Saturday, June 03, 2006

Interviewing Bahraini Blogger E.S.

I came to know E.S. from an e-mail she sent me weeks ago. After her first e-mail, we had few offline political discussions. From our few e-mail exchanges, I sensed a brightness and intellligence that is much needed in the Middle East. I decided to interview her for this blog so we can all learn from her sharp opinions.

I hope you enjoy the interview. And, thank you E.S. for taking the time to answer my many questions.

Q: What made you decide to start blogging?

A: Eric Egan once said that cinema is both a document and a documenter of the socio-political changes within a specific country, I think you can say the same about blogging and the internet in general. With the help of blogs, there's more data recorded now than ever. In other words, the internet is becoming an increasingly influential medium, and blogging is now becoming the highlight of it. I only got this politically engaged after being inspired by the informative blogs I frequently visit. The comment feature also increases the authors' awareness, knowledge, or debate skills. Anyone who owns a blog believes that their opinion matters, which is what makes them want to be heard. By expressing those opinions, you can inspire change, which is why I love the idea of blogging.

Q: Do you blog freely and without pressure or harassment from the Bahraini government?

A: I always feel pressured when I do what I do. At some point, the stress and fear was high enough for me to shut down my first blog. I have members in my extended family who either work for the government or have had bad experiences with them, and they all advised me against this, which made me very uncomfortable. I think blogging and the need to express one's political opinion is vital. While I still find danger in doing this, the risk is certainly worth it. I won't let anything stand in my way of criticizing whoever I feel deserves it, including the Bahraini government.

Q: How much influence does blogging has on political activism in the Middle East?

A: A huge influence, to the point where it’s threatening our governments, hence why bloggers are being arrested. I'm happy to see more young people from the Middle East grow a passion for politics through blogging. It also helps to know what the issues and concerns of people from neighboring countries are. There isn't enough media coverage for us to know what goes on behind the curtains of these countries' reputations, and blogging helps take care of that. It also plays a huge role in online petitions, particularly ones that revolve around bloggers or journalists being detained by a certain government.

Q: As someone who grew up in Iraq, I only know that Bahrain has oil, rich people and modern architecture. How misinformed am I regarding your country?

A: With its setting in the Persian Gulf it definitely has oil, and seeing as it has the fastest growing economy in the region next to the UAE, it definitely has modern architecture, but as far as rich people goes, Bahrain is suffering from a fairly large percentage of the population who are either poor or are in the lower working class. This is especially true for the Shiites. Religious conflict is not the only thing that sets us apart at times, but also the big gaps between social statuses. If you consider the population of Bahrain (only 63% of which are actual Bahrainis) and calculate the poverty and unemployment rates, it makes a large portion of the population financially unstable. This is why people criticize the Royals in Bahrain, they never spend the money wisely or pay attention to the peoples' progression. Their attention and money is wasted on the projects that they own, and as the word "own" suggests, only they're the ones who get to benefit from these projects financially. It's tragic.

Q: How could the West and the Middle East reduce the gap resulted from misunderstanding each other's culture?

A: The media outlets in both regions play an enormous role when it comes to how we think and react. I think the moderate Muslim journalists who care about their worldwide reputation are doing a decent job at explaining their viewpoints regarding issues like terrorism and civil rights. The same goes for the American journalists who reside here, some of which have always shown a willingness to learn and understand a religion or culture before criticizing it. Sure, people and representatives from both regions have their biases, but that doesn't give any of us enough reason to intentionally incite hatred because of our differences. People need to portray others in the same light they wish to be portrayed in. Skewed material only gives excuses for people to act unreasonably.

Q: Has your travels changed your views of the West?

A: Immensely. Had it not been for that, I’d be one of those nationalists who promote the pan-Arabist ideology. It’s very important to be well traveled. I meet a lot of different people with conflicting opinions about the Middle East, and talking to them made my mind go through profound changes.

Q: Has post 9/11 affected the way people in the West react when you tell them you're from the Middle East?

