Rants from Beirut

Sorry about the hiatus. I’m back in town after a few days in Beirut, and No, I wasn’t there to enjoy the Eid break. I was invited by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) to participate at the 3rd Arab Free Press Forum. I was a speaker at last year’s event and I had a good time there. This year, my friend Fouad al-Farhan was invited to speak on a discussion panel on the changing face of Arab blogging. Unfortunately, Fouad was stopped at Jeddah airport and was told that he is banned from leaving the country.

I was in Riyadh airport preparing to take my plane to Beirut when I received the disturbing news which made me upset. What happened to Fouad reminded me with other good people in this country also banned from traveling despite what they have contributed to this nation. People who sacrificed their freedom to promote free speech, human rights and justice. It is truly sad that such people are treated this way, especially in these times that carried the signs of reform and hope for a better future.

However, Saudi Arabia was not alone in this shameful act. Syria and Tunisia followed suit by banning two journalists and a human rights activist from traveling to attend the event. In his opening remarks, Timothy Balding, CEO of WAN, thanked the authorities of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Syria for this eloquent and timely demonstration of their contempt for, and fear of, free expression. Of course this is not surprising. According to the latest Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index released by RSF, the three countries ranked 143, 161 and 159 out of 173.

Now coming to the forum’s sessions, the first one dealt with new tactics used by governments and the judiciary to impede and sanction the independent press. In his introduction, the moderator described these new tactics as oblique or subtle. But Ibrahim Essa, editor-in-chief of Al Dastour daily in Egypt refused such description, saying the Arab governments are not cleaver enough to employ such tactics. “I think Arab governments are stupid and repressive and they don’t need to resort to oblique tactics. Our governments don’t need to resort to oblique tactics because they are blunt,” he added.

The second session, on which Fouad was supposed to speak, focused on the Arab blogging scene. Interestingly, and maybe not surprisingly, the three presenters are all living and writing from outside their countries. Syrian blogger Mohammed al-Abdullah talked about restrictions on the internet in his country and the evolution of the Syrian blogosphere. He said the bloggers have become a source of information for Syrian citizens, despite all the constraints and obstacles for even just being on the internet. Mohammed left Syria after being arrested twice and facing a third arrest (his father and brother are both in jail).

Sami Ben Gharbia, as usual, was awesome. He talked about Tunisia’s sophisticated internet blocking apparatus, and how bloggers and activists have used Web 2.0 technologies to find and use innovative ways around the system.

But I have to say that it was Kizzie Shawkat, the blogger from Sudan, that I felt I could relate to her story the most. Kizzie started blogging because she had no venue to express her opinion, but quickly found herself in a role where she was providing a view of her country from a different perspective from official sources. I agree with her that blogging has become an important forum for social activism, and I think this could lead the way for other kinds of activism in the future. “You have to allow people to express themselves and we’re not used to doing that,” she concluded.

While the third discussion panel of the day that addressed editorial policies, trends and innovations in Arab newsrooms was not particularly interesting to me, the first day of the conference ended with much drama as four Tunisian government officials interrupted the presentation of a new report by the Tunisia Monitoring Group about the lack of freedom in Tunisia. The Tunisian officials broke into a shouting match with the speakers and other attendees who found themselves quite amused by those officials who shamelessly embarrassed themselves.

The second day of the conference had only one panel which discussed the business of newspaper publishing in the Arab World. Later on the day, we witnessed the ceremony of the Gebran Tueni Award. This year’s prize was handed out to Ibrahim Essa, who was recently pardoned by his country’s president, but still facing 32 lawsuits.

Away from the conference, and although Fouad’s travel ban left a dark shadow on the trip, it was as always good to be back to Beirut and meet friends and fellow bloggers. The city was filled with tourists and visitors, many of them Saudis, but I avoided hanging out in their favourite spots. I want to thank my friend Buthaina for taking me to the Comedy Night show, where Mario Bassil and his colleagues entertained us for more than 2 hours and made fun of almost every single Lebanese politician. I want also to thank my friend Alex for the good times, especially at Club Sociale in Gemayzie where we enjoyed a lovely performances by Hiba Mansouri and Zeid Hamdan aka shift Z.

Finally, I want to leave you with this interesting column (Arabic) by Yahia al-Ameer. He argues that what makes Beirut attractive to Saudis is not its touristic spots like Raouche, Solider or Aley but rather the freedom, diversity and individuality they can touch here, which represents a stark contrast to the conformity of their society. You think this is the case? Discuss.

