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What the “They Hate Us” debate ignores

9 May

By Dalila Mahdawi

This article was originally published on the Common Ground News Service website.

London- Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy unleashed a veritable media storm on Arab gender relations with her recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, provocatively titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?” referring to male attitudes towards women.

Amid the controversy, however, important questions risk being overlooked. Instead of dwelling on whether Arab men really do hate women, our attention might be better focused on formulating strategies to achieve gender equality.

Eltahawy may be doing gender relations a great service by raising awareness about the need for supporting women’s rights, but her tone is controversial. The article, illustrated with photographs of a naked woman covered in black body paint suggestive of a niqab, is an impassioned diatribe against the poor condition of women’s rights in the Arab world. The author lists a catalogue of abuses women suffer, including her own beating and sexual assault at a protest in Cairo last year, attributing such attitudes to “a toxic mix of culture and religion”. The crux of her argument is that Arab women live as second-class citizens because they are “hated” by men. “Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought – social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms”, she writes.

Her critique immediately led to a crescendo of emotionally charged responses, with some lauding the Egyptian writer for her bravery. Her detractors have been more vocal, accusing her of promoting simplistic views that pander to Western stereotypes of Arab women as victims in need of rescuing from a misogynistic Islam.

Eltahawy certainly did not start the debate on women’s rights in the Arab world, but she has helped popularise it. On social media websites and in cafes, Arabs of different economic and religious backgrounds are busy contemplating the status of the region’s women.

But ignored in the debate is the existence of many Arab men working in solidarity and partnership with women to exorcise the scourge of gender inequality from their communities. A sizeable number of men are equally or increasingly involved in family duties traditionally seen as women’s work, such as child-raising, cooking and housework. We would do well to consider ways to further improve men’s involvement in the struggle for gender parity.

More and more Arab men are joining in women’s struggle for greater freedoms, accompanying them on demonstrations and viewing gender equality as integral to their vision of a better society. Some, like the Egyptian writer Ahmed Kadry, have taken to the blogosphere to call for an end to sexual harassment of women. Indeed, Arab feminism has found supporters among men throughout its long history- men who realise that they are equally held captive by strict interpretations of gender expectations.

Loaded language about hate has the advantage of drawing attention to an issue, but risks alienating the very audience that needs to be engaged with. Viewing men as hateful does little to promote the end goal of all gender activists, which is greater freedom and dignity for women. Instead, initiatives that increase men’s involvement in and sense of ownership of gender equality must be fostered. Grassroots projects to rehabilitate male perpetrators of gender-based violence, such as those run by the Lebanese organisations KAFA (Enough), an organisation working to end violence and exploitation, and the ABAAD Resource Center for Gender Equality, are doing just that, helping transform misogynistic attitudes towards women.

As Arab women and men, we must harness the angry indictments of inequality that Eltahawy has rightfully brought to our attention into proactive action. Rather than laying the blame for women’s disempowerment at the doorstep of “men” or “culture”, we should use peaceful and inclusive dialogue to reinforce the idea that women’s rights are everyone’s concern.

To paraphrase the physicist Albert Einstein, one cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it. Finger-pointing and blame games will only create further antagonism. Until women and men unite to throw off the chains of strictly dichotomous gender roles and identities, we are all culpable in perpetuating the disempowerment of our societies as a whole. The so-called Arab Spring may have disappointed many, but it is not over yet. These tumultuous times present an important opportunity for the region, and indeed the world, to engage in an inclusive and peaceful battle for greater freedoms for all.

Let Eltahawy’s article be a rallying cry to improve the communication lines between women and men. Their lives, as the United Nations Population Fund has noted, “are interdependent and … the empowerment of women benefits everyone.”

