend: Her pants! The sandals, the scarf, everything. It’s like the perfect outfit to sport this time of year.
Meg: I loved how comfortable she looked. And the colours were so pretty and spring-like. 
Hend: Yeah, it’s effortless. 

Hend: Beautiful.
Meg: She was wearing a hair feather! :)
Hend: I really like the two colours- red and navy. And both of those girls, really good. It has hipster/street chic influence but not too much. 
Meg: Again, effortless. Sensing a theme here?

Hend: I don’t know what to say. This is what FSM is all about. People hanging out.
Meg: And if your clothes don’t let you do that, you’re not wearing the right ones. 

Meg: This woman was not afraid of colour. And her hair is so cool. As someone with pin-straight locks, can I just say I am jealous?
Hend: I am such a fan of cobalt blue. It’s the perfect spring transition colour. Not pastel, not a dark winter colour. 
And the pants- awesoooooooome! 
Hend: Her sweater is beautiful. Printed and colourful, which is what spring should be all about. And I love that she paired it with a twist- a skirt and tights. Hats off.
Meg: You definitely needed to pack a sweater for this event. The days were hot, but the nights were surprisingly cold. Always be prepared! 

Meg: They were so cool, we wanted to be their friends. It almost happened, but sadly they are back in Italy now.
Hend: I just want to be a part of their clique. They are the kind of people you want to hang out with around a bonfire, talking about life, music, all the good things.
Meg: Green pants, satchels, traveller style at its best! Come back and visit soon!

It’s us! 
Hend: Beanie, pants, jean jacket, right on. Also, I love your sandals! Those are the sandals you should wear with those kind of pants.
Meg: Thanks, they’re by iPanema. And I really loved your layers. Again, the frippe is our fashion haven. 

We hope these pictures give you a glimpse, however small, of the culture, creativity and passion of the participants of FSM 2013. We were so inspired by the panels we went to, the people we talked to and saw, and the impromptu musical jam sessions, volleyball games, dance parties, and friendships that occurred along the way. Here's hoping we can make it to FSM 2014 in Port Allegro, Brazil. Another world is possible!

PS- If you missed it, check out my (Meg) multimedia reportage on the Palestinian presence at the forum here!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hope's Grave

I woke feeling like there was a rock in my stomach, and adrenalin rushing through my veins. Today was the day. I had watched the street battles between police and protesters from my window over the past couple days, and knew things might get bad. So I packed carefully, for the dangers and possibilities I did know, and trying to anticipate those I didn’t: 
  • Cloths soaked in vinegar and lemon to hold to my face in case of tear gas
  • Water and almonds to keep me going
  • My audio recorder, camera, a notebook and extra batteries and pens
  • Money stuffed in different pockets in case my change purse was stolen
  • My passport- I don’t usually carry it, but today I wanted to be certain that if I was stopped, it was clear I was Canadian
  • An extra scarf and a baseball cap to protect from the sun
I visited my friend in an office building on Bourguiba, and we ran across the street to get crepes at the only place that was open on the whole avenue. The shops looked like eyes with their lids squeezed tight. I had seen the broken windows of days before- so it was no wonder the metals grates stayed shut. 

Another friend was waiting for me at the bookstore with her Mom. We started walking towards the cemetery, past barbed wire and police, down quiet sidestreets. We were walking behind two young men, one of them clutching a large Tunisian flag in his hand. The sun had broken through the clouds, driving away the chill air, and under our warm layers we were beginning to perspire.

As we turned the corner I saw a straggling line of people in front of me, coming from every direction and headed towards the cemetery. We crested a rise in the road, and there on the bridge, in the graveyard, on the other side of the wall, on the hill, were thousands of Tunisians. Their black coats and black hair made the red Tunisian flags stand out like bright drops of blood. I stood on a concrete slab and looked over the crowd- there were people of every age, of every economic class, and we were all waiting. One man had died with revolutionary dreams on his lips, and the pulsing life of these tens of thousands was here to prove that it was not in vain. 

