Let the music play

The Rest of Us

A lot of you’ve been sending me messages after what happened last week, concerned with my safety. Thanks for those…and don’t worry, I’m safe.

And for those of you who feared I’d recklessly parade into the middle of the violence, rest assured, I wouldn’t dare. I’m much more terrified of the repercussions from Sara (my Italian girlfriend).

Sara scorning

But I wanted to take this opportunity to write about something related. Regarding perceptions.

Last week, protesters were throwing stones, storming embassies, burning KFCs. As we watched these events from our living room couches—Muslim Rage and Violence Endures Over Anti-Islamic Film—it’s difficult not to perceive a resurgence of global Islamic-Western conflict.

It’s all in reaction to one short, shitty film that some thick-witted idiot posted on YouTube. It’s detestable, offensive, and insulting to an entire people. But does that justify attacking us? Come on guys, what’s the deal?

The anger at the U.S.—in Egypt at least—was due in part to misunderstanding. Many here believed American laws were similar to Egypt’s. Here, all films required government approval before they are produced. So…why would America approve such a terrible film (the full version was supposedly aired in a theatre in California)?

But the U.S. also hasn’t recently done a very good job making people like us. Things like wars in the Middle East, supporting dictatorial regimes, little action on the Israel-Palestine issue have not given the image of us having the best of intentions…

I recall the days last year when my Egyptian friends and colleagues were in the streets fighting the oppressive military transitional government. Each day, hundreds would be injured and several killed. They used tear gas so potent, it was causing people to vomit blood.

And when people picked up the empty tear gas containers, they read “Made in USA”. The U.S. government annually provides Egypt $1.3 billion in military assistance. And now, it seemed, the Americans were funding an army assault against the people.

I’d be pretty pissed, too.

I recently wrote a short piece on fundraising in Egypt for the Foundation Center, a nonprofit organization in DC. They asked for a picture of me. I chose this one:

Over the past year, a number of people have commented on my looks. My colleagues tell me I look “Italian”. The Egyptian cab drivers, when guessing which country I’m from, often guess “Turkey” or “France”. When I wear my sports clothes to the gym, Sara says I look “American”. Last Christmas, my grandma saw the new scarf I was wearing and complimented my new “European” style. But my Aunt Tina said, “No, he’s just urban!” Now from the pic above, my mom’s telling me I look “Arab”.

All this posturing gets me confused. What the heck am I?

We live in a world where information now flows freely. We have access to knowledge, we know what’s going on across the world. Stories of the underground can no longer be silenced, and secrets of the powerful can no longer be hidden.

But this abundance of media also means, as we are pounded with stories of the great wide world, we are more easily lost in the analyses of the “experts”, the ones in the office suites with lots of papers and big desks. And we forget the humanity behind it all.

Over the last week, our media has given great attention to these anti-American protests. And considering what happened in Libya, they should.

But the video clips and sound waves don’t show us what’s in the background. The silent majority. The ones who reject violence. The ones who believe in throwing words, not stones.

This is how most of the Egyptians I know think. They rejected the stone throwing as amateur. It was counter-revolutionary, they said. After all, our entire revolution was founded on peace.

As these days passed, I began to worry quite a bit. Not for myself, but for the damage to our reconciliation.

Since the democratic revolutions in the Arab World, many outside the region were looking at it with new admiration, hope, and respect. Finally, after decades of oppression, the world was supporting the Arabs in their fights for justice and equal representation.

But I was afraid some might analyze the events as Those stubborn Muslims, back at it again, they are just a violent people, they will never truly desire peace.

It’s so easy to categorize an entire population based on the actions of a few. In fact, much of the world does it to us—Americans are judged based on our government, our finance CEOs, our Jersey Shore stars. They think we all live like Desperate Housewives.

Stop observing people through framed glass

There will always be extremists who dominate our media—the Unibomber, Paris Hilton, Dick Cheney. They’re just good news.

But then there’s the rest of us. The ones who go about our daily lives, just trying to enjoy life, be good to those around us, keep ourselves and other happy.

Most Egyptians I know, I love. They are warm, hospitable, funny, relaxed. Indeed, many I’ve met are not perfect: “yes” doesn’t always mean “yes”, “tomorrow” may mean “next month”. And then there’s a culture of close-mindedness, which can often get frustrating. But just because a few thugs threw some stones last weekend doesn’t mean I will negatively judge all those I see on the street here.

So, I say, when we are Glued to the Tube, losing all hope in the world because of CNN’s 24/7 live coverage of The World on Fire, put aside whatever Toshiba and Sony and Panasonic want you to believe, and just remember, people are people.

I’ll end with the words of Bill Clinton, when he spoke to Harvard a number of years ago. Regardless of what your political views may be, Bill’s a kick-ass orator. What he said here, I think, is perfect:

“When the human genome was sequenced, and the most interesting thing to me as a non-scientist … was the discovery that human beings with their three billion genomes are 99.9 percent identical genetically. So if you look around this vast crowd today, at the military caps and the baseball caps and the cowboy hats and the turbans, if you look at all the different colors of skin, all the heights, all the widths, all the everything, it’s all rooted in one-tenth of one percent of our genetic make-up. Don’t you think it’s interesting that not just people you find appalling, but all the rest of us, spend 90 percent of our lives thinking about that one-tenth of one percent?”

Social Entrepreneurship? Huh?

Lotsa you have asked me over the years what I do.

Sometimes I offer long-winded, rambling responses, by the end of which you bolt from the seat in desperate need of a beer and a butt massage from sitting too long. Other times, tired of re-explaining myself to everyone, I provide you that quick, scripted, 30-second elevator speech.

But I’ve recently realized it’s a problem when even my mom admits she doesn’t understand.


Lemme explain…

So, alright then, here’s an attempt to explain, once again, what I do.

I work in the field of


What’s that, you say? Lemme ‘splain.

Social entrepreneurs are basically people who use what we see as traditional business entrepreneur traits (launching new ventures, innovating, risk-taking), but for a social purpose.

What kinda social purpose?

Like education, healthcare, environment, poverty, democracy and freedom, arts and culture, water and sanitation, disabilities…….