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Wanted: Women for Lebanon’s Cabinet (op/ed)

25 Jul

A woman-free zone: Lebanon's new Cabinet comprised entirely of men (AFP)

Beirut, LEBANON:In 1776, the first lady of the United States, Abigail Adams, wrote a letter to her husband John and to Congress, imploring her countrymen not to overlook women’s interests. “Remember the ladies,” she urged, adding with considerable defiance: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

More than 230 years later and thousands of miles away in tiny Lebanon, Adam’s words have gained renewed urgency. In mid-June, after five months of intense negotiations, Prime Minister Najib Mikati finally unveiled his new Cabinet. Not one of his 30 appointees is a woman.

“Women hold up half the sky,” as the Chinese proverb goes, but in many parts of the world they are still being forgotten by the governments that are supposed to represent them.

While the absence of women from political life is typical in other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, Lebanese women have enjoyed at least symbolic representation in their government since being given the right to vote in 1952. Before the previous government was brought down in January, there were two women in the Cabinet, holding the finance and state portfolios, and four women among 128 parliamentarians. Though this amounts to a paltry 3.1 percent, most activists were optimistic it would, in time, gradually increase.

If being deprived a share of the Cabinet wasn’t bad enough for Lebanese women, their role in society has been further called into question by the disappointing comments of the country’s most senior Sunni leader. Grand Mufti Mohammad Qabbani recently condemned efforts to introduce legislation protecting women from domestic violence as a Western plot against Muslim family values.

These seem like strange words indeed when one recalls Lebanese citizen Charles Malik’s pioneering role in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a document firmly committed to ending gender discrimination and one that the Lebanese have enshrined in their Constitution. Mr. Qabbani seems to have overlooked the fact that Lebanon helped articulate those very values he now accuses of being foreign and which many other Muslim leaders would call an integral part of their religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, the masculinization of Lebanon’s government is just the latest in a string of major blows to women’s political participation in the Arab world as a whole.

Women were at the helm of the uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, but only one has been appointed to the new 27-member Cabinet in Cairo and plans for a woman’s quota introduced last year have been abandoned. In Tunisia, where women formerly held over a quarter of parliamentary seats, they head only two of 31 ministries now. Developments in Lebanon thus may well herald the beginning of retrogressive steps on women’s rights throughout the region.

This apparent sleepwalking backwards increasingly goes against the grain of global attitudes towards women, whose participation in decision-making is now an internationally recognized marker of social progress and is on the rise every year.

The United Nations has, since 2000, led initiatives to mainstream women’s active role in the public life of their countries, issuing several resolutions in this regard. Lebanon should embrace its historical role as a defender of human rights and implement those resolutions in good faith.

Without women, Lebanon’s political jigsaw puzzle is glaringly incomplete and calls for transformative change will go unanswered. As one local group put it recently, “How can we arrive at social justice for all when we exclude half of society in the decision-making process?”

Women must become an integral part of decision-making bodies if Lebanon and other Arab countries want to enjoy real democracy and truly serve the needs and aspirations of their people.

The political participation of women is a matter of justice, not a privilege they should have to fight for. The sisters of Abigail Adams should not have to wait any longer for their rights to be recognized.

“Acute social marginalization” of Dom community

11 Jul
Children from the Dom community are vulnerable to violence, chronic malnutrition, child marriage, dangerous working conditions and exploitation

Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT, 11 July 2011 (IRIN) – Of all Lebanon’s communities the Dom, described by some researchers as “the Gypsies of Lebanon”, are the most marginalized: Up to 68 percent of Dom children do not attend school, according to a new report.

“Their access to legal protection, health, education, adequate shelter and food is very difficult, verging on impossible,” said Charles Nasrallah, director of Insan Association, an NGO that promotes respect for the rights of vulnerable communities. “Such problems were compounded by acute social marginalization.”

The Dom are also sometimes described as `Nawwar’, an Arabic word carrying derogatory connotations of poor hygiene, laziness, begging and questionable morality. Many, according to the report released on 8 July by Insan and Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes (TDH), have Lebanese citizenship, but deeply engrained discrimination has rendered them worse off even than Palestinian refugees.

