Category: Thoughts & Scribbles

King Abdullah Of Jordan: Monarch In The Middle Of Controversy

King Abdullah IIA feature on The Atlantic about King Abdullah II of Jordan, “The Modern King in the Arab Spring”, was all the fuss on Tuesday all over Jordan’s news sites and on social media.

As someone who lived, studied, worked and got married in Jordan; there’s always a little place in my heart for the country, and I tend to try and catch up on what’s going on there every now and then.

I only got to read the full feature, which is pretty long, yesterday; and whoa, was that something!
The full feature can be found here “The Modern King in the Arab Spring”, and for some quick highlights, you can check out the New York Times’ article.

The article basically lays out what the king thinks of the internal players in Jordanian politics, the tribal leaders (whom he calls Dinosaurs), the General Intelligence Department (GID), the royal family, regional leaders, the Muslim brotherhood and more, painting them all mostly in a negative light.
Now all of these things aren’t that shocking in the sense that the king or anyone else thinks that way, heck I agree with most of the opinions in the article; what’s more shocking is that they’re released and made public this way, bypassing any of the usual PR or diplomacy filters we’ve gotten so used to from political leaders and their offices.

After the article was published, the Royal Hashemite Court responded saying that the article included “many fallacies and took matters out of their correct context.” Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote the piece, confirmed on Twitter that both he and the royal court have recordings of the interviews, and that they’re well in context.

All that in mind, I’m going to lean more towards thinking that the Royal Hashemite Court is just scrambling to contain and get rid of this internal nightmare situation, while the article remains mostly accurate.

Many people think that maybe the king’s comments were made off the record, and they do really seem like things that would be said off the record, rather than on the record; but I don’t think that’s the case, I actually think the king intended these comments to come out exactly the way they did.
Why he’d do that? What exactly the reasoning and objective behind it is, isn’t that clear; but what’s for sure is it’s quite a gamble.

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Tunisia: The Land Of A 1001 Political Parties

It’s been just a bit over 55 years since Tunisia got its independence from France; 55 years through which the country and its people, almost three generations of Tunisians, knew only 2 presidents, 1 political party and no options whatsoever.

Sure, there were a handful of other political parties in the country, some recognized as legal opposition and others banned and illegal; it didn’t matter what their status was though, other than occasionally hearing their names around play-election time, the average Tunisian on the streets had no idea who they were or what they stood for; after all, why bother when they had no chance, and were either willingly or unwillingly nothing more than puppets in a game of “let’s act like we’re a democracy”, that would end with the mighty “chosen one” winning yet another mandate.

And even though it seemed like things would go on forever that way defying all laws of nature and logic, it all started crumbling down and falling apart suddenly and to everyone’s surprise. The date of January 14th 2011 earned a place in history books, marking the end of an era and the beginning of a new one for the country.

Following that, and in full post-revolutionary spirit, raising the banner of freedom and political pluralism, the doors were thrown wide open for all existing political parties to be recognized, and well for everyone and anyone who would like to take a go at it to register their new fresh political party too. The more the merrier, or something like that.

Political parties started popping up like fungi all over the place, putting in applications and getting legalized in batches of tens and dozens. Some of the names leading these new parties are ones Tunisians are slightly familiar with someway or another, some are members of the old guard who served for years on the dark side but yet seem to think Tunisians will believe they weren’t in on the action or that they hold the secret to a post-RCD cleaning and purification process, and then there are the ones most Tunisians never ever heard of.

All of a sudden, Tunisians went from a situation where the political scene was a quasi-empty one and it was normal that they knew no one, to a situation where the scene has burst open at the seams with new parties joining the carnival every day and yet they have the feeling they still don’t really know anyone.

A very important election on July 24th 2011 is inching closer and closer, an election that will carry enormous ramifications for the country and its future, and yet the Tunisian political scene is a big mess and in total disarray, buzzing with a variety of political party names most people can’t translate into positions or agendas they can identify or not identify with.

