‘The Walk Home’

A travel story about my trip to Tanzania last October was published in Gulf Business in December. For more pictures and a video of the wildebeest migration, click here.  

Maria the lionness takes down a wildebeest
Maria, the lionness, takes down a wildebeest

The annual migration from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the world’s most wondrous spectacles.

By ANGELA SHAH

Leonard Kivuyo’s smile is enigmatic. “There is definitely, maybe, possibly a chance to see a lion,” he says.

We look at each other quizzically, wondering about the maybe-yes, maybe-no response of our Tanzanian tour guide. Kivuyo has just picked us up at a gravelly airstrip, a scar in the serengeti landscape at Kogatende. He wants to know what animals we want to see.

We respond with an all-star list of the Serengeti: black rhino, lion, elephant. And, of course, we want to witness the main attraction of a northern safari this time of year, a wildebeest crossing of the Mara River. He nods in agreement at our wildlife wish list. There have been regular crossings, just one this morning, Kivuyo tells us. But whether one would happen today, he can’t say. As he unlatches the roof of our jeep so that we have nearly unobstructed views of the grasslands around us, my friend Angel and I exchange bemused looks at our guide’s Yoda-like responses.

Shortly into our journey along a dirt track, we come across a pair of giraffes. About 20 feet high, the male nuzzles the female’s neck as it creeps closer to her. Realising we have stumbled upon the pair mid-romance, we giggle like school children. A few more nuzzles later and the male giraffe has accomplished his mission, walking off towards a tree for a snack.

“Part of the circle of life,” Kivuyo deadpans and we laugh heartily. We continue our drive and Kivuyo keeps an eye out on the horizon. The hum from the jeep’s walkie-talkie is on low; the guides at the various camps chatter amongst themselves, exchanging information on locations of nocturnal cats, rare rhinos or the anticipatory swarm of wildebeest gathered on the banks of the mara.

DSCN1124
A lion’s life: lazing in the sun

Within an hour, the serengeti’s abundance of wildlife emerge. We spot impalas and elephants silently grazing, and hippos submerged to their ears in the river to ward off the late afternoon heat. Skittish zebras dart in and out of clusters of their fellow prey animals.

By evening, however, a crossing hasn’t formed and we have to reach camp before sundown. From July to October, about two million animals follow the rains, migrating from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in neighbouring Kenya. One of the highlights of the annual migration is the crossing of the Mara River, where crocodiles lurk underwater and lionesses prowl on the banks alongside.

At dinner that evening, our fellow campers rave about the raw power they witnessed as thousands of wildebeest stampeded through the Mara River. A baby zebra walked into the open yaw of a hippo, which then crunched down on it! We watched a wildebeest taken down, mid-river, by a crocodile!

We have no such stories to contribute to the fireside gathering. I am not worried; we still have a few days left for our safari.

The next day, the walkie-talkies are ablaze with chatter of migration-style critical masses forming along the Mara at several crossing points. We travel from site to site, eventually staking out the one nearest to our camp. The hours tick by but by late afternoon, the first of the wildebeests slide down the steep bank and into the river. And just like that, the migration begins. The zebras’ shrieking bark seems to offer directional guidance to the wildebeest, who in two and then three single-file lines half-swim, half-gallop through the water to the greener pastures on the other side. Zebras, we discover, are the bouncers of the wildlife world.

After that first crossing, we begin stumbling on crossings on a regular basis. The next morning we watch a particularly large group of wildebeest for 20 minutes when suddenly a lioness bounds in from the left. We watch, dumbfounded, as she charges the unlucky wildebeest directly in her path. As she wrestles her prey to the ground, the zebras’ shriek grow even more shrill and the tide of wildebeests reverses course.

