The Bancast

A broadcast journalist in the making


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What it’s like for an Arab to go on vacation

I have a full-time job. By Jordanian standards I have a decent job – as a presenter on the drivetime programme of a local radio station.

Once a year I feel entitled to go on a summer vacation and for a week or two forget about everything else that matters. And why shouldn’t I?

Oh right, cause I’m an Arab…

sea

Your average hard worker with a first world citizenship will pick a destination, purchase a plane ticket, book a hotel (maybe), go on holiday and return to their routine feeling fulfilled.

As an Arab – a Jordanian at least – it’s a little more complicated:

Step 1. Choose a destination

Step 2. Discover that it requires a pre-approved visa. Nine out of 10 times it’s a Schengen country. Even then you must apply at the country of entry’s embassy.

Step 4. Check to see if chosen destination has an embassy in your country. No? Change destination accordingly.

Step 3. Begin collecting all the paperwork for the visa application process. Let’s start with the hotel booking – better know your exact dates and destinations. NOW.

Step 4. Book a flight – buy it now, you gamble. Buy it later, you pay double – sometimes triple. Expedia? Not an option.

Step 5. Request a certificate of employment on official letterhead stating your position, salary, start date, status, etc.

Step 6. Obtain official signed/stamped bank statements showing your account history for the past six months. Screw privacy.

Step 7. Have your picture taken with unnecessarily specific requirements… again.

Step 8. Insure yourself for the dates of your travel. Fair enough.

Step 9. Fill out an application form. Ahh, how humiliating. In order to lounge on your beaches and sample your cuisine I must answer questions like: have you been involved in terrorist activities or organisations? Or what countries have you entered in the last 10 years and on what dates and for what purpose? Are. You. Serious? And my absolute favorite, what do you plan to do while in [said country]? Umm, eat fish, drink beer, swim in the sea, walk along cobblestone streets… Why do you think it’s called a tourist visa? Never mind that some of these applications are 12 pages long but how do you expect me to retrieve all this information and then sign a declaration stating that it’s all accurate?

Step 10. Pay an absurd sum of money for the non-refundable visa fee – usually between $100 and $150 (makes me feel better about Jordan increasing its visa fee to JD 40 – actually no, that’s stupid too).

Step 11. Book an appointment. It’s June and you want to travel in July? First appointment’s available a month from now? Processing time is 2-3 weeks? Sure, sign me up.

Step 12. Experience the equivalent of a criminal interrogation. One of the dates in your 12-page application is a day off the date stated in your hotel booking? No problem, you can submit it as is and risk rejection or come back with the correct paperwork and delay your application. Not much money in your bank account? That’s the equivalent of saying “hi, I want to enter your country to live and work illegally, use up all your public resources, and never come back.”

Step 13. Wait impatiently for a response. Even a rejection will do at this point. Of course calling to track your application is like asking whether unicorns exist. “We don’t know, we can’t ask, that information is classified.”

Step 14. The nightmares begin. You dream that you’re off to the airport to begin your holiday but discover that your passport isn’t with you because it’s still at the embassy.

Step 15. You get the call. Somehow you manage to survive the mini heart attack en route to collect your passport. You look inside and THERE IT IS! Congratulations on getting your single-entry visa that’s valid for exactly 10 days!

Step 16. Now for all those tickets and bookings you have to pay for. You multiply your vacation budget by three because damn it you have a visa and you’re gonna use it.

Step 17. You travel to your destination, blink once, blink twice and suddenly you’re back at work again.

 

Happy friggin’ summer holidays to my fellow Arab travelers.


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Things I did since I completed my master’s

Where on earth have I been? I’ve been missing in action for a while but things have been happening. I just haven’t been blogging about them. Here’s a quick wrap up since September.

I moved back to Jordan. Mostly because my visa in the UK expired and I had no choice.

One too many potential employers ignored my job applications.

Somebody eventually hired me. Yours truly is now a producer at a new radio station in Amman.

My film, Refugees in Business, won the BJTC TV documentary award for 2013. I know you want to watch an award-winning production. Oh look it’s right here.

