What A Gen-X Remembers

From a generational perspective, I have a bit of a strange family. My parents are older baby boomers, but I have a millennial brother. My child, on the other hand, is a post-millennial or generation Z. Therefore, most of the time I feel like a mediator of the generational and cultural gaps existing in my immediate family.

Even before I turned half-a-century, my child would always comment on how dull and boring my life must have been without the benefit of the internet. But contrary to his firmly-held belief, I feel privileged to have experienced both analogue and digital aspects to my life. I had a childhood where I played hopscotch, throwing pebbles and marbles. But I also played a version of pong, one of the first primitive video games on a black and white TV, and wrote simple BASIC code on an early programmable calculator.

My mother gets easily flustered by technology. She only reads physical books, and keeps all her phone numbers in a notebook. My brother, almost exclusively reads eBooks on his phone, and my child only reads Wikipedia articles and is more interested in YouTube and social media than he is in any kind of publication.

I might be the only one in this tight family group who is comfortable navigating between both mediums. For my cooking, I have handwritten recipes, magazine cutouts, and cookbooks (both printed and digital). However, I sometimes still do a quick search on my phone when I get an ingredient I have not worked with before. I do yoga classes online, but I still have my illustrated books. I make shopping lists on paper just like my mom, but I type the things I need to pack for a trip on my notes app. I journal both on paper and on an online multi-platform app.

I am far from being a digital native like my child. On many occasions, I have consulted that pre-teen on a hidden smartphone setting. And I am quick to cry for help when I suddenly see a split keyboard on my tablet, which I never intended to create, and do not know how to return to normal. I probably use about 20% of all the features on my phone camera, while my child knows most of them. But I am clearly more comfortable than my mother with the device. After all, I can do my own updates. New technology does not petrify me. I learn to handle it, albeit slowly. But I do not feel pressured to get the fastest phone, and I can manage for a day or so without internet connection. My child hasn’t learned this essential survival skill yet.

Digital did make my life easier on many counts. Given my poor sense of direction, I am grateful that I do not need to carry city maps in my car. When I drove in Cape Town, I never went anywhere without consulting my city map first. But even my diligent study did not help, and I often got lost. Then, I had to hunt for a safe place to stop and regroup, find myself on the map, and finally re-route the car back to my destination. My google maps helper does this for me seamlessly now. I do not miss the time I spent checking city map quadrants for an unknown street address. But I keep my city maps, just in case. I also have an Africa road atlas. I use it for my imaginary travels. Something about seeing the thin road lines and landmarks on paper and flipping through its pages, gives a more direct feel of the distance. I have a better perception of miles traced with a finger, or pages flipped than those just scrolled through.

Perhaps it is just me, or maybe it is something that I share with some of my contemporaries of Gen-X. Those of us who still hold on to some analogue and approximate perceptions of life, rather than the strict digital hyper-realism of technology. I am more content to look at my watch and register that it is a little after ten to seven, rather than find out that it is exactly 18:51:29.3. I am happy to live with the intangible less exacting, unless I am waiting for the precise time to say Happy New Year to my loved ones. And even this moment is never fixed since we might be in different time zones.

In trying to assimilate all new technology, I sometimes feel like a novice who had stepped outside of a heavy cultural tradition. I am pleased to have adopted a new easier way of life, yet still attached to some of my familiar symbols. Some aspects of technology, I have adopted wholeheartedly. But others I am still reluctant to embrace or accept fully. It is not entirely clear to me whether I have logical reasons for this, or whether I am only reacting to anecdotal observations mixed with sentimentality and superstition.

Technology has given us a lot, but I think we sacrificed small pieces of our imagination for all the things we received. Some of the magic has been lost. When we travel, my child looks at photos of the city we are visiting and checks out such details such as what the room looks like, and the view that we would see from our window. I am more happy to leave much of this as a surprise to experience on arrival. If I arrive there having seen everything, then what would be the point of taking the trip?

On the surface it seems as if the digital age has allowed for more freedom and democratised creativity. But true creative power has become more difficult to find within a crowded world, where each person is a content producer. Truth has also suffered, since everyone is now capable of expressing immutable beliefs, and getting likes for them. Fallacies sometimes get more support than the humble truth. So while it is easier than ever to find and produce stuff, it is more difficult to find quality and truth.

Collectively perhaps we now read more on the internet than we ever read in the past on paper. But in the past we had time to read longer books rather than bite-sized, and mostly irrelevant, status updates. I once read the entire Sunday newspaper, but now I rarely look at print media. I sometimes look at online headlines or read one or two stories from reputable news outlets, but I am reluctant to pay for a digital subscriptions when I know I will not have the time to take advantage of it. There is no such thing as buying a digital newspaper copy, when you feel like it. You are always pressured for a subscription deal.

