Tuesday, June 30, 2020

On Civil Disobedience - Tolstoy

From Leo Tolstoy:
This year, 1896, a young man by the name of Van-der-Veer was summoned in Holland to enter the National Guard.
To the summons of the commander, Van-der-Veer replied in the following letter:
Mr. Herman Snijders
Commander of the National Guard of the Middelburg Circuit
Dear Sir:
Last week I received a document in which I was commanded to appear in the magistracy in order to be enlisted according to the law in the National Guard. As you, no doubt, have noticed, I did not appear. The purpose of this letter is to inform you frankly, and without any ambiguities, that I have no intention of appearing before the commission. I know full well that I subject myself to a heavy responsibility, that you can punish me, and that you will not fail to make use of that right. But that does not frighten me. The reasons that compel me to manifest this passive resistance present to me a sufficiently important counterbalance to this responsibility.
I, who am not a Christian, understand the commandment that is standing at the head of this letter better than the majority of Christians. It is a commandment inherent in human nature and in reason. When I was still a child, I permitted myself to be instructed in the soldier’s trade — the art of killing — but now I refuse.
More than anything else, I do not wish to kill on command without any personal impulse or foundation. This appears to my conscience as murder. Can you name to me anything more degrading for a human being than the commission of similar murders or slaughter? I cannot kill an animal, or see it killed, and therefore I became a vegetarian. In the present case I may be commanded to shoot men who have never done me any harm. Soldiers certainly do not study the military field manual in order to shoot at leaves on the branches of trees.
But you will perhaps tell me that the National Guard must also and above everything else cooperate in the maintenance of internal order.
Mr. Commander, if there really existed any order in our society, if the social organism were indeed sound, if there did not exist such crying misuses in our social relations, if it were not permitted that one man should starve to death while another enjoys all the lusts of luxury, then you would see me in the first ranks of the defenders of this order. But I unconditionally refuse to cooperate in the maintenance of the present so-called order. What is the use, Mr. Commander, of pulling the wool over each other’s eyes? Both of us know full well what is meant by the maintenance of this order. It is the support of the rich against the poor workers who are beginning to become conscious of their right. Did you not see the part that your National Guard played during the last strike in Rotterdam?
Without any reason, this guard was compelled for hours to protect the property of the business firms that were threatened. Can you for a moment suppose that I will surrender myself to take part in the defense of men who, according to my sincere conviction, are supporting the war between capital and labor, or that I will shoot at the working men who are acting entirely within the limits of their rights?
You cannot be so blind as that! Why complicate matters? Indeed, I cannot have myself cut out into an obedient National Guardsman such as you wish to have and as you need!
On the basis of all these reasons, but especially because I despise murder on command, I refuse to serve in the capacity of a member of the National Guard, and ask you to send me neither uniform nor weapons, since I have the steadfast intention of not using them.
I greet you, Mr. Commander,
I. K. Van-der-Veer

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Hani Shukrallah - A Very Remarkable Creature

When I first heard news of Hani Shukrallah’s passing, it didn’t quite sink in. He was in and out of hospital, and in many ways I had been dreading it and trying to deal with it internally. Every time he got out of the hospital it was a sigh of relief. Maybe I had been long preparing myself for his passing so that the blow would not be so heavy. It worked. I was almost smiling in his funeral, and perhaps it’s merely because I could not help but think of Hani smiling and laughing looking down on his own funeral. With all the loved ones around and some of the hypocrites that may have come to pay tribute, I could not wipe his smile off my brain. But perhaps I was also smiling because I felt immense love emanating from some very beautiful people I saw in the ceremony of his departure. In a sense you had to be beautiful in some way to love Hani that much.

