More ‘Al Basleh’

I should’ve waited for the week to end before posting

While reading the Letters to the Editor today, I read one on this gem of a story: “Abu Dhabi man accused of rape ‘innocent because he was wearing jeans’ ” The alleged Bangladeshi rapist attacked the Filippina woman at night and put a hand on her mouth to prevent her from screaming, according to the article. This the response of the defense:

‘She said the defendant was wearing jeans, how could he undo his jeans and take them off without using both his hands? asked the lawyer.

The letter-writing reader was astonished that any self-respecting lawyer would actually utter such a defense in court. Sadly, in googling to find this story, I think I’ve found where the lawyer got his inspiration. (#facepalm)

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.

The girls in Herat

One of the aspects of being a journalist that I love is the opportunity to meet so many different people, in all kinds of circumstances, in all kinds of lives. On my recent trip to Herat, I was able to visit a couple of girls’ schools. I attended the inauguration of the school’s first computer lab and as things were wrapping up, I peeked behind the curtain to see at least half a dozen tents filled with rows and rows of girls in matching white headscarves doing their lessons.

The school, which teaches girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon, simply doesn’t have enough classrooms. It was humbling to see these girls sitting cross-legged on the ground as their teacher went through the lessons armed only with a chalkboard smaller than the big screen TVs most of us have in our homes.

The school is located in a poorer area of the city and many of the girls come from conservative homes. Just being able to attend school is a very big deal. Having computers and Internet access, one student told me, is her connection to the rest of the world.

‘The Help’

Forgive me, but in the last few weeks Donna Summer has been ringing in my head.

No, I’m not on an ’80s nostalgia trip. But reading this and this does makes me wonder how Summer’s everywoman would have reacted to this statement:

“The problem is not whether maids will use their days off to run away. Rather, the exponential increase in days off may lead them to squander their hard-earned pay instead of saving it to help finance a better life when they return home. The higher risk of promiscuity, extramarital affairs and unintended pregnancies are also possible consequences.”

This was one reason cited by a letter writer to Singapore’s Straits Times about why housemaids should not get ONE day off a week. This particular person cited the hardship on her family. Who would take care of the children or the elderly if the maid has the day off??

Uh …. you?

How do you get to a place where you believe that is a valid argument supporting essentially slave-like conditions for your employees. And not just any employee: These are the people who care for your children and your elderly parents! They live in your home!

The sad thing is, I’m not surprised by such attitudes. That Singaporean letter writer has plenty of company in the Gulf. Most expatriate and Emirati families here, too, have at least one nanny to take care of the kids. At the malls it’s not uncommon to see two or three Filippina/Indonesian women steering the baby stroller or keeping hold of an unruly child’s hand — in addition to carting around the shopping bags — as the parents glide undisturbed in front.

Continue reading “‘The Help’”

Art Dubai, minus the Arab Spring

With the Sikka Art Fair in Bastakiya and Art Dubai following it last week, Dubai was buzzing with artistic options. I made it only to a handful of events and showings – some of us gotta work, you know – but I did enjoy the exhibits and the cultural chatter. While Sikka focused more on supporting local artists and had a more casual feel, Art Dubai was a larger affair – with all the requisite VIP receptions and after-parties – that attracted artists and galleries from all over the world. Among the sculpture, mixed-media and painting at Art Dubai I really liked “China,” a series of seven porcelain vases by Raed Yassin.

The vases were produced in Jingdezhen, China’s capital of porcelain, but instead of featuring illustrations of Chinese dynastic warriors a thousand years ago, these illustrate a more recent conflict: that of the civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990. Though the violence has ended there, Yessin wants to show the “uneasy amnesia” and the “absence of historical narrative that reigns in Lebanon in order to keep a brittle peace.” These blue-and-white vases are entitled “War of the Hotels,” “The Battle for Tal al-Zaatar,” “The Israeli invasion of Beirut,” and “The so-called War of Liberation.” I liked how Yassin used what seems like an ancient medium to illustrate modern conflict.

Unfortunately, a more recent conflict – that of the Arab Spring which began a little more than a year ago – was deemed unacceptable and two works were literally pulled off of the walls at the Madinat Jumeirah after the show opened Wednesday. According to a video report in the International Business Times, an online business newspaper, the two works are a painting titled “After Washing” by Libyan artist Shadi Alzaqaouq, which depicts a woman holding a pair of men’s underwear with the word “Leave” written on it. “Leave,” or “Irhal,” in Arabic was commonly heard throughout protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as people protested against their autocratic regimes.