Political pluralism is great, but too much political pluralism kills political pluralism, or however the saying goes; there’s no way people are going to be able to keep up with over 65 political parties (as of today, who knows about tomorrow); and as we really need as many Tunisians as possible to get involved in the process, exercise their rights and vote for the future of the country; this is obviously not the right way forward.

Now, I think it’s very obvious that there’s no way all these parties will or can come up with entirely different agendas and platforms; in fact once they actually get around to putting their agendas together, it should be pretty easy to put them all in buckets of parties that pretty much stand for the same ideas and principles. Logically, these should be merged, and should pool whatever resources they have to be able to get their message out and start rallying supporters around a clear programme.

Consolidation. That is the keyword; that’s what the next step should be, and it should be done quickly, so that things can be taken to the next level, and so people can start making more sense of what’s out there.
Even though it might seem slightly counter-intuitive to many politicians, but logically speaking they have better chances of getting to power when grouped and merged together, with more resources, more exposure and less competition spitting out the exact same recycled message.
It’s starting to happen already, with a couple of parties who just announced their union and who might be getting a third party on board with them; but we need all political parties out there to be thinking the same way: who could we potentially team up with to win?

By doing that, not only would these political parties increase their chances of winning, but they’d also positively contribute to creating winning conditions for the country and the people, by making it easier for all Tunisians to get involved, make their informed picks and vote for the future.

Tunisia, Canada, Elections And I – Quick Reflections

Unfortunately, I haven’t been writing as much as I used to or want to on here; a combination of being busy with life and work, distracted by the rise of Twitter and me getting tired of following the daily news of the world for a while.

Anyway, in the past few months, true to my inner nomadic nature, we’ve picked up and moved again, this time from Dubai, UAE to Ontario, Canada. We’ve settled down in the city of Mississauga, part of the Greater Toronto Area, and things have been going good so far; almost settled down.

During the period that I’ve been here, a revolution took place back home in Tunisia, which then started spreading across the Arab world; while over here in Canada, the country was plunged into an unscheduled national election, which has been very interesting to witness for me.

I don’t get to vote in the elections here, but still, I’ve been following the campaign very closely, watching the debates both in English and French, looking at the platforms the political parties are putting forward, watching interviews with leaders and MPs, reading opinion pieces and blogs, and making my own opinions on issues and who I’d vote for if I were able to.

I have to say, I’ve been truly enjoying the whole process; maybe it’s because I never got to experience something similar back home in Tunisia, or maybe it’s because I’m living here now and actually do care about who will take over power and what they’ll do with it, or most probably it’s a combination of both.

However, and even though the Canadian election system might not be entirely perfect, I always find myself thinking every time: how I wish we could have something like this in Tunisia; how I wish we could have real engaging debates, real talk shows and reports asking the hard questions, very well written opinion pieces and analysis published in the media, …etc.

How I wish we Tunisians could go into an election we don’t already know the results for!
This year hopefully we will, on July 24th 2011, Tunisians will get to vote and choose a constituent assembly that will rewrite the constitution and chart the country’s transition and future.
The hope is that the interim government, political parties and Tunisian media step up to the plate and give us a great free election experience that opens the doors for a better and more mature political system in the country.

It’s going to be a real challenge because neither the people, nor the officials in the current government, nor the leaders of the political parties, and especially not the Tunisian media have any experience with a free and democratic election; but this is the occasion to go for it, aim for the stars, learn as we go and make Tunisia the first Arab country to hold truly democratic elections that produce results that represent the will of the people.

As citizens our responsibility is to find out as much as we can about every party, what they stand for, what their plans are and to push the media for better coverage and reporting on the elections and require the government and parties to provide higher transparency on every issue. So let’s make sure we all go out and do that.

