The Shadows of My Past

Some time ago I came across an undated handwritten text in my papers. Even though I relocated a dozen times in the last two decades, I find it hard to get rid of anything handwritten. I have with me all the letters I received since I first left my home country, and every single draft I wrote. There are some of my lovelorn laments, my poor attempts at poetry and even exercises I did from a book on creative writing.

More recently my sister in the old country told me that my old teenage diaries are still there in one of the attics, surprising survivors of damp, neglect and war. One day I might be reunited with them, and I will be surprised at how far I strayed from that awkward romantic teenager I used to be.

Discovering old handwritten notes is very exciting. Sadly, rummaging through older blog posts does not have the same magic. The text that I uncovered predates my oldest blog posts, but is not that much older. It is from around 2005. My ex husband and I were running a Shell Service station in East London, South Africa. We lived in the beautiful seaside suburb of Gonubie. I think the questions and answers come from a self-help book I was reading at the time to try and fix my life and my ailing marriage. I believe I went for my first counselling session shortly after I wrote it. And in that same year, I made my first attempt to extricate myself from my unhappy marriage.

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I would like to think that the quality of my writing has improved since, then but I am not sure my handwriting did. I am surprised at how nice and different it used to be.  I now write more forcefully, my letters loop more downwards (according to what I read this could mean I am more aware of my sexuality than I was then), and I have some more assertiveness to my Ps than I did then. I still have the ambiguity about my I in pronoun, sometimes it is a fat big I and other times it is just a plain vertical line. But that ambiguity and insecurity was way more pronounced in the past, and I can safely say that I have done away with my inferiority complex that was so clear in what I wrote about myself in the past. Here is the text reproduced with all bad metaphors, deleted words and errors. I will keep the original, as I always do. I will comment on it after the note. Keep in mind this was 13 years ago, signalling the identity crisis of my thirties that ended with choosing motherhood, followed closely by a forced separation, and subsequent divorce.

Q1: what is a happy relationship?
(A) It is a space where you are allowed to be yourself where you
are loved for what you are, and where you do not need to make 
apologies or excuses for the idiosyncrasies* of your behaviour.
(B) It is a place where you give and take in equal measure and 
where nobody ever feels taken advantage of
The first part is probably what I lack. The second part is what 
(Ex) feels is missing.

Q2: Do I feel that I have a right to happiness?
Everyone has a right to happiness. Why do you assume that it's 
me who has the short end of the stick? you haven't heard his 
side of the story. However it became clear to me today that (Ex) 
is doing what he wants. 
Perhaps he is not getting what he needs on an emotional 
the relationship level but neither am I. At least in his mind 
he is going in the right direction, in the direction he wants 
to go. He feels that I am just tagging along, hitching a ride 
on his steamtrain without paying the fare.
I don't blame him. I have never given him a reason to believe 
that I want anything other than what he wants.
Yes everyone has a right to happiness, but you cannot create 
Happiness is just a fleeting moment, it never lasts for long. 
When I walk along the beach I am happy. When (Ex) and I share 
a meal in pleasant surroundings I am happy. When I get an email 
or a letter from home I am happy. When I come home after 
a good run I am also happy. I am where I want to be. I love
this place, I don't want to trade it for anywhere else in the 
world.
(Ex) can be a more pleasant person if he wants, if he quits 
trying to beat mould me into his standards. 
I am not a business person. I am too emotional to have leadership 
characteristics. I can't handle stress! 
To him it is all a walk in the park. It is very easy. He is 
the navigator who leads the stranded ship into a safe harbour. 
I am just a panic stricken saylor (sic) who is reduced to a wreck 
at the first sign of trouble and yesterday we really had bad 
problems. I was lectured for the umpteenth time to take get 
a grip. 
I keep feeling so useless and spineless. I am just a weeping 
Next time I will just step aside and let him handle the crisis 
until the storm passes. 
Funny thing I remember just now that I had a dream last night 
-prior to all this problem- I dreamt that I received news that 
(Ex)'s son had drowned in their house's swimming pool. I really 
wish that someone could give me an interpretation for this dream. 
I was trying to break the news to him. 
Maybe I should seek counselling.

Q3: Do I think that I wasted my life
No. Where do I see myself in the next 5 years?
In five years time I will be fourty ! Scary thought ! Ex's 
version of the answer: (The Service Station) will be running by 
itself or with the help of a manager and we will have time to 
relax, travel and generally put our feet up.
My answer: The pessimist in me would say: We will be still working 
at (the Service Station), earning a good but not great income. 
Things will improve, perhaps the house would be furnished by then
and perhaps I will have a corner in the house to write or to 
translate and generally do things that I sometimes like
The problem between our two answers is that his tries to be 
inclusive while mine is exclusive -it is always just me-
This is one of the major things that are held against me in 
this relationship.
The first question (Ex) asked me when I told him that 
I wanted to go back to school was: -where does this 
fit in our future plans? or was it that No
I lied I read about a competition for Arabic translators 
for the UN and suggested that maybe I should apply ! 
I don't recall the incident that sparked this reaction. 
It is either one of the two !
No, I don't fancy working in the UN. Especially not in 
New York City or Geneva. But it might be interesting say 
to work in Kenya, Addis Ababa or Beirut. I have never been 
to Beirut can you imagine?

