Aysha Taryam's books on Goodreads
The Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of CommentariesThe Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of Commentaries
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Sunday, 24 April 2016

Syria — Is there anything left to salvage?

Since 2011 economists have been adding up the accumulating costs of the ongoing war in Syria. Year after year they have been recording the numbers that have come to point directly to the impending demise of the Syrian economy and studying what seems now an imaginable way to recovery. The latest estimate revealed by the World Bank predicts that $180 billion is needed to rebuild a war ravaged Syria. Another study by World Vision and Frontier Economics estimates that the war is costing Syria $4 billion a month in lost growth. The war has seen Syrian schools, hospitals and major infrastructure turned into rubble and with only 43% of the medical facilities functional the estimated life expectancy at birth has dropped to 15 years. World Vision is warning that without an internationally agreed reconstruction strategy ready to be implemented when the war is over, Syria’s fate would be no different than that of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Planning, reconstructing and rebuilding are all words that bring forth a ray of hope in an otherwise grim reality, a reality whose facts show that this hope is far-fetched. After the fall of Gaddafi’s Libya the United Kingdom alone has spent 13 times more on bombing than rebuilding the country. The United States Department of Defense boasts a daily cost of $11.5 million spent on bombing Iraq and in 2009 was spending about $7 billion a month in Afghanistan. Considering that history shows us time and again dark precedents we are almost promised a battered Syria that will not recover for at least another 50 years. The problem with history is that it tends to repeat itself and if mankind fails to learn from it then one after the other every Arab country is destined to perish.

Brick and mortar can be calculated, measured and rebuilt but what of lives lost? What of a nation of nomads that are roaming the world begging to be sheltered? What of the psychological damage that has befallen them as a result of this senseless chaos?

The cost of war is like an immeasurable tremor that knows no borders, its shockwaves reverberating across the world resulting in universal suffering.

Analysts have said the devastation caused by the Syrian war has reached World War II levels. With that in mind and the fact that there are mini wars happening in almost every other Arab country, that was unfortunate enough to be seduced by a false spring, this region is in fact going through the world’s third war. Once the dust settled on the Second World War much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins, there was nothing left to rebuild and the year 1945 was dubbed “Year Zero”. Millions dead and millions more had fled their homes seeing the birth of a new term, the DP, or “displaced person.” In modern day terms it would be what is known to us as the “refugee.” Once again history shows us that while the terminology changes the vicious cycle of war is more or less the same.

The end of the Second World War saw great cities such as Warsaw, Tokyo and Berlin reduced to piles of ash and in our reality the great cities of Baghdad, Tripoli and Aleppo have succumbed to the same fate. The end also brought about the creation of new world superpowers, the once mighty Japan and Germany looked to be beyond recovery which left ample room for the United States and the Soviet Union to flex their political muscles. The war in Syria has resulted in an undeniable power shift in the Arab world as well where we witness the weakening of Iraq, Libya and Syria to have made room for other less geographically dominant countries to take the helm.

Nevertheless, what was once Europe’s dark reality of defeating Adolf Hitler was now well behind it, recovery was possible for them because they bound together forming a grand alliance that had one thing on its agenda, the resuscitation of Europe, all of Europe. If Syria is to rise from the ashes it needs a united Arab world which has one thing on its agenda, not the falling of a dictator for we have seen many of those fall, but the reemergence of a prosperous Arab nation, one that is not reliant on foreign aid but is self-sustained and set on its way to become powerful once again.

Let us assume that this hypothetical situation is not a mirage and that its existence is well within reach, the question remains, what would our history books teach? Will the truths be taught so that our future generations could learn from our past or will it be ignored, skipped over to better times just like post World War II Europe did, where Italy neglected to mention its fascist past and France’s history pages were freed from the pro-Nazi Vichy period?
History is not always pessimistic for if World War II Europe has taught us anything it is that the rebuilding of cities is possible and the mending of a nation’s spirit can be achieved and therefore we remain hopeful that the new Arab powers will strive to sift through the ashes and salvage what they can to bring back what was lost and breathe life into what we thought dead.

