World' first albino beauty pageant defies deadly stigma
NAIROBI, Oct 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With its evening gowns, celebrity judges and tears of joy, the beauty pageant in Kenya's capital was like others elsewhere, except for one thing - all 20 contestants who strutted, sashayed and swaggered down the catwalk had albinism.
In the world's first contest of its kind, 10 men and 10 women competed in the Mr and Miss Albinism Kenya pageant this month in Nairobi. Its motto was "Beauty Beyond the Skin".
The competition, which drew a crowd of about 1,000 including Deputy President William Ruto, was designed to celebrate people with albinism - who lack pigment in their skin, hair and eyes - and challenge stigma and persecution.
"Even when I was dating, it was difficult for girls to say I'm handsome," said Isaac Mwaura, Kenya's first parliamentarian with albinism and founder of the Albinism Society of Kenya, which organised the pageant.
"I knew I was handsome (but) people with albinism are seen as not beautiful, as not good-looking, and that has an effect on their self esteem," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
People with albinism are frequently shunned, attacked and even killed across Africa. In many countries, their body parts are believed to bring wealth and good luck and are prized in witchcraft for use in charms and magical potions.
Albinism is a congenital disorder affecting up to one in 15,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Witch doctors are willing to pay as much as $75,000 for a full set of albino limbs for use in black magic, according to the Red Cross.
Attacks on albinos in Africa rose at the end of last year, linked to a growing demand from political hopefuls seeking good fortune in the run-up to elections in several countries, according to the U.N.'s first human rights expert on albinism.
Mwaura said albinism is seen as a curse in Kenya and all contestants have been taunted and called "zeru", which means "ghost", or "pesa", a Swahili word for money, in reference to the value of their body parts.
"Our girls are not getting married," Mwaura said. "They are beautiful women, and you find people don't want to walk around town with them, so we thought, 'Let's use this opportunity to confront stigma and discrimination.'"
Female competitors line up on stage at the beginning round of the Mr and Miss Albinism Kenya pageant in Nairobi in October. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Amanda Fisher
GLITTER AND TEARS
Like the other contestants, 19-year-old Lucianah Nyawira took part in a week-long boot camp to get ready for the competition. There they practised poses and got preened and plucked into shape.
With high cheekbones, pouty lips and blue doe eyes, the pageant's youngest contestant had been modelling for the past two years, while studying international relations in Nairobi.
The girl from the rural county of Kirinyaga recently landed a six-month contract in Paris that she will take up in January.
But success abroad doesn't match her treatment at home.
"Recently the judges told me, 'You can never be a model,'" she said. "'We just want dark-skinned models.' They told me I'm wasting their time and my time so I should just pack my things and go."
Nyawira said rejection began with her first breath. When her father saw his wife had given birth to an ostensibly white baby, he kicked them out, imagining his daughter was the product of an affair with a "mzungu" - a white foreigner.
"I feel if I have the crown people will listen to me," she said before the final judging. "If I have the crown, I can go to my governor and tell him, 'I'm Miss Albinism Kenya,' and ask him questions: 'What are you doing for people with albinism in this county?'"
In the end, Nyawira didn't win.
"I'll just concentrate on high fashion from now," she said, her face stained with tears and glitter.
DREAM COME TRUE
At 28, the contest's oldest male competitor, John Ngatia, has a boyish charm and a refusal to acknowledge limitations.
Married with a five-month-old son, Ngatia has achieved something that eludes many Kenyans - he has a permanent job, working for Kenya's Water Resource Management Authority.
But he said the beauty pageant brought to life something he had long yearned for.
"This is my dream come true. Now I feel like a professional model. I can even teach people how to catwalk."
Ngatia said his successes in life had a lot to do with attitude.
"I do anything (others) are doing. Sometimes I even forget I'm a person with albinism, unless a person starts reacting differently. That's when I remember, 'Oh, I'm different.'"
After the pageant, Ngatia was upbeat about taking the first runner-up position and magnanimous in defeat.
"I feel nice, even though I didn't get Mr Albinism - I don't have any grudge with my friend (winner Jairus Ongetta). I'm making jokes with him."
Pageant organiser Mwaura wasn't worried the event risked damaging already delicate self-esteem.
"They're competing amongst themselves so there's no room for somebody to say, 'I was discriminated against.'"
He said he had high hopes for the pageant's future, including producing a Miss Kenya with albinism. He also wants to make the pageant pan-African, and eventually global.
"We need to actually tell our story from our point of view because most of the time when our story is told by other people they say it from a point of pity. We want to show that, yes, there's a positive side to albinism."
(Reporting by Amanda Fisher; editing by Katie Nguyen and Timothy Large; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
How Kenyan women broke their silence on HIV and escaped poverty
Joyce Nipher takes anti-retroviral drugs to combat her HIV diagnosis in her home in Nairobi.
WHEN JOYCE NIPHER’S husband Moses was confronted with the possibility he might have AIDS, he threatened to poison his entire family if anyone tried to test him to confirm it. So, when he was admitted to the hospital with tuberculosis, and tests showed that he did have AIDS, he was never told of his diagnosis. Moses died without ever knowing his status.
Leaving his wife as a jobless AIDS widow in 2006, Moses marked the third AIDS death in Nipher’s family, after her uncle in 1995 and her sister in 1999. He also left Nipher with HIV-positive status. Whether she contracted the virus from Moses, an alcoholic with a propensity for extramarital affairs, or from a blood transfusion, she isn’t sure. But her own near-death experience led her to a life helping other Kenyans living with HIV, offering support and comfort to people whose communities are quick to judge – and shun.
Shortly after Moses died, Nipher’s three sons – then aged between 7 and 14 – discovered their mother lying on the floor of their one-room house in the small Nairobi slum of Kijiji. They ran and found Hanne Howard, a German who had just started a nongovernmental organization in their shantytown, and begged for help. Howard still remembers watching Nipher being carried out of her home and taken to hospital, a sack of bones. “She was really on her deathbed,” says Howard. “I never expected to see her again.”
But Nipher, now 48, recovered, and within a few months was volunteering with Howard’s organization. At first, the NGO gave her funding to hold AIDSawareness training sessions around the community. By 2008, she had formed her own organization Women Against Stigma (WAS), whose central tenet is that its members disclose their HIV statuses in a bid to combat the shame associated with the condition.
“People hide their status because there is fear. If you are a woman and you want a man, or you’re a man who needs a woman, people don’t want you,” says Nipher. “This is why they hide their status.”
More than 70 percent of the world’s 36.7 million HIV cases are in sub-Saharan Africa, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. Kenya ranks fourth globally in terms of HIV populations, with 1.5 million people living with the virus in a country of 44 million. And women account for a disproportionate 60 percent of Kenyan adults with HIV, with young women leading the rate of new infections.
This is one reason why WAS members are all women. Since its launch, the group has grown to include 26 women, almost all of whom have suffered the kind of ostracization that leads to financial hardship. In poor communities, an HIV-positive status often sees women either being disowned by their families or losing their jobs – or, in many cases, both will happen. Earlier this year, a woman from the community was beaten to death by her boyfriend when he discovered she had HIV, Nipher says.
According to Mariangela Simao, director of rights, gender, prevention and community mobilization for UNAIDS, discrimination and stigma present two separate but onerous challenges for women with HIV. “We always speak of the two of them together, but they mean different things,” she says. “Stigma is actually more difficult to address.”
Discrimination can be met with legal action, Simao says, but stigma is more about internal attitudes. She says that, while up to 70 percent of countries have some laws that would protect people living with HIV from discrimination, including employment discrimination, that doesn’t prevent the associated stigma.
“People have a high knowledge of HIV transmission in some countries … 96 percent know it’s sexually transmitted, but 25 percent would not buy food if they knew the person selling it was HIV positive,” says Simao. “This is not rational, because you know it’s not transmitted by contact.”
Nipher has firsthand experience of that stigma – she lost her house-cleaning job once her boss discovered she was taking antiretrovirals. While only about half of Women Against Stigma’s members are publicly open about their statuses, for most, the bigger incentive of joining is support – both moral and economic.
Beads made by Joyce Nipher with the NGO Women Against Stigma. (Amanda Fisher)
The WAS women have banded together to microfinance each other in a number of different income-generating activities, including beading necklaces, tie-dying clothes, making detergents and weaving baskets. The group initially loans each member 6,000 Kenyan shillings ($60) to invest in supplies they would otherwise never have the capital to buy. They must pay back the money over six months with 10 percent interest. All the interest accrued is held jointly in an account that in turn gains interest, creating a pool of money from which to channel back into the businesses, share profits or – when things are going well – launch new businesses.
“These women are very strong, hard-working people. It is important they can help themselves,” says Nipher.
The money she’s made with funding from WAS has enabled Nipher to move out of Kijiji, where houses are made from corrugated iron, to the neighboring, concrete community of Kibera.
Fellow WAS member Jones Ayuma, 47, has also been able to move out of the slum. She joined WAS after discovering her HIV status during door-to-door testing in 2010. Since then, she has become one of Nipher’s closest comrades and lives practically next door to the woman she describes as a sister.
“Those who fear stigma and don’t disclose their status, that works against them eventually,” says Ayuma. “They don’t get knowledge on how to take care of themselves, or any opportunity or economic activity. They lock themselves out of everything.”
Ayuma’s brother, sister and father all died of AIDS. “They died because of stigma. They didn’t want to even take pills,” she says.
Her mother and another sister are also HIV positive, and Ayuma has encouraged them to come into the open. Disclosing an HIV status can be like breaking out of prison, she says.
But UNAIDS director Simao cautions against pushing anyone to disclose their status who isn’t ready. She points to the “increasing trend” of criminalization of HIV transmission, citing a 2014 case where an HIV-positive Ugandan nurse was put on trial – and excoriated by the media – after accidentally exposing a newborn to her blood during an injection. Despite the baby not contracting the virus, the nurse was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
For Nipher, being open about her HIV status has brought more good than bad to her life. While she used to face prejudice as a result of her candor, she says people have come to see her value.
“They have changed their minds because they can see I’m the one who helps most of the people in the community,” she says.
Kenya's Illegal Abortions
Nairobi, Kenya - In the wood-panelled interior of Nairobi's High Court, a battle is due to begin on December 15 that will determine whether hundreds of thousands of women each year are committing criminal acts.