Alexandria… Why?

After I returned from my trip to Egypt last February, I wrote, “Egypt Air seriously needs to consider a rebranding.” One month later, an Egyptian blogger wrote about the same thing. (Is it just me or is the third paragraph of his post is almost identical to the first paragraph of my post?) Anyway, few weeks later, Egypt Air indeed announced a rebranding, updating their logo and colors, and becoming Egyptair.

Why I’m bringing this up now? Because today I will be taking one of their planes to visit the land of the Nile again for a few days. I will be speaking at a conference organized by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). The conference will tackle the Role of Libraries in Freedom of Expression, Tolerance, and Access to Information, and it will take place at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria.

I’m looking forward to be there and meet the people. If you would like to do a bloggers meet up or something like that, please drop me a line.

Beirut, Again

I did not enjoy Beirut as much as I wanted when I went there for the first time last December. The schedule was tight, the weather was cold, and the political situation was tense. But now it’s summer, and I hope it will be different this time. I will be flying to Beirut tomorrow to participate at the Arab Bloggers Meeting, an informal gathering for online activists in the region organized by Heinrich Boell Stiftung Middle East. It should be interesting.

P.S. I want to thank Prof. Abdul-Rahman al-Obaid and Dr. Ashraf Mahmoud for their understanding and support.

International Knowledge Forum in Madinah

Knowledge Economic City (KEC) in Madinah is one of many megaproject launched by the government in recent years to diversify the country’s economy and decrease dependence on oil.

The Economic Cities concept include five other projects, three of them have been launched in Rabigh, Hail and Jazan, and two more are expected to be launched later this year in Tabuk and the Eastern Province. It is still not known where exactly in the EP they plan to build the economic city, but I hope they choose either Qatif or Ahssa as both regions has not received the development they deserve in the past.

Building huge projects like these is a big challenge, and making them work efficiently is a bigger challenge. SAGIA, the government’s arm that oversees these projects, have a vision for the economic cities contribute between a quarter and a third of the aspired national growth rate, to create over a million jobs, and to become home to 4-5 million residents by 2020.

KEC, with a total investment worth US$ 7bn, is particularly interesting because it will focus on knowledge based industries, tourism and services. As part of their effort to raise awareness and create excitement around the project, SAGIA are organizing the first ever Islamic Conference for Science & Knowledge (Noor). The event will take place later this month in Madinah.

I hope that some bloggers from the Western region would register to attend the event as it will tackle some topics of importance to them such as healthcare and information communications technology. I would like to attend but I won’t be done with my finals until the 23rd, and on the 25th I will leave the Kingdom to attend the GV Summit 08 in Budapest, Hungary.

Little Stories from Jeddah

“You are so lucky to present in front of the beautiful girls of Effat,” my friend Faiza told me with a little wink as we were waiting for our drinks at Teayana of Atallah Center last Thursday. Maan, from Saudi hip-hop band Dark2Men, quickly interjected, “I hate Effat girls!” He didn’t explain why he hates them, but his friend Tamer, the shy slow-talking other member of D2M, said that just because he hates them doesn’t make them any less beautiful.

Indeed, they are beautiful; not just their looks, but also their confidence, eloquence, intelligence, hard work and dedication. It was my first time to speak in Saudi Arabia, and the first time to give this kind of presentation, and I couldn’t ask for a better audience.

Still, I was very nervous and I stayed up late the night before the opening day, rehearsing and trying get over my fear. I slept for a few hours only to wake up on the message telling me that Fouad has been released. “This will be a good day,” I said to myself as I opened my laptop to write down some final notes that I thought I would need when I speak. I didn’t use the notes because I forgot the little notebook on the small table at the center of the stage, and when I came later I couldn’t find it!

I started my talk with a few words about my friend Hadeel, praying to God to grant her a speedy recovery. Then I went on to tell the background story of how I started my blog; a story I rarely shared with others, but I thought this was a good opportunity to do so. I talked about the growth of the local blogosphere and the diversity in the Saudi bloggers community. The last part of my talk focused on the lessons that I learned from my experience as a blogger for the past four years.

Speaking after the hilarious Baba Ali, I think I sounded inevitably boring. Obviously, and no matter how hard I may have tried to be funny, I knew I can’t compete with a real comedian, but since I’m already a fan of his that wasn’t a problem.

Elisabeth Bosely, our moderator, asked both of us a few questions and ended the discussion 30 minutes after we started, 15 minutes shorter than the official time announced in the schedule. Due to some organizational hiccups they were off to a late start and had to make sessions shorter in order to catch up with their crowded schedule.