Basically, they find problems in society, and try to create innovative solutions. They also generally reject the status quo, work outside traditional sectors, and take huge risks.

I am in love with social entrepreneurs because they are real changemakers. And eventually, I wanna be one myself.

I also help build


A social enterprise is a business with a central goal of changing social problems.

It’s a new model. A hybrid between a business and a nonprofit. One that instead of just ascribing to the “bottom line”, adopts a policy of a “triple bottom line” (people, planet, profit).

One of the first and most famous social enterprises is Grameen Bank, a microfinance bank in Bangladesh started by Mohammed Yunus. His model provides small business loans to the poor, traditionally ignored sectors of the the finance community, and uses its profits to reinvest in the company’s growth and impact. In 2006, Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize.

There are tons of different forms. Ben & Jerry’s, TOM’s Shoes, and Whole Foods are some examples. Some guys are advocating for a new legal code, like the B Corporation. Others are creating hybrid models to support the field, like impact investing (invest money, get financial and social impact gains).


Social entrepreneurs have been around for a while. David Bornstein in his book How to Change the World argues that famous historical changemakers like Florence Nightingale and Gandhi were social entrepreneurs.

And it’s becoming pretty popular. Lotsa people are starting to pay attention. Business magazines like Forbes and Business Week have started lists of “Top Social Entrepreneurs”. Governments are sponsoring programs to support social entrepreneurship, like in the US, Social Impact Bonds, and in the UK, a Social Stock Exchange. And top universities are creating programs in social entrepreneurship, such as Harvard Business School, Yale School of Management, Duke, NYU’s Stern & Wagner, Wharton, Oxford, and Stanford.

Even a Dummy’s book was made about it.


Well, if you’re not currently working in the field, it may not…yet. But, I think it’s really important for you to know.

Cause, if enough people grab onto this concept, if enough of us see this as having real potential—and don’t dismiss it as treehuggin-dogooder-Fantasia-hippie-doodoo—well it could just be the next big thing.

Generation Y is known for demanding jobs that allows us to create “impact on the world”. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Baby Boomers are looking to “give back” as they enter retirement.

If this movement gets enough backers, it could transform the way we do business. It could mean that, instead of being a world focused on selfish, financial gains, business could become something where all stakeholders and players are fairly considered. (And where we don’t have to   “sacrifice” salary to do good.)

The best part is, you don’t have to be a social entrepreneur yourself. I guarantee you: there will soon be plenty of opportunities where you can follow your dream by working for one instead.

Intrigued? Read more.

Organizations supporting social entrepreneurs include: AshokaEchoing GreenAcumen FundUnreasonable InstituteSkoll Foundation, and, my organization in Egypt, Nahdet el Mahrousa.

And as for feature writing on social entrepreneurship, here are some of my faves:

Alright. Hope that helps, mom.

Conjurers and People Puppeteers

I just read a story about the King of Swaziland and his magical powers. I won’t spoil the surprises for you—you can form your own opinion by reading it here—but I’ll just tease your interests with some of the juicier stuff, like the rumors of how the king “purifies himself” by getting snake-licked, screwing a bull, and publicly having sex with 2 of his wives.

Bull sex aside, what intrigued me was how strongly the Swazis apparently believe in the divinity of the King and his supernaturalness. According to this article, many see the King as capable of miraculous things like morphing into animals or bugs and turning invisible.

Now I am no expert on Swaziland. But after I read this, I started thinking. About how we, as humans, have extraordinary susceptibility to being fooled.

Many of you know I have magical powers of my own. I can see the card you chose in your mind, or make that card stick to the outside of a window, or transform it to appear rolled up inside a sealed orange.

The Magic Man

And whenever you ask me how I do it, I suggest you read the Harry Potter series to better understand my unexplainable phenomenon of being born with “real magic”.

Magic is very much an art of deception. We are experts at tricking you into believing that something happened, which really did not.

And we have crafty methods behind these tricks. We can dupe you into doing exactly what we want you to do, while giving you the illusion of free choice. We can execute small actions right in front of your eyes, and fool you into never noticing them. We can beguile your memory into completely forgetting an action that took place just moments ago.

We mystify. We dazzle. We astound.

…and the audience goes wild.


But there are some who are much more adept at this skill than I.

I’m not talking ’bout David Blaine or Harry Houdini or Albus Dumbledore.

No, I’m talking about the real masters of deception. The ones whose illusions are deployed in the real world.

The ones who can transform populations into puppets.

I’m reminded of two salient examples in which I’ve seen magical deception:

1. Student debates in China

When I was teaching English in China, I thought it’d be a good idea to practice English through a “debate class”. It was set to work as such: each side has a stance, and argues against the other’s.

I let my students choose the topic. They decided to debate the government’s response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. I put them in two groups, and gave the motions.

But once half of them realized they would have to argue against the government, there was an uproar. Flat out refusals, no negotiations.

We have nothing to say, the government was flawless in its response. Everything had been done perfectly.

Hm. This wasn’t what I had read…in my own newspapers, at least. But for the first time ever, my sweet, quiet, innocent students were outwardly angry (I was even a little frightened…had I gone too far?). For me to even consider there was anything to criticize was ludicrous.

This was the first time I personally witnessed the true power of state propaganda.

2. Photoshopping the army

A few days after my close call with the army in Egyptin November 2011, an interesting picture surfaced on the web.

People initially were asking why the Institute of Egypt had caught on fire in Tahrir. It was a  terrible fire, since priceless national archives, maps, and manuscripts were inside.

The answer eventually emerged to be quite clear: some Molotov cocktails (homemade firebombs) from the protestors had been tossed into the building. But the question was: were they acting as hooligans—throwing the firebombs haphazardly, without care for such precious items—or was it in defense of something?

Judge by the pictures below.

Spot what’s missing

To me, the image doctoring was pretty obvious. Soldiers and army-paid thugs were on the roof, and the protesters fighting against them.

But what I found strange was, people really believed the BS they were fed. Talking to Egyptians in the street, I was surprised by the number of people who were convinced by state TV’s messages: The revolution is being highjacked. Young thugs and street children have been blocking streets, instigating unnecessary violence, and destroying Egypt’s economy. They aren’t the true revolutionaries from January 2011; no, they are impostors, set out to destroy Egypt and its future.