ESSENTIALS

Olakira Camp

DSCN0978This luxury tented mobile camp sits just off the banks of the Mara River during the migration season in the summer and fall. Olakira has only eight tents and guests enjoy meals in the common dining/living tents. Dinner is preceded by drinks and snacks around a campfire. http://www.asiliaafrica.com/olakira

Zanzibar

The island, known as Unguja in Swahili to Zanzibarians in order to distinguish itself from Zanzibar city, is dotted with beach resorts. We stayed at Shooting Star Lodge, located on the northwest part of the island. The inn, which features cozy villas on a perch above the beach, was the perfect setting to unwind after our day-long drives in the dusty Serengeti. http://www.shootingstarlodge.com

Stone Town

DSCN1370The House of Wonders and the Palace museums’ exhibitions are few but give visitors a sense of the island’s place along trading routes between India, the Gulf and Africa. The palace museum served as the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar until he was overthrown in 1964 and it includes pictures and history of Princess Salme, the Tanzanian royal whose affair with a non-Muslim German businessman caused her to flee to Europe, where she lived until she died at age 80 in 1924.

U.A.E. crackdown update

The RAND Corporation’s Abu Dhabi office has been shut down by U.A.E. authorities – the latest move by rulers to clamp down on what it believes is unacceptable speech. RAND has been in Abu Dhabi since 2010 and “facilitated evidence-based research and analysis by RAND experts in such areas as education, public safety and environmental health,” according to a Reuters story that quoted an email response from Jeffrey Hiday, director at RAND’s office for media relations.

The move follows the forced closure of Abu Dhabi outposts of Gallup, the National Democratic Institute and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung last spring. Since the start of the Arab Spring movements two years ago, the U.A.E. has aggressively pursued and detained individuals who it has said violated speech codes. Last month authorities here announced a new, tighter law on online dissent, saying they would impose jail terms on anyone who derides or caricatures the country’s rulers or state institutions online.

Yesterday, four people, including a former Emirati diplomat, were arrested and about 60 people in total have been detained relating to their calls for greater speech rights. Many, but not all of them, are members of Al Islah, a group that authorities say is conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the U.A.E.

Last summer, the U.A.E. expelled Matt J. Duffy, an American professor of journalism who had been teaching at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

Unlike Bahrain, there have been no mass protests in the U.A.E. For the vast majority of people living in the country, life is peaceful. Still, the government has taken strict measures against the minority of its citizens who are advocating for change. The Federal National Council, a quasi-elected legislative body with advisory power, announced that it would set up a committee to support the country’s human-rights efforts at home and abroad. Essentially, the committee will serve a public relations function for the government, defending its actions against those people whose behaviors are deemed unacceptable.

“If people badly use freedom of expression, and participate in demonstrations that impose religious intolerance or pushing others to commit anti- government crimes, the government has the right to interfere and limit those freedoms, and the parliament has the right to approve laws that run this,” the FNC report said.

‘Educate A Child’

I traveled to Doha last week to attend the WISE conference sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. In its fourth year, the conference aims to be a Davos of education, bringing together non-profits, governmental organizations, educators and for-profit groups to discuss ways to improve education for children around the world.

What’s clear is that is an awful lot of effort on the part of a lot of people especially in working with disadvantaged students. Still, it was hard to get any depth into any one topic as the conference was broadly focused to include communities around the world and with different sets of needs. I was interested to find out groups like Pratham, which have focused on India and would’ve liked to have seen similar activities in the Arab World.

Perhaps those will come about from a new initiative announced by Sheikha Moza, the Qatari emir’s wife, called “Educate A Child.” It aims to bring about 61 million children in the world’s poorest communities who aren’t in any kind of schooling into the classroom. No doubt, some of those will be impoverished Arabs. I wrote a brief story for The New York Times on the initiative, below.

 

 

Qatari Spearheads Efforts to Educate 61 Million Children

DOHA, QATAR

By ANGELA SHAH

Sheika Moza bint Nasser, wife of the emir of Qatar, has created a program that seeks to educate the 61 million children worldwide who have no access to formal schooling.

The Educate a Child initiative, which was announced at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha on Wednesday, has partnerships with five global development organizations, including Unesco and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. It seeks both to support new education efforts and to improve existing ones, especially those tied to getting more girls into schools.