The results of the study “are screaming out for all actors on the humanitarian landscape to re-think their current programming initiatives and bring the Dom people and their children into the humanitarian space in Lebanon,” said Jason Squire, country delegate of TDH Lebanon. “The wider community in Lebanon does not live and experience the same daily hardships that the Dom face,” he added.

The Dom are a poorly understood ethnic minority living across a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territory, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Like gypsy communities in Europe, historians believe the Dom are descendants of travelling performers who migrated westwards from India centuries ago.

A recent study published by the American University of Beirut on poverty among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon noted that most live on about $2.7 per person per day. According to Kristen Hope, TDH Dom project manager, “about 9 percent of Palestinians in Lebanon are living below the poverty line.”

By contrast, the TDH/Insan report found that “over 30 percent of the Dom sampled are living on less than one dollar a day.”

According to think-tank The Dom Research Centre, few Dom in the cities have steady jobs, and can be seen begging in the streets, playing drums, flutes or other instruments at weddings and parties, fortune-telling and doing manual labour.

Shanty towns

Insan Association and TDH interviewed Dom community members in four locations, and found that many live in rudimentary shanty towns where most homes are not connected to a sewage network. Most mothers are deprived of maternal health care and many children faced neglect by parents struggling to make ends meet. Some 68 percent had never attended school.

“An indication of the depth of the prejudice faced by the Dom is a desire to leave behind their ethnic identity,” said Hope. Demonstrative of this is the fact the Domari language is rapidly losing ground to Arabic, she told IRIN.

“Half of the adults but only a quarter of the children we interviewed spoke Domari,” she added. “Language is a marker of their ethnic identity and it seems parents are trying to suppress it to protect their children from the discrimination they experienced.”

TDH and Insan Association were unable to estimate the size of the Dom community in Lebanon, but their research suggests there are 3,112 living in the Lebanese cities of Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. “Many more Dom communities exist within Lebanon, particularly in Tripoli and the Bekaa,” Hope said.

Unlike refugees or the Bedouin, with whom they are often confused, the Dom were granted naturalization in 1994. But despite enjoying citizenship rights, the Dom community faces even greater marginalization than Palestinian refugees and is ignored by almost all NGOs, the report said.

The children, in particular, are vulnerable to violence, chronic malnutrition, child marriage, dangerous working conditions and exploitation. Many community members are also reluctant to access public services like health care or education because of their perceived secondary status.

Until recently the Dom of Lebanon were a nomadic people. Since naturalization, however, most have settled down and started enrolling their children in school, Hope said.

“Ten years ago, our family used to be afraid of enrolling children in school,” said one Dom man living in the Bekaa’s Bar Elias area. “We were afraid we would be arrested or be refused because people think we are afraid of science. Now we are trying to enrol our children in school.”

Becoming the world’s first human camera

8 Feb

What a headache: Bilal's camera implant (Image copyright 3rdi)

Dalila Mahdawi

NEW YORK, 7 Feb (IPS) – Wafaa Bilal hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in about two months. After becoming the first person to have a camera surgically implanted into the back of his head, the Iraqi- American artist is learning the hard way just how much of a headache modern technology can be.

“It’s still painful,” he tells IPS, pointing to the three titanium bolts that have been inserted into his cranium to hold the camera in place.

Bilal undertook the dramatic operation as part of a year- long project entitled 3rdi. The camera takes photographs every minute of the view behind Bilal’s head. The images, comprising everything from uninspiring shots of his kitchen cupboards to unnerving angles of objects and passers-by, are then uploaded onto the 3rdi website and streamed to Qatar’s newly inaugurated contemporary art museum, Mathaf.

3rdi is, in many ways, a reflection of Bilal’s own traumatic experiences of loss. Having been raised in a conservative family under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule, the soft- spoken artist was forced to flee during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait after publicly rejecting his conscription into the army. He spent two years living in a makeshift refugee camp in the Saudi Arabian desert before being granted asylum in the United States.

