Tuesday, June 21, 2011

From the Heights

This is the sunset view from a hilltop overlooking the city of Cairo. I took this with my cellphone camera during my last trip to Egypt Dec 2009/Jan 2010. Not a great shot, given the limitations of my lens and the overall lighting. I just like to think what the view means - a) I actually got to travel to Egypt, even though it was mostly for work, and b) The view from any height has a sense of majesty.

It was Father's Day last Sunday and I found little time to think about my own father. It was almost half a lifetime ago when he passed away, and yet pausing to think about him on some basis is like looking at myself at the mirror for ten straight minutes. I don't have that kind of vanity. I just fall into the habit of acting and speaking the way I remember him doing. To honor him is to do right by what I was given. I may not have had the privileges of some, but I was privileged with the desire to learn.

So what's the connection with Egypt? Nothing really, except that I am happy to cross it off from the places I want to visit. One takeaway from being an expatriate worker is to enrich one's life and perspective from the viewpoints of one's hosts. Egypt takes pride in its ancient traditions. This is all well and good if that legacy is still active in this current generation.

I am not a believer in the authenticity of the so-called Arab Revolutions. I empathize with the youth and the women who wanted the change. But revolutions are not built on euphoria and chanting on the streets. The real hard work must be done by the bricklayers of society, not by bohemians. The ideal is great, but reality does set in after a while. A few more challenges await this country, and I'm hoping they would learn their lessons.

As for Libya and the Colonel, I actually have some sympathy for him given the poor record of the Western nations in armed interventions. Good intentions never guarantee good results, and I'm more than just skeptical of the motives of the allies. But at some point the Colonel has to go to stop the bloodletting, and the hawks in the West who demand his head should realize that diplomacy is the better option to secure a just and lasting peace.

The rest? People's actions can still be deduced using simple chemistry and physics.
You can only hold back the pressure of change for so long, and draconian tactics will set back the people for another generation. That is why expats are still very important in the affairs of the Gulf nations. They have a lot of wealth, but their people are still learning how to use that wealth and acquire the ability to ensure that wealth is self-sustaining. Break the spirit of the people again, and they will regress to children. Only, you can't have these kind of children running around and avoiding responsibility forever.

It is a tough balance to maintain.

Saudi Arabia is capable of change, but managing that change requires some amount of ingenuity and compassion on the part of its leadership, and patience and forbearance on the part of its population. Many theories abound on how to do this - but I only advocate two things - promoting accountability and upholding the rule of law. Naturally, these will run counter to some ingrained behaviors of this culture. In the end, I hope they will succeed.

Now on to the second thing - in some ways, the patriarchal, paternalistic nature of this society is what makes it strong. In excess and in abuse, it is also a glaring weakness.

Yesterday, I became an instrument of this paternalism, using the little authority I had to do so. It wasn't the best way to act, but it was the practical one, under the circumstances. I can't relate the details, of course.

For the first few minutes after the deed was done it was exhilirating. Now I understand why power is the ultimate narcotic. One can ascend to that figurative peak and survey the lay of the land - the people you can dominate as you choose.

The sobering part is that even from any height, you can't cover up the effects of your actions, and the higher you go, the more likely you would teeter and slip... Simple physics indeed.

Who knows what will happen when you take a fall?

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