“Millions of children are being robbed of their fundamental right to quality education,” Sheika Moza said at the conference, which was sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. “Right across the world, because of disaster, because of poverty, children are being denied a chance to change their destinies. We can change this, and because we can, we must.”

The groups together plan to invest $152.6 million on 25 projects in 17 countries over the next three to seven years, with an emphasis on some of the world’s poorest communities, conflict zones and nomadic societies. These initiatives include “floating boat” schools that serve as both bus and schoolhouse for poor children in the flood-prone delta of the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh and efforts to provide primary education for children in refugee camps in South Sudan.

A spokeswoman for Sheika Moza declined to say how much Educate a Child was investing in the venture.

Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister who is the United Nations’ special envoy for education, said at the announcement in Doha that Educate a Child’s efforts tied directly into the U.N. Millennium Development Goals on education. He added that the U.N. would have a plan in place by April for countries not on track to meet those goals.

“It’s our duty to make sure resources are allocated to meet this objective, and it’s important that new organizations and foundations are willing to support this,” Mr. Brown said. “Sheika Moza is the catalyst to ensure that we can and we will accomplish the U.N. development goal objective.”

Rakesh Bharti Mittal, vice chairman and managing director of the Indian conglomerate Bharti Enterprises, was also present at the announcement.

“I firmly believe that if you educate a girl, you educate a family,” said Mr. Mittal, who is also chairman of the Bharti Foundation, an Educate a Child partner. “You educate future generations.”

Though Educate a Child was formally announced last week, the foundation said that it started financing initiatives last spring and had reached 500,000 children so far. “For me, this is not enough,” Sheika Moza said.

 

The U.A.E. media laws and free speech

The media law in the U.A.E. just got broader, and stricter.

Matt J. Duffy, a former journalism professor at Zayed University who has personal experience with the difficult balancing act regarding free speech in this part of the world, gave a good summary of the change here: “The revision, published in full in Gulf News, criminalizes anyone who uses a electronic means to ‘deride or to damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions, its President, the Vice President, any of the Rulers of the emirates, their Crown Princes, the Deputy Rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols.

The decree also offers penalties ‘of imprisonment on any person publishing any information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures that would pose threats to the security of the state and to its highest interests or violate its public order.”

In short, Duffy writes, these restrictions, of course, are incredibly broad and will surely lead to even more self-censorship in the United Arab Emirates. Any legitimate criticism of the government could conceivably violate ‘public order.’ Better to just stay quiet while on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube lest one step across this nebulous line set up by the new law.

A friend posted on Facebook asking if comments against Du or Etisalat, the country’s two telecom providers which have inspired many a social media rant over poor service, would also count as forbidden speech. I think it might be – both are government entities.

The new provisions came out just as state media issued an edict updating media laws just as the Abu Dhabi Federal Appeals Court upheld a decision by the U.A.E. Ministry of Interior to strip seven Emiratis of their citizenship earlier this year.

The men had been agitating on Twitter and other online sites calling for greater political participation. Nearly 70 Emiratis have been detained by authorities since the start of the year and many of them are members of Al Islah, an Emirati Islamist group that seeks to have Islam play a more dominant role in everyday life in the U.A.E., which has long aimed to be a crossroads of East and West.

You can read my coverage for The New York Times on the detentions here, here, here and here.

 

Arabia-Asia: Two Regions At a Crossroads

For the last few months, I’ve been focused on editing a 10-story package for Forbes Asia exploring trade ties between Gulf and Asian companies written by the magazine’s contributors all over the Asian continent. We’ve covered a lot of ground, from Taiwan to Saudi, from Singapore to Oman. Please see below for a full listing of our coverage.

(Getty Images)

Karl Shmavonian, Forbes Staff

It’s debatable whether the historical metaphor is the Silk Route or Spice Route, but neither still matters literally, so we’ll say that Arabia-Asia is a commercial and financial link that is ever more important in the world economy.

In this special section, to correspond with the first Forbes Global CEO Conference in the Middle East (being held in Dubai), we take a look at parts of this expanding trade. We do so in the FORBES ASIA way, through profiles of several significant business personalities and the firms they founded.

