Friday, June 25, 2010

Peace and Pieces in Alexandria

Today was supposed to be the peace rally for Khaled Saeed, whom was so brutally killed by policemen a couple weeks ago here in Alexandria. The plan, as detailed on the "Kollena Khaled Saeed" (We are all Khaled Saeed) Facebook page, was simple: dress in black, go to the Korneish (seaside), and stand in quiet solidarity from 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm. Not a friend of Khaled, but no friend of brutality and torture, I got my iPhone and went with my sister to check it out.

6:30 pm we were on the Korneish in front of the Engineering Club. I had doubts that we'd find anyone dressed in black there, since the Korneish is so darn long and there was no central gathering focal point I was aware of. There were a lot of people there though with music and national songs blaring from a pickup truck rigged with audio equipment and mega-blasting speakers and a camera man. The truck moved down the supposedly fast-moving Korneish in motorcade speed and had a followership. The truck had a scouts-like parade with a large national flag waving proudly along with many other joyfully colored flags, banners with Suzanne Mubarak's name, followed by a mob of children. Most of the children were young (around 12 years old and even less) and all from lower class families, looking poor and lost. The first thing we (my sister and I) noticed was how they were all wearing the same t-shirts and obviously different colored tees: white and brown, but no black (go figure). Just outside the Engineering Club, some men had bags full with more tees and the kids were ripping into them like monkeys on a box of bananas - trying to get their share before they run out.

Now, it was very difficult to tell from the sight in front of us what the heck was going on. What was all this festivity all about? A closer look at the print on the crap-quality t-shirts gave way that there were in fact three interesting events taking place in one amalgamated super event!

Interesting how all the poor kids in Alexandria suddenly decided to get more involved in reading, giving up smoking, and discovering tourism all in one day. Actually, from 6:30 to 7:30 pm. Oh, and on the Korneish. Oh, and wear t-shirts. Coincidences are cool, aren't they!

This colorful embodiment of perplexity was headed towards Stanley Bridge, so me and my sister decided to pick up our paces and see what's going on there before this small army reaches unspoiled territory...

Meanwhile, on Stanley Bridge there were small bands of people wearing black clothes and looking deeply into the sea, contemplating, or reading Qur'an. No one seemed to really know what's going on. They were just there. I guess that was the original purpose of the 'rally'.

On the other side of the bridge though, there was much more activity and yet another mob of people gathered up in a huddle. At the center of that flock, was no one short of ElBaradei himself.

Seconds later, the jolly parade started coming into view on the bridge, and just as fast, ElBaradei slipped into his car and it drove off. There must have been some sneering, because I overheard black-shirters saying to just let the parade pass by and everyone for a brief-moment held their breaths... but nothing happened.

My sleuthing sister had a great idea of interviewing some of the kids in t-shirts. I whipped out my iPhone, turned on the voice recorder, and asked a kid if I could interview him with my pseudo-microphone in hand. They must have really thought I was press because a couple more kids grouped up around us and started chiming in and were very naive and cooperative in answering all questions asked. Here is how the interview went (sorry if I didn't post the audio file... sound quality was bad because of all the wind):

Me: So why are you here today?
Kid: There is a party for the Itihad Iskandary.
Me: You mean the football club?
Kid: Yes, football and lots of other stuff!
Me: Nice. So, the t-shirt you're wearing, was it the club that distributed it?
Kid: Yes, they are the ones that gave it to us.
Me: Do you know what's written on the back?
Kid: Yes!
Me: Well, what is it?
Kid: It says elkara2a lelgamee3!
Me: So what does El-Itihad have to do with elkara2a lelgamee3?!
Kids [chiming in]: Thakafa ba2a!
My sis: So, did you know there will be an event today, or were you coincidentally strolling on the seaside?
Kids: No... we knew... they came to us in all the marakez shabab and told us to come.
Me: So how long did you know about this event? A week? Two? Three?
Kids: Last week. They told us there will be a big party and that we should go to cheer on. They told us to also bring all our friends.
Me: So they told all you youngsters to come and gather as much of your friends? So where did you get the t-shirts? Did they give them to you at the youth centers or what?
Kids: No... we took them in front of the Engineering club.
Me: Cool. So did they tell you you have to wear them now, or was it you that decided you wanted to put them on now?
Kids: They told us to wear them. They said there will be a race later on, and we should wear them and sign up. If we win, we will get a set of clothes and medals!
My sis: So, are you guys through for the day?
Kids: Not yet... waiting for the race.
Me: Rabenna ma3akom... did you finish your tests?
Kid: Yes, and I passed alhamdulillah.
Sis: What grade are you in?
Kid: 2nd grade.
Me and my sis: Tayyeb, rabenna yawafa2kom. Thanks!