A: Yes, I attended an American boarding school in Switzerland for two years because I wasn't receiving the education I wanted in Bahrain, and whenever I mentioned the fact that I was Middle Eastern, people would cringe. It stirred a lot of controversy. However, I was glad to be there only months after it happened, because I was able to change a lot of people's minds when it came to their opinions and interpretations concerning my region and religion. A lot of people had a much better idea of our varying cultures and nations as a result of our conversations. Nowadays, I ignore whoever holds such things against me as a person, because if they don't have the brain cells required to understand the fact that it's absurd and downright stupid to hold innocent individuals responsible for the actions of a few (i.e. terrorists) then they're not worth talking to.

Q: You're currently working with other bloggers to build bridges of understanding between Arabs and Iranians. Can you tell us more about this project?

A: There is a large number of Iranian immigrants (or what they like to call "natives" for historical reasons) in Bahrain. Iranians were in Bahrain as early as 400 A.D., meaning they arrived before the Arabs did. Shortly after gaining its independence from Britain in 1971, Bahrain was close to going to war with Iran, which claimed that it owned Bahrain's land seeing as it was the Persians who founded it. When British forces got involved, the case was soon over.

There is constant tension between Iranians and Arabs which traces itself further back than the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's. Territorial disputes is not the only factor, it also has a lot to do with the politics of oil. Iran was never happy with OPEC's decisions, and felt like the Arab states were cheating them out of their own economy. Also, Iran's Shah in 1973 introduced a pan-Islamist "white revolution," which threatened the legitimacy of Arab states. The Arabs were always accusing Iran of striving for supremacy, which they saw as threatening, and the Iranians saw Arabs as thieves who stole a large portion of their self-declared territories.

We both seemed to have enough reasons to hate each other, so we did. After talking to many Iranians here, I realized that a lot of us still do maintain that hatred, which is what inspired me to initiate this much-needed project. I hope to develop an understanding between the Iranian and Arab youth, since they’re the ones shaping the future. I’m going to Iran next week, which will allow me to look further into the issue.

Q: American invasion of Iraq isn't popular in the Middle East. To be more specific, it damaged its image in the Middle East. What could America do to repair its image from a Middle Easterner's point of view?

A: It will be very hard for that to happen. Anything good America does at this point will be most likely dismissed as a conspiracy by many. If they help us through things such as education, people will think America is trying to enforce their political ideologies and values upon us, and if they don't help through things such as aid or health care when needed, America is going to be criticized for not getting involved.

It may help if America goes back to being an isolationalist instead of having their presidential administration become too involved in our domestic affairs, this is precisely what gives people reason to believe that America is to blame for our misfortunes.

Q: Do you think oil is a curse or a blessing to oil countries in the Middle East?

A: A blessing to the leaders, a curse to the rest of the citizens who can't take advantage of its profits.

Q: Could some of the Middle Eastern countries become a new superpower like China or an Information Technology hub like India?

A: Israel already is, but as of 1948 the Israeli government doesn't like to be referred to as part of the Middle East for fear of being put in the same category as the countries who originally opposed their existence as a state.

Iraq under Saddam's regime was striving to achieve that kind of power, but failed miserably. Iran, however, is still working towards self-sufficiency. Throughout many years, it received little to no help from the 22 members of the Arab League, while the rest of us were heavily relying on each other for financial assistance.

According to Ahmadinejad, their nuclear facilities are needed for the country to continue technologically and economically improving itself. While I'm sure they're using it wisely to some extent, I don't deny the fact Ahmadinejad is mentally impaired and may cause serious damage to Iran and whoever it openly threatened (i.e, Israel.) The reason why I don’t have much hope for any other Middle Eastern country, including the UAE, to become any of the above is because we lack many opportunities.

No government can achieve this without the help of its people

Q: The more important question, how could Middle Easterners trust themselves and move forward without blaming the West for conspiring against them?

A: The best way to do it is through education. Educating the public properly would make a lot of positive differences in the Middle East. For example, the number of violent riots will decrease because people will know how to react effectively and responsibly instead of causing chaos. Censorship also has a lot to do with it. Leaders in the Middle East use the media as a diversionary tactic because they know that as soon as freedom of speech/choice is introduced, people will realize who's really responsible for the downfall of the countries in the region. That's why most of the press and news networks in the area are state-owned. The West is merely a bystander to our issues. They may contribute at times, but not significantly. It's easier to blame others instead of taking responsibility, but for the Middle East to change, this mentality has to change too.

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