Thailand’s Multimillion Dollar Insect-Farming Sector

First Published on November 21 on Vice Munchies

A rising chorus of chirping crickets greeted Aunt Jai as she lifted the blue mosquito netting off the concrete pens outside her house. Bubbling away with enthusiasm, she quickly pointed out every little detail of her modest cricket farm.

“Those are the breeders… These are the young house crickets… There you can see some of their eggs, if you lift that cassava leaf…” For a 62-year-old, she is shockingly nimble, bouncing around between each of her 15 concrete pens, proudly showcasing the insects that have brought her so much success.

She laughed and made a sweeping gesture to the tens of thousands of crickets around her. “I used to be just a normal farmer!”

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Thailand, like many countries, has a long history of eating insects, or what is called “entomophagy.” But while many of these countries have seen a decline in insect-eaters—due in no small part to insect-eating’s negative portrayal by the West—Thailand’s insect-eating community has actually grown and diversified beyond historical levels, thanks to a changing perception of insects as food.

Today, Thailand is praised by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as “one of the few countries to have developed a viable and thriving insect farming sector” with “more than 20,000 insect farming enterprises … registered in the country.” The sector now constitutes a multi-million-dollar frontier of farming; it is growing so quickly that it continues to outpace academic research and government oversight.

With only two years’ experience, Aunt Jai is among the new wave of Thais entering the insect-farming industry. Yet, unlike some other farmers, she was not aware of its potential, instead setting out with the simple goal of sating her daughter’s cravings.

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“[My daughter] absolutely loves to eat crickets, so I thought I would buy some cricket eggs and try and rear some for her,” she recalled with an incredulous giggle. “I didn’t know what would come next.”

After receiving a small batch of various cricket eggs in the mail, Aunt Jai placed them in a small blue box and, having never been taught how to rear crickets, struggled to raise them through three months of trial and error. Eventually, she made her breakthrough and started rearing several cycles of crickets. Two months later, word of her crickets was spreading in her rural village near Don Chedi, just 80 kilometers northwest of Bangkok.

“People were coming to my farm and asking to buy some of my crickets,” she told me. Aunt Jai immediately realised the potential of her side project. “It cost me 3,000 THB ($91) to start, and after five months I had managed to make back my money, plus an extra 20,000 THB ($610)!”

She quickly invested another 100,000 THB for the 15 large concrete blocks that make up her farm today. “Today I’m making over 20,000 THB selling around 200 kilos of crickets per month. Next year, I want to double the size of my farm and begin selling to wholesalers in Talad Thai.”

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Talad Thai, on the outskirts of Bangkok, is the country’s largest wholesale and retail market, located on nearly 200 acres of land. Walking amongst the hundreds of various wholesalers is a dizzying, glorious exposure to the sheer variety and quantity of foodstuffs available in Thailand.

Mountains of pumpkins shade their wholesalers from the sun, while gourds, lemons, potatoes, and tomatoes line walkways. Onions, forests of green herbs, and bundles of garlic hang off tables. Omnipresent in the humid air is that subtle sting of dried chillies in water and vinegar.

Talad Thai, and markets like it, are a common step in the supply chain of medium- to large-scale insect-farming enterprises. With this one-stop solution, farmers suddenly find it possible to sell in bulk to a wider consumer base. Talad Thai alone generates an average monthly income of over 300,000 THB ($9,150) per month through insects.

Tucked away in one area of the vegetables section is one of the market’s four insect wholesalers. Somnuek, a 54-year-old wholesaler of insects for nearly seven years, has little time to rest as he and his family work hard to serve their stream of customers.

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“After awareness campaigns from doctors and the UN, I’ve definitely seen the number of consumers go up, which has in turn meant there are more farms to meet the growing demand,” he explained before quickly reaching over to a mound of slightly damp, cold silkworm pupae and calling an older passerby. “Eat this! It’s good for your joints, especially your knees.”

Gesturing to the glistening bowls of defrosting insects, Somnuek estimated that when he started his monthly profits were in the thousands. Now he always tops 100,000 THB ($3,050) per month.

“I import from Cambodia and China and export to different Thai communities all around the world,” he told me. “I have even sold 100 kilos of silkworm pupae to some Thai people in the USA.”

Thailand’s northeast Isan region, and to a lesser extent the more southern regions, have historically made up the bulk of the insect-eaters in Thailand. And while they may still constitute a majority of the consumer market, that base is quickly diversifying and expanding as attitudes change.

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Dr. Yupa Hanboonsong, an associate professor of entomology at Khon Kaen University and a co-author of a 2013 FAO report on insect farming in Thailand, puts this change down to a recent effort in increasing the younger generations’ level of comfort with eating insects.

“We have been throwing food fairs, introducing new recipes, serving them in school lunches, putting the food in nicer packaging, exposing [children] to insects in a more positive way,” explained Hanboonsong. “Through this, we change opinions.”

“Fifteen years ago, this was only seen as something the Isan, the poor, and the old would eat,” said Hanboonsong. “Now, recently I saw a child who was 5 to 6 years old eating insects. I went up to her and asked, ‘Why are you eating insects?’ And she looked at me like it was such a weird question to ask! You know it’s normal to her—she’s just eating it like she would a piece of candy.”

Harn, an 18-year-old from Isan who set up his insect stall in downtown Bangkok, is able to make 20,000 THB per month with a 50 percent profit margin. “I knew I could set up anywhere and be OK,” said Harn, who gets his insects from the nearby Khlong Toei market. “Everyone buys here—all sorts of Thais, Chinese, Western tourists. I used to buy and cook them for myself, but I saw that it was becoming more popular, so I decided to sell them.”

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Back in Talad Thai, Somnuek had also noticed the sudden diversity in consumers. “You get all sorts of people buying here now,” he said. “I even had a pretty famous local actress buy from me.”