Interesting indeed!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Central Tokyo Again

Moved into the final station of my visit: a Ryokan called Homeikan in central Tokyo (at Hongo sanchyome station), which is basically a youth hostel. Very interesting indeed.

I will go have breakfast now and have a long day ahead of me... Akihabara, Sumo wrestling, and a farewell party with the SWYers. Hopefully I will have time to make up for the days I missed a give a summary of what I did the last few days, before I leave tomorrow inshaAllah.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Day 8 in Tokyo - Excursions (finally!)

Long day today! Started off by waking up at 5 am (didn't go to sleep after praying Fajr) for a shower and breakfast at 6 am. I also had the opportunity to do my laundry before anyone else got up. We met in the lobby at 7 am to head out for our first excursion in Tokyo: a recycling plant and the Tokyo garbage landfill. We had to move early to try to beat the morning traffic jam, and the trip to our first stop took about 3 hours.

Our first stop was at the Tokyo Eco Recycle Co. which is operated by Hitachi. The president there gave us a brief ~30 min lecture titled "Sustainable Society in the 21st Century". Basically what they do is take old electric appliances from the users (whom want to get rid of them), such as TVs, computers, refrigerators, air conditioners, and washing machines, and for a recycling fee, put them on the road to recycling and reuse. The process is that the machines are identified (usually by barcode) and then dismantled (manually), with special care to recover certain substances such as freon and other valuable and toxic or hazardous resources. The dismantled pieces are then separated manually to some extent and sent to a crusher to break it down to smaller pieces or even powder. The material is them further sorted automatically (e.g. magnetic sorting of metals) and also manually. Examples of materials extracted and later sent to other plants to make use of are iron, copper, aluminum, PVC, and others. Computer parts are reused by supplying to other companies. And since all this is done almost entirely manually, the environmental footprint is almost 100% zero emission performant. As a result, 13,000 tons of material are recycled every year, leading to a CO2 reduction of 12,000 tons/year as compared to the emissions that would be resulted if the materials were produced from raw materials.
Presentation by the president of the recycling plant

Plant from the outside and with all the recyclables coming in

Plenty of tubes being thrown away for sure!

The plant floor

Dismantling TVs

All the scrap metal after crushing

Handdisks punctured to make sure there is data privacy

After that we hopped on the bus again to head over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Landfill site, which is basically the dump grounds where all the garbage from Tokyo goes. Doesn't sound too pleasant does it?! Actually, I was anticipating the worst when we were going to visit the refuse produced by one of the most populous cities in the world. I was in for quite a surprise. There was hardly any garbage in sight (except for the freshly brought in from the city) and it was surprisingly very clean. That is because all the waste (which is not separated garbage, which is why it's not recycled) is buried with soil - a method in landfilling called the 'sandwich method'. To further improve the sustainability of the landfill, vegetation and trees (and flowers even!) are grown on the soil covering the garbage. The electricity needs of the plant is also supplied internally by using garbage for bio-gas, wind energy, and photovoltaic panels.
Wind energy generator over planted landfill

Freshly covered landfill, waiting for the next layer of garbage

We had lunch on the bus on our way to Shinjuku, which was a big disappointment for me. The lunch boxes were either vegetarian or regular, which had some alcohol in it. I don't know why they had to do that... it really ticked me off. And to make things worse, the vegetarian lunch was nothing more but a couple rice cakes. They really should try harder to incorporate other people with different needs if they want to promote multiculturalism.

When we got to Shinjuku, a famous shopping district with a lot of souvenir shops and temples, I just had enough time to pray and walk around to look at all the shops and sights. It was really hard to find a place to pray since there were all temples all over the place and it was really crowded with tourists. I made a point of going as far away from the idols and pray with my back to them.

