Stories from Afar & Up Close

Filtering by Category: Injustice

The Mediterranean is burning

I saw a movie – a documentary, actually.
It was called Fire at Sea.

(Which is just the name of a song.)

A little boy on the island of Lampedusa was feeling anxious.
He had a lazy eye and he threw up when the sea underneath his father’s fishing boat got too rough.
Less than 10 years old, but he didn’t have the manly qualities he felt he should have.
Though his slingshot never missed, he needed to stand on the pontoon during rough weather to train his legs.
And learn how to row.
“Everyone on Lampedusa knows how to fish.”

Meanwhile, we heard the dj playing melancholic love songs from mothers and wives for sons and husbands at sea.
Or stuck on land, when the storm whipped up the waves so high that no one would go into the water.
They were in the kitchen preparing the food.

In between were the calls for help from the ships arriving from Libya.
As if they were normal features of daily life.
They are. They have become a regular part of life.
Eighty, one hundred and fifty, two hundred and forty people on a ship.
Divided in layers according to price, with no air at the bottom and only some on in the middle.
The ship just floats, no petrol no steering wheel no direction no possibility.
Out at sea.

I saw the coast guard get to a ship in time.
Wobbly legs going from the wooden vessel into the rubber speedboat onto the big ship.
Emergency blankets.
Picture taking.
“There’s one with chicken pox, he’s coming on board last!”
A friendly pat on the back, almost unnoticed.

I can tell the Eritreans from the West Africans from the Syrians and I wonder why I am looking at them this way.

I saw the coast guard get to a ship too late.
Dehydrated bodies are pulled out first, handed over by arms and legs still strong enough.
They fall into the rubber boat as if life has left them already.
Only breath is left of them.
Maybe a heartbeat.
I can’t tell.
The others climb out by themselves until the boat is empty.
It’s just a metal hull now, surrounded by waves, until the camera moves inside.


We don’t see whole people, only parts.
No faces.
Stacked together in death like they were in the dream that got them in this ship.
They died like this.

Maybe we should see their faces to know who we did this to.

Maybe it is a last act of dignity to not expose them in their last suffering.

Once on the ship the men sit still and the women cry openly.

Once on the island, the men play football and the women watch.
The machine continues -

The little boy with the slingshot has a patch on his eye and trouble breathing.
The doctor listens to his lungs and heart and says he will be fine.
I’m not sure the little boy believes him.

There is a Fire at Sea.
The Mediterranean is burning.

Running Orders

[for Gaza, once again]

They call us now.
Before they drop the bombs.
The phone rings
and someone who knows my first name
calls and says in perfect Arabic
“This is David.”
And in my stupor of sonic booms and glass shattering symphonies
still smashing around in my head
I think "Do I know any Davids in Gaza?"
They call us now to say
You have 58 seconds from the end of this message.
Your house is next.
They think of it as some kind of
war time courtesy.
It doesn’t matter that
there is nowhere to run to.
It means nothing that the borders are closed
and your papers are worthless
and mark you only for a life sentence
in this prison by the sea
and the alleyways are narrow
and there are more human lives
packed one against the other
more than any other place on earth
Just run.
We aren’t trying to kill you.
It doesn’t matter that
you can’t call us back to tell us
the people we claim to want aren’t in your house
that there’s no one here
except you and your children
who were cheering for Argentina
sharing the last loaf of bread for this week
counting candles left in case the power goes out.
It doesn’t matter that you have children.
You live in the wrong place
and now is your chance to run
to nowhere.
It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favorite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed college application
or your shoes
or to gather everyone in the house.
It doesn’t matter what you had planned.
It doesn’t matter who you are
Prove you’re human.
Prove you stand on two legs.


by Lena K Tuffaha

To protest or not to protest

It struck me when I got here: how tired people are. Tired of ‘the situation’, tired of protesting, of deciding who to protest against or what for, of not being sure if all that protesting would actually lead anywhere or change anything. Weary, they seemed, with their vision of a better Egypt somewhere hidden among the exhaustion of trying to get to it and no longer knowing where to find the motivation and the strength to overcome differences and once (or twice, or so many times) charge ahead and fight for what they’ve been fighting for since January 2011 – almost 3 year now.

On a wall between AUC Downtown and Garden City.

Last Sunday evening, as I left my Arabic class in Downtown, I realized that the streets were rather empty.  While I slowly walked towards Tahrir Square to cross the bridge behind it on my way home, I noticed a strange smell, something in the air that stung my eyes and nose. Tear gas. Most shops along the road were either closed or closing, with a few people still sitting on chairs in front of their doors.

From a street to my right I heard people chanting, but as the road towards Tahrir was more or less empty, I kept going to see if it was still possible to cross the square or if the army had blocked it off completely. I ended up behind the tanks with a few fire engines, ambulances and about seven people. By now I could see the protestors on the other side of the tanks and the police trucks in the next street off the square. I asked one of the seven people who was who. They are Muslim Brotherhood, he said, and we are with Sisi.

Protesting behind the book stalls, Downtown Cairo.

The police trucks advanced on the protestors, aided by a water-spraying fire engine. Then more tear gas. The protestors retreated to the next side streets, chanting slogans and holding up four fingers. A guy who was standing next to me behind the army vehicles rolled some perfume on my hand to counter the burn of the tear gas. We talked and he invited me to come see the other side – so we turned into yet another street and found our way towards the demonstration a bit further into Downtown. These are not just Muslim Brotherhood, he told me, a lot of them are university students. They are angry because a few days ago the army killed a student on a campus. The protestors had assembled on a crossroad of two of the wider avenues, and were standing there, chanting slogans led by two teenage boys on top of their friends’ shoulders. The little stalls selling corn and fries were having a good evening, serving those in the demonstration as well as the people who were shopping in the streets around it.