“It was one of the toughest experiences of my life,” recalls Bilal, who is also an assistant professor of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts. In the camp, “We were subjected to very harsh treatment by Saudi soldiers and many people lost their lives. Art became a way to remind myself I was still alive.”

With little to remind him of the places and faces he had to abandon so abruptly, 3rdi has become Bilal’s way of recording chaotic, poignant and yet often banal moments of departure. “Individually, they might not look significant,” he says of the images, but when taken together, they form “quite a nice mosaic of someone’s life.”

Since unveiling the project, 3rdi has evolved to speak about many other aspects of modern life, such as government surveillance of its citizens (the camera tracks Bilal’s whereabouts via GPS) and the aggressive intrusion of technology.

“There is no such thing as a private life anymore,” says Bilal. “Instead of creating something to serve us, these machines have enslaved us.”

Although the camera’s physical presence leaves the artist susceptible to infection and sleepless nights, he insists the pain is an integral part of the 3rdi project. “Performance is about endurance,” he explains. “It’s a physical reminder of what you are doing.”

It’s not the first time Bilal has used his own body as his canvas. Physical intervention has been a central, and often controversial, feature of much of his work.

In 2010, Bilal held a 24-hour performance in which he had the names of Iraqi cities tattooed on his back. More than 100,000 dots marking Iraqi casualties were also tattooed on with invisible ink, symbolising the anonymous victims of a war that most Americans feel so far removed from. Bilal also has plans to tattoo on some 5,000 dots in homage to the U.S. soldiers also killed in the U.S.-led war.

For an earlier project, called “Shoot an Iraqi/Domestic Tension”, Bilal confined himself in a prison-like cell for 30 days and was subjected to the whims of his audience, who could shoot a remote-controlled paintball gun at him from the internet or gallery. Following newspaper articles about the project, hackers infiltrated the software and programmed the gun to shoot at Bilal once every minute.

“The hope is you build a platform not to engage those already engaged in political dialogue,” but to attract those who typically shy away, he says. It seemed he succeeded in that attempt: by the end of the exhibition, over 65,000 people from more than 130 countries had fired at Bilal.

His work became more overtly political following the killing of his younger brother by a U.S. drone missile in Iraq in 2004. Bilal says he wanted to bring people living in “the comfort zone” into the realm of the “conflict zone”, Iraq.

With that goal in mind, the artist has also subjected himself to water boarding, the simulated-drowning torture technique former U.S. president George W. Bush notoriously admitted to using in Iraq.

“My work is driven from within as a concerned person, as someone who has been directly affected by his surroundings,” Bilal says. “My job has to become a mirror to reflect that social condition.”

It may be another 10 months before Bilal can enjoy a proper night’s rest again, but if having eyes at the back of his head has taught the artist anything, it is to savour the present more.

“Most of the time we don’t exist in the present, and I think in the process we fail to exist in the place we are in,” he says. “I think this is a call to slow down, look at these corners of our lives and live in the moment we are in.”

3rdi is online until December 2011.

http://www.3rdi.me/ and http://wafaabilal.com/

Eyes on the back of his head (Image copyright 3rdi)

Posh women’s rights in the Arab World

2 Dec

The New Arab Woman Forum is an elitist club for ladies who lunch. It desperately needs to become more diverse

Dalila Mahdawiguardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 December 2010

Today, hundreds of women will gather in Beirut for the fourth annual New Arab Woman Forum (Nawf).

Bringing together prominent personalities for two days of “analysis of the changing position and role of women in Arab society, politics, and economic life,” Nawf claims to be the region’s “leading and most relevant women’s event”. If that’s true, then the Arab women’s movement is in serious trouble.