We waited for a long time. First we tried to find a place to watch outside the cemetery. But, realizing that this was futile, we hopped down a wall into the rows of stones and began picking our way towards the buildings in the center. The mud squished up over our shoes, and the sky suddenly became cloudy and grey. The wind blew into the cracks in our coats as we reached the edge of a huge crowd that had gathered, and were chanting revolutionary slogans off and on. Young men, the kind you see on all the street corners of downtown Tunis, clad in tracksuits, jeans and leather jackets, were climbing the walls of the buildings, grabbing each others arms and heaving themselves up bars on the windows to stand on the roof and yell from above us. Beside me was a circular stone structure, and the students at the top stood, illuminated by the sun, waving a flag back and forth. The light made the hope on their faces shine bright as they called back and forth to the men on the roofs. 

It began to rain, and my friend and I sat underneath a bougainvillea bush. The flowers were curled up tight, as if they knew what was coming and were trying to protect themselves. 

The crowd chanted off and on for what must have been an hour. When rumours of tear gas shifted our way, my companions and I made a swift getaway to higher, more open ground at the edge of the crowd. We stood on a low wall with some mothers and daughters, and continued waiting. 

We weren’t waiting long before panic struck. We watched trickles of people making their way down the path towards the exit. The trickle became a flood, and along with it, the first whiffs of acrid tear gas. We didn’t join the crush of people on the path, but started in the opposite direction as the gas, stepping over graves and around tombstones. Beside me I heard a young girl whine in panic, “Maman...MAMAN!!!” I stepped aside to let the family keep together. I wondered how the two little girls who had been to my left were making out, but there was no time to check. 

The smell got worse, and began to burn my nose and throat. 

“Whatever you do, don’t rub your eyes- even if it hurts,” my friend warned beside me. I nodded.

Her mother was having a hard time, coughing and tripping over stones. I dug in my bag for one of the cloths and handed it to her, then took her hand. 

The graves were no longer the last resting place of the dead, but only obstacles keeping us from fresh air. Reaching it, we breathed deeply. This side of the cemetery was almost deserted. There were no police, and no bands of thugs- yet. We found another exit and stood there, waiting again. I got a call from a radio station I freelance for, for an interview later in the day. We watched people go, and then watched some of those same people come back. A group of foreigners, who my friend and I dubbed, “hipster journalists” for their bright colours, headbands and expensive cameras, passed by us twice.

Finally, judging that it was safe, we walked cautiously back towards the centre of the cemetery where Belaid’s coffin would be taken. Black smoke rose on the other side of the area, dark against the grey rain clouds. Young men had taken advantage of the chaos the past couple days to burn cars and rob mourners, some said at knifepoint. 

We climbed higher up the hill to get a view. The crowd was smaller, but still substantial. A cheer went up, and we assumed that Belaid’s procession had reached the cemetery. Down below, an opposition party leader passed and we hurried to catch a word with him. Then another group of friends met us, and we decided to leave the site together. 

As we got to the gate, a group of teenage boys with bandanas covering their faces walked in. Out of instinct, I put my recorder down by my side where they couldn't see it, and averted my eyes. Maybe I shouldn't have worn the red raincoat- between that and my pale skin and hair I was a moving target. One of the boys hit a girl in the face. She started to cry and a couple people rushed to her aid. Another tried to grab my friend’s phone out of her hand as they passed. She shrugged off our concern, her face hard when she said, “It’s normal.”

The thieves had shaken me a bit, and we were careful as we walked back. I’ve been robbed before, and didn’t want to repeat the experience, so I kept a tight grip on my keychain with the whistle attached to it. 