It was through these experiences, and countless others, that I learned how my beloved art—which is meant to bring mystery, wonder, and joy—can be used for manipulation and omnipotent power and control.

The Bourgeoisie Magicians of the 21st century are brilliant manipulators of reality, bringers of life to great fantasies. Working from their palaces and towers and corner window offices, they can produce from thin air explanations and interpretations that make you wonder and doubt. They fabricate false enemies, turning you and your society against them. And if you don’t believe their magic, if you have questions of their greatness, they know how to make you mute, silent, and unquestioning. Or, to completely disappear.

And throughout it all, they, like all us magicians, love to nurture a little bit of doubt. They know their tricks are viewed with a bit of skepticism. But they want you to wonder, to be a little unsure. Because, in the end, if you believe they are capable of performing such grand illusions, capable of doing horrendous things and continually getting away with it, then you will continue to bow down to their greatness, look away when looked at, and just keep your mouth shut.

For now, I’ll leave you with a quiz.

Take it home and try to list as many answers as you can.

Brendoni Quiz #1: Which magicians do you know in your life?


Last month a wall was removed in Cairo. It was one of those walls that the army had constructed to keep protesters and other no-gooders away.

My friend celebrated because it meant the walk from his house to the bar had just been shortened by 15 minutes.

But we should celebrate, too. Here’s why.

First, though, pause. For those of you who don’t know the whole story, let’s take a little trip back in time.

Zip Zap Vrooooom

Back in last November/December, when protesters in Cairo were tossing stones and homemade fire bombs at the police and army because they were pissed off at Egypt’s transitional “leaders” for continuing to be jackasses (arresting civilians and trying them in military courts, responding to protests with tear gas and ammunition, stuff like that), the army started getting bothered by all these botherances, I mean come on why are these people persisting and demanding their rights, jeez that’s so annoying. So they decided to build some walls.

They started with just a few. Lifting big concrete blocks by cranes one on top of the other. (I remember watching one being built real-time as pics were uploaded block by block on Twitter).

When they saw the first few were relatively effective at calming things down, they thought the idea was pretty rockin, so they built some more. Soon enough, if I counted right, 8 streets in a row downtown were blocked off to the public.

Since then, one was actually knocked down by angry protesters in response to heinous attacks at a football game in Port Said. Another, on a busy road, was eventually disassembled, though I’m not exactly sure by who.

There are some pretty neat stories about brave Egyptian street artists who deconstructed the walls in their own ways. Some called it the “no walls campaign”. I personally love the rainbow one, but this other “optical illusion” is pretty famous.


(The pics aren’t mine because if you read my last post you’d notice I’m a little frightened of taking photos. Even of walls.)

But despite a relatively peaceful democratic transition in 2012, most walls are still standing.

I’ve been pondering a lot lately about these concepts of “walls”.

We have so many. Walls to keep the masses far from the few. Walls guarding the rich and hiding the poor. Walls between religions, designed to segregate beliefs. Walls to keep our neighbors off the grass, because we just mowed it and it looks really pretty, and anyway I deserve my privacy, I don’t want you to see me naked in here.

A Great Wall

I’ve seen so many ancient cities, villages, even countries, with walls. The old world was paranoid that somebody else would come in and destroy them if they didn’t have walls. Sometimes the walls are blatantly built in the open, traditional bricklaying style. In recent years, more clever folks have found ways to disguise them in alarm systems and train tracks and bouncers with big ass muscles.

I won’t write about all my thoughts here because a) you won’t read it, and b) then I won’t have stuff to write about in the future. So if you think walls are cool, you can keep reading updates on my blog. If not, though, you can still keep reading them.

Anyway, as I was saying before, every time a wall falls, be it disassembled by our leaders or deconstructed by the masses, we should all celebrate.

Wall fallings are signs of progression, of healthier futures. They often augur some sort of peace, trust, co-existence.

And when a little teensy brick is pushed over by little teensy human hands, it gives me a tiny sparkle in my heart, making me feel that, maybe, there is some hope for us after all.

When I Almost Got Arrested By The Egyptian Military

Fighting had erupted the previous day near the Parliament building downtown. Protesters, camped out in front of the Parliament for weeks, had been demanding that the “illegitimate” interim government must step down (this was post-revolution, but before promised elections had been held).

It’s still unclear what exactly sparked it, but suddenly, things turned violent. Protesters flung stones; soldiers, from from the rooftops, retaliated with concrete blocks, furniture, water cannons…even their own piss.

Guess who won.

By the next morning things had calmed down. Civilians had been expelled from the area, which was now blocked off to the public by soldiers and barbed wire.

My naivety convinced me the events were over. I figured walking downtown for my visa would be no big deal.

On the path towards the immigration building, I was passing the barbed wire barrier. A few people were gathered there, but all was generally calm. Peeking beyond the barrier, it looked like a war zone. Stones and concrete scattered along the empty street, flooded with sporadic pools of water.

Then I did something stupid.

I decided I wanted to document this important moment. I wanted to be able to share it with people like you.

I would do it quietly and quickly. Nobody would see.

So I cradled my little Nikon at chest level, snapped two photos, and immediately replaced it in my pocket.

I was far enough away that I was sure none of the soldiers had seen me. I thought everything was cool.

But as I was walking away, one or two Egyptians began to shout. They pointed at me. A group of men started approaching me, yelling.

Through the group crossed a soldier. He approached me, took my arm, and escorted me behind the barbed wire.

He asked for my camera.

A group of soldiers surrounded me then. They started asking questions, mostly in Arabic, which I didn’t understand. They wanted to see the pictures.

I showed them how to flip through my photos. We went through all my old photos one by one, until we arrived at the end. The moment of truth.

But as we got to the end, all we saw were two photos of the ground.

Perhaps at the hand of God, or Allah, or Nikon’s poor designers, it seems the camera had delayed when I took the photos. Instead of snapping pics when I aimed at the soldiers, it took them when I was putting the camera away, thus only catching the ground.

