media · podcast · race · us presidential election

Race podcast ‘In My Shoes’ as featured on ABC’s Radio National Earshot program

Check out Episode 1 and 2 of my new two-part race podcast ‘In My Shoes’ exploring race and identity in modern Australia featured on ABC’s Radio National program ‘Earshot’ here. You can also stream the podcast on itunes. Click on the hyperlink and scroll down to  Episode #37 and #41 to play.

Here’s the accompanying piece where I talk about the inspiration behind the program.

Sarah Malik reflects on the life experiences that led her to produce In My Shoes.

‘Migrants are ruining this country,’ he hissed. The words dropped like acid and felt like a punch in the gut. I turned to my desk, staring blankly at the screen, my ears burning with embarrassment.

I walked outside and ordered a coffee, staring at the cloudy foam swirls before going home to vent to my sister. He was an old man, irrelevant, a dinosaur, we fumed.

Perhaps it was a valuable insight to observe the last gasps of a Trumpian type in his natural habitat, we reasoned.

Now, against all predictions, the impossible has happened. Donald Trump is in the White House. There are reports of hate crimes being perpetrated against minorities across the US.

It feels like a slow corrosion of the soul to know these types of people have been emboldened by assent from the top.

I’m a journalist by trade. I also grew up as one of five children of Pakistani migrants in the western suburbs of Sydney.

I ate biryani with my hands and dutifully wore figure-concealing shalwar kameez. I left home at 20, entering the outside world in a kind of Muslim version of the Rumspringa.

But I always return; how many can resist what is familiar? It’s complicated negotiating the strange pull of what you love.

I was like a high-wire walker, trying to navigate traditional, working class Pakistani roots, a conservative religious culture, a largely white-dominated working environment — at the mercy of the changing political winds of a society that provided no mirror to my experience.

It felt like I was living two, three or four different lives, each with their subtle and sometimes strict codes of conformity.

My maladaptive default mechanism has always been to bury fear and unease deep inside, letting it coil up until I have the words to make sense of it, rather than risk confrontation and ostracism.

This was as true growing up within a cloistered culture as it has been living in a wider society that makes judgemental and clueless assumptions about that culture.

It has always felt unsafe, depleting and ultimately useless to risk confrontation with people I care about, people with power and people who will never know what it is to like to live with a constant sense of dislocation from my environment.

As a journalist I thought I had become inured to the weird and wacky, brushing off bluster with a laugh, but the rise of the far right feels personal.

All the individual kindness, consideration, art and thinkpieces in the world seem obsolete the world of Pauline Hanson, Trump and Brexit.

The In My Shoes documentary is an attempt to make sense of the experience of negotiating race in modern Australia. My intention is to put you in the shoes of the people bearing the brunt of this.

The interviews are an attempt to explore how to navigate these fissures in a personal and creative life. I wanted to explore how this discomfort can be isolating, but also provide fuel for anger, art and storytelling.

It’s about using my own position within this sphere to open up a conversation between friends and equals about difference. The second episode focuses on women and the dual challenges of responding to misogyny and racism, both in wider society and within communities.

The documentary was inspired by my own experience of navigating disjuncture.

I have spent a career trying to go ‘beyond’ myself. As Stan Grant opined, ‘I wanted the right to explore the whole world.’

I saw my activist friends enmeshed in community and identity politics burn out, fuming at a media cycle in which they existed always as subjects, refracted through the gaze of power. I want to be the power, not its subject.

But in the current political landscape, to go ‘beyond myself’ feels like a negation, a continuation of the shapeshifting I have done my entire life. I had perfected the code-switching dance of the chameleon, reading the cues of an environment, morphing into what I needed to be to survive, amputating myself in the process.

I have fantasised about being a white person, enjoying the ease of a seamless life, affirmed by my environment. The ultimate luxury: to be free of a political and personal landscape that at every turn forced me to question, guilt and doubt myself.

The only times I have ever experienced alignment and relief are the rare moments I have been brave enough to be myself, existing uncomfortably within all those different spaces, at times to my detriment.

This ability to shift and change registers has made me sinewy and curious, interested in the other. I have an intimate understanding of being that other. That’s a plus for my work, and ironically allows me to easily adjust and connect with different kinds of people.

