2018: The Year That Was
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The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018

Filed on December 30, 2018 | Last updated on December 30, 2018 at 08.29 pm
The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018

We bring you some of our landmark stories of 2018.

A reporter, they say, is only as good as her or his last byline. Generally, yes. But then there are few stories that a journalist will stumble upon in their lifetime that will redefine them in ways they couldn't have imagined. 2018 was a year of many such stories for Team KT. Stories that enhance our understanding of humanity. Stories that have the power to shift our perspective. Stories that can make us understand nuances of events (death of a film star) and movements (like #MeToo). This year, KT reporters did some exceptional on-ground reportage: elections in Pakistan, floods in Kerala, war in Yemen, Amnesty in UAE. We met some extraordinary people: a child soldier who watched his family get killed, an expat granddad who was going home empty-handed after 20 years in the UAE. We witnessed philanthropy, trends, and stories of hope. 

What I learnt in the week that we covered Sridevi's death

The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018 (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT183011230.JPG)

 

Dhanusha Gokulan

When the Bollywood comedy-drama English Vinglish released in 2012, my parents were probably one of the first few residents from Sharjah to rush to the cinema nearest to our home. The movie starred Sridevi Kapoor, an actor who was one of India's greatest and most versatile. With English Vinglish, she returned to film acting.

That night my dad had said, "It's Sridevi's comeback movie. I'm sure it's going to be really good." And with that, he dragged the entire family to the theatre.
I ended up watching the film six more times. Even after the long hiatus from acting, the actor had lost none of her charm.

During a career spanning five decades, Sridevi was a huge box office success who captivated India and I had seen most of her movies. From Sadma to Mr. India, and numerous Tamil films. All her films had in some way left a lasting impression on me.

So on the late night of Saturday, February 24, when I saw a tweet that said she was no more, I felt shock. I was overcome by the feeling that I'd lost one of my own. A part of my childhood was gone. I alerted my colleagues that she had died in Dubai. It wasn't easy to fall asleep that night. I kept thinking of the movies she'd acted in and what they meant to me.

The next morning, I woke up to my phone ringing. It was 7.30 am, and I already had six missed calls from my editor, two missed calls from my colleagues, and five other calls from other journalists in the UAE. I was flooded with messages as well.

"Is it true Sridevi died here in Dubai? Which hospital is her body in?"

The actor was in the UAE to attend her nephew Mohit Marwah's wedding. After the wedding celebrations in RAK, the actor came to Dubai.

After it was certain she had passed away - in the bathtub - I knew I had to get to work instantly. Reporters from my team were desperately trying to find where her body could be. We were also pursuing leads with the Dubai Police.

Without a moment to waste, I called a source at the Indian diplomatic mission (Consulate General of India) in Dubai, and he confirmed what the media was saying. However, he added, "She was found dead in a bathroom at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel and her body was moved to Rashid Hospital in Dubai."

Khaleej Times was the first to report this particular piece of information regarding her death, and though we'd updated this report online, I realised that the story was far from over.

We broke the story on Sunday morning, and what ensued was four nail-biting days of trying to find out more details of her death, and waiting for her body to be repatriated back home to India.

This was one of the most high-profile deaths to have taken place in Dubai in recent times. As journalists, we took it upon ourselves to cover it honestly and accurately, leaving nothing to speculation or rumour mongering. The process was played out on all KT channels - print, web, and social media.

By Sunday afternoon (Feb 25), we learnt that her body was moved to the Forensics Department.

After that was a long wait. We constantly hounded the police and forensic department officials for comments about the cause of death and the circumstances surrounding it.

We broadcast hourly updates via Facebook. Those were watched locally and internationally, including by our media counterparts in India, who were broadcasting it on their channels. That week, Khaleej Times broadcast 30 videos on Sridevi including 25 FB lives for a total viewership of over two million.

On the second day, we did live web blogs. A core team was formed, consisting of two reporters, our principal correspondent for Dubai Police Amira Agarib and myself, our video team editor Abhishek Sengupta, video journalist Rahul Gajjar, and two interns. We became a tight unit and kept a close eye on developments.

On the afternoon of Monday, February 26, an autopsy report was released and the cause of death was confirmed: 'death by accidental drowning'.

We had camped outside the Forensic Department, and every morning from 8am to 11pm, we waited to provide information to our readers. We spoke to fans who waited outside to pay their respects to the late star, we made connections with forensic department staff.

Police officials told us that protocol was being followed. It wasn't that they were delaying the process but the long wait led to speculation about the circumstances surrounding her death.

Finally on Tuesday afternoon, the Dubai Media Office revealed in a tweet that the 'case is closed'.

