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Esra’a Al Shafei

Esra'a Al Shafei and Xue Faith in conversation about Al Shafei's work at Mideast Youth, Gallery Xue, London, April 2011

On Saturday, 9 April 2011, I sat down with Esra’a Al Shafei, founder of MideastYouth.com, from 9:30 – 11:00pm GMT, for a conversation on her life and work.

XUE FAITH
This is Xue Faith at the lighthouse at An Li in Second Life, here with MideastYouth.com founder Esra’a Al Shafei. Thanks for joining us for a Gallery Xue Conversation Esra’a!

ESRA’A AL SHAFEI

Thank you for having me Xue!

XUE
I should note that Esra’a is not a “Second Life resident,” but the controversial nature of her work puts her under a lot of pressure and she avoids having her photograph online, so we created this avatar for her and agreed to do the interview here in Second Life, where we can take “interview photos” without compromising her “First Life Identity.”

Esra’a, can you describe what your work is… and what makes it “controversial”?

Esra'a Al Shafei and Xue Faith in conversation about Al Shafei's work at Mideast Youth, Gallery Xue, London, April 2011

AL SHAFEI
About six years ago, I began using the internet a bit more extensively. At that time blogging was taking off in the Middle East, and I was not quite satisfied with what I saw, I felt the potential of online communication was much bigger than what was playing out – lots of issues, and people, remained “invisible”

So I founded Mideast Youth five years ago to address needs that I had – which was curiosity – I really wasn’t interested in a lot of the existing conversations and I wanted to create a different set of them and Mideast Youth was my way of attempting that – by inviting members of various ethnic and religious minorities

We had people talking about anything from pre-marital sex, to homosexuality, to atheism, to Baha’is, and Kurdish rights in the Arab world and beyond, and lots of other issues that weren’t mainstream.

We took a very different approach to human rights. We weren’t overwhelming ourselves with discussions of “regime change” – but we tried to experiment with the kinds of bigotries, propaganda and ignorance that we witnessed in every day life throughout the Middle East. Anything from racism, to oppression of religious or ethnic minorities, to migrant worker rights, etc. So, that’s the gist of what we do

XUE
And how has this 5 years been — well first, congratulations for surviving that long! — has it evolved? What’s happening with MideastYouth.com today?

AL SHAFEI
I learned more in these 5 years than I did in my entire life. So many of my opinions were challenged, and I loved that – I changed completely because of the platform, because of the voice that people had, which I listened to and learned from… so for me personally, it has been a learning experience, more than anything

We grew a lot. At first, we wanted to be a platform, a platform where people weren’t ashamed of their differences, but were here to celebrate them. Our diversity is what made us achieve further strength and outreach. We founded several initiatives and websites, about 14 or so in total now, that feed off of the values that we set for ourselves

I formed a great team and together, we looked at the issues that we felt were most ignored, and we initiated campaigns around them. But not just any types of campaigns, we wanted to be a bit more specific, we wanted to build bridges in a way that was refreshing, and new

So we created campaigns such as, “the Muslim Network for Baha’i Rights.” Because the Baha’i minority was one that faced an enormous amount of discrimination in Muslim-majority countries. We wanted to reach out to other Muslims like us, and alert them of the reality behind the Baha’i faith, and to also unite them in fighting for their struggles.

Following the same path, we founded the Alliance for Kurdish Rights, which was previously the “Arab Network for Kurdish Rights,” to express Arab support and unity for the Kurdish cause – that we acknowledge them, their history, their culture, their identity. And that we join them in this struggle for their rights which many have been deprived of for too many decades, under our watch… and our silence

The idea was this: Leave your comfort zone

Don’t just fight for rights that you enjoy yourself

Without minority rights, there is no human rights, we cannot progress as societies if we leave the most vulnerable behind. This I found, was the true root of many of our struggles

And no one else was tackling it from this approach, so I wanted to do that – and it really worked, we formed excellent teams and networks, ran a lot of great campaigns

Esra'a Al Shafei and Xue Faith in conversation about Al Shafei's work at Mideast Youth, Gallery Xue, London, April 2011

XUE
And is this totally a “Web2.0″ phenomena? Are there factors in the region or among youth making it possible in the 21st century?

