On Felections (Fake Elections), Pan Arab Anthems, and a False Sense of Achievement

By Sara Obeidat 

 Last year, I attended my little brother’s high school graduation. As the ceremony commenced, the graduates sang the song “Nahnu El Shabab” (نحن الشباب) , a well-known old Pan Arabic anthem that translates to “We are the Youth”. “لنا العراق والشام ومصر والبيت الحرام “.  “Iraq, Syria, Jerusalem, and the House of God (Mecca), all belong to us.” By “us” the writer meant “the people.”

The lyrics were recited in unison by the graduating class. The irony of those lines seemed almost comical. Iraq belongs neither to its people nor to its government, Jerusalem belongs to the so called only democracy in the Middle East , Syria in no way belongs to the people with most Syrians either dead or displaced either internally or internationally, and thanks to the champions of sectarian division-the House of Saud- the Holiest City in Islam is far from belonging to Muslims or Arabs.

Yet the lines were recited, the song was sung without a second thought as to whether or not it held any political relevance, and the celebration went on, because it has become common practice for us to look one another in the face and lie not only to one another but also to ourselves.

Abdel Fattah el Sisi is officially the President of Egypt in a landslide victory of almost 97%. With the participation rate of alleged voters as low as 47%, one is forced to think twice about whether or not the Sisi campaign had to go through the trouble of manipulating the vote in the first place.

Bashar al Assad won the Syrian farce of an election, there was absolutely no need to wait for the results, especially after running opponent Hassan Al-Nouri stated during a BBC phone interview that the Syrian people need his contender, Assad, to win the election. (Not sure whether to consider such a move as political suicide or political survival.)

Anyone who lived outside Syria in the past decade was excluded from running in the Syrian election, which effectively excluded most opposition figures from the so called race. Voting in Syria was restricted to areas under government control. Refugees who left Syria “illegally” were barred from voting in elections. A significant number of those who could vote from outside the country feared that they would never be able to return to their country if they cast the wrong vote in the election. So why are we still calling it an election? And why are we still singing a song written in the early 50s that holds absolutely no truth in depicting our political reality?

Psychologists have characterized the way we as human beings respond to tasks into two different categories:

Performance Orientation, which is when someone strives to complete a task for the sake of its performance, essentially attempting to prove his/her competence. Very often, if the task is too challenging or hard, the person will give up or lose interest, especially since the ability to perform or showcase his/her skills are jeopardized.  

Mastery Orientation is when someone seeks to IMPROVE his/her competence rather than PROVE it. People with such an orientation value the importance of hard work and effort, and understand that skills are more often acquired than inherited.

In some families and households, the eldest child, or eldest grandchild, or the “only boy” or even the “only girl” grows up with a false sense of achievement that is very often undeserved. It is a natural error in child rearing that has been analyzed by psychologists for decades. We very often compliment children by using phrases such as “you’re so smart” or “you’re so bright” rather than “you’re such a hard worker” or “you really put in a lot of effort”. If we complimented them on their perseverance rather than their God given natural talent (which for the average person can only go so far) we instill the value of effort, determination, and consistency in these children. We foster “mastery” orientation, which allows resilience for harder tasks and leads to a real concrete sense of achievement, and an increase in self-esteem. 

On Tuesday, Jordan marked the 83rd anniversary of the death of Sharif Hussein. The “leader” of “the great Arab revolt” that handed our chains from the Ottomans over to the Europeans who managed to carve up the entire Levant region into an incomprehensible set of fake identities that have proven through the decades to be unsatisfying. On Egyptian Television this week, various Egyptian presenters “celebrated” (with song and dance) election results that did not take into account half of the population. We continue to celebrate false achievements in hopes that they will relieve us from our obligation to realize the shameful reality of our identities.