A public prosecution source told Khaleej Times: "The forensic report showed her death was an accident and foul play has been ruled out so the case has been closed". Her body was going back home to Mumbai, India, for a state funeral.

As much as Sridevi's death broke my heart, covering it was something that we, as UAE journalists, took as a challenge. The accurate reportage pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in the UAE media and what was not.

dhanusha@khaleejtimes.com

When she's not running after her dog, Dhanusha sings and writes songs

Ibrahim came home to family after 3 years in a refugee camp

The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018 (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT183021230.JPG)

Sarwat Nasir

When I was asked to write "my best news story" from 2018, my first few thoughts were the countless space-related stories I have covered - all the way from stories on UAE's first astronaut to interviewing the pilot who flew Virgin Galactic's spacecraft to space for the first time.

Space was a hot topic in the UAE this year and will pick up in coming years. Many of my space-related stories made it to the front page of Khaleej Times. But a different story made 2018 special for me as a reporter.

Since 2016, I had been chasing a story about an 11-year-old Syrian boy who was separated from his family. Ibrahim was sent to live in a refugee camp in Hamburg, Germany. For two years, I filed several stories that highlighted him and his family's plight, all in the hope that maybe a kind-hearted family or a government entity would help reunite Ibrahim Hassan Hamad with his loved ones in Ajman.

I was confident that a positive change was meant for the Hassan family and this belief stemmed from the kindness the people of the UAE had shown to Syrian residents in the country.

In 2016, Ibrahim's two siblings, who live in Ajman, were offered free education until graduation by the Safa Community School and Safa British School in Dubai after I had highlighted their struggles in a news story.

And the help wasn't limited to just the Hassan family, another Syrian family with four children have also been granted free education by the same two schools.

My inbox was flooded with touching emails from residents offering assistance to Syrian families who couldn't afford an education for their children in the UAE. Some wanted to give books. Others were offering free home tuition to them.

Even though this was a life-changing event for the families, I couldn't stop thinking about how Ibrahim must have felt, being alone in that refugee camp in Hamburg. He may have read the good news about his siblings' free education, but his own lonely struggle couldn't be ignored.

I visited Ibrahim's family home in Ajman several times over the past two years. I've seen his brothers and sister grow in confidence and develop important skills, all thanks to the education they are receiving. I remember seeing them at Sharjah airport when they arrived in the country from Turkey (where they first arrived after fleeing Syria). They were quiet, afraid and lacking hope. Today, I have full conversations with them in English and they shine with a healthy self-confidence.

One wish, however, they continued to have for a long while was to see their brother again.

More than 200,000 Syrians reside in the UAE. Some moved here much before the conflict, many who fled the war. For the Hassan family, it was the latter.

The UAE had announced in 2016 that it will welcome 15,000 Syrian refugees into the country. This piece of news was published shortly after I had reported Ibrahim's plight - it gave us hope.

But, it wasn't until the generous amnesty scheme in 2018 was announced when that hope turned into reality. The scheme included giving a temporary one-year residence visa to Syrian refugees to help them get their lives back on track. Luckily, Ibrahim was one of the recipients and so were many others, whose stories I covered.

When I had called Ibrahim's father to inform him about the amnesty, he was overjoyed, to say the least. A few weeks later, I received a WhatsApp message from him, where he had sent me an image of a legal document - a piece of paper that was going to change their lives for the better. Ibrahim's UAE visa had arrived.

I immediately called him after seeing the message. "I bet your wife is shedding happy tears right now," I had said to him.

"I'm going to go home and surprise her with the visa papers. I want to see her reaction," he replied.

UAE amnesty changed the lives of other Syrian families as well. A young girl was reunited with her family in Ajman. Two elderly parents were able to stay with their daughter in Sharjah.

On September 18, I was able to write a story I was waiting to write for so long. 'Boy who spent 3 years at German refugee camp reunites with family in UAE' - the headline in Khaleej Times read. It is easily my best news story from 2018.

Ibrahim was offered free education from the Safa schools as well after he arrived.
When I visited their home after his arrival, the family members were all smiles, but most important of all - they were complete and all together. They were a family again, with another sibling on the way.

Loss, separation and pain described the Hassan family's story best many months ago. Now, their story is a perfect example of resilience, strength and hope.

sarwat@khaleejtimes.com

When not reporting or playing the piano, Sarwat's at karaoke

How a bottle of water started a conversation I won't forget

The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018 (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT183031230.JPG)

Angel Tesorero

It was the first day of the UAE amnesty program. As expected, thousands of overstaying expats trooped in to the GDRFA (General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs) office in Al Aweer on August 1.

