Against Homophobia

On May 17th, my employer held an event to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB). It was the first time the Rainbow Flag was seen at the Nairobi headquarters of my organisation, and that in itself was a momentous event.

We received the usual notification of the event many days before. I usually attend those in solidarity with my LGBTI colleagues whether openly acknowledging their sexuality or not. I attend also in my belief to stand up against any form of discrimination. My responsibility to attend weighs a bit heavier because of my Arab/Muslim background. I would like to show that not everyone from my culture is a homophobic.

Sadly, and although there were free snacks and drinks on offer, the attendance was not high. Attendees were mostly of European descent, with the locals making up a very small minority. Kenya, like most other African countries, is highly homophobic. The reason behind this is the traditional macho image of men, which the African tradition shares with my native Arab culture. Later the influence of religious beliefs that view  homosexuality as sin deepened the prejudice further, and the native cultures that tolerated to a certain extent gay relationships between women, now stand against these as well.

Among the male Africans, or locals, who attended the head of protocol and the head of the staff union made brief appearances. And within the small African group, the women clearly outnumbered the men. I find that women are more likely to stand up against discrimination, perhaps because they are often a target for discrimination themselves.

There weren’t many surprises in the keynote addresses. Officials and ambassadors from mostly liberal Western countries spoke (Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, for example). A notable exception was the Executive Director of one of one of the international organisations, Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, from Malaysia. She spoke in support of the occasion, and even mentioning that the day coincided with the first day of Ramadan.  I have always been wary of the director’s appearance, because she wears the Islamic headscarf. I am prepared, however, to dismiss people’s appearances and examine their  their  behaviour patterns instead. And in this particular instance I choose to lay aside my inherent skepticism. After all, she could have chosen to attend but NOT speak, so I will view it as a positive sign for a Muslim woman to take the podium on this issue.

All the speakers emphasized that the Declaration of Human Rights, also enshrines the right to live in freedom with our chosen gender identity and sexual orientation. The discrimination against gender identity and sexual preference is no different that any other discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, class or disability.

The most touching address for me was the one given by Kenyan activist Yvonne Oduor. She listed many of the overt and covert ways Kenyan gays and lesbians suffer from discrimination and denunciation in their communities and families. The discriminatory statements that high-ranking Kenyan government officials make against same sex  relationships are widely publicised. The current president was quoted as saying that “Homosexuality is not a problem in Kenya”, implying that it did not exist in Kenya or that it was a Western invention. Either way, his statement is false and denies reality and clear historical evidence. The discrimination, marginalization and stigma are the only reasons why the gay community remains largely invisible in Kenya. Yvonne ended her remarks by saying that as an activist she is not fighting to win people’s love and support as a gay woman, she is merely fighting for her right to live, and not to be lynched for her lifestyle. It is sadly true, but the fight against homophobia still has a long ways to go in much of Africa.

I have mentioned before that my native culture is no better. Love is a huge thing in Arabic poetry and literary tradition and there is plenty of evidence on its existence between men and women, and between men. Love between women was almost the normal order of the day, especially in the court of the sultans and strongmen who kept many wives and scores of concubines in their Harem. Women spent most of their days amongst themselves, entertaining each other, in the absence of their owner/husband. The only men they had access to were eunuchs. I would think it is human nature for them to find solace, and even love, with their fellow captives.

African society also tolerates the love of woman to woman, but the hypocrisy of its macho tradition precludes any sexual image to a man other than the aggressor in the sexual act. The attraction to another man is not the problem, what bothers these macho men most is the idea of a male taking the role of a female in a sexual intercourse. It took me a while to understand this sub classification in male-to-male love.

Saudi Arabia for example is a place where gay relationships are punishable. But the nature of its repressive society and strict gender segregation makes it a fertile ground for same sex relationships. Yet when it comes to sexual relationships between men, everyone wants to be a “top” and there are hardly any local gay men who are willing to be the “bottom”. It seems that there is discrimination between the two roles, one is seen as less “man” than the other. There are no such problems in female-to-female relationships, even in this morally conflicted environment. Women who have sex with each other are still women, but since woman’s ranking is already low in the society, she cannot go any lower from her position of powerlessness, whether straight or gay.