We are bombarded with information, and have little time to digest and process. We are confused, and less likely to make a carefully reasoned decision on anything. The closest thing to online shopping I experienced while growing up was shopping by mail order. But instead of scrolling through endless suggestions of things that are not quite what we wanted, we only went through one big (but finite) mail-order catalogue. We studied it closely for weeks. We lived in the pictures and imagined what it would be like to own that dress, that toy or that kitchen device. The choices were many, even then, but the static catalogue was always there, and we could examine it for months if we needed. So we took our time, and consulted the colourful pages together as a family, or dreamed about the items individually. Now shopping is more complicated, with more variety, more decisions required, and more pressure to buy NOW. I am not sure this is all an improvement.

For my post-millennial child, this is just his old mother missing her childhood. The truth is more complicated than that. By being a generation X-er I straddle the digital fault line, and I can still remember what has gone missing. The new humans born today are unburdened by this memory, and will therefore proceed fearlessly wherever this digital age takes them. Sometimes I fear that this culture of technology will be detrimental to the way the human race will develop, that it will damage our aspiration to evolve in spirit. At other times I read some ancient text where a person who had died centuries ago, asks the same questions we are asking ourselves now. And I am then reassured of the essence of human spirit. Perhaps, the more we change, the more we will stay the same.

For more insight into the digital age, and how the internet changed the way we think, I recommend the following book: The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read And Remember by Nicholas Carr.

Then We Take Berlin

I have spoken before about the joy of places. And I still think that some cities can make you fall in love with them while others reject you, make you feel alien, weak or overwhelmed.

Of the cities I lived in I have loved Aleppo and Abu Dhabi as a child then grew up to fall out of love with them.  I was too young to understand sophisticated Vienna, so I ran away from it. I still have deep affection for sleepy East London (South Africa, not the British London), but I was intimidated by the barely suppressed danger and violence of Johannesburg. I despised the arrogance and intrusive urgency of New York, with its constant demand for attention. And after I escaped that difficult city, I willingly accepted Nairobi. My relationship with it is one of quiet understanding. I take from it what I need while I ignore all its problematic sides. Nairobi allows you to create a peaceful bubble around you, where you can listen to birds and bullfrogs, watch the passage of clouds in the blue sky, or feel the cooling touch of tropical rain. New York in contrast encroaches on every aspect of your life, you have to live it, or leave it.

Of the cities I lived in, I only truly loved Cape Town. And although its spectacular views rarely concealed its rough edges and contradictions, my adopted city still owns the biggest part of my heart. My first love, though, was for a city I first visited in my teens, a city that touched my soul with its painful history, as she carried the guilt and scars of the war that ultimately divided its heart.

Berlin was my first city-love. I fell in love with it at seventeen, when a relative took us to visit the wall, and choked back tears at the many memorial plaques of young people who lost their lives as they tried to cross it from East Berlin. Since then I fall in love with it again whenever I visit. I love the waterways, the bridges, the parks, the monuments and the museums. I love the organized transport, the availability of middle eastern food, and the open spaces in the suburbs. It is a big city, but sprawled over a very large area, and surrounded by lakes and waterways. Residents happily ride bikes and walk. The corner stores still operate in many areas, and each of the suburbs has its own commercial centre which give the places their small-town feel even within the big city.

Berlin is proud of its environmental awareness, its cosmopolitan character, and its embrace, sometimes welcoming sometime grudging, of refugees. As I grow older I feel that the city resembles me. It has long left its younger days behind, and still struggles with past separation and pain, and tries to hold on to its conscience despite hard trials.

Some people would cynically point to its dysfunctional politics and ongoing corruption cases, the most glaring example of which is the fiasco of the BER, the Berlin Brandenburg International Airport that was supposed to be completed at least five years ago. The airport complex stands mostly complete if it weren’t for serious safety issues with the building, electronic doors and fire-protection systems that prevent it from meeting safety standards and block its operation indefinitely. It has become a symbol of total German failure where everyone expects German efficiency and exactitude. It proved to be a problem too complex and too expensive to fix.  It is passed on like a hot potato from one project manager to the next and from one government mandate to the next, no resolution in sight. This might be seen as one of the city’s many failures, and symptom of its crumbling and corrupt systems. But I can still see many positives elsewhere, in the conscientious and humanist attitudes of its older citizens, especially those who were old enough to remember its divided days. In the availability and abundance of public spaces, and in its honest attempts at embracing diversity.