It was also the middle of summer. There were two huge tents that could accommodate up to 3,000 men and women (in separate tents), but people were also waiting outside, with papers under their arms, wiping sweat with handkerchiefs or towels.

That's how I met Francisco Pacheco. He approached me asking for directions. I forgot my reply but I was holding a bottle of water and I offered it to him.

Francisco was shy. He took the bottle of water and thanked me. I knew there had to a story behind this guy in a cap, wearing a black shirt and jeans, carrying a backpack and a transparent envelope that held an obviously worn-out passport.

I asked him about his case. His reply was curt. I only learned that he was 58 years old and came to Dubai in 1991.

He finished the water. It was just a small bottle so I told him to come inside the tent where there were several fridges filled with bottles of water. He took another bottle and we sat down.

I earned his trust and that's when he told me his story. His troubles began when the company he worked for in Jebel Ali closed down in 2010. Instead of going back to the Philippines, he went on a visa run to Kish Island in Iran and returned to Dubai on a visit visa to search for jobs. No one hired him. But he was still supporting his children who were in college, so he had no choice but to stay in Dubai and find a job.

Our conversation lasted for more than an hour and he shared how he missed his family who he hadn't seen for more than a decade. When he left the Philippines, he had three kids and now he already had five grandchildren.

Francisco was just one of the many people I spoke to. I interviewed several people that day, overwhelmed by their stories. Many I met have overstayed because they were not able to pay their debts, some lost jobs, others absconded after suffering abuse from their employers. In all these cases, instead of going back home, people opted to stay in the UAE because they felt that back home they may not be able to find suitable work.

I was also waiting for statistics - how many applied for amnesty on the first day, how much fines were waived by the authorities, how many would be repatriated, etc.

But news is not just about the who, what, where, when or how. It is also about telling stories and guiding the readers to connect with your stories.

I called Francisco the following day. He had got his repatriation papers and was finishing packing his things. And after 27 years of living and working in Dubai, he was taking back only clothes and a few belongings, everything that weighed a little over 30kg - that's like accumulating only 1kg of possessions each year!

He had only a couple of dirhams in his wallet and a small bag of dates and chocolates for his apo (grand kids). He had reconciled to going home broke. But that did not dampen his spirits as he marked the calendar on his wall and encircled August 11 - his date of travel back home to the Philippines to be with his family.

His story got published before he left Dubai. Some readers emailed me and asked for his contact details. One Filipina met him and gave him Dh1,000; one British expat also gave him cash. Staff at a Dubai-based company pooled their money and gave it to him.

Francsico did not go home empty-handed after all, and there was joy in his heart when he called me from the airport the day he left Dubai. I was also happy because I wrote a story that had impact. It had emotion because I lent my ear and allowed room for honesty and vulnerability in my story.

It was not over the top dramatic. Readers were able to connect emotionally. It moved them enough that they generously gifted him cash and other presents.

I reported how the amnesty program benefited thousands of people but I was happy that I did not just state the facts and figures. I focused on a specific person to tell a story and it all began with a small conversation after handing out a bottle of water.

angel@khaleejtimes.com

Angel doesn't let things get to him. His BP is the stuff of dreams

Before Kerala floods, a week with UAE troops in Yemen

The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018 (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT183041230.JPG)

Anjana Sankar

The war in Yemen is dubbed the 'forgotten war.' An under-reported tragedy in the Middle East that was overshadowed by another protracted conflict in Syria.

A trip to Yemen was a reporting assignment I had been looking forward to in 2018.

It did not land that easily. The volatile security situation meant months of waiting and several last-minute call offs. Finally, I got the green signal in August to fly to the country currently marked as the most dangerous destination in the world.

It was a week-long military embed with the UAE army, which is fighting the Iran-backed Al Houthi rebels in the North and the Al Qaeda in the South. A military briefing with a top commander and a UAE minister followed by a security briefing preluded the trip. The instructions were simple - lie low, switch off location service on mobile phones, and no social media postings that could compromise our safety.

As soon as I boarded the military aircraft and joined around 60 Emirati soldiers on board, one thing was clear: I was stepping into a singularly masculine terrain. From open toilets to all-male accommodations, it was a man's world, which I had to breach along with the one other female journalist from the UK. The other two journalists in our four-member team were men.

The military embed meant we were living and moving with the coalition forces under tight security throughout the trip. My stay in the coalition army base, though comfortable with all basic amenities and surprisingly delectable food, had an eerie feel to it.

The isolation inside the camp was not what is ideally desirable to a nosy journalist, but unavoidable in a war zone. I figured we were in the section of the camp meant for officers and pilots. They did not look like the typical battle-hardened men in uniform; their relaxed demeanor never betrayed the dangerous and important job they do.