Photo by Miguel Ángel Sánchez 

Hani may not have been aware of how many people like me were silently going through their emotional rollercoaster as they heard about him, whether he had survived another visit to the hospital or finally with his departure. I was not close to Hani on a personal level and never present in his everyday life. I wish we had been closer, but we did have our deep personal moments which I capitalized on. I translated them into a special kind of closeness albeit one sided on my part. I had always felt an unshakeable closeness in spirit since we first met. It was probably just the usual for Hani, him being himself, and leaving a deep immutable imprint even with the briefest encounters with those he met.

To me his normal was special enough. I’ll take that. I feel blessed to have encountered his usual.

Hani Shukrallah was a beautiful man who mentored many and was able to live a full life. When I met Hani first in 2010, I was interviewing for a job at Ahram Online to write about film for a final sign off. I will forever be grateful to Ati Metwally for offering me the opportunity to be a part of that experience. He sat me down, looked at my blog, started reading a simple review I had written and then immediately hired me. He said I wrote well. Ever since, I've been learning more and more about what it means to think critically and what his journalism was about.

Hani stood out at a time and in a land of fallen heroes. I had gotten accustomed to those ‘big’ people letting us down. Yet there I saw a young revolutionary in an older man’s body but with the knowledge and wisdom of the years. I often wondered how he maintained that wonderful combination of seeing things as they are and yet being youthfully hopeful, resilient and persistent in pursuing his values.

I was at Ahram Online when mass protests started on January 25, 2011.  We returned to our editorial meeting after the government’s five day internet shutdown ended.  Hani Shukrallah was smiling, laughing, and quickly said, “I assume we’re all for what’s happening in Tahrir right now.” He said he understood why many decided to join the protests, but it was his opinion we had the opportunity, the role and the platform to do even more good as journalists by reporting and giving the events a much needed voice.

The words stuck with me and covering protests became part of what I did in the events that followed. It didn’t matter if I was going to protest, observe, report, blog or tweet. I witnessed protests and wrote about them. I was given space by Ahram Online to work on numerous critical pieces. Hani would later be sidelined under the Muslim Brotherhood and his newly established publication, Bel Ahmar,  censored by the regime among hundreds of censored websites.

I don’t want to make Hani out and as an infallible figure who made no mistakes. I’m sure he made many and I didn’t agree with every position he had, but he remained a passionate thinker, reader and listener, willing to change his mind or reconsider his positions and even admit mistakes. Hani wasn’t primarily a journalist, he was an activist who happened to be a journalist particularly brilliant at his job. He was a gifted writer but behind those words were vivid thoughts and moving ideas. He excelled at both the thinking and the writing.

I’m sure Hani doesn’t need my humble testimony to his brilliance, but the point is that I admired who he was and aspired to be like him. In the newsroom he was daring, he said things as they were. One day as I was stopping by the office I heard Hani shout from inside his room, “Why are you quoting this guy!! He’s nothing but a security informant!” or “Amnagy”. The combination of excellent journalism and the courage to spell things out as they are was something I had not witnessed much. Most journalists I knew were afraid to have an opinion even when things were that clear.

He made sure that professional journalism backed what was said, even if it ran against an acceptable narrative. He was a field builder and an author of narratives. I will admit that it is delusional of me to think that Hani Shukrallah reflected some of what I saw in myself, so let me just say that he reflected what I hoped I could be. Still, I was not delusional enough to think I can be as funny or as charming as he was. I still believe though, that in terms of thinking, writing and integrity, it is worth aspiring towards what he had become.

When Hani wrote, I read. When he spoke I listened. I was lucky enough to have shared some of my pieces with him before he passed away. There was one which he insisted should be translated and published in Bel-Ahmar. I’m grateful for that. A while later I persistently asked him to meet. I finally passed by his place and we had a deep long conversation over coffee. We spoke of our past and our future and his prophetic article J'Accuse which he wrote the first day of 2011 in poetic and prophetic anger that spoke about things that have passed and things to come.

I'm grateful to have spent time with him. I feel blessed to have been able to tell him how much I admire him and how much I've learned from him and how much I wanted to be like him, despite how awkward it sounded to be saying all this to him in his living room unprovoked.