This article was first published in The Gulf Today on 24 April, 2016
Article also appeared in Arabic in Al Khaleej Newspaper

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Generation ‘Share’ knows nothing about privacy

It used to be that when one wanted to keep a conversation private all they had to do was shut the door, when one felt strong enough about a memory it was locked in a drawer and when moments were utterly precious they were appreciated instead of being documented for future enjoyment.

Those days are long gone, for the private generation is dwindling to make way for generation ‘share’. It is evolutionary I suppose, but with all the moments, memories and conversations being streamed, beamed and uploaded into clouds has the idea of privacy been mutilated? Slashed at and cut through by the hands of all the Tweeters, Instagramers and Snapchatters out there?

Having to explain to a child of today, who has learned to swipe before they can speak, that certain aspects of a person’s life must remain private for the preservation of one’s sanity is almost frivolous. At one point in time privacy was so sacred that the world agreed to make it a fundamental human right, we agreed then we forgot. The need for privacy is a universal human condition that is essential to the growth process of a human being yet somehow our obsession with sharing has blinded us to the most human of behaviours.

It used to be that the world had to come up with ingenious ploys to pry information out of our clenched hands. Privacy pirates even resorted to reverse psychology deploying efforts to convince us that having access to our information is in fact for our own safety. No schemes needed now for we divulge all without a care in the world, without a moment’s thought, because life is not lived if it’s not being shared.

Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc. was recently under fire for refusing to unlock and extract data from an iPhone at the request of the FBI. While the debate raged on whether or not Apple should adhere to the FBI request most people did not really care whether or not a company could hack into their personal devices and retrieve any information they wanted and more of them believed it was being done already! Let’s face it, nobody ever reads those lengthy privacy agreements and none of us really know what we are accepting when we eagerly click the ‘I Agree’ option on any of these products. We do that not because we are incapable of reading but rather because the lure of technology is such that it has made us indifferent about our once revered privacy.

The messaging service WhatsApp, which has been operating since 2010, has only last week assured its one billion users that their “private” conversations have now become “safe”. What that means for us users is that six years’ worth of private, intimate or critical information have been up for grabs to anyone, to WhatsApp’s defence they do mention that in their privacy agreement which of course none of us have read.

The question here is not whether or not companies are keeping our data secure once they have acquired it but rather do we really care if they are? Because in a world where one is identified and rewarded not by their productive input but rather for how much of their private lives they are willing to reveal, the more you share the more you become. And so it is inevitable that the day has come when we write about privacy with such nostalgia, analysing it as we would some unearthed fossil of a creature our human eyes had never fallen on. Our children might never understand why their parents’ conversations should not be broadcast and that their future selves would probably regret publishing every thought that ran through their young heads because privacy is a concept that must be relearned in an age where it has become a currency that cannot be cashed.

This article was first published in The Gulf Today newspaper on 17 April, 2016
Arabic version of this article appeared in Al Khaleej newspaper

Monday, 18 January 2016

I never said Je suis Charlie

There was a time before last year’s gruesome attack when not many outside Paris had heard of a satirical publication called Charlie Hebdo. The terrorist shooting that left 11 people dead delivered a harsh blow to those of us who hold freedom of expression to be a birthright. The cold-blooded assassination of the Charlie Hebdo staff sent shockwaves throughout modern societies causing their leaders to flock to Paris and rally in solidarity with the French people in denouncing the attack on freedom of speech. It was also the reason the hashtag #JesuisCharlie trended worldwide with many Muslims using it to reiterate the fact that these monsters in no way represented the views of true Muslims.

The issue following the dark ordeal was published on schedule and in solidarity people, those who had never heard of Charlie Hebdo and those who do not agree with the publication’s opinions or find its “satire” funny, went out and bought the issue. The post-attack issue went on to sell one million copies.