It was the walls that fortified the compound and the monster military vehicles parked inside that were intimidating.

We travelled in bullet proof vehicles with a heavily-armed military convoy that escorted us at all times. Jeeps carrying Kalashnikov-totting Yemeni soldiers with bullet belts wrapped around their chests crawled along or would whizz past our vehicle as we were driven around. When we flew to Edan on a Black Hawk, apache helicopters escorted us. The UAE army did not want to take any chances with security.

It was an eye-opening experience to travel through the erstwhile Al Qaeda territory in Mukalla and the port city of Aden, once a coveted British colony and a bustling modern Arab capital city, which came under Houthi attack.

The horrors of the war and its aftermath loomed closer as we visited hospitals and land mine sites. Ruins from the bombings were visible everywhere. Buildings marked with bullet holes and burnt skeletons of cars lined the streets.

I met people who were piecing together their lives after living under the repressive yoke of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). I spoke to mothers who have no choice but helplessly watch their babies starve and shrink.

I met children as young as five years of age who had become amputees. They were too young and carefree even to understand what had happened to them. It was distressing to encounter such suffering.

One thing I learned from my trip to Yemen is that a journalist in a conflict zone is no hero. It is just a job that needs to be done and someone needs the pluck and professionalism to be on the frontlines. It is indeed risky, as you need to be constantly on guard. It takes a second for the situation to turn hostile.

Heroism is actually working in a war or a disaster zone discarding one's own safety to help the suffering millions, living constantly in fear of losing your life.

My trip in Yemen had the most unexpected end when a natural calamity struck Kerala, my home state. Sitting in the coalition army base, I watched with disbelief as deadly floods raged across the South Indian state. It was almost unreal to me, that while in a war zone, I was caught up in another tragedy happening thousands of miles away. As soon as I landed back in Abu Dhabi, I was off to Kerala to report on the floods, its aftermath and for another tryst with tragedy.

anjana@khaleejtimes.com

Anjana is a humanist. Her cluttered desk is not indicative of her state of mind

A former child soldier rescued at age 12 has come a long way

The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018 (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT183051230.JPG)

Kelly Clarke

Since taking on a part-time administrative role in the newsroom this year, my time spent reporting on the field has been cut back. Instead, building on breaking news stories has kept me in office, at my desk (along with prepping annual leaves, filling appraisal forms, and other admin work). Most interviews were done over the phone, with little face to face interaction. On November 5 though, I did feel compelled to share one of my stories on social media. It was my encounter with Mohamed Sidibay; a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. At just 25, his story - though wrought with heartache - is one that overcame tragedy. It was worth posting about.

As soon as the article went live online and the print edition landed on my desk, I snapped a pic, copied the story link and went straight to the Instagram app on my phone. "It's meeting people like Mohamed that make me love my job!" I captioned the carefully edited photo. It showed Mohamed's beaming smile in the foreground, with the Khaleej Times header still clearly recognisable in the background.

I sat down with Mohamed for just 20 minutes, but I still find myself playing back the voice recording of our chat. I've relayed the meeting to many friends and family too.

Greeting each other with a handshake and smile, Mohamed's voice was soft and low, and his eyes sad when our conversation started. I'd researched him. I knew his background. The questions I had to ask were going to be raw; that made them tough for me to ask and tough for him to answer. But he answered in great detail.

He wanted every part of his horrific childhood documented. He later said it was his way of shaming and bringing light to the actions of governments around the world that fail children; more so a government that failed him.

As the last person to hold the Sidibay name, Mohamed watched his whole family - mother, father, brother and sister - murdered in front of his eyes. He survived not out of pity from his family's merciless killers, but because he was seen as useful.

Old enough to hold a gun, he was handed an AK-47, which, when positioned vertically, stood nearly as tall as him.

"I was five-years-old when the rebels came in and murdered my whole family. Then they gave me a gun and forced me to follow them," he told me, keeping eye contact throughout. The conversation started off intense.

A few minutes into our chat, I recalled an interview I had some years back with a former drug addict. As I probed him to go back to the time when drugs consumed his life, his counselor ushered me out the door for a quick brief. He urged me not to dig too much into his past as it could run the risk of him relapsing.

I was there as a reporter. My focus was on getting a good story. My line of questioning wasn't sympathetic to his situation; but really, it should have been.
That little nudge from the counselor stuck with me. So when Mohamed, sitting just inches from my face, started recalling that brutal image of seeing his family being wiped out, his eyes blood shot, I stepped out of my reporter role and just became someone who was there to listen. I put down my phone too. I usually use it to quick-type interviews in real-time, but Mohamed deserved my full attention. This wasn't some sensational news story. It was his life story and given his past; a boy tortured, raped and left homeless by the very soldiers he was forced to kill for, it was a miracle he was sitting in front of me, a privilege.