Oh and on a final separate note, for those of you who are curious who I’d vote for if I could in Canada; well even though the Liberal Party of Canada is generally more aligned with my ideas and opinions, I’d vote for the NDP (New Democratic Party) because their leader Jack Layton won me over in the debates and I believe he would make a better Prime Minister and leader for Canada.

Tunisian Media In The Post-Revolution Era

Just a few days ago, the Tunisian national TV station (TTN), that was quick to shed its TV7 moniker after the revolution in Tunisia, and who overnight wanted people to believe they would become a space for free speech, aired a report on ex-President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, highlighting all the bad things he did, the corruption, the treason and the list goes on; to put it simply they kicked the crap out of the guy, which he more than deserves of course.

Videos of the report quickly went online and were being shared around on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and all; and some people actually seemed impressed and thought that TTN was doing a good job.

On my side, I was actually disappointed, and don’t see anything that suggests the TV station has changed one bit. It’s still a mouthpiece, just saying and doing what they’re told to say and do, with no real reporting and no true voice.

It’s very easy to kick the crap out of someone like Ben Ali and portray him as the devil, now that he’s gone and all, so it’s not really a sign of freedom of speech or anything. But when you prepare and air a report like that, what’s very important is that you actually be precise about the information that you’re throwing around, fact-check it, and make sure it’s correct. Watching the report, I didn’t get that impression at all; they were getting a bunch of people to just throw out accusations and information, without specifying details, without providing precise numbers (they seemed more like they were made up on the fly), and just sticking any and every imaginable bad deed to the guy; and what made it even worse is that it was all done and narrated in a very propaganda-like cheap style.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending Ben Ali, and I’m sure he was even worse than what we all heard and know, but my concern in this post is more about TTN and the Tunisian media in general.

Tunisian media has to move up to the next level and play a bigger role in unearthing and providing correct information to people, allowing a space for people to speak freely and share their opinions and facts, and to be right in the center of the national debate going on about the future of the country.

I would have liked to see the same report but with the people throwing these accusations being grilled for precise details and providing them; I would like to see a similar report done some day for our first president Habib Bourguiba, whose praise some people are suddenly re-singing these days; but even more important are reports now profiling members of the current government as well as the opposition leaders and parties, telling their history, what they stand for, and what they were doing while the Tunisian people were suffering under Ben Ali’s rule.

Tunisians don’t need to see anyone being accused, demonized or framed; we just want the media to do their job investigating stories and facts, and then just reporting them to us without any bias or agenda so we can make our own opinions and decisions.

I’m not sure most of the people currently employed by Tunisian TV stations, newspapers and magazines; who have done nothing but provide a very sub-standard level of “reporting” for years; are up to the challenge, and truly believe Tunisian media needs new blood that can live up to our expectations as Tunisians both at home and abroad.

The Huge & Alarming Arabic Content Crisis

As someone who’s been working in the Internet space in the Arab world for what feels like ages now; I’ve heard the following line, and all imaginable variations of it more than I can keep track of; basically the line is:

We have a big problem with the lack of Arabic content online, with it only representing 1% of all online content.

Now that’s true, it’s shocking, it’s very bad, and it’s a valid point to keep bringing up every time there’s a chance to.

However, the problem is much much bigger than just online content; it’s a problem with Arabic content altogether, both online and offline!

If we just take a step back and look at some numbers for the production of Arabic content in general, the numbers for online content start to look very normal actually.

How many original Arabic books are being published every year?

There are no reliable numbers on the production of books, but many indicators suggest a severe shortage of writing; a large share of the market consists of religious books and educational publications that are limited in their creative content.

(Source: UNDP Arab Human Development Report, AHDR 2002, p. 78)

And in the same report, the following year:

Book production in Arab countries was just 1.1 percent of world production, although Arabs constitute 5% of the world’s population. The publication of literary works was lower than the average level of book production. In 1996, Arab countries produced no more than 1945 literary and artistic books, which represents 0.8% of international production. This is less than what a country such as Turkey produces, with a population about one-quarter that of the Arab countries. In general, Arab book production centers mainly on religious topics and less on other fields such as literature, art and the social sciences.