AL SHAFEI
For me, I think new media has definitely been a helpful factor in all of this: It’s not every day that I can team up with a Baha’i and a Kurd and 10 Arabs from 10 different Arab countries and an Iranian etc and work together on big ideas. The internet definitely opened up these possibilities for us.

At the same time, the internet is also being used to challenge these kinds of ideas. A lot of people online don’t embrace or appreciate or understand what we do. This is a big obstacle for us – to overcome that.

XUE
Yes, do you have DDoS attacks, filtering etc?

AL SHAFEI
Extremely often. We are constantly under attack from all kinds of people – not just governments. We had to change hosts many times because some hosting companies were not able to handle the number of DDoS attacks we were receiving.

We lost a lot of data a couple of years ago due to a big hack. Recently, our sites were all defaced and taken down. For one week, we struggled to get our sites into new servers, it is by far our biggest challenge.

XUE
All the “free” internet services are so convenient… as long as you only want to shop and post party photos… I think we all learned from Wikileaks that it’s a messy landscape

AL SHAFEI
Yeah, at the end of the day, people prefer to run a business. They couldn’t care less about our causes if it disrupts their customers – so finding a home for this kind of work can be a big task

Esra'a Al Shafei and Xue Faith in conversation about Al Shafei's work at Mideast Youth, Gallery Xue, London, April 2011

XUE
What can people in the West do? Do you want help? Or stay out of the way? Or…?

AL SHAFEI
I think the best thing for people around the world to do is just listen to the stories. Learning from them, connecting with the people, not just listening to what the mainstream outlets say – or their governments. Or who attacked who, and who died

We’re a lot more than the 3 minute summary of the news. We’re a lot more diverse than people assume. The more people get educated about this region, from the people themselves, the more they listen to the stories, the more they’d know how best to be helpful, sometimes the most helpful thing is just to be a good listener

XUE
Well, speaking of stories… tell me yours… You’re 24 and from Bahrain…

AL SHAFEI
Born and raised here, my parents are Bahrainis. And I had a lot to learn. I grew up in this little bubble – full of routines, where you weren’t allowed or encouraged to speak up for anything. If you witnessed an injustice, you were expected to shut up about it, never bring it up again – never think about it – No one wanted to know

At some point in my life, I really had it – I had witnessed too many things to remain silent. In particular one of my biggest concerns was racism.

Racism and fear of the other

Racism against migrant workers, specifically. Fear of anyone who was different – religiously or otherwise – society expected you to live in this sheltered life.

AL SHAFEI
I was a terrible student

XUE
hahaha

AL SHAFEI
on the verge of failing many of my classes, when I was growing up. I hated school and in a way that really fed my ambition. I loved creativity – music, art, all that

XUE
I think I read that you launched one of your sites during someone’s lecture!

AL SHAFEI
Yes I did =P

I hung out in my life with a lot of creative people: young musicians, artists, I wanted to see how these kinds of things can be used to bring us together in a way, for the causes that unite us. This is why many of my projects put an emphasis on design, illustration, new tools, innovative ideas, music, animation.

All of these things, when combined, is what makes a campaign truly successful today – it’s a lot more than blog posts, or mere content. It’s a LOT more than petitions and press releases. I didn’t like traditional organizations because that’s all they did. When you target youth, that’s the last thing you have to do. You need to capture their attention through other mediums, other channels of communication, newer ways, better ways.

