Thursday, September 17, 2015

Interview with an Intrepid Moroccan Nomad

In the world of traveling, women can also be fearless, adventurous, and real experts, able to show us the most scenic routes to the most fabulous places and take us on breathtaking journeys. Houda Chaloun, an intrepid experienced traveler from Morocco, has been traveling the world for a long time. She has almost always been on a global quest to do the thing she loves the most and fill her life with new experiences, challenges and unique stories to share. 

In this interview I asked Houda 5 questions to know more about herself, her motivations to become a world traveler and what it means to be a traveler according to her.

Could you please start by introducing yourself to our readers? Tell us where you come from, a little bit about your academic or professional background.

My name is Houda chaloun, a 35-year-old Moroccan woman who studied and graduated in Morocco with an IT engineering degree. I worked as an IT project manager for almost 10 years before leaving on a sabbatical year to travel the world. When I came back to Morocco 2 months ago, I decided to definitely quit my job and convert to a nomad.

Tell me what made you choose this life, we would like to know how it all started.

When I first decided I wanted to travel for a whole year, it wasn't something I had been dreaming about for a long time. It came as an intuition, an idea that popped in my mind with no previous notice. It actually made me dream about a new life and I decided to ask my employer for a sabbatical leave. It took around 9 months from the time I had the idea to the day I actually left home to travel.

When I think about it now, that I actually did it and finished my first year of travel, that moment looks more like a tipping point; many different criteria and facts come together to lead you to a specific action or decision. There is no one logical reason behind it except that maybe I had a moment of inspiration and I grabbed it without overthinking.

When and to where was your first trip ever?

I traveled all around Morocco with my parents when I was a child. We used to leave home for the annual vacation leave without preparation or a defined destination and ended up travelling all around the country. I actually owe a lot to my father for being adventurous and fond of travelling. My first trip alone, i.e. without my parents, was to Algeria in a cultural exchange program when I was 9. That was maybe the first fascination I had about the "other", the one that's supposed to be different but is in fact just another human being with dreams, projects, joy and fears.

Then I started traveling alone when I was 18 and and more extensively when I started working and became financially independent, mostly to Europe and other Arab countries. The funny thing is that my real first backpacking trip was actually this one year trip in Latin America. I was a tourist and this trip made me a traveler.

Many people around the world wish to be able to travel but end up doing their jobs for years without even moving to the city next to them. According to you, how can we challenge ourselves and hit the road?

I always start with the "what" then I figure out the "how". That's for me the most effective way to catch on our dreams.

Visualizing the dream; that can be travelling the world or creating one's own company or having a child... It doesn't really matter as long as it inspires you, and that is certainly the first step. When you feel that just the idea of it makes you happy, that it fulfills your soul, only then comes the stage of thinking about the "how".

Why is that? Because fear is always there and makes us invent barriers and obstacles that prevent us from following our dreams. If I had one piece of advice to give in regards to this matter it would be "just do it" and don't over think about the issues you might encounter. Do it with what's available to you but don't give up because of what you don't have...yet!

I’m sure traveling has changed you a lot, could you briefly tell us how it has affected you? What are you most grateful to?

Well I might surprise you. I believe traveling did not change me. It only brought me back to who I really am.

When we come to life, we're the closest to who we are, then comes our education, environment, what the society expects us to be, etc… And without notic
ing it, we start to put on masks, act, and be the person we're expected to be, not the person we are.

Traveling can be very liberating when you want it to be, and I did want it to be my bridge to freedom so I can be myself again.

I am most grateful to the people I've met along the way, those who showed me that it's completely fine to be one's self. Those who don't judge you and don't expect much from you. They are just a mirror in which you can see yourself without masks and end up loving this naked, free self.

Stay tuned for 5 more questions in part II of Interview with a Moroccan Nomad where Houda reveals the most difficult part about her traveling experiences and gives great advice for those who wish to set out on a journey soon.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A First Step Towards Finding Myself

© Ala Oueslati, Algiers, Algeria

I come from a region that is often misunderstood by foreigners, especially those overseas. Throughout my travels, I have always found myself obliged to think of a simple, uncomplicated, and clear way to explain why I am African, yet not black, not Muslim, not hungry, not riding a camel, not suffering from epidemics in my town, and able to speak both French and Arabic as mother tongue.

These stereotypes are obviously not true all the time, and I am the living proof (plus millions of others). Then, right after the revolution, the self-introduction mission became a lot less complicated, a lot less difficult and a lot more enjoyable. Even people in small towns like Pittsford, NY heard of Tunisia in the news and understood that Africa is not a dying hungry nation. It is better than that, a lot better than that. In fact, Africa proved that it now can be a model in many areas in which it took the lead. So yes, I am African. I am also Tunisian, Mediterranean, Berber and Turkish.