I think part of the problem in our relationship is that (Ex) 
is much older than me. In his words he has "been around 
the block a few times". Me I have Just rounded cleared the first 
doorway! It is not that I don't want to settle down, 
It's only that I feel that I will never get a chance to see 
all these places with him. He'd already been there, done that, 
worn the T-shirt.
So, this still leaves the question unanswered. 
Where do I see myself in five years time? 
That depends largely on whether my vision or his will 
come to pass. I have been proven wrong many times before, 
so maybe this time it will be the case as well. 
I would really like to raise my intellectual level 
up a notch in the meantime. 
Not that I have anything against the people I work with. 
They are real people, with real problems, which make 
mine seem very insignificant trivial. 
Yes, just imagine my complaints against that of our 
cleaning lady whose husband is always drunk, 
has no job and will probably give her AIDS before
too long. Yet she is still blessing her life and taking 
to reading the bible in her lunch break ! 
Faith is a wonderful thing ... If you have it !

Q4: Do I think I wasted my life? Do I want to 
waste the rest of it?
I will answer this one with a little bit of humour. 
The last time I checked I wasn't on the roster for any 
divine mission. When I go to sleep, my dreams are the simple 
hallucinations of an overtired mind. 
I never had a revelation yet. 
My sister and most of my schoolmates are good wives 
and mothers. Compared to them I am a phenomenal breakthrough 
and probably an experiment that went horribly wrong. 
On a more serious note though, I will be thirty five on my 
next birthday. I would be lucky if I still have the 2nd half 
of my life to look forward to.
People my age are already where 
At my age people are normally where they want to be 
for the rest of their lives. The fact that I am not 
is not a compliment on my character. It is actually 
a disgrace; I am thoroughly ashamed of this.
Still, my history has been one of lagging behind. 
Perhaps I will catch the last train out?
I don't know ! I have lost the way to the station. 
Why can't I just be content with running a petrol 
station? Why do I have to so snutty (sic-want
to say snooty) and think that I deserve better? 
You really shouldn't encourage this vein of thought. 

My heart aches for the writer of these pages. She was surely trying too hard to be what she felt she was duty-bound to be, at the expense of what she truly wanted. She asked too many questions about what was wrong with her, and rarely questioned the attitude of her self-centered husband. She asked for so little, and even her legitimate desire for motherhood and family was kept well-hidden from herself. A psychologist would have a lot of material to work with with. Even a layperson can recognize the broad themes of denial, self-blame, lack of confidence and total unawareness of self worth.

Over 13 years have passed since I wrote those words. And no matter what life has thrown at me since then, I am grateful that I have left that insecure and self-doubting woman-child behind. My journey to a fulfilling life started when I finally recognized there was nothing wrong with me. It is true that separation from my spouse was forced upon me, but it was, after having my child at 37, the most fortuitous turn of events for my intellectual and personal development. When I read these words now, I can smile and be proud that I have outdone my poor predictions of 2005. Five years after writing these pages I was on my way to realizing most of my dreams, even the unspoken ones.  Now I am finally where I want to be for the rest of my life. I work in Kenya. I translate, I write and I do the things I like. I also get to travel and see the world. Most importantly, I have a family of my own. I am a mother to an intelligent and sensitive child, and I raise him away from the prejudices and cynicism of his biological father. I teach him to appreciate the beauty of our diverse world and the joy of simple things. I aspire to give him the tools to lead a joyful life. I have found more joy in my own life since I left the constant gloom of my marriage. I am mostly content living on my own terms, and can take full responsibility for my happiness and misery. My present life has followed from the disappointments of the past, and I am glad to report that the unhappy writer of these pages has redeemed herself.

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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.

 

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Afflicted

Love songs make me cry
Now that I learned the language
Spoken in the heart.

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Trying to Heal My Heart

It is over a year now since I first met my beloved, and I now admit that I have initially underestimated the depth and resilience of my feelings.

The last post I wrote took a while to compose, I wanted to mention that on that day I met him again, but then the serious issue of the post took over, and I found it hard to bring its tone down by going back to the sore (and now sour) subject of my heartache.

Even though love itself lacks reason, there are certain qualities that first drew me to my beloved. The one I appreciate most is his empathy and his genuine desire to stand for what he feels is right and just, to champion the weak and marginalized and stand up for them. So it is natural that he shows up in an event against homophobia. I know from experience, that once I see him, whether face-to-face or in passing, the damage is usually already done, I know that I will be in for a day or so of sadness and despair, so I might as well speak to him and face the consequences. So I met him head-on, and gave him a little rainbow flag to stick in his shirt pocket. He kept looking at his phone and commenting that he was texting people and urging them to join the event.  He also wondered about his Christian colleagues and where was their love for humanity. These are some of the small reasons why I love this man.

