Amani is a 32-year old woman who completed her medical training abroad. On top of that, she’s also managed to obtain an MBA from another top university. She is fluent in three languages and has enrolled for yet another graduate degree in public health. She is also a new mum.
She loves her career and, when you speak to her, you can sense the pride she takes from her achievements. Beyond a strong desire for personal success, Amani wants to leave a mark on the region’s health care landscape.
As she tells me this, my mind wanders, imagining Amani in a decade’s time as someone who has been transformed into a great leader. But her enthusiasm abruptly subsides as she shares with me that she is about to quit her mainstream job to start a small consulting business.
There is a sense of loss in her voice as she shares that with me. “At least I can manage my hours so I can see more of my little one,” Amani says. “It’s much better this way.”
Internationally, there has been a surge in the number of women entrepreneurs. Regionally, we have been experiencing similar trends: 35 per cent of tech entrepreneurs in the region are women, beating the international average of 10 per cent.
Women are jumping onto the entrepreneurship bandwagon for a reason. It allows them an opportunity to work, be financially independent, make an impact and, more importantly, it gives them flexibility over their hours.
In the past couple of years I have met countless women from various walks of life, and almost every single one of them is considering opening up a small business when the “time is right”. That timing is often linked to marriage and motherhood. The time is usually right when mainstream jobs become inflexible.
At no point am I discounting the fact that there are women out there who genuinely are more entrepreneurially orientated. Nor do I believe that entrepreneurship is not as crucial to the wider economy than mainstream jobs.
But it does seem that entrepreneurship is becoming an escape route for many talented women who would prefer to advance their careers in more conventional corporate environments.
Some of these jobs offer huge learning and growth opportunities for women and provide them with stronger platforms to impact change. It seems, though, that these same environments are not adapting at the required pace to retain female talent.
Today, the demographics of our best and brightest are shifting. Not only are women surpassing men in educational attainment and matching their years of work experience, but they are also bringing diverse attitudes and versatility to the environments of which they are part.
This pool of talent is precious. Companies that are able to attract, develop and retain them will fare better today and in the future.
However, it seems that there is another issue of which we need to be aware.
The drain of women to entrepreneurship might pose a serious threat to countries and companies who rely on capable and talented leaders to thrive. This reliance will only increase in the future as we face new challenges and rapidly changing business landscapes.
Changing the working conditions for women in mainstream jobs has required urgent attention for some time. It is now an absolutely crucial factor if we are to curb this women drain.
As I browse through magazines and newspapers, I seem to stumble upon women-related articles every day. But beyond press releases, conferences and events, it is time for us to put our money where our mouths are. Change is about the creation of real part-time job opportunities that allow for job-sharing, that are committed to quality investment in training and development and push towards a cultural shift in attitude.
And this needs to happen today, so Amani can lead her revolution on women’s health initiatives.
This article was first published in The National - www.thenational.ae
My two year old asked me where God is. I smiled and pointed up to the sky. She responded: Can I see? She was asking the right question; my answer was wrong.
I studied religion in school. I recall all the stories about the prophets, the miracles, the messages they came carrying, the praying rituals and the sacred words. There were also stories about wars and peace treaties, murder and redemption, betrayal and valor; much similar to stories of the time we live in today. Then came rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts, redlines not to be crossed and permissible actions. There was a lot to remember; too many stories that stretched the realm of imagination; too many verses that challenged the scope of understanding; too many dates to remember and too many rituals to observe.
As I floated through the religion classes, life happened. New friends came, old ones gone; a broken bone once and a few times a broken heart; overwhelming moments of joy and others in sheer despair. It was then that I knew God. I would love to claim that it was the mind that knew first, but that wouldn’t be right. Much like falling in love, it was the heart that knew first. Faith, it seems, is a matter of the heart. So when an agnostic friend of mine starts debating with much rational questions and arguments, from wars waged in the name of God to murdered children, I jump with rational answers: it was man who did this, not God. When he challenges stories of miracles on a scientific basis, I refer to scientific discoveries mentioned in the old text. And then I realize that I probably sound like these religion classes to my agnostic friend, so focused on the mind when it’s a matter of the heart.