The issue of abortion in Kenya has been mired in confusion and contention for the past six years.
In 2010, a new constitution was passed, heralded globally as a progressive foundational document for its principles of gender equality in parliament; freedom of media; and formation of an independent Human Rights and Equality Commission to investigate human rights abuses.
The trouble is that much of what was included has met resistance and debate.
That includes the three provisions that permit abortions where, "in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is a need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law."
Reproductive rights advocates filed a petition against the Ministry of Health and Attorney General last year, alleging a lack of guidelines and policy is putting the health - and lives - of women in danger.
In 2008, the World Health Organization said Eastern and Middle Africa had the highest global rates of unsafe abortions, at 36 per 1,000 reproductive-aged women.
Josephine Mongare, the chair of Kenya's Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) that led the petition, said how wide the interpretation of "health" is - such as whether it includes emotional or mental health - and what constitutes a "trained health professional" needs guidance.
"This is what the law has not defined and the doctor must make those decisions," she said. Unlike other jurisdictions with similar laws, there are no further laws, guidelines or policies in place to expand on the succinct constitutional passage.
The Ministry of Health put out guidelines in 2012 to help doctors determine whether they could legally perform an abortion, before withdrawing them in 2013 after a caustic backlash in this staunchly Christian country.
Father Raphael Wanjohi is the country director of the Kenyan chapter of American Christian anti-abortion rights organisation Human Life International.
He said it was not the place for the Ministry of Health to guide medics on when to terminate a human life, as the church sees abortion - and therefore it was necessary for the guidelines to be retracted.
"Who has given these individuals the right to decide who should die?" said Wanjohi.
The issue of abortion must be decided by all quarters of society, he said, and it is the role of the church to safeguard human life.
"Human life is sacred, that’s what we hold, right from conception until natural death. There is no room for saying so and so should be eliminated or that right should be waived away," he said.
Among other things, the 2012 guidelines outlined where, how, by whom and under which circumstances an abortion should be performed. Crucially, it also stated that mental health was included in the criteria of 'health.'
After the retraction, the director of medical services wrote a memo to all health workers directing them not to participate in safe abortion training.
Mongare said that any doctor who performs an abortion assumes a great deal of legal risk, which makes most reluctant to perform the procedure. This, she added, prompts women to turn to dangerous back-alley abortions and witchdoctors.
"People have to look for backstreet medical institutions, those who will not be held accountable by anyone. It's a statement of fact that women die when abortions are done by unqualified people," she said.
Based on 2012 statistics, the Kenya Medical Association (KMA) estimates that nearly 465,000 Kenyan women undergo abortions each year.
Professor Boaz Otieno-Nyunya convenor of the KMA Reproductive Health Committee, estimated more than half of all abortions are performed unsafely, with herbs, coat hangers, spoons, knitting needles and harmful pharmaceuticals.
If I had a second thought, I would have kept the baby. But I only had one thought: to take out the baby because the man rejected me, my mum doesn't know I'm pregnant, where will I end up? Instead of killing myself I decided to kill the baby.
"Mary", a teenager who survived illegal abortion in Nairobi.
In the past, criminal cases have been taken against medical professionals who have performed abortions, heightening the need to establish legality around abortion.
According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data, between 2011 and 2015 there were 177 cases reported to police against men and women for "procuring abortion" - the offence that both women seeking abortions and medics are generally charged with, though several have been charged with murder.
The FIDA petition wants the court to decide whether the Ministry of Health is failing constitutional duties by having retracted the guidelines.
In February, a High Court judge determined that a bench of three judges should be appointed by the Chief Justice to hear the public interest case - with 17 different social, religious and legal groups lining up to have their say during the case in December.
Human rights NGO, the East African Centre for Law and Justice, which uses legal avenues to advocate for change, is one of those submitters.
Executive director Joy Mdivo said that abortion has no legal force in the country without extra legislation.
"The constitution by definition is framework, it is never policy, it's never legislation … if you ask me, it should have remained with 'Everybody has a right to life'. How this is interpreted should be left to our parliament and elected representatives. "
In Kenya, she added, "personhood" is presumed at conception. That means abortion is choosing one person's life over another, she said, and should only be done when a mother's life is in danger.
Mongare, however, said that the constitution is legally binding in itself; a point of constitutional law that will be determined during the December case.
Mongare wants to see abortion legalised so that women can have access to safe abortions conducted by medical professionals without fear of reprisal. Mdivo believes that the best solution is to improve adoption and fostering options so women don't turn to abortion out of desperation.
What both women can agree on, however, is that the numbers of women undergoing dangerous and unhygienic abortion are too high.
It took Phyllis, who declined to give her real name, two weeks to realise that her husband wasn't coming back to her. He had taken all of their possessions, including her clothes and their marital bed; but left behind a four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.
"He took everything. He told me we are going back home to the countryside … he was meant to come back for me but he never came [and] I had to remain with the children, struggling."
With no money, Phyllis, now 35, said she turned to survival sex in exchange for food and shelter in the Nairobi slum where they were living.
"Phyllis", who survived an illegal abortion, works in her home salon [Amanda Fisher/Al Jazeera]
"I got a friend who was helping me. He wanted me to have his child and foolishly I was engaging in unprotected sex, hoping not to get pregnant. "
The man had a wife and family in his hometown but Phyllis felt unable to refuse his sexual demands - she needed him.
Five months pregnant and scared, Phyllis found a woman inside the slum who said she could terminate her pregnancy.
She arrived at a makeshift clinic in the woman's brother's shanty house early one morning.
Several hours after the abortion, which she was awake for but has no idea how it was performed, she was struck by stomach cramps and heavy bleeding that lasted for days. During this time she was in fits of tears and couldn't eat.
What followed was a month of light bleeding, then months more of unpleasant-smelling discharge that only stopped once she visited a doctor outside the slum.
Her relationship soon dissolved and Phyllis took a vow of abstinence for another year until she had unprotected sex with another man.
This led to another abortion in her slum, though this time she had an uncomplicated procedure.
Phyllis said she never considered she could die from an abortion; but the danger is real.
Otieno-Nyunya said unsafe abortion is the single leading cause of maternal death.
"A third of maternal deaths, 2,000 or so deaths, that occur every year can be tracked to abortion and abortion complications," he said.
At 15, Mary was unaware both of the risks of unprotected sex and unsafe abortion. She was persuaded to have sex with her boyfriend, who promised her "heaven and earth," to sleep with him.
But then, "I told him 'I'm pregnant.' and he rejected me."
With her boyfriend refusing to marry her, Mary visited a local witch doctor in Nairobi's urban slum Mathare where she lives. On three separate visits the man administered various concoctions made from herbal leaves and eggs, but nothing happened.
"My stomach grew big and [I worried] my mum would beat me."
She visited a local pharmacist who gave her abortion-inducing pharmaceuticals. This time it worked - but left her bed-ridden with spot bleeding for two months and led to her dropping out of school.
She now has a baby with another man, who has since left her, but still lives with regret about the choice she made at a tender age.
"I was very young, but I'm always depressed when I think of it. If I had a second thought, I would have kept the baby. But I only had one thought: to take out the baby because the man rejected me, my mum doesn't know I'm pregnant, where will I end up? Instead of killing myself I decided to kill the baby," said Mary.
Otieno-Nyunya said women from the poorest communities are most adversely affected.
"That's a major part of it globally. Abortion is a class [battle].
"Even in countries where abortion is completely illegal, people go across borders if they have means while, more locally, somebody who has the money will go to a private facility and get a safe abortion. But a woman who cannot afford this will suffer the consequences of unsafe abortion."
For wealthy Kenyans, certain private clinics where doctors are happy to take on the legal uncertainty are an option.
Safe abortions at clinics can cost about 20,000 Kenyan shillings ($200), whereas unsafe abortions are roughly a tenth of that price and payments can be made in instalments. It is not uncommon for household goods, such as televisions, to be included in those payments.
In her slum, Phyllis estimates that there are more than 50 corrugated iron "abortion clinics" for a population of about 100,000.
She said one major obstacle to addressing the issue is a lack of knowledge, access and acceptance of modern contraceptive methods.
Now a reproductive health campaigner in her community, Phyllis has heard countless tales of women hiding contraceptive pills from husbands under the stove, a place many Kenyan men typically don't go near.
"There are myths that women using family planning are cold in bed, they don't like sex, the men cannot enjoy having sex with the women."
But many men will also run away from a wife if she has too many children, she said.
"The challenges I've gone through have made me a strong woman. I don't want women to suffer, I want them to stand by themselves. I want a society where a woman can speak and be heard."
Boxing for Change
Photo Credit: Humphrey Odero
Nairobi, Kenya - In a darkened hall deep inside a slum in Kenya's capital Nairobi, the air is filled with the scent of sweat, Olympic dreams and the thwack of flesh connecting with flesh.
Kenya is known for its running talent, yet among the 99 medals awarded to Kenyan athletes since the country first started participating in the Olympics, one other category stands out: boxing.
The country's only boxing gold medallist, Robert Wangila, one of seven Kenyan Olympic boxing medalists, triumphed in 1988. He got his start at a Nairobi railway workers' social hall which sits in the middle of inner-city slum called Muthurwa. It is now home to one of Kenya's poorest boxing clubs.
The hall, which is not even connected to an electrical supply, hosts the 200-member Dallas Boys. Between them, they own only four sets of boxing gloves, one punching bag and some homemade skipping ropes.
Despite that, the club has produced a host of national talent including two of the three 2016 Kenyan boxing Olympians - Peter Mungai Warui and Benson Gicharu Njangiru.
In its mission to produce world-class athletes, the club actively works to redirect some of the country's estimated 250,000-300,000 street children away from Nairobi's infamously dangerous inner city and into the ring.
"For these slum kids it's a pathway where they can get something," head coach Charles Mukula explains.
About 30 of the team members come from the streets. Five have school fees paid by the club through community grants, while others have been placed in a free primary education programme. When times are good, many get to travel outside Nairobi for tournaments.
"In streets or slums people like to fight a lot, even the youth ... In the street, people fight with pangas [machetes] and they use bottles and knives. But in boxing there are rules, it's a fair game. It's like a place of justice," says the coach.
Mukula says the Muthurwa gym has transformed lives.
"Most of them, when they come they're taking drugs or drinking. When they box, their lives are changed completely. They get exposed in so many ways."
