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On Revolutions

On Revolutions

On my first overseas trip in several months, I made it to Libya, Afghanistan, and even (briefly) Kish Island, Iran.

It was a tiring trip, as one might expect, but also a timely one. When I booked my flights, I didn’t exactly plan on revolution breaking out across the region; apparently revolutions are not scheduled in advance.

Let’s start with a story.

During an extended interview with the Iranian immigration authorities (“Please have seat, sir”) I was more nervous than usual in such settings. My two interrogators kept asking the same questions over and over. “Which company you work for?” I tried to tell them about the Travel Hacking Cartel — “Have you guys heard of Frequent Flyer Miles?” — but they just looked blankly at me.

The officials took my fingerprints multiple times. (“Right thumb, mister. Left finger, mister. Right thumb again, mister.”) One of them did lots of database typing while speaking about me in Farsi to the other. Meanwhile, I was sweating it out in my plastic chair. I thought about the American hikers, imprisoned for eighteen months and counting due to allegedly trespassing across the border. (Many reports say they were kidnapped by Iranian guards while still in Iraq.) What if something like that happened to me? I had prepared nothing in the event of such a contingency.

Finally, my Iranian immigration friends determined that a real spy would have a better cover story than I did, so they set me free to explore the island before flying back to Dubai. (“Please do not miss your flight,” they said before I left the airport. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” I said. This was one flight I wasn’t going to miss.)

So while I was momentarily fearful and struggling to explain my occupation without using the word writer, I was also aware of the obvious: if this is what I have to worry about, privileged Western traveler that I am, with my U.S. passport and American Express credit cards, how does it feel to actually live in a place where the state rules by fear? This, sadly, is the reality for most people in Iran, in Libya, and plenty of other countries around the world.

***

People sometimes make comparisons between the struggle for freedom in places like Egypt or Tunisia with various protests in the democratic world. We certainly have our share of problems where I come from, but these comparisons are quite a stretch. If you don’t like your leaders in the U.S. or any other democracy, well, just give it time and they’ll change. I didn’t like George W. Bush very much, but I had no fear that he would fight to hold onto power and stick around after his time was up. If you don’t like Obama, the same holds true—the clock is always ticking down to a determined end date. You know exactly how many days our leaders have to go, and no one worries about anything different happening at the end.

Besides, presidents in America don’t really affect our individual lives that much. I’m free to do and say what I want most of the time. We can all use the tools of modern technology to communicate with people without censorship. If you want to publicly protest something in America, you can do that too, and the government will even send out police to protect both you and any demonstrators who oppose your views. I don’t think they would send mercenaries with sniper rifles to kill people, which is happening in Libya this week.

In terms of my travel quest, it was good to get these countries off my list—Libya, Afghanistan, and Iran all being more difficult to travel to than Switzerland. I jokingly called it an “Axis of Evil” trip, and I enjoy the disorienting nature of traveling in such places. I could write long posts about getting an Afghan visa, having my flight out of Kabul canceled for three days, sleeping on the floor of Sharjah airport, and so on. Perhaps I’ll do that at some point, but these things seem trivial at the moment.

One of the rules of careful traveling in dictator-controlled states is to avoid discussing politics. But under the surface, you’ll find that people discuss politics all the time—you just have to know how to listen. Until recently, it wasn’t wise to show up in Egypt and ask, for example, “Hey, what do you guys think of the man who has ruled your country for 30 years?”

But if you ask, “So how are things going here?” the response will likely be some form of complaint about the government. You’ll hear about how half the population makes $2 a day despite billions of dollars in grants from the U.S. and Europe. You’ll hear, when you listen carefully, how everyone knows the state is corrupt, but no one feels any power to create change.

Of course, people complain about the government pretty much anywhere in the world, but again, the difference is that in “our” part of the world, the government doesn’t engage in hunting down its own citizens, murdering them in the streets in an attempt to retain absolute power. I think that’s a pretty important difference.

