Millennial Letters

Resisting Oppression, Tasting Tear Gas in Turkey

While hanging out at a bar in Istanbul after five straight days of demonstrations there recently, I finally set my wine down, turned to the table at large, and asked the question journalists are supposed to ask—the most obvious one. “So, what’s the deal with these protests?”

The demonstrations, sparked by the death of a protester in the country’s south, were the latest resurgence in protest activity after the government’s plans to revamp Istanbul’s cherished Gezi Park set off rallies nationwide several months ago.

Clearly, some level of dissatisfaction continues to seethe under the surface here. So what is this all about? I asked. Are these demonstrations held together by something deeper, or are they just a cool way to make a point about freedom of expression?

A Child Refugee in Syria's War

REYHANLI, Turkey — Journalists are banned from Atmeh, Syria’s largest refugee camp of 22,000 people, so I had to pose as a social studies student when I went on Friday. 

While there, I encountered a remarkable little girl. 

Standing outside a tent in the blistering heat, she looked at me, and I looked at her. Then, all of a sudden—how do these things happen?—we’d stumbled beyond introductions and into something scathingly more real, a deep, secret place that makes vulnerable that easily-bruised nub of being.

You know the place. It’s that soft, piercing place, the place of meditation and of prayer; the place that pulsates painfully in moments of heartbreak, the place capable of being helplessly, inexplicably magnetized by another. 

Mine was dark and surely cobwebbed, so long has it been since anyone’s gained access. I haven’t a clue how a seven-or-eight-year-old Syrian girl broke in. We were staring at one another, but it was more like we’d fallen inside one another. Time stopped, at it does in moments of power that can transform and transcend one’s humanity. 

A Refugee's Forecast for Syria

REYHANLI, Turkey, August 29th — How’s the weather? It’s sweltering here in Reyhanli, a small Turkish village near the Syrian border, home to an increasing number of Syrian refugees. But just over the mountains, across the border, that question means something entirely different, Syrian refugee Mohammad al-Shammary told me over lunch at a windswept Turkish cafe today.

When the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began several years ago, he said activists created a secret code for communicating about political events. Suspecting the state was tapping their phones and fearing the regime’s allegedly wide network of spies, “the weather” became a stand-in for the political climate. If it was “dusty out,” for example, that meant there were demonstrations in the streets. At one point, Shammary said, he got a phone call from a family member in a city that had just been shelled, and when asked how things were with him—“dusty,” he replied—he was told that perhaps he should close the windows and stay indoors. 

The Middle East Time Machine

Moving forward on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t easy, but Yovav Kalifon is actually making progress by going back in time. That’s right. His Tiyul-Rihla, or Project Trip, takes groups of Israelis and Palestinians on educational trips in their respective homelands, revisiting the past in order to challenge to what Kalifon sees as the chief obstacle to peace—history. 

These journeys allow Israelis and Palestinians to examine history quite literally in context. Participants explore the land together, building by building, town by town, many of them revisiting their own culture identity along the way. Donations help keep participation costs low: Hosts pay the equivalent of $15 to $20, guests about $70 to $80 per trip.

“As a scientist, I know how easily people fool themselves into thinking they know their stuff,” Kalifon, a physicist by training, told me by e-mail recently. “Once they know that they don’t know, they become more rational, inquisitive, and more likely to find the clues they missed earlier.”

In Egypt, Political Cartoons Make the Front Page

“Supreme Guide Seeks Guidance,” a cartoon by the Egyptian artist Andeel, depicts the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, in a therapy session. “Sometimes,” he says, “I suspect that I’m a state security agent, implanted inside the Brotherhood to screw it up.” Andeel’s hashtag reads, “Brotherhood Subconscious.”


Imagine that you check your mailbox one afternoon and find a postcard that shows a smiling Arab family under the words, “A souvenir postcard of the great Egyptian people.”

Then you notice the card feels a little slimy. All of a sudden, you realize it’s covered in blood.

Such was the image drawn by Egyptian cartoonist Andeel in response to deadly clashes in the wake of President Mohamed Morsi’s ousting earlier this month.

Egypt’s Latest Revolution

I first got the news while rattling down a California mountain on Wednesday. “Oh my gosh, Egypt,” I thought. “You’ve done it again.”

But that’s not what I said. What I said was, turning to my mother: “Did you hear about Egypt? They’ve had a,”—I paused, hesitant about the label favored by the media—“‘coup.’”

“Oh?” said my mother. “Didn’t they just elect a president? Democratically?”

“Yeah,” I said. There was a moment of silence. We let the confusion implicit in her question sink in.

“But you know, not everyone liked him,” I ventured, recalling the Egyptian voters I spoke with last summer in Cairo. I remembered the city’s famous epicenter of protest activity, Tahrir Square, exploding in celebration after the two-day vote. I remember watching long queues of voters snake their way through dusty voting stations. Some held their inked thumbs upright for blocks after walking away from the ballot area, as if unwilling to let the moment pass. The faces of some voters, particularly the elderly, shone with the trustfulness of a very young child. Egypt, it seemed then, was being reborn.

A Young Voice from Cairo on Freedom of Expression and Art

Omar Robert Hamilton is something of a vocational chameleon. A founding member of Egypt’s artistic Mosireen opposition group and a producer of the Palestine Festival of Literature, he’s also a celebrated young filmmaker, an activist, an event organizer, a professional photographer, a film archivist, and a published writer who lives between Cairo and London.