Robinson Ngira, 17, cleans up inside the Muthurwa gym before training [Humphrey Odero/Al Jazeera]
Youth unemployment in the country of 44 million is a regional-high 17.3 percent and while formal work is difficult enough to come by for the country's masses, a stable job isn't much more than a pipe dream for a street kid.
However, in its 10-year history coach Mukula says he has ushered seven street kids through the club and into paid boxers at different government departments which have their own athletic teams that compete in national leagues. Dozens more have found success through the club in other spheres.
Robinson Ngira, 17, began boxing at eight, loves mathematics and dreams of becoming an engineer; once he has an Olympic gold under his boxing belt.
He also spent five years living on the street from the age of 10. "I left home because there was no money, I had to go borrow money, 20 Kenyan shillings (20 cents) from people in cars," the quietly-spoken, broad-shouldered teen explains in Kiswahili.
"There were problems at home and in the streets I used to get money. That's why I loved staying in the street."
But the streets entailed a life of violence, crime and drugs - sniffing glue and smoking "bhang", or cannabis.
Ngira moved around the country with a group of kids, travelling from Nairobi to other cities once they had outstayed their welcome. "We felt like we were parentless and a misfortune," he remembers.
Returning home wasn't an option; as the eldest child of five, Ngira says he felt a responsibility to take care of himself.
One day he met Mukula who eventually convinced him to return home, to school - and to the Dallas Boys.
Ngira is thankful to the coach whom he describes as a father, and says boxing has been a lifeline. But he feels for those left behind and hopes more of his street family will follow his lead.
"The unity we had on the streets was more about drugs and how we could survive by stealing. The unity inside Dallas is nice because we work together and try to get the Dallas Boys name to grow," Ngira says.
Robinson Ngira works out on the Dallas Boys boxing club's only punching bag [Humphrey Odero/Al Jazeera]
The club is not exclusive to boys, despite its name. About 20 girls also train at the club. Veronica Mbithe is the most active among them.
The 20-year-old, who fended off six rape attempts before she hit 12, began boxing for self-defence at the age of 18.
But it took guts for the once-timid woman to join a club dominated by men.
"I came and peeked through the window and saw people training. It became a habit. I used to come, peek through the window and go home. I never saw any girls in there but one day I decided to talk to the coach," she tells.
It took her three months to muster the courage to ask Mukula if she could join.
"I went home and talked to my mum and she refused. She said I cannot do boxing, I'm a girl, boxing is not good."
Mbithe ignored this and trained with the boys every day, telling her mum she was visiting a friend and stashing her training gear. After two months, in April 2014, she confessed her first match was scheduled.
'[Mum] was like 'What match?'. I told her 'Boxing' - she screamed," Mbithe laughs.
Veronica Mbithe, 20, warming up inside the Muthurwa gym that houses the Dallas Boys club [Humphrey Odero/Al Jazeera]
Her first bout resulted in a knock out - which didn't help her cause with her mother - but from then on she was open about her pursuit and has become more confident.
"I'm naturally shy. When I meet with someone I'm always quiet, I don't talk to them, so boys used to disturb me," she explains. "After I started training the boys at home started fearing me, they all started respecting me."
Less than a year after Mbithe took up boxing she made the Kenyan women's team for a tournament in South Korea by beating the same girl who knocked her out in her first match.
"[But] a few days before we travelled, we were told the government has no money and we will not be going to represent the country."
While she was "heartbroken", this did not deter her from the sport.
Mbithe has a beautician's certificate and works part-time in her mother's salon but has been unable to find full-time work; she would love to make a living through boxing, but admits this is unlikely.
"I have hopes one day it will happen. But in Kenya girls do not have that much interest in boxing like boys," Mbithe says.
Mbithe's sights are set on the 2020 Olympics and she will continue to train with the Dallas Boys.
Veronica Mbithe works in her mother's salon before training [Humphrey Odero/Al Jazeera]
Nicky Ombati is another Olympic hopeful and has been training at the club since 2006. The 28-year-old began boxing at the age of 10.
The former Kenyan boxing representative, who has competed at the Pan-African Games and was an Olympic and Commonwealth Games selection finalist, grew up in Muthurwa on stories of boxing champions such as Wangila.
"All of the kids in our hood used to box. It was boxing and [playing] football but at that time boxing was the deal, the number one. We had a lot of champions around," he tells.
Ombati nearly quit when he was 22, during what should have been the prime of his boxing career.
The self-described hustler lives "hand-to-mouth" making about 750 shillings ($7.50) a week picking up odd jobs like making Kenyan doughnuts, called mandazi, and washing cars.
He says things were much worse before. "I was quite depressed ... I didn't have a job, I didn't have any money, I didn't even have something to hustle about. Then I met this man called Mr Alcohol and I had fun with him. I became a drunkard and it took a lot of my time and health."
Ombati spent about four years drinking diluted ethanol - or "second generation" liquor - every day, when Mukula, the coach finally found him and returned him to the gym.
It's been two years and Ombati is finally back to peak form. He accepts that, while he is aiming to make the 2020 Olympic team, his alcoholism dealt his career a blow. Part of his rehabilitation is sharing his boxing "wealth" with younger boxers and encouraging them to avoid the pitfalls of Muthurwa - and keep the Dallas Boys name alive.
"I got back my health and came back to my essence. At first I was really focused on getting a job but then I came to realise it's not about the money, it's about how you deal with the community … I always tell the kids, 'You'll do it'. When I see them making it I really feel good," Ombati says.
Pumping iron with the GCC's first female bodybuilder
Dubai - In 1997, an overweight Bahraini teenager decided she wanted to become a bodybuilder.
Eighteen years later, that young girl, Haifa al-Musawi, is set to become the first woman to represent any Gulf Arab nation in the sport she was inexplicably drawn to at age 14.
"I really wanted [to start bodybuilding] and looking at magazines and seeing it's possible that women in other parts of the world are doing it... I felt really frustrated because in the back of my mind I wanted it and didn't know how to get it," Musawi said.
It has been an arduous journey for Musawi, now 32 years old, who in July was given permission by the Emirates Bodybuilding Federation (EBF), the governing body in her country of residence, to compete for the United Arab Emirates.
"I don't know if I should cry or smile now," she said of the news. "Cry because it took me so long, or smile and just be happy about it."
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When interviewed by Al Jazeera the same day she learned of the good news, Musawi was clearly tired; she had just returned from a holiday in Spain, but the exhaustion evident on her face was more than just jetlag.
There have been years of pushing her body to the limit and bureaucratic headaches, trying to find a country that will let her represent it - necessary for the top bodybuilding competitions run by the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB).
Several years ago, the Bahraini bodybuilding federation told her while she could "participate", there was no women's team to enable her to compete for her native country, of which she remains a citizen.
The worst part, she said, has been the prejudice she has faced in being a woman competing in a predominantly male sport.
"The comments I hear about myself are just awful," she said. Earlier that morning, an airport employee had insulted Musawi. "[He said] 'What is that thing'? I'm not a 'thing'; I'm a human being. It is unbelievable. I have so much faith and confidence, [and] they don't matter. At the same time, [when] I really think [about] people like this, how can they change the coming generation or make it better?"
By contrast, Musawi said she has found more acceptance of her appearance in Europe, though acknowledged that muscular female athletes like Serena Williams face difficultieswherever they go.
Musawi also works as a trainer at a gym in Dubai [Amanda Fisher/Al Jazeera]
When Musawi finally began training at age 17 to address her weight problem, she was nervous about the reactions she would receive. "[People] were like, 'That's weird. Where did that idea come from? We don't have such a thing here.'"
Her family has been supportive to a point, though they do not like the increasing publicity she has been receiving. And while many of her friends stand behind her, some think it is "too much".
"At the end of the day, I'm a woman. I want to look like a woman athlete, not a man athlete, and that's the big misunderstanding," said the 65kg bodybuilder who eats more than $2,000 of food a month and takes 13 supplements each day.
Childhood friend Mariam al-Hajri, who still lives in Bahrain, remembers visiting Musawi at home, who would often be reading bodybuilding magazines: "She was just so into it and I could see her passion," she said.
Hajri, who lifts weights and does endurance fitness herself, has a particular sympathy for her longtime friend, having to reassure her own mother that drinking protein shakes would not "turn [her] into a man".
"I want Haifa to just prove everyone wrong because I can see she's going somewhere, and maybe she'll open doors for other girls to come out and do what they like."
So far, Musawi, who is mentored by Portuguese bodybuilder Andreia Sousa, has only competed once, at an event in Dubai, where she was not required to represent a country. Her sights are currently set on the IFBB World Fitness Championships in Budapest in November, which would mark the first time a woman from a Gulf Arab state has competed under a flag.
Do women bodybuilders have to be attractive to men in order for them to approve this sport? It's not about being attractive - and I don't want to look attractive.
Haifa Al-Musawi, bodybuilder
Musawi is currently transitioning from the bulkier bodybuilding to the smaller physique category - part of the complex taxonomy under the bodybuilding rubric that includes figure, fitness, and bikini divisions, divided mostly by weight and muscle mass.
But she does not understand why beauty standards matter in society's acceptance of female athletes.
"Do women bodybuilders have to be attractive to men in order for them to approve this sport? It's not about being attractive - and I don't want to look attractive," Musawi declared.
It is her boldness that EBF Vice President Abdulkarim Saeed believes makes Musawi the perfect poster girl for Arab female bodybuilders. "It's incredible. She is so courageous to go on stage. It is very rare in Arab countries, but she has different characteristics. She's a strong lady."
Saeed is chiefly responsible for arranging Musawi's UAE representation. He is considered the grandfather of the sport in the UAE, and in the 1970s used to compete alongside his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The federation has seen rapid growth: In 1992, it had just 50 members; now, it has 1,000. Although Musawi is the first female member, Saeed estimates there are more than 100 other Emirati women who are also doing bodybuilding training.
"Our women are shy; they don't want to come on the stage. They do this training, but they do it for themselves."
But he is hoping that will change. "Tomorrow you'll find [Musawi] is one; in a year, you'll find three or four."
Taking back the reins: Dubai's female bikers in control
Dana Adam* is from a powerful conservative family in Yemen, where women invariably wear hijabs, don’t drive and need their husband’s permission to leave the house.