I wanted to have the kinds of conversations I have in private, out loud, with people whose work has illuminated the tensions I’ve experienced.

The people I interviewed in this two-part series have been a source of inspiration to me. They emphasise the power of words, art and scholarship to validate, create new understandings and challenge old ones.

These conversations gave me solace. I know there are others in this in-between space, anxious and struggling to speak about an experience they have no precedent or roadmap for.

They also showed me how my insider/outsider status can be a useful place to deconstruct power. Who knows its contours better than the person at the receiving end of its indignities and silencing?

As British writer Hanif Kureishi said: ‘It could be, the stranger, with a mixture of naivety and knowing, might be in a position to tell us the truth about ourselves, since he sees more than we know.’

This article and the podcast was originally featured on ABC Radio National’s Earshot website on Thursday 16th November, 2016.

ASIO · asylum · asylum seekers · injustice · investigation · journalism · media · politics · Sayed Abdellatif

UN called for asylum seeker Sayed Abdellatif’s release – as featured in the Guardian

Front page of the Guardian Australia website.
Front page of the Guardian Australia website.


Exclusive: ‘Arbitrary’ detention of Egyptian asylum seeker, his wife and six children is ‘clearly disproportionate’, UN human rights council tells Australia.

By Ben Doherty and Sarah Malik
Sayed Abdellatif, an Egyptian asylum seeker falsely condemned as a terrorist by political leaders, should be immediately released from his “arbitrary” and “disproportionate” detention, which breaches international law, the UN has told Australia.

Abdellatif, his wife and six children have been held in detention for more than three years without charge.

In a seven-page formal communication sent in June and obtained by Guardian Australia, the UN’s human rights council – which Australia is seeking to join in two years – directed Australia to immediately release Abdellatif and his family. .

“Under international law Australia has a duty to release Mr Abdellatif, his wife and and their six children and accord them an enforceable right to compensation,” the council said.

But Abdellatif and his close-knit family – his wife and children daily endure the trial of wristbands, metal detectors and reinforced doors to see their husband and father in the high-security wing of Villawood detention centre – have said compensation is far from their minds.

“Freedom,” Abdellatif told Guardian Australia quietly amid the chaos of the detention centre visitors area. “We are only thinking about our freedom. We are not thinking about compensation.”

Abdellatif’s detention has exposed consistent and wilful failings within several government agencies. Asio, the Australian federal police and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection have collectively displayed “a lack of coordination, a duplication of effort and a lack of urgency”, in handling the family’s case, Australia’s statutory inspector general of intelligence and security, Vivienne Thom, found.

Abdellatif fled Egypt in 1992, having been tortured under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. He was arrested from a mosque by the state security investigations service as part of a crackdown on Islamic political opposition to Mubarak’s rule.

He has remained in exile from his country since, living as a refugee in Albania, the UK, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and – finally – Australia.

All his children were born during that exile. His youngest, a five-year-old boy, has never lived a day free, only knowing life in detention in Indonesia and Australia.

Abdellatif and his family arrived in Australia in May 2012. Australia assessed his claim for protection and found that he and his family had legitimate claims to refugee status.

But while the family were in immigration detention in 2013 Australian authorities were alerted to an Interpol red notice that said that in 1999 Abdellatif was convicted – in a mass show trial in Cairo of 107 men – of premeditated murder, destruction of property, and possession of firearms and explosives. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The trial, criticised by rights groups at the time, was later found to have been fraudulent. Evidence against Abdellatif was obtained by “severe torture”, including electric shocks.

But the case became the centre of a political firestorm when the red notice became known publicly. The opposition leader, later prime minister, Tony Abbott labelled Abdellatif a “convicted jihadist” and a “pool-fence terrorist”, in reference to the low-security fencing at the Inverbrackie detention centre in South Australia. George Brandis, now the attorney general but then shadowing that position, said he was “plainly a convicted terrorist”.

The Abdellatifs were moved to the higher security Villawood detention centre in Sydney, where they have remained.

In a two-year investigation, the Guardian has shown:

Allegations of murder, firearms offences and property destruction were never made against Abdellatif at his Cairo trial and were wrongly attached to the Interpol red notice. After the Guardian’s investigation, which included examining the Egyptian court records and transcripts, Interpol took the extraordinary step of withdrawing those charges from the red notice.

