GAZA CITY, Palestine — By the time I’d made it to the central square of Gaza City, I was 10 minutes late. Everyone had already been arrested.
The youth of Gaza, many my close friends, had scheduled a solidarity event to simply support their peers in Cairo. Yet as they arrived, all were summarily picked up by Hamas Internal Security, and whisked away into nonthreatening obscurity.
Such is life in the region. Or at least it was.
As I stood alone in the empty square, eyed from the shadows, I had no idea what would follow. Of course I have no real idea where larger current events in the Middle East will lead either — no one does. Any who say they do are misleading as usual, one of the many ugly truths that have created this long-due conflagration in the first place.
Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen — real social pain burns in each after years of half-truths and subjugation. But with such cumulative heat, thankfully, there is also the light of a new dawn, for the Middle East, and potentially our relation to it as well.
What’s happening is no surprise
After spending the last three years working daily with “radicalized” Arab youth, I have to say what’s happening throughout the region is no surprise. Be they the Iraqi children of Saddam’s Republican Guard, destitute North African refugees, or the frustrated youth trapped in Gaza, in my firsthand experience there are surprisingly few variations between them. They are all, for the most part, disarmingly sweet, incredibly thoughtful, and highly dubious of their role in the global status quo.
More times than I can remember they’d pose questions to which I still have no answers.
“Why can’t we live like everyone else?” they’d inquire.
“Why is everyone always complicating our lives? Why can’t we just be left alone?”
Yet these questions are much easier than the ones the Arab youth no longer bother to ask — “What about Democracy? What about Freedom?” They’re smart enough to have learned long ago not to look west for such answers. They know, definitively, that such foreign promises ring hollow.
No Hollywood action plot, no savvy diplomacy
Which is what makes the events transpiring across the Middle East and North Africa so refreshing. Disenfranchised Arabs embraced what the West is always lecturing on, but they actually decided to do it. No Hollywood action plot to overthrow a dictator, no equitable trickle-down foreign investment, no savvy diplomacy — those were always empty promises and half measures to the Arab youth who lived it.
The next generation of the Arab world, recognizing that neither their systems nor our approaches to it were working, finally decided to move forward when no one else would.
Now, of course, the skeptics will raise their hackles, rebranding current events as an Islamic Revolution (and merely the precursor to banning McDonald’s and renaming every American newborn Mohammed or some such nonsense). But of course such drivel is as stale as the minds that spew it, from those who are either too naïve to understand the region’s nuances, or who’ve been misled to believe that the current status quo is somehow making life in the U.S. easier. (It is not.)
While I admit I have met more than one Arab who drives with his lights off at night to save gas, who are we to question such enfranchisement — the building blocks to any successful modern society? After our endless mistakes in the Middle East in recent years, no possible argument could be made that we know any better how to lead the Arab world than the Arab people themselves. To pretend so is only proving the point further.
An elusive chance to redefine itself
Will everything work out across the region? Of course not — at least not soon. The trauma to global commerce has already begun to ripple far and wide, inflating prices and dampening regional investment. Local jobs will disappear, food will be out of reach, and pain will be real. Yet, in exchange the Arab world has an elusive chance to redefine itself and its role in the world.
Gone, or at least lessened, could be the Arab social insecurity that drives anxiety in the Middle East and West alike. Sure, many will take an economic hit in the short term, but propping up dictators isn’t exactly a sound long-term global investment to reminisce about. From the ground in the Middle East, the recent chaos looks to hold the potential for a much more just and sustainable path forward.
As for me, an American in Gaza City, I simply celebrate all of my local friends who’ve spent 2011 in jail. Mere 18- and 20-year-old Arabs who, sick of listening to everyone else pass judgment from afar, decided to stand up for their rights, knowing full well the pain that awaited them and their families. Will it be worth it in the end?
Everyone in Gaza has March 15 circled on their calendars and their Facebook pages. That’s when they are planning to launch their own protests.
Try telling them no.
Patrick McGrann, of Minneapolis, is heading up the rebuilding of the American School in Gaza, which was blown up in 2009. His closest and most inspirational friends are 19 years old.