But aged 32, the Dubai-based mother-of-two learned to ride a motorbike - and not just any motorbike, but a Harley Davidson.
What possessed her? Her answer is disarmingly frank.
“Because I was depressed. Really depressed, since 2000,” she answers with sincerity.
What follows is a sad story about her husband’s inveterate infidelity, unreliable business partners and deep-seated loneliness in her adopted home of 14 years.
“I found out when I was pregnant that my husband spent my honeymoon with his ex,” she says in perfect English.
Adam is educated and privileged, and evidently very different to the average Yemeni woman on the street, where illiteracy stands at 70 percent But she has had a stormy, disruptive marriage.
After the turbulent relationship that produced a son, 13, and daughter, seven, Adam is now separated. But that is something she refuses – along with her motorcycling habit – to share with her traditional parents.
It would be hard, given the fight the perennially strong-willed daughter put up when she married her ex. She had been due to marry a cousin, but argued with her father.
“I told him if you don’t let me marry this guy, I won’t marry at all," she says.
Both her parents are now in poor health and have bigger issues given the rapidly deteriorating stability in the country, with the Saudi Arabia-led airstrike campaign against the Houthis continuing.
“I don’t care about people, what they may think about me. I don’t do a lot of things because I don’t want to bother my family, that’s it. My family are the only thing I’m concerned about," Adam says.
So why did she turn to motorbikes to help her through her depression?
The petite, five-foot-nothing beauty claims she has long been a tomboy, spending her youth with male cousins and playing around on a motorcycle that belonged to her father’s bodyguard.
“I was thinking I love bikes, I love Harleys actually, so I just said ‘yalla’ [let’s go]. My husband doesn’t know I have a bike … my kids know, they keep it a secret.”
Adam has been riding for about five months, but is already very confident, performing tricks like standing while she rides – as I learned when I tagged along on a recent outing in honour of International Female Ride Day, on 2 May.
“I’m the one [who is] crazy…even when I got my licence, the man said ‘Oh my God, you’re riding like a man’.”
The Dubai public is generally very welcoming of female riders, she says.
“When they know I’m Arabic and Yemeni, they go crazy … you know, Yemenis cover themselves.”
As the cavalcade passes, arms brandishing smartphones dart out of car windows to snap shots. When we arrive at a small cluster of hole-in-the-wall shops on the backroads somewhere between Dubai and Al Ain for a spot of karak chai, the Pakistani shop assistants in salwar kameezes are momentarily dumbstruck.
Confusion gives way to giggles and they slowly approach the women, camera phones in hand. Soon it’s a fully fledged photo shoot, with the obliging pinups striking jestful poses along the makeshift asphalt runway.
Adam says she longs to be more upfront with her family.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything bad. I pray five times a day, I don’t drink, I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m good," she says.
Life in Dubai has taught her to be strong, and getting her licence and joining the Ladies of Harley Dubai chapter has given her a family away from home, she says.
“They are really good people, good friends who really care about you and watch you all the time. I found happiness with them.”
There are more than 120 women in the group as either riders or pillion passengers, with a core group of about 20 – and growing.
Adam says riding “touches [her] heart”.
“I’m stronger now. When I’m riding I feel free, alive, stronger.”
Shima Mehri is from Iran, where it is illegal for women to ride motorcycles.
“I decided to be a biker when I was only a little girl,” she says.
She lived in Austria until she was 15, where there were “lots of lady bikers”, before returning to Iran with her family.
“I was only 10 and I said to my dad ‘When I grow up I want to be a biker like them.’ He was just laughing and telling me ‘Wait till you grow up and you can make a decision.’”
Mehri stayed in Iran for 14 years, before moving to Dubai.
“This wish has been with me until the time I left Iran. As soon as I reached Dubai, I said ‘Okay, this is the time.’”
She started classes and got her motorcycle licence almost immediately.
“Exactly a day after that, my husband took me to the Harley shop and I bought my bike,” she says.
That was five years ago now and the 34-year-old has only recently convinced her husband to also get his own licence.
“At the beginning, he was scared a lot but when I joined the group, he was thinking, ‘Okay, it’s so safe here in Dubai to ride.’ Every single ride he is also with us, but he follows in the car.”
Mehri says it is partly good fortune and partly determination that she has an open-minded husband.
“He thinks totally different. It depends on the women, how they convince their husbands. The new generation of men in Iran, they’ve started to think women should have freedom to do what they want," she says.
But she has not been so lucky across the board; she has lost a number of Iranian friends since news travelled that she had become a biker.
“My cousin who lives here saw me [and called my mum]. She said, ‘Your daughter, instead of sitting at home and cooking for her husband, she’s going out riding with the guys and she doesn’t care about her duties at home.’”
And her mother’s attitude towards her little girl biking? Well, it’s an unlikely story.
“I have two younger brothers. Always she used to tell them you are not allowed to ride a bike or smoke … if you grow up and do one of these things you are not my son anymore.”
Still, Mehri decided to front up once she had her licence and motorbike and called to confess. She says, at first, her mother tried to resist the news before grudgingly accepting it.
“The only thing she told me was ‘Please ride safe and take care of yourself.’”
That was five years ago. Last month, she sent her daughter a photo of herself from the 1970s – sitting on a motorbike.
“She called me and said ‘Shima, that day when you said you got your licence, I was really proud of you inside my heart … when I was 18, I had my own bike and I was riding too.’ That was a big secret I didn’t know,” Mehri says.
“Imagine a mum always forbids a kid they are not allowed to ride a bike then you find out your mum was a biker. I was really shocked.”
So why did she hide this news from her daughter?
“It’s because of the culture we have in Iran. After the revolution everything changed, even the ideas of the people.”
But the maths teacher is doing what she can to live her own life with no regrets.
“In the Middle East, most women put themselves under the control of men and they think they can’t do anything without men. [When] they are old - 70, 80 - they are alone, for sure they’ll have a lot of regrets. Life is short and they can’t go back to do whatever they want.”
She is pleased to see many of the female students she teaches now living for today, not worrying about cultural pressures as much as her own generation.
British woman Catherine Hector has been riding for a long time, 10 years.
She has been in Dubai for the past two and a half and is the activities officer for the Ladies of Harley Dubai chapter.
“When I was very small, my family used to watch motor Grand Prix on a Sunday. Every time they used to curl with their knees down on the corner I was like ‘I want to do that’ … I haven’t mastered it yet, but it will be done.”
Hector moved to Dubai by herself in search of adventure. That is something she has certainly found with her fellow riders hailing from all over - Germany, Poland, the US, Iran, Morocco, Russia, Yemen.
“Being in the UK, you just see British people mostly and only a few people from different nationalities,” says the British-Caribbean 32-year-old.
“Here you’ve got over 200 different nationalities and the riders are a very diverse group.
Hector has met no family disapproval with her choice of hobby, and used to regularly visit her grandfather, a retired bus driver, whenever she had new wheels.
“He’d always say to me ‘Make sure it doesn’t fall down, park it in reverse’… he used to come out and pray for us as we left," she says.
But she understands there are different cultural norms in this part of the world; some of which are good. The women mostly ride alongside the Harley men, who buck the stereotype of biker gangs, she says.
“They’re very, very respectful guys. A lot of them are like brothers. They’re actually overly protective. Even the ones who are not married are very respectful. They’re not sleazy.”
But some can be overly attentive, she says. This is partly why she organised the Dubai ride for International Female Ride Day, in which about eight women participated.
“There are a couple of guys who don’t think ladies should ride by themselves,” she tells me after the ride is over and the women are relaxing by the pool of one of Dubai’s five-star hotels.
“It was a nice time for the ladies to have a bit of power and do something by themselves. Even though they respect us as riders, they think we’re going to ride 40 kilometres an hour.”
Speeds topped 120km on the two-hour ride, with a woman, Mehri, in the rare position of road captain – though several men tagged along as safety.
“We’ll have you as safety crew, but anything else we don’t really need you,” the IT and marketing manager jokes.
The ride was also calculated to send a global message.
“A lot of people expect Dubai is like Saudi, that the women are very oppressed, they can’t really do much, there’s no freedom, women can’t drive.”
But that is not the case and Hector says a growing number of women are getting into the scene.
“As they’re seeing more ladies part of the group, they think ‘If they can do it, I can definitely do it.'”
*Not her real name
Fighting the system from the inside
In 1990, young journalist Nawal Mostafa was on the trail of a juicy story. Five years into her career and seeing her chance for a scoop, she visited one of Cairo’s most notorious female prisons to interview four drug smugglers on death row. But what stuck with the Egyptian woman were the young innocent faces playing in the prison’s playground.
“The scene stopped me with great surprise, and I had to ask the commanding officer of the prison: ‘Who are these children? What are they doing here?’” Mostafa recalls.
These days, the mother of three wears many different hats. As well as being a journalist and a novelist, she used to be an editor-in-chief at one of the biggest newspapers in Egypt, Akhbar El Yom.
“It was a shock when I heard [the commanding officer’s] answer: ‘They are living here with their imprisoned mothers’. This ugly fact captured me and I began thinking obsessively about them. That was the beginning of a long journey with female prisoners and their children.”
Mostafa still works for the paper but stepped back from her editing role two years ago to focus on the NGO she founded in 1990, Children of Female Prisoners’ Association (CFPA).
She works long and exhausting hours trying to juggle commitments. While she says the work took her “without mercy” from journalism, it is this work that most touches her heart.
That prison visit 25 years ago has led Mostafa on a long and often heart-wrenching plight in a campaign to improve the lot of the women she calls “poverty prisoners” and their children.
“[Egyptian jails are] a huge theatre of human tales and paradoxes of fate. The stories of the imprisoned women in this place occupied my thoughts and the faces of the children living in a place that crushes every sense of innocence besieged me
In the western world, debtors’ jails are a horrific Dickensian relic of the past. But in Egypt, citizens can be locked away for accruing debts as trifling as $70.
One such woman, who did not want to be named, was put in jail for six months and her husband for seven years after taking on debt to pay for a $2,600 surgery to save their son from going blind. The woman's husband had no fixed job and the pair have five children in a spartan house in Giza.
After her husband was jailed, the person who loaned the money took the women to court. She says CFPA helped reduce some of the debt and therefore the jail time.
"Inside prison, they bring all the required food materials and covers for the beds and clothes for the prisoners and their kids and opened a new workshop for teaching sewing."