I am always at pains to understand the nature of our discrimination against gay people. It is hard enough for heterosexuals to find genuine love and understanding even while looking in the bigger pool of heterosexually inclined humanity. So why would anyone willingly restrict themselves to finding love and understanding within the smaller pool of gay people? Or maybe it is that gay people are genuinely nicer and more in touch with themselves and the people they love. After all, who would understand a woman better than another woman? And who would understand a man better than another man? Maybe they are on to something.

 

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The Original Love is Blind Quote..

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste—
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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This Furtive Love

Tell me to get lost.

Say you’re fed up , and mean it!

Teach your eyes to lie.

 

Don’t love me mutely,

I can handle rejection,

Not this furtive love.

 

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My New Companion

I am with the pain

It holds me like a lover

then bleeds from my eyes.

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Your Meditation Or Mine?

Things you said you liked:

The touch of Damascus steel;

Sand between your toes.

Sensual, I thought.

But now I use senses too,

to temper the pain.

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Rain Will Always Remind Me

Two almost lovers

meet under the falling rain

One weeps, one just chokes.

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Safety… It is All Relative

Today I read about another school shooting rampage in the United States, and it drove me to think again about the concept of safety in the world.

There are several places in the world where you face danger on a daily basis. These are places with war, civil war, famine, endemic disease or extreme natural hazard. If you avoid these few extremely dangerous places, you can live anywhere in the world, trusting that your safety is a matter of fate lottery. Even in places known for prevalent crime, I think you can still be reasonably safe if you avoid certain locations and use common sense.

I have lived for a few years in Johannesburg, known for its high crime rate, and also in Cape Town, dubbed in some circles as “Rape Town”. I think I survived by avoiding well-known trouble areas and night-time adventures. That does not mean I was completely exempted from exposure to crime. In Johannesburg, I fell victim (along with my then husband) to fraud. The well-planned operation resulted in loss of overseas money but that was a white-collar organized crime. In Cape Town, my precious laptop was stolen from my apartment, and I lost my wallet and its content on a bus, or to a pickpocket, I will never know.  But in general I would say that I got off easily even in the most dangerous places in the world.

Nairobi feels safe to me in comparison to Johannesburg, Cape Town, and East London in South Africa, all of which are places I lived in. But I remember how concerned some of my friends were when I announced that I was moving there. The Westgate Shopping Mall Attack was still fresh then and everyone thought I was walking into some sort of a terrorist nest. I never felt any threat so far, but again this does not mean that the threat is not present. There will be an incident one day, it is not a matter of if, but when.

But even while we know that the terrorist threat is a reality, we cannot escape it in our interconnected world. It could happen in New York, Boston, Jerusalem or Nairobi. The perpetrators could be Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Kenya or anyone else. They could be brown or pale, Muslim or Christian. There are no rules, and nobody knows where it will hit next. Some of my friends argue that if it happens in New York or Boston the authorities there are more capable of dealing with the consequences. I agree, there are horror stories about police looting the shops in the wake of the Westgate Mall attack. But since 9/11 there were numerous other incidents in Western countries such as: London 2005 and then 2017, Brussels 2016, Madrid 2004, Barcelona 2017, Nice in France 2016, Berlin 2016, and this non-exhaustive list shows that both the reach and the means of the attacks have expanded to a degree that makes them impossible to predict. And I have not included any of the numerous incidents happening more frequently in the southern and eastern hemispheres. These always have higher fatalities but are less publicized as terrorism because they occur in places that are already suffering from other types of trouble such as civil strife or extremist activities. Some people also cynically point out that these are rarely publicized because their victims are “brown people” and therefore less important.

Terrorism is indiscriminate and has become universal in its reach. The perpetrators are becoming more complex and more difficult to point out and profile. Therefore it is near impossible to be completely protected against it. Anyone could fall victim to terrorism. I could have easily been a victim or a witness to the terrorist attack in the Christmas Market in Berlin in 2016, as I had planned to go there that evening and lazily opted to stay at home at the last minute. However, the traditional aim of terrorism is to disrupt the prosperous and normal life of citizens and governments who are seen, by the terrorist organizations, as benefiting unfairly at the expense of other nations in an unfair world order. Therefore western countries especially the USA will always be more attractive targets for international terrorism. Even their foreign missions away from home soil become targets. The US Embassy in Nairobi is located across the street from the United Nations headquarters and has the best security in the area, yet its presence does not promote a feeling of safety, but is rather a source of discomfort since it is perceived as a target. Many United Nations staff feel unsettled and unsafe by its close proximity.