Singing songs that emphasize false political achievements and teaching history books that twist historical facts in order to celebrate failures are an extension to performance orientation- they foster a false sense of achievement for an entire nation. Our outdated poems and literary texts emphasizing Arab unity are harming us more than influencing us at this stage, for they keep the hope or impression of an idea as being alive when in reality our leaders have killed those ideas off a long time ago with their foreign policies. We do not own Iraq, or Syria, or Egypt, or Saudi, or Jordan, or Palestine, or Bahrain. We also do not own “An Arab Dream” الحلم العربي , our policies are too individualistic and our countries prefer engaging in secret alliances based on irrational fears. “بلاد العرب أوطاني ” another anthem which translates to “The Arab Nation is my Home” should not be sung when a Jordanian needs a visa to enter Dubai while an American doesn’t, or when there is a list of occupations that Palestinians are prevented from working in if they are in Lebanon, or when Syrians are prevented from entering Jordan through the airport unless they are in transit.

These songs of unity and nationalism that once served great causes and motivated us are now as harmful as the propaganda our tyrants feed us- they serve not as reminders of the raw political truth but as a temporary pat on the back for our shortcomings.

 Similarly, the Arab Spring today no longer serves as an emblem of political change, but rather a false sense of achievement. Celebrating the Arab Spring two years ago was legitimate as we strove towards reshaping our governments and reintroducing political participation. Celebrating the Arab Spring today, or taking pride in it, is as delusional as the overly praised only child with a false sense of undeserving achievement. The Arab Spring has been hijacked to legitimize elections that bring military tyrants and war criminals to power. Let us be careful with the term and not over use it, for it already does not hold the same weight it used to. Let us be careful with the term “election” as well and not overuse it, and instead come up with another term that describes the event currently taking place in Syria that recycles barrel bombs for ballot boxes.

I have very often heard elderly people who witnessed the day Egypt “reclaimed” the Sinai or witnessed Jordan “winning” the “Karama battle” recount those events. They all seem to be stuck, fixated, absorbed in that same year of their so called political victory, unable to move forward, unable to reassess, almost paralyzed. I wonder if our generation will be stuck in 2011 with a false sense of achievement as well. It may be too early to tell, but with the region hosting three elections in the past six weeks and achieving zero change, the hopes of moving forward seem as distant as a pan Arab song written in the fifties to our current disgrace of a political reality.



Filed under Writings

I Got 99 Problems but an Olympic Skier’s Photo Shoot Ain’t One

By Sara Obeidat 

          Yesterday, the title of Foreign Policy’s “Morning Brief” read “Big Day for International Diplomacy Around the World.” The title misleadingly suggested that there were things actually going on in the world this week that we may care to read about.

This week alone saw the beginning of a four-day talk between China and Taiwan (for those of you who don’t follow that part of the world, there’s been a bit of “tension” going on between those two countries since 1949.)

This week will also see some very rare “high level talks” between North and South Korea for the first time in seven years.

Yemen is going to become a six-region federation.

Israel hit Gaza a couple of times yesterday.

Turkey and Greece decided to sit together and talk about Cyprus. (It’s been kind of a touchy subject for only the past like, 40 years.)

And of course, this week also brought ROUND 2 of the circus show known as Geneva II, where a Foreign Minister who has less charm than a bulldog (but looks like one) is representing the regime of a mass murderer and is expected to negotiate with an incredibly out of touch opposition.

BUT ALL THAT IS IRRELEVANT, because A LEBANESE GIRL decided to take her shirt off for a photo-shoot three years ago, and somebody found the pictures! (WOOOOOO!)

          I am not interested in talking in depth about Jackie Chamoun’s photo-shoot, or contextualizing it, or discussing whether or not the leaked photos were merely part of the preparations for the actual shoot.  I am also not going to go into depth about how we managed to ignore the fact that this young woman is in the Olympics and chose to focus on her body. This is all besides the point. I am not interested in whether or not as an athlete she is “representing Lebanon and the Arab world” and therefore “should represent her country’s values”  (whatever that means) in her spare time.

