The Dilemma of Belonging Somewhere

It has been over a year since my birth country was plunged into a desperate war. When the revolts against the ruling government started, they were only peaceful demonstrations, which were quickly met with disproportionate force. Soon the resistance armed itself and found allies amongst extremist groups, and some Gulf-state governments who were opposed to Syria’s alliance with Iran. The discourse turned ugly. Instead of justice vs injustice and freedom vs dictatorship, we started hearing Sunni against Alawis and their Shiite allies, and “Us” against the”Them”. The morality of the revolution or those who are fighting for it, came under scrutiny.

I for one, was unable to reconcile the aspiration for justice and democracy with the cruel punishment of enemies, or mutilating their corpses. The savagery of both sides intensified as time wore on. And we all know that war is an insatiable beast, and once blood is shed, it feeds on itself in an endless cycle of cruelty and savage retaliation.

I haven’t heard any news about the battle for Syria (or in Syria) in months. I am sickened of body counts,  and it is enough for me now to hear the grim news from my sister. She and her family are fed up with the fighting and just want their old life back. Dictatorship, corruption, and lack of civil liberties seem a small price to pay for safety now. After all this time I see the logic of their argument. And even though I implicitly still support the revolution as a principle I am not sure anymore of the means it employs.

I have left Syria because I had very little in common with the people there. I could neither relate to overt piety, nor to a life of leisure as a socialite. I was often criticized for my  casual dress sense, my inability to apply makeup or style my hair. My sister, in contrast did not have a problem with taking close to an hour “getting ready” every time she wanted to step out the door. Now, she has chosen to wear a headscarf, I think it is easier to just cover up and leave the house rather than get every single hair in place. I have one dry bottle of mascara that I never use, but over twenty years ago, my cousins tried to teach me how to apply, foundation, blush, eye-liner, lip liner, lipstick, and eye-shadow. I think I gave up as soon as that first lesson was through. I could never justify wasting so much time on all this rubbish. Besides, I am happy with the way I look. One of the first things I did when I got divorced was to stop dying my hair. I suffered for two years with my twin stripes, of carrot/aubergine and salt-and-pepper and was thrilled to finally have my natural grey-highlight. Women in Syria would never understand this attitude. They thought I was awfully uncouth when I walked the streets in a T-shirt, faded jeans and hiking sandals. I think they dubbed me as the African savage. Everyone expects an expat to arrive in designer clothes, expensive leather shoes and flawless skin. I only had my casual wardrobe and proudly showed off my arms and legs, tanned by the African sun. After living in South Africa, I became an alien to my country of birth, but at least I had a good excuse then. When I lived there, I tried my best for years. I wanted to belong, but it never worked. In South Africa, I found a place where it was okay to be myself. I belonged regardless of the color of my skin. Most people dressed casually, just the way I liked to dress. Nobody ever asked me what my religion was.  It was a revelation.

I found that I relate to South Africa better than I ever related to my country of birth. I respect and admire the wisdom of its people and the way they transcended their differences and moved along towards a common future. The idea of Ubuntu and the truth and reconciliation speak volumes on the morality of this nation. Yes, there were incidents of bloody conflict, and even the current majority government has made its shares of mistakes and trouble, but none of these come even close to the monumental destruction still under way in Syria.

The nightmare scenario playing out in my birth country does not correspond to any of my views.  I am so ashamed and unhappy about it that I reached a stage of total apathy. Some of my friends write glowing praise of the country they remember, the beautiful Syria, where different sects and religions lived side by side, in peace and harmony. The cynic part of me questions the veracity of such an innocuous image, when the erstwhile neighbors are now caught in an exchange of violence, that causes more bloodshed at worst, or slides into the worst gutter language at best.

I watch in horror, while people I once considered friends defend the indefensible, or hurl obscenities and accusations at others for a difference of opinion. For one group I may be classified as an Israeli sympathizer, a tool of American imperialism. While the others would call me a non-believer, and enemy of Allah. Both groups are fools, and again, I find myself unable to relate to neither.  Before the revolution strayed into sectarianism I enjoyed listening to a few secular voices, calling for a civilian rule, under a liberal constitution. Today, these voices are drowned by the proponents of an Islamic State.