I have no answers for my dear friend. But I have an answer to my daughter’s question on where she can find God: in her heart.
Recently I was browsing at a bookstore when I stumbled across a copy of A World I Loved by Wadad Cortas. The book’s cover had a black-and-white picture depicting the author’s family and a caption that read: “The Story of an Arab Woman.” I ended up buying it. Two days later and half way through the book, I had to pause and confirm that it wasn’t a work of fiction. It wasn’t.
On the contrary, it is a personal account of the Middle East’s history between 1917 and the late 1970s. The reason I was almost convinced that this was fiction was due to the account provided by the author of the early 20th century Middle East.
An educator and a descendant of a prominent Lebanese-Christian family living in Beirut in 1917, the author speaks of a Middle East unrecognisable by today’s standards, one unimaginable to my generation of Arabs.
It seems that a moment existed in Arab history, albeit brief, when the region was united in the love of homeland – the larger Arab homeland. And apparently, this passion transcended nationality, religion and sect.
Despite the turmoil then, hopes were high. Dreams of independent, postcolonial nations were real and a future of moderation and tolerance seemed within reach. It was particularly fascinating to learn how Arabs then lived through the “Palestine question” that shaped the political scene in the Middle East during the first half of the 20th century.
From the political stance of Arab governments all the way to the pulse on the Arab street, the Palestinian issue dominated the hearts and minds of Arabs and united them.
The second half of the 20th century and the first years of this century read very differently.
More recently, one can’t seem to find any reference to a larger Arab homeland, let alone a shared passion for one. The chances of a future of moderation and tolerance seem so slight today in the midst of the sectarian frenzy we live in. The “Palestine question”, one that is personal for me (I am Palestinian), is a question that no one really wants to raise any more.
Growing up as a Palestinian refugee had a stigma attached to it. I arrived in this world long after the initial years of pan-Arab nationalism and the honour it extended to the collective Palestinian cause.
In the Arab world I came into, the burden Palestinian refugees were placing on their host nations was at its height. And it was a burden in all possible ways.
The Palestinian refugees had an effect on the social fabric of the communities. In general, Palestinians lacked education and wealth that would have elevated them to a more “welcome” status. They arrived with different norms and customs, and although these differences were subtle in most cases, they were there all the same.
I came into an Arab world where host nations were announcing that they could no longer economically sustain refugees. As a result, these refugees were banned from assuming certain jobs and in some cases were confined to refugee camps. Palestinian refugees were seen as posing a serious threat to the security of their host nations.
By the time I was born, the Palestinian cause had been appropriated by many factions. For Palestinian refugees, all of this manifests itself in the form of emotional and practical challenges.
From being denied certain jobs all the way to restriction on the freedom of movement, the cycle of stigma seems perpetual.
But why bring all this up now? As I watch news reports on the TV and skim through articles in newspapers and magazines, I see the pictures of a new generation of refugees of the Arab world.
And although their plight may seem different from that of their Palestinian predecessors, the similarities are striking. Their cause no longer evokes the spirit of Arab nationalism.
They too bring social, economic and political baggage with them to their host nations. They too reel under the stigma of being refugees, further fuelled by a time of heightened intolerance and economic pressures. They too seem to be on a course leading nowhere.
Before we engage in a dialogue on how to restore lost homelands, lost property and lost possessions, perhaps we are better off discussing how to restore Arab nationalism.
If the Arab Spring has proved anything, it is that any of us can one day be reduced to refugee status, where losing self-worth becomes the highest price one has to pay. The resurrection of Arab nationalism seems today like the only window of hope, the only chance we have at a better Middle East.
This article was first published in The National - www.thenational.ae
Churches burn in Egypt. Historical sites brought down to mere rubbles in Syria. Iraq is overtaken with suicide bombers. The Lebanese are taking to fishing boats, embracing death over life at home. West Bank and Gaza reeling under yet another internal divide. Finger pointing taking place left, right and center. Allies today are the enemies of tomorrow. But mostly, everyone keeps asking insistently: who is funding what?
The Middle East today reads MISERY.