We only succeed at this 10% of the time – but when we do, the results are pretty good

Esra'a Al Shafei and Xue Faith in conversation about Al Shafei's work at Mideast Youth, Gallery Xue, London, April 2011

XUE
You mentioned “we’re a lot more diverse than people assume” and speaking of diversity, you just launched a new site a few days ago,

http://ahwaa.org

and here you’re using game mechanics to facilitate interactions…

AL SHAFEI
Yes, this is to address a need that we saw with the LGBTQ community in this region. The idea was: You can’t really do advocacy for something like this without a strong enough community backing it, and a community won’t be born without something that allows it to grow and maintain itself. So, if we focus first on creating a vibrant community of LGBTQ supporters and activists, we can do a lot of effective things in terms of advocacy work.

XUE
And again, the online space can allow someone who doesn’t find like minds next door, to interact with others near and far as they explore their own identity.

AL SHAFEI
Yes, growing up I always wanted forums like these, and hardly any existed that fed my curiosities. And still after many years I felt we can achieve something better, something that wasn’t there already, but taking a simple idea and trying to make it work through new methods that embraced creativity, and in some ways, fun, even around issues that are generally depressing to think about.

It’s like you’re some kind of company, trying to ship a product, and the product in our case is “hope.” We present it in many different packages, hence all the different websites and tools we run, in the end it all boils down to what we really want to offer, hope.

That things can and will improve, if we only speak up for what we think is right.

XUE
It seems as though you have so many wonderful projects, so much amazing energy — is it “You”? Is this power something we can “bottle” and pass on to others?

AL SHAFEI
Well, a few years ago I assembled a team that is pretty amazing – Positive energy – these are individuals, anywhere from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Iran, who work tirelessly on what we all believe in, despite our many different upbringings and backgrounds and opinions. I can’t really achieve anything without them, so I think of it as a team effort, always. They have my back and I have theirs. We went through the toughest of times together, we stayed up until 9am on some days trying to figure out how to get better, how to grow, or sometimes how to fix a disaster (hack, etc)

Stuff like this, you can’t achieve alone. It takes a lot of planning, thinking, etc – it’s hard work and is very challenging considering that we’re dealing with things that not many others deal with. So it’s a lot harder to find others who can relate to your problems and concerns and issues, or those who agree with your approach. But I finally found the team that “gets it” – and they are my source of energy.

XUE
It seems like so much great energy should change the world, and perhaps it is doing so even now. How does a society, East, West, any society, get to a place where we have such powerful norms that everyone is presumed to follow?

AL SHAFEI
When more and more people decide to do good in their lives, when more and more people thought about others’ rights, beyond their own… especially here… if we just embraced others’ human rights, before we even thought about our own – I feel we’d be in a much difference place by now…

That’s why we don’t measure our success by things like – traffic, or members, we measure it by the numbers of people whose perceptions we are able to influence and eventually change.

In my opinion, that’s where the change comes from. I don’t care much for numbers, or stats. It’s about influence. Influence is power.

XUE
So, follow the “golden rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the people reinforcing all the old problematic structures… they don’t perceive themselves as doing “bad,” do they? Doesn’t everyone believe that they’re doing the right thing?

AL SHAFEI
Yes, that’s a problem, there’s people who sincerely believe that it’s “good” to discriminate against those that are different from you, “He’s an atheist, let’s do God a favor, and kill him”

“He’s gay, let’s kill him.”

They look at it as cleansing. They are doing the world a favor in this regard. These are integral problems, and things that are very ingrained in our societies, that’s why, today, when people speak about revolutions and regime change… it’s much bigger than that. It can start from there, sure, but it’s really a much bigger task. Sometimes the oppression and abuse comes from your neighbor

Your own family

Your school

Your environment

So, that’s why our campaigns are often directed at people… and go beyond “regime change” revolutions.