And most recently I was working as a press coordinator during the Geneva 2 conference on Syria that started in Montreux on 22nd Jan. and then moved to Geneva for two rounds of talks. It’s not everyday one gets to walk past John Kerry, catch Ban Ki-moon on his way out of a hotel, shake hands with Lyse Doucet and piss off Lindsey Hilsum (sorry Lindsey) – all in a day’s work.

Now I’m back to my full-time job in Jordan. Plenty of fun to come, stay with me.


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Jordan’s new tented landscape

If you have been to Jordan in the past year or so you will have noticed a recent odd addition to its deserts and its fields. Take a drive in the capital or even further south toward Aqaba and you’ll notice all the UNHCR-branded tents popping up everywhere.

ss 2

Jordan is now home to roughly half a million Syrians. About a quarter of them are in the Zaatari refugee camp near the border. With the continuous news coverage on the Syrian crisis, you might have already noticed that a great deal of the refugees live in tents provided by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

So how exactly are these tents being taken outside the camp and who’s living in them? I caught up with Tawfiq, a Jordanian man who runs a farm in Um Al Amad on the outskirts of Amman. He explained how these tents make their way to the outside world.

At first I thought Jordanian nomads and farmers were the main customers. They typically live in old-fashioned bedouin tents and must have jumped at the opportunity of moving into higher-quality accommodation. While this is sometimes the case, I learned that a lot of the new tents springing up across Jordan were occupied by Syrian refugees who left the camps and are now living and working in Jordan, many as farmers.

I wonder if this might have something to do with the richer state of farm land in the country as well. But that’s a different story for a different day.


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My Zaatari experience: what I expected and what I found instead.

It’s supposed to be painful to see all those children, all those families without homes. People like you and me, suddenly forced to accept that they’re homeless, that they have to live in what resembles a detention camp on the other side of their border. What if I were suddenly a refugee? What if I had to survive in a dusty desert indefinitely without permission to leave it or the choice to return home?

chickens

I think about Syria’s refugees all the time. I do. And I prepared myself for any emotional breakdowns I might experience while filming for my documentary inside Zaatari camp.

But none of that happened. Not once during the week I spent inside did I feel any pain. Not once was I traumatised. Not once did a story get to me.

It’s not that the situation isn’t sad. It is. How can it not be? I just didn’t feel anything.

wheelbarrowsInstead I found myself frustrated at crowds that flocked around us every time Rashed and I pulled out the camera. I was scared for myself whenever those vicious little kids with rocks in their hands chased down cars. I was hot and thirsty from filming too long without a break. I was worried that I wouldn’t get all the interviews I wanted. I was having nightmares about losing all my footage. I was concerned about how the bright white backdrops would look on screen. I was cautious about any BS people were feeding me on camera. I was impressed by the city that refugees built inside. I was excited to learn more about their undercover industries.

But no pain.

Maybe I’m heartless. Maybe I read and watched plenty about it beforehand, it  desensitised me. Maybe my instincts kicked in so I could stay focused. Maybe it’ll come back to haunt me later.

All I know is that regardless of how I felt or feel, what these people are going through should not happen to anyone in this world. And for that I have a responsibility to tell their stories, if only a slice of it.


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Fixers: the good, the bad and the frustrating

I’m glad I met Abu Ayash the fixer. The director at the Jordanian government press office gave me his number so he could show me around Zaatari camp.

“I trust this guy. Give him a call early in the morning and ask him to stay with you if only for the first day,” he said. “And give him a nice tip before you leave.”

Abdulrahman coffee

Considering how nervous I was starting to get about filming my documentary inside a camp that contains somewhere between 116,000 (officially) and 200,000 refugees – having Abu Ayash by my side was comforting.

Even as Rashed (my buddy, bodyguard and sound guy all rolled into one) and I approached the camp in my car I could anticipate the chaos to come. People were walking in and out and roaming around in every which way. Children pushed wheelbarrows and carried around empty water containers. Security officers were present but weren’t all that diligent.

I peeked inside and could see the long barbed-wire fence. I had no clue where to go. But sure enough, there was Abu Ayash to the rescue.