The package was nimbly edited by Angela Shah, a writer and editor based in Dubai. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Time, and Newsweek/Daily Beast. For more about Angela, see www.angelashah.com.

Personalities play a big part in our coverage. Few people have as much boots-on-the-ground experience in both regions as does David Eldon, former chairman of HSBC Asia-Pacific. Since retiring from the bank in 2005, he has served as chairman of the Dubai International Financial Centre Authority. In our interview with him he discusses a variety of issues and affirms that “trade links are trending east and south, away from the West.”

Another dealmaker in the region is Pakistani Omar Lodhi, of Dubai’s Abraaj Capital. He opened the firm’s Singapore office two years ago and is leading Abraaj’s push into Asia, particularly the ASEAN countries, whose population and GDP offer plenty of opportunity: “These regional Asian economies are akin to Europe.”

Growth in the region isn’t just about finance–even the most ambitious high-rollers take a break for dumplings and spring rolls after a long day of puts and calls. Lin Chao Wen, founder of Gulf Royal Chinese Restaurant chain, started out as a failed serial entrepreneur in Taiwan in the 1970s before he eventually ended up in Saudi Arabia, bringing Chinese food to the masses. In the process he immersed himself in Arab culture, eventually converting to Islam and building himself a lavish home in Taiwan that resembles an Arabian palace.

Just as Lin could never have known as a young man in Taiwan that he would end up in Saudi Arabia, P.N.C. Menon, founder of Sobha Developers, could never have predicted while growing up in a small Kerala village in India that he would end up being a big player in Gulf-region real estate. Says the man who appeared on the FORBES Billionaires List in 2006: “It came from nothing. I went [to the Gulf] with $7. I must have been making a little bit of money here and there to make myself comfortable.”

Another Indian who has spent a significant part of his life in the Mideast is Shaukat Ali Mir, chief operating officer for international electromechanical projects at Mumbai’s Voltas, a Tata Group company. Voltas has been providing infrastructure (plumbing, firefighting, drainage and electrical systems) for the Mideast since 1976, and Mir came to the region in 1982. Voltas’ most prestigious, and perhaps most challenging, project was providing the electromechanical guts for Dubai’s Burj Khalifa building, the world’s tallest. Mir is globalization on two legs: “I grew up in India. I am living in the Middle East. My children live in Canada, and I plan to retire in Europe.”

Just as Voltas provides infrastructure for the rapidly expanding Gulf, Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction is supplying power and desalination for the parched regionDoosan, which expects sales to hit $10 billion this year,  is increasingly going head to head with industry leaders GE, Alstom and Siemens in building power plants in overseas markets.

No survey of Asia and the Mideast would be complete without drilling into oil production. China’s biggest oilfield pipe maker, Hilong Holding,  is one of the few Chinese companies with manufacturing plants in the Middle East, its fastest-growing regional market. Hilong’s business in Saudi Arabia, its main target, is a classic example of synergy: You provide oil, I’ll provide the means to get it out of the ground–everybody makes money.

But enough about electrical systems, plumbing, turbines and dirty oil fields, what about technology and all those sleek toys that everybody wants? Vincent Lai and Andy Soh, who share a “curiosity in playing with cool stuff,” are the founders of Tocco Studios, a maker of touchscreens and software. In 2009, when Lai and Soh were students at Singapore Management University, a group of Omanis visiting the university’s business incubator wanted to learn more about the budding entrepreneurs’ screens. The Omanis were captivated, and soon Lai and Soh were doing business in the Gulf, as well as having a Singapore office.

With all the money being made these days, we would be remiss if we didn’t offer a profile of a company offering folks a way to show off their wealth. Jeweler Joy Alukkas, like our other Indians profiled, made his entry in the Mideast decades ago. He opened his first store in Abu Dhabi in 1987, offering his wares to expat Indians. Eventually he moved back to India, bringing back with him an intangible commodity: marketing and business practices accrued in the Gulf. His Joyalukkas stores had $1.33 billion in sales last year.

