The life of an activist can be exhausting. THEO PANAYIDES meets one who is striving to see countries become more citizen-driven
Nelly Corbel has a dream. “I don’t want to say ‘life purpose’,” she hedges, but it is indeed a life purpose. Her dream may sound vague to those outside her particular sector – which might be defined as civic engagement, or community development, or activism in general – but it’s very real to her. The dream had her working 80-hour weeks, and brought her to the brink of a burn-out. It also took her to Egypt for seven years (she’s half-Egyptian) where she found herself in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring – what she calls “the revolution” – ending up with a cracked rib and a face full of tear-gas.
We’re sitting in the office of the CCMC – the Cyprus Community Media Centre, in the buffer zone next to the Ledra Palace – where she’s doing interviews and trying to unwind before taking part in a workshop called ‘Social Movements in Europe and the Middle East: Interpreting the Anti-Austerity and Pro-Democracy Protests’. (That’s taking place across the road at the Home for Co-Operation, organised by the Resources for Democracy project.) I notice a sign on a shelf, reading “What’s Your Story?”, and go closer while waiting for Nelly to arrive. “Everyone has a story,” notes a printed card below the sign – and it’s true, everyone does, the 31-year-old woman who sits down a few minutes later telling a story that involves a strong mother, an unusual childhood, a region in crisis, the spectre of extremism, and of course the aforementioned “life purpose” tying the plot together.
“I dream of a society that is much more citizen-driven,” she explains – a society where everyone has “a sense of purpose”, which (she believes) is the greatest safeguard against the current slide towards radicalisation. “I think that if we can have a more participatory, citizen-driven society where everyone, you know, creates their destiny in a more constructive, holistic manner, then eventually there will be no room for very radical violent movements like ISIS”.
That’s the murderous elephant in the room, of course – what she calls the “huge danger” that atrocities in the name of Islam will only grow unless something is done. Nelly is Executive Director of the Lazord Foundation, an NGO that’s based in Boston (though she herself lives in Paris) and aims to support youth programmes and foster leadership in the Middle East, its Twitter page grandly intoning that “Leadership is a responsibility”. Those unsympathetic to its aims will presumably see it as ‘the Americans’ interfering as usual, trying to promote Western interests in a region sliding towards Islamism, a.k.a. telling Arabs how to live their lives – and there may be something in that, but there’s nothing of the moralistic scold about Nelly. Her eyes are puffy behind thick glasses (she flew in at 2am) but she’s animated verging on giggly, with a gap in her teeth giving her a rascally look. “Although it doesn’t look like it, I have a very introverted side,” she insists at one point, sounding almost apologetic.
Her dream of a “civil society” is really a dream of personal freedom (the opposite of telling people how to live their lives); her aim, like she says, is for everyone to feel a “sense of purpose” about what they do. Take Egypt, for instance. Egypt – says Nelly – is a country full of engineers who don’t want to be engineers. Engineering is a ‘good job’ for boys, so parents pressure their sons to become engineers – and the sons, bereft of other options, go along with it, though they feel no connection to the job. It’s not that they’re bad engineers, shrugs Nelly; but they’re not great either, so they “kind of float around” without much impetus – and are often tempted by the kind of passionate commitment offered by Islamism.
Egypt is also the birthplace of her mother, who fled the country at 25 – mostly because she was (and remains) “a very strong woman”, looking for the kind of freedom she couldn’t find there. She moved to France, married a Frenchman, had a daughter – the girl sitting in front of me, an only child who absorbed most of her mum’s convictions – and made a career as an international civil servant, working at UNESCO and travelling the world with husband and daughter in tow. Nelly grew up as “your typical third-culture kid”, based in France but constantly following her mum on missions all over the world, mostly Eastern Europe and Africa (Tanzania is the place that’s left the most vivid memories). What effect did this childhood have? “It allowed me – I mean, it’s going to sound almost cheesy – but it allowed me to be maybe less national and more human,” she muses. She can talk to anyone, regardless of age or ethnicity. And what about her mum? Are they still close? “Absolutely! Most important person [in my life]!” she replies enthusiastically.
Her mother was with her in Cairo in January 2011, as the protests against Mubarak gathered pace and momentum – but Mum was sick with pneumonia and Nelly was looking after her, so she couldn’t join her friends and fellow activists in Tahrir Square. Then, on the 27th, Mum was admitted to hospital for more professional care, leaving Nelly worried but also liberated: “I couldn’t help it,” she recalls, “and actually went in the streets”.
This was on the 28th of January, later dubbed ‘the Day of Anger’ – a day, she says, which was “THE turning point of the revolution”. The crowds were organised, but also organic: “Everybody kind of went naturally in a role that made sense for whoever they were”. Nelly still recalls the chief organiser, a huge man with a booming voice: he didn’t even need a loudspeaker, directing people back and forth so everyone took a turn on the front lines and nobody got exhausted. “As you can see, I’m not the kind of person who would go on the front line,” she giggles, pointing to her own petite frame – so instead she set up a makeshift hospital (“I called it a ghetto medical station”), using her half-remembered first-aid training as well as cans of Coke and bottles of vinegar.