It didn’t take long on our tour to notice that Abu Ayash was famous among the local refugee community. He would stop and greet people every few minutes which I didn’t mind at all. He was trusted and people liked him. Rashed and I felt safe and could film a little more comfortably even when crowds of people swarmed around us.

He knew where certain shops were located and helped us convince people to speak to us on camera – like the bridal-gown rental shopkeeper. Yes, bridal gowns. He also mapped out the area for us and told us where we could go to rest, eat, park, and so on.

But the community inside Zaatari is a very complicated one. The refugees have established a fully-functioning society inside, albeit one that thrived due to a lack of official governance and through a network of power hierarchies. Signs of this would later become more and more evident to us.

On that first day, we told Abu Ayash that we were going to take a short lunch break and would meet again afterwards to continue. He cleverly suggested that before heading to the boring-old comfy restaurant where NGO staff dine, that he would take us to a tent of a couple he knew where we would make a pit stop.

shopping

Before we knew it we owed these guys a favor – specifically a nice shawerma meal from one of the stalls along the main business street in Zaatari camp. Rashed and I tried to avoid anything with meat and mayo altogether and suggested a nice falafel instead but they insisted on shawerma.

After a break that went on longer than we would have liked, we realised what had happened. Abu Ayash was clearly a good friend of this nice young couple. He seems to take a lot of his journalists there for rest and lunch. And the hosts are likely to insist on a particular meal from a shop owner they probably know well. And because both Syrian and Jordanian currency is used inside the camp it’s easy to have us dish out a little more than the actual cost of the meal.

Honestly, none of this business bothers me; it’s very common in the Arab world. Besides, these guys aren’t exactly in the best living conditions and it’s nice to be able to help out without voluntarily contributing. Plus I got a good interview and info out of our visit. But what really frustrated me was that Abu Ayash had in some way dictated certain elements of my documentary.

I wondered how many other journalists interviewed that same couple or the bridal shop owner or the herbs and coffee guy. I didn’t want to tell the stories of people whose stories had already been told.

So as helpful as he was, I needed to venture out on my own for the rest of my time there. More adventures in my next post.


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The day before the first day

In less than a day I will be inside Zaatari camp – assuming everything goes according to plan. I almost wish that I didn’t have this much time to prepare. Thinking about it for this long has actually started to make me feel nervous.

In the few days since I’ve been here in Jordan I’ve been getting all sorts of advice from people who have been inside.

Maps of Zaatari camp

Maps of Zaatari camp

A couple of days ago I tracked down my super busy media contact at UNHCR. She went through every imaginable detail with me including the camp’s growth phases, the different types of businesses inside, the challenges they face as well as safety issues. I ended up walking away with plenty of new side stories I would love to pursue.

On a night out, a friend of a friend talked to me about her experience in the camp. She was there getting a story for her magazine so she had a whole new set of tips to share with me.

Another person who runs a local charity had another experience entirely when he went to distribute meals to the refugees.

As useful and important as all of this has been, all the different perspectives have actually left me not knowing what to expect. Anything could happen.

I guess there’s only one thing left to do. Time to go see it for myself.


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Things I see from my window

Before I left Amman last year in October I was so frustrated with this country. Horrible drivers and poor customer service had struck my last nerve. It’s safe to say some things will never change.

But on the bright side, some things will never change: authentically delicious hummos (which, for the record, you can never buy from a supermarket), lots and lots of rich Palestinian olive oil, and the beautiful view from our house.

UNHCR neighbours

I was walking to the kitchen today when I looked out the window and noticed something familiar in the distance.

As you might have gathered already I live in the middle of nowhere where a lot of our neighbors are nomadic shepherds and farmers – who live in tents.

One tent in particular stood out. One of them appeared to be a UNHCR tent, like the ones set up for Syrian refugees in Zaatari camp. A little bit of zooming in confirmed my suspicion.

I had read about a black market being operated from inside the camp. Some people collect aid and shelter provided by the UN and sell them outside at higher costs. Today when I went to collect my permit from the government’s press office, the director explained to me that this was in fact happening.

If you zoom into the picture you’ll also notice several stacked up boxes that contain aid items. It’s crazy how far these things have travelled already.

Maybe I’ll work up the courage to go say hello later on. They are after all my new neighbours.

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