For slightly less upscale shopping, consumers can go to the Dragonmart mall, a mass-market oasis on the outskirts of Dubai.

Finally, we profile five companies that are learning how to navigate the cultural and business currents that join China and the Mideast. One of our snapshots is of China’s Shenguan Holdings, a maker of sausage casings that recently announced it would be offering halal meat to the Muslim world.

The Arabia-Asia economy is not on a glide path. It has famously been interrupted through the centuries but also in recent times, as global busts in commodities or real estate, or other home-market vagaries, got in the way of would-be Marco Polos. But the lure of the great crossroads and the increasing wealth they connect makes it likely that the tales here are just an inkling of many more to come.

Dubai’s ‘Mad Men’

For a recent feature for Gulf Life, the in-flight magazine for Gulf Air, I chatted with some of Dubai’s advertising executives. Some were part of the migration 30 years ago from Beirut – then the region’s ad hub – and were the founding fathers of the industry here today. Back then there was only one TV station, in Kuwait, and they communicated with clients via telex. And I’ll let Mr. Raad tell you about the Saudi commercial and the porn star.

A female pioneer in Afghanistan

My story on Roya Mahboob, a young woman entrepreneur in Afghanistan in Newsweek/Daily Beast. Not only is she trying to build a business in a fragile economic environment but she also has to battle cultural and religious norms that don’t support women who seek a place outside of the home.

HERAT, Afghanistan

A 25-year-old female entrepreneur working to help the next generation is also a model for it. Angela Shah reports.

The 25-year-old is at once exhilarated and shy. A woman is not supposed to attract so much attention. Just minutes earlier, a male colleague offered her a word to the wise as he gently pulled down her head scarf to cover her throat and shoulders, exposed from the scoop-necked top she wore, saying: “There are conservative men inside.

On this day in late May, the girls at Baghnazargah High School were getting computers and Internet access for the first time. Mahboob’s IT company, Afghan Citadel Services, or ACS, installed the technology lab as part of a project to help wire schools in Herat, and Mahboob offered welcome remarks as a panel of bearded men dressed in traditional salwar kameez, elders in this community, along with school officials, sipped tea behind her.

Baghnazargah is located in a poor section of Herat and many of the female students come from conservative families. While boys can move freely, and so attend computer tutorials outside of school, girls are only allowed to leave home to attend school. And those girls are, in a sense, the lucky ones: most girls don’t even attend high school. Like most 16-year-olds, Augiza longs to surf the Web, but she doesn’t have an email address. “This is the only way for me to learn the computer,” she says. “It gives me [a] connection to everywhere in the world.”

For students like Augiza, Mahboob is a revelation. Here is a woman less than a decade older than they are who runs her own company and flies in from Kabul on her own for ribbon-cutting ceremonies like the one on this day. She, they can see, has a position of power. Once the men have left and the formal festivities are concluded, the girls congregate around Mahboob in packs of threes and fours asking to take pictures with her.

“You have to show everybody that men and women are equal,” Mahboob says. “Women can do something if you allow them. Give them opportunity and they can prove themselves.”

(Photo by Gabriela Maj)

In a country where the Taliban had outlawed telephones, Afghanistan has quickly wired itself in the last decade. The number of Internet users in the country has grown from 300,000 in 2006 to 1 million two years ago, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Only 20 percent of Afghanistan is electrified; it’s only 20 percent literate,” says Paul Brinkley, the former deputy undersecretary of defense. “But 60 percent have a cellphone. What does this tell you about the Afghan people? They’re starving for information. You need that more to stabilize this country than all the security things you could do.”

Brinkley, a Silicon Valley veteran before joining the government, founded the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan in 2010, to link the department’s military operations with economic development. That program led to the Herat Information Technology Program, which started in May 2011 with an inaugural class of seven Afghan entrepreneurs, including Mahboob. The program’s goal is to show the potential of Afghanistan once international forces withdraw troops and treasure by the end of 2014: that, with a little bit of help from the international community, talented and determined Afghans are succeeding despite an enduring insurgency, a frequently inefficient and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy, and a weak domestic economy.