Hani was revolutionary in every sense of the word. He revolutionized English journalism and he adopted daring stances. He was a revolutionary long before he found his revolution.

There are endless things to say about Hani Shukrallah, and these words hardly do him justice. I can talk about more things that happened in Ahram Online, or wonderful ideas that have helped shape mine, but it’s very difficult finding words. In fact the words I write now are ones I’ve wanted to write for over a year since I heard of his death but could not string them together. When I heard of his passing, I could not help but think of these lines from ‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Somerset Maugham which had deeply moved me:

“[He] is not famous… It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”

In my mind, these words represented Hani, and I say this despite knowing full well that he is a giant in the field of journalism in Egypt, known well and respected, but I think that Hani’s real power is how deeply and intimately he has affected and touched those who have encountered him personally or observed “the way of life that he has chosen for himself.”

This text is long overdue, perhaps subdued for so long by the intense feelings of love and loss I’ve harbored over the years.

Goodbye beautiful man. We shall miss you immensely. I love you lots.

A note about the video. The audio recording is from The Razor’s Edge, a film based on the movie. The words stuck with me, I wanted to be that man, but I really think something about it suits Hani. I collected the images from the internet without really knowing the sources, I apologize for that, but one of them used with very special lighting was taken by Miguel Ángel Sánchez in 2015 during a project that he and Nuria Tesón were making at the time. The interview with him is still not released, but the image captures a true hero at the time of darkness, a man holding on to his revolutionary spirit at a time where many others particularly from his generation had forfeited it. This video is how Hani feels like to me, my personal tribute to him.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Missing O Key

I write at night. Often in bed. Long before I was using a computer to write, I would read in bed and pick up my notebook and let all my thoughts flow. Back then I was just discovering the world. The world to me is not travels and people, but the inner world of thoughts and feelings, emotions and power dynamics. The world that I was discovering wasn't something they teach you in school. It was everything that was unspoken, not fully addressed. I sat most nights rediscovering what others had also rediscovered as they began thinking about the world on their own. Everything was novel. Discovering lies was novel. Investigating subcultures was novel. 

I still write at night and in bed, but now on a computer. The same passion to share what I have discovered that's new about the world diminishing. I learned it the hard way, but I found out that it doesn't matter what I discover no matter how new or profound. Sharing it won't make much of a difference. Besides it isn't something that people don't know. On the contrary, a great many people who know certain things are actively working to drown them so that they lose prominence. 

All of that doesn't matter, the whole point was that I write at night often and I take my computer to bed in order to do that. 

I lack the motivatin to shut everything f and speak t my cmputer as I often spoke to the blank piece of paper in the past. As if that's nt enugh, I'm facing a new prblem. My laptp's keybard has brken dwn. Nt all f it, just ne key. It's the O key. I have to pound it hard as I type so that it wrks. Often it just doesn't and I have t delete and then write it. It breaks the flow f my thughts. So nw I try pounding and sometimes it types and other times it doesn't. Nw this paragraph is missing a lot f Os that I wasn't able t pound hard enugh. The words look weird but I wn't correct all f them. 

It's increasingly difficult to write without that key. My usual writing all comes flowing, gushing from my mind, with my hands trying to keep up with the translation of my thoughts to words. For work I have an external USB keyboard but that doesn't work in bed. The missing O breaks the flow. I'm not as fast translating my thoughts to words. I have to go back to words I write and correct them, and then I can't remember exactly what I wanted to say next. 

But long before losing that key it was difficult to write. I think the same way, I just don't share it. I guess it's only now that I realize that long before I lost the O key on the computer, I may have lost an O key in life that has made writing difficult for me. Somewhere along the line I lost something that made me have less hope in the meaning of sharing what I write. 