When I asked him about life before the Revolutionary United Front rebels killed his family, my intention was to stoke memories of happier times in his childhood. But the words didn't form.

"The older I've gotten, my memory of life before the war has faded. The strongest memories I have is about my life after five-years-old, and that is unfortunate," he answered.

Homeless and with the army for four years - from the age of five to nine - Mohamed told me all he remembers is that he "survived". And then oddly, he termed his situation as "lucky". That was an answer I struggled with. Everything about his early years seemed grossly unfair. They were unfair! But the fact that he survived, when his brother, sister, mother, father didn't, that to him, meant he was lucky. It was a point of view I didn't understand, but I accepted it out of respect.

Who was I to question him.

Saved by a priest and taken to the US aged 12, he said education saved him. And today, Mohamed - the once five-year-old that wielded an AK-47 as tall as himself - is an education activist advocating for children's right to quality education. He was in town as part of the Dubai Cares' 'Education Through Empowerment' initiative.

He didn't choose to turn his justified anger to hate, he turned it into change for others. That is a courage few could boast of.

That interview with Mohamed has been a standout for me in 2018 - and throughout my six years at Khaleej Times. Opportunities to meet people like that do not come around often. He is a man that lived a life so turbulent it seemed impossible to survive. Yet my job as a reporter let me hear his story. While journalism is all about making an impact, what made this encounter different was the impact Mohamed left on me.

kelly@khaleejtimes.com

Kelly prefers hostels to hotels. She once met a man who lived in a cave

When #MeToo arrived in India and I had to revise my stance

The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018 (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT183061230.JPG)

Anamika Chatterjee

It's not easy to stand corrected. least of all when you're a writer. After all, the real capital we pride ourselves in is our astute and incisive observations of our life and times. When that observation turns out to be not-so-astute, the writerly vanity stands deflated. This year had one such moment for me. That moment came in the form of a movement called #MeToo.

In November 2017, I had found #MeToo a tad problematic. It was a time when, in the wake of sexual harassment charges against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano called for women to share their experiences of abuse, stacking them under the hashtag #MeToo.

In no time, thousands of women across the world had a cathartic moment where they revisited their memories of violation. As journalists, we remain committed to not only reporting the truth, but also presenting a more nuanced side of discourses that often easily get bracketed as black or white. The trial-by-social-media nature of #MeToo had seemed too simplistic an answer to address the monster that was sexual harassment.

Can a hashtag ensure justice, I asked myself. My concerns led me to pen a piece titled 'Why I didn't join #MeToo movement'. I listed out many reasons for my apprehensions - why the big Hollywood celebrities, who advocate human rights, had remained quiet, why the evidence-proof nature of naming and shaming on social media could claim collateral damage, how it was the victim who had to constantly prove her pain ultimately and not the perpetrator. "For many survivors, revisiting these stories is painful, even if they have - in their own way - protested it. The problem is even if they do, the perpetrators remain spectators. So, a #MeToo then becomes more about the very experience itself rather than the redressal," I wrote. In 2018, my words stood corrected.

'Why do you think #MeToo has not come to India' was a staple question I posed to every female public figure I interviewed for this publication's weekend magazine over the past 12 months. What was the fear? What was at stake? What could be the repercussions? The responses were measured and often evasive. The answer that stared at my face was the Malayalam film industry whose actresses, in the wake of molestation of one of their colleagues, had formed the Women in Cinema Collective to address issues that female actors face.

For those with a Bollywood myopia, the jolt came in the form of actress Tanushree Dutta, who, when asked why #MeToo hadn't entered India, showed a mirror to the Indian media's collective amnesia on her own experience of alleged harassment at the hands of a senior actor. The repercussions of her refusal to concede were well-reported and documented 10 years ago; however, it wasn't until #MeToo gained currency that her story, like many others, were truly heard. What it also led to was a nationwide conversation on sexual harassment that eventually put the spotlight on an industry that often finds itself at the forefront of reporting abuse in all its forms - the media.

The women journalists who I thought were protected weren't so protected after all. Many claimed to have been violated at some point by their superiors or colleagues. The allegations led to resignations, but largely they shook a status quo. The hashtag became an emblem of accountability.

So, what is it about the Indian chapter of #MeToo that led me to change my mind?