“Roya represents what the majority of Afghanistan wants,” he says. “To stand on their own two feet, to build their own lives.”

Mahboob founded ACS two years ago along with two Herat University classmates with an investment of $20,000, partly through savings from their jobs lecturing at the university and with funds from Mahboob’s family. She owns 45 percent of ACS, with the remaining shares divided among the two former Herat University classmates and her brother and sister.

In an industrial-park compound behind high walls topped with concertina wire, the entrepreneurs set up offices in free office spaces with Internet provided by the program and attended seminars on “Business 101″: how to create a business plan to attract investors, how to respond to RFPs, and how to price their services.

A year after the incubator’s launch, some entrepreneurs are still struggling to establish a commercial foothold. But others, like Mahboob, have thrived. Crucially, ACS is making the transition away from sourcing business solely through contracts offered by ISAF and international groups and toward Afghan governments, hospitals, and schools. Currently, the company has projects underway or completed worth $500,000. In the last year, Mahboob has hired three additional software programmers and aggressively sought contracts for projects worth millions.

“What matters is that those Afghan businesses are doing better than before,” says Scott Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat who founded the nongovernmental organization Building Markets, which recently changed its name from the Peace Dividend Trust. “That is your sustainability.”

A NATO promotional video last year featuring Mahboob attracted the attention of Francesco Rulli, a New York businessman. The Italian-born Rulli is sort of a Renaissance man entrepreneur—one of his businesses is a men’s clothing line in partnership with actor John Malkovich—and he says he was attracted by Mahboob’s spunk.

So far, he and his brother have invested nearly $120,000 to build eight computer labs in Herat schools like the one at Baghnazargah High School. “I sent the first $15,000 and within a week, ACS had built up the first classroom,” he says.

“I have an opportunity to do the right thing,” he explains. “I appreciate the fact that this is a woman with the opportunity to do something meaningful.”

Rulli runs Film Annex, a Web-based video-content farm that allows individuals to create Web TV channels; Rulli profits by capturing and selling user data. He says the site has 30 million page views a day. He and Mahboob recently expanded their partnership to install computer labs in other Central Asian countries, and to develop e-learning and testing platforms for use in those schools. Mahboob’s university classmate and co-investor Fereshteh Forough plans to move to New York by the end of the year to open an office there.

“Let’s give the kids the Internet and let them choose what they want their future to be,” Rulli says. “I have three kids. I know ‘Angry Birds’ is a stronger weapon against the Taliban than anything else.”

Late one spring evening as Mahboob and I enjoyed the breeze at Takht-e-Safar, the mountain-side park that overlooks Herat, she told me: “You know, in Afghanistan, we women are not supposed to go out, run the business, but I don’t agree with this.” The park is a popular retreat for Heratis, but past sundown, it is mainly the refuge of men clumped together on car hoods or blankets. Hidden by the darkness and foliage, Mahboob and I could allow our head scarves to loosen.

“If we can’t prove to 100 people that women have ability and skills, we can prove it to at least 10 people,” she says. “That’s enough.”

Mahboob tells me that she first discovered the Web in high school in 2003, when she saw her cousin in Iran use Yahoo messenger. Her lack of knowledge shamed her. She immediately saw how isolated she had been among Iran’s Afghan refugees and how the Web could connect her not only to Afghanistan but to the rest of the world. So, when her family moved to Herat just across the Iranian border later that year, she enrolled in Information and communications technology courses offered for women by the United Nations Development Programme.

Recognizing technology’s power to connect her to the rest of the world, she pursued a computer sciences degree at Herat University. After graduation she stayed on as a junior faculty member in the university’s computer lab. There she first got a taste of her biggest obstacle in business: she’s a woman.

Slender, 5-feet tall and partial to fashionable tunics, skinny jeans, and heels, curly bangs escape from her headscarf onto her forehead. “When I started working at university, all people were thinking that I am a typist,” she says. “I created websites, databases for them, but they never even mention our names. They mentioned my deputy when he was a man.”