XUE
Right, so revolution and regime change can sometimes be top down… but without bottom up…

AL SHAFEI
You can overthrow a government, you can’t really overthrow bigotry – you have to fight it. Without bottom up, you can end up with what you started, or sometimes worse

XUE
Yes, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”

Esra'a Al Shafei and Xue Faith in conversation about Al Shafei's work at Mideast Youth, Gallery Xue, London, April 2011

AL SHAFEI
But sometimes a government can be so incredibly oppressive – that this is at least a start to conversations. For example, how conversations about religious minority rights are taking place in Egypt, or conversations about Kurdish rights in Syria. So in a way, they compliment each other. But too many people focus on regime change and not the other way around.

XUE
Yes, we want it all to happen in a convenient news cycle.

Esra’a, it seems like you’ve accomplished so much in 5 years… where do you think you might be in another 5? In 2016?

AL SHAFEI
I don’t really know, and that’s what I love about it… a lot of our most successful projects are overnight ideas. There are both things that are happening that are extremely positive and hopeful, and some the opposite. You see people here, families, friends, who grew up together – separate because of their views. We have to be cautious about the future, because even small victories can sometimes be manipulated into a disaster… if the wrong people take advantage of it. So, it’s always important for people to remain alert, and realistic, and optimistic, but not naive.

XUE
So for all the tolerance and diversity you are trying to create… for some it’s more than they are ready for? And can split families?

AL SHAFEI
Yes, for sure, I witness it every day. Some people who are out there calling for change – bring up the topic of gay rights, or Baha’is, or migrant workers – and they turn the other way. “Change” is not always positive, “freedom” is different for each person you meet.

That’s why it’s important to speak to and with each other – as people who share these lands, and this region as a whole. The majority of us do not trust, or respond to outside interference. The U.S in particular has no say in what goes on in terms of human rights in this region.

XUE
I read on your new site, http://ahwaa.org someone asking about coming out to their family — there were a wide range of responses, but some said to let it be your private matter, that it will only bring problems in your family…

AL SHAFEI
Yeah – some people face huge risks by coming out, the most extreme examples being honor crimes, or abandonment. I made an interview once with a Kuwaiti transsexual who was abused by his family and then abandoned because of who he is. This is what i mean by societal oppression. People abroad think that the middle east is a black and white situation, that everyone is the same – wants change – and are against the government.

“The people want change”

This is completely not how it is here. it’s a lot more complex. People want many little different things. and sometimes one thing can unite them – like overthrowing a certain regime – it does not mean they are ready to accept everybody, or that they will magically become tolerant of atheists, and Christians, and Jews, and so on.

And people disagree with our approach, they say, these guys must be spies, or “why aren’t you speaking about Palestine?” or other issues. The problem is – yes, these are huge issues, very important, but they are also issues that dominate activism in this region. We are not needed in these kinds of struggles. They are joined by millions.

We are needed in the little things that go unnoticed, the ongoing struggle of bigotry and abuse, of the forgotten minorities, of the fear of speaking up, because of these difference…

Esra'a Al Shafei and Xue Faith in conversation about Al Shafei's work at Mideast Youth, Gallery Xue, London, April 2011

XUE
Is it getting “better”?

AL SHAFEI
Yes, I have to think that way, for my own sanity.

XUE
:)

AL SHAFEI
But now I genuinely do believe it gets better. More and more people are joining our causes, that has to be a good sign.

XUE
That’s pretty good… for 24… or any age… did you pass the class you were launching your site during?

AL SHAFEI
Barely :)

XUE
hahaha

XUE
I guess it’s worked out! :)

What else should we know Esra’a? Anything else you’d like to talk about?

AL SHAFEI
Well, a lot of people tend to bring up the issues of “risks,” and of course, we have to be careful with what we do – hence me preferring not to be physically identifiable for the sake of my security. But in my opinion the FAR greater risks – is to live the way our current societies expect us to… which is to remain silent. This risk has far greater consequences, than our own lives because it affects millions of others in the future. So what we do now – is simply a responsibility and not a “choice.” We have to push and go beyond our limits, and I think creativity is the best way to do that.

