‘I voted’

For many, September 14 was your regular Tuesday with its heavy work load. For others it was the day when minor elections were taking place in several US states. But for me it was a milestone. It was the day I got out of my car, all dressed-up (in a grey suit and red- stripped shirt), and walked to the entrance of my neighborhood elementary school (to the sound of someone yelling “Kagan for Senate”). I walked through the long hallways and reached the operation center, where I cast my first ballot, ever, as an American citizen.

The election was the primary for the state of Maryland, and I, as an American citizen and Maryland resident, had a say in it. Yes, my lone vote could actually determine who runs this state. When I got to the registration desk the people asked for my name and asked me to confirm my party. I proudly said “Democrat.” I felt empowered to be vocal about my party affiliation, especially since where I was born, belonging to a party was not something to shout over rooftops. The word party, or Hizib in Arabic, had a bad connotation in the Middle East. It signaled membership in opposition groups, a la Muslim Brotherhood or the Communist Party. Party members were mostly seen as fringe that posed an imminent threat to the regime.

Here in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, though, it is a totally different experience. Everyone is encouraged to belong to a party to such an extent that in some states, not belonging to a party means you don’t have full voting rights in certain primaries.

When my registration was verified I was taken to the electronic voting booth by an older Asian woman. I explained to her that this was my first time voting and that I might need help figuring out how to use the machine. She told me: “Let me call my husband. He’s better at these things.” Very cute, I thought. Her husband, a senior as well, was very helpful. He showed me how to use the electronic registration card and how to eventually cast my ballot. What struck me was the fact that the man, just like me, had accented American English. Here we were: a foreign-born Asian-American man helping an Arab-American woman vote for the first time in the primary elections in the state of Maryland. Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is what I call a lesson in democracy.

After I was done, I returned my electronic registration card and was given a sticker that said in both English and Spanish: “I voted/Yo vote.” I stuck it on my suitcoat and left the room. I know this might sound cliché, but I was overwhelmed. Two years after taking my oath in Baltimore I finally feel that my American citizenship has been consummated. Travelling with a US passport is only part of it. You truly come full circle as a citizen of this great county when you cast your first ballot.

I remember when Obama was running for president I was still a green card holder and couldn’t cast my ballot. On the day of the elections I was going absolutely nuts. I couldn’t focus at work and kept checking voting results online. I paced back and forth around the office like a total maniac. Eventually, I walked into my colleague’s office, who seemed really consumed by whatever work she was doing. I asked her: “Michelle, how can you do this? I’m going crazy here and you’re acting like today is just another day.” She responded: “Natasha, I voted this morning. I did my part. I feel relaxed.” That was when I realized what I was missing.

The only other time I’ve voted was in Jordan in 2003 during the parliamentary elections. I was a bit peeved because for some reason I was registered to vote in the town where my parents were born and not in the town where we resided at that time. I was not sure how the election rules worked back then but I didn’t feel that my vote would actually impact my daily existence. My vote was not going to make any difference in fixing local issues, like the constant lack of clean water or bumpy streets in our neighborhood. I did vote eventually, though, so that I could say: “I voted.”

Here, saying, “I voted,” has a totally different meaning. My vote did actually make a difference. The incumbent governor I voted for actually won the primary (Go O’Malley!). I will make sure to vote for him in the mid-term elections in November against his republican opponent.

All that said, I’ m not totally giving up hope of having a transparent, effective democratic process in the country where I was born. Unlike the early 2000’s, I see more awareness about upcoming elections in Jordan with more civic societies spreading awareness and encouraging potential voters to engage in public debates. Jordan’s upcoming parliamentary elections might be different this time. At least people are discussing them via Twitter. Now, that’s something.

Octavia Nasr’s blunder: When a tweet gets you fired

Octavia Nasr's tweet

Octavia Nasr's tweet

As many of you have heard by now: CNN Senior Middle East correspondent Octavia Nasr has been fired over one single tweet. The 140 (or less) word burst said the following:

“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot. #Lebanon”.

The tweet resulted in a public outcry with some accusing her of being a sympathizer of an group viewed by many in the US as a “terrorist” organization. CNN acted swiftly to the controversy by firing Nasr.

What a sad way to end the career of a veteran journalist liker her! Nasr and I exchanged a few “tweets” over the past months, and I highly admired her. I saw her as a passionate, hard-working journalist. She represented the best of Arabs. Unfortunately, she made a mistake by voicing her own opinion while working as journalist and representing CNN. In fact, her twitter user name was “octavianasrcnn,” which made it clear that her views were linked to CNN.

As a trained journalist myself, I regard what she did as an error in judgment. She must have gotten so carried away with all the Twitter excitement (which includes crowdsourcing and direct, personal interaction) that she forgot to abide by the fairly rigid rules of mainstream media. Journalists are not supposed to air their personal opinions when they present themselves as part of a news organization. There is no question about that. You will never be viewed as a balanced reporter when you publicly express your opinion, especially about a hot political issue like that of Hezbulah.

Nasr recognized her mistake and issued an apology, which I thought was the right thing to do.