When I visit my Oma’s city, I let it embrace me like a kindred spirit as I jog in its shaded parks between oaks, birches, chestnuts and elms. As I swim in its lakes, feeling the smooth water glide around my limbs, cooling my skin on these recent scorching days, and warming it on cloudy days when the breeze blows cool and ripples the surface. There is nothing quite like sliding through the silent green-blue water, breathing in its mossy scent, listening to its whispered tinkling against my ears with every gentle stoke, and watching as its surface catches the rays of sunlight, turning them into a scatter of diamonds. Floating alone in the middle of the lake, embraced by the smoothness of its water, the cool forests at its edges and the skies above, is an experience in sensory mediation. I emerged from it baptised in wonder and appreciation. I envy those who do this every day, especially those who let the water caress their naked skin.  Germans are not prude, they often swim in their birthday suits.

I have seen families with kids, elderly couples, and women alone or in pair enjoying this public space. They swim, paddle on stand up paddle boards, or just relax by the water. As long as you reserve your space early enough you can enjoy a quiet moment in nature. It is much more soothing than a busy tropical beach. When I visit in winter, I still enjoy the walks in the park or along the waterways, and visits to the museums. There is plenty to do. Berlin to me though means family, my German heritage, where my grandmother was born, and where I might once like to live. If only my heart weren’t already lost in Africa, to someone who still resides there.

My Grudge Against Team England

For the past few weeks I have been watching the football (or what my American friends call soccer). Now I have a few more grudges to bear against the English.

The team I support is the traditional adversary to the English team, but they have sadly let me down and did not make it past the first round. And now I am reduced to watching England advance, to the sound and visuals of gloating on BBC and ITV. I cannot help my growing irritation at their self-satisfied commentary. And of course, the English inevitably remind me of the Englishman I accidentally fell in love with. Given my poor luck, which has officially now become much worse than England’s chances in a penalty shoot-out, England will make to the final and probably win the World Cup and I will have to bear even more grudges against the English for the next four years, until somebody else unseats them from their throne as World Champions.

My dislike of team England has a long history. It was born in family arguments over football clashes, then was deepened and justified over politics, over my dislike of the Syrian first lady, who is British, and my feud with my British cousins who are staunch supporters of the Syrian regime. As the years pass, I seem to accumulate more and more reasons to dislike the British in general, and the English in particular. I was thrilled when little Iceland humbled England at the Euro 2016. That defeat came very shortly after the Brexit referendum, and it seemed like poetic justice that a tiny European nation could bring England and their hooligan fans to grief. I think everyone in Europe felt a certain measure of schadenfreude then.

While watching the World Cup now, I collect and catalog all the reasons why I dislike the British teams. And incidentally, why should the UK continue to have four teams to compete with internationally? One could argue that the other three teams hardly made any waves, but there have been at least one world cup with three British teams (out of a total of 24 teams) which hardly seems fair for all the other national teams who missed out just because Scotland or Northern Ireland defeated them at some point (Wales to my knowledge never made the World Cup). Also, when Britain is such melting-pot of immigrants, why is the English team so pathetically English? Where are the British Pakistanis, Indians and Arabs? Is there a secret sorting mechanism that dictates that certain ethnicities are only good at cricket, badminton or squash? Or are all these people living on British soil not good enough to represent British teams? Other European nations do not seem to have this problem, and they regularly include players of immigrant stock on their teams.

The questions are all legitimate, even if they serve as justification of an old grudge. But even as I write this, I realize that my Englishman is hugely responsible for this new intensity in my desire to see England out of the World Cup. The more I see of team England, the more I think of him, and I only want to forget about them, and about him. Ironically, the Englishman in question could not care less about his national team. He told me once that out of the four teams he would probably support Wales. He is like that, an Englishman by birth and pedigree but a supporter of the underdog. I think he would get irritated with the self-congratulatory attitude and commentary on British television.

My Englishman is English only on the outside but his heart and soul are not. Still, I wish that my heart had seen this predicament coming and steered away from anything English. I should have fallen for a considerate Frenchman instead*.


 

* Hats off to Antoine Griezmann, my new football crush. He did not celebrate the goal he scored today against Uruguay out of respect to his Uruguayan counterparts. The goal was credited to Griezmann but was a result of fatal error from the keeper Fernando Muslera.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

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.” 

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.