Leaving her children behind was the hardest part, she says, now out of jail.
"From the first moment I was inside jail far from my children, I didn't feel any taste for life. I saw my children every night in my dreams and imagined talking with them."
Now she hopes for a future where her husband is out of prison and has a job, and they can afford furniture for their bare home.
"I imagine the future without debt will be a brilliant future."
Mostafa estimates that, at any one time, between a quarter and a third of women in Egypt’s prison system, which has been described by human rights organisations as rife with torture, are languishing there as a result of outstanding debts – most totalling not more than $1,000.
“Jail terms might reach to 30 to 35 years because each debt has a separate judgment. It’s very illogical, it needs changing in the law.”
But what might seem more shocking to some is that many of these women actively choose to bring their young children behind bars with them in accordance with Egyptian law.
“They have the decision, but prison administration permits them to keep their babies until they reach two years old. This is because of breastfeeding, and also it’s kind of a mercy for both mother and child.”
Some of the women give birth whilst imprisoned. Mostafa estimates the population of child prisoners who are locked up alongside their mothers in Egypt’s eight female prisons numbers several hundred.
This may be viewed as a grotesque or selfish choice. What does Mostafa think about the decision?
“It’s not selfish but it’s a need. These very young creatures are in need of looking after … despite being in this very miserable place, being with their mothers is very important for young babies.”
It is a harsh reality that often these youngsters have nowhere else to go. Family often refuse them and when they reach two years of age; many end up in one of Egypt’s sometimes-unsavoury 450 orphanages.
Saying goodbye can be incredibly rough.
“It’s very sad – I’m crying many times in that moment myself. It’s very miserable when their children are taken from their arms and go out of prison. Many of them are facing very sad moments and nights after their babies go.”
One of the saddest facts of life inside all Egyptian prisons is that inmates are not given adequate provisions because of the strain on the country’s ailing economy and federal budget.
“The prisons provide the inmates with some food but it’s not enough for them and their children, so we try through CFPA to co-operate in that matter by going in a monthly visit [to] provide the mothers with basic needs of food, milk, medicine, clothes for the children, blankets [and so on].”
One of CFPA’s major triumphs has been to secure the release of more than 100 women from prison, after raising enough funds to repay their debts and completing the arcane legal paperwork necessary for the court system.
“It’s a very complicated journey but we make it with faith. We were the first organisation to raise public awareness about this [tragic] cause.”
Mostafa says the other main aims of CFPA are to remove the stigma of former female prisoners and their children, continue to provide care for children of these women once outside prison, but also train the women whilst they are inside prison in order to empower them economically and help break the crushing cycle of poverty.
Mostafa has implemented small projects inside prison through a new campaign, New Life, which she started several years ago.
“We have established a small [initiative] inside Qanater prison, the biggest prison for females. We provide this incubator with sewing machines and materials and professional trainers. We teach them the profession of sewing and other handcrafts.”
Mostafa is also planning to open a small factory in Cairo where the trained women can go to work after their release next year. CFPA needs to raise enough funds to purchase the necessary machinery and pay for building rent – or hope that someone donates such things. In the meantime, she is running an economic project for released women to work from home with provided sewing machines and materials.
“This project aims also to integrate these women into the society by removing the stigma of being prisoners and rehabilitate them psychologically, so they can show society they are good citizens.”
Ex-prisoners are treated with suspicion and find it exceedingly difficult to find paid work or qualify for bank loans.
The thousands of imprisoned women are in many ways a victim of circumstance – Mostafa says the women accrue debts by purchasing what are generally household items on credit. They wind up facing criminal charges when they cannot make payments to irresponsible or predatory lenders.
“There is a very remarkable change in their feeling toward themselves, their self-esteem is a lot higher when they get this training and also we give them psychological training at the same time ... the results are great, more than I expected in the beginning.”
In recognition of her work, Mostafa has been made an Ashoka Changemaker fellow, meaning the social entrepreneurship organisation gives her logistical and financial support.
Ashoka Arab world fellowship assistant Aya Sabry says Mostafa’s work is crucial in stopping the loan-based dependency of poverty prisoners.
“Most of the women when they’re finished their prison period they get out and they continue the loan circle."
“Nawal breaks this cycle and makes society involve the women again by enabling them to generate revenue to survive and for their children. Nawal’s work is important for society as there are a big number of women prisoners in Egypt with small, small loans.”
Poverty can be a life-sentence in itself in a country where the infrastructure does not exist to help people lift themselves out of prison. And the troubles facing the country have only multiplied in the years since a rush of enthusiasm and self-empowerment led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the subsequent chaotic foray into democracy.
“Egypt has been going through hard times during the years since the revolution of January 25, 2011. Poor people in general are affected a lot by the political and economic crisis and for sure this group of women were part of that.”
The long-inactive parliament has complicated any progress Mostafa has made advocating for policy changes, as there has been no chance to enact new regulations that will mean these women are seen differently in the eyes of the law.
But Mostafa says she will not stop fighting for this reality – and she has a novel answer to eliminate debts without the need for incarceration.
“I dream of changing the law to make it stop considering these poor ladies who can't pay back their small debts as criminals, and to stop putting them in prison by reaching a compromise in which the government pay the debts for them and let these women work in the public service – instead of being punished as criminals.”
It makes no sense to criminalise poverty and send victims to overcrowded prisons where they become a burden rather than an asset to society, she says.
And things may be swinging in her favour, politically speaking. The country’s newest president may be the former right-hand man of previous dictator Hosni Mubarak, but Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seems to be more aware of the need to respond to the public than his predecessor.
Mostafa says he has already led an initiative to release all female poverty prisoners, something he kicked off by setting free 41 female poverty prisoners from Minya prison in February.
“He strongly backs this group of poor women.”
Mostafa has seen a lot of changes in Egyptian society over the past two and a half decades. But she says she won’t stop fighting until she wins real change.
“When I met these people in the prison, 20 years ago it was a defining moment for me, and I couldn't stop thinking about their tragedy. I felt a responsibility towards them and this feeling has become part of my fate.”
Adopting orphans and breaking taboos in Dubai
On April 23, 2013, Dr Aysha Albusmait did something that would change her life forever. Confiding in no one, except an aunt, she went to a government agency and got herself a daughter.
It was love before first sight she says of the then three-year-old Reem who was to turn her world upside down.
“I fell in love with her voice before I saw her. She opened my heart, like light. That was my feeling. I just heard her saying ‘…And she will get me a schoolbag?’. Really, the first thing I got her was a schoolbag.”
Albusmait is a successful 49-year-old Emirati woman, a decorated civil servant, who was named top Dubai Government Official in 2007, holds a PhD in communications, is studying for a Master’s Degree, and was the first Emirati designer.
The current Dubai Sports Council communication and marketing director has defined her life by pushing the envelope. As a student she was a presenter on a TV programme, and wrote a page in a national newspaper on student issues. Her photo was published alongside every week. She was visible at a time when society was uncertain how to accept it. So it is fitting Albusmait be the first Emirati woman to speak out about adopting a child as a single mother, at a time when society is uncertain how to accept it, when confusion persists about where adoption fits within Islam.
There is a conspiracy of silence, she says. Adoption is not taboo, but talking about it is.
“Parents are worried about how people will treat their kids, how they will deal with them when they know they are adopted…we come from a culture where who is your family, who are your roots, this is something very important for us.”
Yusra Gomaa is an American lawyer who does pro bono legal work for abused and orphaned children, and runs the adoption resource Muslim Adoption Network.
While many people still hold the belief adoption is harem in Islam, the Qur’an, she says, actually emphasises the importance of caring for orphans.
“Adoption is not forbidden in Islam. What Islam forbids is stripping away a child's sense of his own biological lineage and biological rights.”
But Reem’s future is more important than her past, Ayesha says. “I will not say I don’t care about this, because also this is my daughter and her feelings…but I don’t care about these things as much as I care about how she will change things in her society. I want her to be a role model.”
And if her vivacious daughter, who recently celebrated her fifth birthday with an army of friends and family at Cheeky Monkeys, does become a role model she will be following in her mother’s footsteps.
“I’m used to opening doors, I’m used to pushing boundaries,” Albusmait says.
Her own family has always been supportive. But telling them about her decision to adopt wasn’t easy.
“I told my mum ‘Listen, I have something to say, I will adopt a girl after they give me approval’. Immediately my mum said ‘Good for you’. That was easy, I didn’t expect this. Actually the resistance was a little bit from my sisters…they said ‘Why? Take our kids’. I said ‘No, I want my own kids, I want my life’... Later on what did they say? ‘Good you did this, we would love to do this’.”
Prior to her own adoption, Albusmait knew some family friends who had seldom-discussed traditional adoptions, but a single woman adopting a child in Khaleeji society was just folklore.
Now two friends, one single and one divorced, want to follow in her footsteps.
Albusmait is at the vanguard, but there are more behind her.
Dubai’s Community Development Authority is responsible for the ‘Embrace’ adoption programme. Family Development Department director Dr Huda Al Suwaidi says of the 55 families on the adoption waiting list, about one fifth are single Emirati women over 40. That’s compared with childless, married couples who make up half, and married couples with children who comprise about 30 per cent.
The basic factor in the changing dynamics of the family unit, Al Suwaidi says, is a falling marriage rate amongst Emirati women.
“The average age of marriage in both males and females is 29 right now and it’s going up…there’s so many factors.
“One is education, second is work, third is cost of living and expenses of the wedding itself. It is expected if [the age] doesn’t increase it will stay the same. We will still have these single women who are reaching 40 or 50 without a child. I don’t want this to increase…but inevitably it will come.”
The UAE, with its 90 per cent expatriate population, is witnessing a decrease in local marriages, despite its polygamous laws. Emirati weddings are typically lavish affairs, with thousands spent in gold jewelry for the bride-to-be alone.
“The expenses of a wedding to a local are high, of course this will push the man to marry a foreigner because she’s ready-made.” Emirati women are also increasingly following their careers and “ignoring marriage”, Al Suwaidi says.
The high-achieving Dr Albusmait falls into this category. She says getting married was never a focus as she strove for professional success. But after that success came, she felt a yearning.