(Source: UNDP Arab Human Development Report, AHDR 2003, p. 77)

How many foreign books are actually being translated into Arabic every year?

The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates.
The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa’moun’s [sic] time (the ninth century) is about 100,000 books; almost the average that Spain translates in one year.

(Source: UNDP Arab Human Development Report, AHDR 2002, p. 78)

Also looking beyond book production and translation, if we look around us, at the magazines and newspapers being produced all around the region; Other than the news, how many of the articles or op-eds getting published in them are actually read-worthy or offer any value whatsoever to the reader? Unfortunately, only a small fraction of them!

In short, the point I’m trying to make is that we don’t have a problem of Arabic content online, we have a problem with Arabic content, period!
Arabic content online is just part of the picture and is consistent with the overall alarming trend.

Now why do we have this overall problem in the first place?
It’s a vicious circle actually; For some reason Arabs don’t read much, so publishers don’t publish much, so producers/writers don’t produce much, and so with less out there, Arabs read less and less and it goes on and on. In fact, looking at another set of estimated numbers for book production in the Arab world actually showed numbers were declining year on year.

Online, the difference is that you’ve got companies and professional publishers publishing content, but also the possibility for anyone and everyone to produce content through sites, blogs, wikis …etc. So the cost of putting content is cheaper and the entry barrier is lower; but still many of the same challenges hold online; if people don’t come and read in high numbers, writers are de-motivated and/or can’t generate any income, and they stop producing any more content. This obviously also has a link to the fact that less than 2% of advertising budgets in the region are spent online; so it’s harder for content producers to cover their costs and keep on producing more content. That brings us back to the same kind of vicious cycle from earlier.

It’s a huge problem, one that we need to do something about obviously, and that everyone has a role to play in, in order to get things on a growth track. Maybe where we should start is by ourselves, by committing to reading more Arabic books and content, sharing and producing Arabic content whenever we can, and most important of all, raise our children to be readers and writers.

The Gap Between Generations

Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.

George Orwell

Simply said, but very true and represents experiences we’ve all surely had with people from the generation before us; whether parents, relatives, teachers or others; and the experiences we’re having nowadays with the generations following us, whether it’s our children, younger colleagues, students or others.

For a good time in our lives we grow up on the receiving end of this, basically getting people talking down to us from their pedestal of wisdom, without us even asking for it; it annoys us, and we mumble to ourselves as they do it, and think “What do they know? We’re smarter than them!”.

Then one day in one of our conversations with someone younger, it just hits us, we’re doing the same thing, we’re lecturing them, we’re doing the exact same thing that used to annoy us when we were younger, BUT we re-assure ourselves, we have the right to, we’re wiser than them, they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into…

It’s funny and ironic, and it perfectly represents the circle of life and how we all move through the different stages of it.

Privacy In A World Of Online Social Networks

Privacy is a really hot issue these days with many people debating how this or that online social network, of which so many have popped up everywhere, is violating our privacy and exposing us to the whole world against our will.

Of course, user privacy is not an issue to be taken lightly, and should be one of the most important and respected points for any of these social networks, and I think that even though they understand that, it’s good that we keep an eye open for the occasional blunder from their sides.

However, I think most of the problem comes from the users and not the social networks themselves.

I’ve been online ever since before there was such a thing as an online social network, and have witnessed the whole transition from nothing where everyone was an anonymous faceless person to this time we’re in where we know what every single one of our contacts is doing at any given moment in the day, where they’re doing it and who they’re doing it with; with photo and video footage of it too.

We’ve obviously come a long way, and in a pretty short time; the only problem is that some people never took the time to stop and think about what it is they were doing and how much information they were sharing and whom with.

