Easter Fun on Roosevelt Island

On Saturday Robert met the Easter Bunny on Roosevelt Island. We got together with one of his pre-k friends and her mom, and we had some fun. Fortunately the weather held for the day.

The Easter Egg Hunt itself lasted only for a minute or so. The organizers had strewn the lawn with plastic eggs, filled with small toys and stickers. The kids swarmed over the stretch of lawn and picked it clean in the blink of an eye.

There were other activities after the “hunt”. Our kids had their faces painted, got to ride in the back of a police van and met a police dog called Achilles. Of course the most important event was taking a photo with the Easter Bunny. After the photo the kids put their heads together and started whispering, when pressed by us moms to tell what’s up. Robert came to me and whispered: “The Easter bunny is a man with bald hair (sic) and glasses”. So it was not the real Easter Bunny after all.

Dodging the Censorship of the Thought Police

Whenever I want to write on a controversial subject, I like to put my Arab identity aside. Because without the baggage of Arab and Muslim roots, it is easier to express my secular and liberal beliefs to the world. This is perhaps why I am more comfortable writing in English than in my native language. Western culture does not have many holy cows, and even those are not so sacred if you attack them using permissible means. So as long as I am not blogging hate speech, racism or cruelty to animals, I am not likely to reap too much notoriety.

My native culture is different. How on earth would someone advocate for gay rights, when the language itself had only recently adopted a non-derogatory term for homosexuality? It is mostly thanks for NGOs such as my workplace, that the neutral Arabic expression for homosexuality is gaining more acceptance in official writing. Before that the common Arabic equivalent of homosexual was derived from an adjective  synonymous with: irregular, anomalous, atypical, abnormal, unusual, aberrant, eccentric, extraordinary, singular, offbeat, curious, odd, peculiar, strange, or weird. People who speak only Arabic still use this negative term in their conversations, while most westernized people I know incorporate the term in a foreign language, since the official term has not crossed over into local dialects yet.

Religion remains one of the holiest domains of Arab culture. Arab societies are largely conservative, and the Arab states (with the notable exception of Lebanon) are predominantly Muslim. The Muslim population does not take lightly to any criticism to its way of life, whether it comes from inside or outside the ranks. Moreover, Muslims in the Arab world never stop preaching the wonderful Islamic ethic of respecting other religions (especially Judaism and Christianity). They claim that they give Christian citizens all their freedoms, and grant them justice and equity with their Muslim counterparts. I doubt that this often advertised Muslim magnanimity and tolerance would stand to close scrutiny. It is evident that discrimination based on religion is alive and well in society, and in some cases it is even condoned by Arab States. Saudi Arabia is the most glaring example of this. The observant Muslims, however, fail to see any problem in restricting the rights of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, obliging women to certain dress codes and preventing them from driving. On the other hand, those very same Muslims, would cry foul whenever a Muslim girl is forced to forsake her headscarf in France to protect the secular identity of that country’s school system.  In short we Muslims have this deep belief that we are on the right path, and everyone else is going to hell slowly but surely. We like to be nice to these lost causes, to be patient with them in the hope that they will repent and come back to the correct path. How could this belief be ever reconciled with the principle of equal rights before the law in a secular system? Do the ultra conservative even recognize the law when it is not an Islamic law? The documented cases of honor killings in Germany and elsewhere in Europe would suggest that a secular law is no deterrent, in case of strong traditional beliefs.

It is interesting to note the steady shift towards Islamic conservatism around the time when Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates and Sheikhdoms rose as independent, and oil-rich states. Soon after Iran became the Islamic Republic, oil-rich as well. Further east, and even before that, Pakistan and Bangladesh came to being. They were established as legitimate nations of homogenous Muslim communities seeking independence from India. The past decades also saw their politics shifting towards conservative Islam. Nearby is Afghanistan, again, an Islamic legitimate resistance movement, went terribly wrong when it came into power, and stayed there. Southeast Asia seems the only anomaly in this pattern, and so far the predominantly Muslim states of Malaysia and Indonesia, are both practicing a forms of democracy that incorporate elements of religion, and secularism equally. Malaysia for example applies Shariaa law to Muslims only in matter of inheritance, marriage, and divorce among others, while criminal matters remains under the purview of state law. Meanwhile in Indonesia the Islamic law operates on a local administrative level, and not on a state level.  It is interesting to note that Islam arrived peaceably in those regions and grew in harmony with existing culture and tradition.