“Before I decided to adopt I was sitting with my friend…I was saying ‘I’m doing a lot in this life, but still I don’t feel challenged, there’s something missing. It’s not getting married, that’s not in my head anymore, this is my life, I take it, but I have something missing. I want to adopt’.”
‘Embrace’ is now almost two-years-old and has placed 13 children with families in that time. But demand far outstrips supply. It is a paradoxical situation. The children who are eligible for adoption are those abandoned as babies or rejected as children.
“Every time [those on the waiting list] call us and fight with us and we say fortunately and unfortunately there are no children. We don’t want to increase the number of abandoned children despite their desire to have a child,” Al Suwaidi says.
Abandoned children come from a range of situations, but commonly are the product of illicit relationships or sexual assaults which result in the pregnancy of migrant workers. Sex outside of marriage is illegal in the UAE, so not knowing what to do and often with limited means to travel to their home countries, the women conceal their pregnancies until their children are born and subsequently dispose of them in a public place. The CDA recorded nine abandoned children in 2013 and six last year.
Reem’s background is not something Albusmait wants to discuss publicly. But openness is something she is fostering, in private, with her young daughter.
“When she turned four I talked to her.”
The mother and daughter used to exchange secrets in a tent in Reem’s room.
“One day I went in the tent and I told her ‘Reem, sit on this box. [Shall] we tell our secrets to each other?’. Her secret was ‘Mum, I love you’. Then I said ‘Okay, I have two secrets. One, I love you. The second is, I have to tell you something’.”
Albusmait explained through diagrams on a toy chalkboard. It’s not quite clear how much Reem understands, especially since she was adopted at age three, but it’s clear she’s a sensitive, intelligent child.
“I explained more and more. I told her…‘I’m the happiest person ever because you are in my life’. When I stopped, she jumped up and hugged me and said ‘I know’. She hugged me in a way I felt this was the longest hug I ever had.”
Albusmait says she will tell her daughter more details each year until she knows everything about her past. She does not wish to hide it from the world either.
“Talking about it for me is giving the chance for a kid to…be in a family. I encourage everybody to adopt, not only the people who don’t have kids. In Islam, the benefits of having an orphan kid in your family [makes you] very close to God.”
Gomaa also points to verses in the Qur’an encouraging good treatment of orphans, and notes the Prophet Mohammed, who is said to have reared a foster child himself, reportedly said: “The best house is a house in which an orphan is well-treated; and the worst house is a house in which an orphan is badly treated”.
“[Another Qur’anic] verse encourages that we be honest with our adopted children about their lineage, and explains that we should call adopted children by the names of their fathers.”
She encourages Muslims to adopt children from all creeds and colours. “Islam never discriminates when it comes to caring for children in need.”
Back in Dubai, Alsbusmait tells me something she’s told no one yet: she’s ready for one more daughter, from any background – something she is hoping for before she turns 50.
“Reem for me is enough, but she has an imaginary sister…she has given her a name, actually. I don’t want her living just with her imagination.
“When I leave life I want her to be attached to a sister… they will love each other, they will not leave each other, like me and my sisters.”
As Reem sat eating birthday cake with her friends, cousins, aunts and doting mother last month, it was hard to imagine that before April 23, 2013 this beautiful girl had no family at all.
After 70,000 years Oman's unique whales face potential threat
Every year from June through August, something magical happens in southern Oman that occurs almost nowhere else in the Arab world – it rains. It buckets down actually, in monsoon quantities.
Locals call the season khareef and it means "autumn" in Arabic, but that’s only because it coincides with the start of autumn on the nearby Indian subcontinent, with which the monsoon season is typically associated. On land, a dramatic greening takes place that is more Asia than Arabia, providing enough water to sustain the region’s abundant crops. But under the sea, something equally significant for the life cycle happens.
“In the summertime… the wind hits the mountains, goes back to the sea…and brings up the water from the depths, which is really cold and full of nutrients,” Salalah Tours director Ashraf El Weshahy tells Middle East Eye inside his office in the Dhofar region’s capital, Salalah.
This starts a feeding frenzy from the bottom of the food chain up, with fish like sardines exploding in numbers.
“You can see the water bubbling… the sea life is really blooming, prospering.”
The rest of the year, the water is warm and calm – perfect breeding conditions.
It is this happy coincidence that paved the way for an unusual discovery. Oman’s humpback whales are a genetically distinct group, atypical from every other population because they don’t migrate – they simply don’t need to.
El Weshahy has been taking tour groups to see the whales off and on for almost three years.
“Our advantage is that we sit on Al Hallaniyat Island. These whales need depths to hunt squid. We have drop-offs, shelves that would go to 3000 metres north-east of Al Hallinayat Island.”
The local man was just seven the first time he saw one of these gentle giants of the sea, which grow up to 16-metres long.
“When you are young you hear legends - they will swallow someone and bring him back again, these kinds of stories. But you see them and the elderly fishermen were really very gentle with them… they used nets and some would be caught in the nets, they would go very carefully, very quietly and [release them].”
It was clear to El Weshahy then that the whales were cognisant of other beings in the world.
His early experiences with whales have clearly left a deep impression on him, informing his staunchly protective approach to whale-watching.
“When you are young… you try to get contact to see [the whales] and they would really sometimes look [at you]… it’s a feeling you cannot describe by writing or through words, it’s a very powerful and personal moment.”
Back then, he wasn’t aware how special the local whales were. Being genetically distinct means there are differences in the behaviour and song of the Omani humpbacks. But it also means another thing – an increased vulnerability.
Her Highness Sayyida Tania Al Said is the president of the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), which has been leading research into the population, culminating in a study that was published last December.
She says the research suggests that while Omani whales originated from the southern population of whales, they have been isolated for the past 70,000 years.
The whales have never been spotted in adjacent bodies of waters, such as off Zanzibar or Madagascar.
“This population has been observed displaying both feeding and breeding behaviour within the same location, whereas for other populations the breeding is separated from feeding in distance and time.”
Other populations will breed in equatorial parts of the world and migrate to polar regions to feed. So it’s unclear whether the whales’ ancestors’ discovery of this all-in-one Garden of Eden will prove a blessing or a curse.
“Low genetic diversity could place this population at an increased vulnerability to being impacted by diseases, and also an increased risk of extinction [if] the population is unable to respond and adapt to changing environmental variables.”
The ESO estimates there are almost 20 different species of cetaceans (marine mamals including whales, dolphins and porpoises) in Oman’s milk-and-honey waters. Al Said certainly entertains the prospect that the blue whales that have been sighted in the same waters could have a similar provenance to the humpback population.
“It is quite possible that the blue whale population is also a unique subpopulation to the Arabian Sea region,” she says, noting more research needs to be done.
All the more reason, then, to protect the fecund sea from threats, which she says are “similar to those faced by other whales around the world.” They include entanglement in fishing gear, noise pollution, risk of ship strikes and habitat loss as a result of increasing development.
The Arabian Sea has a Sword of Damocles hanging over it, in the form of tourism.
The country is on an aggressive drive to attract tourists to the country and in so doing diversify its economy. But it runs the risk, like many other tropical idylls before it, that the very charms that attract the tourists could be imperiled by the rush to draw them in.
“Whale and dolphin-watching tourism is expected to increase in Oman… it is important to protect whales and dolphins from the potentially harmful impacts of tourism,” said Al Said.
The ESO has been working with international bodies like the International Whaling Commission, as well as the Omani government and tour operators to establish mutually beneficial guidelines for whale and dolphin-watching, she said.
International organisation Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) is urging the government to implement regulations on whale watching.
“Official guidelines, or better still, government regulations governing whale watching would be put in place before the industry takes off. All operators would be required to observe these and training would be given before they began taking passengers out,” said WDC's responsible whale watch lead Vanessa Williams-Grey.
Guidelines have already been developed but there is still scope for government regulations.
“In many parts of the world, whale watch operators must apply for a permit and in some regions, a cap is set on the number of permits or licences that can be given out. Other regions also set designated 'rest periods' for the whales (either daily or seasonally) during which time boats cannot operate,” Williams-Grey said.
“These efforts to reduce the impact of whale watching are recommended by WDC in order to prevent an over-proliferation of operators or repeated targeting of the same whale or dolphin populations.”
Protecting the whales is important for the entire tourism and marine eco-system, she said.
“In a nutshell, healthy, happy whales equal happy whale watchers [which equals] happy operators and local livelihoods, and a good whale watch reputation internationally. Equally, happy whales equals a healthy, balanced marine ecosystem [which equals] happy conservationists.”
But there are examples from recent history that make concerns for the whales’ safety well-founded.
The ESO’s best guess of the current population is about 82 – “give or take 10 or 20”, Al Said said. This estimate is based on a mark-recapture photo identification technique using photos from 2000 to 2004, so could turn out to be higher. Whatever the number, it should be higher still.
“The humpback whale population has been impacted as a result of commercial whaling operations which took place in the mid-1960s. The recovery of this population has been quite slow.”
Scientists suspect some of the low genetic diversity is also a result of periods of steep population declines. The study noted the most recent decline was from whaling, with Soviet whalers killing 242 humpback whales between 1965 and 1966 – including 39 pregnant females.
Luckily for conservationists, there are tour guides like El Wasahy, who take the duty to protect the sea life seriously.
He recalls the days when “Russian fleets” hunted the giant mammals for meat and blubber. As one of mankind’s modern representatives, he is determined not to intrude on the whales’ environment. The boats travel no closer than within 300 metres of the pod – though they often get much closer.
“We don’t go to them… we keep quiet. If they come to us, great, but we don’t follow.”
He is also not interested in publicising the tours widely – indeed it was hard to even track him down, and when we did he refused to take us whale-watching on numerous days because of the weather conditions.
He takes tours on average once every two weeks, he said.
“It’s not very popular, but still we are happy not to have this mass of people coming. We try to keep it on a low profile to make sure we don’t disturb the whales. It’s a business, but we have to respect the environment… we love the whales.”
Salalah Tours have been doing workshops with the ESO to learn more about the region’s cetaceans – something they have in turn shared with boat captains and members of the public.
The government, too, recognises the importance of eco-tourism, he said, putting limits on how close building can be done near the beach, for example.
“They appreciate very much eco–hotels and developments. There’s some conditions for hotels to build, and maybe recycling will happen in the future.”
It is for this reason he is optimistic about the fate of Oman’s unique whales.