The unnamed “pretty famous local actress” apparently bought a few kilos of one of the most prized insects —the bamboo caterpillar. In a nearby stall, these caterpillars were selling for 400 THB per kilo—four times the price of the house cricket. Only available seasonally through harvesting in the wild, the bamboo caterpillar is considered one of the more elegant insects to be seen eating, particularly in North Thailand.

Although the FAO estimates that Thailand has some 200 edible species of insect, fewer than a dozen are regularly eaten. Hanboonsong explains that these insects can be subdivided into two groups: farmed insects (such as crickets and palm weevils) and wild-harvested (such as bamboo caterpillars, weaver ants and giant water bugs).

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For the most part, the wild-harvested insects are only available in certain regions, or during specific times of the year, and are difficult to intensively farm. As such, their scarcity drives their prices up to even beyond that of chicken, pork, or beef. With refrigeration usage on the rise, however, more of these insects are available year-round. (Frozen insects are still fine after one to two years.)

While this is positive for the consumers in the short term, it also means that some farmers have an incentive to harvest at unsustainable levels when they are available. Even at the current rate of wild harvesting, populations of both the popular giant water bug and weaver ant eggs are declining.

“We need to have the farmers join into a big group, so that we can ensure they are taught GAPs (Good Agricultural Practice),” explained Hanboonsong. “As well as changing perceptions on eating insects, we have to ensure good practice with wild harvesting and farming.”

After her months of trial and error, Aunt Jai is more than aware of the risks that come with poor farming practice. “I now ensure it’s not too crowded so as to give them space to breathe and to jump. If it’s too crowded, there is more chance that they will eat one another.”

Yet, even with all the caveats that inevitably follow a sprawling sector that bypasses government oversight and outpaces academic research, Thailand has shown that a successful trade in insects is possible, and the rewards are very real for poor, rural farmers like Aunt Jai. “Crickets paid for this farm. Crickets bought my car,” she said, pointing at a relatively new Toyota. “Cricket farming can pull you out of poverty.”

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In Jordan, Thousands of Syrian Refugees are Under Serious Threat From a New Law

First published in Newsweek in print edition 17/10/2014 and online on 8th October 2014.

women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as  the return from the only market in the camp.

Women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as the return from the only market in the camp

Just 10km northeast of Jordan’s Mafraq city, some 20 tents are pitched next to a plot of agricultural land, the conspicuous greenery breaking up the otherwise flat, sun-bleached desert. In a faded blue font on the side of some of the tents are the words “UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency”.

This small plot of land in the desert is the latest settling ground for Ahmad Al-Obeyd and over 100 members of his extended family, all refugees from the same rural Damascus suburb. For almost a year, Ahmad has been moving his caravan of tents around Jordan, following agricultural harvests in the hope of finding work. For the past five months, they have been based near Mafraq, on a dusty plot just two kilometres from the very country they once fled.

Al-Obeyd and his family all arrived in Jordan between December 2013 and March 2014.  Carrying whatever they could, some of his family paid smugglers while others hitchhiked through dangerous territory, before finally walking the last few kilometres across the border. His family were registered in Za’atari camp. “It was very, very tough,” said Al-Obeyd, “I don’t like to think about that journey, but thank God we made it.”

Now, thanks to a recent change in Jordanian Government policy, Al-Obeyd and tens of thousands like him live under threat of eviction, incarceration, and even deportation back to Syria.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in the early spring of 2011, over 608,000 Syrians have crossed the border, seeking asylum and refuge in Jordan.  A recent economic study by the World Food Programme stated that the sheer number of Syrians coming in had “triggered major demographic shifts; tested infrastructure and pressured social services”.  Today, Syrian refugees make up one tenth of the Jordanian population.

As a result, public opinion has slowly turned on the refugees, and in a speech to parliament on the November 3rd 2013, King Abdullah II stated that unless the international community quickly came to Jordan’s aid, he would “take measures to protect the interests of our people and country.”

The resident of Mafraq, for example, are keen to keep Syrians away from their communities – a September 2012 poll by the Jordanian Centre for Strategic Studies found that 80% of townspeople supported the idea of segregation of refugees inside refugee camps.

Then, in July of this year, the government and its new Syrian Refugees Directorate, SRAD, implemented a new policy. According to the new rules unregistered refugees, and those who choose to leave the confines of the camps without official authorisation, find themselves cut off from any humanitarian assistance, access to public services, and at risk of incarceration, eviction and even deportation back to Syria. The choice presented to theserefugees is simple: stay in the camps, or give up your access to aid.

The reality is more complicated: nearly 100,000 refugees currently live in one of Jordan’s two refugee camps, created in response to the Syrian conflict – around 85,000 in Za’atari camp and an estimated 12,000 in the new Azraq camp, opened on April 30th this year. The rest – the vast majority – live outside the camps; having registered with the UNHCR in urban areas, not registered at all, or having simply left without authorisation.

“If you are not going through the bail out procedure, UNHCR is no longer in a position to renew your documents and to officially recognise your stay outside the camps,” says Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, UNHCR’s Head of Azraq Camp’s Field Office. As partners of SRAD, few aid agency workers are willing to openly decry the new policy for risk of a government backlash that could in turn seriously hinder their efforts with refugees. Nevertheless, many quietly worry that the policy signifies a new hardline shift from the government, presaging a more coercive, restrictive future for refugees without the right papers.

In order for someone to obtain a bailout from Za’atari or Azraq today, Syrians need a Jordanian relative – “not necessarily a blood relation, but there has to be a justified relation” Castel-Hollingsworth adds – who can vouch for you and is willing to act as your guarantor while you try and start a new life outside the camp. She acknowledges that obtaining a bailout permit is incredibly difficult: “It is very restrictive in terms of the criteria you need to meet, in order to be able to apply, and then to actually get the permit,” she says, from her office in Azraq camp.