Therefore, if you had asked me six weeks ago whether anything would change in the Middle East and North Africa, I would have said “Not anytime soon. This is just how it goes.” But look and see what’s happening! The whole story is yet to be written, but at least in some places, I was obviously proved wrong by thousands of brave people.

***

We use the word revolution too flippantly, because real revolutions involve great sacrifice. Those who dare to express themselves are placed at real risk—not only the risk of violence and intimidation, but also the likely possibility of failure. Last year there was a “green” revolution in Iran, where everyone on the outside cheered on the protestors and dutifully changed their Twitter avatars in a show of digital support. Yet the revolution was ultimately unsuccessful, and the same people are still in charge.

The recent cases of political uprising appear to be different, at least in some places like Tunisia and Egypt thus far. I hope there will be others. But just remember, this kind of uprising involves uncertainty for everyone, and clear consequences for some of the brave people who participate.

To anyone around the world involved in creating real change in the face of terrorizing opposition, I’m sure you have better things to do than read my blog. But I’m also fairly sure you have more courage than me. So if you’re out there, I haven’t changed my avatar, but I’m awed at your willingness to risk so much for something your country desperately needs. Peace be upon you.

###

Image: Al Jazeera

42 Comments

  • Jamie says:

    Great post Chris. I liked what you said about true revolution involving great sacrifice. I don’t know if you’ve read “The evils of revolution” by Sir Edmund Burke or not but it’s a great classic, not on why there shouldn’t be revolutions but that we pay close attention to the consequences of them.

    On another note, I’m glad you were able to mark off some more countries off your list.

  • Matt Langdon says:

    Thanks for writing this article in this way. It would have been easy to attempt some sort of “look at me in the middle of the revolution” post to attract attention, but thankfully for us, that’s not you. Instead, you’ve told it how it is. Americans have little to complain about, but always find a way. Revolutions are not finding a new way to blog.

    And thanks for avoiding the slacktivism that is sweeping the social web.

    Your integrity is getting more and more solid with every post.

  • Tim says:

    Great blog; many Americans take for granted our Constitutional and Civil Rights while other citizens from various countries would only dream of such privileges.

  • Dan Miller says:

    Chris – what a thoughtful and thought-provoking post! I fear we do take our freedoms lightly here in America. I just returned from a cruise in the Caribbean – the first night out I heard some lady go off because the salad plates just came out of the washer and they were still warm. Traveling in foreign countries remind us that many of us are spoiled and short-sighted.

    Thanks for your perspective.

  • Justin says:

    Chris, I can’t believe you went to Afghanistan without someone with you. I’m currently in Iraq and I’ve dealt with other contractors who travel to Afghanistan. I understand going there alone, but without support of a company or government, I’m not sure I’d do it. You’re brave my friend. I’ve heard too many stories of people going there and getting hassled by one Afghanny for money to get into the country only to be led to another official for imprisonment due to bribery. Scary stuff man.

    You’re right. It’s a crooked world out here in the middle east. I’ve talked with many locals in Iraq about what it’s like out in the economy and it’s disturbing. America took out the evil government and now terrorists are killing Iraqi Army and Police creating utter tyranny in this country. There is supposed to be a “peaceful” protest tomorrow, but like others in the middle east, it’s doubtful to remain peaceful.

  • Linda says:

    Wow-talk about a sobering experience, Chris.

    “Revolution” has never been part of my vernacular, and God-willing, never will.

    I pray your adventurous quest inspires others to stand up to the oppressive forces in their countries, and provides hope that things could be different in their lives.

    Love Matt’s use of “slacktivism.”

    TY for being so much more brave than I could ever hope to be.

  • Karan says:

    You did a great job of summarizing your experience. I found the read very interesting and cannot imagine being in your shoes under that circumstance! Sweating was obviously warranted. Scary stuff.

  • Justin South says:

    Chris, I can’t believe you went there without support. I’ve heard one too many stories about people going there and bad things happening (e.g. one person went there and was told to give this person money to get into the country, he did and was later turned into the authorities by the same person for bribery. He was kept in jail for a while and had to pay a massive fine.) So much corruption there that it’s not even funny. I wouldn’t go there without military support of support of a government entity.