When we got back to the campus for dinner, we had an hour to relax and then I had to work on this art project we're all working on. It's a big wooden board on which we're supposed to make a mosaic of graffiti one day at a time, each day 6 people at a time. It was my turn this time... check it out... I painted the guy doing a handstand and incorporated the trees done the day before by a previous painter as his legs, capturing the essence of how we're connected to nature and flow through each other. I also made the transition between the "save me" tree and the mountains below, adding a rainbow in the process :)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Days 6 and 7 in Tokyo- Extremes

Sorry for not writing the last 2 days, but as you can tell from the title, they were a bit on the extreme side! Surviving with only 5 hours of sleep everyday is starting to take its toll on me.

Yesterday, March 28, was an interesting day for me. We talked about Energy Systems Thinking... which brought up many eye-opening pieces of information. For example, it is estimated that 85% of all fuel is used for energy (being burnt that is) and only the remaining 15% is used to produce real products such as pharmaceuticals, clothes, fertilizers, plastics, etc. Another interesting idea that I never had heard of before, was the concept of passive and active housing. Passive housing is when houses use renewable energy sources (such as solar energy) to become pretty much self-sufficient with regards to their own energy needs. Active housing is basically the same, except that houses can actually produce energy in a surplus to their own consumption needs and in turn sell their energy to their neighbors or on the grid.

Another interesting topic was that of eco-design, which aims at using resources wisely to fulfill consumer requirements while causing minimal environmental impact. This has to be done by analyzing the environmental impact of the product throughout its entire lifecycle, from use of raw materials, to manufacturing, to distribution, to actual use, to end of its life. They gave interesting actual case studies such as the design of TV remote control systems. Apparently, the standby mode of a TV (when it is off yet waiting for a remote control to turn it on, which requires the sensor to be active), is very energy consuming if you consider all the TVs in all households. In Austria, it is calculated that this translates to 1050GWh per year, which is equal to the whole production of a certain hydroelectric power plant on the Danube! All that because people are lazy enough to not get up and turn the TV on manually!

Anyways, today was a nice break from the norms in all possible ways. Starting things off, we woke up to a splat of snow... actually more like flurries. It's supposed to be rather rare for it to snow in March and with the sakura already blossoming. Last time that happened was like 3-5 years ago, or so the Japanese students tell us! It wasn't that much, and didn't accumulate on the ground, but at certain times it was coming down in a fury that Spring is just not used to. At least the mountains were capped with a brisk whitish powder. Not sure if it is clear in the picture here, but I guess you'll have to take my word for it!

To make things even more interesting, in the middle of our first session, at 10:30 am, while we were sitting down and discussing things in our groups, there was a little tremor... a quick look at the Japanese Meteorological Agency website for Earthquake information showed that the epicenter was not too far from Tokyo and about 4.3 on the Richter scale.

Today we spent all the session time in some case studies regarding alternative energy sources. The lecturers split the participants into groups according to regional proximities such as all the japanese together (the largest group), European countries (Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and France), Sub-Sahara Africa, MENA (Egypt, Tunis, Morocco), etc. Our group, the MENA region, discussed alternative energy in the region, particularly wind energy along the coasts of Morocco and Egypt, and solar energy in the Sahara desert. First time for me to hear about an interesting project proposed, called DeserTec, which basically calls for utilizing the solar and thermal energy in the Sahara to generate electricity and for desalination, and share it with Europe via a trans-Mediterranean electricity grid. The EU will also contribute to the grid using wind energy from the northern regions and biomass energy generated throughout the whole of Europe. It is calculated that if an area of a couple thousand square kilometers in the desert were to be utilized correctly, it can generate enough electric energy to power the whole world. Pretty ambitious, huh?

There were three main things I didn't like about the current DeserTec plan though:
  1. The EU is planning on raking in 80% of the energy created
  2. There are no plans for sharing the energy with sub-Saharan countries in Africa and other Arab countries
  3. There is no plan on privatizing the company and decoupling it from governments and other political powers
So we devised a plan to sort of *ahem* *ahem* exclude the EU and other external bodies from controlling and regulating this organization. We especially meaningfully meant to exclude the EU because they taught us a few days ago about using resources from other countries (such as buying land) is a form of "modern colonization" and the example put forth was that of Egypt buying land in Sudan. I thought that was such a dumb example since originally Egypt and Sudan were separated because of European colonization. I also thought it was meaningless for Europe to take so much energy since we're also supposed to be developing, and moreover, one of the roadblocks we'd face in rolling out this project, are all the ~30 million landmines planted in the Egyptian Western Desert by European countries during the WW2. This is the largest minefield in the world, and everyday Egyptians are killed or mimed. They should concentrate their efforts and money in sweeping these areas, which is very expensive, and moreover their moral responsibility to do so anyways. You should have seen their faces when we said that! They were very surprised and even cut me short, saying we were out of time, even though we didn't take more time than the other groups. Anyways, maybe I'm over playing this, but I felt that they almost didn't think that we deserve all this energy, be it fossil fuel or solar or otherwise.