With that in mind we look at the parts of the world won over to Islam by he blade of the sword. Islam arrived as the religion of the conquerors, and I would think that embracing it entitled converts to certain privileges. The Islamic law does not consider the Muslim equal to a non-Muslim. It discriminates against non-Muslims in many subtle, and some not-so-subtle, ways. I can imagine the motivation of abandoning the religion one was born into to join the religion of the rulers. It is human nature. Seven hundred years after the conquest of Spain, Muslims had to experience this as well, and they had to revert to Christianity to remain on the Iberian Peninsula. In my mind, the Muslims of the conquered Islamic Empire, were mostly the product of opportunism, migration, and intermarriages. While the Christians are the true first nations of these parts, the native Arabs (or native Egyptians in case of the Copts). I can see this pure pedigree in the faces of some of my Christian friends, and in their deep connection to the homeland. I do not see it in my face, not even in the photo of my paternal grandfather, who was fair, blue-eyed and probably passed on the genes of some Muslim warlord from Asia minor.

The Islamic State, which a large section of Muslims aspire to revive or recreate, was in its time a colonial power. It subjugated parts of the world, took over its riches and sold its people into slavery. The conservative Muslim would say that we brought the unbelievers from darkness into light in return and showed them the correct path. But we heard that before, from the Crusaders. And we heard that after, with different semantics, from America (War against Terror), and on a lower level still, from criminals who practice corrective rape of Lesbians in South Africa. To me it is the same bigotry and flawed logic. My question to these people, and to those who want to kill a cartoonist, hang a film-maker and silence a writer, where is your power of attorney from God? Who appointed your to speak and administer justice on behalf of the Almighty? Alas, I know that these questions would not stump the fanatic, who would have his answer ready, sealed in impenetrable circular reasoning.

In my experience I have yet to see religion as a barrier against committing any serious social crime. It may prevent Muslims from drinking wine, eating pork, and sleeping with someone they are not married to. However it does not stop them from giving a hiding to a son,  or discriminating against a daughter, or marrying her off at a tender age to someone old enough to be her father. It does not stop a bloodbath when it comes to a sectarian war. It did not stop Muslim traders from dealing in human flesh, starting the African slave trade that the white man later picked up and gained notoriety for. Christianity, the religion of love and all humanity, does not stop the hatred and discrimination against gay people, it does not stop the genocide and it did not stop the crusaders from committing atrocities under the banner of the cross.

It can all be summed up in this great quote: “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.” 

Bridges of New York City

Robert’s idea of adventure for yesterday was to walk the Queensboro Bridge (Ed Koch Bridge or 59th Street Bridge) from Manhattan to Queens. This bridge passes over Roosevelt Island, and we go past it everyday on the tram. Robert asked me many times if we can walk on it to Queens, so he was very excited when we made our way toward the pedestrian ramp. It was perhaps the first acceptable warm day after a long winter with unseasonable snow.

After that long walk we continued our trek to Steinway in Astoria where we had a late lunch at an Arabic restaurant. I do not often crave Arabic food, but last Sunday we were with friends at the same place and I had a taste of their Kushari, an Egyptian dish with brown lentil, rice, macaroni and lots of crispy-fried onion.

Today we had another adventure planned, again at my son’s suggestion, walking to Brooklyn via the Brooklyn Bridge. Compared to the functional and utilitarian Queensboro Bridge, this one is considered the tourist walk. The Pedestrian Ramp on Manhattan side is surrounded with every manner of stand and refreshment seller – They were selling Belgian waffles, New York pretzels, Juice, gyro, trinkets and fridge magnets and various artwork. Robert and I had the sweet and messy waffles just before embarking on our walk.

While Queensboro bridge had an equal number of walkers and cyclists, this one was crowded with walkers, mostly tourists. The bridge itself is a great architectural achievement, considering it was built in 1883. I am not sure what the walk would be like in normal conditions but at this time the view was obstructed in most part by sheet metal, and it looked like several parts of the bridge were draped or screened for maintenance. There were several views or vantage points where we took pictures, getting crowded with the many visitors. Along the walk there are benches and more stands selling trinkets and snacks. One of the most popular stands was an Indian guy carving perfect mango roses on wooden sticks. When I walked past his stand, a Japanese tourist had just bought one of his edible artworks, and was busy pointing her gigantic camera at it, for a closeup.