At some point, there was talk of moving. The mass of people turned towards what my newly-made friend said was the courthouse, but stopped as the police trucks and army tanks had blocked the road next to it. People slowly moved forward, in small groups, while the street vendors started packing up their wares. The police fired a few tear gas canisters, moving the protestors back to the crossroads. Some people from the demonstration tried to tear of some tree branches to make a fire, but others came to extinguish it. A young guy who picked up a stone was told to put it back down. From a small alley a woman came running, screaming Get lost! Go away! We don’t want you here, you are not Egypt! WE are Egypt! You aren’t! Angry people tried to argue with her, but then the police started firing tear gas again and everybody just ran, ran, ran in all directions. We hid in a little alley where a pissed-off waiter was stacking chairs as his business for the evening had come to an end.

Protesting on the intersection of two avenues.

Just as I came out of the alley again, the police truck passed, a few young boys in front of it running towards the protestors with stones and empty bottles. Instead of ducking and running back into the alley, the few people around me told me to stand still – to quietly wait until the trucks had passed. They yelled encouraging remarks at the police trucks, thanking them for dispersing the demonstrations.

By that time, the protestors had run off in so many directions, it was hard to know if there was anything left of the demonstration. Life returned on the avenues, the shops reopened and the vendors uncovered their stalls again. My new-found friend asked me if I had enjoyed the action. I demonstrate every Friday, he said. I asked if he thought the government was listening. He said it’s not for the government, but because we need to send a message to the Egyptian people that we don’t think it’s right, what is happening now.

I admire their stamina. I do not yet have a deep enough knowledge of Egyptian politics to agree with one side or another, but I believe that with a new (draft) constitution that allows for citizens to be tried in military courts and that severely restricts the right to protest, it is important to keep standing up against the system  – because it oppresses you, or because it oppresses those around you, because once those are down, who knows who will be next. Beautifully said by Omar Robert Hamilton: … tyranny is upon us again. We do not need to agree on the details or what exactly comes next. We just need to say no.

Tanks and soldiers blocking off Tahrir Square, Downtown Cairo.

To protest or not to protest, that is not the question.


Sometime back in 2001 or 2002, I went to visit a friend who was working at a hospital near Kisumu, in the western part of Kenya. I hadn’t told him when I was coming, though, so when I arrived he had just left for a long weekend at the beach and since I had no way of reaching him, I had to change my plans. I called the guy I had been chatting with on the bus on the way there all those hours. He told me to stay put; he would pick me up in an hour and a half. And he did. Getting to his family’s compound somewhere in the hills around Kisumu was a small adventure in itself; it took almost two hours of walking, sitting on the back of a bicycle, crossing a river in a dug-out canoe, and more walking before we arrived. Once there, I was told to sit down with the men on the side of the house made of dried red mud. So I sat there in the shade talking with his father, some of his brothers, uncles, and probably some neighbors, talking about life in Africa and Europe, about work and jobs and salaries. After a while I asked my new friend if there were any women. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but they don’t speak any English.’ His sister who served us drinks and food just smiled when I thanked her in English, so I took his word for it, but after I while I had enough of sitting with the men and their crackling transistor-radio, so I wandered over to the kitchen-hut and motioned if I could come in. Of course I could, the four women in the kitchen welcomed me in perfect English.

As it turned out, his oldest sister was the head nurse at one of the biggest hospitals in Nairobi, and had just come over to her parents’ village for the family gathering this weekend. We talked about life in Africa and Europe as well, and about their specific jobs and lives, their marriages and children. I was 20 at the time, and they were wondering why I didn’t have children. Suddenly my friend’s oldest sister looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘Can I ask you something?’ Of course she could. ‘What do you use for contraception?’ All eyes were on me. Two more women had arrived in the meantime, but no one made a sound. ‘Uh, well, condoms?’ I said, ‘and… the pill?’ ‘So white women take the pill as well!’ said the oldest sister, the nurse. ‘Yes, most of my friends do… why would we not?’ I asked, naïve enough. ‘Well,’ was her answer, ‘I thought the pill was meant to make us African women infertile.’

I am still glad I didn’t know back then what I know now, and that I was able to answer that question in full honesty. After that trip I went on to study anthropology, and I learned about the secret sterilization programs that have taken place in many countries in Asia, Africa and South America in the name of international health care and aid programs (and even in the USA itself, mainly on the black population). Still, I thought, that was in the past, and although it’s understandable that rumors about it are still going around, we can safely assume that health programs these days do just what they are supposed to do instead of carrying out a secret political agenda. And so from then on I would make a conscious effort when traveling of convincing people to trust international health care programs and use the medication against malaria and AIDS that they provide.

Unfortunately, I was naïve again: in its urge to kill Osama Bin Laden, the USA has set up a fake vaccination program to capture his children’s DNA. As the author of the piece writes; ‘People's faith in their doctors is critical to the ability to provide health care, and it's unconscionable that the United States would use the single most delicate health issue in the Muslim world as its cover. […] People believe in their medical care. They want to be healthy, and they want more than anything to have healthy children. Accordingly, they believe in their doctors and nurses. And it's the duty of health-care professionals -- and governments -- to return and protect this trust. It is not acceptable to weaponize health, to use Christopher Albon's brilliant turn of phrase. But it's clear -- and interesting -- that doing so is remarkably easy. In a world where social cohesion is eroding rapidly, people still trust their health-care providers.’ It may be clear from my story that this trust people have in their health-care providers is not blind, and may have taken a long time to grow. Stories like this can break that trust in a minute – especially if they cannot be dispelled as a myth by an honest 20-year old backpacker.