At the other end of Azraq, sitting in the shade of his corrugated metal shelter, Sabra, a 41-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo, describes his first stay at the camp: “I arrived in Jordan and came to this camp on May 2nd,” he said. “I escaped the camp on the 28th May.”

It took just two and a half months before police in Amman stopped and questioned him, and, with only Azraq registration papers, he was quickly returned to the camp. Sabra’s story resonates with many like him: “I tried [to leave legally], but I couldn’t,” he says. “I tried to get the bailout [through SRAD], but I don’t have any relatives in Jordan or anybody who could be my [guarantor].”

Azraq camp’s creation was a direct result of the huge number of refugees overwhelming Za’atari camp in 2012. With a maximum capacity of 60,000 Za’atari quickly swelled to 120,000 just over a year after opening. Refugees soon streamed out of the camps and entered Jordanian residential areas. Al-Obeyd and his entire family were among them. As was common at the time, they snuck out in the night. “We left slowly, my son-in-law leaving first, then afterwards, in small groups, the rest of us snuck out,” Al-Obeyd says.

“At that time in Za’atari, there were 2,000 refugees arriving per day,” says Castel-Hollingsworth. “The government and UNHCR realised…Za’atari could not cope.”  In February, the government decided there needed to be another camp. Today, Azraq accepts 96-97% of all new arrivals into the country.

Azraq is unlike almost every other refugee camp in the world. Out of the gently undulating desert in central Jordan, Azraq’s rugged shelters sit in perfect rows. Today, close to 10,000 shelters have been built, each with a 5-person capacity. At 14.7 square km, the camp itself has the feel of peculiarly sparse, under-construction town. Everywhere is orange desert, grey roads and yellowing shelters.

“People say [it’s like planning a city], but yes it is urban planning. Yesterday I was approving the layout for a cemetery,” Castel-Hollingsworth says. Lessons have certainly been learned from the chaos of Za’atari, and Castel-Hollingsworth is proud of the fact there have been “no security incidents in the camp,” a serious issue that continues to plague Za’atari.

Yet there is much to be done. The camp itself has only one supermarket; no electricity save small, solar powered devices; no running field hospital; no floors in the shelters, and unlike Za’atari, practically no business opportunities for the refugees.

Castel-Hollingsworth considers these issues very urgent. “People say that if they get electricity, the hospital and the markets, people will come back from the urban areas to live here,” she says.  Yet, in the mean time, the refugees continue to leave – bailed out or not.

Sabra says that leaving Azraq was a way of restoring his “dignity”. “There is only so long you can live off [hand outs]. I feel I am living half a life here.” It is a sentiment echoed by Al-Obyed: “In order to live in dignity, you have to work,” he says. “That’s why we prefer to live [outside], even with all the risks involved.”

An estimated 13,000 refugees, or around 50% of those registered at Azraq, have already left illegally. Almost all of them will fall foul of the new bailout policy. Al-Obeyd knows his family are at risk by continuing to illegally reside in what are termed “informal tented settlements” (ITS). “When the policy first started, we began hearing of mass evictions of people just like us,” says Al-Obeyd. “We were seriously considering moving back to the refugee camps before they had a chance to move us forcefully.”

To date, ITS evictions have been fairly piecemeal, but one aid agency worker in Jordan warns that, “It seems to be accepted by aid workers that [more wide-scale evictions] will inevitably happen.” Al-Obeyd calls the new policy “devastating”. Nodding in the direction of his family, he notes, “It is the poorest, the most desperate, who are most affected.” He explains that for the Syrian refugees, everyone has lost something, and some have lost everything. “If they evict us, destroy our things and send us back [to the camps] I would ask them to instead return us to Syria.” He pauses to consider what he has just said, before nodding, “Yes. That would be kinder.”

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City Of Life

First Published in Philanthropy Age Magazine in October 2014.  Tearsheets below.

On the outskirts of central Cairo, in the shadow of the Mokattam hills, some 70,000 Zabaleen (literally ‘garbage collectors’ in Arabic) collect, sort and recycle nearly two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output – all 10,000 tons of it.

Originally from Upper Egypt, this majority Coptic Christian community has gone on to thrive in the one sector that has hitherto only been addressed begrudgingly: waste management.

In the Manshiyet Nasser neighbourhood of Mokattam, the largest congregation of Zabaleen live and work in and amongst the rubbish they collect. Specially built apartments tower over a maze of narrow streets where the ground overflows with the municipal waste of almost 12 million Cairenes. When the wind picks up, the air becomes saturated with a grimy dust while clouds of flies attack any decaying organic matter.

On first inspection, the area seems to be a pungent, anarchic mess of people, buildings, narrow alleys, cars and rubbish. Yet within the apparent chaos, the zabaleen families are able to achieve a diversion rate that would arouse the envy of waste management corporations worldwide.

“The Zabaleen are now recycling about 85% of the garbage they receive.” Explains Ezzat Naem, the head of the Garbage Collectors Syndicate. By comparison, the EU is aiming for a recycling rate of just 50% of household waste by the year 2020.

Originally subsistence farmers from Upper Egypt, the Zabaleen arrived in Cairo in the 1940s and began working in coordination with the existing garbage collectors, who hailed from the western Oasis governorates.

“When my people first came here, it was the Wahaya (Oasis people) who were collecting the rubbish.” Explains Naem, “they would simply take it to the outskirts of the city and leave it to dry in the sun before maybe selling it back to people as a fuel for fire.”

With the sudden influx of Upper Egyptians, the Wahaya quickly began contracting the new migrants to specific areas of Cairo. It was a business partnership that persists to this day. “Families have been working the same areas for over 60 years.” States Naem. “For example, my grandfather started by collecting garbage in El Koba Gardens, my father continued collecting the garbage from El Koba and my brothers today still collect the garbage from El Koba!”

Yet while the routes may have remained consistent, the incredible proficiency of todays Zabaleen is the result of a long evolution in their operations of collection, sorting and recycling.