However, this was not enough for CNN and they simply let her go. It’s disappointing. If I was her boss and I had to make the decision, I would have given her a warning and asked her to issue a public apology. Sacking her seems a bit excessive, especially for someone who has been working for the organization for two decades and has given so much. Why not give her a second chance?

In addition to putting the word “Hezoballa” and “Respect” in one sentence, Nasr has also made another mistake: she forgot  or chose to forget  the sad reality of the world we are living in, where there are many watching and waiting for public figures to make mistakes. Those of Arab/Middle Eastern backgrounds are scrutinized more than others. At least that is how things look these days. Think Helen Thomas, who made a similar mistake. Thomas shouldn’t have said what she said. It was unacceptable. Thomas also forgot today’s sad reality. Scrutiny is the name of the game. Forgiveness is no longer an option.

As a writer and a trained reporter from an Arab background I’m completely aware of this scrutiny. I remember when I first moved to the US and was looking for a job; a number of potential employers questioned my ethics as a reporter and asked me bluntly if I would be able to report on issues, like the Palestinian-Israeli topic for example, in a fair and balanced manner. They immediately assumed that I would be biased.

This sense of scrutiny follows me most of the time, so much so that I will likely  write at least two or three drafts of this simple blog post to make sure I don’t make a public blunder. It’s sad and frustrating, but there is nothing much I can do about it.

Twitter or not, never forget to stick with basic ethics and make sound judgments, because yes, forgiveness is no longer an option.

Obama’s Middle East: ‘Change we can believe in’?

Obama does AIPAC The Washington Post ran an editorial today entitled "Mr. Obama’s Middle East" in which they opined that Obama "doesn’t see the region much differently than President Bush does."

This editorial comes right after Obama’s speech to the Jewish lobbyist group AIPAC earlier in the week during which he said, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided." His speech also revealed him to be hawkish about Iran.

For those that have not been following the latest developments, Obama’s speech angered many in the Arab world, especially Palestinians. After the interview, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told Al Jazeera Thursday: "This is the worst thing to happen to us since 1967 … he has given ammunition to extremists across the region. What really disappoints me is that someone like Barack Obama, who runs a campaign on the theme of change — when it comes to AIPAC and what’s needed to be said differently about the Palestinian state — he fails.”

The Post argues:

Mr. Obama opened his general election campaign this week with a major speech on Middle East policy, the substantive strategy he outlined was, in many respects, not very much different from that of the Bush administration — or that of Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). That’s not a bad thing; rather, it’s a demonstration that there is a strong bipartisan consensus about America’s vital interests in the Middle East and that the sensible options for defending them are relatively limited.”

As I said before on this blog, I think Obama is charismatic but I never completely bought his message of "change." At least when it comes to the Middle East, it doesn’t seem he will bring any tangible change. When I endorsed Clinton, my friends and readers of this blog were unimpressed. A comment from reader Arabi put it like this:

Actually to put it differently, its not Hillary that is hated in the Arab world, its Hillary that hates the Arab world. Hillary was viewed positively for a long time until she made her choice and instead of trying to be an honest broker (as possible as that is given the influence of the Jewish community) like Bill did, she chose to [alienate] herself from many including the Palestinians. It does not surprise me though that you would support her. At the end of the day, the Jewish community will buy Obama as well (already started to).

I’m currently halfway through Obama’s biography Dreams from My Father, and I’m enjoying it. If my citizenship application is finalized before November, I would vote for him over McCain. However, I do not foresee any radical change if he becomes president, especially when it comes to the Middle East. Actually, I still believe Hillary would have been a better choice. But ah well, the people chose and they chose Obama. I need to get over it and move on. Anyway, let’s see what the future holds. Meanwhile, my friend Dan is ecstatic.

Saddened by Jordan’s latest Christian controversy

I have been extremely disturbed by the latest controversy rocking Jordan over the expulsion of what have been dubbed "Foreign Christians" and the reactions of some Jordanian churches (in Arabic). For those that have not been following the controversy, here is a brief synopsis.

  1. Compass Direct runs an article detailing the Jordanian government’s expulsion of "Foreign Christians" from Jordan.
  2. Shortly thereafter a group of Jordanian churches, which did not include all Christian denominations in Jordan, agree with the government decision and publish a statement in Al Rai newspaper (in Arabic).
  3. Jordan confirms the expulsion and makes reference to the supportive statement of the Jordanian churches.

The issue is probably too controversial for me to comment on fully and might offend some, so I will try to tread carefully. This is my humble opinion. I’m not trying to take sides. I’m merely observing and commenting,  nothing more, nothing less; so bear with me. My two main points:

Religion should be a free choice. If individuals want to tell others about their religion, they should have the right to do so. This is what happens in democratic societies. In the US, for example, preaching about Islam is not a crime. Christians convert to Islam on a regular basis, no sweat. This is not the case in Jordan, since it is not yet a democracy. I believe it is a basic human right for any individual to have the right to choose whatever spiritual path they want. Hence, I disagree with the Jordanian government’s decision to expel anyone based on religious activities. But then again, this is the case in Jordan and it may never change. People may just be satisfied with the status quo. Personally, I think the status quo contradicts any moves Jordan makes towards true democracy, but that’s just me.