Today, we live in a public world, anything we push out publicly is found, archived and made accessible to anyone interested; and sometimes we forget about that, and we make mistakes that come back to haunt us; we blame the social network, but most of the the times we’re the ones to blame.

We also forget about the differences between the plethora of social networks out there, and are lured to find our friends from our email contacts and other social networks on every new one we join; but we forget to wait and ask ourselves whether we want our twitter friends who we share general thoughts and links with to be the same people we have on foursquare tracking our every single move or on blippy seeing every single item we buy.

In our lives, we have different sets of data about ourselves that we can share; the key is who do we share it with, and how much of it we share.

I make no claim to be another one of the thousands of social media experts who came out of nowhere all of a sudden, but I think a lot of it boils down to basic common sense.

In my case for example, I like to have the people I’ve personally met on Facebook, where I might share more personal stuff from time to time, so I know who they are and how much info I want them to see or not see, and have them organized into groups with different levels of access.

On Twitter, anyone can follow me, and I can follow almost anyone; that’s what’s great about it; and I share my quick thoughts and things I find interesting; always keeping in mind that whatever I say goes on the internet’s permanent record for me. Same applied and still applies to this blog.

On LinkedIn, I only like connecting with people I’ve done business with, people I’m introduced to by my contacts or people who introduce themselves and explain why they want to connect with me. I also don’t like people I haven’t worked with asking me for meaningless endorsements. I don’t believe my activity on Twitter belongs on a more serious place like LinkedIn and so haven’t linked my accounts to do automatic updates.

Foursquare and TripIt are a whole other story; these tell people where I am or where I’m going to be at a certain time. This is not data I want everyone to know all the time obviously, and so again I have to make choices who to connect with and who not to on them. Also when making updates, I choose on a per post basis whether I want that specific item to be shared or not.

Blippy is still new as a service, and most of the people I know aren’t on it yet, but in this case, the information being shared could potentially be even more sensitive, seeing as it’s what I’m buying and spending my money on; so again I have to make the call on what I share exactly and who gets to see it.

The list goes on; and if you just analyze it a bit, it’s clear the questions we should be asking ourselves are: How much information is ok for us to share? And who is it ok for us to share this specific bit of information with?

These are actually questions we ask ourselves on a day to day basis as we deal with people in the real world, but the problem is that when we go online, maybe because it’s all easier, we let our barriers down and stop asking some of the basic questions that we know we should be asking.

But in the end, it’s really simple: nothing goes on these social networks that we haven’t chosen to share, and nobody sees it but the people we’ve chosen to share it with. So it’s really up to us to make the right choices.

A Day For This & A Day For That

A quick random thought…

When the weather is beautiful and all spring-like; everyone says this is a perfect day to be out and about, not to be wasted in-doors.

When the weather is cold and gloomy; everyone says this day is best spent snuggled up in front of the TV drinking something hot.

When the weather is hot and stuffy; everyone says this day is best spent at the beach or the pool, and sipping on some iced drinks.

I’ve never heard anyone say, the weather is so and so, this is a perfect day for work, not a minute should be wasted.

What does this say about us?

And is there a perfect weather to be in the office working?

Failure: The Ultimate Arab Taboo

[Cue show’s title music]
The silhouettes of a group of overweight people walking towards you appear on the screen.
The silhouettes start becoming clearer and we see the group of contestants.
The name of the show flashes on the screen.
“The Biggest Loser”
(A show where a group of overweight people are challenged to lose weight, and where the person who loses the most weight, hence the title “The Biggest Loser”, at the end of the show is the winner of a hefty cash prize.)

[Fast forward to the Arab world]
As with a bunch of other reality tv shows or game shows that find some level of success elsewhere in the world, some Arab channel secures the rights to introduce that show in the Arab world.
In the case of this show, it is MBC that introduces the show in the region, but here’s the twist, the name of the show is changed, it becomes:
“The Biggest Winner”

Now, this might be quite a subtle change, but I think it’s just a tiny example, a telling sign of a bigger problem we have in the Arab world: the fear of losing, the taboo of being associated with failure in any way.

