For the past four months—as political uprisings have swept through the Middle East and North Africa—Yemeni, Tunisian, Egyptian, Syrian, and Libyan New Yorkers have tried to find out two things: whether their loved ones are safe and what’s really happening in their homelands. Since phone calls are often monitored by foreign governments, many have resorted to using coded language to speak with their families, while others have turned to alternate forms of communication, including GChat, Skype, and Facebook. Here’s a random assortment of conversations.
Reported by Taimur Khan, Alaa Majeed, and Jada Yuan
Hide that gun from Omar
On April 9, Khaled, a Yemeni residing in Lefferts Gardens, called his wife, three boys, and mother, who live in Taaz, Yemen. Khaled married his wife, Esraa, twelve years ago on a trip to Yemen. In order for him to maintain his U.S. residency, he must stay in New York until he becomes a citizen, after which point he plans on obtaining citizenship for his family. This is a transcript of that call.
OMAR [son, 11]: Hello, Dad. How are you?
KHALED: I am good, good. How are you, my son, how are your brothers and mother?
OMAR: We are good, but school’s closed. There is a shortage in gas, food, and electricity.
KHALED: Really? How is that possible? I want you to buy as much food and gas as you can and store it somewhere in the house. How is the security situation there? Where have the protests reached?
OMAR: They’ve reached the center of the city. Please tell Mom to give me your gun so I can use it if things go bad.
KHALED: [Laughing] You are my man there, and I can rely on you, but not the gun. You need to stay at home and take care of the family. If you need anything, go to my friend Hisham. He will help out. Now give me one of your brothers.
HUSSAM [son, 9]: Hello, Dad, how are you? Are you coming back anytime soon?
KHALED: I’m good. I have a laptop ready to be sent to you as soon as you perfect the multiplication chart. What’s seven times eight?
[Hussam stops for a minute before answering.]
HUSSAM: It’s 56, Dad.
KHALED: You just looked it up somewhere, didn’t you? I want you to study very hard and let me know when you are ready to get your laptop.
HUSSAM: Do you want to talk to Mom?
KHALED: Yes, please.
ESRAA: How are you, dear?
KHALED: I am good, good. How are you?
ESRAA: Alive. Things are deteriorating, but we are trying our best to stay away from the protests.
KHALED: I want you to take very good care of the children and my mother. You ensure their safety. I know it’s a hard request, but do your best. Keep everybody at home. And hide that gun from Omar.
I do nothing but think about Libya
Wissal Assed, a Libyan-American New Yorker, shares her experiences of trying to stay connected with her family. Her mother and sisters left Libya on March 18.
“When the uprising started in Tripoli, my mother, two sisters, and mother-in-law were there. My mother and one of my sisters were living in the center of the capital. I started calling or Skypeing my family every hour. My phone bill was over a thousand dollars. I even stopped going to work; I missed ten days. Usually when you call Libya, you have to dial a few times to get through, and we started to notice that the lines were very clear and that the first dial was going through. So we got suspicious. And then one time I called my mother, and another woman answered the phone at the same time. My mother stayed quiet, and I apologized and said, ‘I’m sorry, I think I dialed the wrong number,’ and the woman said, ‘No, you did not dial the wrong number. Continue talking.’ I hung up and called again. My mother answered and said, ‘I think that’s the person who is listening to our conversations.’ The only way my family knew what was going on is through TV—Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The regime kept changing or disturbing the signals of those channels. One time I heard that Qaddafi might use chemical weapons, so I called my family right away and told them to tape the holes around the windows and to keep a wet towel near them. I don’t have a life anymore. I lost touch with all my friends. I do nothing but think about Libya, from the minute I wake up till I go to sleep. I even dream about it. My whole life changed. I’ll be honest with you, there are times when I just break down and cry. My family, my grandmother, cousins, aunts, and close friends—they are not living their lives. How can I?”
Will I ever be able to come here again?
E-mails between Najla, a Libyan-American graduate student at Columbia, and her German aunt Kay who lives in Tripoli. Shortly after these e-mails were written, Kay and her children were able to flee to Germany.
Date: Wed, Feb 23, 2011
Tomorrow morning I’m going to go to the embassy and have myself put on the list—and then we have to wait until we know whether we can leave. I’m all over the place at the moment. Please help me figure out what’s important for me to take along. I’m only allowed to take one little bag.
WILL I EVER BE ABLE TO COME HERE AGAIN?
Date: Thu, Feb 24, 2011
How are the kids feeling—do they know what’s going on? We’ve been very worried. Please write us with updates as often as you can.
Date: Thu, Feb 24, 2011
we are doing well. we sleep and hope the next day will be better. but we wake up and nothing has changed. the kids are ok. sometimes they ask if we are safe in our house since we didn’t go outside for a week. at the moment there is no coming out.
give all a big hug from us.
Date: Fri, Feb 25, 2011
Everything’s calm. Supposedly there’s fighting in Tripoli, but in the meantime I don’t know who’s telling the truth anymore. I’m in a deep hole at the moment. I really thought we would leave in the next few hours, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. I’m depressed. Not because I can’t leave but because I don’t know what’s going on. Deep deep hole.