Just my 2 cents! All good stuff anyways... looking forward to more discussions.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day 6 in Tokyo - Stir crazy

Everyone is starting to get stir crazy being all closed up in one building all day long!

Lectures were a little boring today, so I won't really go into detail. All day long we took economics and at the end of the day there was a Japanese professor that was lecturing in almost incomprehensible English that I hardly got anything out of the lecture. Dr Claude lectured before him and it was pretty good but I had already known most of what he was talking about. So I guess it was nice to see that most of what he said, I already knew through my informal business learning during my current job at eSpace.

Anyways, like I said, people are getting stir crazy! Fortunately the weather today was rather good so we went out on walks during the breaks. At night, after dinner, we played ping pong and board games.

Blossoming trees on campus

Sakura or cherry blossoms

Momo or peach blossoms

Finally a picture of me!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 4 and 5 in Tokyo - YESing Away

A rainy Hosei University

First of all, I'm really sorry I didn't write anything yesterday, but I was so caught up in late night conversations, that it just slipped my mind. I was a little more self-conscious today, and made myself leave a juicy discussion on religion just to make sure I report on what's going on!

So, yesterday was the first day of the YES program, complete with a whole day of lectures and activities. It started at 7 am when I got up, showered and had breakfast at 7:30 am in the cafeteria. Breakfast was just normal sandwiches on white bread (egg, salmon, potato, cheese, veggies, cream and strawberries and couple other sandwiches from which were some I couldn't eat). We then had our first lecture at 9 am and all lectures throughout the day were introductory and consisted mostly of exercises to help introduce the course matter, introduce ourselves to each other, and get to know a little bit about our cultures, countries, and backgrounds (educational, career-wise, etc). There are really a lot of interesting people... let me try to list down their countries: Japan (obviously), Switzerland, Egypt, Germany, Sweden, France, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, Tunisia, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Nepal, South Africa, Kenya, Colombia, and Brazil. So we're 36 participants from 19 countries (plus facilitators from Australia and the US) and spanning over 30 different disciplines.

Map with pins showing where the participants are from

After we were done with our lectures for the day, which were uneventful (since they were mainly introductory) we went out for a campus tour. It was still raining (had been raining non-stop since we came) so we went through it as fast as we could (which was like 45 mins). It looks like an awesome campus, very beautiful... I'm looking forward to seeing it in the sun and warmer weather... especially when the sakura (cherry blossoms) bloom even more. On thing that was particularly noteworthy was that the campus was empty except for us. Turned out that the students were on Spring break, which in turn turned out to be almost 3 months long! So along side with their ~2-month summer vacation, that means the Japanese university students have almost 5 months off each year! I remember very well at school at Egypt they used to teach us that Japanese are very hard workers and study hard and never take vacations. I wonder if they used to just tell us that so we can have some reason to believe that the Japanese deserve to be more advanced than us just because they don't have fun, unlike us. But seriously... 5 months is just too long of a time!

After that, we came back to our building, and had a "name game" where we sat in a circle and the facilitator whom planted herself to my left, would start by saying her name. The person to her left was then supposed to say the facilitator's name, then her own name. The person then to her left should say the facilitator's name, then the first girl's, then her name, and so on. You guessed it. I was the last person. I had to go through all the 36+ names... but alhamdulillah I got it :)

We then just hung around engaging in discussions and chatting until I finally gave up to sleep and hit the sack at around 12:30 am.

Today was another tiring and long day. We had breakfast at 7:30 am and then had a lecture on Earth and Climate Systems by a professor from MIT. It brought up some interesting things to think about such as how natural systems have to be closed loops and how it is very difficult to lay boundaries on self-retained systems when it comes to systems such as environmental, social, and economic systems. We also talked about how we should approach the issue of climate change in larger systems such as political systems, which was a mistake that led to the failure of the COP15 conference last January. We also talked about how the public needs to be educated about Sustainable Development, and I brought up religion as being a viable solution. Had some interesting discussions on that following that comment, and one site that came up was, which I should check out when I have the chance.