“There is lots of respect from the people, the fisherman and the captains, they have all the conditions to breed and increase, and we hope this will be the case, of course.”
Saving Oman's daggers: women cut to the chase
Looking into the wizened faces of the men gathered at Salalah’s weapons souk, seated in deckchairs in a disjointed line, is like gazing back in time.
They are curt and gruff, lacking the characteristic Omani warmth, but not particularly bothered by the intrusion of foreign journalists. They have been stationed there so long, not much perturbs them anymore. Even the young ones seem aged.
Every morning, except for Fridays when the session shifts to the evening to make way for prayers, these men set up their makeshift stalls and display Oman’s weapons of yore: old rifles, rounded swords, and the traditional Omani daggers, called khanjars. Sometimes even livestock is traded.
In the lifetimes of these traders, Oman has been catapulted from a tribal desert outpost into a progressive, unified nation, after current ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said overthrew his own father in 1970. Instead of camels, they now use SUVs to transport their merchandise.
What this might be like for them, it's hard to tell for a visiting journalist – the men don’t speak English and don’t want to converse at any rate. Ahmed al-Awaid wanders up and down the 20 or so stalls, making an occasional approach to different traders.
He is trying to sell back an old rifle he bought for his grandmother who doesn’t want it, he said. He claimed he bought it from the souk for 400 rials ($1040), but now is being offered not more than 150. If this is the case, the old-timers are shrewd.
“They have guns, knives, swords, anything you want to buy. The old men here have many weapons in their homes to sell. They keep them there to control the prices,” al-Awaid lamented.
So why doesn’t he keep the gun for himself?
“For tradition [these weapons] are still important but it’s from the past, khallas,” he said using the Arabic word for “over”. “We don’t need it.”
Then he reconsidered – guns may be important as protection for farmers herding livestock, given the presence of the Arabian wolf in this southern part of the country, just a mountain range away from Yemen.
“Everybody has a gun in their house. But a lot of them have automatic guns from Yemen. It’s cheap.”
An elderly weapons trader at the Salalah gun souk with his wares. Credit Amanda Fisher
Weapons like the khanjar serve even less purpose if, like al-Awaid, you have no status.
“If you’re an important man, if you have meetings or weddings or on National Day you have to wear [a khanjar].”
The khanjar, a symbol of Oman seen on its national flag, is significant on National Day, which has been marked on 18 November - Sultan Qaboos’s birthday - ever since he came to power. But al-Awaid takes a gun.
If these weapons traders represent a forgotten way of life, nothing is more representative of Omani tradition under threat than the khanjar.
The dagger has moved from being a weapon of defence to a ceremonial ornament. With the advancement of the country and economy, fewer men have opted to train as craftsman as lucrative careers in the energy, public and financial sectors beckoned. Khanjars still fill Oman’s tourist shops and souks (markets), but a lot of the production has gone the way of the global souvenirs trade - to China. Khanjars are also commonly made in Pakistan and India.
Last year Omani news magazine Y cited a report emanating from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry that showed more than half of Oman’s cottage businesses had closed in the past 10 years because of competition from overseas manufacturers.
But Sultan Qaboos and his government have taken steps to keep their cultural heritage alive in the face of these threats. In 2003, the Public Authority of Craft Industries (PACI) was established with the remit of doing just that.
“There has been continuous interest from the government in reinforcing the craft industries – both for economic and social reasons – and to protect it from extinction and create a strong bond between the past and the present,” a PACI spokesman said.
Several years ago, they began training programmes in a variety of disciplines, including in the production of the highly-decorated silver and leather khanjars, which curve characteristically at an almost right angle. About 80 people have been trained in khanjar-making - the majority of whom are female.
“His Majesty Qaboos Bin Saeed implemented intensive care to preserve all aspects of the Omani traditions… We have a civilised heritage and crafts are a fruit of history.”
Above all, “the Omani Khanjar is considered one of the most wonderful craft creations”.
Historical competition to create ever-better khanjars led to highly-differentiated versions throughout the country, and making authentic khanjars is a sophisticated art.
Nasra Bin Ahmed Bin Salim al-Whibi, 39, is one of the women who have benefited from a PACI course – free to unemployed Omani nationals.
Al-Whibi said she chose khanjar-making because it is well known, but also for another reason.
“The Omani woman wants to prove herself in making khanjars - this encouraged me to practice. My trainer, Nadia al-Rawahiy is a good example.”
Muscat-based al-Whibi rejected an offer she received for a private sector job with a “high salary” in favour of learning the craft.
“The world and the Omani market needs this craft. I hope this craft will be a source of money for me and my children.”
In addition, al-Whibi hopes to get the chance, through PACI, to participate in local and international crafts exhibitions.
Alongside her is 33-year-old Fareeda Musallam Saleem al-Hashmi, who was trained through a PACI programme in 2011.
Al-Hashmi said she initially decided to learn to make khanjars to improve her creative skills and soon realised she had made the right decision.
“Making khanjars is important because it is the way we keep our identity, and it is important because I think it is how we represent our history.”
She is confident that the dagger is so central a part of Omani life, that her livelihood will not be in danger any time in the foreseeable future - particularly not from overseas manufacturers.
“I don't think that they are able to make the same exactly. I think Omanis are better and more creative in making khanjars using some of the conditions that only Omanis know about. During my training, I realised that Omanis have more details and knowledge about making them than anyone else.”
Shadiya al-Shabibi is the head of the Omani Women’s Association of Wilayat al-Mudhaibi, in the east of the country.
Her association has been training women to make traditional clothing, but intends to start offering khanjar-making courses soon.
She said it is a good career path for women.
“Women can make khanjars and can also rely on it as an income or an additional income. All that it requires are skills, time and materials - they don’t have to have factories.”
While khanjar-making has traditionally been a male pursuit, there is no taboo against women producing khanjars and they are equally adept at the task, she said.
“In Oman, women have been encouraged to work and make many crafts regardless of whether it is a ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ craft. They have access to all the resources and have been encouraged to start their own [small and medium businesses].”
Al-Shabibi said she also believes the art of khanjar-making will stay alive and well in Oman, “as long as there is support from the government and funding”.
“People here have the sense of keeping traditional crafts alive.”
For her, looking into the faces of the current generation of women taking on the mantle of traditional craft-making isn’t gazing back in time - it is looking into the future.
'This is daily life' in Shatila refugee camp
Lebanon’s tourism industry is in a slump, overshadowed by the instability of neighbouring Syria. While Beirut’s vacant posh five-star hotels cut lonely figures, Amanda Fisher goes in search of alternative accommodation – inside a Palestinian refugee camp on the wrong side of the capital city.
Behind the grey walls of southern Beirut’s overrun Shatila camp, young children play video games inside makeshift arcades and men chat animatedly through barbershop windows.
A genial painting of Yasser Arafat’s face looks on and posters incite young people to join the perennial fight to liberate the motherland; it is more Palestine than Lebanon.
A small boy, who looks no older than seven, but is actually 10, approaches a group of foreign interlopers, and proudly displays a homemade tattoo. Another proffers a stitched arm – the result of a knife incident he was apparently an inadvertent victim of.
Life can be tough inside the heaving refugee camp, originally built for 3000 in 1949 but now home to up to 22,000 according to latest estimates – with more refugees trickling in every day, casualties of the neighbouring Syrian conflict. Electricity is intermittent at best, and the salty water that runs through the pipes is impossible to drink.
According to the United Nations Refugee Works Agency, 10 per cent of Lebanon’s population are Palestinian refugees, but 56 per cent do not have jobs and two thirds live on less than $6 a day.
UNRWA says of the camp: “Environmental health conditions in Shatila are extremely bad. Shelters are damp and overcrowded and many have open drains.”
This vibrant slum city has witnessed more bloodshed than its residents care to remember. It was the scene of a brutal massacre 32 years ago during which upwards of 3000 residents died at the hands of Lebanese Christian Phalange militia in concert with the Israeli Army, during the Israeli invasion.
Most people welcome the incursion of outside guests, smiling out of apartment balconies and attempting phrases in English. But one man sidles up to us as we wander around. What are we doing there, he wants to know.
“You think this is a tourist attraction…a picnic?”
It is a macabre thought, and begs some soul-searching. But that may be one unhappy interpretation of a guesthouse which has been open to outside visitors since 2003.
It is the brainchild of the Child and Youth Centre (CYC), an NGO which operates at the camp, providing remedial learning for the camp’s underprivileged and oft woefully-educated youngsters, as well as giving them a safe space to play.
The guesthouse, a modest five-room, 16-bed apartment with two bathrooms, living room and kitchen in the heart of the camp, is equipped with internet, satellite TV – solar panelling will even power it, come February.
We meet fatherly CYC director Abu Moujahed inside his office, while the cacophony of children’s laughter drifts up from the playground outside.
The guesthouse is an opportunity for cultural exchange at $15 a night, Moujahed says – as well as a side-earner for CYC’s activities.
“Two friends, they used to come [and visit CYC], and they said ‘Why don’t you establish a guesthouse, and the guesthouse can make income for the centre and those [guests] can try a night in Shatila’, because everybody hears Shatila is dangerous, dirty, not safe, this and that. So let them have an experience and try it.”
It is a novel way for people to really get under the skin of life for generations of refugees, who are subject to tough regulations in their adopted home country. Palestinians cannot own property and as many as 20 occupations are off-limits. Taxi-driving, for example, is not allowed – so we find out from the Palestinian driver who escorts us to and from the camp in his unmarked, beat-up Toyota.
“I think really [visitors] can make friends quickly and people look at them and say ‘Hello, how are you?’. They smile, they laugh, they talk. It’s good for both of us to learn from each other,” Moujahed says.
In the years he has been advocating for Lebanese Palestinian refugees, Moujahed has noticed a distinct shift in the attitude of the Western world.
“A few years ago it was hard to find so many people to come and listen to you. Now, for example, after the last Gaza war, now the boycott of Israel has become higher.”
While the guesthouse is still a relative unknown, with between 40 and 100 guests each year – in reality as much due to Lebanon’s faltering tourism industry as tourists’ reluctance to foray into refugee camps – Abu Moujahed is eager for the guesthouse to grow and become more upmarket.
“People will come and feel it is a hotel, not a youth hostel.”
Currently a fifth of guests also volunteer with CYC; others get involved in community life, spending anywhere from a couple of nights to several months on site.