The remaining convictions against Abdellatif, for “membership of a terrorist group” and “providing forged travel documents”, relied on evidence obtained under “severe torture”. Abdellatif was convicted in absentia, without any chance of defending himself against the allegations. He has denied both charges in a letter to the Guardian.

The Australian federal police were provided with evidence, in Arabic, that Abdellatif’s convictions for violent crimes were false, and had been withdrawn by Interpol, but took six months to translate the document – then failed to tell Asio or the immigration department of this new information.

A report by Australia’s inspector general of intelligence and security said Abdellatif had not been convicted of any terrorism-related charges and made clear he was not a threat to national security.

Scott Morrison, when immigration minister, defied the advice of officials from his own department, who had recommended Abdellatif be allowed to apply for a visa, and refused to allow Abdellatif to make an application.
In June this year, the UN human rights council’s working group on arbitrary detention wrote to the Australian government: “The detention is clearly disproportionate … the deprivation of liberty of Mr Abdellatif, his wife and their six children is arbitrary,” it said.

“Under international law Australia has a duty to release Mr Abdellatif, his wife and and their six children and accord them an enforceable right to compensation.”

Guardian Australia has made repeated attempts to seek information about Abdellatif’s case from the immigration department. After promising to provide answers to a series of questions, it declined to comment.

Abdellatif’s wife and family have previously been offered community detention but the family have consistently said they do not want to be separated from their husband and father.

Nearly six months after the UN direction, and after more than three and a half years in detention, the Abdellatifs remain incarcerated – Sayed Abdellatif in the high-security wing of Villawood detention centre, his wife and children in the family compound.

This year the department wrote to the family informing them that the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, had “lifted the bar” on their application for a protection visa. The family submitted a visa application in July, which has been acknowledged by the department as a “valid application”. But there has been no communication since.

Abdellatif says he feels that his life and those of his children are being slowly destroyed by their continuing detention and separation. “It’s been six months since the Australian government received [the UN] report but they did nothing, they ignored it completely,” he said.

“No one in the department is [taking] responsibility for our detention. We’re losing our lives by the immigration department of Australian government and no one cares. Who will take responsibility for this wasting of our lives?”

Abdellatif said he was constantly frustrated in his efforts to communicate with the department. He believed it was embarrassed by its handling of his case.

Analysis Sayed Abdellatif: asylum seeker trapped in detention by callous disregard
This man and his family remain locked in Australia’s detention system, despite recommendation from immigration department to grant visa

“They keep us in detention because we are found to be innocent,” he said. “They don’t want to say, ‘We were wrong’. They think, ‘We should keep them in detention to avoid embarrassment.’”

His children were suffering and the government was not interested in redressing its past mistakes, he said. “They think, ‘You can prove your innocence, but we are going to destroy you, every one of you.’”

The human rights council is one of the UN’s most powerful bodies, mandated with “the protection and promotion of all human rights around the globe”.

The foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, told Guardian Australia in September the government was “strongly committed” to a bid for a seat on the council for 2018-20.

Australia will compete against Spain and France for two seats from its poli-geographic group in 2017.

asylum seekers · human rights · journalism · media · politics · religion

Syrian refugee crisis: This is about humanity, not religion- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

My latest in ABC’s The Drum on the death of little Aylan Kurdi and government’s reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis. I haven’t reprinted the image- I think everyone has seen it already. Also here a great discussion on the debate around the publication of the distressing images.

To donate check out Bina Shah’s excellent blog and her latest post- In memory of Aylan Kurdi where she has links to organisations you can support.

Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria. Picture: Flickr/ Freedom House
Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria. Picture: Flickr/ Freedom House

The fact that the Government would pause in light of such a visceral tragedy to suggest that Australia should prioritise Christian refugees from Syria speaks volumes, writes Sarah Malik.

It was the picture that shocked the world.

A little boy lies face down on the beach. His still, lifeless body caressed gently by waves. His sandals are still strapped to his little feet. In his neat red shirt and little blue shorts, he could be sleeping or resting.