I do not remember much of what I said to him in return, but all I know is that in a room full of people I forgot about everyone but him. I was just lost in his presence. I remember he asked about my brother. A few days ago, and because my beloved would appreciate the irony, I had texted him that my brother was asking me for advice on how to make sure a girl likes him. I have found out since that my brother did not win his girl. But lucky for him and his clueless heart, he was not the worse for it. In fact he was quite amazed at how quickly he bounced back from the rejection. He was already on the mend that same day when his love interest told him she was not ready for commitment, how I envy him. I think I complained to my beloved how difficult it was for me to forget him. And even though he made fun of me and told me to listen to my mother and that there were “so many other fish in the sea” I could just look into his eyes and forget what he said and believe instead what his eyes were telling me. I might be delusional or clueless about the language of the eyes, but he told me that he was “bereft” that he did not have any books to read. If there is a word in the English language that would always remind me of my beloved Englishman it is this one, and it always brings back the feelings of loss that I lived with since I knew him. I am bereft too, and disassembled by loving him.

But since this is my life, where I am bound by some old-fashioned principles, the reality has to hit me even while I am fighting the depth of my feelings. I was standing next to him when his phone signaled an incoming call with the call ID of his wife, and in an instant I was brought back to the impossibility of imposing my presence into this script. I would never judge any woman who chooses to take a married man as her lover, if it is clear to all that the intention is to keep this as an affair, a love match that never gets formally recognized. But my feelings for the man are neither trivial nor transitory and I cannot degrade them in an affair that will inevitably taint my love with guilty and self-loathing. On the other hand, I know that an affair is all I could ever have, so I am done for either way. There will never be a “Bridges of Madison County” role for me, and it is best to walk and really mean it.

I have never loved anyone like I love this man, and I know my feelings for him are real, because I wasn’t out fishing when his love found me. I was not looking for a relationship and I will not even start looking now. It was foolish of me to think that an account on Tinder or OkCupid will help me solve the problem of accidentally falling in love with him. Because nothing will be solved until I heal my foolish heart. My problem is that love found me, where I did not want to be found. And as much as I am grateful for the colours it added to my life, for the depth of feelings that I became capable of since our first encounter, for the rebirth of my awareness of my appeal and sexuality, and for the renewed attention to my health, appearance and figure, as much as I appreciate and enjoy all that, there are times when I feel that I have given too much of my body and soul in return for a flood of tears and a load of heartache.

Maybe the happiness I had before was just an illusion, a sense of self-sufficiency that was thinly veiled by contempt, apathy, and cynicism. But I was content in my ignorance, and cushioned by my triumph over my past. Now I know that love exists, and I can no longer scoff at it nor deny it. But I cannot find full gratitude for its presence in my life. Given a choice, I might have wanted to remain ignorant.

So on the 17th of May this year, I decided to retreat into my shell. I wanted to disappear completely, and change my routine so that our paths never cross. I vowed to  keep a low profile and not go again to any event where he is likely to be present. I intended to reclaim the empty and peaceful space within my heart, hold in it only those who are already there, those who love me or need me, namely my son, my family, and my closest friends. I wanted to read and write again and maybe go back to school.

I am carrying this through to the best of my ability. And I am sincere in my desire to break free from the Englishman’s spell. I never venture anymore to any place where I am likely to meet him. I never drink coffee on his side of the compound. I spend minimal time in common areas, and mostly take my lunch at the office or in some other place where I am sure to be alone. I keep to my practice of meditation, as I turn to my nerdy nature and ask for healing from within.

Some days are easier than others. It helps sometimes when I am busy with work and my other regular responsibilities as a bread-winner and single mom. At other times the load gets heavy, and busy becomes swamped, and I begin to drop one or another of the many balls that I am juggling. At these times I feel so lonely and need a kind word, I miss him then terribly, because his eyes spoke kindness to me and promised a shadow of understanding and compassion that I was desperate for. And every now and then all the various disappointments, all the heartaches big and small, fuse together into a single red-hot point, and combined they choose to hit me in the solar plexus knocking me off my feet. In the grip of my sorrow, I am still aware that the Englishman is my illness and my cure. Because it is his shoulder that I need to cry on, and his arm that I want to hold on to when I stumble.

I tell myself that leaving was my only option. I reason that every day will get easier than the one before. On most days I do well, I can remember him without sorrow, but then grief hits me in the gut, and I have a tearful day like today.

I have not lost hope. And even on my worst days I still work on healing my heart. But I am not interested in the other fish in the sea. Love found me while I was peacefully drinking coffee alone and reading Dostoevsky. If it wants to find me again then it will, no matter how well I hide. By then I hope to have healed my foolish heart. By then I will know if it is the right love for me, and I will know not to mess with it if it was likely to burn me. I will wait, I have the rest of my life.

 

 

 

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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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