Last week Charlie Hebdo was in the news again, not as a symbol of freedom of expression, but as an example of how racism can be deviously disguised as art. After the alleged harassment ordeal experienced by German women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve at the hands of migrants Charlie Hebdo published a caricature which depicts the body of 3-year-old Syrian migrant Alan Kurdi, which washed up on Turkish shores after his boat capsized while seeking refuge, as growing up to become a monkey-faced rapist attacking German women. The photo of young Alan’s tiny body lying face down on the shore shook the world to the core, it was the physical embodiment of the absolute horror that human greed, ego and lust for power can create. Somehow, while the world tried to make sense of this child’s unfathomable fate Charlie Hebdo’s artists thought it would be “funny” to point at this lifeless tiny bundle of innocence and call him a rapist. Soon social media was abuzz with shocked reactions to this heartless and racist caricature which could not be seen as anything other than a hate-mongering piece of propaganda which has no place in the world we are living today.

I was not shocked at seeing such filth being churned out by Charlie Hebdo, as a matter of fact I was not expecting anything less. Like I said, most people had not heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attack and therefore had no way of knowing how unimaginably vile its work can be. The work being published by Charlie Hebdo is not unlike that of white-supremacist or religious extremists’ propaganda, subjugating any idea which it considers as ‘other’ and inciting segregation. Today, the United States government is considering removing racist terms from great works of literature and is being pressured to take down statues of prominent figures in American history for their involvement in the slave trade. For even though the US amendment lists freedom of speech it specifies that it is not, and can never be absolute.

We are living in a world which is being torn apart by intolerance and hate therefore the utmost care and sensitivity should be taken when approaching issues of great social or political impact. That is exactly why although horrified by the viciousness and unjustness of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and despite the intense fear I felt at the thought of losing journalistic freedoms I never once said je suis Charlie because let’s face it, neither you nor I are Charlie. We would never walk into a room and at the sight of a person who is different hurl profanities at them comparing them to animals. We would never be sat with people from different faiths and insult one’s religious views and idols. And you and I would never in a million years think of a child’s lifeless body as a funny joke to laugh about. 

I never said je suis Charlie because I am not Charlie and will never be. 

This article was first published in The Gulf Today newspaper on 18 January, 2016
Arabic version of this article appeared in Al Khaleej newspaper

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

It’s time for a law against domestic violence in the UAE

From its inception the United Arab Emirates has dedicated all its resources to the betterment of society and the world in need with one mission in mind, to provide people with security, stability and respect for their rights. This is evident from the birth of this great nation and instilled by its founding fathers. The late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a laudable humanitarian and advocate of women’s rights, is famously known to have said: “No matter how many buildings, foundations, schools and hospitals we build, or how many bridges we raise, all these are material entities. The real spirit behind the progress is the human spirit.” 

The UAE has come so far in so little time yet never lost sight of what it values the most, its citizens and the diverse people who have chosen to make it their home. This year, the UN Happiness Report ranked the UAE as the twenty-second happiest nation globally and the first among Arab countries. This does not happen by chance, it happens through the hard work and dedication of governments under the guidance of an enlightened leadership, which cares first and foremost about the human spirit.

The UAE has never witnessed a women’s rights movement simply because since its establishment the government has seen women as equals and therefore placed them at the forefront of all endeavours. The urgency for the inclusion of women was there from the very beginning with women’s education becoming one of the founding fathers’ first and most persistent priorities. Today the Emirati woman is as intrinsic in the country’s fabric as her male counterpart participating at every level of both government and private sectors, with many gaining international recognition for their achievements.

In a young nation such as this one it is understandable, even expected, to find outdated laws and issues that are not yet recognised under the country’s penal codes but domestic violence should not be one of them. There is no law governing domestic violence in the UAE, a fact that is neither acceptable nor emblematic of the country’s stance on human rights in general and specifically women’s rights. Ministry officials have shrugged at questions on the non-existence of such a crucial law citing that there is no legal definition of domestic abuse. This technicality cannot be the reason to dismiss the rising figures of domestic violence incidents where women have had no legal rights to leave their abusive relationships on the grounds of being physically harmed. Officials have also debated cultural issues stating outdated ideas of privacy among a family unit. If a woman fears for her life then she should be able to seek refuge, knowing that the law will preserve her rights if she wishes to remove herself from harm’s way regardless of what other members of her family believe. 