A Turkish police officer stands to one side, his shoulders hunched as if in prayer.

The discovery of Aylan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach last week cut a searing image in the conscience of the world. It tore through the ballast of politics, rhetoric and racialisation that continues to obscure one of the great humanitarian crises of modern times.

The little boy who perished along with his brother Galip and mother Rihan, one of 12 Syrian asylum seekers trying to reach Greece when their boat sank, represents the many thousands seeking safety and asylum as their country is torn apart by war and conflict.

The picture of the doll-like three-year-old on the beach has galvanised public opinion around the world, forcing even the Australian Government to outline its commitment to Syrian refugees. But the racialisation continues, with Barnaby Joyce calling for Syrian Christians to be prioritised in any asylum intake, a motion that has been echoed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Australia was recently criticised in the New York Times for a military response to asylum seekers which is shrouded in secrecy. This has been combined with bizarre border security campaigns including thefarcical ‘Operation Fortitude’, a proposal quickly scuttled after widespread ridicule.

The campaign purporting to subject Melbourne residents to random visa checks underscores a Government that will take advantage of any opportunity to represent itself as the strongman protecting us from the ‘illegal’ hordes threatening to destabilise Australia.

The fact that the Government would pause in light of such a visceral tragedy, blasted into public consciousness in such horrific fashion, to make a subtle distinction on the kinds of Syrian asylum seekers it would be willing to consider is callous.

It speaks to the depths it will go to in order to stoke fears of the brown Muslim hordes threatening our pristine white borders.

It doesn’t take much to read between the lines of random visa checks and the prioritisation of Christians. People like us only, please.

The image of Aylan underscores the vulnerability of those fleeing, their powerlessness in the face of a political and military machinery that punishes and paints them as threats. It is a powerful image that threatens the curtain of abstraction, silence and othering that has come to characterise the rhetoric around refugees.

This otherising of refugees, the destruction of their humanity, allows travesties such as our detention regime, regularly exposed as rife with reports of sexual assault, violence, suicide and depression to continue with impunity.

When it becomes a crime for employees to talk publicly about what happens in detention centres with the passing of the Border Force Act, when refugees live in fear of speaking to journalists, with access a constant issue, the result is an abstraction. It is an easy to demonise an abstraction.

Aylan’s picture has blazed onto the soul of the nation the reality of the human. This child’s death must inspire us to look beyond categories of race and religion and towards a common humanity.

The most powerful threat to an abstraction is the power of the singular. A child just like yours, with blue shorts and sandals.

As Persian poet Rumi said:

Not a Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen, Not any religion… first, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human being.

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-07/malik-syrian-refugees/6755696).

human rights · islam · media · racism · religion

Stop the dog whistling on radicalisation, Minister- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

tasbih
Muslims are framed as a ‘problem to be solved’ by political leaders. Picture: Flickr/ Brian Jeffery Beggarly.

Andrew Robb wants quick fixes and easy answers for the problem of radicalisation, but his framing of the “Muslim” as a problem to be solved isn’t helping one bit, writes Sarah Malik.

My phone is exploding with Happy Eid! texts.

Except it’s not Eid. Not for me at least.

The texts are mainly from my well-meaning white friends who have watched Eid celebrations at Lakemba mosque on Channel Nine.

I’m celebrating the next day, like half the rest of the state’s Muslims. The old school method of marking the end of Ramadan involves waiting to see the arc of the new moon indicating the beginning of the lunar month as opposed to the fixed scientific calendar method.

This is one of the million fine details of the complex and diverse Muslim communities who hail from dozens of varied cultures and strains, but are forced into a uniformity by an external culture that imposes modes of understanding aligned with its own understandings of religious ritual, politics and practice.

Chief among these is the myth of a unified and Vatican-like leadership hierarchy Andrew Robb seems to be appealing to in his demands on ABC’s Q&A on Monday night that Muslim leaders pull in their radicalised youth.

One of the great attractions of Sunni Islam is the lack of hierarchical or mediating priest-class, with a focus on the individual’s direct relationship to God.

Sure there are imams who lead prayer, and scholars who have spent years nutting out points of law, and an axis of orthodoxy most mainstream leaders are guided by. Beyond that, leaders are made more by their following and popularity rather than anointed by overarching councils or bodies.