          I am interested, however, in the fact that she is an athlete. An Arab athlete; one out of only four Arabs in the entire Winter Olympics.  A number so small that it says so much in itself. It says that competitors like this young woman and the three others are special, talented and should be valued for representing not only Lebanon, but the Arab world, which in its entirety was not able to produce more than four athletes to compete on a global level in winter sports. (And no, the comeback of “the weather” in the region is not an excuse; if we can build Ski slopes in a mall then I think we’re fine.)

            Forget the fact that the Hariri Tribunal is taking place during this period as well. Jackie Chamoun’s name was all over the media today, and not one story had to do with her ability as an athlete. In fact, prior to the scandal, very few people inside and outside Lebanon had heard of her in the first place. She was always “representing Lebanon and the Arab world”, and we seemed to be quite uninterested in her existence before these photos were found. Therefore, condemning her actions and calling her a “disgrace” because she is  “representing an Arab country” seems quite counter intuitive. One would think that our representatives would get a little bit more attention if we were actually this proud and patriotic, or if we actually cared about who was representing us in the first place. It is therefore appropriate to use the Jordanian expression ” Leish Saygeen-ha?” in such a context. 

          The photos went viral as the games in the Winter Olympics are taking place. If Jackie Chamoun had any shot at winning a single medal, our media has managed to do enough to put her off focus. This comes back to a trend in our region that seems to be at its prime: the trend of SELF SABOTAGE. If we were indeed this patriotic about our countries and identity, then we would also not be as easily manipulated to position ourselves against one another, particularly one of our own.

            Let’s look at this through a different angle.  In the past few years, we have managed to single handedly drive ourselves backwards on a regional level in countless different ways. Iraq is in the midst of a sectarian war, where attacks and deaths last January were the highest since 2008. Call it what you will, a sectarian war or a post US invasion back lash, at the end of the day it is still Iraqis killing Iraqis, Muslims killing other Muslims.

           Egypt has gone from being a leader of revolution and democracy to being an example of what NOT to become. A society that has always been much more homogeneous than its neighbors has managed to dig up divisions and create its own “Karbala” between Muslim Brotherhood supporters, army loyalists, and anyone with a brain.

          Lebanon’s sectarian divisions may have been conjured up by the West but they are practiced by the Lebanese themselves. Syria’s own leaders (and other Arabs) managed to burn the country to the ground and create the largest humanitarian crisis in history. ISIS are a group of Muslims who hate other Muslims, Saudi Arabia is the “Muslim capital of the world” but is afraid of a “Shiite Influence”, and the list goes on, and on, and painfully on.

          We have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle of self-sabotage, and have been escalating towards a path of self-destruction not only when it comes to our politics and growing sectarianism, but also when it comes to our culture. The Arab world has destroyed more of its own cultural heritage in the last few years than the “West” had ever done to us. In fact, the West would resort to stealing our artifacts and monuments only to make them their own; we on the other hand have resorted to blowing up the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, the Islamic Museum in Cairo, and one of the oldest Shia mosques in Bahrain that happened to be more than 400 years of age. Saudi Arabia managed to “burn down” countless items that could have served as evidence to the fact that the Peninsula possessed some sort of culture, and the bombings in Yemen’s cities have turned many of its magical buildings into rubble and dirt. 

          Western Imperialism, Western Interference, Orientalism, Occupation and Invasion are all relevant factors contributing to the disgraceful mess that is our region today. This is of course, an undisputed fact; but it is not the only one. We have driven ourselves further into the ground and have been digging our own graves. We kill those who look exactly like us, discriminate against one another based on the color of a passport despite the fact that we cannot really tell the difference between one another otherwise. We burn our own art, blow up our own mosques, set fire to our own museums, imprison our own journalists, and demoralize our own athletes before they have a shot at victory.

          Psychologists characterize self-sabotage as a symptom of depression. It comes from feeling a lack of self worth. Perhaps that is what we lack, a feeling of self worth. For if that was achieved, then we would not be so careless with our own treasures. Until then, scrutinizing anything with potential will remain our favorite pass time, for it will be the only thing that temporarily affirms a self constructed nationalism and a shallow patriotism. After all, as Foreign Policy’s Morning Brief suggested, there really is nothing else to pay attention to in the news lately. 



