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Category Archives: Social Commentary

Resituating Sustainability

I was invited recently to present at a workshop convened by NYU, Abu-Dhabi Institute under the title of “Situating Sustainability: Urban Ecology and the Problem of Context”. The workshop brought together urban ecologists, architects, urban planners, anthropologists and authors who have studied, written about and had hands-on experience in shaping the urban-ecological landscape of many cities in the UAE, India, USA, Bahrain, Kuwait and China.

I was asked to give a presentation on our work in the context of the subject of the workshop. While our work encompasses many areas, I found it difficult at first to situate our work within the context of the workshop. So I took the alternative approach of re-situating the subject of the workshop within the context of our work. Here is the transcript of the presentation that resulted from this process (big thanks to Rama & Mohamad for their input):

“Much of the talk in this workshop has been focusing on situating sustainability in the physical sense within the cities and urban landscapes of the region. I will talk about situating sustainability in a different context – the context of where, along the spectrum of practice, sustainability is situated in the region from a social, cultural and educational perspective.

We, at Baraka, work closely with social entrepreneurs who are addressing social and environmental issues and in doing so have experienced, first hand, some of the challenges facing those who are working on building an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable region.

Dubai in the 1970's

As we have heard, Abu-Dhabi, Dubai and other cities on the Western coast of the Gulf are often characterized as being desert cities. This is in line with the fact that much of sustainability, particularly in the urban-ecological context, over-privileges the land.

Yet the majority of the cities in the region are coastal cities with close economic and cultural ties to the water. It made sense to us, when we started looking at environmental sustainability in the region, that we needed to focus on the ocean.

I’d like to make the point here that we’ve been handling the terrestrial environment for more than ten thousand years. We have been gardening for ten thousand years. We can take a body of land and change it from its current state to something we prefer to live in and we can then landscape it, set it up as a functioning biological system that is pleasant to be around whether it’s gardens or agricultural fields.

We know how to do that. We have been doing it for years and years and years.

Dubai's new coastline

We don’t know how to do that in the ocean. When you start extensively changing coastlines and building new coastlines that extend kilometers out into the ocean in places where that land did not exist before, you are embarking on a process of changing the ocean environment and we don’t really know how to do that or truly understand the consequences of doing that.

It was in this context that we started working on creating a video documentary about the impact of the artificial islands that have been built along the coastline of Dubai. One of  the problems that the researchers we were working with faced as they started the project was a general lack of information.

This is a part of the world in which marine science has not been a dominant activity. It is a part of the world in which  the marine science that has been done has usually been done by people from overseas who’ve taken a lot of the information back home with them. Basically, the researchers had to recognize that in many ways they were starting with almost zero baseline data.

Pearl divers

So, they tried to look to non-academic sources of information. They were happy to use anecdotal evidence gathered from the local communities to use as a baseline for their research into the history of the local marine ecology, with regard to fish populations, algal blooms and other data. This avenue did not give them much data to work with either. While there was an older tradition of pearl culture and fishing, that has largely vanished, and with it much of the culture related to these traditions. There have been efforts to preserve these in books and on film, but they have been largely reduced to the status of historical artifact rather than living culture.

This is where I raise the question of where is sustainability situated in the context of the culture of Gulf cities? The dhows that are being built today are used for recreation rather than plying the trade of their owners. Yet, the culture of the dhow crews and the pearl divers is still being presented as the primary cultural connection of these cities to the ocean even though the dhows have mostly been replaced by yachts, speedboats and jet-skis.

Modern Dubai

The influx of people into the region brought with it not just a need to change the urban landscape of the region’s cities to allow for this influx and expansion, but also a cultural change brought on by the fact that these new residents had no connection with the local ecology. This has reflected back on society in many ways. When it comes to nature, very few residents, or even the nationals, know much about the local sea-dwelling species beyond the few that end up on their dinner plates and they have become totally disconnected from most of the local land-based species. There’s more to sustainability than just preserving species, we need to also preserve our relationships with them.

This is where I pose the question of where is sustainability situated in the social context of the region? When it comes to society, many people in Gulf cities feel disengaged from many of the day-to-day issues that matter to most urbanites in other parts of the world – from the use of public space, zoning, waste collection and transportation. This is caused by the rapid urban changes, the transient nature of many of the residents’ connection with place and many other factors.

Most of the people who are resident here know next to nothing about what happens below the water. In fact a lot of the marketing of the coastal development projects suggest that it is the opportunity to look out over the surface of the water which is the attractive thing that they are providing by these developments.It’s time to break through the surface, both literally and figuratively and make people more aware of the fascinating things happening under the water, in an effort to encourage them to reconnect their coastal-urban living with the relevant urban ecological consequence of their lifestyles.