It was only when I started to witness conflicts in my home country, encounter a million obstacles standing between me and my dreams, meet new people with different problems, visions, and perceptions, live beyond my home and see beyond my eyes that I understood who I am. It was only then that I understood my position in life and what I wanted to do with it. It was only then that I understood what this African, Tunisian, Mediterranean, Berber, Turkish person can do.

I am a very positive person, realistic but positive. I have learned that there is no other way to live than to be optimistic, determined and inspired. I have learned to seek power and hope in the toughest situations and find a way out. I have also learned to empower myself and others around me, because I refuse to buy into the idea of people being unable to do things they want to do. I have learned Spanish and Russian, for no particular reason, other than to learn something new, and then throughout my travels they were pretty useful. And most importantly, I have learned to speak up, to take a decision and make a change. This is the only way I found to make my life meaningful to myself and to others around me, and to make myself of value wherever I am.

In order to make my life of more use, I have become a peace activist, because what is a better thing to advocate for other than peace? And this made my family and my friends think that I am a problem seeker, just because I am unable to keep quiet when there is racism, sexism, violence, injustice, inequality, war and disrespect to human life. My family and friends think that I will not be able to change the world. I do not either. I am not a hero and will most likely never be one. All I want is to live in line with my principles, my choices and my goals.

The Tunisian Revolution of 2011 was a trigger in my life. A trigger that made me a passionate peace activist, a gender advocate, a blogger, a human rights defender, a citizen journalist and a student of everything. That same revolution helped me develop through time, understand myself and others through experiences and adjust to the realities of my life. Not too long after that I started working for Caux Initiatives of Change in Switzerland as an intern. I considered myself very lucky to finally be working on something that I felt passionate about and make the change that I have always wanted to make. I felt I was even luckier after being accepted to study at Nazareth College of Rochester in upstate New York and having the privilege to meet President Barack Obama at the White House during my stay in the United States. Then I worked in Mauritania, Turkey, Tunisia, Italy and Jordan, and I have heard a million stories, written another million, faced a million obstacles and made a million friends.

All the unfortunate events that occur in every part of the globe make me feel powerless, weak, and sometimes even depressed. However, if I am an activist who stands up for people’s rights, I can definitely stand up for mine when things don’t go well, and so I did. Power is within me. It is also within every single person on earth. I believe we are so fortunate to have the power to find resolutions and become role models in our communities. We are so fortunate to be able to change things and act upon what happens in the world, because somewhere in this world, there are people who are our age, who have the same desire to change the world, the same love for their families and countries and who could probably be better bloggers. Only they have to worry about how to survive, they have never heard of the word “blog” before, they have never seen a computer, never crossed the borders of their villages.

I don’t know why we are so fortunate to be who we are. But what I know is that we must make ourselves of value to this world full of differences and contradictions, and try to the best of our capacities to make the change that would make the world a better place. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Burning Man: A Beating Heart in the Middle of the American Desert

Sculpture at Burning Man

Aerial View of Burning Man

Near the end of every summer and not too far from the city of Reno in the middle of the Nevada desert, around 60000 people find themselves together, sharing arts, freedom, love, happiness and creativity. This is what happens during the Burning Man festival; transforming the desert into an oasis for the most eclectic and eccentric group of people on the planet. 

Although tickets for Burning Man can go up to $400, they are usually sold out within hours or sometimes even minutes. But when it all started in San Francisco in 1986, it was a simple gathering of a small group of friends who wanted to enjoy their free time, for free. It was only after four years that the event had to be moved to Black Rock Desert in the state of Nevada, turning the place into a blank canvas filled with all kinds of incredible art, eccentric and wonderful artists to watch and events to attend. 

The only rule that the attendees of Burning Man agree on is the “gifting” rule. As they find themselves in the desert with little or no bags, they tend to exchange gifts to make their stay as comfortable and as enjoyable as possible. If you are one of the attendees of this event and you are wandering through the desert, someone might just come to you and offer you clothes, food, drinks, jewellery, or even read poems to you. Thanks to the sharing culture and the gifting-economy this event brings, the Burning Man festival is the first of its kind in the entire world. 

Tickets for this unique event might be expensive, however, that’s the only expense attendees need to worry about. Once they are there, it’s all about sharing and nothing is for sale. The festival has no codes, no norms, no conformity. It is all about being happy and free, along with giant art installations, art cars, music bands, weird and funny costumes and of course, the burning immense sculptures and wooden statues. Burning Man is not like any other festival, it is an opportunity for the mind to be freed, for borders to be crossed and for love, joy and creativity to be cultivated. It is a celebration of non-conformity and difference, of art and beauty and most of all, it's a celebration of freedom.

