Sunday, June 06, 2021

Why I Left The Most Successful Clubhouse Room

Dialogue has been my chosen form of activism for a long time. Soon after I joined  Clubhouse in early 2021. The live voice aspects of Clubhouse made it ideal, but the nature of people drifting in and out of rooms has also made it a tougher medium to navigate, after a few difficult sessions, I found my bearings. 

Then Sheikh Jarrah happened and shortly after a full on war started. Palestinian and Israeli friends asked me to help co-moderate Meet Palestinians & Israelis room, I did! The room kept going round the clock for over two weeks and broke records in terms of number of unique listeners and average numbers of hours spent. The room lasted for over two weeks, but I left it on day 8. Leaving a dialogue effort that I helped build was not an easy decision and I’m not sure it was the right decision, but I will share below the factors that led me to part ways with the room. 

1. Public Diplomacy: few days into the room, a new theme emerged by some of the comoderators advocating that the room is acting as a platform for public diplomacy. I view dialogue to be distinct from negotiations and diplomacy. The only purpose for dialogue is hearing the other and getting the other to hear you. Dialogue may not have any other purpose. Moreover, the history of the Palestinian struggle in particular is dominated by the issue who has the right to negotiate in the name of the Palestinians. The label of public diplomacy would act as way to stifle dialogue. 

2. There was pressure to ask people to have a picture and reveal their identity through social media profiles. I rejected this approach and never followed it whenever I moderated. I found it biased against people who disapprove of using photos on religious grounds, or people who fear identifying their locations and identities for whatever reason. I viewed this as an effort to silence pro Palestinian voices. 

3. There were attempts to challenge the identity of a Palestinian doctor speaking from Gaza. I hosted the very same young doctor, while I disagreed with some of the points he made, I had no reason at all to doubt his identity. I saw no effort to verify the identities of others who gave their own personal stories. Again I disapproved of the uneven handling. 

4. While I don’t claim to know all there’s to know about the history of the conflict, I have spent many years reading and researching the various aspects of the conflict. I have accumulated a degree of knowledge of the competing narratives. This has equipped me as a moderator to push back on extremist discourse and to center the discussions on true dialogue rather than what I see as propaganda. The straw that broke the camel back and made me decide to leave was what I felt were attempts to silence me, by different means. 

I don’t want the above to detract from my support and admiration for the whole effort. And I understood then and understand now that as the guns were silenced the war continued on using the tools of propaganda. I’m happy that my friends who started the effort originally were eventually successful in wresting back control of the project. 

Ultimately dialogue is about talking to and listening to the other, to the enemy, to a side that hold radically different views. Dialogue is about promoting understanding of the other, not agreement with other. Is it useful? I think it is but I accept that many others refuse it. 

Ayman S. Ashour 

Saturday, June 05, 2021

June 5, 1967 My Zero Hour

 My memory recedes with the passing of the years. I have few memories before June 5, 1967. I have very vague memories of the day of the move to Ma`adi in 1964; another memory of huddling up in my parents’ room listening in total silence to Oum Kalthoum sing Inta Omry for the first time, as my father had a microphone in front of small transistor radio connected to a reels recorder. I remember sitting with my grandmother on a sofa hand feeding chicks and then remember being at the family cemetery where she was buried in 1966. Other than these tidbits, I remember nothing, but then I have vivid memories starting from the 1967 war.

I remember the euphoria of impending victory over Israel and the patriotic songs on the morning of the 5th of June.  I remember the civil defense volunteers and the shouts of “taffi ennour” to turn off the lights. I remember having all the windows covered with blue paper and tape. I remember the sonic booms, the sound of distant explosions and the sounds of the anti aircraft guns.

We lived on the very edge of Cairo, immediately behind our house, literally adjacent was a military camp with anti aircraft guns. I was later told that those were so old, dating to WWII. On the 3rd or 4th day of the war an Israeli plane flew so low over our house, I was on a second floor balcony, I still remember how close it was. 

I can’t remember exactly when it became clear that we, Egypt, lost the war, but I remember sitting in the dark watching president Nasser’s speech and my late brother shouting back at the TV, no you can’t resign now. I remember loud terrifying sounds of sonic booms and the heavy thud of bombing immediately after the end of the speech. 

June 5, 1967 was the beginning of forming who I was. I remember the various events that ensued from the suicide of of the minister of defense, to the downing of an Egyptian civilian jet coming back from Libya by the Israelis, the plane had on it the mother of one of the kids in the area. 

The War of Attrition that followed the original war, lasted for over two years, lots of sonic booms over Cairo, fear of Israelis exploding bridges over the Nile. An elementary school had some 248 children killed in the delta, got me convinced that Israel could target us. Whenever we heard the air raid sirens or sonic booms, it was sheer terror. I was more frightened of being targeted at the school than at home, adjacent to the military camp. Only few years ago, I read that Israel apologized for the bombing of the elementary school as a mistake, no one told me then.

These events, a very long time ago, still have a profound effect on who I’m today. Yet, I was extremely lucky, I was far away from any actual bombing, I didn’t see any rubble,no blood. I think of the people of Gaza, the children, people young and old, who seem to live through real and immediate hell and I can only imagine the lifelong effect.

This morning, I was reading an account of the Palestine Riots of 1921, some 200 people died, those were perhaps some of the earliest deaths post the Balfour Declaration. A full 100 years later and sadly, it doesn’t not seem like the wars and the killings will stop anytime soon.

Ayman S. Ashour