BRUSSELS - Dozens of Arab, Turkish and Israeli journalists met in Brussels last month for a seminar that highlighted the changes sweeping the Middle East, and specifically the growing Arab openness in the wake of regional revolutions.
A short while after joining the seminar, titled "Euro-Mediterranean Relations in the Wake of the Arab Spring,” I realized that the Arab
world as I knew it was no longer the same.
Instead of the automatic reactions we've become accustomed to, such as journalists who stay away from Israelis or the constant charge that "Israel's occupation is at fault for everything," suddenly I encountered a new, frank attitude. While some participants still clung to past views and odd conspiracy theories, others had no interest in Israel or the Palestinians, instead turning their attention to an incisive, vocal process of self-reflection.
During the seminar, some Arab journalists admitted, even if quietly, that their rulers exploited the Palestinian issue for many years and blamed it for Arab distress.
"For many years, Gaddafi exacted a special tax from us – 'The Jihad tax for Palestine" – amounting to one or two percent of our salary," said Libya journalist Reda Fhelboom. ""They said this tax was for the benefit of Jihad, but we know it supported terror groups worldwide."
Fhelboom is an unusual character, who does hide his liberal, decisive views or his pride over recent events in his home country.
"At age 15 already, when I reached high school, I realized everything was nonsense and started to argue with the teacher," he said. "Even my mother, who wasn't educated, knew that it was all nonsense."
Black market for chocolateYet Fhelboom isn't alone. Now that Gaddafi is gone, other Libyan journalists are willing to openly talk about the difficult, delusional existence under the longtime dictator. However, with the exception of Fhelboom, other seminar participants refused to have their names revealed.
"Gaddafi changed the names of the months of the year," Fhelboom said. "August was named 'Hannibal' in honor of his son…Gaddafi did not make do with this and changed the years too. Instead of the calendar used in the world, he set it in line with Prophet Muhammad's death. "
Fhelboom and his colleagues also recounted Gaddafi's decision to ban exports to Libya for nearly a decade.
"Gaddafi asserted that a state that relies on overseas exports cannot be independent and free…thereby creating a black market where only senior officials and their close associates could get chocolate," one journalist said. "Those who got chocolate from abroad were really lucky. The same applied to clothing stores, which sold the same models to everyone. This was Gaddafi's Libya."
'Israel a racist state'Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played a marginal role in the seminar, and unusually so, the issue did emerge on occasion despite the new voices.
"Will you agree to recognize Israel's right to exist and establish ties with it?" a Libya journalist asked his Arab colleagues. "Now? Heaven forbid. Only when the last Palestinian will be satisfied with the rights he was given," replies a fellow journalist. "Israel is a racist state that does not comply with international law," charges another.
Nonetheless, the seminar did feature unique Arab voices, and also highlighted the journalists' concern for the future of their countries. Many of them wondered whether in a similar seminar a year from now they will be speaking with such openness too.
"The religious already won the elections in Tunisia and Morocco," an Arab female colleague told me. "They are organized; there's no way of telling what's in store."
However, many journalists were also enthusiastic and hopeful about their ability to change longtime realities in the region.
"God willing, peace will prevail and you can come for a visit," an Arab journalist told me. "Yet for the time being, we do not wish to be interviewed, and don't include our name under any circumstances."
Indeed, a revolution has taken place, but for the time being, the boundaries are still very clear.
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