This makes things difficult for politicians like Mr Robb, who needs someone to cop the flak for the rash of young nutcases running to the Middle East.

When it’s young Muslim men, the community is expected to take responsibility.

Only when it’s a young white male like Jake Bilardi, there is a recognition of the risk faced by young, isolated people with complex personal compulsions and histories that make them vulnerable to the call of extremism.

There is a barrage of material trying to understand the lure of militancy. Is it the search for belonging? Alienation and marginalisation? Anger at foreign intervention in the Muslim world? The promise of an Islamic golden age utopia in the face of political humiliation? Sex and kittens? The internet? An outlet for existing criminal tendencies, or just a way to escape the tedium of ordinary life?

One thing remains clear, there seems to be no one-size-fits-all approach to the trajectory of these lone and few individuals who often leave behind their own baffled and distraught families and communities.

These few individuals rarely interact with mainstream leaders or mosques. Like most young people, not just Muslims, traditional religious authorities (read: old people) have failed to connect with the millennials’ quest for meaning in a changing social media world.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

The internet, like most things, is a reflection of the people who use it.

Social media provides communities for minorities rarely given a voice in the mainstream. Hamza Yusuf and Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan are among a spate of celebrity sheikhs that have connected online with global youth audiences.

They successfully market a homegrown western Islam, that despite their detractors is grounded in the world migrant kids can understand and for all its conservatism generally stress political participation and integration.

Mr Robb wants quick fixes and easy answers for the problem of radicalisation.

There is one simple one that I can offer free of charge.

The constant framing of the “Muslim” as a problem to be solved by politicians and media who use these communities to whip up ratings and dog whistle politics is a disgrace. It is far disproportionate to any risks posed.

It only adds to the genuine anguish of Muslim communities struggling against a small but virulent association of extremism with the added burden of racial aggression and hysteria.

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-22/malik-stop-the-dog-whistling-on-radicalisation-minister/6411074).

media · violence · war

When tragedy strikes, even onlookers can suffer- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

Here is my latest in ABC’s The Drum “When tragedy strikes, even onlookers can suffer”. The impact of news overload on people’s stress levels was a big talking point, particularly on social media. So many people have messaged me to say the piece has touched on what they too had been thinking about or experiencing.

The piece reflects on my experience as a social media user and as a journalist covering tragic events. I talk more about the inspiration for the piece in this BBC world interview , check me out around the 12 minute mark.

After a week dominated by tragedy and death – and a 24-hour news and social media cycle broadcasting it to us – what impact could this have on our mental health? 

“I have no philosophy, nor piety, no art of reflection, no theory of compensation, to meet things so hideous, so cruel and so mad, they are just … horrible and irremediable to me and I stare at them with angry and almost blighted eyes.” – Henry James

Social media has been a great way to raise awareness and keep journalists accountable...but graphic pictures posted by some has disturbed some users. Picture: Flickr/Johann Larson.
Social media has been a great way to raise awareness and keep journalists accountable…but graphic pictures posted by some has disturbed some users. Picture: Flickr/Johann Larson.

It has been a crazy news week. The second Malaysian Airlines plane crash in five months – the first saw a plane just vanish off the face of the planet and the latter with 36 Aussies among 298 dead after MH17 was shot out of the sky – has seen two unprecedented once-in-a decade news events back-to-back.

You can add to that the alarming death toll in Gaza that has left hundreds dead, a third of them women and children.

The pictures of mangled bodies among plane wreckage and dead children in hospitals dancing on our screens has left many feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed.

The impact of these tragedies on innocent civilians has honed home the transience of life and stirred anger towards those refusing to take responsibility for the carnage.

What has compounded these crises, besides being in close proximity to each other, is our unprecedented 24-hour news and social media cycle.

There are many positives to our new media environment.

It means immediate and constant coverage and a stream of stories that keep us aware of what is happening in the world. It means new voices outside traditional media can make themselves heard.

Journalists and news organisations are now made more accountable as an increasingly savvy audience will call them up on blunders in brutally efficient social media campaigns. The most recent saw NBC journalist Ayman Mohyeldin swiftly reinstated after being withdrawn from Gaza.