    I’m in Iraq currently and it baffles me to hear the stories from locals about how the local economy is. We took out the evil government and now they can’t establish an in-corrupt government because of the corruption that’s still there. Terrorists are attacking Iraqi Army and Police more than they are attacking Americans. I’m glad you’re safe.

  • Brigitte says:

    Thanks, Chris, for sharing your experience with us. This is an important post.

  • Thanks for such a good read. It’s so important for many of us to take a moment to appreciate what’s going on in the rest of the world and what it must be like for others, compared to how easy things are here in the states.

    Good point about knowing a president or other official has a limited time in office and Americans don’t have to worry about dealing with someone for an indefinite period of time.

    Thanks for sharing the story.

  • Ian Clark says:

    I remember during the Apartheid struggle that I would not use a railway station unless absolutely necessary. Prime bomb targets.

  • Omid says:

    Hi Chris.Thanks for your article.
    I am an Iranian and always follow your writings.
    I personally appologize that they took your fingerprint. Almost all Iranians except a 1% psycho that are paid by the Iranian regime want to change the whole system, especially to eliminate “Supreme Leader” and some non-democratic organizations (that rule the system and are responsible for mass killings in the protests). People are much more aware these days and all that they need is freedom of sex, religion, speech, etc., that are basic human rights.
    The difference with the past is that now the the oligarchy is becoming more and more isolated and shrinked, but also ‘wild’!

  • Romanticizing revolution is easy. We watch movies like The Motorcycle Diaries, Schindler’s List, and Defiance on flatscreen HD televisions, and we read about Václav Havel, Gandhi, or Nelson Mandella in armchairs or at coffeeshops. I can’t even talk about empathy. I’ve never lived on $2 a day, and I’ve never heard gunshots or bombs in my neighborhood. Like you, Chris, I can only marvel at people’s courage in the face of brutish violence and tyranny. Would I have the guts to stand in front of a tank? To step forward after I watched an officer strike my friend on the head? I don’t know. But I can turn those questions and that uncertainty into prayers and poetry. I can fight by practicing solidarity of spirit, weak as that seems.

  • Leonie says:

    Nice post Chris. Love to see more on your travels through the “Axis of Evil”. As Dan mentioned, thinking about our fellow human beings in these countries really does put things into perspective. I’ve known several Iranian refugees for about 15 years and their harrowing stories are enough to put many a personal crisis into perspective.

    That said, my Iranian husband likes to point out that we too live in slavery – he says our system forces most individuals to conform in a different way, by attempting to ensure they are financially burdened and always wanting more, which keeps people thinking in selfish terms and unlikely to band together in large numbers to demand change! He’s also fond of saying that the only reason we have free speech is because what we say is likely to fall on deaf ears and be insufficient to stir up a revolution and bring down the system of government, and that if it was, they’d be very quick to take our freedom of speech away.

  • Marla Miller says:

    Of course, I enjoy your writing and point of view but must add this: it does make a difference who’s in charge-The Republican dominated Congress just voted to remove funding for Planned Parenthood. In global ways, this might not mean much to many readers here but if your daughter, lover, wife or friend needed to end a pregnancy and didn’t have the means, she’d likely end up another victim of a fight we thought we won a long time ago-the right for a woman to decide what to do with her own body. It could be that being male keeps this issue out of view but I’m not a male. I’m a mother of 3 daughters.
    Glad you got home safe & sound, Chris

  • I’d just like to echo what Chris said:

    To anyone out there who has the balls to stand up for what you believe in, even when there is great risk involved (perhaps risk that we as Americans don’t even really understand), I salute you. Keep on being an example to the rest of us.

  • Mahreen says:

    Chris, I am surprised at your suggestion that other countries are run by fear and America is not. It seems to me that average and “un-average” Americans such as you seem to be unaware of the US internal propaganda machine and US foreign policy.

    Please have a look at those who funded the Obama’s elections campaign and compare to those of George W Bush and consider fully whether there has been a real regime change.

