Very often people ask me how I got so fascinated with the Arab World and why I left the Netherlands to come here. I usually make some joke about the food, the weather, the shisha, the ‘real men’ or give the more serious answer of wanting to live in a bit less organized (and thus for me boring) environment. But all of that is only partially true. I think the main reason why I like the Middle East so much, and why the people here inspire me on a daily basis is much less obvious: I feel much more free to express myself and my beliefs and to stand up for my ideals here than I ever did in the Netherlands. I have always tried to give a more nuanced image of my experience here than is broadcast on Western Media, and with the rise of populism in Europe and North America and the upcoming elections in the Netherlands, I am writing this blog as an Ode to Passion and my Increased Freedom of Expression in the Arab World. I am writing this mainly to give a better answer to the question why I like it here, and maybe also to do some critical self-reflection, but maybe, and just maybe, I might also inspire a few friends or fellow young people in Europe or the Netherlands to stand up for what they believe in.
Throughout my youth in the Netherlands, friends, teachers, family members, co-workers always labeled me as the idealist, the politician or the debater. And make no mistake, this was not a compliment, at least that’s not how I perceived it. It felt more like being called the nerd in class (which I was as well, but over time I’ve grown proud of that). It’s almost as if idealism or even just having political opinions is a bad thing. Why bother yourself with such issues, let the politicians worry about that. Why get all worked up about some inequality you see somewhere, let the government worry about it. I was raised to care about the world and to voice my opinion where and when I felt it needed to be heard, but I did not feel that support outside my immediate family. So I dialed down, and in a country where you’re supposed to enjoy unlimited freedom of speech and expression, I started expressing myself less and less. I still cared about the world and studied and worked on that continuously, but I gradually became less and less vocal about it. And the worst thing is – I did not even notice it myself. Like every adolescent, I adjusted almost unconsciously to what was cool and stopped doing or saying what wasn’t.
And then I was doing an internship at a large international NGO, and I was made responsible for covering weekly calls and reports about the Arab Spring. Instant inspiration. I was mesmerized by the images and stories of young people on the streets demanding their rights. I admired them for their strength and courage. I admired their passion and their dedication to a better world. And I didn’t realize it then, but that was exactly what I was missing in the Netherlands.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s no passion or idealism in the Netherlands, there is. I have many great friends that do not scare aware from a debate or political discussion. But they’re the exception to the rule of lack of political engagement, lack of civic engagement. They’re a niche. And this is not only my personal experience, data shows that my generation is increasingly uninvolved and disengaged from politics. And we’ve seen the consequences of this in voter turnout across generations in for example the Brexit vote.
I started traveling to the Middle East after the Arab Spring and fell in love. When I meet young people here, they all tell me how they want a better world and how they want to fight for it. Not everyone is hopeful, nor is everyone aiming to go into politics, but everyone has an opinion and expresses it. Every lunch, dinner, coffee meeting with friends ends turns into a discussion about politics at some point of the conversation. Everybody has an opinion about how to improve their countries, what issues should be worked on, how and by who. Everybody wants to improve education, tackle corruption, and increase job opportunities for young people. And very importantly, everybody also always asked me about my opinion. And I don’t mean to create a too romantic picture here – no one person has THE solution, but the big difference for me is that young people do not scare away from discussing solutions in the first place. And through their questions and their discussions, it was young people in the Arab World that made me feel comfortable to share and discuss my views on the world again.
I have a friend who shares an article, meme or comment of her own on feminism every day. And she answered every reaction to her posts. At first, I myself thought she was overdoing it a bit and I considered her opinions too radical and activist for my taste. But then she shared a video one day of Justin Trudeau saying he was going to keep saying he was a feminist, meaning he believes in equal rights for men and women, until that wouldn’t be considered an abnormality anymore. And then I thought – maybe she is right. And maybe somehow through her posts and thought-provoking memes someone else will start to think about this too. And I thought it was kind of cool how passionate she was about this, and indeed started asking myself why I wasn’t more vocal on feminism myself.