Whereas terrorism in other places of the world thrives on chaos and failed governance, in the western world it will most likely spring out of a perfectly normal day or evening, so it is pointless to fear it or to be overly vigilant against it. And when it happens you will be killed by a harmless object like a car or an umbrella, in a normal place like a street market or a city square. None of your danger instincts will fire up in time to protect you, so there is no point in being paranoid.

The tragedy that I see is that most western countries spend a lot of time and money to combat this amorphous and shape-shifting terrorism monster while ignoring the danger within. Any healthy individual will feel fear at the sight of a gun or a machine gun. One of my uncles by marriage used to own a handgun, it was a perk of his elite status as a member of the ruling sect in my native country. When he visited my oldest aunt, his sister-in-law, he always unbuckled his handgun and placed it on top of the piano in the living room. I still remember my distaste at the presence of the object in the room, and I still do not know whether I was bothered more by the fact he carried a gun, or that he wanted to leave it out for us to see. I still do not understand the reasons for this action, but I think my deep dislike of him and his family can be traced back to that gun on the unsuspecting surface of the piano. My apathy to guns runs so deep that I never let my son with toy guns, not even water guns. I know that this is an extreme, I suspect that my son might have a pathological fear of guns, but I think that a fear of guns is less likely to kill him than a love for them.

I was still living in the USA when the Sandy Hook shooting happened in 2012. It was near the Christmas break, but when I took my son to his elementary school in the wake of that shooting, I remember a cold shiver of fear running down my back as I led him through the fortress of doors and dark corridors to his classroom. I remember thinking that there was nowhere to hide and no way to get out if someone decided to go on a shooting rampage. It is a different story at his school here in Nairobi with its open spaces and huge grounds. A healthy instinct could save him here, where it will be of no use in a closed and overly secured environment of his former school.

Yes, I do feel safer in Nairobi than I did in New York. And while we can easily agree that the concept of safety is relative. The feeling of safety is hugely subjective. A person with chronic fear of flying understands fully that she is more likely to get killed driving to and from the airport than on a flight, but she will still battle her phobia on board and feel perfectly safe in the car.  You see, if something goes wrong on the aircraft you are certainly doomed, while if you were in a car accident you might have a chance.

Using similar logic, I think living in troubled area we are more likely to sense danger and run for the hills, we will have a chance. While if we fall victim to danger in the West we will get a big machine gun in a school or a speeding lorry in a crowd, something so unexpected that will dull our instinctive ability to anticipate danger and survive.

It is always safest to keep a sound instinct. A properly licensed gun has no limitation on its ability to take the life of an innocent victim, so it is best to avoid all guns as lethal and dangerous. A bullet will kill first and answer questions later.

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Meditation Fails

While minding my breath

Meditating before sleep

Heartbeat calls your name.

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Not My Other Half .. But All of Me

I always wondered what would happen if one day I crossed paths with my beloved by chance. I got my answer yesterday. When it happened, I immediately counted the days of my failed experiment at forgetting about him. In the Eighty Days that elapsed since our eyes last met, Phileas Fogg managed to go around the world, but nothing changed for this foolish heart, and judging by its reaction to seeing him, it might have even taken a turn for the worse.

Even before this chance encounter, I had a tough start for my day. I was feeling down, I had a tension headache, along with the ache of missing him. I sat in the sunshine trying to make peace with all these feelings and a few tears flowed.

I had salad for lunch and tried to eat it slowly and meditatively, sipping Jasmine tea to calm my nerves instead of my usual double coffee. I should have finished up quickly and escaped when I saw his back in the distance walking away from his office block, because there was a chance his return path will take him past where I was sitting. A minute or so later it was too late, time stretched endlessly as he walked towards me and my heart jumped into overdrive, and I felt tremors in my whole body. I was grateful that I was sitting down. He nodded a greeting, still busy on his phone and walked past. I continued drinking my now cold Jasmine tea, taking deep breaths, and trying to calm my racing heart. The last time I experienced similar sensations I was trying to recover from a panic attack. Only when the panic attacks subside, there is usually a feeling of warmth and drowsy contentment, whereas here the fight or flight response abated slowly leaving me tired, sad and empty.