The second work to be removed was a wall-sized painting by Moroccan artist Zakaria Ramhani, which showed the Egyptian female protester who was beaten up and stripped down by the army to her blue bra. Ironically, both works deemed unacceptable for display at Dubai’s most prestigious art gathering had been being shown at a local art gallery here in Dubai.

On Friday, Filippino performer Carlos Celdran was questioned by authorities in the middle of his one-man show, “Living la vida Imelda,” which contains political and religious humor, including a fictional conversation between the former Philippines first lady and the late Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddhafi, according to the GMA News in the Philippines. He imagines “Imelda telling Gaddafi, ‘Islam is all about peace, and if you are funding a war in my country that is pitting Filipino against Filipino, you are also pitting Muslim against Muslim. How are you following Mohammed?'”

Authorities asked the comic to turn the humor down several notches, but that would have meant cutting more than half the show. He cancelled his scheduled appearance Saturday and flew home.

Book review: ‘We Meant Well’


Al Arabiya

There’s been an increase of news reports recently assessing portions of the legacy of the work and money spent by international forces along with aid workers in Afghanistan.

If the book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped to Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” provides any insight, the legacy could be defined by a few successes, but also, sadly, an overall environment of inefficiency, ignorance and a startling cluelessness that even billions of dollars couldn’t cure.

Written by Peter Van Buren, a career U.S. foreign service officer who volunteered to lead one of Iraq’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams in 2009-2010, the book describes the civilian side to counter-insurgency, the reconstruction effort that was supposed to salve the military campaign started by coalition forces in 2003.

His eyewitness account of a year spent in Iraq working with civilian and military colleagues, along with on-the-make opportunists on both sides, is often hilarious. On describing two colonels prone to speak entirely in sports metaphors, Van Buren writes, “this must have driven the al-Qaeda spies listening in insane, wondering where the hell this ‘goal line’ was.”

But the humor doesn’t mask his ultimate conclusion about the nation-building efforts of America and its allies. “Our efforts, well-meaning but always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect to local work with national goals,” he writes. “Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together,” something akin to letting loose a troop of monkeys typing, and thinking the effort might produce Shakespeare.

In “We Meant Well,” Van Buren chronicles jaw-dropping sums being spent on a dizzying array of programs. At $63 billion and counting, “we were the ones who famously helped paste feathers together year after year, hoping for a duck.”

Projects to repair or build the basics of Iraq’s infrastructure – water and sewage systems, the electricity grid, even picking up the trash – failed due to a combination of crossed communications, moral hazard and simple disorganization. A profound naivete and ignorance – boosted by a seemingly endless supply of cash – pervades the narrative. “It wasn’t so much that we were conned, it was as if we demanded to be cheated and would not take no for an answer,” he writes.

It’s an unexpectedly candid account from a sitting foreign service officer and it seems he’s paid a price for it. A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Department of State with posts largely in East Asia, he says he is now banished to a sort of diplomatic purgatory, employed but stripped of the security clearance he needs to take postings abroad. Forbidden from entering the American diplomatic mothership, he currently works from his home in northern Virginia.

A notable success was a 4-H club, “a sort of Boy Scouts for little farmers,” as he calls it that became a community center for local residents in Mahmudiya. Trips to get children dental care were organized, pen pals from Montana obtained. “We spent almost no money on it, empowered no local thugs, did not distort the local economy, turned it over as soon as possible to the local Iraqis and got out of the way,” he writes. “The kids’ selection of officers for the club was their first experience of grassroots democracy. The powerful sheikh’s son went home crying because he lost the race to a farmer’s kid, and did not have anyone’s throat to slit in retaliation.”

He expresses hope that the 4-H club would still be a thriving enterprise a year later, unlike so many of their other ventures. But when an IED exploded across the street the day after the club’s building had been filled with children, Van Buren realized how close it came to be that a place that had been a source of so much joy could be turned to one of sorrow. He writes, “Every small step forward seemed followed by some tragedy.”

(Angela Shah is a freelance writer based in Dubai and has written for The New York Times and TIME magazine, among other publications. She can be reached at

Arab Voices Before the ‘Spring’

For many people, 2011 was the year of an awakened Arabia, whose voices served as the catalyst for the oft-mentioned “Spring.” Sultan Al Qassemi, who writes the Felix Arabia blog, gained a measure of fame himself during this season of Arab discontent and revolution. Still, as powerful as these voices are, Al Qassemi recently wrote in Jadaliyya, an online publication produced by the Arab Studies Institute, about the voices who came before tweets and Facebook status updates.