Hopefully tomorrow morning I’ll be somewhat more optimistic again.
Date: Sun, Feb 27, 2011
The UN is finally imposing sanctions. We’d also have a new government for the transition—just like Benghazi.
Everyone’s confident. I am, too. Sorry I wasn’t on Skype. I’m not really up for it at the moment. There’s this listlessness—I call it emotional chaos.
But don’t be worried. It’s all in my head—my battle with myself.
Date: Mon, Feb 28, 2011
I finally bought a ticket for me and the kids. Now we’re hoping that the airplane actually comes tomorrow. It’s going to be a sleepless night. Is it coming or isn’t it?
Cross your thumbs
Qaddafi’s forces are just stupid killers
An excerpt from a blog post by Wissal Assed’s sister, Nafissa, written on March 23, five days after she fled Libya.
“On the 17th of March I headed to the airport, leaving Tripoli for safety reasons. God only knows what is coming next. After we lost the Internet, Tripoli became a prison of terror.
On the 10th of March (Thursday), Qaddafi’s gangsters sent an SMS to all cell phones, reading: “A Saudi sheikh called Saleh El Fawzan, senior religious scholar and a member of the Committee for Issuing Fatwas in Saudi Arabia, asks every Libyan citizen to report on any imam encouraging people to raise confusion in the community.” Qaddafi sees every Friday as a nightmare, and he has to make Thursdays so frightening for the Libyans by increasing the threats and intimidation.
Friday, 18th of March, was the day I reluctantly left my beloved Libya. On our way to the airport we had to pass through checkpoints where Qaddafi’s forces stop cars, stare closely at each face with their evil eyes. I expected the airport to be unbelievably crowded, but it was completely empty. I heard that they don’t allow Libyans to leave easily, and indeed, before I left the country, they asked what I had been doing in Libya and what I was going to do in Morocco. They also took my name and gave it to somebody to check. I waited for about 30 minutes until that source called back to give the OK for me to leave. I can tell Qaddafi’s forces are just stupid killers, because I carried some of the bullets that I collected from the streets of Tripoli in my handbag, and they couldn’t detect it through their scanning checkpoints.
Wednesday, March 22nd, Qaddafi’s thugs murdered 5 kids (shot in the head) after the Security Council ordered him to cease fire. Qaddafi can’t put his head on a pillow at the end of the day if he doesn’t make sure he murders innocent Libyan citizens and as many kids as he can.”
We will win
On March 10, Sahira, a resident of the Bronx, called her cousin in Syria.
SAHIRA: Hello Mahmoud, how are you? Has been a while.
MAHMOUD: Fine, I guess. How are you?
SAHIRA: Just worried about you guys. How is the situation? Any chance for a political change? I heard that the army and police are shooting at protesters.
A beeping sound can now be heard on the line. Sahira hangs up and starts texting, deciding that it’s safer.
SAHIRA [texting]: Hey, Mahmoud. What happened?
MAHMOUD: It dropped. The shooting “stars” are hitting us.
SAHIRA: The shooting stars? What are you talking about?
MAHMOUD: The shooting “STARS” you were asking about when you called.
SAHIRA: Okay. I get it.
Text exchange on March 17.
SAHIRA: How are things?
MAHMOUD: Fine. In Nawa visiting friends. [Nawa is a town where many casualties have occurred.]
SAHIRA: Oh my God. What are you REALLY doing there? Don’t get shot by the stars.
MAHMOUD: Will be fine. Shooting stars mite hit us, but we will win the game.
Forgive me for having dreamed
On February 10, Mehdi, a Tunisian, posted this message on the Facebook wall of his Algerian-American friend who lives in New York.
“I ask forgiveness of my children and of the Tunisian people for having naively believed on the 15th of January in a better future.
Forgiveness for having dreamed that they were going to live in a free and just country.
For no longer stressing about their future in Tunisia.
When I see that this wonderful movement—which was started by young graduates on unemployment having no method of survival, no liberty, no hope of a better life—has been taken over by irresponsible opportunists and crooks who are not even dignified enough to be called patriots, who go on strike and demand raises, paralyzing the country and taking advantage of the absence of an administration to have more while others don’t have anything … to the point that they’re making some people miss the dictatorship, I say forgive me for having dreamed.
A hope remains when I think of Mr. Nelson Mandela, who—when all the world was predicting chaos after the end of apartheid—told South Africans, Forget the past, and think of the future.
Reassure me. Tell me that I can still dream.”
I can die with dignity
During the uprising, Sherif Sadek, an Egyptian filmmaker based in New York, participated in an extensive e-mail exchange with a group of friends living in Egypt. Below, excerpts from their conversation.
On Jan 26, 2011, at 8:05 AM, Mostafa wrote:
You would’ve loved to be in Tahrir yesterday! It was inspiring and emotional!
There are reports of some small-scale protesting in madinet nasr and 6 october today. Hope it picks up.
You should’ve seen the women and egyptians from ALL walks! One thing is certain, a strong message was delivered. But that is, of course, if anyone is listening.