I never read books, or listen to lectures, all that – i find incredibly boring, to be honest. Increasingly a lot of young people feel that way, too. People will sit through an animated film, a highly interactive one with satire, and cool music, and really relevant ideas and concepts that they can learn from… stories

I think the approach is just as important as the message itself. We spent 80% thinking about our approach and only 20% thinking about our message.

XUE
So 6,000 years of recorded history out?

AL SHAFEI
Yeah, books can also be life-changing, and I think there’s a lot of these already. The problem is with books you can’t really push it to someone who won’t tolerate even its title. But you can push a 3-minute video with a strong message to someone and make them sit through it…. and it can be just as thought provoking.

I have a friend who wasn’t the most tolerant person: when I began showing her the videos we did I could see her reaction changing. I know it had an effect on her, and it inspired me to take this approach for the long run, especially because I myself am really into short and concise messages and ways to present them, and not so much into older models of communicating things.

Different approaches for different people.

But one thing’s for sure – I’d never write a book.

But i’d definitely work on an animated film one day

Okay, maybe i’d write a book, but if i do – it would be an interactive e-book for the iPad ;)

XUE
That makes sense… erudite media can carry very progressive messages… but only to a limited audience… even with a restrained message… pop media can reach so many diverse minds…

AL SHAFEI
Yeah, that’s what I think.

Esra'a Al Shafei and Xue Faith in conversation about Al Shafei's work at Mideast Youth, Gallery Xue, London, April 2011

XUE
I think your main message for “us” is to work in our own spaces… but I also imagine that DDoS-resistant servers aren’t cheap… would you like donations somewhere?

AL SHAFEI
Oh yeah, for sure. That’s one of the best ways people can help. Servers aren’t cheap – and neither is good development. A lot of our stuff is built thanks to volunteers. Someone in New York is actually the reason we were able to move our servers so quickly. Technical support and donations go a long way.

XUE
And where do we send donations?

AL SHAFEI
We have a really nice design for our donation page – sadly, after the hack, it doesn’t really work anymore:
www.mideastyouth.com/donate

BUT people can still send donations via PayPal to legal@mideastyouth.com

We also have a fiscal sponsor in the U.S who takes donations on our behalf and it’s tax detectable. And for that info they can be in touch.

(that makes it sound like we get a lot of donations somehow, but we don’t, sadly)

XUE
Micropayments… and who knows, perhaps more… on the way

AL SHAFEI
I sure hope so :)

XUE
Thanks so much Esra’a, yours is such an inspiring voice

AL SHAFEI
Thank you for the opportunity

XUE
You really inspire us to build a better future, large and small…

AL SHAFEI
It’s a responsibility we all share

XUE
Let’s do this again in 2016 for the MideastYouth.com 10th anniversary celebration!

AL SHAFEI
That would be great. By then, we’d definitely have achieved a lot :) we have a lot planned…

XUE
And thanks for meeting us in this unusual forum! And for downloading the viewer on a slow connection and all! :)

AL SHAFEI
It was a great idea, took a few minutes to get used to (sorry for falling)

XUE
hahaha

Yes, the guest falling off the lighthouse is always the best part! It doesn’t hurt that much in the virtual world, fortunately!

AL SHAFEI
Yes, now I really have to get some donations, to make up for that! ;)
Have a great day everyone

XUE
Thank you so much Esra’a, keep up the great work!

AL SHAFEI
Thanks all!

Esra'a Al Shafei and Xue Faith in conversation about Al Shafei's work at Mideast Youth, Gallery Xue, London, April 2011

Some of Esra’a Al Shafei’s websites:
http://www.mideastyouth.com/
http://crowdvoice.org/
http://www.mideastunes.com/
http://www.migrant-rights.org/
http://www.ahwaa.org/
http://kurdishrights.org/
http://www.bahairights.org/
http://www.assyrianrights.org/
http://www.march18.org/
http://www.israelisforpalestine.org/
http://www.postcards-for-iran.org/

Thanks to Trill Zapatero for helping create Esra’a Al Shafei’s avatar for this interview.

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