Today the number of Twitter and Facebook users in the Gulf is estimated to be in the millions. Many are outspoken and critical of Gulf Arab regime policies, religious establishments, and the stagnation of social and political reform. There is no doubt that this space for online peaceful dissent would be even narrower and less tolerated than it is today had it not been for the courageous activism of the Arab and Gulf blogging pioneers. A majority of these social media pioneers have incorporated new mediums into their activism, but a few chose to stop blogging altogether. Some are no longer with us today, while others have gone into hiding in fear of being jailed.

The story introduces readers to many of these pioneer Arab voices, some of whom are now silent — willingly or unwillingly. As we look forward to 2012, which will likely reveal further change in the Arab world, it’s worth keeping in mind those who spoke out even when the world’s spotlight wasn’t shining on them.

Gag order, revisited

In October, the International Bar Association held its annual meeting in Dubai. But it almost didn’t happen. Here is my story for the ABA Journal, including an interview with IBA leader Mark Ellis, who recounted how they managed to assuage security officials’ concern and prevent a last-minute herding of the group’s 5,000 attorneys to an alternate convention location.


Daunting Dubai: Security Officials Nearly Force Cancellation of IBA Annual Meeting

By Angela Shah

Two years ago, the International Bar Association agreed to convene its 2011 annual gathering in Dubai, a key vote of confidence for the Persian Gulf city-state, even as its economy was teetering toward insolvency.

But the meeting, which took place in October and usually draws 5,000 lawyers from across the globe, was nearly canceled five weeks before its start after Dubai security officials objected to the titles of seven panel discussions that they said could threaten political stability in the United Arab Emirates and the broader Gulf region.

Mark Ellis, president of the London-based IBA, says he had to make an emergency trip to Dubai to address the concerns of local security officials, who said the conference discussions could be “a possible catalyst for individuals to act against the government.”

According to Ellis, security officials in Dubai objected to panel discussions on topics including the death penalty, migrant workers and human rights. Ultimately, seven sessions were renamed to satisfy Emirati authorities, and the conference went ahead as planned. Security officials in Dubai could not be reached for comment.

Rather than ‘death penalty,’ we used ‘capital punishment,’ ” Ellis says. “Rather than ‘extraterritorial jurisdiction,’ we used ‘universal jurisdiction.’ ”

But a session devoted to “women and Islam” did not survive. After it was renamed “Women and the Law,” IBA officials deemed it too generic to attract much attendance and scrapped it.

Ellis stresses that no censorship took place, only cosmetic changes regarding the names of the panels. He says his organization created “red lines” that it wouldn’t cross.

“We still had the same discussions that we would’ve had under the old names,” Ellis says. “If the security branch had insisted that we cancel any of these sessions or insisted on preventing any speaker from participating in the conference or if they had attempted to influence the content of any of these sessions, we would have canceled the conference.”

The IBA had even identified Barcelona as a likely backup site, he adds.

The conflict highlights the difficult balance that Dubai, which has positioned itself as a global trade hub on par with London or Hong Kong, must keep since it remains a deeply conservative society governed by Shariah. The emirate, one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates, is governed by an autocratic sheikh and dissent is not tolerated. Authorities arrested five Emirati bloggers in April 2011 for posts that allegedly endangered national security. The men were on trial in Abu Dhabi this past November.

Ellis attributes the IBA’s conflict with Dubai security authorities to heightened sensitivities related to the Arab Spring.

The United Arab Emirates has not seen the sort of protests that have occurred in neighboring Yemen and Bahrain, but leaders are vigilant. “What’s disappointing for me more than anything else is that Dubai presented themselves as a much more open culture and society, a gateway to the Middle East,” Ellis says. “The conference was a wonderful opportunity for the U.A.E. and Dubai to play a constructive role [in showing] what was happening in the region. Instead, it was just the opposite.”


A number of U.S. magazines have launched Middle Eastern editions based out of Dubai in the last year. The latest is publishing stalwart, Good Housekeeping, which had its debut this month. My friend Eileen Lee was doing the makeup for the premiere edition of “Look for a Lifestyle,” a monthly feature where Danielle Elmes, the magazine’s stylist, revamps hair, makeup and wardrobe. I happily volunteered to be the first guinea pig back in October. I tried Kera Straight on my hair for the first time — wow, it really does knock out the frizz — and got to rummage around GH’s trunk o’ goodies, including couture like the DVF dress I ultimately modeled. The weather had just started to cool off so we did the main photo shoot in the outdoor bar area in front of the Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel, much to the curiosity of guests and staff. (Ha! My minutes of fame!) It was definitely a pleasant afternoon.

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