With thousands of visitors from all over the world each year, Burning Man is one of the biggest entertainment events in the United States and the world. Through time, the festival has embraced interests and themes that go beyond its artistic vision. It has been a major promoter of women's rights, LGBT rights, equality, modesty, social integration, sharing, and above all, coexistence. During the festival, visitors find themselves surrounded by the unknown, sometimes in challenging conditions, and in order to deal with that, they have to communicate, break barriers and stereotypes, build trust, share, and accept others as well as embrace their own identities.

The name “Burning Man” comes from the tradition of burning a huge structure that takes a different form every year, adding a more surreal atmosphere to the event. The burning happens during the last day of the festival while people gather to watch the ceremonial burn as fireworks and flame throwers surround them, making the spectacle a breathtaking and mesmerising finale for an immense and unforgettable event in the Nevada desert. 

Burning Man is described as an experiment in art, community, radical inclusion, civic responsibility, radical self-reliance, participation, decommodification, self-expression, and radical self-reliance. In April 2011, the founder Larry Harvey announced that the company organizing the annual event, Black Rock City LLC, begun a three-year process to transfer the ownership of the event over to a new non-profit organization called the "Burning Man Project", and in March 2014 the official Burning Man website and Facebook Page announced the completion of the non-profit transition, making this event extra special and much more remarkable. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

The right to Freedom of Expression is also a Human Right

Mankind has been able to learn, to progress and to advance not only in the areas of technology and science, but also in moral standards, principles and virtues. Surprisingly, what turned out to be more challenging is neither the complexity of science nor the sophistication of technology. What people are now struggling with most is living with different principles, beliefs and ideas, and this need that we call coexistence, is somehow related to the beliefs themselves that many people are eager to show and defend.

There has also been a significant improvement in protecting and promoting human rights. Nowadays, almost all the conflicts that the world is witnessing are related to human rights, and these conflicts are increasingly serious because many of us believe they need more rights to protect. Fundamentally, the reason why many people care so much about their beliefs and their ideologies is because they think that their lives would be more complicated and less valuable without them. Many people also think that their ideologies are sources of hope, strength and optimism.

In many countries, young people have been included in the process of peace-building, human rights protection and democratization. In Ukraine for example, students have been engaging themselves in the political scene and in decision making. They are starting their own NGOs, associations and projects that aim to assist them in making a positive impact in their communities and in establishing a strong connection between Ukrainian youth and the government. One of these NGOs is “Voice of Youth Initiative Ukraine” which was founded by a group of international students at Nazareth College of Rochester in Rochester, New York. This initiative aims to connect freedom of expression with personal and public action in Ukraine, with a focus on promoting innovative ideas and building connections between Ukrainian and foreign universities.

Freedom of expression has always been a very delicate issue because it has to do with the beliefs and the principles of many people in many ways. The most recent example is the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. This event proved that personal beliefs, theories, doctrines and ideologies can be very powerful and very significant in shaping people’s personalities and behaviors. Moreover, these people can also use their ideologies to explain their actions and prove their right to do and say whatever they feel is right. The paradox here is when people explain their acts by honoring and respecting their belonging to a certain religious group or by believing in something sacred, which in this case contradicts with what they call freedom of expression, just because they choose what they believe in and then they choose to act on the name of what they believe in, creating clashes with those who have different ideas and sometimes even with their fellow believers.

Because no beliefs, no principles and no ideas should grant malign and destructive sensations and actions, it is essential to keep working on the advancement of human rights by defending people’s rights to express their ideas, practice their beliefs and disagree with others, just like we give ourselves the right to express our ideas and criticize others’. The Charlie Hebdo attack in France, the flogging of the Saudi journalist Raif Badawi, the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria and many other tragic events we have witnessed in the last few months are obvious proofs of the strong negative effect that beliefs have on people’s actions. These people think that what they believe in is the most interesting doctrine that there is, and everybody should give them their attention, and that is why they tend to harm others and sometimes even take people’s lives in the name of the beliefs that they shape, modify and sometimes even invent.

One might wonder what the solution for this confusion can be. People who defend their rights to free expression should also let others defend their rights and express their ideas and beliefs freely and peacefully. The solution does sound simple and clear, however, what rises here is the problem of selfishness, as many people tend to reject different opinions just because they cannot live in a heterogeneous society where individuals can embrace difference and use it to enrich their communities. This is again paradoxical because these people themselves ask for their rights to respect and to free speech, which means they are also asking for difference, for tolerance and for coexistence.  


Friday, January 2, 2015

An introduction to Esperanto by Ala Oueslati

In this video I speak about a unique way to promote peace and tolerance: speaking Esperanto. If this is new to you, check it out and leave your comments below.