As a scuba diver and underwater filmmaker, I can tell you that there is a lot of life that goes on below the surface of the sea just off our coastlines. While on land, if you live in an urban environment such as that in Dubai or Abu-Dhabi, you need to drive some distance outside the city’s boundaries to come across any wildlife apart from birds, rodents and feral cats. Yet diving just a few minutes out from the beaches of these cities will reveal some of the richness of what is there in terms of the wildlife.

On a typical beach dive in Dubai we can see sting rays, groupers, butterfly fish and tens of other fish species; invertebrates such as sea urchins and sea cucumbers. We see more wildlife, in its natural habitat, per square meter than anywhere else this close to the city.

This work also tied in with another project that we had been working on, a project called Tawasul which is Arabic for “reach out”. Tawasul was founded by Ernst Vanderpoll, a PADI Course Director who had been diving and instructing in Dubai since the late nineties. Tawasul aims to engage young people and students in grass roots conservation and restoration ecology. It does this through a place-based education program that looks to address what Richard Louv termed a “nature deficit disorder” in his book “Last Child in the Woods”.

Tawasul students diving off the coast of the UAE

It makes more sense when in an urban landscapes such as those on the coast of the Gulf to think “Blue” rather than “Green” when thinking of nature so I guess the local version of Louv’s book should be titled “The Last Child in the Corals”. We educate students about the degradation that is being caused at their doorstep in the marine environment by overconsumption, bad waste management, coastal construction and pollution. We teach them to dive so that they can see these problems first hand, which creates a much deeper recognition of these issues and a stronger desire to address them than any amount of lecturing would ever achieve.

We also teach them how to monitor the marine environment by doing fish and reef surveys thereby taking them from awareness to taking practical steps towards sustainable action. They learn that plankton has been responsible for producing most of the oxygen on our planet and that practices such as shark-finning contribute to global climate change by killing off the ocean’s apex predator that, for millennia, have kept the population of plankton-eating species in check.

They learn that killing sharks is not just an issue of biological conservation of a species of fish, but a matter effecting the ecological balance of the planet’s climate.

A Whale Shark that was spotted during one of Tawasul's local learning journies

This is a picture of a whale shark that we saw just after coming out of the second dive of the day during one of the field trips to the east coast. The kids had just removed their diving gear, so they jumped straight back into the water to swim with the whale shark (that’s one of the Tawasul students in the top-left corner of the picture).

There is no amount of classroom tuition that can create the kind of attachment to nature and to conservation and restoration issues that an encounter with a magnificent creature such as this can. The experience transcended being educational, it was a spiritual experience for most of them. One of the children exclaimed that the spots on the whale shark’s skin looked like the fingerprints of God. Many of the children on that particular trip ended up blogging about that experience and led some of them to become some of the most ardent advocates of conservation and sustainability in their schools and neighborhoods.

A blog by a Tawasul student (click to read)

They also became advocates in their virtual communities. As part of the implementation of the program, we had set up an online social network to allow students to connect online in-between learning sessions and field trips. It is a platform for them to share their experiences and best practice. This led on to Tawasul starting a young environmental journalist program where the environmental correspondents of the local newspapers such as The National teach and mentor these budding journalists.

So, where is sustainability situated in the educational context of the region? There are some efforts – private sector ones such as Tawasul as well as public sector ones led by education authorities and ministries. But there is still much to be done.

We can’t teach the next generation the solutions for creating the sustainable urban ecologies of the future. We don’t have the answers because we haven’t experienced the future that they will inhabit. The children at school today are likely to see the world’s population exceed 9 billion in their lifetime. History has little to teach them about how to live in a world with so many people in it. They will face many challenges in creating urban living spaces for such massive populations with sustainable economies, food and water supplies, waste management, energy production, education and social services. My hope is that we are providing them with the ability to see the connectedness of everything and instill in them the hope, inquisitiveness, knowledge, passion and sensibility to create the right solutions.”

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Inspirational Stories of Palestine

There is no shortage of inspiration in Palestine. There is a shortage of platforms and media venues featuring inspiring people in and outside Palestine on a local, regional and global scale. When you mention Palestine and Media, visions of a people torn apart by conflict comes to mind. Refugees, school children standing across from tanks and demolished homes. Google the words Palestine and Media, 5 million photos depicting conflict come up. TEDxRamallah is the beginning of a movement to change that.