The early Zabaleen would simply use the organic waste as a source of food for their livestock and just ignore most of the inorganic materials, instead preferring to dump them in landfills. Local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) spotted an opportunity and in the 1960s they began visiting the Zabaleen to buy leftover inorganic materials like paper and metal, which they would then process and resell.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the Zabaleen themselves started recycling proper. Microloans provided in coordination with a World Bank program allowed the Zabaleen to begin their own recycling, thus forgoing the third party SMEs. With advice and help from local NGOs, the Zabaleen entered a new period of efficient recycling that continues to outstrip most European and US cities today.

In Manshiyet Nasser, the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) NGO was established in 1984 with precisely this goal. The NGO was determined to help the Zabaleen make the most out of their situation in both an environmentally safe, and economically sound manner.

For over 30 years, APE – with funding from local and international donations – has been offering the residents of Manshiyet Nasser help and guidance through an ever-expanding range of programs and workshops.

“The main objective when we started was to simply help them in the recycling of rubbish,” Says Hany Al Arian, the current director of APE. “Right now we have diversified to: the production of recycled products; programs for women; pre school for the kids; and of course, health coverage for the people.”

In spite of the Zabaleen’s obvious proficiency in recycling, the working conditions remain a major health concern. The Zabaleen and their families spend their days surrounded by potentially infectious, disease-ridden garbage. “We are especially concerned for the women. They are the ones sorting through and categorising the inorganic waste their husbands bring them.” Explains Al Arian. “We have been doing a number of awareness, treatment and prevention programs on good health practices for the Zabaleen.”

Since 2007, Al Arian estimates that APE has spent some EGP 17 million (USD 2.4 million) on treatments alone. “Hepatitis C, Diabetes, Anaemia with the blood, Glaucoma. These are all major problems here.”

On the ground floor of one of APE’s buildings lies their small treatment room. A small congregation of women wait patiently outside to see the doctors, happy just to have a healthcare option so close to their homes.

Outside the main block, a small school is hidden among some recently planted trees. Packed with young children, the small classrooms overlook an eco garden built by APE in 2002, replacing what had once been a large composting plant.

“It was important that we gave these children something to do, some preparation for school and to keep them away from the streets.” Says Al Arian explaining that they accommodate children anywhere from birth up to the end of primary school. “Right now, we have approximately 650 children altogether coming to our schools.”

A common set up found with APE is to have the women working in APE’s recycling facilities, while their children cared for in the school not 200 meters away. “One of the most important things we at APE can do is to empower the women here.” States Al Arian. “But empowering the women is not enough; you have to educate the men. So we are also trying to do some workshops to broaden their minds.”

One woman who found exactly such an opportunity with APE is 38 year-old Aida Ghaly. “After I was married, I became very lonely so I came to APE looking for something to do. I quickly learnt embroidery and now teach it to other girls.”

“My husband was happy because I was nearby, had work that would help our income, and APE were able to help me when I had my children, [post natal] and in providing early education for them too.”

With her embroidery, Ghaly joins around 200 women who help to create recycled products from paper and textiles. Close to the rooms where the women work, a huge array of their products is on offer for sale, from bags and birthday cards, to pillow covers and coin purses. “We have maybe 200 different design styles, but we modify and add new ones everyday.” Explains one of the workers proudly.

“The income made by selling our recycled products should make the program self-sustaining, but since the revolution we have had trouble on that front.” States Al Arian. “Because the local economy is in such trouble, people are less willing to spend and we are having to look more to overseas markets.”

In spite of the successes of the Zabaleen with the help of NGOs like APE, in the early 2000s their community was dealt a massive blow when the Egyptian government decided to instead contract four multinational waste management corporations.

A 15-year contract was signed that stipulated the multinationals needed to maintain a recycling rate of just 20%, while the Zabaleen were told to stop collecting altogether. The income loss of the Zabaleen coupled with the needless waste ending up in landfills meant that only a few years into the contract, the experiment was already considered a desperate failure.

“These multinational companies came with a European attitude, they weren’t aware of what the zabaleen provided.” Explains Naem. “So they placed large [skips] in the streets, instead of going door to door. They asked the residents to bring the garbage down to the street. Of course the Egyptians refused.”

“We are the only people in the whole world who will go into apartments and collect your garbage from your front door.” Says Naem proudly. “Now they are subcontracting the Zabaleen through the Wahaya, adding another layer where income is lost for the average Zaabal.”

However, with the Multinationals’ contracts due to end in 2017 and with APE continuing in their work with the Zabaleen community, Naem is optimistic for the future. “Now the Government is beginning to acknowledge us and we are cared for a bit more. I feel the future could be very bright for my people.”

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The Rollergirls of Cairo

First Published in INK Global Magazine September 2014.  Tearsheets below:

A plateau of late afternoon sunshine breaks over the top of the small stadium and quietly illuminates the green, acrylic court below. A wall of chairs towers over the court from one side while on the opposing wall, a grand dusty sign reads “International Cairo Stadium”.

Stepping into the arena, the girls assess their surroundings. “Not too bad.” Says one, slowly putting on her bandana. Others in the group smile and head towards the courtside seats, ready to kit up.

With the holidays finishing, it has taken this group of young women 3 months to find a new venue for their sport and their excitement is palpable.

These are the CaiRollers: Egypt’s first and only roller derby team. The World’s fastest growing female sport is now beginning to pick up speed in Cairo. With around 22 Egyptian members, the team has come a long way since its inception 2 years earlier when two Americans, Angie Turk and Shanekia Bickham, founded CaiRollers.

At the start, the group mainly consisted of members of the Cairo expat community, but now it is young Egyptian women who make up the majority.

28 year old Nawal Ahmed was one of the first to join the group after hearing about CaiRollers through Facebook. “There were only one or two Arab people in the beginning, the rest were all foreigners.” Says Nawal. “Now it is almost all Arab girls!”