Relief passed through me like you could not believe.

I quickly jumped into my innocent-apologetic-pleading mode, explaining that I didn’t mean to do anything, it was a misunderstanding, I know I know it’s illegal to take pictures of soldiers, I am just going to get my visa renewed, look, here’s my American passport.

One soldier was notably angry. He didn’t want to let me go.

But since “we Americans” have been paying the Egyptian army’s salaries for the past few decades through our “Egyptian Aid”, this passport holds weight. And the superior officer there knew that.

So they let me go.

The thing I did was really dumb, and I’m a bit ashamed to admit it (and don’t worry, I’ve learned my lesson…more on that later).

But I’m writing this story today to illustrate an important aspect of the fight between the powerful and the weak: specifically, the use of fear to gain and maintain power.

Before I continue on that, though, this isn’t the end of the story. Read on…

Two hours later, I had finished with my visa papers. I was exiting the immigration building to head home.

And here’s where it got scary:

A distance from where I was standing, dozens of protesters were launching stones at soldiers behind the concrete wall which had been constructed as a barrier (the opposite side of the street I was on). Nearby, a building was blazing red—the university library had caught on fire. Everyone on the sidelines was still, watching, tensely waiting, anticipating the eye of the storm would soon pass.

(pic from the internet)

And it did. Suddenly, the protesters about-faced, all pivoting at once, and in a chaotic melee, began stampeding away from the wall, a pandemonium of shouts and screams filling the air.

I didn’t wait to find out what was happening. I bolted into the metro, which I had been cautiously standing in front of. (It’s is a bit of an underground safehouse there…despite what’s happening above, normal life continues below.)

Once I was safely home, I followed the rest of the events closely on Twitter.

This was the army at its worst. They had bum-rushed the square, chasing, beating, and—seemingly, according to videos caught on tape—shooting directly at civilians. They evicted all peaceful protesters in Tahrir, and burnt their tents. It was on this day the famous image surfaced of soldiers dragging a woman down the street and exposing her undergarments—an unknown Egyptian who became known as the “blue bra girl”.

(Pic from the internet)

It was brutal, and disgusting.

And this time, the army and police were very wary of their brutal actions getting caught on camera. So, they stormed hotel rooms and apartment buildings, searching for journalists and confiscating or destroying their equipment. And, right in the spot I had taken my pic two hours earlier, an American journalist was arrested and thrown into detention. (Admittedly, this “detention” was an open garden area, and he was only detained for part of the day, with no harm was done.)

This systematic targeting of journalists was something new. And it scared me, because I realized, if my camera hadn’t delayed shooting the photo……well……

Two months later, I was in Washington, DC.

While walking to visit some friends, I noticed the occupiers in the square. I had been reading about them, but this was the first time I’d seen them.

I wanted to snap a pic to show my friends back in Egypt.


DC Occupiers

But as I stood there, catty-corner to the square, I realized I was a little bit anxious. Not a lot, but enough that it was noticeable. Instinctively, I was trying to keep my camera hidden. I scanned the surroundings for watchers, and attempted to snap the photo as quickly as possible.

Here, in the “land of the free”, where such expression makes up the very essence of our foundation.

I chose to write about this because, despite all the “what the hell were you thinking’s” I’m likely to get from my oh-so-loved ones, the lesson taught from this experience was something powerful which I cannot ignore.

Just having a shakedown with a few soldiers instilled in me a tiny bit of fear that taking pictures—anywhere in the world—is a risky and dangerous act, of which I shouldn’t partake in.

But then I think, about the activists who “disappear” after shouting anti-governmental slogans in a public square, the bloggers who are tossed into prison for criticizing religion, the veiled women who resist covering their faces in public and are then burnt by acid, the child sex slaves who fail escape and get an eye removed as punishment…

And then the rest, hearing these stories, heeding these warnings, who stay silent and obedient, fearing the same could happen to them.

It’s amazing how rumors and stare-downs and undercover police can create paranoia and fear, and effectively suppress entire populations. Populations who, despite their own desires and their own knowledge of what “is right” or “should be”, keep their mouths shut and their feet grounded. For generations. Meanwhile those in power stay in power, getting richer, older, fatter, and crazier.

But those courageous activists—the ones I mentioned above—fight, not just for themselves, but for a cause, for an identity, for a population. They inspire, and sometimes, eventually, convince the “rest” to change their shoes, lift their feet, and start moving.

I have many friends here, and across the world, who have much “better” stories than I. “War tales” of being beaten, chased, gassed, fired at, imprisoned…

Mine is small, almost laughable.

But it made me realize that I have taken my freedoms for granted as a right I was born to exercise. I can never recall a time—besides the “you-are-forbidden-to-carry-a-whoopie-cushion-to-class-Brendon” incidents—when I felt repressed through fear, unable to make my own decisions or do what I think is right.

For those of us lucky enough to have lived a life in which we don’t have to fear speaking our voice and the truth…only until something like this happens to us can we understand how very powerful this fear can be.

So I’m using this story, like my other recent posts, as an “introduction” to a theme. I hope to write more later, about others who have stood up to power, resisted fear, risked their lives.

And hopefully by reading this, you, like me, will better appreciate what kind of fight these heroes really face.

And by the way, don’t worry, I’ve since stopped taking pictures at any places that might be sensitive, or where I could be perceived—by anybody—as a “spy” or “infiltrator”.

Sara (my Italian girlfriend) reminds me every time I tell this story how “stupid” I was. If I did it again, well, the consequences with her wouldn’t be pretty.

But moreover, there is a risk for my work. Not to my life or safety; nothing of this sort has happened to foreigners as photographers here. But I could risk drawing attention to myself, and unnecessarily getting my office drawn into the situation, thus risking the work I am doing here and all its value. To me, that’s not worth it. So I suck it up and move on.

And for those of you at home, really, please, don’t worry. I’m safe here. Things here have been calm for a while now, and they are likely to stay that way for some time. However, it is a reality that something could happen at any point, and if it does, I am cautious and prepared for the right steps I need to take.


Blog Post #2

I’m a little nervous about writing Blog Post #2.