And in the midst of all this mayhem, everyone is a victim and everyone is a perpetrator. Everyone has a joke to crack on the other party, a shaming story, and an indicting video. At the end of every social, religious or political discussion, the big question is: are you with us or with them? Sometimes, I loose track of who is who.
The jokes matter, as do the shaming stories and indicting videos. They matter because they divide. They matter because they spread hatred. They matter because what we repeat becomes our reality.
I want an end to this nation wide cross-cultural, cross-religious, cross-sect smear campaign that is parading everyone’s dirty laundry only for all of us to conclude that all of our laundry is filthy. And I will start from a position of love.
I love you Egypt for Ahmed Ramzy, Omar El Sherief and Rushdi Abatha for they filled my teenage dreams with dashing handsome men and stories of immortal love. I love you Egypt for no one beats the Egyptian sense of humor and the capacity of an Egyptian to meet life adversities in the face yet manage to laugh them off. I love you Egypt for Nagib Mahfouz who walked with me to “God’s World”. I love you Egypt for your pyramids once dismissed by me as overrated historical sites, only to dawn on me upon their sight a testament of the divine.
I love you Syria for your old cities and walls that hold within them stories from the dawn of human kind. I love you Syria for teaching me the beauty of my mother tongue, so mystically hidden within one Arabic word and another. I love you Syria for water fountains adorning the center of your every house, a silent prayer for the continuum of life. I love you Syria for Nizar Qabbani who taught me how to find my center in all my extremes.
I love you Iraq for your pomegranate and lime and their secret resistance story. I love you Iraq for giving me Sinbad, the only Arab superhero. I love you Iraq for Muzaffer Al Nawab who wedded in holy matrimony revolution to poetry. I love you Iraq for Nazim Al Ghazali and the seat he gave me way “above the palm tree”.
I love all countries in this Arab nation, for I carry within me a piece of all of them. So how can I crack jokes? How can I smear a part of who I am? How can I spiral in a perpetual cycle of hate and slander?
It is a rather simple choice. We either divide in hatred or unite in love. I choose the latter.
I was onto my third cup of coffee by eleven in the morning. I have been staring blankly at the screen of my laptop for the past two hours. I had a lot of work to do, but I was struggling to close on anything that day. It was after all a baking mid-August summer day. It seemed like everything had come to a standstill. Schools were closed, roads were empty and many people I knew were out of the country on summer vacations. The heat managed to keep whomever else was left indoors. Thinking about all this made me feel better about my uneventful summer day. That is until I logged onto my Facebook account twenty minutes later to kill some time. It was then that I realized why I don’t like Facebook.
After a grueling ten minutes scrolling down through friends’ posts, photos and videos, I hurriedly logged out. I simply felt exhausted. I felt lonely in the this virtual realm of friends. All I could think of is how the experience of catching up with friends has drastically changed. Historically, before the Social Media age that is, one would pick up the phone to one or two friends and have a quick chat. Perhaps even meet up with these friends and spend a relaxing lunch break hour in their company. You share your uneventful summer days and they share theirs. You laugh about it, perhaps talk about plans beyond the summer and you leave feeling good and excited. What happens today though is you log onto Facebook or Twitter or may be Instagram. You instantly get a download of what a hundred plus friends are up to simultaneously. And you also get a download of everything: the interesting things, the not so meaningful things and sometimes perhaps to things that are better not shared in public. And to top it all up, none of it is personal. None of the messages, posts, photos and videos are really addressed to you particularly. They are there for the other hundred friends and acquaintances to see. Personal communication is now being produced to the masses.
A recent study carried out in the UK suggested that parents active on social media post pictures of their newborn babies within an hour of their birth. To be more specific, within 57.9 minutes. And although half of the parents surveyed indicated that they post these pictures to keep distant relatives and friends updated, over a quarter said that they do it to brag and “better” other parents’ photos. I read this and wonder how stressful this can all be: the need to instantly provide information, the need to update privacy settings and the need to keep up with everyone else. Keeping up with the Jones’s seem to have taken a whole new dimension, and teenage popularity contests are now backed with real data.