Too close to home? Nope. Perhaps it had more to do with the deep introspection #MeToo enabled on the kinds of behaviour I had subconsciously 'normalised' as being part of an occupational hazard. Reading one of the accounts of a journalist's interview process also made me wonder what the big deal was because I had gone through something similar in my formative years in Indian journalism. Therein lay my undoing and #MeToo's triumph.

I was 18 when I first started interning for a publication in New Delhi while simultaneously pursuing my Bachelor's degree in English literature. Being an intern meant there would be no salary, but advice came aplenty. One of them was offered by a well-intentioned senior colleague who warned me against a superior who was believed to have a glad eye. Her two cents were that I had to be 'careful' around that time (one of those rare moments when self-preservation is heartily proposed to women). Being taught feminism simultaneously in college, I asked her why his 'glad eye' remained 'unchecked'. "That's the way it is," she told me. In the three subsequent newsrooms I was a part of in India, I internalised this self-preservation in workplaces I was a part of.

For professionals in the media, #MeToo's India chapter came as a wake-up call to rationalise that power need not only be worshipped, it could also be negotiated with and held accountable. The spate of allegations also led to simplistic conjecturing: are all men potential harassers? Are all women victims? Why are women speaking up now? Is it just the cultural elites who are waging a war?

If you have arrived at a definitive answer, then know that your understanding of #MeToo is as simplistic as those you're challenging. The answers are far too complex and layered than we'd like to believe. However, what any allegation of abuse - whether on a film set, a classroom, a newsroom or in your office - offers is an opportunity to reflect on the conditions under which such behaviour is normalised. The first example, irrespective of whether or not the law takes its course, needs to be set in these spaces.

Till that happens, new converts like me can raise a toast to #MeToo, not for the catharsis, but for its demand of accountability.

anamika@khaleejtimes.com

Anamika is interested in observing and recording thought and action

At Kite Beach, I met a man who feeds 100k workers a month

The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018 (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT183071230.JPG)

Sherouk Zakaria

I was soaking some sun one weekend when I spotted what turned out to be my favourite story of the year.

On the way back from a jet ski tour with my friend on Jumeirah's Kite Beach, we made a stop to get a cup of karak tea. Our car driver pointed out to two tall men walking by the beach holding huge bags of food.

"You see those two men?", the driver asked me, "they come here every day to distribute food to the needy."

Without hesitating, I rushed out of the car and ran towards the men who were speaking to the crowd of cleaners and workers. Approaching them in beachwear, my hair wet, and red spots on my skin that reflected a day under the sun, I told the men, "Look, this is difficult to explain, but I'm a journalist and I would love to write about your initiative. Would you mind giving me your business card so I can contact you in the week?"

I did not know if I seemed convincing, given my far-from-professional appearance, but I didn't expect to have stumbled on a story that would inspire dozens of people to start contributing to those in need. My eyes widened when the man who introduced himself as Imran Karim told me they served 100,000 workers a month.

"I normally refuse to talk about what I do to serve others. But here's my business card, I will do it to inspire others. Just refrain from focusing too much on us and our pictures more than the deed itself," Imran, a Malawi national and chairman of a telecoms company in Dubai, told me. Karim is often joined by his brother Mohammed, his driver and other volunteers. Once a month, Karim distributes bags of medicines and toiletries to the site workers.

Later that week, I joined him and his brother at a construction site behind Kite Beach at 5pm. I was amazed to see 300 workers rush to line up in a queue at the mere sight of Imran's car approaching, stocked with hundreds of bags of chips, cakes and soft drinks to be given to workers after a long day at work.

"We dedicate two hours every day after work to these men. They are alone with no family to listen to their concerns or needs. We are their family," Karim said. After a long day of meetings, he said, serving workers was his spiritual break. It gave him a peace of mind, away from his cellphone and other distractions. His sentence affects me as the last time I chose to look over my hectic schedule to help someone else was over three years ago.

Imran not only distributed food and drinks to workers, but spends time listening to their concerns. On the labourers' bus, he hands a tube of ointment to a worker.

"He's among three people who had a rash on site this morning, so this cream soothes it."

When serving workers in queue, Imran gave me a bag of chips to distribute to workers. Having never done it before, I felt awkward. "Come on, you have to contribute!" he encouraged me.

After everyone got their share of snacks, workers were seen grouping together on site, sitting by the side of the road having their soft drinks and chatting over cupcakes with big smiles on their face. "Happy happy," they said, giving me a thumbs-up. That's the name of Imran's initiative. When I asked about the reason for naming the initiative 'happy happy', Karim said: "In one distribution, when my brother was handing out food, he looked at a worker and asked 'happy?', the worker replied 'happy happy'".