Another excuse given by officials, who I must mention for the sake of this issue, are all men, is that while Western countries may consider some forms of abuse as domestic violence an Arab community could see it as family discipline. I could not make this up if I tried, officials have actually said these excuses out loud and continue to use them to hinder the process of passing this fundamental law. 
Violence is violence and can in no way be misconstrued as discipline under any circumstance cultural or otherwise. If we are to fight discrimination and injustice against women we must start from the home for if a woman cannot be safe in her own house then she cannot be expected to feel safe anywhere.

The figures do not lie, domestic violence is on the rise and the lack of a law to protect women is not acceptable under any excuse. The UAE does not need the United Nations telling it that this is an infringement on human rights because the UAE believes it to be so and must now act to end the procrastination of the matter because the passing of this law reinforces what the UAE truly is, an avid advocate of human rights. 

This article was first published in The Gulf Today newspaper on October 18, 2015.
Arabic version of this article appeared in Al Khaleej newspaper

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Israel is no refuge

The migration crisis that has resulted from the clash of egos and sadistic extremism has reached its peak, with the past months witnessing a great outpouring of people seeking refuge from the Syrian inferno. European countries are now feeling the strain and their faith in human rights is being tested with the docking of every desperation-filled boat on their shores. If history has taught us anything, it is that wars have a way of affecting the whole world and not just the countries waging it. 

The world is hurriedly trying to shelter those fleeing imminent death as the rest of it calls for a more permanent solution, peace talks and compromises instead of drones and beheadings. Meanwhile one government has flat out rejected the taking in of Syrian refugees, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. I would like you now to take a moment and let the irony sink in, for it could not have escaped the invading government of Israel as its Prime Minister went on explaining that “Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees”. As I read those words I wondered if all the whitewashing that this government has done cleaning its bloodstained hands has finally succeeded in erasing the past. Have Netanyahu and the world he was addressing really forgotten the year 1948 when the Exodus (Al Nakba) made refugees out of millions of Palestinians as Israel depopulated and destroyed entire villages establishing its independence on the rubble of homes it pillaged? To this day Palestinians suffer as refugees in many parts of the world as they watch the building of illegal settlements happening at record speeds. So the question is: How can a nation that has made a refugee out of an entire country be expected to speak about, let alone, take in another set of refugees?

Israel took in approximately 60,000 African migrants fleeing civil wars since 2006 and used them to fill the illegal settlements being built but today Israel’s migration record is awash with accusations of racist treatment and the deportation of African refugees while Netanyahu refers to them as “infiltrators” and Israeli right-wing groups claim they have “a right to be racist” to protect their country. Thousands of African migrants have protested in Tel Aviv after a video emerged showing a black Israeli soldier being assaulted by a policeman while Israeli’s NGOs are still reporting that African migrants are being deported to Rwanda with promises of job security of which there is none. With such a dismal migration track record, Israel’s constant disrespect for international law and blatant disregard for human rights why would this ‘democratic’ nation believe that the world expects it to take in those in need of shelter? 

Israel has begun building a fence on its eastern border to protect itself from these so-called ‘infiltrators’ and ‘terrorists’, resurrecting yet another wall to keep people out in the name of security. And proving once again that no government in the world can be as racist in its rhetoric or actions like that of Netanyahu’s. Israeli media reported that Syrian migrants in Italy still believe Israel to be the number one threat to the region. That is because although in dire need of a safe haven Syrians have not forgotten the plight of their Palestinian brethren and despite their desperation will not seek refuge from the government which has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, making a point that although the Arab world is undergoing one of time’s most challenging tests, pulled apart by the hands of greed and ignorance, the injustices of the past will never be erased by the injustices of today.

This article was first published in The Gulf Today 20 Sept, 2015
Arabic version of this article appeared in Al Khaleej newspaper 20 Sept, 2015