It used to be that you perhaps had to keep up with five or six neighbors around your residential block. And may be, you compared yourself to a couple of successful peers at work. Perhaps you kept tabs on another distant relative that you always admired. Today, this number depends on how many friends and acquaintances you have on your social media account. And everyone seems to be going all out: sharing vacation photos from exotic locations, checking in at fancy restaurants on foursquare and making status updates on airplanes from a 40,000 km altitude. The most popular girl or boy at school was the one that had a group of five or six other kids following them around. Today, popular kids want to trend on twitter and have a following of hundreds of other people. And it’s all documented.
I’m firm believer that innovation and technology is core to our progress and advancement. And there is no denying that social media has its merits and has positive influences on our lives. I’m wary though of the price that all this comes at. I am nervous at the change that it’s driving in people’s behaviors and attitudes. It seems that we have yet to reach a balancing phase: a phase where we are able to preserve the personal touch, one where we are in control of social media, as opposed to being controlled by it and where we can shape it to serve our needs instead of being shaped by it. Now, all I can do is hope to get this message...trending?
Over the past few months, we have witnessed increased debate among FNC members in the UAE over the state of the Arabic language. Some of these debates have pushed for enforcing Arabic as the teaching language in all government schools and universities. Others focused on boosting the stature of Arabic language overall in our communities. Whether some of us are for or against these positions, the fact remains that our Arabic language is facing a battle for survival.
When I was at school in the UAE, the subjects taught in Arabic were almost equal in number to those taught in English. Religion, social studies, geography and history were delivered in Arabic. Maths, science and business studies were delivered in English. I was never really aware of the impact of such a split on my Arabic language skills until recently.
A 16-year-old daughter of a friend of mine called me up for help with an Arabic language assignment. She was tasked with writing an essay on a topic of her choosing. As I sat down to review her first draft, I was simply shocked.
Her essay contained a flood of slang Arabic words, a couple of English words and too many grammatical errors to count. She is an honors student. She is also a student in one of the private schools that follow a fully English curriculum, except for the Arabic language class.
She speaks to her friends, who are a mix of Arabs and non-Arabs, in English. At home, she speaks to her parents in English. At malls and in restaurants, she speaks to the staff in English. She tells me that the only people she speaks Arabic to are her grandparents, and mainly because they are not comfortable conversing with her in English. She obviously stands little chance at nailing her Arabic essay.
Not long after that incident, I happened to be with my daughter in a toyshop. An Arab lady walked in with her two daughters. Immediately, our girls started playing together. It was not long before one of the daughters rushed to tell her mother that she didn't understand what my daughter was saying. The little girl was speaking to her mother in English; my daughter spoke Arabic.
As I acted as a translator between the two girls, I understood from the mother that she only speaks to her girls in English and French. This way, she explained, they will be fluent in two foreign languages early on. Fluent in two foreign languages, I thought to myself, but can't speak their own mother tongue. Something just didn't add up.
The factors that are contributing to the demise of the Arabic language and its use amongst its native speakers are numerous. Some of these are institutional, in the form of schools and universities that have dropped the focus on enriching Arabic language skills in students.
Others are part of the westernization and globalization that our region - and other regions of the world - are being exposed to. And sadly, some of these factors come from within us. I can't help but associate the tendency of native Arabic speakers to avoid speaking in Arabic to a lack of pride in who we are and what we are.
Globally, I think we face a lot of scrutiny as Arabs. From some quarters, we are constantly questioned on our culture, beliefs and traditions. We are associated in the minds of some with chaos and anarchy. In western media, some even portray the Middle East as aggressive. In news bulletins, we are the troubled region. And to an extent, these are indeed some of the realities of our communities and societies that we continue to battle on a daily basis.
But there is also another side to the story. There are a lot of things to be proud of as Arabs. There is a history of bright advances and civilisation that we brought to this world. There is a set of values we carry that cherishes family and community. There is a genuine dose of empathy and care that we extend to all around us, local and foreign. There is humbleness and generosity so engrained in our culture. There are Arab cities and citizens who are trying to rise above the chaos. There is a future that is ours to shape.