The food distribution then moves along Kite Beach. Karim ends the two-hour journey at a mosque in Umm Suqeim, where more people are fed. Laban and chips are distributed to 300 workers at the mosque. Waiters, cleaners and children are served too. "The guests we serve at the mosque are of over 12 nationalities and different religions and backgrounds, we do not discriminate any race and colour," Imran told Khaleej Times.

Karim showed me videos of toys and Eid clothes distributions in India, Pakistan and Iraq. "My daughters help me pack the sweets and toys." He distributed toys and food to 1,100 children last December.

In the videos, his family is preparing large numbers of hot meals to be served to 5,000 workers on weekends. Thursdays are a major food distribution day for the family, reaching 7,000 workers at construction sites.

The UAE-based labourers and cleaners are not the only beneficiaries of Karim's philanthropy, as he has already taken his 'happy happy' initiative globally to about 14 other countries. He helped in rebuilding Kerala, distributing to families affected by the floods that ravaged the south Indian state this year.

Karim is no stranger to also organising Ramadan iftars to over 5,000 workers, but he makes sure philanthropy continues all year long.

As soon as the article was published, I was bombarded by calls from residents asking to contribute to Imran's initiative. Imran tells me he started seeing other people distributing food on Kite Beach and next to his residence in Emirates Hills.

St. Mary's Church contacted me, asking for Imran's number to coordinate with him in serving over 500 workers, an event that worked out. Karim says, "Helping and giving should be part of every day."

sherouk@khaleejtimes.com 

Sherouk doesn't care to be addressed as 'Dear Mr Sherouk', as often happens

Humidity apart, it was a thrill to cover Pakistan's elections

The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018 (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT183081230.JPG)

Asma Ali Zain

Pakistan's general elections were held after five years this July, and for any journalist, covering elections is an opportunity of a lifetime.

Being based in the UAE for several years, I had never covered Pakistan elections. The last political activity I remember was the referendum held in 2002 seeking to allow Pervez Musharraf to continue as president and for that too, I just cast my vote at the Pakistan Consulate in Dubai.

Travelling to Lahore to cover the elections was a rushed decision. I chose Lahore because it is my home city, and I started my career there.

I was excited about voting too. The last time I had voted was in the 1990s when I had just turned an eligible voter. Getting around would be easier, I had assumed, and former colleagues were willing to provide support in Lahore.

The difference in this year's election was caused by the presence of Imran Khan in his political avatar, and his Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) party, which emerged as the third biggest party alongside Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz Group (PML-N).

Political pundits had already predicted that Khan would have a great chance of forming the government this time around.

The mood was upbeat from the moment I hopped onto the plane. The majority of Pakistanis I interviewed on the flight were going back home specifically to vote - for Khan, who enjoys immense support from overseas Pakistanis.

I spoke to an excited beautician, who sat next to me on the plane, who said that she was going home after two years. She was glad to be able to vote for the first time. Several others were committed to voting for Khan since they wanted change.

The plane landed in Lahore, monsoon season had started. The weather was hot and humid.

There was just two days left for election day so it was important to gauge the mood of the public on the streets. Putting my hair up in a tight bun, I took along my camera and identity card and stopped people at random on the street for their comments. Interestingly, I was stopped by a number of people who wanted to voice their opinion instead of the other way round.

The dynamics of reporting on ground are very different in the UAE and Pakistan.

The crowd is different. The atmosphere and the lack of contacts makes it a tad difficult to report in Pakistan.

However, journalists always enjoy such challenges and it was a thrill to send video recordings and do Facebook 'Lives' from unknown grounds and among curious faces.

On the second day, the best angle to tackle was the preparation of the voting booths, most of which were done in schools and colleges after being divided into zones.

Behind the scenes of an FB live with an assistant returning officer, who would be on duty in NA131, the zone where prominent leaders of all parties were running from, were a disaster.

After lots of permissions and cajoling, a talk went on air for 15 minutes on the KT FB page. A special mention for the RO who was a sport and willing to be reshot twice due to a technical glitch, and went through the process again without a frown.

A drive around the city later to capture the street mood was hampered due to intermittent rain.

The election day happenings themselves were among the most exciting coverages of my career.

The polling was due to start at 8am and I was at the polling station by 7.30am. It was heartening to see people, especially the elderly, already lined up and eager to cast their votes.

A wheelchair-bound lady, who was brought to the polling station, was among the first to cast her vote. She said she had been voting for Khan for the past 22 years and would continue to do so.

The voting process was smooth and within 15 minutes I was also done with casting my vote.

I felt an adrenaline rush as I kept interviewing people and sending clips that the web team used to update the live blog for KT readers.