I had planned this time to go to a South African restaurant in Fort Green in Brooklyn, but the combination of the rich treat, the time, and the chilly weather, made me abandon this plan. Instead we spent some time at a Brooklyn playground.

View from Manhattan Bridge looking towards Brooklyn Bridge

Because of the less than perfect conditions on the Brooklyn Bridge I suggested that we walk back to Manhattan via the Manhattan Bridge. Robert was extremely enthusiastic. This bridge had interesting sights, a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, and connected with Manhattan at Chinatown. We had interesting views (Interviews – as Robert called them) of Chinatown. In terms of accessible view of the outside, this bridge gave a better experience than the Brooklyn Bridge in its current condition. The main drawback, however, is that the walking route is right beside a busy train route, four tracks are used for the B D Q and N trains in and out of Brooklyn, so perhaps it is better to walk here with earplugs.

In all our excursion on bridges we noted that instead of graffiti, people put locks with special messages, and names usually accompanied by a date. I would assume that these locks would get cut out regularly, but we saw some that looked quite old. There was even a bright red one with the date 05-12-13, a date that hasn’t arrived yet (even if you read it the American way).

Life in the Hobbit Hole

In our office there is no coffee machine for the workers to gather around. There is a tiny kitchen where we occasionally meet while depositing salad in the fridge or washing  yesterday’s coffee out of our mugs. What we do is mostly a solitary activity, save for some team-building communications that serve the exact opposite, or email exchanges on terminology that keep going for weeks.

We also meet sometimes at the hub of the activity the office of programming where the documents are distributed, then each of us heads up (or down) into our individual Hobbit Holes, as a good-humored colleague quite aptly named our office cubicles. Some brilliant genius thought that translators really need peace and quiet to enhance their productivity, so they mercilessly partitioned the floors of our office block into open working areas for typists and small windowless individual boxes for translators; we do not need sunlight anyways, it will hurt our poor eyes. So we sit in these caves and translate the world’s bumbling bureaucracy into equally baffling Arabic. We are encouraged to translate ambiguity with ambiguity, because the original is most likely intentionally ambiguous. Yet, when an Arab delegate picks up a document he cannot make heads or tails out of, it will certainly be the translator’s fault. So is our life, we bottom feeders.

Nobody really cares about the lowly translator. The interpreters often get the limelight. Their triumphs (and mistakes) are broadcast on national television. Ours are relegated to the gods of filing and archive, forgotten until they are once dug up, to be passed around for the mirth and amusement of other colleagues. It is about the only pleasure we get, to laugh off mistakes, horrible rendering, or gaffes of mistranslation. Because there is little pleasure in rendering utilitarian text. I always wondered whether two years of translating them has made my Arabic writing better or worse, I am not sure.

In-house translators are not too visible. They are perceived to be highly tolerant of crap coming their way, linguistic and otherwise. Therefore the high echelons of management gave us these terrible offices; out of sight of the main campus of our organization, we will also stay out of mind, so management hopes. I have been in this tomb of an office for almost two years now, and to add insult to injury there is a demolition going on next door to our building. They mailed us tenants back in November (or December) to tell us that the demolition will take 6-8 Weeks. Well, it has been almost 12 Weeks now, and they are still going at it full-blast with cranes and jack-hammers. The combination of noise, dust, vibrations and gloom is quite nerve-racking. Last week, I needed to run outside the building, I felt close to a panic attack.  We on the  lower floors are most affected, by dust, low light and noise. Apparently the former director of our section wanted the lower floors, because the lifts weren’t reliable, and so we suffer the consequences.

I have decorated my office space, and tried to bring in some color to the gloom.  Pictures of my son, and some of his artwork to remind me why I have to keep working. Pictures of Africa and a map of South Africa to remind me of where I want to be. I have also opted out of the institutional fluorescent lighting and brought a yellow indirect light. One of my colleagues invested several hundred dollars in buying noise-cancelling headphones, I still cannot justify this type of expense, so I put up with this noisy hell-hole. Another colleague found the solution to escape to a higher floor. She works in an open plan area at a different section. I may still follow her example.

For this week though I am giving myself and the Hobbit Hole a break. I am off  with my son for the Easter Break.




Trip to Memory Lane

I have been doing a little housekeeping on my blog. I cannot believe I have been writing here on and off for over six years. I should have amassed more readership if I had more stamina, or if I kept at it consistently.