#1 was easy. I didn’t have to be a good writer. I just had to tell you I was here when the first civilian president in Egypt’s 5,000+ year history was elected. And you would say “cool” or “sweet” or “radical”, and probably you would equate me to Marco Polo or Huckleberry Finn or Dora the Explorer, I do have a talking backpack like hers.

But now’s the hard part: I have to actually write about something substantial. I have to do something to make you want to click “subscribe” (the link on the right, click it to find out what it does), to feed you something delectable and intriguing, to fool you into actually reading this junk.

Trying something new: duck tongue in China

This prospect of starting something new is always a difficult one.

Some of us love it. We thrive on change, getting bored by stability and searching for ways to make “creative destruction”.

We’re the “crazy ones”.

Many, conversely, are resistant. Anti-change, pro-establishment. Sometimes because new things affect our own status quo, and we like our SQ. Why change what you’ve got when what you’ve got’s so great?

But many times it’s not that change couldn’t be great, it’s that we’re afraid of it. What if it doesn’t work out so well? What if something goes wrong. No, no, no…I’ll take the SQ over uncertainty and instability, grazie.

Starting something new involves risks small and big. Guesswork and unsolved questions which nobody has the answers to; uncontrollable delays, anxious lulls, uncertainty about what’s next; double-dare stare-downs with failure.

And it also means challenges. Facing new people, explaining ourselves to the old ones. Feeling alone, vulnerable, sometimes as if nobody cares.

I’m reminded of when I first moved to Syria. It was something entirely new—new region, new language, new culture. I knew almost nothing about it.

Those who know me well know that I love Syria. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. The people, the culture, the food, the history…

But my first week there was the absolute worst of my life. I almost gave up.

Desert Roads

After a 30 hour stuffy bus ride through the desert to Damascus, in that first night, lugging two 50-pound bags across the city, hotel after hotel turned me away for lack of vacancy, the one finally accepting me offering scratchy blankets and no toilet seat.

But that was the easy part. The rest of the week went like this: perpetual moves between hotels, apartments, university campuses, health centers, government buildings under the scorching summer sun; attempts to withdraw funds at bank after bank after bank, only to find my ATM card was no good in this country; this new state of poverty preventing me from paying past-due apartment or university fees; daily stomach illnesses throughout the week, climaxing with 4 days lying incapacitated in my lumpy, dust-mite bed, afflicted with full-fledged food poisoning, every bodily movement an agonizing pain, every excursion to the bathroom or store an enormous feat of will; throughout all, tears filling my eyes several times a day, as I questioned my own thoughtlessness of leaving my family at home a mere two weeks after my dad suddenly left my mom and my entire family was in shambles.

I was alone, in physical and emotional pain, and it seemed the whole world was telling me to give up.

But I didn’t. And because I didn’t, I fell in love. With a place (and a girl). And it changed the course of my life.

People are starting new things all the time.

Sometimes we start a new relationship, a new job, classes at a new school, and we’re nervous because what if the kids think I’m a loser, and they point at me and laugh, and only Johnny the Booger Picker will hang out with me?

(It ends up Johnny the Booger Picker isn’t such a bad guy)

The Egyptians decided to start something new last year. Their president was a jerk. For 30 years. So they got really annoyed and decided to topple him. And they did it in 18 days.

The Syrians, meanwhile, have been fighting for freedom for 16 months, and have already seen almost 20,000 killed (according to some internal estimates). When this will end, and how many more lives will have to perish, is a big ? mark. The Syrians took enormous risk to start their own revolution. But they haven’t given up, because for the first time in their lives, they can see something new, and that is worth fighting for.

Here in Egypt, for my job, I work with what we call “social entrepreneurs“. These are people who use “entrepreneurial”

and sometimes “business” principles to start something new. Their focus, however, centers on changing society. Taking an old system or problem—in healthcare, education, environment, whatever—and developing some new thing to make it better.

These are bold people—ones that have decided the world in which they live isn’t enough, and something must be done to make it better. They work hard, often facing extraordinary challenges and obstructing resistance. They’re my idols, and one day, my dream is to become one of them, too.

Part of this blog will focus on them, and the new things they’re starting.

I once met a woman who told me she felt like she had been “staring at the same page of a book for the past 30 years”. Then she got fired because of downsizing. So she traveled to the Middle East, a place she’d never been, to try something new.

Yes, oldness, tradition, and what-already-is are often beautiful things. Many times, it’s a mistake to abandon them in the name of “progress” and “change”.

But without challenging what-is, and trying something that-is-not, we don’t grow, we don’t understand, and we don’t become better in who we are and how we act.

Duck tongue, pig blood, and chicken feet might be disgusting. Or they might be delicious. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know.

Chicken feet & lotus root

Pig blood

This theme of starting something new, or more broadly, “change”, is gonna be one I focus on in this blog. I think it’s an important one. Social entrepreneurship, especially here in Egypt, will be a part of this theme. 

My Very First Blog Post

For several weeks, things had been getting increasingly tense. People were nervous, unhappy, and restless. Protesters in Tahrir and throughout Egypt were increasing in numbers.

What would happen next nobody knew. But whatever it may be, people were prepared for the worst. Nervous theories were being swapped on the potential effects of each outcome. An internal clash between supporters of each candidate? A Round Two of the Egyptian Revolution? A coup by the army resulting in armed strikes on the protesters?

Sara and I had stocked up on the necessary goods—water, phone cards, canned food—in case supplies became limited like in the last revolution.

Sitting in our apartment, our shoddy black and white TV broadcasting the droning monotone of the elections council spokesman, we listened to the listing off results province by province…

You can finish reading this post on Egyptian elections below, but first, how about we take a little break to chat about this blog? (If you’d rather not, you can finish the article here.)

After several years abroad, and a few adventures here and there, I figure it’s high time for me to start putting this stuff down on paper.

I’ve been away from home almost 3 years now, mostly in places which I wouldn’t classify as the top paradise vacation spots of the world. In this time, I’ve seen things terrible and magnificent. Yea, I’ve done the typical things—scaling mountains, promenading through ancient metropolises, galloping through the desert.