There is a lot more to be proud about. And perhaps it all starts here. Perhaps we ought to restore our pride in who we are before we can restore the stature of our Arabic language.
This article was first published in The National - www.thenational.ae
On a Saturday evening, I prepared my dinner and sat on my couch browsing the Time May's edition. Half way through their "Worked to Death" article, and my toasted cheese sandwich, this picture looked back at me, blown up across two pages. I couldn't swallow what was in my mouth and had to spit it out.
They don't know yet who they were, but these two factory workers who perished on April 24th in the building collapse in Bangladesh apparently "became a symbol of the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry", and I am quoting. But I had stopped reading the article, and could do nothing but stare right at the picture. The small blood stream escaping the man's eye, his trapped lower body under the rubble, the woman's floral dress, her surrendered posture and their final embrace. And all this tragedy for what? For a pay of less than $40 a month.
I am enraged. Enraged at so many things. At poverty so deep that forces one to live in horrible conditions for some cash. At the terror they must have gone through before dying. At corruption spread so wide and deep to allow such crimes to happen. At big corporates rushing to "cheap labor" countries for extra dollar signs at the end of the fiscal year. At politicians who have buried their conscience and their humanity in rubble deeper than the one in the picture.
"I don't think this is really serious, it's an accident" - the Bangladeshi Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith uttered these words not long after the 500th body was pulled from the rubble.
Al Rashidiya is a Palestinian refugee camp on the coast just south of Tyre, in southern Lebanon. It has been home to around 18,000 exiled Palestinians for six decades now.
I visited Al Rashidiya with Lebanese social workers last year. They call the place the "downtown" of refugee camps in Lebanon, using the term for an upscale seafront district in central Beirut lined with outdoors cafes and nice restaurants and high-end designer stores.
Al Rashidiya is not like that, even though it is on the seafront, too.
The camp is built on a grid, and whichever alley you take you must go to the left or the right of the qanay, the open ditch that stretches down the length of each alley. Dug to drain rainwater, these seem to be filled with dirty water at all times.
Al Rashidiya's beige cement houses are almost all square, and average 80 square metres. Some house just two people; others have 10 or more. They all have small barred windows like those in prisons.
Abu Ahmed, dressed in a clean white shirt and black suit trousers, is sitting in front of his house sipping Turkish coffee. Additional white plastic chairs welcome anyone who wants to have coffee with him.
Mr Ahmed is 71, and has witnessed too many wars, lost too many friends and believed in too much rhetoric.
As a young man, he says, he was ready to lay his life down for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Back in those days young men and women vowed to bring back to the Palestinians all that had been lost.
He speaks of his heartbreak as the years passed and these young idealists aged and corruption became entrenched within the PLO and dreams of regained dignity collapsed.
His eyes sparkle as he speaks of the days Hamas emerged as a replacement for the PLO, as a new group of young men and women vowing to bring back to the Palestinians all that had been lost. This group's ideology was different from that of the PLO, but it shared the resistance agenda the PLO had once displayed.
Then his eyes dim, and he sighs. The new dreams of regained dignity have collapsed again. As the years passed this new group became corrupted, so hungry for power that they killed other Palestinians.
He speaks of his misery in watching the fight between the two factions in Gaza and the West Bank. He despises politics and politicians, and how those in power can force a shift in the livelihood of a given community.
These days, Mr Ahmed says, the shops in Al Rashidiya are forced to close during Friday prayers, but this new rule is about power, he believes, not religion. He prays five times a day, but wishes those in power would force children to go school. Enrolment is at an all-time low.
I try to tell him that I empathise with the people living in this dire situation. But he just laughs and he tells me that Palestinian refugees are not worse off than other citizens in the Arab world. He tells me how in 2006, scores of Lebanese citizens from surrounding villages fled to Al Rashidiya for shelter after losing their homes in Israeli raids. He saw the irony: Lebanese citizens on Lebanese soil seeking refuge in a Palestinian camp.
Even before the conflict in Syria, he tells me, scores of Syrian workers flooded Palestinian camps in Lebanon, searching for work.