We then had a lecture on Systems Theory, which was mostly about how we subconsciously have many habits that can be changed. That was followed by a lecture on Economic Systems which was really just an introduction for now. It got really confusing when we started to talk about the money cycle and I had to open my big mouth to point out that one of the "advantages" of money is to print out more "wealth" when needed, even though it may not really represent the actually worth of the resources at hand. I certainly didn't see the ramifications of that seemingly ignorant remark. We had a full blown discussion the implications of money and the current economic system and how economy doesn't necessarily mean money. We then started to talk about how the environment should also be accounted for in the economy. It is meaningless to talk about continuous financial progress and more and more money, when the resources we have are in fact limited. That made a lot of sense. Of course we'll be talking a lot more about this throughout the course of these 2 weeks.

We then had, in my opinion, the most interesting lecture (to me at least) so far. It was a video conference with this professor in Switzerland on Biodiversity. He talked about how humans affect biodiversity, the importance of biodiversity, and what we can do about it. He gave a lot of interesting examples of how biodiversity can in fact help agriculture. I found this very interesting... having miles and miles of one crop actually is bad for the crop and for the environment. He had studies on how having biodiversity in crops (meaning more than one type of crop growing side-by-side) can actually help increase the crop yield and help retain nitrates in the soil. Having diverse insects can help in symbiotic relationships and pollination. Just the fact of growing trees along the borders of crop fields helps them be healthier and grow better, as if any plant "likes" to have company. I remember this very distinctly from my visit in Tonga last year where they grow vanilla and coffee, among other fruits and vegetables in the middle of the jungle.
Vanilla being grown in the middle of the jungle in Tonga

We finished lectures at around 8 pm (phew!) and had dinner then I had some nice discussions with some people, particularly a girl from Germany on religion and social responsibilities. They then went out to get some sake and alcohol, so I decided to finally write my blog!

It's midnight now, so off to bed I go!
Sakura blossoms starting to show

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day 3 in Tokyo - Hosei University!

Today was yet an another interesting day. I had planned to wake up at 9 am but overslept until after 10 am, which left me less than an hour to repack and get ready to leave my beloved suite and jacuzzi :'(

I had to leave by 11 pm to get to a meeting point in Shinjuku station where other YES participants will meet up to go to the university. I had to lug my luggage through the rainy streets of Tokyo and the crowded train stations... no easy feat I tell you. I got there exactly on time (maybe with just 5 mins to spare) and we were 7 participants: one Japanese (our guide), 2 Swiss, 1 German, 1 Nepalese, 1 Indian, and 1 Egyptian (me!). We set out to Hosei University, Tama campus by taking another JR train and then a bus... we were on campus at about 1 pm. We had to walk with our luggage for about 15 mins in the rain and uphill through the campus until we got to our building. I would have taken pictures of the campus - it's beautiful, spacious and with already cherry trees blossoming - but the rain and luggage wasn't exactly helping out. Insha'Allah I'm sure there will be more opportunities to take pictures and discover the campus more.

After we put our bags in our rooms, we went to the convenience store on campus to buy something to eat since the cafeteria had already served lunch. I got this snack called onigiri which reminds me of the elven bread Sam and Frodo ate... it is basically rice cake (favored with tuna and soy sauce) wrapped in nori (seaweed) and in a triangular shape. I had it before on my last trip to Japan, so I knew what to expect... actually it is a rather good snack!

(Don't mind the image that much... I forgot to take a picture so I got this one off google... I didn't not have a beer with it!)

I am sharing my room with two of the guys I met at Shinjuku, the Japanese guy and a Swiss. For far we're getting along and split the room without any problems. Here is a picture of the view outside our room window and another of our room with the tatami mats, futon beds, and tea table.

It was getting a little boring, because all the other participants that had arrived the day before were in Tokyo site seeing, and dinner was going to be at 7 pm. So, I invited the people to my room to have a tea party :) It was pretty fun... we talked about ourselves and got to know each other pretty well. We then had dinner and I stayed until 11 pm chatting with more of the 36 participants. Dinner was pretty good with a good amount of food that I could eat: miso soup (!), fried shrimp, yaki soba, rice, and pasta salad.

Anyways, I got to go... hopefully I can write more tomorrow... have an early start tomorrow isA - 7 am for breakfast!