But what has made this time most rewarding, what has made me willing to make the sacrifice of being so far from home, is witnessing the extraordinary ways in which humanity can extend kindness and warmth to one another. The Filipino family of 7 who, within 5 minutes of meeting me, invited me to stay at their home, and then all relocated to the other room in their home so I could sleep on their only bed. The monks at the Mar Musa in Syria—who encouraged people regardless of faith or belief to come to their monastery, stay as long as you want, eat together, and engage in dialogue—asking for nothing in return. Our friend Ernestine in South Africa, who despite having buried both her children after surviving apartheid, yanked us each individually out of our chairs in the courtyard, switched on some music, and just danced her heart out with us.

These “ordinary” people have taught me extraordinary things. They have changed my perspectives, how I have chosen to live, and what I stand for.

And as I sit here with my fresh brewed cup of tea, scribbling my “insights” into my Macbook, watching the happenings of Tahrir on Twitter, just after cleaning my ass on our porcelain bidet, I realized that I can’t withhold these things for myself anymore. As Mrs. Stopper taught me to do in first grade, I must share.

I’ve been wanting to start this blog for a while, but I wasted too much time trying to pick a theme. Conventional wisdom says: choose a niche, write a lot about it, prove yourself to the market, establish a committed reader base, get lots of Facebook Likes, become really really popular and famous, get invited to a barbeque at the Oval Office, play b-ball with Obama and Hillary, get free Red Bull for life.


After much deliberation, I realized that this blog is an experiment. And, like all good experiments, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to try.

Egypt has been a prime example of the willpower of people. The masses who stand against death, for their right to be heard. The underground innovators and social entrepreneurs, who push to make real change on the community level. The…[fill in the blank]

I think what I’d like to do is to make this blog is about them.

What I’ve written in my blog description sums it up pretty well. The blog is:

About life’s joy, our world’s beauty, and all the delight it can bring.

Then about how people can crush this delight, manipulate our dreams, and just take a big dump right on us.

But then, how others can take that shit, and create some way to turn it into lemonade.

Please keep in mind that, for me, this is a continual learning process. So, I invite you to learn with me, to engage in conversation, discussion, and disagreement. Let me know your thoughts. Criticize me. If what I’m saying seems ridiculous, challenge me. I’m bound to be wrong sometimes.

For now, I’ll be writing one post per week. Maybe an extra one here or there if I’m really inspired. You can subscribe to it if you want it in email. I’ll also put some pics up, too, somewhere, I don’t know where yet.

It’s a trial run, and I’m not sure how successful it will be. But that, I hope, is what will make it fun.

OK, now you can go back to reading that post on Egyptian elections. Scroll down, or click here.

A President, Yay!

Our internet was down, so we were efforting with our mediocre Arabic to interpret the numbers on TV of the election results. But in the end, no translation was necessary—suddenly, the outdoors erupted into a hullabaloo of cheers, songs, honking, fireworks, Allah Akbar. Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for Egypt’s presidential election, had won, and his supporters in Tahrir square were celebrating in massive numbers.

The lead up to this moment, however, was not so joyous.

For the previous three weeks, the country’s mood and temper had become increasingly tense. Beginning with the disappointing verdict from the sham  of a trial of Mubarak and his cronies, and followed thereafter by the dissolution of the elected parliament and the self-imposed granting of sweeping powers to the military rulers, the spirit was not auspicious.

Public confidence in Egypt’s revolution, and a genuine transition towards democracy, was waning. And there was great uncertainty as to what would happen next. The two candidates in the run-off—a former Mubarak official, and an Islamist—both had fierce opposition forces.

The results were to be announced at 3 PM. Offices and buildings were closing their doors at one. Downtown Cairo was like something I rarely witness—quiet. The streets, normally uncomfortably overloaded with a clamorous melee of cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians, were uncomfortably silent and still. A thick, anticipatory fear was hanging in the heavy summer air.

But after a few restless hours of waiting, the announcement had been made. And the streets went wild. For the entire night, people occupied Tahrir square and all the major arteries heading to it. Fireworks exploded every few minutes, and music blared from balconies as Egyptians danced below. And flags were everywhere—hanging from windowsills, protruding from cars, waving in hands, painted on faces. The people had won, and it was a night of pure celebration.

In actuality, not everyone was celebrating. The election results have evoked mixed feelings; indeed, there are plenty who opposed the Muslim Brotherhood. Their opposition stems from a mixture of disappointment from their performance in parliament over the previous half year, as well as worries of a coming Islamist state.

Will something like that happen? In reality, some of this fear stems from decades-old scapegoat rhetoric from Mubarak against the Brotherhood, whether or not it is true today is up for debate. Additionally, some believe that the majority of the Egyptian public is not conservative enough to accept strict Sharia law.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned here over the past year, though, it’s that nobody really knows what’s going to happen next. And I, myself, am not going to try to predict it.

For me, what’s important for now, is that for the first time in the 5,000+ year history of Egypt, there exists a civilian elected president. He may or may not be the best candidate for turning this country around. But he is a check that entrenched powers will have to face. And the Egyptians themselves will watch him, carefully, and ensure his actions are accountable.

What does this mean for the rest of us? It means that we can rejoice, a bit, at the fact that humanity has once again “won”. People, in Egypt and across the world, have been given hope for a better future. After being dictated to for their entire lives, for the first time, they have the opportunity to choose for themselves, to lead their own future.

People fought, and fought hard, and something somewhere decided that, finally, they deserve a victory. The underdogs, modern-day Davids, literally fighting with stones. It’s a classic story many of us are familiar with, a select few of us are lucky to have had others do it for us many years ago.

Granted, it’s far from perfect. There is a long way to go, and many spoilers exist which could put things in reverse. And even if a “free and fair democracy” is reached, those hungry, power-addicted curmudgeons whose mommies weren’t nice to them will still do everything in their means to devour that delicious blueberry pie while nobody is looking.

But, I believe—and always will—if they, you, we keep fighting, keep pushing, keep the phonograph spinning and let its harmonies tiptoe through the breeze, we will fly.

And one thing’s for sure: Mubarak ain’t happy. There were some reports that his already weak heart rate soared upon hearing the election results.