As time progressed and the expat contingent slowly began leaving the country, the “fresh meat”, as the new recruits are endearingly called, drew in increasing numbers of young Egyptian women. Nawal recalls her first training session, still fresh in her memory.

“It was a tiny track, and there were around 7 or 8 girls. I was so excited; I loved skating when I was younger. When I put on the skates, they were so heavy because I had not skated for years.” Says Nawal. “But then, after half an hour I started racing with them, I was falling, I was learning. It was so much fun. Since then I have never missed a practice.

Two years later and Nawal has progressed from “fresh meat” to instructor, teaching the latest crop of women in the dos and don’ts of roller derby.

The basic gameplay involves two teams of five skating in their pack around the track. The five are made up of a jammer and four blockers. If one pack’s jammer is able to lap the opposing pack, points are scored, and it is the job of the blockers to stop the opposing teams jammer from passing them.

With this being their first practice in over 3 months, the girls are raring to go and quick to kit up: elbow pads, mouth guards, knee pads, wrist guards, helmets and skates all essential equipment. With a long piece of rope, two members carefully mark out the oval roller derby track while the others begin skating around, tentatively at first, before muscle memory kicks in and their speed increases. A couple fall over as trained, taking a knee down to the ground before righting themselves again and continuing round the track.

Twice a week the group would meet up and train in the art of roller derby: blocking, sprinting, jumping, hitting and falling. It’s not a sport for the faint hearted, with bruises and more serious injuries common, despite the protective gear they have to wear.

“It’s bad ass!” Says Lina El Ghobashy, who first heard of CaiRollers on the radio. “You play, get injured, but continue playing!”

Lina smiles to reveal a gap in her teeth, an apparent ‘war wound’ from an earlier roller derby bout. “Well, I gave this girl a hit and when she was falling, her elbow went straight into my mouth.” She explains with a shrug of the shoulders. “I had taken out my mouth guard just before, so I was penalised for that as well! A broken tooth and a penalty!” She laughs with faux indignity. “Don’t worry, I’m seeing a dentist later today.”

Since starting, CaiRollers have managed to organise three official match-style bouts, their popularity increasing with each one. Around 130 people watched their last match, dubbed the “mother of all bouts”. Since no other roller derby team exists in the area, the group is forced to split itself into two teams, the last bout: Isis Crisis vs. the Killa’patras.

In spite of the obvious physical dangers and relative obscurity of the sport, the vast majority of CaiRoller’s members have received nothing but support from family, friends and even complete strangers.

“The first few months my mother was worried when I was coming home covered in bruises,” explains Lina, “but soon she understood what it meant to me and is now fully behind it.”

Some, like Nouran El Kabbany, one of the newer recruits, take great pleasure in the shock value roller derby provides to her friends and work colleagues. “Just this morning a colleague saw my helmet and asked about it. I explained the game and her face was like ‘Woah! Is this here in Egypt?’ I felt so proud at that moment that I am a part of this.”

Yet more than simply fun, fitness and the occasional shock, Nouran thinks roller derby has had an all-encompassing effect on her life, an opinion echoed by many of the other members.

“Roller derby has changed my life for the better. It has given me greater self-confidence and the realisation that you are never too old to do something completely new.” She explains. “I find myself practicing every time I’m on the road. Derby is a life style, not just a game.”

Lina concurs, noting the peculiar contrast in her daily activities. “I mean I’m a pharmacist; it feels like you’re entering a totally different world. In the morning I’m in a suit with my glasses on and now I’m with skates being aggressive. I love it.”

Both Lina and Nouran consider the polar opposite duality of their lives to be a thing of beauty, and with CaiRollers’ prominence growing with every practice, bout and ‘fresh meat clinic’, an increasing number of local women are being given the opportunity to experience it first hand.

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‘Trade In Spade’ – Gaza’s Destroyed Tunnels

First published in print with Makeshift Magazine July 2014

Tearsheets below:

Abu Mohamed hovers near the entrance of a gaping cavern and fumbles with a small set of speakers. He carefully traces his fingers along a black wire until they reach a tiny, metal nub soldered onto the end. Putting the ad-hoc microphone to his lips, he shouts, “Ready? Okay. Pull, Wajdi!”

At the end of the tunnel, nearly a kilometer away, Abu Mohamed’s command booms through another set of speakers in a haze of distorted feedback. Wajdi, hunkered underground in near-total darkness, reaches over a mound of freshly dug soil and flicks a rusty switch from “0” to “1”. A nearby crank whirrs at full speed and a sprawl of cable slowly spins towards him.

Back at the surface, Abu Mohamed watches as an empty rubber sled, hooked to one end of the cable, slowly slithers down a steady gradient and into the tunnel to Wajdi, who fills it with soil and sends it back. Turning to me, Abu Mohamed smiles, throws his arms open and almost bows. “This is how you build a tunnel, my friend.

For the beleaguered residents of the Gaza Strip, underground smuggling tunnels to Egypt are a lifeline. When the Islamist group Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, Israel responded with a trade blockade, and the subterranean black market became the main thoroughfare for everyday necessities. “We’re talking everything here: household furniture, flour, sugar, cement, tobacco, electronics, gas. It was a huge business,” says Omar Shaban, an economist and director of the local think tank PalThink.

Hundreds of tunnels that connected to Egypt’s Sinai region once accounted for 99 percent of trade in Gaza, he adds. The market was so lucrative that in 2008, Hamas started incorporating tunnel revenues into its fiscal budget. “At its height, the tunnels were the main source of tax to the Hamas government. There were some estimations that the taxes arrived to half a billion dollars a year.”

That has all since changed since the summer of 2013, after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup and a spate of terrorist attacks hit Egypt’s poorly policed Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas (an original offshoot of the Brotherhood) were quickly blamed for the attacks, and the smuggling tunnels were labeled a conduit to terrorism.