On another occasion I was in a workshop with about 50 students, 90% from the Arab world, and the facilitator made us do this game where we had to stand on either the left or the right side of the room based on statements he would project on the screen. The statements dealt with personal values or political views, ideals for society or just whether it was ok to be lazy sometimes. Every time a new statement was shown, a big fuzz arose after which people started moving to the other side or discussing with each other which side to go on. The facilitator played the role of devils’ advocate every now and then, challenging people on one side of the room as to why they had chosen that statement. And as soon as he did, everybody started objecting or raising their hands to do so, creating a very lively chaos amongst the participants who all wanted to share their opinion and challenge the people on the other side. I myself could barely hold my tongue long enough to hear others speak as I felt more and more engaged in this discussion platform.
Every voiced opinion is debated, and the amount of discussion within groups of friends I’ve experienced was often tiring for me (sorry, stereotype confirmed), but young people would always argue for or against an opinion, not for or against having an opinion. I found myself in heated
arguments about the US involvement in the region, the future of Europe, the refugee problem, how to improve education in Egypt, why Lebanese should or should not study abroad, what young people aim to find in well-paying jobs in Saudi, different forms of feminism, etc etc. And not only among friends. Every taxi driver in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon or Palestine has asked me what I think about the world or their country. And they always gladly shared their answers to my return
questions. I remember sitting in a car in Amman and having a lively debate with the taxi driver on the prevalence of hijabs in Amman. He argued that everything was possible right now (it was 2012) in Amman, that there were more non-veiled than veiled women on the streets. My friend and I pointed out that on the 15-minute cab ride we had not seen one woman that wasn’t veiled. We didn’t have to tiptoe around the subject, we didn’t even start it. We debated, and then laughed and joked about it afterward. No one died (though we almost hit a few passers-by as the driver was focussed on his point more than the road).
My friends in the Middle East speak about their views to each other and use their social media to speak up for what they stand for. Given the current crackdown on dissent in countries like Egypt, and the loss of hope for young people that have become disillusioned after the hopes of the Arab Spring did not come true, speaking up like this requires both courage and passion. When I ask my friends in the Netherlands about the elections in March, most of them summarize their feelings in one or two lines and then sigh that they want to move on to other topics than politics. When discussing my upcoming holiday in the Netherlands with a friend, she said she didn’t want me to talk politics because she’s had enough of it. It is two months ahead of our elections and our biggest right-wing populist Wilders is projected to win a large number of seats in parliament. I am worried. And I am even more worried about the lack of idealism and engagement of my generation in this debate. When I see what my peers discuss in real life, or on social media, it worries me. Of course, life is easier in the Netherlands and there aren’t as many very pressing social issues as there might be in developing economies, but is that an excuse not to care about the world and the way it is governed? Not to care about the way minorities are treated in your community or the support that is giving to those within and outside your country that are less fortunate than you? Why is it cooler to be a #fitgirl with thousands of followers because you care about health than an #activist for human rights because you care about people? Why is it more important to know exactly how many proteins to eat to get gains, but not to know what the people that will govern your country want to do? I like reading and learning about health and fitness too, but life is more than that. My friend who shares feminists posts every day also shares YouTube videos of how to get your eyebrows on fleek, her exam stress and travel pics.
Many young people today say they don’t engage in politics because they have lost faith in it, or they don’t agree with what their leaders are saying. If you don’t agree, disagree. But be vocal about it. Be like my many passionate friends in the Middle East. Share an article on Facebook today that is more in depth than you’d usually do. Talk about upcoming elections. Ask someone what they dream their country to be today. And to my Arab friends, continue to share your passion. Continue to show me that spark in your eyes when you talk about what you want your country to be. Scream louder about what you care about. Continue to let other people challenge you, talk about it. Because if we don’t participate now as a generation, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for our future.