I think the statement by the Jordanian churches (Arabic) inflamed the controversy and it was unnecessary. It created tension between different Christian denominations in Jordan. It was unmerited and, I hate to say it, but it bordered on "bad taste."  From what I read and heard, many of those deported were actually Arab ministers belonging to various evangelical churches in Jordan. The churches’ statement basically created a divide between the Eastern Christian denominations and evangelicals whom the statement labeled "illegitimate."

A number of those that were deported worked for the Jordan Evangelical Theological seminary. In response, the president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, Dr. Imad Shehadeh said:

The variety in denominations should not express discord and enmity, but rather, like the tree with many branches, it should express beauty as well as unity in diversity. Evangelicals are not perfect. Many individual evangelicals, like anyone else, have undoubtedly made mistakes. But let us all learn, love and cooperate together for the glory of God and the upholding of our beloved country of Jordan.

I remain disturbed by what occurred. I wish it had not happened. Frankly, it puts Jordan in a bad light internationally and has created unneeded tension amongst Christians in Jordan. Finally, if anyone wishes to comment, please keep the discussion decent. Thank you.

Here are some reactions from the Jordanian blogosphere:

Jordan-Syria call for international help dealing with Iraqi refugees

This is a quick update to my earlier post about the situation of Iraqis at Jordan’s entry point. According to the Associated Press, Jordan and Syria are calling on the international community for help.

AMMAN, Jordan –Jordan and Syria complained Thursday they have been abandoned by the West to deal with the massive burden of more than 2 million Iraqi refugees who have fled the violence in their homeland. Both countries issued urgent calls for help at a conference on Iraqi refugees, specifically expanded resettlement opportunities in the West and financial assistance.

Milad Atiya, the Syrian ambassador to Jordan and head of his country’s delegation to the conference, said the international community "must be involved, especially the United States because its policy led to the plight the Iraqis are currently in and it bears responsibility." Jordanian Interior Ministry Secretary-General Mukheimar Abu-Jamous argued that Western nations "relinquished their responsibility in shouldering the Iraqi refugee burden, and we urge them to rise to their obligation and resettle the largest number possible of those Iraqis." Source: [AP]

This is a good step towards improving the dire status. International intervention is what is needed at this moment and it is precisely what I suggested in the previous post.

Iraqi blogger ordeal at Amman airport

Two Iraqi bloggers recently began talking about a similar subject related to Jordan: the treatment of Iraqis upon entry to the Kingdom. The two are veteran blogger Omar from Iraq the Model and Fayrouz from Fayrouz in Beaumont (who posted a story from her friend in Basra). After reading their posts, I realized that the situation at Jordan’s entry point — particularly when it comes to Iraqis — is far worse than I thought. Not only that, but the tension between these two Arab nations on an individual level seems to be on the rise. I came to this conclusion mostly after reading the last two paragraphs of Omar’s post:

On the next day in the early afternoon, I boarded the plane that was returning to Baghdad with about a dozen other Iraqis. The kind stewardess was apparently familiar with cases like ours and noticed how tired we were so she immediately welcomed us with bottles of cold water and some kind words to comfort us, "There’s a few of you this time, yesterday we returned 75 passengers!" she added.

The guy sitting to my left said "There will be a day when they [Jordanians] will beg us to let them enter Iraq". No, the guy sitting to my right objected. "They were mean to us and they hurt us, but if we do the same we’ll have sunk to their level. Let’s instead hope that one day our country will become a better place."

Jordanian blogger Hamzah added a comment to this post that is worth highlighting in order to get the Jordanian side of the story:

Not only Jordanians, but all Arab nationals were denied entry to Iraq in at least two periods between 2005 and 2006, with the second one being the longest. And the funny thing is, during those periods, only Arab nationalities were denied entry into Iraq. So it’s really not they way the article makes it sound like in the end. Iraq too has played this game in the past, and actually before Jordan, and today, it is Jordan, not Iraq, that has hundreds of thousands of the other country’s citizens living in it.

And when you think about it, it might as well have been a Jordanian saying that quote a couple of years ago about Iraqis, and what happened to you and your friends, was that day that that Jordanian talked about!

The current situation needs to be amended. If Jordan is overwhelmed handling the number of Iraqi visitors to the Kingdom then the international community needs to step in immediately to help Jordan establish a more efficient and humane manner of handing the influx. Fayrouz’s friend ended her post by saying:

I wonder about what’s behind what happened to us in Amman. Isn’t it a violation of human rights to keep us in custody for no reason? Is it humanely proper to keep a child in custody for two days without reason? I just wonder.

Jordan, with the help of the international community, needs to act soon to amend the current situation. My two cents.

Update: Here is a comment from Fayrouz:

It wasn’t me who traveled to Amman. As my post states clearly, it was my friend from Basra who traveled with her family and co-workers to Amman. Every word in the post needs to be attributed to her.

My bad. I amended the post accordingly.