Friday, September 04, 2009

Enter the Arabs

The items on the agenda came to a close and the chairman of the employers’ session ended our meeting 20 minutes ahead of schedule. The Arab employers (including Dr. Lama and me) stayed behind, as the orderly Europeans, efficient North Americans, humorous Kiwis, lively Latinos, and colorful Africans exited the hall. Up next was a closed meeting for all Arab delegates across the tripartite system. (Remember the tripartite? Yes, exactly: employers, governments, and workers)

Enter the Arab workers and Arab government representatives, who leisurely make their way into the hall, chatting and hugging and exchanging warm embraces. A chubby man with a bushy moustache and a stack of documents cradled in his arms hands me a round metal button emblazoned with the words “Freedom for Palestine”. As I begin pinning it to the lapel of my suit jacket, Dr. Lama taps me on the shoulder with a grin. “Halla shoofee il far’I” she says in her Lebanese Arabic (Wait ‘til you see the difference). 20 minutes past 6PM and I’m still waiting to see the difference. Except, well, that’s one of the differences. Why haven’t we started yet? At the front of the hall, the delegates are shuffling around until they finally settle on a North African to chair the session.

He strikes the desk with a .... *sifting through my mental dictionary* .... not a wooden hammer but a... gavel, that's it. A few moments later- ok, a few MINUTES later- we are called to attention. The meeting's purpose is to prepare Arab representatives to participate in the general meetings and in the specific committee meetings with a unified approach, wherever possible.

It doesn't take long for the Palestinian conflict to take center stage, replacing the international employer's focus on the financial crisis. The workers announce they've planned a peaceful protest for Palestine in a week's time. A harsh word is directed at the essentially mute government representatives/spectators, with a plea that they also attend. A strategy is proposed, that each Arab delegate mention their concern for Palestinian workers and employers as a top priority alongside any other nation-specific points.

"But remember!" the chairman asserts, "In these ILO meetings, there is a time limit on your participation. How many times have we heard our Arab brothers going on and on about national problems and only when their time is up, as they are asked to finish their comments do you hear them yell out 'And also don't forget our brothers in Palestine!' This is not acceptable. Who will listen to our cry about Palestine if we only mention it when our time is already up?"

And so the meeting ensues, casually, smoothly. Support is bestowed upon the delegate who calls upon the ILO to make Arabic an official language alongside English, French and Spanish. (This would mean that all official documents would be provided in Arabic during the ILO meetings) "We have asked for this time and time again", the man states, "and I think this will be our year."

It begins to approach 8PM, when the meeting will officially come to an end.

I tend to doodle in these meetings and here I am making abstract shapes as I hear a man in the distance asking us to support his nomination of a Filipino delegate to chair another committee that he's involved in. He explains that the Arab vote would help this filipino colleague, who would be an excellent chairman, not to mention that his views are friendly to Arabs. Why not, I think to myself. But apparently there are many who find this particular suggestion offensive to their senses.

"Are there no Arabs worthy of such a position?" a voice exclaims. I drop my pencil, dear God please tell me that we are not going there. Another voice speaks in support of the first voice. "I agree, there are many qualified Arabs!" My intestines start to boil, I catch my tongue to prevent myself from yelling out "Ya hubul what does this have to do with anything? There are no Arabs running for this position!" The meeting has gone slightly out of control as it degenerates into the usual sob story of... I'm not sure what exactly, but it sounds familiar. Optimistically, reassuringly, thankfully, a dozen other voices condemn the first voice in more eloquent, albeit irritated responses that appease my internal organs.

8:10PM and the crowd starts getting restless. We start eyeing the gavel: Mr. Chairman, will you end the session please? The workers are not so conscientious. Some start filing out of the room already as the Chairman bangs on the table incredulously trying to restore order. "I have not ended the session yet, I have not ended the session yet." The workers get a bit rowdy. Meanwhile more hands are raised suddenly remembering that they have more pressing things to discuss.

I shake my head in dismay, reminded of what the Chairman had just been saying about bringing up important issues at inopportune times.

Just as the gavel is about to make contact with the hard surface, these heavy words fill the space:

"I would like to remind my esteemed colleagues about the plight of your brothers and sisters in Iraq. Have you forgotten about them with your emphasis on the Palestinians? Please remember to mention the Iraqis."

I'm sure the majority sympathize but we're already half way out the door.

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IT began as a field diary for my summer in Jizan (2006) under the title "Watch Out Bubba Gump." Now I'm not sure what it is... but I do know it's time for me to start writing again.