Even today, when responding to contract bids at ministries in Kabul, Mahboob says bureaucrats often openly disbelieve that she is the CEO of her own company. She has recently pitched the Ministry of Public Health for services on an IT contract. “She is a woman,” Mahboob says of the minister. “I hope she will listen.”

Such paternal condescension is fairly common, and Mahboob has learned to navigate around the soft discrimination. But the opposition is also, frequently, more sinister.

One afternoon in late May, Mahboob picks up her ringing cellphone. Without saying anything—she makes a slight face—she pushes the button to hang up the line.

Physical threats from anonymous male callers come almost daily. While her own father and brother support her efforts at ACS, many in the conservative community of Herat do not. “They call and call and call, saying ‘I will pay you, too,’ as if I am doing bad things to get business,” she says.

For many conservative men, Mahboob’s having business meetings with unrelated men on her own—a basic of doing business–is akin to prostituting herself: the business men can only be paying her for one thing, and that is sex.

Ahkhtar Mohammed Mahboob says he, too, receives phone calls asking why he doesn’t force his daughter to abandon her business. “It has been difficult for us, for our family,” he says after breakfast at the Herat home he shares with his wife; his daughters, Roya and Elha; and his son, Ali.

“Maybe they will hurt Roya but I can’t change myself or my daughter,” he says, quietly. “This is her time. We cannot stop progress.”

Mahboob used to switch among an assortment of SIM cards to deflect her harassers, but is now resigned to the taunting and threats. For the last eight months, she’s kept the same cellphone number.

“What can I do?” Mahboob asks. “I have to keep working for my company, for my country. We have to stay focused on helping girls.”

Angela Shah is a journalist based in Dubai whose work has appeared in The New York Times, TIME and The Dallas Morning News.

Afghanistan’s Olympic champion

My latest story in The New York Times, a feature on Rohullah Nikpah, Afghanistan’s only Olympic medalist.

 

 

No Longer Unknown, Afghan Athlete Has Eyes on Gold

By ANGELA SHAH

KABUL — It was only by chance that a 10-year-old Rohullah Nikpah found taekwondo.

Unlike most Olympic athletes, Nikpah was not groomed from an early age to compete. Rather, he grew up in a refugee camp in Iran, and one day he accompanied his brother to a makeshift gym for a taekwondo sparring session.

The connection was immediate, a little like love at first sight.

“I just enjoyed practicing this sport,” he said simply.

He does more than enjoy it. Just four years after returning to Afghanistan from life as a refugee, Nikpah was standing on the podium at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a bronze medal around his neck. Unlikely as it may seem, that day produced Afghanistan’s first Olympic medalist.

Photo by Gabriela Maj

When Nikpah defeated the Spanish world champion Juan Antonio Ramos in the 58-kilogram, or 128-pound, category, he became a national hero in a place that has seen few in the past 30 years. To welcome him home, thousands of his countrymen gathered in Ghazi Stadium, which, until then, had been known more for the Taliban’s public executions, including stoning women to death.

When the preliminary round in taekwondo starts Aug. 8, Nikpah will no longer be an unknown but a returning champion. And this time he has his eyes on the gold. “I don’t have any stress for this competition, and I hope to Allah to go there and I will bring a good achievement back to the country,” he said.

Having moved up two weight classes since the Beijing Olympics, Nikpah is ranked 13th by the World Taekwondo Federation in the men’s 68-kilogram category.

If Hollywood is looking for its next hero, Nikpah fills the bill. Born two years before the Taliban took power in 1989, his family — ethnic Hazaras, a minority community that suffered discrimination under the Taliban — had to escape to Iran, where Nikpah grew up among fellow Afghan exiles and discovered taekwondo, a hugely popular sport there.

His family returned to Afghanistan in 2004. At age 21, Nikpah not only competed in his first Olympics, he took home a medal. He is tall, fit and blessed with movie-star looks. Even his haircut is popular with young men eager to imitate their hero. For a nation synonymous with the destruction of war, he is a welcome face of a new Afghanistan.