My younger brother, bless his clueless and unromantic heart, told me recently that emotions are biochemical by definition. According to him they are a mix of serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline. These three compounds are not unlimited, so you can feel an intense emotion for 20 minutes before it peters out. He told me that it is all an illusion really, and referred me to the Lövheim cube of emotion. I argued that it was not that simple, that it was something in my beloved’s eyes that killed me. Then I sent him a photo, and I thought I scored a point, when he said: “I get your point, he has a babyface”, but he immediately spoiled it by telling me: “This is exactly is how it works. You fell for this …”. He attached “this”, an article from the BBC about the Benefits of Having a Babyface. The article argues that with a person with a babyface can literally get away with murder. I love my brother dearly, and at the end of the conversation I just told him, to stay the way he is, it is much easier on the heart.

No amount of logic has succeeded in taming this overwhelming emotion. The only solace I found so far was acceptance. I am now convinced that who we are determines how we respond to everything including our emotions, and our responses are not fully explainable through science. Love has a lot in common with faith, some people oppose them through science and logic, others respond to them mildly and philosophically, and a few succumb to them ardently and spiritually. There are no fixed rules, we are just different. Our responses vary according to our nature and experience, and depending on who or what elicits them.

Of course scientists are mostly correct because emotions are part biochemical for everyone, but that does not preclude that they may run deeper for some. I have recently revisited the Myers Briggs personality test. It is an interesting, albeit simplistic, test based on Carl Jung theories of personality types. I had done the test years ago, and it came up different to what I believed myself to be. I was always an introvert but I thought of myself more of a rational and thinking person, but in the Myers Briggs tests I always came out as an intuitive and feeling personality as opposed to thinking and judging. When I asked my best friend we turned out an exact match INFP-T, and recently I started to wonder whether there was some current of personality resonance that fuels the intense connection I feel with my beloved.

A few hours after the surprise meeting he texted me, it was close to the end of the working day, and my emotional state had prevented me from doing any useful work. So when he said he ordered coffee for me I thought I would go and see him. The damage was already done. We talked and quickly updated each other on general news in the few minutes I had before I needed to run and pick up my son from school. I told him about the personality type test and as I guessed we turned up a match although he is a borderline extrovert. We cannot change the way we are, how we respond to people, and how we love.

And incidentally, the brother I mentioned above, turns out to be an INTJ, defined as clueless in romance, and extremely skeptic even of his classification in this “unscientific” personality test. Ironically, all these aspects fit exactly with his personality type.

Seeing my beloved again opened the old wound. I have reset all counters to start again. I will try to forget how I know what he feels without him saying anything. I will try to forget that I can see what he is beneath all the masks of disdainful attitudes he wears for his daily life. I will try to forget that he found me, that he broke through the armour of cynicism and apathy that I wore to the world. And I have worn it for so long that I thought it was part of me, that it was me. He wasn’t even trying, he was just being himself, a mirror to my soul. He is not merely my other half but all of me* in the form of another human being, how could I not want to melt into him?

 

 


* I read this idea in an Arabic text attributed to Gibran, and translated to English as Half a Life, or quoted without title on goodreads, and others for example here.

من تحب ليس هو نصفك الآخر، هو أنت كلك في مكان آخر في نفس الوقت

The Arabic mirrors what I feel for my beloved: “The one you love is not your other half, but all of you in a different space at the same time”.

For some reason the English versions I read understand it differently, which leads me to believe that the poem was written in one language (my guess Arabic) and translated by someone other than the author into the other. The different interpretations could be a subject for discussion at another time and place. Here is a link to the Arabic version. I could not find a published or authoritative source for the poem itself. I found identical versions of the Arabic text but only on quote and blog sites. You are encouraged to post a comment if you can find a better source for either the Arabic or English.

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Dear Dandelion

I never chose to love you, dear dandelion. I never thought you were beautiful, nor found you useful. You are surviving in my heart out of sheer hardiness and defiance; nothing will ever grow where you took root. So, I choose to make peace with you. I will ignore you and let nature take its course. Maybe the birds and the bees will find their way into this messy wilderness you created, and I will be able to see the beauty you have inadvertently brought into my life.

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