When I attended Nawf as a journalist last year, I was given a luxury leather notebook-holder as a welcoming present. Sadly, the notebook-holder was pretty much the only thing of substance to emerge from the proceedings. The file’s fashionable pink and brown colour scheme represents all that is wrong with Nawf, which seems to be more a gruesome parade of plastic surgery operations and couture outfits on the relatives of male political leaders than anything remotely to do with women’s empowerment.

For many involved in the struggle for gender equality, Nawf is as genuine a women’s event as many of the noses of its attendees. Last year’s session on political quotas, arguably one of the most important debates for women in the Arab world, for example, was butchered down to about 20 minutes so as to ensure it didn’t run into the obviously invaluable lunch break.

Besides a struggle with priorities, one of the biggest obstacles to the forum’s legitimacy is its outrageous price tag: it costs $300 (plus 10% VAT – more than £200) a person to attend, with no discounts for non-governmental or other community-based organisations. Why organisers have repeatedly chosen to host the event at the InterContinental Phoenicia hotel, the ultimate symbol of opulent excess, is another mind-boggler.  Perhaps Nawf didn’t get the memo that it is women who make up the bulk of the Arab world’s illiterate and impoverished citizens. If the organisers switched to a free or cheaper venue, it would automatically open up the event to a more diverse community of women.

Activists have also complained that Nawf denies invitations and speaking opportunities to important grassroots groups in favour of big names. Nawf could learn a lot from those it excludes, including those on its own doorstep in Beirut, such as the feminist collective Nasawiya, who recently invited the prominent gender studies professor Lila Abu-Lughoud to deliver a free public lecture. Instead, Mohammad Rahhal, Lebanon’s male environment minister, is delivering a speech.

The gilded hotel doors are firmly shut on precisely the women who should be listened to but wide open to those who have no real involvement in improving the lives of Arab women.

Another particularly irksome feature of Nawf is that organisers have stubbornly insisted on holding it in Beirut for a third time. The choice of location has repeatedly been justified with the old cliche that Lebanon is the most open society in the Arab world. But just because some women in Lebanon can wear a miniskirt doesn’t mean they enjoy substantive equality. Far from it: the Lebanese government considers women as juveniles in many aspects of the law, forbids them from passing on nationality to their children, and does not protect them from domestic violence, including marital rape. Until recently, Lebanese women were not even permitted to open bank accounts for their children.

Lebanon also has one of the lowest regional figures for women in politics, standing at a mere 3.1%, compared with Iraq’s 25.2%, Tunisia’s 27.6% and Syria’s 12.4%. As recently as 10 November, Lebanon balked at UN recommendations to improve women’s rights. Nawf’s real motivation to host its event in Beirut, therefore, seems to revolve around the idea that the allure of a trip to Beirut, with all its glamorous boutiques and restaurants, will entice more participants to cough up the hefty attendance fee. After all, there’s nothing like a vague two-day conference to take away the guilt of spending thousands of dollars on yourself.

No doubt the organisers had the best intentions when they envisioned Nawf. Any efforts to initiate discussion on the problems facing Arab women are to be commended, but if Nawf wishes to be taken seriously as a platform for all Arab women, it must make immediate and serious changes to become more inclusive of those whom it claims to speak on behalf of. Until then, the conference will remain an elitist club for ladies who lunch and a source of dismay to the real, anonymous women fighting for equality in the region. They might not have designer handbags but surely their ideas and experiences deserve just as much recognition.

12 Angry Lebanese’ Touch So Many More

26 Nov
By Dalila Mahdawi 

BEIRUT, Oct 17, 2010 (IPS) – Straddling the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is Roumieh, Lebanon’s largest and most notorious high-security men’s prison. Crowded into its dank and depressing concrete cells are those convicted as religious extremists, murderers, mobsters and spies.

Roumieh’s reputation for fostering further criminal activity precedes it — it is often said that from behind the barbed wire walls and filthy courtyards, petty thieves emerge as bigger and better informed leaders of the underworld.