Photo by Gabriela Maj

“We are the young generation and can introduce our country to the world through the sports,” he said one morning at the Kabul home he shares with his family, a gift from President Hamid Karzai for his showing in Beijing.

Expectations are high in London. “He will definitely medal,” said Usman Dildar, an Afghan member of the London Organizing Committee who runs a large taekwondo studio in London. “What color? Inshallah, we’re hoping for gold.”

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The crackdown expands

My latest story in The New York Times about an escalation this week in arrests of Emiratis who are calling for more political freedoms and free speech rights. U.A.E. state security authorities say the men are a threat to the country’s stability.

 

 

Detentions of activists are reported in U.A.E.

DUBAI

By ANGELA SHAH

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Mohamed al-Roken drove toward his local police station here to report that his son and son-in-law were missing. Along the way, he found himself surrounded by plainclothes security officers and detained, according to his family.

Mr. Roken, along with his son, Rashid, and son-in-law, Abdulla al-Hajeri, are 3 of at least 14 Emiratis who have been arrested since Monday morning by the United Arab Emirates state security apparatus, human rights advocates and family members said. Nearly two dozen activists are now being held by the authorities.

The arrests are part of a widening crackdown on U.A.E. citizens, some of them Islamists but also academics and stateless people known as bidoon.

“This may be a way to frighten opposition on all sides,” said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf issues at Durham University in England.

This week’s crackdown comes days before the expected start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and highlights an increasingly public conflict in the Emirates.

Unlike many Arab countries, the Emirates have emerged largely unscathed from the unrest that has spread across the region from the Arab Spring that began 18 months ago.

But a debate on free speech and political freedom among Emiratis has emerged, as the leaders here try to maintain a balance between the more conservative character of their neighbors and a desire to preserve their status as a Western-style business hub.

While the trend among natives is still to keep quiet and enjoy the comfortable life provided by the rulers, a small group of activists is agitating for greater political participation — and drawing the attention of the authorities.

Bushra al-Roken, Mohamed al-Roken’s daughter, said the family received a phone call from her father at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

“We couldn’t understand that much,” she said, “but we could hear voices and my father saying, ‘They’re taking me.”’

On Sunday, the state media issued a statement saying the authorities were investigating “a group of people who established and ran an organization which aims to commit crimes against the security and constitution of the country.” Members of this group have “connections with foreign organizations and agendas,” the statement added.

Mr. Roken, a lawyer, was defending several Emiratis who had been arrested on charges of threatening state security. Many of those arrested are members of Al Islah Reform and Social Guidance Association, which holds beliefs similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamic organization.

Many of these activists say they would like to see Islam play a more prominent role in everyday life in the Emirates, and they have also called for a more democratic political system in the country, a group of seven principalities ruled by hereditary emirs.

The authorities regard Al Islah as a homegrown proxy for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that they see as gaining influence in the region — especially after the recent election of a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as Egypt’s president.

The families of those detained are scrambling to find them. Asma al-Siddiq said her husband, Omran al-Redhwan, was arrested Monday morning at the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank in Sharjah, where he works as a legal consultant. Ms. Siddiq said she had not heard from the authorities about the reason for her husband’s arrest or where he was being held.

“I am looking at social media sites, Twitter to try to find information,” she said.

The arrests followed the deportation to Thailand on Monday morning of Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, a resident of Ajman, the smallest of the emirates, who was one of the original activists arrested and tried last year.

The men, who were convicted in November of threatening state security and insulting the country’s leaders, were sentenced to three years in prison before being pardoned days after the verdict.

Mr. Khaleq was born in the Emirates, but he is a bidoon, or stateless Arab.

Estimates of the number of bidoon range from 10,000 to 100,000, human-rights advocates say. They belong to families with ties to other parts of the Gulf or Iran, or that failed to obtain citizenship when the United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971. They say they are cut out of the Emirates’ generous social welfare system and complain of discrimination in jobs.

Last month, Mr. Khaleq was given a choice of where to be deported — Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan or Thailand. He chose Thailand, though he had no relations there, said Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist and blogger who was among the group arrested with Mr. Abdul Khaleq last year.