Unfortunately, cutting the panel discussion short meant that students were not given any chance to ask questions despite the fact that many of them were eagerly raising their hands. Some students came after the session to talk outside the main hall, but as one speaker told me later, most students would be too shy to come and ask after you left the stage.

Most of those who talked to me after my presentation were really nice, and it certainly felt good to be at the receiving end of praise, but the truth is that I didn’t give the presentation just to impress. What I was trying to show is that I didn’t do anything extraordinary and that any of them could do it, and do much better actually.

Since most sessions at the symposium were concurrent, I did not attend many of them. But I did attend the opening presentation by Naif al-Muttawa, the creator of The 99, who has a good story although I think he could have told it better than he did. I also attended the iTunes U presentation by my friend Mohammed Milyani as well as a videoblogging workshop by Baba Ali and Yusuf Chowdhury.

Aside from the symposium, I have had a chance to hang out with my friends: Bandar, Yousef, Milyani, and Mohammed. I wanted to meet Fouad but by the time I talked to him he was already on his way to see his mom in Taif. I’ve also met Abdullah Thabit, author of al-Irhabi 20 (Terrorist 20), one of my favorite novels.

While standing in a line at Jeddah Airport, a lady approached me asking if I was “the blogger.” She said her daughters, who stood 200 meters away, have recognized me. She made me blush with her sweet compliments and later told me about her 16-year-old son who wants to be the first Saudi to play in the NBA. Seeing the hope and pride in her eyes filled me with joy and left me in high spirits, a feeling I never experience flying back home before.

Jeddah Update

When the organizers of the L&T Symposium asked me few months ago who they should invite to speak about blogging in Saudi Arabia, Hadeel was on top of the list that I recommended. It would be hard for me to speak on the stage knowing that she is supposed to be there with me, but I will keep her in my thoughts and prayers.

I fly to Jeddah in a few hours. The symposium won’t kick off till Saturday, but I thought I would arrive a bit earlier to hang out with my friends and meet some people. I found out that fellow blogger Mohammed Milyani will also be speaking at the event but in a different session.

The symposium blog confirmed yesterday that Queen Rania of Jordan will be the opening night keynote speaker. If you want to follow the event keep an eye on their blog and this page. The sessions will be broadcasted live on ART (probably the open-to-air Ein channel), and it will also be webcast courtesy of MeduNet.

I’m not sure how often I will be able to update the blog while I’m in Jeddah but you can always check out my Twitter page to read some fresh bits and pieces.

Back from Beirut

The good news is: my presentation did not end up in a disaster. The bad news is: I did not have time to see the city. But overall it was a good trip: I met many great people and I have had fun.

On the first day we attended the 2nd Gebran Tueni Award ceremony, a big event witnessed by hundreds of dignitaries and guests. We enjoyed touching speeches by Nayla Tueni, Majida Al Roumi and others, and I was especially moved by Majida speech which demonstrated the anger and frustration of Lebanese people with the current political deadlock. The award was given this year to Michel Hajji Georgiou, a senior political analyst at the French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour in Lebanon. He told us during the dinner party that night the he had to sell his car because he has been afraid of being assassinated by the pro-Syrian elements.

Except for one Saudi guy working for the LBC and has been living in Beirut since 1994, I was the only participant from Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Interestingly, many people came to me after the panel and said they could not believe that I was Saudi. I can tell that many in the Arab World have a certain stereotype for the citizens of this country. Anyways, I’m really glad that the session turned out to be fine and that many people liked it.

As I said earlier, I did not have enough time to go out and enjoy the different parts of the city, but I got to hang out with friends in Al Hamra, have breakfast by the Rawsha rock, and had a walk in Ashrafia and Solider. Beirut is a beautiful city, but because it has gone through a lot, it looks bruised and tired. I suspect that tourists would enjoy seeing the army everywhere searching their bags and asking them to stop taking pictures of the city’s landmarks. Let’s hope things would get better before the summer season.

Finally, I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to be part of this event and I hope to see them again in Beirut next year. I also want to thank fellow bloggers Wael Abbas and Mohammed Azraq, as well as Mahmoud Abdelfattah, the best moderator ever :-) Last but not least, I want to thank Alexandra, Hala, Maha, Mustapha, Sherif, Yumna, Rana, Zina, Adel, Virginie, Fadwa, and all those who made my first visit to Lebanon fun but I forgot their names.

P.S. The first picture is inspired by Roba.