But is there a downside to the 24-hour news and social media cycle?

It seems we are caught in a catch-22 situation; the greater appetite for coverage feeds the constant stream of output by media organisations struggling to milk the story of every angle.

But is the constant barrage of information and sometimes graphic content spilling over our screens and personal social media networks having an impact on mental health?

Studies show those exposed to more than six hours of daily coverage of a traumatic news event can suffer more stress than those directly affected.

Melbourne psychologist Monique Toohey says in seeing graphic images an unwanted and intrusive replaying can occur, particularly as people try to unwind and go to sleep.

What you see cannot be unseen. I use this statement with my clients who find themselves replaying horrific images and videos and stories in their mind, hours and days after they were exposed to them in their Facebook or Twitter feeds.

I’ve never seen so many sad people this week. Even hardened journalists looked at me with bleary eyes reporting news fatigue.

Whether it was on your phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, at work or in a social setting, the news was streaming in, often unbidden from all directions.

Most media outlets filter pictures, prefaced with warnings, carefully balancing the news imperatives of showing the gritty reality but also being respectful of the dead.

Some media outlets, including NY Times and the Sydney Morning Herald, featured graphic coverage that was much applauded. I think written accounts occupy a different sphere. It gives you the full impact of the scene without the physicality.

In this coverage it was the small details that gave poignancy and humanised the tragedy, in a way gory blood images could not. Also when a reader clicks on a written story, they have the option of continuing to read or not.

Images, however, cannot be erased. Twitter and most social media outlets expose users in their social spaces, who are not seeking that content. In the case of family members who have not been notified, the results of exposure can be especially tragic. While Facebook and Twitter guidelines implore users to act responsibly, it is largely a self-regulated sphere.

Many of my friends felt disturbed by the graphic pictures of dead Palestinian children in news feeds used as a kind of moral pornography in propaganda fashion – designed to shock and often featuring dated or wrong images that undermined their cause and disrespected the victims. These pictures accompanied by self-righteous ballasts, ironically made from the comfort of a first world living room just fed the often draining debates that have left people feeling more angry and dejected.

I don’t undermine the power of social media to provide solidarity, support and powerful emotional sustenance to those outside the tragedies to vent their anger, frustration and powerlessness and also organise to rally. But I know many people have become paralysed and switched off by the overkill.

Ms Toohey advises those who fear this exposure to protect their online spaces, moderate their activity and post responsibly.

Personal censorship is required and each individual should tune in to their emotions and know when to turn the TV off, scroll quickly past photos before they load and, rather, engage in helpful coping strategies.

By switching off occasionally and having time to reflect it can empower people to help in practical ways.

In covering major news events, what I was always reminded of but could rarely report was people’s grace and courage under the most unspeakable circumstances. Whether it was a murder victims’ family using the death to become activists against drink driving or a community rebuilding after being shattered by bushfire.

The capacity of humans to endure, hope and dream despite it all is what should give us hope. The stories of survival and resilience should inspire us to support those who have the courage to bear what we find difficult to even witness.

Jordan · media · travel

Jordan reflections

Friends of mine have been curious to know what the people are like here and the political issues (besides the amazing food and stunning natural beauty, see video by my very talented friend The Graphical Baker ^).  I’ve been wary because  I don’t want to make generalisations. So disclaimer- here are some observations based on my limited experience and interactions here.

Money /The Government/Wasda

There’s a huge divide here between those who have means (who live in West Amman) and those that don’t (generally East Amman). It came to a head when the Mercedes- driving son of a minister went on a tirade on facebook about his argument with a Kia driver, raging against the ‘backward xxxxs’ in Jordan. A local I met recently, Ali*, told me this was particularly galling because most people in Amman drive cheap Kia cars. Everything is expensive here, due to import taxes. I was flabbergasted to see a toaster with a tag of 25 JD ($AUS37) at the local shopping centre. I’m told the minimum wage with tips will get you around 250 JD a month, which is roughly half the weekly rent for a roomy apartment in central Amman. High employment combined with the rising cost of living and the perception of widespread nepotism and corruption has created a powder keg of discontent.