“They must have destroyed some 1,100 [tunnels],” Abu Mohamed sighs, remembering the Egyptian military operation that followed Morsi’s coup. He adamantly denied that weapons or militants flowed underground. “We use it as a lifeline, not for terrorists.”

Abu Mohamed is one of a handful of remaining diggers trying to resuscitate the tunnel networks and ameliorate an economic slump that Omar Shaban describes as “the worst ever in Gaza’s recent history”. Abu Mohamed’s tent in the southern Rafah region of Gaza is a rare sign of life in a sea of abandoned white marquees that shelter the entrances to defunct tunnels.

Abu Mohamed is five months and one kilometer into the project; he will need to double this to finish. “The tunnels need to be longer now to avoid the Egyptian military,” he says.

The typical strategy for building a tunnel is to simply dig at an angle perpendicular to the border with Egypt. Ahmed, another digger here, peers over the edge of a tunnel well and explains, “You have two basic types of tunnel: one like this,”—he kicks a rock down the shaft and waits to hear it crack against the bottom—“which is built straight down around 15 meters, before going straight across the border, then straight up again.” The other type slowly curves down in a gentle “U” shape before popping back up in Egypt.

“I have heard of some people digging with their hands,” Abu Mohamed explains as another sled full of soil emerges from the hole. “But we have spades and pickaxes. Gaza is good for that. It has a lot of construction equipment lying around and no materials to build with.”

The Gazan diggers almost mock the Egyptian border guards with how close they build to the border. None of the tunnel entrances are more than 200 meters away from the Egyptian outposts. “They already know we start here. What’s really important is that they don’t find the exit,” Ahmed says, pointing over into Egypt.

“We don’t know exactly where the other tunnels are, underground, but it isn’t that congested down there,” Abu Mohamed says. “As long as we dig straight from here we won’t have any problems. The only problems are when we reach Egypt.”

The entrance to his tunnel, which measures four-and-a-half feet high, is framed with large piles of sandbags in a cursory attempt to stop the earth from collapsing in around it. Wooden supports prop up the passageway for the first 20 meters, but after that, the tunnel continues on its own, unsupported and with tons of earth above it.

Towards the middle, the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel reaches several lows of less than three feet, requiring visitors to assume a prostrate crawl to sneak through. The atmosphere hangs heavy with a stale humidity, the earth sweats and heaves under the immense weight above it. In these tunnels, workplace safety and standard engineering codes are merely an afterthought.

“It’s very dangerous. I know a lot of people who have died,” Ahmed says. “My cousin was injured in a tunnel collapse just six months ago.” Peering into the darkness he recalls his first venture into one of the tunnels. “It felt like I was walking into my own grave.”

Wajdi suddenly comes in over the speakers from deep inside the tunnel. “[The sled is] all full, Abu Mohamed. Can you send some water and cigarettes down the next time?” Abu Mohamed reaches into his packet of cigarettes, pulls out three sticks and lays them down next to the microphone. “No problem, Wajdi.”

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August 7, 2014 · 16:55

Orwell’s Nationalism in Egypt

The 25th June 2014 marks the 111th anniversary of George Orwell’s birth, and it seemed as appropriate a time as any to add my own little contribution to the already near-bursting oeuvre of work connecting Orwell to contemporary news.  In my case, Egyptian news.

As the Egyptian state and its institutions continue to bludgeon any dissent or opposition out of the public sphere, one of Orwell’s earlier essays proves helpful in understanding how it has come to this: why the current government is so desperate to enforce patriotic sentiment; how they can get away with obvious lies and brutality; and why even peaceful disobedience and dissent is no longer allowed.

In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’, Orwell starts by appropriating and altering the definition of ‘nationalism’ beyond that of everyday parlance, beyond the parochial allegiance to ‘the nation’. Orwell hypothesised there was an associative emotional phenomenon that could be applied to a swathe of constructs outside (and indeed, inside) any nation.

Orwell writes, “It can attach itself to a church or a class,” and importantly adds, “or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.”

In his simplest definition, ‘nationalism’ is an emotional phenomenon that creates a blinding allegiance to something (positive nationalism), or perhaps against something (negative nationalism).  As a societal construct, attaching oneself to others of similar ideology and agency arises naturally and is almost impossible to avoid – even hermits and misanthropes can and will identify with one another – but Orwell takes it one step further.

The inherent problem, he says, is that nationalism also acts as a perfect incubator of the irrational zealot.  Victories and losses are almost irrelevant to belief and allegiance, as the fanatical nationalist (and for Orwell, they are the rule, not the exception) will not only stand firm, but will actually grow in their stubborn righteousness as a result.

As Orwell puts it, “[The nationalist] persuades himself that [his side] is the strongest [side], and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him.”

They can become either the ‘martyr’ (after a loss) or the ‘noble victor’ (after success) – either way their reservoir of righteousness grows.  In this schizophrenic atmosphere Orwell posits that even the most intelligent person is suddenly willing to “suppress their sensibilities and sacrifice their intellectual honesty for the cause of propaganda”.

In Egypt, this style of ‘nationalism’ can be a helpful lens through which to view recent events.

Suddenly, Egypt is seen as the battleground of vying political nationalist actors:  The Muslim Brotherhood, Youth Movements, Military Trial Activists, Anti Sexual Harassment movements, Business magnates, the Army, the judiciary, and so on.  People may ally themselves to many different groups, and though few of the nationalist groups have anything to do with the nation directly, they all demand one thing: power.  Were any one group to hold a majority mandate, the other groups would immediately feel threatened, and be seen as a threat.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the interim government-backed military approached the problem of the Brotherhood and public relations with a modus operandi akin to the US Straussian neo-conservatives of the 1970s: Scare everyone with a deadly enemy (USSR/Muslim Brotherhood); overplay the enemy threat through propaganda; and promulgate the myth of the benevolent state, thus encouraging an unquestioning patriotism.  But instead of fighting the selfish and immoral individualism of liberalism, as the neo-cons did, the new Egyptian state is fighting a proliferation of political nationalism that threatens allegiance, stability and the power hierarchy.