The City of Contradictions

New York city inspires extreme emotions. You either love it, or loathe it, but you can never be indifferent about it. Everyone has an opinion of the city, and the city itself flaunts its  obnoxious self-assurance at a new arrival,  “I am, larger than life, I am the center of the universe, consider yourself lucky to be here”.

The city known as the Big Apple figures it has the right to turn your life upside down and mold its details to her whims, then has the audacity to re-define these details for you. You can still have leisure time, lunch-breaks, traffic jams, coffee breaks, or take walks in the park. But you quickly find out that New York city has taken over these concepts, creating its own unique version. It completes the insult to the stranger by keeping the vocabulary intact while stripping it of familiar meaning.

On arrival, people generally react in two different ways. The first set of people are those who fall under the city’s spell or surrender to its power. This group includes those who were always fascinated by the fame of the city, from the movies, the sitcoms, the books, and its marketing machine, as a city like no other. In the words of Frank Sinatra, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. The second set of people show resistance to the city. Those are as varied and diverse in their motivation as the first group, some miss the familiar and resent the ways of this mega-metropolis, others begrudge it is affluence and commercial focus, another group still hates the waste, the crowds, the rush, the bustle.  Strangely enough, every characteristic pointed out as a vice by the city’s opponents could be construed as a virtue by its loyal proponents. It has always been a highly divisive place.

I have made no secret of my sentiment in the past few months. I started out extremely critical and antagonistic of the city. However, like all powerful entities it has started to garner my respect. Never mind how obnoxious it is. Never mind its paved parks, its incomprehensibly ugly architecture and equally baffling modern art. Never mind its packed subways and its never ending rush. Amazingly, this city still works.

Consider first its sprawling size, with over ten million residents, give or take a few hundred thousands daytime commuters. I go to Midtown on Sunday, and it is a different place. I walk at leisure chatting to my son, while during the week I have to keep a brisk pace, if I don’t want to bump into people, and I can only hear him if he shouts. Then consider the city’s diversity, the number of people who live ans survive here without speaking one work of English. One has to admit that things break down sometimes, but I have no experience of any other city of this size, and running it efficiently must be a tremendous challenge. I think what I appreciate now most, is that this monster of a city, made out of so many disparate elements and people, a city you would think that no glue in the world can hold together, amazingly sticks together very well. And this discovery makes this place more precious in the eyes of those who never expected it to pull through.

Last year, I met a South African woman who introduced herself as a proud American. She had won the green card lottery some years back and found a niche for herself teaching computer literacy. At the time I profiled her immediately in my mind, she is a disgruntled white person, I thought, running away from a South Africa that has embraced a majority rule, and from the perception of losing privilege. I have revisited my thoughts about her since then. I remember her saying that she became fiercely American after 9/11, and I thought that was an incongruous romantic rubbish coming from someone as hard-boiled as that middle-aged woman.  Now I think I understand her feeling. New York city may look tough and heartless but if you look deep enough she has a soul.

As late as six months ago, I was quite sure that New York was pretentious and soul-less. I even remember sending an email to my American friend Peter telling him how I despised this place. He said that America had a soul, but it was so well-hidden, that you can only find it when you are not really looking. I think he was on to something.

I think I started warming to New York sometime between soccer practice with Robert and lining up costume-less for the Halloween Parade on Roosevelt Island.  When Sandy came it taught me something more about the New York soul. I saw regular people buying groceries for the stricken and volunteering their time. I saw the city pull together and make alternative plans. I found it quite remarkable. This in the city where people walk past a disabled beggar pretending he is not there. There is a sense of community that defies you not to be part of it. Everyone I know has contributed even in a small way.  If 9/11 forged the American patriotism of my South African acquaintance, then Sandy taught me about New York the community, away from the excess and ruin of wall-street, the lobbying and petty politics of the UN-headquarters, the concrete and the real estate.

It can be many contradicting things – cruel, kind, surprising, hot, cold, exasperating, embarrassing, tragic, funny, and entertaining,  but it can never be boring.  There are  always little nuggets of gold, moments that are there to savour amid the rush, the noise and the stress.

Yesterday Robert and I boarded the local bus on 3rd avenue. The driver was announcing the station then saying : “look to left, smile at your neighbour. Look to your right say hi, make a friend”. It was Friday night, so it was perhaps not surprising that the passengers humored him, but I noted that there conversation on this bus was more animated than usual. Before we got out at our stop, Robert had a chance of singing a refrain of the Wheels on the Bus, started again by the driver. That bus driver may have been acting against MTA rules, but he made many people happy.  Welcome to New York. One day you encounter a happy bus driver, another day you come close to getting run over on a crosswalk. Never a dull moment.