    I find the people in countries such as Egypt are less delusional about how much control they truly have. In a country where most people are living under $2 a day for $20 one could easily have someone protesting on the streets for a week for any pick-n-mix cause.

  • Absolute fantastic insight into the middle east Revolution. I especially enjoy the way you explained what it is like in those countries.

    No one saw this coming (not really). It is great to get the Travel Hacker’s insights into what it was like.

    Now the question on everyone’s mind: What will it be like now that things are changing? Will it get better or worse?

  • Brooke says:

    Chris, thanks for the reminder. This is why people should travel: broadening our viewpoints. Here in America, if we have a political debate, (typically) we merely risk an awkward moment or, at worst, ruining a friendship. In several other parts of the world, political debates can land us in jail. There is so much true freedom here that people don’t understand, and I hope to pursue my travels even more–I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.

    Rock on. :)

  • Excellent post. Thank you.

  • Chuck Kuhn says:

    Perfect timing as I’ve been asked by a Egyptian/friend/writer to document (video/pictures) a trip to Egypt in the next few months. I been pondering all the reasons Why I shouldn’t leave, although my gut feeling is just do it. So I will at the ripe young age of 65. Tks

  • Daisy says:

    My state governor is making changes that do affect me directly – I teach in Wisconsin. I feel lucky to live in a nation where we can protest what he’s doing and vote him out of office in 4 years – even recall him a year from now if his negative actions continue. I can also continue to blog my concerns without fear of reprisals. When my 19yo son came home Friday and said, “Mom, I wish I could go to Madison and protest” I didn’t blink an eye. I invited him to join me at a rally closer to home.

    And I felt very, very proud.

    Thanks for sharing your stories; we’re all glad (though not as glad as you are!) that you made it home from your Axis of Evil Tour safely!

  • Lisa says:

    You have courage Chris. Courage to step out of comfort and really see what the world is like. It’s a beautiful place that we people can support or mess up depending.
    I was waiting at home when my husband experienced a “difficult” situation while working at an orphanage in Sri Lanka. We didn’t know what really went on until afterward but the waiting without word was very unsettling. Nothing like what daily life under tyrannical rule must be like.
    Thank you for your honest post and your humble courage.

  • Maggie Dodson says:

    Well said, Chris, and I like what you say about our often flippant use of the word revolution in the light of current events. However, faced with reinventing the wheel for the umpteenth time in order to have a woman’s right to choose once again on the statute books @Marla Miller, strong, dramatic words do spring to mind. Changing attitudes is harder than changing laws.

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ‘The question is, said Humpty Dumpty, which is to be master – that’s all!’

    There are words that I have been skirting around each time I tell people that I AM coming in June,
    World DOMINATION Summit and
    Small ARMY.

    Fighting words and a contradiction in terms given the ideas inherent in AONC, I reckon.

    My question is, ‘Why did you choose these words?

    In solidarity of spirit @ Austin

    Peace

  • Thanks Chris, esp the deeper issues implicit in revolution, courage etc..
    …whilst not a ‘revolution’ there is certainly much courage going on in our Christchurch city right now after the earthquake : and the kinds of times ripe for new leadership and directions….

    Yeah I know too intimately about what you also say of the privilege of that western passport (2 in my case !) esp times in Burma and Bangladesh were tricky !

  • Cherry Hanz says:

    I laugh when people compare our cozy, safe and prosperous situation here in the USA with other places in the world. Even the poorest person here in America has so much more than 90% of the rest of the world. I have lived in Africa and Mexico. My nephew in law is from the Dominican Republic and my sister in law is from Ubekistan, and these are wealthy countries compared to Haiti or the Sudan. And we are still so much wealthier, free than these countries. I too salute the people who are standing for freedom in the countries, like Libya, where you are literally taking your life into your hands.

  • Audrey says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and how you were able to put a realistic and human face on what it’s like for people living in dictatorships. Being able to speak out and demonstrate without the fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night is something many of us take for granted. Recently, we met some political and religious refugees in Bangkok which hit this message home for me again.