In recent years, the non-profit, TED.com devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading has featured riveting talks by remarkable people from around the globe. The power of the talks, coupled with the viral nature of the Web, and the open licensing of the Creative Commons, spread to influence millions of people around the world in a positive manner.

So powerful were the talks, the TED conference organizers spun off TEDx, independently organized TED events that gather the world’s leading thinkers and doers, to build connections, share insights and foster inspiration.

When we met the TEDxRamallah licensee, we had just taken part of TEDxDubai as attendees, sponsors and organizers of the event. Fueled by the excitement of attending TED India, and the recent success of TEDxDubai, he approached us to help bring the platform to Palestine. And so the journey began, in spring of 2010.

Over the past few months, a group of young, old, Palestinian and global citizens, have come together from across the world, online, and in the real world to plan the event; everyone has a Palestinian inspirational story to share; everyone knows candidates to nominate to speak at the event, and many are simply there to support by all means.

The event will take place April 16th 2011. The aim is showcase inspiring stories of Palestine. TEDxRamallah aims to educate and inspire by providing a space for people to share their ideas in any field, whether science, education, literature, technology, design, etc. to contribute to the positive perception of Palestine. The tagline is READY.AIM.INSPIRE!

Throughout my life, I have known Palestinians from all walks of life. Their lives and stories are colorful, exciting, humbling and inspiring. They exist in every industry, country, and segment of society, from a female Palestinian refugee taxi driver in Lebanon to the scientist at MIT; a founder of a medical charity to support injured children who desperately need medical care, and a founder of a Palestinian Art Festival. The list is endless, and so is in the inspiration to be felt and shared. And hence, my involvement with organizing the event is to share these inspirations.

To date, we have over 20 sponsors lending their name, support and services to see TEDxRamallah happen. We have over 200 supporters on http://www.tedxramallah.com, and over 1000 supporters on Facebook. Volunteers are working in four cities around the Middle East to setup satellite events, spread the word about the event, and encourage community members to get involved.

You can get involved. It’s simple. Join our online community site at http://www.tedxramallah. Share stories of the inspiring Palestinians and stories of Palestine that you know. Blog about them, photograph them, create videos, animations, sketches.. tweet about them, share their stories with your friends on Facebook. Give them a platform on TV, the radio, magazines and newspapers. Share the event with your school, your workplace or to organize a TEDxRamallah satellite event in your hometown and feature inspiring Palestinians in your community on stage. READY.AIM.INSPIRE.

This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com on behalf of TEDxRamallah under the CC Attribution Licensing.

..give me your hungry..

Iftar time
Long long long lines
Waiting time

Imam sings
Joy does ring
As fast is finally
broken

Dates & drinks
Then one thinks
Of grabbing rice & meat

Silent. Crowd
They fill their mouths
Souls get filled by
Allah

On the street
Feel the heat
Rising up from
Sidewalk

Plastic sheet
beneath our feet
Bare to show
We’re humble

A breeze
Thank god
Ten minutes and
Its prayer time

Iftar
2010 08 27 1900
308 Rd Mosque
My first Mosque Iftar
richard laurence

Richard Laurence is an American living in Dubai. He embraces the culture and seeks experiences to get to know the people of the UAE. Richard is a poet, a humanitarian, a sensitive soul.

In NY, statue of liberty stands on a platform engraved with the poem by Emma Lazarus:

“..Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..”

Khalil’s Story… “Disability is a state of mind”

Khalil is a remarkable young man. The sparkle in eyes attest to that.

January 16th, 2009, the skies rained shells on Gaza.  Khalil, 15 years old, was at his grandmother’s house with his two brothers. He recounts the event to Iman Odeh Yabroudi, the PCRF Patient Affairs coordinator in great detail; describing the brightness of light, thunderous roaring sounds, and ash smells of the time the shell struck.

Khalil says he was the lucky one. His younger brother Muhanad, 8years, lost his life; another brother, Abdulhadi, 14 years old, lost an eye.  Their father, who had been working in Israel, had to leave his job to care for his two surviving boys.  The family survives on the sales of house-hold goods the father makes on a street side in Gaza along with a few kind contributions from family, neighbors and friends.

Khalil came to Dubai through the PCRF. Mohamad Bin Rashid AlMaktoom Foundation is sponsoring his medical treatment (fitting him with prosthetic limbs).  The volunteers of the PCRF in the UAE do their best to ensure a comfortable stay for the PCRF patients.  This includes hosting the children and exposing them to a range of activities aimed at rebuilding their self-confidence.  The children are offered a range of age-appropriate  activities to choose from.  Khalil chose scuba diving.