Everyone knew what her props were for. If you’ve been tear-gassed, smelling vinegar helps, as does smearing Coke (or Pepsi) on your face. Tear-gas was the soldiers’ main weapon against the crowd, though rubber bullets were also fired at “a proper makeshift with proper doctors – not, y’know, a random lady!” explains Nelly with another giggle, though in fact it was no laughing matter: hospitals, even little “ghetto” stations like her own, were an obvious target, patching up protesters and allowing them back into the fray.
Nelly was spotted, and duly targeted. A tear-gas canister exploded inches away from her face, turning the world into a blur. Unable to breathe, she tried to breathe harder – it’s a human reflex – and cracked a rib by pushing too hard, though the pain didn’t really register until later in the day (after which she couldn’t breathe or move without hurting). Somewhere in the gloom she saw “two mini-hands, like this,” and felt someone scratching at her leg: it was a little girl, about five years old. Nelly poured Coke, which the girl smeared on her face, “then she started climbing up to put it on my face, which was adorable, and she was like ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry’”. She laughs at the memory: “I have a five-year-old girl comforting me! What’s going on?”. They sat down together to commiserate and the girl’s dad appeared, an obviously poor man with “no shoes, almost no teeth … He said, ‘I don’t have anything, I’m a lost case. But I’m here because I want my daughter to have a chance’. And that’s why, when I hear people say it was a middle-class revolution, I deeply disagree with this”.
She never saw the girl or her father again (“I hope they’re both fine,” she says wistfully), or the huge man with the booming voice – but this is the Egypt she recalls most fondly, the Egypt of people pushing for change and later, while Mubarak was wobbling but before he resigned in mid-February, the Egypt that organised with impressive efficiency into neighbourhood watches to prevent looting (“At first I was very scared, because I could see downstairs many men with swords and knives,” she recalls, looking down at the local vigilantes with her cracked rib throbbing, “and I was like ‘Oh my God, we’re all gonna die! And I can’t even run now!’”). But of course there was also another Egypt, the Egypt where people assumed on first meeting that her male assistant must be ‘Corbel’ and she, Nelly, must be the assistant, or the Egypt of men whispering inappropriate comments in her ear (she recalls a government official telling her she was sexy in the midst of a consultation), a patriarchal, hierarchical Egypt where things had barely changed since her mother’s day.
That’s when her dream starts to seem a bit idealistic, making you wonder if a “citizen-driven” society will be quite as utopian as she thinks – and of course ingrained sexism is hardly the biggest problem facing the Middle East, nor is Europe really in a position to give lessons, suffering from “a lot of similar issues” beneath its prosperous surface. Our youth also lacks a sense of purpose, says Nelly – speaking especially of France, with a nod to Charlie Hebdo and the angry young men who “see their big brothers not getting jobs, even if they have a PhD, because their name is Mohammed”, but speaking of the system in general, capitalism still trying to hawk the dream of a good job and a house with a white picket fence even though the system can no longer provide it, and more and more youngsters reject it anyway. She herself is lucky, muses Nelly, in that she doesn’t need material things to make her happy: “Of course I’m like everyone, I have my iPhone and my whatever – but, at the end of the day, I don’t need much to be happy, if I have the right environment and the right experiences”.
In fact, she has the opposite problem: money isn’t very important to her, but a “sense of purpose” is almost too important – and the years in Cairo after the revolution were almost too much for her, a prevailing mood of ‘It’s now or never’ prompting activists to work unsparingly. That’s when she pulled those 80-hour weeks – “my good weeks I was 60 hours, my bad weeks I was 80 hours; I was terrible!” – and found her circle of friends narrowing to include only other activists and academics (Nelly used to work at the American University), because they were the only ones working those crazy hours. In the end, the work accomplished what Mubarak’s troops couldn’t: it knocked her out. In April 2014, in the middle of the UN Global Youth Strategy launch, she came off a panel with the Youth Envoy of the Secretary-General – and fainted dead away, right in the middle of the conference.
“That was my wake-up call,” she says now – and has since tried to live a more balanced life, though I doubt she’ll ever be easy-going. The giggly exterior is misleading: Nelly Corbel is assuredly her mother’s daughter, a driven, ambitious woman who couldn’t sleep at night when she felt she’d slacked off during the day (she’s better now, having trained herself to “learn to let go”). Indeed, she may suffer slightly from the activist’s fallacy – the assumption that everyone around her feels as strongly as activists do. Money may not buy happiness, I point out, but a “sense of purpose” doesn’t necessarily help either. Millions of people don’t particularly care about ‘creating their destiny’, or even about what they do in life; they just want the basics, like that little girl’s dad in Tahrir Square.
Does it matter? Not to her. Much has to change, says Nelly earnestly: the education system, all the various forms of inequality, people’s expectations in general. At 31, she’s at the dawn of a lifelong project – though of course she’s also thinking of settling down and trying for a slightly easier life (a big reason why she left Cairo for Paris two months ago). She now meditates regularly and works out at least four times a week, running or dancing or doing fitness exercises for 45-60 minutes; “But some days I just do half an hour for whatever reason,” she admits, slightly shamefaced, “and I just decide not to beat myself up over it”. The dream of a citizen-driven society still burns bright, but Nelly Corbel also has another life purpose now – “which is simply to have a peaceful, well-balanced life”. Amen to that.