Keep it alive around the world!
Date: Wed, 2 Feb 2011 03:01:08 PM EST
Subject: Re: It is glorious
as a non egyptian but someone who’s been living here for close to 20 years, its amazing what’s unfolded the past week or so, however today’s incidents set the tone for the worse unfortunately.
sabra, u are an asshole for being out of touch, but ur our asshole so i guess ur forgiven.
may, hope ur brother is doing well.
ragab, kudos to you for being there all week
its great to witness history being made, positive history, home grown as well…
On Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 6:53 AM, Ahmed wrote:
I can die with honor and dignity. We were chased by police forces. Tear bombs were thrown at us and tanks blocked our path to the square. Yet we resisted and made it. On the second day, I stood in front of the national museum along with other Egyptians to block looters and to look after our heritage and treasures. Police tried to disperse again. They couldn’t. When I couldn’t breath because of the smoke, help came from everywhere. Coke was splashed on my eyes, water dropped on my head, and onions were peeled, cut in halves to counter the effect of the bombs.
When the army marched in on the 3rd day, we received them with joy. They let me write on two tanks: “down with the tyrant—we are free…”
On the fourth day, we went again to the square. A police tried to argue with me, I replied saying, “I have been dead psychologically for the last 30 years, I don’t mind dying physically.”
Sent from my BlackBerry
Date: Sat, 12 Feb 2011 07:09:45 PM EST
Subject: Re: It is glorious
On Sat, Feb 12, 2011 at 9:36 AM, Mariam wrote:
IM SO HAPPY! THIS IS AMAZING - No words to describe the joy!
Proud to be Egyptian : )))))))))))
Date: February 14, 2011 5:53:14 PM EST
Subject: Re: THINK
For the foreseeable future, egypt, if we’re lucky, is likely to have a C grade democracy. It’s not great. But we would not have registered a grade a month ago. Not even an F.
C is a start…
Sent via BlackBerry
It is a massacre
A GChat conversation between Raja, a Yemeni-American and her cousin in Sana’a, Yemen, on March 18.
C: 30 are dead today
one of them is a child
and over 200 are injured
C: two hours ago
Snipers from the rooftops
C: killed the demonstrators
C: It is a massacre
for the horrible images
C: They shot them at the eyes
and heads and necks
C: Watch Al Jazeerah
open it now
R: what the hell
You can’t trust anyone here
Raja has since temporarily relocated to Sana’a to be a photojournalist. Here, her Facebook messages with Hanna, who lives in New York.
April 10 at 4:31 p.m. Report
How are you. how is it in Yemen. Hopefully you’re not getting into too much trouble. Stay safe!
April 11 at 12:22 p.m. Report
Hey love, Sorry for the delay…Everything is fine. I’ve already got stuck in the middle of two clashes but managed to escape in time. I’m beginning to normalize the sounds of gunshots and seeing the injured. You can’t trust anyone here… it’s hard to know ur enemies from ur friends.
‘Freedom’ is her favorite word now
Facebook messages written on April 11, between Rabyaah, a Yemeni-American living in Brooklyn, and her sister-in-law in Sana’a.
RABYAAH: did u guys go out to protest today?
SISTER-IN-LAW: Noo. but I go frequently
RABYAAH: is it dangerous
SISTER-IN-LAW: Mama thinks it is, but we all go. do not tell her
RABYAAH: did u see salma in front of the white house with her yemeni flag?
SISTER-IN-LAW: i have put her picture as my profile picture
RABYAAH: lol. she loves rallies now. and she even memorized some slogans
RABYAAH: Down down with Ali. and freedom is her favorite word now. freedom this and freedom that
SISTER-IN-LAW: Same here with kids. they all shout and play. and then they say: The people want to end the regime. You hear this song everywhere
Egypt is not Cairo
Hoda Osman, an Egyptian-American living in Jersey City, e-mailed her friend in Egypt about the new political parties.
On Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 5:09 AM, Hoda wrote:
I wanted to ask u if u have decided on joining a party or not, thinking about the abul ghar one, but wanted ur opinion.
Sent: Thu, March 31, 2011 7:07:26 AM
Subject: Re: parties
I am so disappointed in all the parties:-( not sure if i will join any. i need to skype with you, how about today?
On Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 8:37 PM, Hoda wrote:
I feel that because I’m far away, I want to join a party.
Sent: Thu, March 31, 2011 6:10:31 PM
Subject: Re: parties
Sent you some info on a party. It has very respectful and decent figures. My only take is that a civil society won’t be as attractive to the masses because of the lack of roots at rural areas. And we all learned, egypt is not cairo;-)
This is justice
On April 14, Hoda called her father, Khaled, to discuss Mubarak’s arrest.
H: Hi Papy. I had to call you to talk to you about what happened.
K: It’s hard to believe.After all the power, all those years, now prison?
H: Remember the man I met in Tahrir Square who was detained and tortured? This is justice for him. What happened today will be an example to future leaders. They’ll think twice before doing anything wrong.
K: Who would want to be in their place? They will think a thousand times.