One of the problems I have is that I am a person with many interests, that change over time, depending on my current work or environment. I am a little shy of being controversial, because I believe I put here a lot of personal things, and people may very well recognize me from my writing.  At some point I kept a few separate blogs, an official personal blog, an anonymous personal blog, a knitting blog, and a professional blog. People who maintain one blog on a regular basis would immediately see the folly of this approach. It is hard enough to keep one vehicle of thought going, let alone two. And it is not possible at all to keep four of them going, not by one person at least. So I come back here, to take stock of what I have, and migrate more of my blogs into this Loskop site. I will work on categories to separate the personal from the professional and I will keep going. I should also try to get over this anxiety about who will, or will not read my blog. I will have to assume that those who keep up with me here will be kindred spirits. Those who do not like what I write will walk away. To me, writing is a completely pointless exercise if I cannot do it honestly. So you might learn that I am an Arabic translator, who loves the English language more than she loves her mother tongue. You will also know that I am a completely secular and non-practicing Muslim, who thinks that religion serves no useful purpose in building societies and nations. Neither piece of information is newsworthy, but you may also find worse revelations here.

About a year ago, my ex asked me to delete any mention of his name on my blog. At the time he was courting his third wife, who apparently looked things like that up. I was peeved at the request, but I still obliged and deleted the names. However, a Google search will still point to the pages, regardless of their content. This has to do with the way web crawlers work and index the web. I did not see the point of his request until today when I was browsing through my old posts in order to organize them. Some of what I wrote during the time of divorce is extremely raw. Many posts are striking for what is left unsaid, or for the pathetic voice of the female trying to make every possible excuse for why the male in her life is treating her like rubbish, and considering their baby a mere inconvenience to his rest and exercise routine. When I later imported my anonymous platform, the truth sometimes outed glaringly, exposing him for the selfish brute he always was. I was forced to re-live some of my personal indignities in detail, it was not a pleasant memory.

There is an upside too. I can look back at the hardships of those fateful months in 2008/2009 and see how transient and insignificant my current troubles are. They are like small weather patterns in the course a transatlantic flight, the jet flies right through them, and they are smaller to warrant a change in the flight path.  I will therefore carry on, taking pleasure in the fact that I now have a continuing contract as a Translator in my international NGO. My job is as secure as any here, and I just need to find my way within the myriads of bureaucracy and inefficiency. I will make the best of my stay in New York, work hard, enjoy good food and grow in spirit with my growing son. I will no longer dwell on things that have been lost, or at least I will try to truly move on. The history, of all my joys, tribulations and mistakes is there, for anyone who cares to read it. I mostly write with my son in mind, and therefore I want to stay open and honest.

I apologize in advance to the people who know me personally and find themselves misrepresented in any way. You are welcome to write and comment if you want. The things I wrote are firmly anchored in their time and place, and the views I held in 2008, for example, are not cast in stone, but they have to stand in their context. From now on I will try to keep a veil on identities, but I cannot help the obvious ones, for example in the case of my Ex husband, and my son. I have only one of each, and this is unlikely to change. I may also need to do some more work in the area of ex boyfriends, there are also pathetically few of them.

So here again, you will get to know all the facets of this Arab South-African Translator Single-Mom Lover-of-Music-Reading-and-Knitting LOSKOP.

Book: In the House of the Interpreter

In the House of the Interpreter: A MemoirIn the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir by Ngugi wa’Thiong’o

The author writes about his years at Alliance High School in Kenya. The writing is very good, with fairly interesting anecdotes and vignettes of Kenyan society, youth, and evangelism.

The last few chapters, cover the author’s return trip to his village after earning his first pay as a temporary teacher, and this is the part where I most related with the protagonist. He was arrested under the state of emergency and spent some time in jail. For me, the book is worth reading for these pages alone.

Overall it is a story of African people, their survival under difficult circumstances and the choices they make; when it is acceptable to compromise and when it is not.

From a character point of view, there are a few memorable ones. Carey Francis the British principal of a school for Kenyan boys. An officer of the colonial power, who is deeply dedicated to educating native boys and presenting them as equal to their white peers. He reconciled both conflicting interest with Christian belief.

Good Wallace, Ngugi’s brother, who fought with the Mau Mau resistance in the mountain.

Also interesting is the ambiguous and often false relationship between evangelism and true morality. Worth reading, even if the story could not maintain tension and interest equally throughout.