With protests continuing in the wake of the opposition’s June 30th “Tamarod” (Rebel) event calling for new presidential elections in Egypt, Hamilton is well positioned for close questioning on the region.

In Jordan, a Fight for Media Freedom

Jordan’s recent decision to block hundreds of news websites has seen considerable outcry, even giving rise to a new initiative called 7oryanet, roughly translated as “freedom oh Internet.”

This is not to be interpreted in a hand-wringing way. This is not, “oh, freedom”—insert despairing sigh—“oh, Internet.”

On the contrary; when the law passed, the digital activist opposition collective responded by holding a national Internet blackout in protest. “What made the outcry from Amman different this time was the diversity of stakeholders,” observed Katherine Mansfield, writing in the Middle East–focused entrepreneurial publication WAMDA. “Freedom of speech activists were joined by the burgeoning Jordanian startup community in protesting the new laws.”

Voting in Iran—from Canada

Turnout for Iran’s presidential vote this weekend got a boost halfway around the world, as it turns out—in Canada, of all places.

The nation is home to the third-largest Iranian émigré community, but none of them were allowed to vote in their own election back home—Iran does not do absentee ballots, and the Canadian government did not allow polling stations. (Even the United States, no friend of the Iranian government, allowed the Islamic Republic to arrange the voting for Iranians in America.)

This might not have mattered so much if turnout was low, as analysts had predicted—instead, more than 18 million Iranians streamed to the polls on Saturday to elect Hassan Rowhani, who is seen as a reform candidate (relatively speaking).

Iraq’s Emerging Artists

“Are you crazy man? You just left, like, medicine, just to work, like, as an artist?”

Walaa Haddad said he was hammered with questions like that during a recent visit to his hometown of Babylon City, Iraq. The question seems to have dogged him all the way back to his adopted city of San Francisco, where he returned two months ago to continue his studies at the Academy of Art University.

In a war-torn country, being a professional artist can seem a bit daft—like trying to be an opera singer while working a coal mine. Haddad, a conceptual artist who dreams of a job at Pixar, said even his open-minded family back home wasn’t sure how to respond to his “doodling.” (See an example of his work here.)

The Global Classroom

School’s almost out for the summer here in the States, so before classrooms emptied I spent a day with my teen sister at her private Catholic elementary-middle school in an affluent Northern California town. Even though Marin County is notoriously high-income, I was startled when the teacher started things off by saying: OK, kids! Go get your laptops and start working on your power-point presentations!

While the young digital natives busily navigated font sizes on their Web-enabled, 2010 HP laptops (originally listed at $719 a pop), I sat on my eighth-grader-sized chair and tried to close my gaping mouth.

Egypt's Unfinished Revolution

These anti-government protesters in Egypt are really something. Gathering in Tahrir Square to overthrow the government might seem so two years ago, but activists there are at it again with the opposition’s “Rebel” campaign, set to kick off in Cairo on Friday. Amid all the ruckus over the planned million-man rally, in which protesters are expected to demand a vote of no-confidence in the nation’s young presidency amid calls for snap elections, 20-something Egyptian journalist and award-winning activist Nora Younis explains why Egyptians refuse to be silenced.

Looking Ahead in Libya

All eyes are on Washington as lawmakers revisit the events leading up to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last fall, but how about hearing from an actual … Libyan?

Amid all the brouhaha over the Obama administration’s response to the attacks, witnesses told lawmakers on Wednesday how Libyans put their lives on the line to help Americans during the September 2011 attack in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador and three others.

A 25-year-old Libyan living in Egypt, who asked to use the common name Mohamed due to political ties in his homeland, told Millennial Letters that that kind of bravery speaks to his nation’s future.

“The uprising against Qaddafi was overwhelming, in the good way,” he wrote, referring to the overthrow of longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi in a popular revolution two years ago. “More or less, it was an eye-opener on the vast potential that’s still in the Libyan youth, I hope that the youth can put the same energy they have put into the revolution into the country’s prosperity in all senses.”

Drones and Their Discontents

Farea al-Muslimi, the hotshot Yemeni youth activist whose heartfelt testimony before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee immediately went viral, says the United States doesn’t even need drones to accomplish their anti-militant aims.

Arguments to the contrary are nothing short of “lying,” he told me as he ran to catch a New York train early Monday.

Ah yes, drones and their discontents—the subject of much debate in Washington recently, not to mention an epic 13-hour filibuster by lawmaker Rand Paul.

A 23-year-old Yemeni activist who spent time in the US, Muslimi was one of six testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and human rights last Tuesday, April 23rd.

Social Media Activism Gets Creative on Syria

Watch out—your Facebook or Twitter profile could be overrun by the Syrian opposition (if your friends so choose), thanks to the new “Syria Updater” program launched by 25-year-old Syrian-American activist Kenan Rahmani.

Here’s how it works—say a Facebook friend of yours, concerned about the situation in Syria, signs up for Syria Updater (official website here). Instead of seeing your friend’s latest “liked” articles, music videos, or pictures float down your mini-feed (for non-Facebookers, a mini-feed is a sort of information highway of all your friends’ Facebook activity), you’d start to hear about battles raging between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the armed opposition seeking his demise. Ditto on Twitter.

Pretty intense, right? It’s certainly an innovative activist approach for interested parties on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict. The project is similar to applications created by marketers eager to access intimate social media networks, but what makes Syria Updater different is that it posts Syria-related statuses directly under participants’ name.