In this case, even though the person who would get the title of “The Biggest Loser” would actually be the winner of the show, and would walk away with a really nice cash prize, MBC judged, and maybe rightfully so, that using the word “Loser” in the title would turn people off from being part of the show (even though the same TV station aired the original show too with its original title before producing the local version).

This fear of failure is ingrained in our Arab culture; Failure is regarded as the end; a burning mark, a label that will be associated with the person for the rest of his life. The society looks differently at people who have failed, it looks down on them in some way; even people whose accomplishments in life never amounted to much think they are better than people who have failed.

Yes, in our culture, whether we like to admit it or not, it’s regarded as better to sit around doing nothing, never try and never officially fail than to actually go out, take on a challenge, try and fail.

This is a fear that is imprinted in the back of most people’s minds, holding them back from going out there, trying new things, experimenting with new projects, overcoming boundaries, and fulfilling their full potential along the way.

No, everyone wants to be a winner, and they want to win from the first time; it’s either they have that, or they’d rather play it safe, and just hover around in life not taking any risks, letting their great ideas and ambitions wither and die, and not really accomplishing any of the things they really want to and can if they just tried.

But obviously, things don’t work that way, not everyone can win from the first time, not everything will work from the first time, we know it by nature, and we’ve witnessed it in events big and small throughout our lives. Count the numbers of times we stumbled before we could walk, the number of times we fell before we could ride our bikes, the number of mistakes we made that we regretted and swore we’d never do again …etc. It’s in our nature to make mistakes, to have these little failures here and there, in order to learn, get better and build up to our bigger wins.

It’s just that at some point in our lives, we were taught, against our instincts, that it was very very bad for us to fail; that no matter what happens, we should make sure we never fail; that people who fail are losers and will always be losers.

But that’s so wrong; we have to stop looking at failure as just the end; it is an end of something that didn’t work, there’s no doubt about it; but it’s also the start of what comes after it, the start of something new where you can apply all the lessons you’ve learned from previous experiences, and build towards something better and bigger, and eventually succeed.

A great quote by Irish writer Samuel Beckett about this is:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

And that’s pretty much how things go, we try, we fail, we try again, and we keep going, getting better, until we succeed and win; and then all those little failures along the way amount to nothing but part of a bigger success story.

Tunisia To Get New TV Channel Called Elyssa TV? Again With The Historic Names!

I just read that the Tunisian production company Cactus Prod has gone on as expected and filed to get the rights to launch a new television channel in Tunisia under the name: Elyssa TV.

If all goes as planned, broadcast tests for this new channel could start as early as this coming December 2009, with an official launch following early on in 2010.

Now, this is all great, after all I think it’s good to see more players enter the audiovisual market in Tunisia, maybe push the envelope a bit further, give viewers more options, and enrich the scene in one way or another.

What bugs me though is the name!
I went on a similar rant around 5 years ago when the name for Hannibal TV was announced, and here I am again, five years later, thinking the same thoughts.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m as proud a Tunisian as you’ll ever find, and our history is one that is very dear to me, it runs in our blood and defines a big part of who we are as a people, but I’m seriously fed up of every other business in Tunisia, from the neighborhood coffee shop, to travel agents, to the country’s first MVNO, to our TV channels to everything being named after Hannibal and Elyssa.

Come on, we can be more creative that that! Let’s stop living in the past!

Hannibal and Elyssa were great, they are a part of Tunisian history that will always shine throughout the ages, but we’ve overused their legacy; let them rest in their graves, and let us live in the present, let us create for the future.

It’s the same all around the Arab world too, not just in Tunisia, it’s as if we’re a nation clinging to the past, because it holds the only shiny points in our history that we can think of, instead of actually doing something to change the miserable state our nation is in, and building a better future.