GAZA – They have almost all left: Bachar for Sweden, May for Spain, Imad for Tunisia, Mohamed for Qatar, Assad for Egypt, Adham for Belgium. Moustapha, Asmaa’s brother also left for Belgium, while Mohamed Matar, aka Abou Yazan, the leader of the short-lived March 15 Movement, that tried to bring the Arab Spring to Gaza, has gone to Germany.
Too much repression from Hamas, too much disappointment from waiting for an intra-Palestinian reconciliation that never came. Too much suffering, too many wars and hardships, but most of all – the Israeli blockade.
A hope that has died and a future that is dead-ended, especially for young graduates. So many young people have left, but Asmaa stayed -- determined, courageous, as combative as ever.
If there should only be one person left, it should be her. “I could have gone too, but I love Gaza, and Europe bores me. Over there, I am nothing, and there is nothing to change. I need challenges, fights to fight and causes to defend.”
Asmaa leaves our meeting like she arrived, by foot, her hair uncovered, wearing a jean and not caring one bit about what others think. While she was telling me her story, she chain-smoked and pointed to the beach below the hotel.
This is where everything happened, during the summer of 2009. She was walking on the beach with a group of young men and women. The morality police arrived, took the boys to jail. Asmaa was released, but her passport was confiscated.
In 2007, shortly after the Palestinian civil war, Asmaa, a journalist since 2001, was in South Korea for a journalism course. During her stay, she wrote an article in the form of an open letter to her uncle, a senior military leader for the Hamas. The article, entitled “Dear Uncle, Is This The Homeland We Want?” criticized the movement’s extremist Islamist views. In response, her uncle threatened to kill her.
In Oct. 2009 “before the Arab Spring,” she says, she founded the Iss Ha (Wake Up) movement with around 20 friends. “Our objective was to fight against the Hamas’ Islamization of the Gaza strip.”
The next year, the group of young activists walked the streets of Gaza carrying a huge ballot box demanding Palestinian elections – which are still eagerly awaited.
The number of arrests increased, and so did harassment. In Jan. 2010, Asmaa was arrested with others. “We were guilty of demonstrating our support to the revolution against Mubarak!” She spent eight hours in jail, humiliated, beaten by policewomen who accused her of “not being Muslim.”
In Nov. 2010, the police closed the Gaza offices of the Sharek Youth Forum, a UN-funded NGO that organizes camps and after-school programs for Palestinian children and youths. Eighteen activists were arrested and severely beaten. From then on, protests and arrests became a regular thing. In March 2011, Asma is thrown in prison and violently beaten by police officers.
Too many threats
Asmaa El-Ghoul is a 30-year-old free-lance journalist and writer. She writes for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam but mostly, she blogs relentlessly, with absolutely no taboo. She writes about forced islamization, the “honor crimes”, corruption, human rights violations and about woman rights. “If you want to be able to write about these subjects honestly, you have to be in the streets too,” she says.
The arrests and punishments keep coming. Death threats, by phone, by mail and on her blog continue to increase. “We will kill you, we will break your bones, burn you with your son.”
But the awards keep coming too. Last October she was given honored with a “Courage in Journalism” award by the International Women's Media Foundation.
Before that one she received a similar prize given by the Dubai foundation and an award by the Anna Lindh Foundation for her “commitment to freedom of expression and her courage in facing repression.”
Asmaa El-Ghoul uses this international recognition to find fortitude, to give her strength in her new fights. The latest of these fights is emblematic of the rampant islamization of Gaza.
In Jan. 2013, the board of the Al-Aqsa University in the Gaza strip decided that social and family pressure to insure that all women dress “properly” wasn’t enough. The board voted to impose a dress code on female students – saying that from the next semester it would be mandatory for them to wear “clothes that respect the customs and traditions of the Palestinian society.” These clothes include a headscarf (hijab), and a loose-fitting ankle-length robe (jilbab).
Asmaa does not feel concerned by this – she got rid of her headscarf in 2006. However, she feels responsible for the girls of Gaza who refuse to wear the Islamic uniform.
She has stopped blogging for a while now. She received too many threats. “If after my son, they start threatening my six-months old daughter, I will go nuts.”
She also now tries to be less provocative – has stopped smoking on the beach or in the street. “Sometimes I feel like I am alone in the middle of a storm,” she says.
She is writing a book on Gaza and continues to write articles, mostly for Al-Monitor. Talking about freedom, it’s like an illness for her, she says. “An illness I’ll have all my life, but an illness I love.”
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.