Thursday, December 4, 2008

CAN sWEden?

It was my second visit to Sweden to attend a course under the auspices of the Swedish International Development Coordination Agency (SIDA), only this time it was with Fojo – the Institute for Further Education of Journalists which is located in Kalmar, a city of some 70,000 inhabitants who surprised the whole country by having its local football team win the Swedish league and its architectural museum win the highest award in Swedish architecture – with both events happening while I there. The course, “Journalism and Democracy, Middle East and North Africa” was a pilot course offered for the first time for journalists from the region, whereas normally it is offered in an international edition and one for South American journalists. Some 22 journalists were accepted following 80 applications from all the region, of these 18 attended the course, with others canceling their acceptance for different reasons – that ranged from not being able to get entry visas to Sweden, to not being able to get exit visas from their countries, and one even reportedly not having had the authorization from her brother to be able to attend a course that, ironically, also tackled gender equality and women’s emancipation. To qualify the experience as unique is the understatement of the century, as immediately the participants dived head first in controversial issues lead by veteran Swedish journalist Saam Kapadia – and logistically supported by fojo, specifically administrative coordinator Katarina Marelius – with healthy discussions resulting from day one regarding issues about honor killings, freedom of speech, Danish caricature crisis and so on… But despite the heated arguments, the difference of opinions, the divergent views, the different personal, social, political affiliations, somehow the participants, transplanted from their original “hormonal” surroundings managed to be able to have reasonable discussions, where middle grounds were met, where thoughts were shared, where agreeing to disagree emerged, or even – God forbids in our Arab world – opinions were, if not changed, at least subtly influenced. Three weeks later, a full website was produced as part of the experience under the title “Can sWEden?” which is the amalgamation of two questions: Can we? And Can Sweden? Which ask respectively: Can we be agents of change in our societies through bringing democracy via journalism, and alternatively, what has our Swedish experience given us in terms of tools to cover this. The answers were certainly tentative viewing the scope of the questions, but naturally, the optimism and the confidence of doing something was there, to quote Chinese philosopher Lao Tse: Every step is a victory. Not only a website was launched, but this course also saw the inauguration of a full blog by and for the journalists from the MENA region who attended fojo under the title of “Mena el aman” which plays on the double entendre of MENA being Middle East and North Africa all while meaning “harbour” in the Arab language. So Mena el aman is a harbour of safety for the thoughts and ideas of the journalists in the region. Since I have never been known do do things in half-measures, it is interesting that the presence of yours truly was remarked by the local press in Kalmar – due chiefly to a heated debate with Gunilla Carlsson the Swedish Minister for Development Cooperation – which prompted Barometern, the local paper of Kalmar to interview me through its political editor and sub-editor respectively Per Dahl and Lotte Lundgren. The resulting article was published on Thursday November 20th on the most read page of Swedish papers, the 2nd which normally holds the editorials, all while falling on the same day when as editor-in-chief of the website and as nominated by my colleagues I was unveiling the final product of our laborious effort in a conference that same afternoon. During our three weeks in Sweden, much changed in all of the participants, naturally, we are all practical and live with our feet firmly implanted on the ground, we know that limitations exist, but we also know that we can bypass things one way or the other. That being said, when I was at the lunch to which I turned out to be a guest of honor without my knowledge, I had to give an impromptu speech for the dignitaries of Kalmar and so I said: “One of the major advantages of the Swedish system is that you admit to your problems, you face them and try to deal with them in the best way possible. Whereas we, in the Arab world, tend to sweep everything underneath the carpet for it to fester and rot.” To this, the very witty doctor sitting next to me said “well, at least you have nice carpets!”
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