After all, any nationalist group ipso facto is a threat, irrespective of whether it poses a direct challenge to the incumbent power, because, as stated earlier, every nationalist demands power: power to do business free of restrictions; power to operate with impunity; power to hold a government accountable; power to change a law.  In 2011, power in Egypt was momentarily, and spontaneously, redistributed in an 18-day revolt, much to the chagrin of the deep state.  In the aftermath of the 2013 coup, a President more amenable to the old pillars of power is taking charge, and any further redistribution of power will once again be at the discretion of the old institutions.

Facing the swathe of serious political nationalist groups, the nation state and its institutions are trying its hardest to redirect the varying nationalists back to one overarching allegiance: loyalty to the State above all; overt patriotism over the more exclusive and fractured swathe of nationalist groups.

In the most blatant effort to date, the Egyptian Presidential office recently released a new decree regarding two major symbols of the State: the national anthem and the flag.

In it, the decree repeals two previous laws and demands a more devout reverence to these two symbols.  It stated the Egyptian flag cannot be lower than that of any other state institution flag (such as an army or a state flag), and is not to be on display if damaged, altered, worn or faded.  Egyptians must stand for the national anthem “out of respect” and military personnel must salute.  One line states, “Pre-university education authorities should strive to disseminate the norms and values enshrined in the words of the national anthem.”

To stress the seriousness of this new decree, anyone who insults the flag (by breaking the above rules) or doesn’t stand for the national anthem “shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year and a fine not exceeding thirty thousand pounds ($4200)”.

“We are somewhat telling people “the state is back”.” Was the blunt response of Ehab Ghobashy, the presidential spokesman, when asked what the objective was in creating this new law.  “You could describe Egypt during the last three years as messy… because the state institutions were not able to perform their duties and the state pride was not given its due respect.”

The timing of the decree is key.  The immediate aftermath of the coup last year inspired what seemed to be an unquestioning patriotic atmosphere, akin to Orwell’s positive nationalism, in a huge and loud majority of Egyptians.  This loyalty remained even after the slaughter of over 1,000 people in less than a week in mid-August 2013.  Many cheered the dispersal of Rabaa square where some 638 people were killed and almost 4,000 injured, almost exclusively civilians of an opposing nationalist allegiance: the Muslim Brotherhood.  Even those not overtly pro-Army were willing to perform mental gymnastics in order to avoid calling Rabaa what it was: a massacre committed by their side.

With the Muslim Brotherhood almost completely crushed in just six months, a new enemy was needed by the state to once again unite the masses in fear – mistaking Orwell’s negative nationalism with patriotism.  The list of potential threats quickly increased and the new enemy suddenly became anyone openly dissenting.  An abhorrent protest law was passed and suddenly, the secular activists and youth movements (many of which supported the overthrow of Morsi) ran into trouble.  According to the Interior Ministry, some 16,000 people have been imprisoned since the fall of Morsi in July 2013.  One independent statistics database puts the number closer to 41,000, the overwhelming majority political prisoners.

Furthermore, journalists opposing or questioning the state line have been targeted, harassed, killed and jailed.  Two days ago, after 6 months of the most farcical trial proceedings to grace a courtroom, 3 Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to a cumulative 24 years in prison for doing nothing more than basic reporting.

Despite all this, it appeared that the reverence (in the form of enthusiasm) towards the state was waning as time passed and conditions continued to stagnate for the average Egyptian, and the old institutions were clearly alarmed by this sudden reality.

Turnouts in the recent presidential elections were low, far lower than anyone expected.  After the scheduled two days voting, one poll put the turnout at a laughably low 7.5%, although others placed it closer to the 20% mark.  The Presidential Elections Commission quickly took the extraordinary step of extending the voting to another day in a desperate effort to increase their “mandate”.  After the additional days voting they claimed overall turnout finished at just under 50%.  This sudden and dubious increase prompted the opposition candidate to call the proclaimed turnout percentage “an insult to Egyptians’ intelligence” and yet it was still far short of what the incoming President had hoped for.

The most obvious answer to this sudden indifference was that the overt patriotism of last year was simply ebbing away with time.  Therefore, the logic goes, a more patriotic sentiment needs to be drilled into the Egyptian psyche.  After all, the upcoming period of austerity, of “hard work and self-sacrifice”, could easily stir an angry and resentful crowd unless subconsciously cowed with an undying nationalism towards the state.

Yet through the lens of Orwell’s nationalism, it could just as easily be the case that the apparent patriotic fervour in the immediate post-Morsi period was not an allegiance to the state, but rather a negative nationalism against the Muslim Brotherhood.  If this were the case, then the patriotic reserve the state is relying on has been massively overrated from the start, and the turnout in the elections may be an indicator of such a reality.

In attempting to ameliorate their position and increase unquestioning loyalty, the state is now trying to force ‘reverence’ by law.  An obvious mistake in strategy: it’s difficult to make someone love you if you caveat your desire to be loved with threats of imprisonment and fines.  However, by overplaying the existential threats of terrorism, dominating the press and closing down a major avenue of dissent (through protests and marches), the state is well on its way to a new era of stultifying submission.

This strategy is made especially clear when you realise it is very possible to break all these new laws and still not find yourself in any trouble, so long as you break them the right way.  Scrawl “Sisi for President” on the flag, have an impromptu march along the bridge in support of the army, write outright lies against foreign journalists in you newspaper and you will get on just fine.  Just so long as you belong to a nationalist group that somehow benefits the incumbent powers, you can get away with murder.  Or even a massacre.