He tells me of a recent trip he took to Cairo to visit his son who has been long married to an Egyptian woman.
Touring Cairo with his son he noticed that the road winding up to the Giza pyramids was lined with little shacks selling cigarettes and snacks. He recalls that there were many children sitting on the kerb of that street and what dawned on him most was how poor they looked. He once felt betrayed and forgotten but he realises now that scores of citizens across the Arab world feel exactly the same.
I tell Mr Ahmed that there is some hope coming with the Arab Spring, and that the young generation will drive this region to better places.
He looks away and he tells me he has been here too many times.
I take one last sip of my dark Turkish coffee and bid Mr Ahmed farewell. I walk away, head down, thinking of what this region is up against: Islamist extremism and the secular versus religious divide; the proxy wars that are being fought; sectarian violence; power hungry regimes that are replacing old ones; and the new refugees of the Arab world.
And I hope that Mr Ahmed lives long enough for all of that to change, and for that long-lost twinkle in his eyes to sparkle yet again.
This article first appeared in The National - www.thenational.ae
When I was 10 years old, I was drawn fully into world events unfolding in front of me.
I remember the First Gulf War and the sight of tanks on the streets of Kuwait city. I remember the first Palestinian Intifada and the much-watched video of an Israeli soldier breaking the elbows of a stone-throwing Palestinian boy. I remember images of starving children in Africa and the bedraggled Bosnian women and children fleeing their home villages and the prospect of ending up in mass graves.
And I remember thinking that there must be a way to make all this wrong right again, a way to alleviate suffering and injustice, and a way I could be part of that.
I grew up thinking of myself as a human being, rather than a man or woman. But as the teenage years approached, I realised how naive that idea was, in a society that would so thoroughly make clear the boundaries for females.
So I rebelled, making up my mind to be a woman of the world, hopeful, determined to leave a mark.
I started university at age 16 in Canada, 11,000 kilometres from home. I graduated at the age of 20, held my first managerial position at 23, joined a consultancy firm at 24 and at 30 became director at a top-tier company.
And an overwhelming number of Arab women have stories far more fulfilling than mine.
The Arab women I know are truly inspiring. Their dreams, their passion to be better human beings, their drive to pursue their dreams and the success they reap every day in every aspect of life are truly remarkable.
But with all the change sweeping through the Arab world, it's important to ask a question: where do Arab women stand in all this? What future will we build for our nations? What role will we claim for ourselves?
Men have their own ideas. As gender experts told a conference in Dubai on Wednesday, the most important thing is to include men in any discussion on how to empower women.
But women may see things differently. So trying to answer these questions, I approached a sample of 70 Arab women to ask them what they thought. What they told me was fascinating.
The overwhelming majority spoke of self-improvement as their number one priority, far exceeding raising a family, finding a partner or anything else our society deems most important for women.
These 70 said self-development, financial independence and a career are their top priorities.
Asked what they spend most of their time doing, many put taking care of family first.
Finally, asked how satisfied they are with their lives, around 75 per cent spoke of a need for change.
My survey, while not exactly scientific, nonetheless says something about female priorities. If Arab women spend more time taking care of family and less time on themselves, is this because of societal expectations, or a lack of support networks to let them rise beyond their traditional roles?
The case for empowering women is not just a matter of answering personal dreams. It is also about building thriving economies and fulfilled societies.
Governments and institutions have a critical role in increasing female empowerment - at work, in schools. Quotas and decrees are needed. But these are not enough.
Arab women need to claim a new position in society, finding a way to live in harmony with their own priorities.
But are Arab women willing to do that? How hard are we willing to work towards building a model in which women support women in the workplace, at home and beyond? How much time and effort are we willing to commit to reaching our self-development goals rather than just writing them down?
When will we be able to release ourselves from self-imposed guilt if we go out there and be all that we can be?
The time is ripe for Arab women to take the lead. I look around and see talented Arab women all over in their various roles as professionals, artists, mothers and wives; it is a renaissance time for Arab women just waiting to happen.
"You must be the change you wish to see in the world", as Mahatma Gandhi said. So what's your change today?
First written for The National - www.thenational.ae