Unlike stories that were circulating on social media, the security for the elections was tight. Despite my pleading, and an identity card as proof of being a journalist, security wouldn't let me in since I was not accredited by the Pakistan government.

Lahoris are known for their love of food, and women, in particular, for their dressing sense. Despite the humidity and stuffiness, the majority of female voters didn't let that affect them, and arrived at polling stations with impeccable makeup and blowdried locks.

The exhausting day ended on the dot at 6pm with the last of the voters making their way through the security gates. An FB Live summed up the voters mood again and the KT website buzzed with talk of Pakistan's elections.

Results started trickling in soon after, but got delayed due to a system failure and were announced a day later with Imran Khan emerging the winner.

A day later, with all my work done, I finally got to wear my 'Imran Khan' shirt ordered specially to celebrate his win.

asmaalizain@khaleejtimes.com

Asma is an observer of culture. She enjoys sunsets at the Sharjah Corniche

The fun of being Laila Blue, a virtual influencer in the UAE

The year that was: Looking back at stories that affected us in 2018 (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT183091230.JPG)

Janice Rodrigues

While scrolling idly through Instagram sometime last year, I stumbled across the profile of Lil Miquela, an online star with a unique selling point - she wasn't real. Sure, she had more than a million followers, supported real movements, wore real brands and had even released a song on Spotify - but that didn't stop the fact that she was completely CGI.

Everything about her was carefully crafted, and audiences were hooked. After all, she challenged the status quo by proving that you don't need to be rich or famous or good looking. or even real to be famous. The more I contemplated it, the more I was hooked too.

So, when the UAE got its own 'virtual influencer' in the form of Laila Blue earlier this year, I was excited. and a tad nervous. You see, anything - even a positive trend - created for the wrong reasons, diminishes the value of the trend as a whole. And I had interacted with a fair number of bloggers and influencers to know that some do not ruminate over their online actions.

Tentatively, I reached out to this virtual person. Is an interview possible? Yes, turned out it was. Even better, Laila Blue's founder (called A as he/ she wishes to remain anonymous) had thought things through, down to the very last detail.

"Why Laila Blue?" I asked "Does the name stand for anything?"

"She's half-French so Blue is an old nickname that came from Allez Les Bleus. She can be quite patriotic," A answered.

"What did you keep in mind when developing her personality?" I asked next.

"She's designed to make people question the reality of the virtual world and to spread positive, meaningful messages. The irony of people hating her because she's different has not escaped her," A replied.

What is it that draws us to like and follow non-existent celebrities? "The absurdity of them," says A. "They make people feel childlike in some ways - interacting with them and getting a response makes it fun."

When filing this story, an editor focused on that part. "Who hates Laila?" she asked me. "How can you hate someone who isn't even real?" The answer to that showed up almost as soon as the article was published. Many of the comments that poured in - ironically, online - were negative.

"This is the last thing the world needs"

"Why give influencers so much credit?"

"There are starving children across the world, and this is what you want to focus on?"

I understand the pushback. We've all done it - rolled our eyes when we heard the word 'influencer'. Something about the concept is irksome. Who are these people? What gives them the right to 'influence' us? Do they think their lives are better than ours? Wait, are their lives actually better than ours?

Scrolling through their social media platforms, it certainly seems to. They're young and fit, snacking on delicious food (which is presumably free) and wearing the latest brands (also presumably free). They're lounging on sunny beaches, with fruity drinks in hand, while we're toiling away under the fluorescent lightbulbs of office, watching their videos and living vicariously through them. What gives?

As A put it, "It's a fascinating time for the concept of influence as whole. Influencers are equally lauded and loathed." But, in my book, that only makes Laila Blue, and other virtual influencers, all the more fascinating.

In a world of filters and Facetune, she is built to be a commentary on society, while retaining the fun quotient. She doesn't consider herself an influencer and isn't trying to influence anyone (something she specifies in the original article). Instead, she's getting us to think, and that's what the best thing influencers can do.

Today, it's easy to hate influencers. After all, we've all heard the stories of the odd social media star charging exorbitant amounts of money to promote products they don't like or using bots to increase their number of followers. But while these bad apples are out there, there are others - like Laila - who are trying to post original content and be true to their followers. Perhaps, it's up to us to decide who deserve our attention and our 'likes'. In the meantime, here's hoping that 2019 will be the year we see more depth from the people we consider influencers.

After all, fame is a powerful took and can be used to help a local business that deserves it, shed light on important causes and even raise money for charities. If you are an influencer, I hope you can be known for more than the food you eat and the brands you wear.

Until then, as Laila says, let's focus on the love and lolz.

janice@khaleejtimes.com

Janice is a millennial who dislikes selfies and likes breaking stereotypes





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