The prison, which was built to accommodate 1,500 inmates but holds closer to 4,000, gives off an air of utter despondency. But life in Roumieh is slowly changing, thanks to the efforts of a single woman.

Last year Zeina Daccache, already a well-known comedian on the Lebanese television show Basmet al-Watan, began running drama therapy sessions inside Roumieh after establishing The Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy (CATHARSIS). Drama therapy programmes exist in many other parts of the world, but CATHARSIS is the first organisation of its kind in the Middle East.

After volunteering with distinguished drama therapist Armando Punzo in Italy’s Volterra prison, Daccache said she became convinced of the life- changing power of the performing arts.

“Theatre is a luxury in the situation we are in,” Daccache told IPS, referring to Lebanon’s troubled economic and political situation. But through it, “we can discover and develop other identities that are more constructive than simply the identity of a ‘criminal’.”

Following months of frustrating bureaucratic red tape and auditions with hundreds of inmates, Dacchache cast 45 prisoners to star in an adaption of the 1950s play from the U.S., ’12 Angry Men’. In the play, written by Reginald Rose, 12 jury members must decide whether to sentence to death an 18- year-old accused of patricide. While 11 members dismiss the accused as guilty, one man believes he is innocent, and slowly persuades his colleagues to change their opinions.

The choice of play, which touches upon the themes of forgiveness, self- development, stigma and hope, was no accident. “Nobody notices him, nobody listens to him, nobody seeks his advice,” says prisoner-turned-actor Wissam* during the play. His line refers to the fictional boy on trial, but the parallels with his feelings about his own position in society are striking. “It’s a very sad thing to mean nothing.”

To the original text, Daccache added monologues, songs and dance routines created by the prisoners that detail their life experiences. Jibran, nearing the end of a prison term for rape, said he feared he would be shunned by Lebanese society upon release. While he may technically be freed, a “prison with no walls” awaits him, he said as tears streamed down his face.

Daccache renamed the play ’12 Angry Lebanese’, but those taking part included Lebanese, Nigerians, Syrians, Egyptians and Palestinians. In his monologue, Bangadeshi prisoner Hussein described the racism he faced in Lebanese society, and how that racism also manifested itself behind bars. “Outside I am a slave and inside I am a slave,” he said.

When staged in February 2009, ’12 Angry Lebanese’ received critical acclaim, with many of Lebanon’s top government, military and security officials coming to watch it in Roumieh.

Almost one year on, a documentary detailing the experiences of the prisoners who played a part has just been released. ’12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary’ is currently touring international film festivals, and has already picked up several awards, including first prize at the Dox Box International Documentary Film Festival in Syria and two top prizes at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Daccache said she made the film to challenge stereotypes of the kind of people prisoners are. “Every night I come home to messages from people who were touched by the film, who for the first time saw criminals as human beings,” she said. “The film kind of gave them a chance to sneak into Roumieh.”

Daccache also wanted to highlight the need for reform within Lebanon’s prison system, where there are virtually no rehabilitation programmes running, and to promote drama therapy as an indispensable tool for tackling recidivism.

In an early scene of the documentary, Daccache probes cast members about their past. Many are reluctant to share with the others, but as the sessions progress, the men start to open up.

“Sometimes it’s easier to act out your issues than to talk about them,” said Daccache. “The space we use for rehearsals is a space of freedom for the prisoners. Once they are there they are really free because they can express themselves, they can dance, shout, sing, act, use their imagination.” Even though the men are still physically confined within the prisons walls, “imagination has no borders.”

Many of the prisoners-turned-actors credit Daccache with helping them overcome personal difficulties, improve their communication and interpersonal skills and to set goals for themselves. One man was so keen to participate in the sessions that he learnt to read.

“Before the project I still thought like a criminal,” Ziyad told IPS. “Now I don’t want people like Zeina to come and find me in prison again. I’ve learnt many things that perhaps if I’d learnt at a younger age, would have prevented me from ending up here.”