For young middle-class educated Jordanians, the aspiration seems to be to go abroad. Ali, a languages student who speaks Russian and Spanish, wants to work as a diplomat but says nepotism means plum postings are generally reserved for the connected elite. There’s even a term for it: ‘wasda’.

Rabia*, a young teaching student at Jordan university, says it’s so bad you’ll have guys who will not turn up to class all semester, but will show up at the end to  be ‘passed’. I asked how that works for professions where you could actually kill someone, and she said in med school you have some professors who will tell the class straight up, there’s no ‘wasda’ here, so don’t even try.

While Jordanians I spoke to are not entirely happy with the status quo, they are grateful for stability and safety in a region where Jordan seems to be the only safe harbour. They are wary of the unrest revolution in nearby countries has created. One of my teachers said that whilst we’re not entirely happy, we don’t know what the alternative would be. Ali says Jordanians don’t want a revolution but they want change. Any discussion of the ruling Royal family is done in hushed tones and in private.

Palestine

In a country where most people are of Palestinian background, the conflict with Israel is central. It’s the recurring issue in personal stories and in the news. Pretty much everyone has a story of being denied entry into Israel (especially young men), of a grandparent losing everything and migrating but dreaming of being able to visit again. Many won’t recognize Israel as a country and say Palestine instead. There’s a perception that US is not an unbiased mediator. It’s the cause of a lot of anger and disbelief and there is pessimism there will ever be a real solution to the conflict.

Refugees

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler
Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler, Flickr

A lot of NGO workers I’ve met here are working on building camp infrastructure for the thousands of Syrian refugees flooding in over the border. A conversation between two Jordanians I met reminded me of the debate around asylum seekers in Australia.

A: It’s costing us a lot of money.

M: The UN is paying for everything. I’m really worried about the camps. I heard people are dying there.

A: The problem is people coming here without passports and papers. You can’t have open borders.

A: I feel sorry for them. They’re fleeing for their lives, they might not all have papers.

M: Also Syrians are willing to work for less than Jordanians creating problems for locals.

A: They contribute. I feel sorry for them.

M: So do I. I hate the situation not the people.

The difference of course is that M has loads of Syrian friends and a great deal of sympathy for the plight of those fleeing, generally reflected in the public mood towards refugees with numerous fundraisers and events dedicated to Syria (in Australia, the right-wing view features mostly hatred, hysteria and racism). I think the fact that Syrians, like Jordanians, are Arab Muslims, probably makes a big difference.

Gender/Religion

Jordan is generally a conservative country but I think liberal by standards in the region. A local tour I went on (where we were the only foreigners) and a group of artsy liberal Jordanian students I met recently seemed like hanging out with a group of 20-somethings back in Australia, down to justifying my abstention from alcohol (which is freely available). The men love to dance, openly hug and kiss each other and seem really to know how to have a good time (that was just on the tour bus). Most women wear hijabs with fashionable western clothing but many don’t. You can walk around safely pretty much anytime of the day or night, and will not be bothered except for the occasional hooligan, though I have heard of foreign looking women being hassled. Like Pakistan it feels like you have a divide between two groups -those who are liberal and irreligious, mix freely and party and those who are religious and conservative. But I think there is hope for that rare breed- the religious liberal – bucking tradition but staying true to their Islamic roots. One of my teachers is a single hijabi and practicing Muslim who works, lives out of home and travels abroad despite societal and family disapproval.  It will be interesting to see if it is people like this, who can successfully reconcile tradition and modernity within themselves, can pave a navigation of those forces within society.

*Names have been changed.

harassment · media · violence

Female journalists threatened on the job: report

If you’re a woman, you’ve worried about being stranded or stuck somewhere where your safety is at risk. What if it was your job to venture into the world’s most dangerous areas?

Check out my interview with International News Safety Institute (INSI) director Hannah Storm on new research on abuse and harassment female media workers experience at work across the world.

Report raises concerns for safety of female media workers

Members of Assam Photojournalists Association stage a silent protest in front of Guwahati Press Club. Credit: TwoCircles.Net via Flickr.
Members of India’s Assam Photojournalists Association stage a silent protest in front of Guwahati Press Club on Saturday after the gang-rape of a female photojournalist in Mumbai. Credit: TwoCircles via Flickr.

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