I ordered a replacement keyboard that will arrive in around a week or two. If only my other missing key can be replaced. I'm tempted to say I lost that key in Egypt during the revolution, but that's not true. During the revolution, a two year lifetime, I had the passion to write and discover. I lost the key later, in Egypt and all over the world. I lost the key when I saw that striving for the truth was worth little in the face of manipulation, fear and self interest. 

The masks of western rhetoric fell ungracefully as western government, much like the petty corrupt officials I saw in Egypt, raced to kiss military brass ass in Egypt in exchange for lucrative business deals. Whether it was Germany for their Siemens and submarines, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Spain, or the US for various other reasons, it was all the same. They were cheap and regarded their own values as cheap or perhaps just up for sale. 

The diplomats, once revered in popular culture now appear to me as nothing more than mercenaries in suits. They are the front for the business henchmen behind who profit at the expense of other people's lives, not just in Egypt, but around the world. 

Power is the same everywhere. I recognize it too easily now. That's my missing key. If only I didn't recognize the nature of power, I would still be hopeful and discovering the world, but more than that, sharing in the hopes that people seeing reality would help change it. 

There's no vendor that sells the key to my writing and sharing. I think I'll just have to pick up the pieces and try and put it back together again. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Surviving Corona

It's late at night and there's news of coronavirus all over the world. It's the starting sequence of a sci-fi movie, these are just the few seconds. What will come next is probably going to be uglier, because those who control where the world is heading are ugly. There will be no humbling experience except for the humble. This is what we've toiled for all those years. So that on this rainy day, the rich and the powerful can protect themselves and get even richer and more powerful. They control the little tax payments you make to their private interest. Now that it's time for you to collect what you're owed, you'll be thrown under the bus. This tax money was for their rainy day not yours. Money and resources will go to those who already have money and resources. You will continue to pay for their well being with your blood and sweat.

At a time when the world needs true leadership, those at the helm are anti-Science corporate bigots for the most part and those next in line are ancient relics whose only hope is to take us back 10 years ago when things were horrible but not disastrous. There is no collective hope to come out stronger as a society, but perhaps individual salvation is possible. We can recognize how fragile this world is, how meaningless businesses are in absence of life and health. We can recognize that race is a construct not respected by disease. We can recognize that we live in the disease of racism and xenophobia even though it's not biological. 

Perhaps all these things are possible, but I lost hope in human's ability to learn from what they see. The reality is that emotions are stronger than rationale, and as sad as it is to realize it, if you keep pounding a message for decades, it becomes the truth, even if debunked by simple logic. Most of what we know is 'on authority', yet it surprises me how much people fight for something that's not their own, for a view that was force fed to them. 

What happens next in our world. A worthy question. We realize we don't need to travel that much, we don't need to have that many conferences even though they are fun. We don't need to go out every day, even though that's fun. We recognize that we share a lot more than we thought. We share transport, we share the roads and we share supermarkets. Yes, that place where there is no escape from disease. The person at the cash register touches all your items, and touches your money. Anything there will be transferred.

I have thought of a way to get through this time, but I think I need a bit of science to formulate a plan. If only covid19 doesn't mutate or doesn't visit you twice, I would have had a perfect plan. For now there is nothing left to do but wait and hope, and now everything is a game of chance. Life is a game of chance. More so for the elderly than the young. 

There's a moment when I realized we can all be potential killers. If we pass this to the vulnerable we can kill. I think that's true of many things. Our decisions, our votes. It was always so remote, but now it's closer. Your carelessness can cost lives. It won't be easy living with that, being the victim and the perpetrator, all at the same time.   

But isn't that how we always are? We're gentrifiers, we're privileged. Even the privileged are victims of their own privilege and their blindness which they're born with. It's not their fault. To be born with privilege is to be born blind to injustices that should really not happen. Privilege is an exceptional normal state. It ought to be normal not to face injustice based on your skin color, it ought to be normal not to face discrimination based on your gender. It isn't though. It's only normal for the privileged. 