Another of the notable successes of ’12 Angry Lebanese’ is that it has helped put into force a law offering reduced sentences for good behaviour. The law was created in 2000 but never enforced; two months after the staging of the play, which talked about the need for its implementation, Lebanon’s Justice Ministry began approving reduced sentences.

The 12 Angry Lebanese project has been so successful that Daccache has launched another production in Roumieh, although she’s reluctant to divulge what it is. In addition, Daccache, who also runs drama therapy programmes with women affected by conflict and people suffering from addiction problems, plans to bring theatre to a number of Lebanon’s other prisons.

“When I started this project, I never thought there would be sustainability,” she said. “But you can’t just stop — permanence is what really makes it beneficial to the inmates.”

* Some names have been changed.

Podcasts tell humanizing stories from the Arab world

26 Feb

Beirut-based NGO hopes to transform the West’s negative stereotypes of region
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, February 26, 2010

BEIRUT: A podcast can’t change the world, but it can help change perceptions. Stories of Our City is a new non-governmental organization in Beirut hoping to transform stereotypes about the Arab world, one podcast at a time.

Stories of Our City was started up by American citizens Katy Gilbert and Bart Cochran in an effort to contribute to peace and provide a better understanding of the troubled Middle East. The idea took hold when Gilbert realized many of her fellow Americans had distorted views of the Arab world. “People were amazed that I lived there,” said Gilbert, who before relocating to Lebanon, lived in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. “When I would say that Jordan was safer than any major city in the US, people would just be floored.”

To shake off the persistent stereotype that all Arabs are Muslim terrorists, Stories of Our City every Monday uploads a podcast telling the story of an ordinary Arab individual, hoping to nurture a sense of community and common ground with American audiences. The stories are told through ad-hoc conversation, touching on all sorts of subjects from dreams or memories, to fears and hopes.

One woman recounts her childhood at an orphanage in southern Lebanon and her first meeting with her biological mother as a 16-year-old. Another man talks about his work in a tattoo parlor. The idea is for Americans “to think better of the people here in the Middle East,” Gilbert said.

“That they’re normal people with faces and who are not so different that we can’t relate to them.” Better understanding of the “other” as human beings will help rally support for less violent policy making, she added. “A lot of studies have shown that when you place distance between yourself and others, it’s easier to disregard them and rationalize violence.”

Most of the podcasts currently available are about Lebanese, Jordanians or Emiratis, although there are plans to collect stories from across the Arab world. “There are hard stories here but we’re trying to share points of hope as well.” People are more than happy to contribute to the project once they know it’s aimed at transforming popular American opinion about Arabs, Gilbert added.

Listeners not familiar with the Lebanon’s long history of migration may be surprised to hear the varied accents of some of the speakers. European, American, and Arab-accented Lebanese recount stories about childhood memories of washing the dishes or moving, dreams of being artists and of change in society. “My father’s Muslim, my mother’s Christian, and we just don’t know what’s going on,” laughed one storyteller. “We celebrate everything. We have no issues with religion, we’re open to everything.”

In one podcast, Beirut resident Ronnie recalled a conversation he overheard between two boys playing football. “One of them said, ‘you remember during the war when we were playing football?’ The other one asks him, ‘which war?’ That tells you how many wars have happened in this child’s life,” Ronnie said. “We shouldn’t even have any wars, period.”

With over 5,000 downloads since June, the podcasts have met with great success. “We’ve had a great response from the US, it’s been really encouraging,” Gilbert said. She hopes audiences will continue to listen to the podcasts over time to get a better picture of the lives of their contemporaries across the Arab world.

Eventually, Stories of the City hopes to tell the stories of people all over the world, not just in conflict zones. The organization is also encouraging listeners to get involved, either through submitting their own story or by collecting other people’s testimonies.

To download a podcast or submit a story, visit http://www.storiesofourcity.wordpress.com