Steps Forward, Steps Backward

Saturday, February 25, 2012 | Tenadi, Mauritania

At Tenadi, several hours' drive from the Mauritanian capital, two colleagues pause for the view atop a sand dune.
In the Middle East and North Africa, 2011 began with a bang that never let up. A transformational revolution in Tunisia sparked uprisings across the Arab world that, in one way or another, touched every country in the region.

The sudden explosion of the Arab Spring—which saw once dormant populations shock their rulers by gathering in the streets to demand a new political order—is a tremendously positive development for a part of the world that for so long seemed by turns stuck in the mud or actively regressing. Since the initial uprisings, however, the horrific violence, political roadblocks, and other deterrents which various regimes have deployed are a reminder of just how difficult a task the citizens of these countries still face.

The current year—a turbulent one already—is only reinforcing that conclusion. Just two months
into 2012, Syria is witnessing a frightening escalation of violence against innocent civilians. Egypt's military leaders are busy undermining their country's so-called revolution and intimidating independent civil society groups. Battle-scarred Libya and Yemen remain in a precarious state. Leaders from Morocco to Algeria to Jordan to Bahrain and elsewhere have succeeded in beating back or heading off uprisings in their countries while avoiding fundamental change.

Steps forward, steps backward—this is what progress looks like.

* * *

Not long after my last trip to the region back in September, I was again on a plane for North Africa. I spent November in a hotel in Rabat, helping to coordinate international observers for the country's first parliamentary election under its new, post-Arab-Spring constitution. As the elections—or more specifically the population's relative disinterest in them—highlighted, the new constitution hadn't brought real change to Morocco. The kingdom remained a kingdom in every way, and most Moroccans knew they still weren't the ones calling the shots.

I barely left the hotel, and barely slept. Still, walking the streets of Rabat, it still feels surreal to find the place so familiar, and to be reminded of the life I once had there. Steps forward in time, steps backward in time.

Next, back to Mauritania, as gloriously bleak as before. This trip I was lucky enough to get half a day to escape the capital. I convinced a few colleagues—two of whom professed to have never seen the desert, despite having lived their whole lives in the country—to accompany me on a short excursion to Tenadi, a rest stop several hours southeast of Nouakchott along Mauritania's Route d'Espoir, the ironically named "Road of Hope" that leads to Mali through hundreds of miles of desolate dunes and scrub. Every ten kilometers or so, soldiers waved us over to a checkpoint at the road's shoulder to study our papers for a few moments. In a place like Mauritania—plagued by militant activity, trafficking of people and weapons and drugs, and frequent military coups—extra security doesn't make you feel safe, because it's just a reminder that even the thugs in charge don't feel safe.

From the peak of a towering sand dune, Tenadi was beautiful, in the stark way that some deserts are. The horizon was etched with the sharp sand hills, and dotted with scraggly brush. Goats panted under each thorny thicket, and loose herds of camels drifted among the scrub. Even in mid-December, it was a hundred degrees in the shade. Not that I was complaining. After months of nonstop activity, an afternoon adventure outside the office with friends was a welcome break.

Since stumbling across the finish line of 2011, sick and stressed and burnt out, I've been focusing on correcting my work-life balance a bit in the new year, which will hopefully bring as many steps forward as backward.

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