With the help of Tawasul founder Ernst van Der Poll, and Pavilion Dive Center, Khalil had a Discover Scuba PADI experience arranged.  We met at the dive center earlier this morning. Khalil was anxious. He sat listening intently to instructions.

Khalil, assisted by Jo, donned his dive gear, leaned forward and got into the pool.  Those of you who’ve experienced diving know that the first time you enter the water, it takes you a while to get comfortable with scuba gear. Weights, BCD, Tank, Mask, Regulator.. a lot to keep track of.  For Khalil, it came naturally; within seconds, he we ascended to the bottom, and used his hands to move forward in the pool. Ernst and Jo completed the skill review and in 40 minutes Khalil surfaced.  His smile radiated.

The sea was rough on the main beach-front, so I thought we would call it a day. Seeing Khalil’s eagerness for more, Ernst suggested a sea discover-scuba session into the secondary beach-front, calmer and shallower.  Jo and Ernst carried Khalil to the sea-shore, there he donned his equipment, and the three disappeared into the sea. They surfaced 40 minutes later.

Khalil’s exhilaration left his voice trembling. He kept repeating “Ya Allah”, “Amazing”, “I did it”. He saw a sting ray and fish. Jo and Ernst carried him back to his wheelchair.

A while later, Ernst completed the paper-work for Khalil’s discover scuba certificate, and asked Khalil if he wants to do a full scuba open water certification. Khalil didn’t hesitate for a second.   I gave Ernst a questioning look, he and I knew the commitment it required, and the logistical challenges of getting it done; he gave me a comforting nod and said “we’ll make it happen”.

Iman signed up Khaill, who committed to reading the 5 chapter book and completing the written portion of the course in a week.

Please stay tuned for more developments on Khalil’s progress.

I wonder if he knows …

Standing  in line to get a signature, the man behind the counter looks up, his expression: apathetic, his tone: sarcastic, he says: “what’s your rush? wait, the process takes time”.

I wonder if he knows, the value of this time I spend waiting in line, waiting for signatures, waiting for him to return my call, waiting for his CEO to get back in town, waiting for his CFO to approve funding;

I wonder if he knows a child who has just lost his mother under the rubble of their home is waiting for a doctor to save his life;

that doctor waits for the funding that needs the signature of the CFO who needs the approval of the CEO who has yet to read my proposal!

He says “wait a minute”. I wonder if he knows he holds the life of a child in the document he needs to sign. A minute has gone by.. I wonder if he knows 17 children die every minute.

help a child http://www.pcrf.net

The beginning of the end of an era?

It appears that the newly appointed Supreme Court Associate Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, is starting to challenge what is seen as one of the primary tenets of corporate law, namely the conferment of human characteristics on the corporation.

According to this Wall Street Journal Article, Justice Sotomayor stated that:

Judges “created corporations as persons, gave birth to corporations as persons,” she said. “There could be an argument made that that was the court’s error to start with…[imbuing] a creature of state law with human characteristics.”

The revision of the laws of incorporation and holding people responsible for their actions, even (especially) when these actions are taken from behind the doors of boardrooms, is an essential part of the restructuring that’s needed to prevent the financial, social and environmental transgressions that have been spiraling out of control not only in the United States, but all over the world.

It is heartening to see Justice Sotomayor willing to ignite such a debate and I hope that it finds a way to be constructively continued.

Benevolent Business

Benevolent Business

The term Social Entrepreneur is increasingly becoming synonymous with a modern-day super-hero, sans the streamlined spandex get-ups (thankfully). Social entrepreneurs emerge as people from all walks of life, yet there are common elements that earn them the recently-coined title. They are creative beings, ones who have become cognizant of the fact that they can make a difference in the world and are fueled by that belief to create positive change. Similar to other members in their family tree–political entrepreneurs, business entrepreneurs and the like–these figures are not afraid to transcend the status quo and tread the road less travelled by if they believe it will yield results.

Innovative ideas are their ambrosia, sheer doggedness their nectar. A heightened sense of awareness of social strife and system failure drives them to dissect the social infrastructure, identify problem sources and use their outside-of-the box approach to overcome resource restrictions and find viable solutions to the issues. Whereas business entrepreneurs’ concern lays largely in the business sector social entrepreneurs’ tackle the social and environmental realm. The myriad issues they take on include disease prevention and human rights issues.