It kinda reminds me of that Braveheart scene when Princess Isabelle whispers to the evil King Longshanks, after he had lost his powers of speech and was on his death bed, and admits the child she bore was William Wallace’s rather than her husband’s, the prince. And all you can think is “Ha! Sweet justice!” as you cheer for Mel Gibson and his sexy ponytail.

An American in Ankang

This is one of my old blog posts from China in 2008. I’ve selected a few to feature on this blog. While they don’t necessarily fit its theme, I still like them…

When I first arrived in China, I traveled to a remote city in the hinterlands of central China, where I taught English to students ranging from 6 to 18 years of age. I think I particularly enjoyed living there, not because there was anything “special” or “touristy” about it, but because it was “real”. With few outside influences, there were no spectacles to impress tourists or investors. It was the part of China few outsiders see, which make up the parts of the world I love most.

From what I’ve been told, Ankang is your typical “small” Chinese city. With an inner-city population of several hundred thousand (metro over three million), the pervasive Chinese commercial development is unmistakable. But a large number of the citizens are still low-income merchants and peasants. Despite its size, when I am outside Ankang, few people in China have ever heard of it. Here I will attempt to give you a taste of this little known part of the world…

A typical day in Ankang…

I’m still in tourist-gawking mode. The phrase “the other side of the world” rings true literally and figuratively, as everything is so divergent from our culture. But to the Ankang natives, Iam their mini tourist attraction. In a city where I’m one of apparently seven foreigners—and the only American—and where mothers don’t scold their children for staring, I’m as watched as the president. Feet stop, eyeballs fixate, and necks slowly crane to watch the foreigner saunter by.

Walking the city is like maneuvering through a giant obstacle course. Traffic can be described only as functional chaos. A hodgepodge of buses, taxis, mopeds, bicycle carriages, police golf-carts, hand-drawn carts, pedestrians, and the occasional car. A place where signs, lights and road markings are mere suggestions; where there is no “stop”, aside from a sporadic functioning traffic light; and where horns act like bicycle bells—excuse me, look out! Mopeds flood the streets, their horns mimicking the perpetual honking of the Looney Toons Road-Runner. And for pedestrians, hesitation is an indeterminate delay. The cars do not stop…they weave. Don’t try and comprehend; just go! Surrender the fear…enjoy the anarchy.

“Sidewalks” in Ankang act less as a pedestrian path and more like a movable trading market. Keymakers and shoemakers, welders and carpenters, and food galore. Fresh fruit and vegetable vendors at every corner, waiting with their wooden, two-wheel, hand-drawn carts that haul their stores to and from home. Peaches with the texture of an apple, shells with a Jell-O-like substance, lotus roots, vegetable stalks…and whatever else is in season. Snack vendors spill out of restaurants, selling meat skewers grilled over flames ($0.14), “Chinese hamburgers” (chopped fried meat served in a thin pita-like roll) ($0.57), and rolls of freshly-made bread, known as the “peasant’s breakfast” ($0.03).

Take a moment to absorb the contrasting cultures. Women carrying laced umbrellas to protect their skin from the sun, a complexion that signifies beauty and wealth. Old men lounging on their wooden carts—prime napping platforms on humid days—as they await customers to move furniture, boxes, or food. Giant cell phone dealers, where eight customer service representatives approach you at once. A man strolling by with a dead chicken dangling from his hand.

Dinnertime. If you’re on a low-carb diet, China can guarantee the fastest results (you’d starve yourself). Noodles and rice are a staple of nearly every meal. I remember one meal in particular, one of my first in the city: a rich vegetable salty-vinegary broth with a flavor that consumes your mouth and lingers on every taste bud. Next to the soup: long, slimy, lasagna-like homemade noodles to be dipped into my soup. Its succulent taste lied in its simplicity.

As I walk home, a cool night air draws crowds to the streets. A young girl in a white-dress, arm-in-arm with her plump, aging grandmother, smiles and says (in English), “Hello!” Along the commercialized streets: restaurant, hotel, and store signs flicker with the semblance of Vegas. A tacky combination of Christmas lights, flashing neon signs, and Chinese paper lanterns. And nearby, men crouch or sit in circles, playing cards on mini tables, lit by a solitary light bulb hanging from a tree—remnants of central China’s relaxed culture  that tries to resist development.

I arrive home, climbing the dark, narrow stairwell to my apartment. In any American city, these steps would feel terribly unsafe; a breeding ground for muggers and bums…but in Ankang, the biggest crime is cell-phone theft. I feel fine. Walk in, climb into bed and ruminate. There is so much I do not yet understand in such a foreign place. But I suspect time will yet again reveal the message that seems to permeate every adventure—people are people, and we are essentially all the same.

When I Almost Got Struck By Lightning on a Mountain in China

This is one of my old blog posts from China in 2008. I’ve selected a few to feature on this blog. While they don’t necessarily fit its theme, I still like them…

This one is really just an adventure post. Of course, in these kinds of stories you can always find themes of strength and will. But mostly, I think, this one is just an enjoyable read…

Hua Shan mountain: “The most treacherous and tallest mountain.” Known throughout the Shaanxi province for its grueling hike and spectacular views. A holy land of Taoist temples, where emperors trekked in the first millennia (the steps they walked on still used today). A photography dream for my father; an invigorating workout for my mother. A trial of will.

My goal: to climb the mountain straight to highest point. Without stopping. In the night.

A six-hour trek with a final destination of 1.3 miles in the air, through infinite stairwells narrow as my body and steep as a ladder. And I decided to do it alone, with a sheet and some clothing as my bedding. It was one of the most grueling physical and mental experiences I have ever endured. To illustrate the experience, below are some of my experiences from my journal, with the approximate times the events were occurring.

8:00 PM: I’ve been hiking for about an hour and a half now. Twenty minutes in, and I was already out of breath. (Note to self: see if China has garage sales. Then try to find treadmill.) The ascent is so steep—up, up, up—with barely any breaks. Light-headed, legs throbbing, and only a quarter of the way.

The sun sets behind me, slowly and steadily; then suddenly, darkness. Alone, on unknown mountain terrain, a tiny flashlight as my guide.