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Hobson’s Choice for Egyptian Voters

First published in the New Internationalist on May 30th

 

As polling booths closed late last night, Egyptians ticked off yet another election.  This has been the country’s second presidential election in as many years, and the 7th time Egyptians had been sent to the polling booths in just over 3 years.  Democracy by way of the ballot box abounds.  Yet the only reason these elections could even be called ‘democratic’ was down to one man, the Nasserist opposition candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

With early results from the elections trickling out, the inevitable looks to be confirmed: ex-defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be Egypt’s next President with a landslide majority, while his only opposition is left far adrift with just a single-digit percentage of the ballots. Yet while the result itself is as expected, the turnout and build up to the election was anything but.

The idea of campaigning against the man considered by many as the “saviour of Egypt” would be a hard, if not impossible, task.  Sisi had, after all, been the “hero” who removed the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi – this was a common sentiment from voters I spoke to.  Other potential candidates quickly opted out of the race, either out of reverence to Sisi, or citing the impossibility of competing in what was termed a “state of fear”.

Since Morsi was overthrown in July last year hundreds of his supporters have been killed.  Over a thousand more have been sentenced to death in the courts.  Journalists have been targeted and harassed.  Activists and members of youth groups have been imprisoned after the passing of a draconian protest law.  The message was clear: dissent and opposition will not be tolerated, and the same seemed to apply with the elections.

So when Sabahi announced his candidacy, he was met with accusations of delusion and backroom cooperation from a fragmented opposition bloc.  There was no way he could possibly win, and by competing he was simply bestowing a veneer of democracy to what was a practical coronation.

Travelling around Cairo, you could be forgiven for thinking there was only one candidate.  Sisi’s face beams down from posters and billboards, while Sabahi is apparently neither seen nor heard.  Yet out of the two, it was Sabahi who embraced the campaign period with gusto, while Sisi himself eschewed nearly all forms of electioneering.  Ostensibly due to security issues, the three-week campaigning period ended without Sisi making a single public appearance.

In the first week of campaigning, Sabahi’s headquarters was abuzz with young volunteers oozing an infectious confidence.  The walls were littered with posters of Martyrs from the previous three years revolting, in keeping with the image that Sabahi was trying to portray: he was the candidate of the youth and the revolution.

This belief was apparent in his team, and a sole objective was clearly stated.  Ehab Ghobashy, an organiser in Sabahi’s ‘Street Committee’ who referred to his candidate only as “the President”, held, if anything, a hubristic view as to who would win the elections.  “You wait and see, our President will win.”  He would say with a smile, reasoning apparently superfluous to his “good feeling”.

Further up the campaign echelon, a more pragmatic approach was taken, but the singular hope was still that, with the correct strategy, Sabahi would somehow win.  “We are targeting the youth [18-39], they make up 60% of the voting bloc” explained Hussein Qorshum, head of the communications committee.  “When we travel, we hit the areas we know we have support and tailor our speeches to address the needs of the people there.  This is how we will win – with our policies.  Sisi speaks of energy saving light bulbs?  We talk of solar power!”

However, as the campaign dragged on, the cracks started to show, literally.  The campaign was working on a laughably small budget and that much was clear to anyone watching.  Mid way through the campaigning, Sisi’s team had spent LE 12 million (£1,003,400) including renting a private jet that purportedly cost them £7,500.  In the same period, Sabahi’s director of advertising stated they had spent just LE 100,000 (£8,362).

It was a picture of forced frugality.  A great deal of their resources were drawn from Sabahi’s failed 2012 presidential bid.  Slogans, songs, posters and t-shirts from two years prior were all dusted off and brought back to life.  The campaign team didn’t even have a security officer, as, according to their secretary of the political relations committee, they “can’t afford one”.

The young team of volunteers found themselves harassed, assaulted, arrested and impeded in their work by both pro-Sisi civilians and policemen.  “Just two days ago, we had trouble in Mahalla,” said Ahmed Dowayik, a 22 year-old volunteer with Sabahi.  “They tried to stop our bus and pull us out but we just quickly drove out.”  He shrugs when asked who they were.  “They were dressed like civilians, but you never know.  The police just watched it all happen and did nothing.”

As the campaigning neared its end, it was noticeable that Sabahi’s team were trying to shift the goalposts.  The main objective remained the triumph of their candidate, but another aim suddenly came to carry great importance too.  “What’s most important for us is the spirit of youth.” Said Mohamed Aziz, a prominent organiser with the campaign.

As one of the cofounders of the Tamarod movement that brought about the fall of Morsi, Aziz knows what a successful campaign feels like, and the day after campaigning was finished, he was expert in avoiding a straight answer as to possible success in the elections.  “We’ve gained some ground and we’ve trained a lot of the youth in the democratic way.  The thousands that volunteered for us, work with us, the spirit of hope for a young crowd that believes in a democratic state, for me this is the most important thing.”

Yet on the day, the brutal reality in the turnout of the elections would have left both candidates disappointed.  While Sabahi had hoped for some success among the younger voters, Sisi had called for record voter participation, thus providing proof of his popular mandate.  The first days showing was so poor that it prompted an angry reproach from local television personalities.  The youth were particularly conspicuous in their absence.

On the second, and what should have been the final day’s voting, the turnout was hardly better, despite the best efforts of the state.  Non-voters were threatened with fines (voting is mandatory in Egypt, but this is never observed); a popular shopping mall was closed early; and the day was proclaimed a national holiday.  One studies centre put the turnout over the two days at a staggeringly low 7.5%.  Then, late on Tuesday, a desperate Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) made the extraordinary decision to extend voting to a third day.  The latest state figures now put the overall turnout at between 38 and 59 percent of voters.

The events of the polling period seemed to exactly mirror an earlier episode during the elections. On a trip to Benha, a group of Sabahi volunteers careened around corners in their campaign minibus, blasting songs and handing out posters.  The occasional onlooker smiled and the occasional onlooker gave a thumbs down, but the vast majority watched on with complete indifference, instead returning to whatever they were doing, as if nothing had happened.  As if nothing had changed.

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