My euphoria after the people’s uprising in Tunisia and Cairo and the stirrings in Syria lasted for weeks.
Then, during the long run up while the UN was deliberating over the no-fly zone for Libya, I was visiting the fiord country in a remote part of PNG where the villages are accessible only by boat and few people have access to radio transmitters. But mad bad Gaddafi was a name that resonated.
PNG has a long tradition of zealots bearing news of change from other worlds. So when I found myself being asked questions about the Arab world, drawing a map in the dust to show where north Africa is, and holding forth about how Cairo had been inspired by Tunisia and how Libya was in an uproar, I was tentative. But the questions I was asked went to the heart of the matter. Why did the rulers not share the oil money? Why did the people not tell the rulers what they needed? Why did the rulers shoot their own people?
Port Moresby is more expensive than Sydney. With the building of the PNG Liquified Natural Gas pipeline from the Southern Highlands, have come the condominiums and marinas and five star hotels. The displaced peoples from the villages have long formed semi-permanent enclaves of poverty and bitterness. Schooling is erratic and expensive. Corruption is rife. Somare, these days a benevolent despot, with family waiting in the wings – or so the rumours have it. Familiar stuff.
In 2007 the Jamaican mobile phone company, Digicel arrived in PNG, as Orascom had in Egypt and Zio in Kuwait – prepared to enter markets of poor people by keeping prices down. A handset costs 40 kina ($15) and a SIM card provides 8 kina ($3) worth of credit. On the hillsides above the fiords near Tufi the Digicel towers are waiting – not yet connected because of an unresolved argument about land ownership – but they will be soon and the kids are already playing games on their cheap phones wherever they can find a generator.
There are few roads through this mountainous country and only 17% of the population has electricity. Families struggle to pay school fees from Grade 3 and most children from the more remote villages drop out after Grade 6. But now the teachers we spoke to are exploring distance learning and how to encourage small initiatives that might pay something – services for skin-divers and eco-tourists and people like me and my friend in our old hats and sturdy sandals having a break from our privileged lives.
I came back to the hideous news of the murder of the Israeli-Arab actor, Juliano Mer-Khamis, the region’s most prominent director and political activist. He was gunned down in the West Bank town of Jenin where he ran the remarkable and radical Freedom Theatre which drew Jewish and Arab audiences.
Then I read Mira-Adler Gillies’ post on the ABC’s Drum Is Zionism Still Worth Fighting for? and felt better despite the entirely predictable hostility and misreadings she copped in dozens of comments. The next generation are thinking outside the straightjackets of ideology. On all sides.
Have a look at this Youtube clip of Beirut Duty free Airport rocking to the Dabke Dance.