Every 15 or 20 minutes, another mini food-mart (businesses that second as permanent family homes for the owners) sits awaiting customers. In need of water, I stop at one. I try to use hand signals to converse, but fail miserably. The Chinese family snickers at whatever the father is saying to me.

I look up. Stars slowly dot the sky. Along the path, sidewalk lanterns speckle the ascent. Encouragement. Trekkers bellow “Woooohh!” into the night, the sound hovering in the darkness. I cusp my mouth and answer: “Wooooooohhh!” I smile. This is solitude.

9:00 PM: I can hardly believe it’s only been an hour. Time seems to suspend itself on this hike. The steps are infinitely steeper now, and as short as the width of my feet. Scaling the stairwells, I use my arms to hoist me upwards by the chain-link handrails. Nearly every ten steps forces a rest.

I must stop to rest. A storeowner invites me to sit, points to where I am on the map. A hodgepodge of hikers, young and old, converse loudly. I can comprehend only their laughter and their huffs and puffs. I smile, nod, laugh, and use my preschool Chinese phrases to show I am trying.

10:30 PM: For once, I don’t need a break, but I can’t help but stop. I am reclining upon a rock as I stare into the night. Bird chirps and frog peeps echo off the mountains; voices of fellow night-trekkers intermittently float through the air. A distant full moon peeks through tiny silver streaks of clouds. I breathe in a fresh, clean breeze. Tranquility in its purest form.

I gaze at the mountain in front of me. It looks like Paul Bunyun, supersized, fast asleep. Black, curly hair, a fluffy logger’s beard, wrinkles sculpting his forehead, and a slouched arm that creases his shirt. Fast asleep, silent, at peace.

11:30 PM: The breeze is cooler now. As I walk, I see other mountain pioneers, finished for the night, lying in deformed positions on hard concrete, blanketed by heavy coats. I look forward to those cold slabs.

I can’t sit for long or my body will shut down. I must keep moving.

12:15 AM: Terror consumes me inside the forest. The moon’s bright light vanishes under the canopy. Utter darkness. Wind fabricating menacing sounds that rotate my flashlight 360 degrees.

So I’ve decided to sit in it. Let it consume me. Conquer it. Fear is merely a product of the mind. Don’t be afraid. The unknown is what makes our world so exciting.

1:00 AM: I’ve made it to the top, but satisfaction is eclipsed by threat. Approaching rapidly, a foreboding thunderstorm. Lightning blotches segments of clouds. No thunder yet, so it is far; but I can see it. Nature jeers at human insignificance.

Panic sets in. Standing at the highest peak in the area, over a mile in the sky, civilization is not reckless enough to colonize this land. My adrenaline rushes; worry absorbs me. Does lightning strike this high? Could the storm pass? What structures can provide safety? I am far from finished this journey.

I bolt. Down, down, down. A race against nature. Don’t stop. As fast as you can. Where to stay? The last hostel was forty-five minutes ago, the last building at least a half-hour. I cannot make it. A cave? An abandoned ruin?

I stop. An outhouse. Filthy, wet, small. Thunder cracks. I go inside.

Sitting and waiting

2:00 AM: I sit on a plastic bag, between two holes in the ground—for you-know-what—trying not to touch the floor, sheltering my nose.

Crouching. Listening. Waiting. Intense downpours accompanied by rumbles so loud they shake the walls. Half mesmerized by the power, the beauty…flashes so bright, so blinding…but half consumed by future’s unpredictability.

Darkness heightens my senses. Crack. My feet are losing circulation; my back is in pain. I can only rest my eyes; sleep isn’t possible. Just wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

3:30 AM: Pool lifeguard rules: I haven’t heard thunder for over 45 minutes. I open the door, like a prisoner emerging from the hole, only to return to his cell. Darkness, cascading rain. I walk ten minutes, to a giant rock overhang. A concrete landing is beneath. The rock will protect me from the rain. An icy, wet wind; I bundle up as best I can. A sheet as a blanket, my bookbag as a pillow. Sleep rushes in.

5:00 AM: Several hours ago, death loomed on this peak; now, brilliance is its gift. I sit; marvel at the sunrise. Bright, fiery red-orange; crayon yellow; brilliant tangerine; all enclosed in a small streak in the sky. Small, like a wound starting to heal. Slowly the colors merge with the cotton-ball clouds, a light, subtle pink ascending, the sun’s rays inflating the sky. The mountain’s reward.

8:00 AM: Daylight on Hua Shan, and it is majestic. Vast expanses of mountains, green and beige, scraping the sky. Sauntering forever, as if frozen in a parade, their booming march silenced in time.

At every stop, lockets affixed to the links in the chain and faded red ribbons freely flowing in the breeze. Chinese tradition encourages lovers to inscribe their initials on a locket and leave it on Hua Shan, signifying undying love for one another.

You know the cloud game, where you try to find the shape? I am playing that with the mountains. I see a village. Some walking; others sitting. A group huddled together, creating a strategy for football. A mother coddles her newborn, students sit attentively in a classroom, ancestral grandparents watch over from beyond.

When was the last time you played the cloud game?


3:00 PM: I have ascended each of the main peaks, hiked down the mountain, and am now on the bus ride home. Climbing down was vastly different. Hoards of climbers, going up and down, packed tight like summer lines in Disney World.

Look at his calves!

Most impressive are the aged Chinese men trekking the mountain with sticks balanced on their shoulders, precariously carrying food, toiletries and other essentials for the stores and homes along the mountain path. Daily adventurers, putting us novices to shame.

The last four kilometers of the hike are excruciating: I can barely even hold myself up. Little energy left in these legs. I begin to sing Disney songs, name family and friends out loud to encourage myself. I try running the hills to speed it along, but it doesn’t take me far and only worsens my condition. Each minute drags agonizingly. At every corner, I think I see the end, only to be fooled by another twist in the road. Finally, I approach the bottom. Staring blankly at emptiness, I wait for the bus.

An adventure of a lifetime, ups and downs, peril and beauty, a test of wills. Spirits conquered, lessons learned. But all to reflect upon after sleep. Goodnight.

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