Nowadays there is a growing industry that caters to the likes of such upstanding citizens. Renowned universities are implementing programs that provide prospective entrepreneurs with the necessary skills to see them off in their endeavors. The Skoll Foundation, launched in Oxford University in 2003 is dedicated to serving, “social entrepreneurs in their pursuit to achieve a more equitable, prosperous, sustainable world.”[1] Other institutions that support the burgeoning field of social enterprise include Harvard University, whose Catherine B. Foundation Fellowships are, “designed to equip individuals for national leadership positions that bring the real-world insights of management and entrepreneurship to bear on social problems.”[2]

But the initiatives do not end there. As Social entrepreneurs are increasingly making their voices heard, communities are doing their part to connect them to one another and the public at large in an effort to strengthen the cause. Networking companies are establishing liaisons between such public figures, allowing them to share their inspirational experiences, their avant-garde thoughts on current affairs, and their future aspirations. Baraka.is, an online venture started by The Baraka Group, revolves around an incremental concept where, “Social entrepreneurship meets social networking.”[3] Our values-based company is an example of the community’s desire to spur this wondrous movement.

The world could do with more people like Muhammed Yunus who epitomizes the Social Entrepreneur. His initiative involved implementing a policy of micro-finance to poverty-stricken regions in Bangladesh, in order to encourage self-sufficiency and proper integration into the socio-economic structure. Jeff Skoll, a proponent of the movement who has carried out like-minded schemes, described the basis of his film-making industry, “Time and time again you see this outpouring from people once they’re made aware they can do something. That’s the principle that drives this company.” It is up to the global community to support social entrepreneurs in their cause to keep this going.

Characteristics of a social entrepreneur – Resilient

Peace Rally - WDC

Peace Rally - WDC

My brother is a social entrepreneur;  he has been since he was 16.  Before he entered college, he had already written, composed and sang his first song. He sings for social justice, peace, a common language and an Arab-American Identity. His words have long inspired me and hundreds if not thousands of others. He is constantly working on his music, thinking of new ways to fund his next album, collaborate with other artists and raise funds for causes he believes in.  All this, he does on his own time.  He is an architect by day and a musician/peace advocate by night.

Omar faced many challenges, none have deterred him from his goals.  He had to change our family’s perception of hip-hop, the medium he chose for his message. His friends were intimidated by the US government’s stand on freedom of speech. The “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric during the Bush era escalated their fears and caused them to worry about their association with his lyrics that called for justice. He faces a warped public perception in the Middle East that welcomes hip-hop artists who sing the praises of a consumer lifestyles and objectify women but doesn’t have an ear for social hip-hop and messages of hope.  He deals with US homeland security at airports on route to performances for having an Arab identity.  All that, combined with funding challenges and a day job!

Omar continues to sing, speak at schools, universities, radio and TV shows; his perseverance is admirable. He is committed to creating a language of peace, a world of collaboration and justice. He sings to raise funds for children in Gaza and to support other artists. He is achieving his goal one performance at a time.  http://www.offendum.com

An instant recipe for a happy marriage

marriage POAGPOAG (Promise of a generation) hosted a film preview followed by a panel discussion on “Marriage: The good, The bad and The Ugly”.  The film was excellent, entertaining and thought provoking. The discussion was honest airing pain, frustration, hope, nostalgia and promise.  As a panel member, I was asked questions on my experience, and I shared a recipe I received from my dear friend Hania years back; many people asked to have it, so here it is..

Instant recipe for a Happy Marriage

  • 1 cup of consideration
  • 1 cup of courtesy
  • 2 cupfuls flattery carefully concealed
  • 2 cupfuls milk of human kindness
  • 1 gallon faith in God and each other
  • 2 cupfuls praise
  • 1 small pinch of in-laws
  • 1 reasonable budget
  • A generous dash of cooperation
  • 3 teaspoons pure extract of “I’m Sorry”
  • 1 cupful of confidence and encouragement…..
  • 2 children at least
  • 1 large or several small hobbies
  • 1 cup of blindness to the others faults

Flavor with frequent portions of recreation and a dash of happy memories
stir well and remove any specks of jealousy, temper or criticism.
Sweeten well with generous portions of love and keep warm with a steady flame of devotion.
Never serve with a cold shoulder or hot tongue.

The dialogue was great, I believe an entire series should be built around the topic.. one that late-high-school and collage youth should be included in.  Guidance is essenitial in these matters, very little of it is available. Young people should hear from other young experienced individuals and professionals.  A young lady from the audience suggested mandetory pre-marriage counciling.