When we reached Bourguiba, it was a changed place. Barbed wire completely enclosed one side, and the pedestrian walkway in the middle. Police and journalists were lined up at the clock tower at the top of the street, waiting for people to come back from the funeral. I waited there for another friend who was leaving her office, and we made our way down a side-street, thinking it would be safer. But at the end, we saw the tell-tale smoke of tear gas and men hurling rocks. I pushed my friend towards Passage, where she would find a cab, and said, “Go home.” Then I started running back to Bourguiba. I slowed when I reached it but walked as fast as I could, trying to outdistance the fear that was gripping my stomach again, and praying staccato sentences in my head. I passed two American women, obviously journalists, who appeared completely unconcerned. I shot them a look that said, “You’re crazy,” and kept walking. Getting mugged by the roving bands of thugs I knew were coming didn’t seem worth it to me, even to get the story. 

I could see the rock-throwers at the end of my street, and I rushed to get my key in the lock and open the thick metal door. It was such a relief to get inside that I felt like crying- but someone had closed the wooden door within, and I didn’t have a key. I was safe between the doors, but still gripped with a kind of panic, and I called the nun who takes care of the house to get someone to come down and open it. Just as they did, the radio studio called. With my voice still shaking, I gave them a quick update that may or may not have been incomprehensible. When it was over, I sat there for a minute on the couch in the vestibule, just trying to breathe.

Once in my room, I shot off a message to my parents that I was safe. I couldn’t handle more than that. The other people who live in my building, a group of Italian students, were gathered on the floor below me, drinking tea and checking online updates of what was happening outside. They watched a live feed of chanting from the funeral. I sat with them for a few minutes, but felt myself fading, so said goodbye. I went to my apartment and got in bed, the echo of chanting and the pop of tear gas still ringing in my ears. I slept until it was dark. 

One of my friends here says that Chokri Belaid’s death was like a loss of innocence for Tunisia. And when I think back to the day he died, standing on Bourguiba Avenue while my friend cried on my shoulder and sobbed, “What is happening to my country?”, I’m inclined to believe he is right. There was a normalcy to the stagnation and delay of the government. There was a balance, however unsteady, between all the different political and social factions. And there was hope in that fact that people were free to express their opinions in a way that was impossible before the revolution. There was hope that Tunisia could gradually get back on its feet. 

But with Belaid’s murder, days after he accused the government of not squashing political violence, a fear rose up in people that all they had sacrificed for would be pushed aside. In their anger, fear and sorrow, and without knowing who actually killed Belaid, or why, people are blaming each other. Belaid’s widow blames the government. Certain secular liberals blame Salafists and the League for the Protection of the Revolution. Then, in the aftermath, conservatives blamed France, and some blamed Belaid’s own party for the disruption to the peace. The Western media was quick to point a finger at the “Islamists”, with experts accusing them of being unfit to rule, and sympathetic towards Salafist extremists. This article even tried to tie Belaid’s death with a “violent tide of Salafism” that threatens the entire Arab Spring, an utterly ludicrous connection that those of us who live here know has no basis in facts. There are very few voices of reason, and very few who will talk to each other to try and work out a solution. Belaid's death has widened the social, political, economic and religious cracks that separate Tunisians from one another, and the media are doing their part to highlight these divisions.

You could say that on February 8, 2013, a lot of the hope that Tunisia had held on to after the revolution was buried deep in the ground with Chokri Belaid. 

But at the same time, many took his example of courage to heart. I spoke with an engineer at the funeral who told me that he never supported Belaid’s politics, indeed, that he didn’t support any party at all, but that he was inspired by Belaid’s speaking his mind and criticizing the government.

And then there was the young Tunisian woman at the funeral who had just returned from London to a country she no longer recognized. Her eyes and her words were beautifully melancholy, and she spoke into my recorder like it was a poetry recitation. At the end, she summed up how she felt like this:

“But I have hope. Where there is life, there is hope.”

A sign picturing Chokri Belaid

Walking to the cemetery

Waiting for the funeral to begin

On the roof

Chanting to keep the revolution alive

Smoke over the graves