Filed under Writings

A Paradox by the Water

Writing and Photography by Sara Obeidat

What is a Paradox?

A paradox is a castle built on the Coast of Ghana with a ballroom, a church, a courtyard and a slave dungeon in the basement.

 A paradox is singing your hymns at church as loud as you can to drown out the screams of the slaves that reside underneath your Holy floors.

A paradox is when the ocean breeze is more provocative than the metal chain binding you to the floor.


      The castles on Ghana’s Gold Coast are emblems of the infamous Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. As slaves awaited to be “shipped off” to build the New World, they were “stored” in the slave dungeons where they very often died due to the horrific conditions they encountered. Thousands of people were malnourished, tortured, separated from their families, and chained to the ground for months upon months. Many of these prisoners did not survive in those dungeons before their journey even began. The lavish ballrooms, churches, and courtyards were built above the dungeons, where the screams of slaves could be heard at the commencement of a dinner party or a church service.

     I attempted to sit inside one of the cells in total darkness. I felt a form of heat so brutal it began to penetrate my sanity. As I attempted to drown out the world, I could hear the waves of the Atlantic beating against the castle walls. Cruelty was not in the chains that nailed these slaves to the ground as much as in the sound of the ocean that reminded them of their entrapment. A crack on one of the walls overlooked the ocean- it was the only view of the outside world and a reminder of what was… I sat there, attempting to decide whether or not the crack would have been a blessing or a curse if I had stayed here long enough, whether I would have preferred to forget the outside world and to forget the smell of the ocean, whether I would break my watch to lose track of time, whether my grandchildren would visit this place with bitterness in their heart or with a sense of relief knowing that such sadistic forms of human treatment have come to an end….. My chain of thought was interrupted, and my daze was over as I suddenly realized that Guantanamo Bay is also by the water.   


The Only View from the Slave Dungeon 


ImageThe Image the Awaited Us Outside the Castle Walls








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Ripples in the Sky

Ripples in the Sky

Varanassi, India

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May 3, 2013 · 4:40 pm

“Excuse me While I Kiss the Sky” Jimi Hendrix

Cape town, South Africa

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April 15, 2013 · 6:55 pm

Mountain beats trumpetting on

Mountain beats trumpetting on

Beijing, China Through the Lens of my Glasses.

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April 15, 2013 · 6:45 pm

Treasures through the cracks

Treasures through the cracks

Agra, India

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April 2, 2013 · 3:57 pm

Genocide Museum: A Photo Essay

Writing and Photography by Sara Obeidat

The Cambodian Genocide, a legacy under the ruthless Khmer Rouge that systematically took place between 1975-1979, is known as one of the greatest human tragedies in world history. In just four years, 21% of the population( approximately 3 million people) were killed.

Like many repressive regimes all over the world, the Khmeir Rouge party headed by Pol Pot aimed to create a submissive population through force and tyranny; they did this by inducing ethnic animosity between different groups within the population. The result? One of the largest genocides the world has ever seen, as well as a largely displaced Cambodian population. Whole cities were evacuated, and the economy was destroyed.

More than three decades later, I visited Cambodia and was enamored by the beauty embodied in its landscapes and its people. However, lest we forget, the scars of war remain: bullet holes in buildings, a plethora of orphanages, and countless victims facing post conflict trauma.  A former security prison was turned into a Genocide Museum in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, in order to remind the population and the world of the consequences that ensue when governments lose their conscience. I cannot help but wonder if one day there will be a Genocide Museum in Damascus. I genuinely hope I am wrong.



No Smiling.




Beds Used for Torture



Mass Graveyards


The Instruction Board in a Torture Chamber


Wall of a prisoner’s room


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Early morning on the Ganges

Early morning on the Ganges

Varanasi, India

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March 20, 2013 · 3:49 pm

The Ganges River

The Ganges River

Varanasi, India

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March 18, 2013 · 2:35 pm