Thursday, November 29, 2012

Interview: Horreyah on the Arab Springs

Geographic Travels interviewed documentarian Victor S. who is creating a documentary film about his travels in the Arab world during and after Arab Spring-events.  The film, Horreyah, which means "freedom" in Arabic follows Victor during his time in the region.  Victor is currently raising money on Kickstarter to help him finance the film's production.

We find his information on the independent-mindedness of each protest surprising, the Muslim Brotherhood slow motion plan of conquest disturbing, and the personal story about the FSA adventurous.

GT:  What inspired you to do a documentary on the Arab Spring?

I had worked as a contractor in the region during the relatively early stages of OIF and became interested in the middle east for several reasons. The history of the area, the passionate nature of its people, and the politics all seemed fascinating to me. By the time that the "Arab Spring" had started, I had already traveled throughout much of North Africa and the Levant.

During my travels I spoke with literally hundreds of locals and (like many travelers do) I listened to them gripe about their view of the world- but later found it fascinating that they rarely mentioned the issues that would become the impetus for the Spring.

I am also an American, and as such believe that freedom is something that every person should have. When the first wave of popular uprisings were shown by the US media during January/Febuary of 2011, they were often presented (rather simplistically) as David taking on Goliath. As small but brave groups of individuals fighting long standing Dictatorships. This touched me and I couldn't help but draw some comparisons to American history.

I also noticed that major media reporting on the subject usually entailed interviewing some former Ambassador under the Reagan administration or some DC based analyst. These were "grass roots" uprisings after all, and I thought the most important people to speak with were those on the ground level.

That's why I decided to do a documentary on the subject.

GT:  The Arab Spring started in Tunisia and spread throughout the region.  Why do feel people were so interconnected in their urge to rise up?

For this film we traveled from the "birthplace of the Arab Spring" (the small and desolate Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid)- to the battlefields of western Syria. I met with revolutionaries, freedom fighters, and ordinary people. I asked almost every single one this same question- and they all downplayed the importance of this "interconnection".

The Tunisians I spoke with all seemed proud that their country was the new birthplace of freedom for the region, but the extent of this seemed lost on most of them. I met with Bouzazi's family who still seemed to be making sense of their own individual change of circumstances and did not appear overly concerned with the fate of the rest of the world.

Every different revolutionary group I met with in Cairo and Alexandria all seemed eager to downplay many of the events in Tunisia. Most of them told me that THEIR revolution would have started regardless of what was playing out in other countries. I formed the opinion that this may be tied to a very "Egypt centric" school of thought. That is to say that many Egyptians that I met believed that their country was (in most ways) the epicenter of activity for the region at all times. With that frame of mind, its only natural that one would find their personal struggle to be the most defining.

The Syrians were/are still struggling to make sense of the escalating conflict in their own country to put much thought in others. I did speak candidly with some FSA members who acknowledged being inspired by what took place in Libya, but many of them were quick to add that they felt the media was embellishing the "success" there.

GT:  What are some interesting trends you have seen?
The slow indoctrination approach taken by the "Freedom and Justice Party" in Egypt.

Unlike their Salifi counterparts, members of the "Muslim Brotherhood" have been politically astute enough to not demand a full out Islamic state immediately. I did realize after speaking to several different party members that they have taken a slower and more pragmatic approach with the same goal in mind.

According to them, the plan is to through a period of what they see as "purification" of the Egyptian people from western influence. They know that this will probably take 10-20 years and they are willing to approach it systematically. The first place to start is the schools- changing books and course curriculums. From there they will work on changing the culture of social institutions and the Army.

It was amazing to me how much everybody seemed to be on the same page about this. It didn't matter what member I spoke with or where, they all sounded like they were reading from the same play book.

One thing they have gained from over 80 years of political experience- is patience. They are going to great lengths to appear moderate to the Egyptian people, but are apparently sharing different information internally.

GT:  Many in the West are concerned about Christians and other minorities.  What impacts of the Arab Spring have you seen on these communities?

Again, I turn to Egypt. EVERY Christian church that I visited while in Cairo had to be guarded by police or Military. These weren't just large Cathedrals, but even smaller Catholic Churches in residential areas. It was also difficult to get Christians to speak on Camera about how they viewed the Arab Spring.

For this documentary we also went to the DC based "United States commission on International Religious Freedom" and interviewed the Deputy Director of Policy- Dr. Dwight N. Bashir. He just reinforced what we had already seen- that Christians will most likely see a rise in persecution in Egypt over all other countries effected by the spring. This is something that I believe our Government should be very proactive in addressing.

GT:  Do you have a interesting/fun "war story/crazy experience" to share?
Getting in to Syria and to an FSA camp.

There are foreign based organizations that have been (operating as non profits) excepting money from wealthy Syrians abroad which they in turn use to help fund humanitarian activities inside of Syria.

A journalist friend of mine put me in touch with a trusted point of contact inside of one of these organizations. This person informed me that a cigarette smuggler they knew took regular trips across the border to an FSA camp. If I paid a small fee, I could go with him and he would personally introduce me to the "Colonel". I agreed and invited two Italian journalists who I had met a week prior.

A date/time was set to meet at an agreed upon location 10km from the Syrian Border. The day came- and my two Italian friends suddenly backed out and advised me to do the same. Having quite a bit of experience ignoring perfectly good advice- I felt that this time should be no different and decided to proceed anyway.

My new best friend (the cigarette smuggler) simply placed me comfortably in the trunk of a late model Nissan 4 door car. Driving for what felt like hours, my "guide" proceeded to take (what felt like) dirt roads and gravel paths. We finally arrived at a large orchard at the base of a small mountain, where I was released from my comfortable nook. Here we were met by a small man in his early thirties, who was brandishing an AK 47 and was apparently the first FSA member that I would meet.

The adventure continued on foot up the mountain and down a narrow ravine, only to climb small small rock faces on the next mountain. We finally reached the outskirts of"camp" around mid day.

Having been in the US military myself, I was shocked at how poorly defended and designed this camp was. It was simply a ring of foxholes on the top of the mountain covering an area about as large as a football field. There were approx. 40-50 men of varying ages, most busy setting up (Coleman brand) multi colored sleeping tents. They were armed- but poorly. About half had AK-47's while the other half at a mixture of shotguns and hunting rifles.

I was taken to the "Colonel" and proceeded to set up for an interview when- BOOM! A large explosion was heard coming from the base of the mountain along where we had just walked. Myself and the small group of fighters around me all dropped to the ground. BOOM- a second one. Then they jumped up at once, starting to shout wildly and their was a brief moment of confusion. BOOM- a third one. After about thirty seconds of debate, the group apparently agreed it was mortars being dropped on the trail we just took.

It was later deduced that we must have been spotted. The Mortar team who responded just didn't eat their Wheaties that morning and were just a few minutes late putting rounds down range.

This is the moment that it suddenly dawned on me that I could actually get stuck there. My mind began racing beyond that to what would happen if the camp was attacked and the "impervious" defenses did not hold. What would Assads forces do with a white American at an FSA camp?

The tone suddenly changed from what felt like an "Indiana Jones adventure" to "lets get this over with and get out of here".

We completed the interview with no more "problems" and simply took a different trail to a small village where a car was waiting. This time the walk was much longer.

Thanks to God we made it back in one piece!

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