In 11 years, only one person has asked to leave the guesthouse Moujahed says, after she became frightened when the electricity cut. What he doesn’t want, he says, is for Shatila to be a “safari” for tourists, and defends the motivations behind the guesthouse.
“At the beginning it was really a challenge to take this decision, it wasn’t easy to say ‘I want to make a youth hostel next to a refugee community’, it wasn’t easy...but we want to attract people to be closer to the community, to be more understanding of the situation…not to come as foreigners, but to be part of the community.”
People need to know what life is like for Palestinians inside and outside of the country, he says.
“This is apartheid. South Africa was apartheid, now this is the new apartheid in the region, so we should make pressure together if we believe in world peace.”
Freja Langevang, a 30-year-old Danish university student, has recently left the guesthouse after two months.
Langevang is doing a Tourism Masters in the phenomenon of voluntourism, using Shatila and CYC as a case study. But she was initially living outside the camp.
“I stayed in another place for one month, and this was paradise compared to the last place,” she says, referencing her welcoming neighbours and quality of the guesthouse’s fittings.
During her two months she was mostly alone, though other guests came from time to time.
“The camp is amazing, especially the people: Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians, whatever, they’re amazing. They offer you their lives actually, their friendships. You will become part of their family within days and they will help you with whatever they can help you with.”
She says Beirut is a safe and hospitable tourist destination, though she cautions traveling alone in other parts of the country as the ISIS insurgency spills over. But Shatila is where she felt most at home.
“Lebanese people told me to stay away from the camp…because it’s not safe but it’s actually there where I felt the most safe, because I never experienced anyone trying to do anything at night or at day. There’s no violence – not toward me, at least.”
She became so inveigled at the camp she lost perspective of the things an outsider may find disturbing, recalling times when she showed others around.
“When I heard them comment on poverty or dirty things, I’d be like ‘Oh yeah, of course, it’s here’, because this is daily life, you see it every day, you don’t think about it that much…the people there are not refugees for me, they’re not just something I’m observing. They’re friends and family or real people.”
So does she recommend other people make the CYC Guesthouse their lodgings?
“If you want a real Middle Eastern experience I would definitely recommend at least one or two nights, because in the Middle East there are so many refugees, so this is kind of a way to get an experienceof it.”
Manar Shamieh is one of the friends Langevang made during her time at the camp. She also works at CYC, and is Palestinian – but actually took the unlikely step of moving to Shatila from outside the camp.
“I chose this life and I have come to Shatila and live in Shatila because I want to live the same as my people.”
She wants people, foreigners, to come and see this ife for themselves.
“When I see my people they are living in a hard situation, there is no electricity, six hours cut, six hours coming. There is salty water, you cannot wash your face with it [or] drink it…the air is not clean, houses are near to each other.
“It’s enough to stay with us some days and live with us the same hard situation we live it.”
Life inside the stark grey walls can shift something in your perspective - and once you go back outside, your picture of complicated, calamitous Beirut is a little bit more complete.
Middle East Eye, published January 13, 2015
It could all come down to a sealed envelope with a mystery name penned inside. But what if more than one name is revealed?
This intrigue doesn’t relate to a Hollywood-style awards ceremony, but the rather more grave matter of the fate of a nation: Oman.
The end of the 44-year reign of the small Gulf country’s benevolent dictator, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, may be in sight amid health concerns. The 74-year-old has been out of Oman since last July seeking medical treatment in Germany for rumoured colon cancer.
The trouble is the country is in the dark about its own future should their omnipotent leader pass away. Sultan Qaboos is a brotherless, childless divorcee who wrenched control of the country from his own father in a bloodless coup in 1970. He has never publicly identified an heir, leaving the only trace of his wishes in a sealed envelope to be opened in the event a council of royal family members cannot reach an agreement on the rightful successor within three days of his death.
Many analysts have suggested Sultan Qaboos would alleviate any hand-wringing by publicly announcing his preferred candidate. But Omani political analyst Ahmed Al Mukhaini says there is a perfectly sound reason he has not.
“His Majesty has been very much concerned about competitors, and that’s why he has not named a successor, because that information could be used by local or foreign interests,” Al Mukhaini tells Middle East Eye. The Sultan did not want a case of “history repeating itself”.
In fact, so successful has Sultan Qaboos been at eliminating any pretenders to the throne he has sown the seeds of a power vacuum in the event of his death, Al Mukhaini says.
This could be potentially catastrophic if fears that he has written down more than one name prove true, according to Gulf State Analytics co-founder Giorgio Cafiero.
“Qaboos is said to have written numerous letters, which perhaps name different successors to the throne. If the Al Said family fails to reach a consensus and multiple letters are opened with different names, a succession crisis could develop.”
The Sultan himself told Foreign Affairs magazine in 1997: “I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions.”
This could complicate the difficult task for even a clearly chosen successor to assert himself as Oman’s head of state, such is the cult of Sultan Qaboos.
One cannot move in Oman without constant reminders of the much-loved leader; there is Sultan Qaboos University, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Sultan Qaboos University Hospital, Port Sultan Qaboos, Sultan Qaboos Road – the list goes on.
This is not sheer vanity alone. It reflects the very successful programme of modernisation that the ruler embarked on upon assuming the reigns. Qaboos, who is also the prime minister, minister of defence, minister of foreign affairs, chief of staff of the armed forces, and chairman of the Central Bank, oversaw the transformation of a desert backwater with only a few kilometres of paved roads into a thriving, stable economy realising the wealth from its gas and oil reserves.
For a majority of the country’s decidedly young population, Sultan Qaboos is the only leader they have ever known.
“People who are born after 1980 make up 70 percent of the population. These people, their relationship to the monarchy is different to the older generation,” Al Mukhaini says.
Ambitions for change exist. In 2011, during the wave of Middle Eastern revolutions that came to be known as the Arab Spring, Oman had its own – modest – version.
Fuelled chiefly by young people, protests took place over several months, leaving several dead and dozens wounded. This led the Sultan to grant reforms giving legislative power to parliament, financial benefits to various sectors and promise the creation of 50,000 more government jobs.
Al Mukhaini, a leading proponent for a stronger civil society in Oman, says in his view the country is on the cusp of change. “This period when His Majesty has been out of the country, it provided really a pilot period for the people and the institutions to start thinking of how they can operate without His Majesty…it’s been good for [them].”
While he concedes the government has so far been slow to act “they were slow because they were trying to find their way around”.
While the monarch failed to return to the country for its national day and his own birthday in November, instead appearing in a frail condition on television enigmatically citing “reasons you know” for his absence, Al Mukhaini says he believes Sultan Qaboos is far from death’s door.
“His meeting with John Kerry [on January 10] revives hopes he’s coming back to the country,” he says. “People are very optimistic about his health, of course they love him and they miss him dearly. There are lots of campaigns for prayers and posting of pictures of him.”
The public affection is obvious. Social media has become a virtual shrine in recent months, recognising the measured and calm decades of steady leadership.
Twitter user @aasirosman1 recently wrote: “No other leader like him. Praying he gets well soon and returns to Oman! One of a kind. #SultanQaboos #Oman”.
Al Mukhaini says if the Sultan comes back to Oman, the first step will be to appoint an independent prime minister and move towards a constitutional monarchy with increased power vested in the country’s parliament. He also sees a way for more public participation in the affairs of state through the use of social media in an era of increased “power-sharing”.
“What really matters is not who will succeed the Sultan, what matters is the evolution that happens after his death,” he says, adding this is the view of most Omanis.
“The average Mr Jones on the street is not terribly bothered about who will be next because they believe there are institutions [in place]. The people who are worried are people who are very close…their influence is their proximity to the patriarch. With a new patriarch they have to start all over again.”
The view from outside the country is not quite so sunny, and Cafiero – based in Washington – says many Omanis are justifiably anxious about what might happen in a post-Qaboos era, due to four factors.
Questions of legitimacy about any new leader could easily arise given the lack of leadership experience outside of Sultan Qaboos’s hands; secondly, the reigning monarch is credited as the unifying force which overcame historical tribal fractures that may reignite under new leadership; thirdly, an internal power struggle could ensue amongst the royal family or other powerbrokers; and the final point is the possibility of more than one name inside the sealed envelopes.
Cafiero says the main contenders for the top job, given the enshrined stipulations of bloodline, are three of Sultan Qaboos’s little-known cousins – though a diplomatic source has indicated Sayyid Haithem bin Tariq Al Said, the current minister of heritage and culture, is likely to get the nod.
He also doubts the Kerry meeting was any indication of a return to health, which would be much to the disappointment of America as well as Oman, given their role in patching up US-Iran relations.
“In 2012 and 2013, Qaboos hosted secret talks in Muscat between Kerry and officials from Tehran. These talks led to the interim nuclear deal that Iran and the…“P5+1” [the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany] signed in November 2013.”
Elsewhere in the Gulf, Jaafar Altaie, the UAE-based founder and managing director of Manaar Energy Consulting, says it is difficult to imagine Oman will unravel as a result of Sultan Qaboos’s death – “though I don’t for one second think it’s going to be without its problems”.
Altaie says trade is yet to be affected and Oman remains a “very attractive business centre” for outsiders looking to invest in the region.
“One of their strengths is stability. They’re trying to wean themselves off of oil dependence – the only way you can even consider doing that is by having an investor-friendly environment.”
In many ways, he says, the country doesn’t have a choice but to remain cohesive if it wants to continue to set itself apart from its insurgency-riddled neighbour Yemen, which it shares tribal roots with, and against the backdrop of a region facing a growing destabilising influence from the Islamic State (IS) group.
“They have to make it work and if they don’t make it work, it’s going to be a disaster.”
Investor jitters would be natural with a new leader at the helm but Oman is just par for the course at this stage, he says. “It’s the same as anywhere in the world going through change. You’ll definitely get cold feet [from investors].”
Of more immediate concern is quelling the threat of IS in Syria and Iraq, he says, and Oman stands to gain if this can be done effectively.
Other challenges ahead for the country are placating a young generation looking for more political sway and the country’s unemployed – officially about 10 to 15 percent, though Altaie estimates the figure to be at somewhere above 20 percent.
Indelible change is on the horizon for Oman. And as this quiet country moves closer to upheaval of a magnitude that hasn’t happened in almost half a century, the drama is sure to unfold on the world’s stage.