    When we traveled through countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, I found that local people really did want to talk about politics if they felt safe (i.e., no police around). Often even a question about food would turn into a discussion about their government and corruption. But, having worked with a media organization previously that did work in this area whose journalists had been jailed for speaking out, I was always very aware that as a western tourist I was protected while local people were potentially at risk.

    We’re flying to Jordan tonight. Should be interesting.

  • Christina Peden says:

    Thanks for this post, Chris– it is a very important and timely message. We truly take our freedoms here in North America for granted and most of the time do not realize how lucky we are. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Libya, as well as the citizens of Bahrain and Yemen, and everywhere else in the Middle East that is potentially on the brink of revolution. Peace be with you and those around the world.

  • Daryl Gerke says:

    Kuwait, 1989 – Teaching a technical class. The US government has just taken an action that is not popular with several of my Arab students.

    Over lunch, one of them asks, “What does America really think of this?”

    My immediate response, “As a guest in your country, it may be best to avoid politics.”

    Next comment, “No, I’d really like to know.”

    Me, after thinking a little, “OK. Let me try. Your country is small and homogenous, and my country is large and diverse. If fact, if an election is 52%, it is considered a landslide. That means the other 48% did not agree. So, while the government may do something, not everyone agrees. So please don’t judge America by what one person does.”

    His response, “Thank you. I never thought of it that way.” Later, I realized – that thought applies to all countries and all cultures.

    When traveling, we are ambassadors. Chris, it sounds like you have been a great ambassador. Thank you! And thanks for sharing your adventures!

  • Eli says:

    Same colored passport-different value! I’ve been talking about this, and raising the issue you raise, everywhere I go. Macedonia, where I live is not a third world country,it’s part of Europe,geographically.But it’s not a part of the EU.. Just a year ago,there were only 2 countries that we weren’t required Visa for,and those were neighboring countries(we did need Visa for the 2 other neighboring countries tho:)To get Visa for Ireland,my passport was in Bratislava,Slovakia for 4 weeks,to fly from Bulgaria to UK I needed a Transit Visa for Bulgaria and another one for the UK,there is around 400euros worth visas in my passport(imagine if you could use those money for the actual trip)..so, travelling anywhere is often “project travelling” that you plan at least 6 months in advance, in order to have the time to apply for all the Visas you need(& get if u’re lucky).And the Visa procedures and interrogations in the Embassies,I wouldn’t go into that because there is definitely not enough space

  • Tunji (from Lagos, Nigeria) says:

    Your empathy for the ‘revolutionaire’ really rings thru. I have read the comments of other ‘non-conformists’ and i see the feeling is mutual. This should not have suprised me anyway becos ‘non-conformists’ are revolutionaries in a sense.

    My issue is with the Swiss goverment/bankers. Where were they when the rulers werre robbing their countries blind? You talk about people on $2 dollars a day when their rulers have stolen billions of dollars (American dollars not Zimbzbwean). Did they not know the source of the funds? Why is it now that they are freezing their accounts?

    “May we live in interesting times”.

  • John Sherry says:

    Freedom, it seems, is breaking out all over the place these days but it always comes at a price. Those who have had there’s taken away for so long need to release their anger and bitterness and those who took the freedom away want to maintain that with force. Sadly, the many things we in the West take for granted have to be literally fought for elsewhere where the loss of life is the cost for greater liberty. We should never judge but try to walk a mile in their shoes instead. I hope peace will soon win the day and freedom becomes as daily as bread and not a rare gift to wage war over.

  • CJ says:

    Chris, well-written & valid post. What’s sad is we used to know what revolution meant. We do take our democracy & first-world insulated safety for granted. It’s so fragile. Our government is not impregnable, not perfect, not quite balanced anymore. If something were to happen (or if we wanted to make something happen – fight for our rights), would we remember our roots, our war for independence? Remember frontiersmen, pioneers & farmers, remember all the people we obliterated to mold this nation into a united one? Would people take a stand? The US is stretched so thin worrying and helping the rest of the world (noble & great that we can/are thus), but there are homeless/orphans/slaves/trafficking/disasters/cartels/etc. right here on US soil. If we can’t take care of ourselves, how long can we extend our hand? We are teetering on over $1 trillion deficit, barrels of oil and a congressional pissing contest, while most sit on their comfy couches watching the “news” on their flatscreen TV.