The privileged are born blind with the duty to see. Some don't fulfill their duty, and end up moderates in an extreme world, guilty of perpetrating the status quo. Others are worse, they seek to entrench their privilege and utilize the status quo, altering it to dig us deeper into that abyss of injustice. 

Nothing can even the odds at this point. The powerful don't need to normalize lying for everyone, they just need it for a big minority that are able to suppress the majority. They need the blind, they need the privileged, they need those who cannot see how entrenched we are in an extreme status quo. They need not be supporters, they need only be moderates, they need only be ineffective, obsessed with law and order at the expense of justice. 

The movie's opening seconds are apocalyptic. It's just a disease with a mortality rate of 2% some say. Certainly true, but there is a kindness in the nature of covid19 that we are yet to appreciate. It's a warning sign nevertheless. It targets, very clearly, the vulnerable. In some ways it is asking us to protect the vulnerable. But we will fail even this simple test. We have not had adequate training protecting the vulnerable. We have a neoliberal world order that exploits them.

Is it reasonable to think that all of a sudden a new found care for the vulnerable will be born? It will not happen. The vulnerable are expendable. That's disaster capitalism, that's what it has practiced for years, but without the same attention as the virus, because the killers had to be out of the news. Condemn the greed, but not the greedy, condemn the system, but not the actual people responsible for it. That's the way of the world.

There is a small difference now though. The capitalists don't get to choose who they kill. The virus chooses and that's why they must rush to protect themselves, even at the cost of protecting the needy. Make no mistake, protecting the needy is a huge price for the rich and powerful to pay. Ordinarily they would not pay it. But in order to protect themselves, perhaps they must pay that ultimate price. Why not appear compassionate too while they're at it. They will find ways of profiteering from the disease anyway and the from the constraints that will be placed on the masses working for them.

We're going to work to pay this debt in the future. How dare we be helped by the powerful. It doesn't matter, our taxes will mostly go to them. They will be bailed out when they fail to steal from us properly. They will be bailed out when they 'erroneously 'declare war because they 'learn' and 'grow', and their followers find that commendable. 

This is a crisis that offers an opportunity for us to grow and see the world for what it is. Just like I was exposed to the nature of power when I saw the streets of Egypt full of men with guns who wanted to enforce their rule and infiltrated all media to repeat their same old lies. I see the media around me full of these lies, they're a bit more clever, still not logical, but who cares. What really matters is that people don't care for logic and rational. They have their establishment 'intellectuals' feeding their egos, and filling their brains with status quo excuses. 

Whether it's 1984 or a brave new world, it doesn't matter. It all looks the same after a while of observation. The brave new world is far superior of course. It's more fulfilling, it provides the illusion of freedom. But a moderate in 1984 and a moderate in a brave new world are the same. Nothing but fuel to feed the machines of control. 

After the first few seconds of this movie, I don't know what happens. Maybe there will be heroes and villains that shape the world, but in these type of movies it doesn't matter. What really matters are the individuals that survive these events. What do they take with them from the old world is up to them.

To be honest, there's little to take from the old world except resistance to it. Maybe we can resist the inhumanity and injustices as we move forward. Maybe we can still fight against control and oppressive structures. That's still going to be worth something as we transition. I know that this is what I will try to take with me.

Friday, January 03, 2020

More of..

So much time spent in this world. So many experiences. Less time to explore now and more time to decide what I need more of. The irony is that I can't get what I want more of just yet. To get more of what I want, I have to do more of what I need to do.

But I know things I need more of in my life. They're clear but they're easier said than done.

I need to read more, I need to write more. I need to make more music. I need to spend less time on those what will not expand my ideas. I need more nature. I need to be at peace with myself. I need to work on myself. I need to dedicate more time to sports. I need to care less about changing the world. I need to focus more on who I want to be.

I failed last year to have a post each month. The last two months saw no writing. I've lots a lot of my anger and passion. I'm hoping to rebuild those.

New years are not reset buttons, they're just arbitrary points in time that we can use to count.

More of who I truly am this year.