  • Caroline says:

    Chris, thanks for this great post. Watching the revolutions happening in the middle east has given me chills; I think a reaction to change that the brave people in those countries have begun to demand. Your post also gave me chills– thanks for emphasizing the difference between those types of protests and our relatively safe right to protest through the freedom of speech allowed us by our constitution.

  • Deb Brown says:

    I like the ‘average guy’ viewpoint you bring to the table. I’ve read and seen the pictures from those with an agenda, usually political. Your viewpoint was sobering. You’re right, we don’t have a clue about revolution. The revolution just may not be televised, heh?

  • connie b says:

    I remember Kent State and the deaths and injuries from nonviolent demonstrations against the war and for civil rights. I was 20 the first time I saw a young protestor beaten unconscious by 6 cops–not something I can forget. I can see him and that scene now 40 years later. Plenty of people died to bring about change in this country. Our government doesn’t usually shoot us, but it is a mistake to ignore that possibility. The Dixie Chicks said freedom of speech isn’t free. I can say anything I want because no one is listening. However, if my call to revolution resulted in people being so inspired that they acted on it, I would be in jail for creating a clear and present danger (The Chicago 8 trial). None of my high school students knew of this limitation to free speech…hmm, what are their history teachers saying. I also liked asking them, if you were brainwashed, how would you know it?

  • pj says:

    Agree w/CJ and Mahreen. One big factor has been overlooked in these revolutions- the US Federal Reserve.

    They may not have begun if food prices, driven up by relentless dollar printing (Quantitative easing), had not become crushingly high for the average middle eastern citizen.

    Maybe we seem more secure because of our “natural” tendency to embrace debt. Few other nations are willing to mortgage their (and their kids’) futures simply to consume.

    Thanx Chris and all here.

  • Nathalie says:

    Amazing experience you had there. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in fear and anxiety 24-7. You are definitely right that we do take our freedom for granted most of the time. I would like to add though, that in order for us to not take our freedom for granted, we have to be aware that this corruption and terror can happen even in our own countries.

    As Mahreen was mentioning, the US, and now Canada with the Harper government, are not immune to this kind of mental slavery (to use the wise words of legendary Bob Marley). Fear and misinformation are being used constantly in order to control the masses, to discourage people to vote, in order to allow a right-winged, authoritarian government to gain more power. It is a bit scary, but we have to make sure that we exercise our democratic right, and inform ourselves. Obviously we are talking about different levels of corruptions as in the Middle East, but nevertheless, we must be aware of it, and take action.

  • MarcTheEngineer says:

    I think it’s important to remember that these revolutions were all largely started by a single man who made the ultimate sacrifice to show his discontent with his government. The people of the middle east have a lot to thank Mohamed Bouazizi for.

  • Rana says:

    Thoughtful post about what it means to live in one of these countries. However, it is a little sad that you never actually got to see the real Iran. Going to Kish and saying you’ve been to Iran is like connecting through LGA or Newark (in a snowstorm during the dead of winter) and saying you’ve been to America. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the difficulty it took to include Iran in your travels. Many others would have given it up in favor of personal safety (with good reason too). However, I do hope you get to one day see the historical, natural, and cultural beauty of the country. Good luck on the last 19 countries!

  • Chris says:

    @Rana,

    Yes, I understand and I hope to visit mainland Iran sometime too.

  • Solange says:

    I cannot begin to tell you how refreshing and inspiring it was to read an American author who can be this critical, empathical and sharp about reality, and that is not arrogant or imperialist about fast-food and democracy -but actually thankful and appreciative.

    I very much respect the fact that you are stating that the problems we westerns have do not even compare to fighting for actual freedom. This is something that we must never forget.

    Thanks Chris

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