My dilemma is that I cannot openly criticize the religious tone of discourse, for fear of offending my religious friends. Besides, I do not want to look as if I am supporting the alternative (the current bloody regime that continues to kill people with impunity). On the other hand I feel that I do not have any stake in this battle anymore because, in all honesty, I neither want the religious extremists to win, nor can I ever accept the criminal regime to stay.  Unfortunately for everyone, these two sides have the best chances, because they have the strongest foreign support (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – on the side of the regime, and the Gulf States, and the western world, on the side of the armed religious insurgence). This balance of power has so far kept both sides more or less evenly matched, but sooner or later the scales will tip to one side.

I withdraw again to the safe cocoon of African politics. For all its faults at least the ANC is still ruled by a civilian constitution. It recognizes the rule of law, not the rule of God or the ancestors. The more Syria slides into anarchy the closer I retreat into the safer ground of my South-African identity. One post I recently read likened a birth country to a mother, and an adopted country to spouse. So according to this analogy I am an ungrateful daughter to the mother country.

If this were true then I could argue that my mother country never treated me well in the first place, I felt like I was kept by an evil stepmother, who constantly pushed me into things that I did not want to do. My adoptive African mother was kinder and loved me the way that I am, I call her my true mother. Again, this is something else where I differ from the people in my birth country. Belonging to the birth country is not a choice in their opinion. It is a sacred duty. And blind patriotism makes the best fodder for senseless wars.

South African Cynicism

Our own Cape Times came out today with a full transcript of President Obama’s Inaugural Address, so now I have a record for it. Later I found a blog with embedded segments of the speech and its transcript, so I got to watch it, long after the excitement about the whole thing subsided, but I cannot complain since my time is not my own.

The Cape Times opened with the headline : The Age of Obama Begins, and the picture was of him taking the Oath of office. The thing that gave me a chuckle, however, was a tiny cartoon near the bottom of the first page.

Here it is :


For more hilarity visit the Cape Times website.

Thoughts on Fate and Parenting

Two stories made headlines this week, one is the horrific crash of Spanair JK5022 from Madrid Barachas to Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. The other was the alleged ‘satanic’ killing of a 16-year pupil in a Krugersdorp school. Both incidents came up today during our play group class.

Aviation tragedies were always a source of horror for me. I am a nervous flier at the best of times, and working as a Weight-and-Balance agent for a major European airliner made the admiration and dread of this mode of transport even greater. When you work with these machines you realize that they have tremendous tolerance to human and material faults. The news stories say that the Spanair MD-82 jet had a technical issue with some temperature gauge, which brought it back from a takeoff attempt, yet this fault by itself is not enough to bring the airliner down. Seasoned pilots say that a complete failure of one engine cannot by itself bring the aircraft down, and there are measures to deal with engine fire during takeoff. However, something did happen on that aircraft and the scary thought is that while a major fault like an engine failure cannot by itself cause a crash, sometimes a combination of many minor technical faults and errors do lead to tragedy. 153 people died in the inferno of the doomed plane, among them two infants, and only 19 survived, three of the survivors were children.

There are heart-wrenching survivor stories. A fireman speaks of a boy who thought he was in a movie, and wanted the filming to be over so that he can be with his dad. There was an injured mother who asked rescue workers to pull out her 11-year daughter first. The mother did not make it to the hospital, but the daughter survived along with her father. There was a woman who walked out of the crash and phoned her brother from a fireman’s cell phone; she escaped unscathed from hell. When tragedy hits, who dies and who survives ? there is no logic or mathematics to the outcome. Fate, in this case is the most convincing and comforting answer. It spares people the grief of searching for impossible answers. People who believe tend to accept such calamity. If your loved one died in the crash it is a source of comfort to be able to accept that it was perhaps their time to go. And if you were one of the survivors, the knowledge that “it simply wasn’t your time” is a sufficient explanation and an absolution from guilt towards those who weren’t as lucky. Faith is a great comfort, and it is worth nurturing, even in these jaded and pragmatic times.

Faith is perhaps what will eventually help the parents involved in the South African school killing tragedy. An 18-year-old boy arrived to school on Monday with a samurai sword, which he used to kill another young boy of 16 during school assembly. The perpetrator went on to injure three other people. The killing embodies the nightmare of mothers all over the world. How do you protect your child from evil ? and if you can protect them and prevent them from wielding the sword, will you ever be able to prevent them from getting slain by it?
The discussion went on between the mothers in my moms and tots class, it is not always easy to understand what is going on in the minds of young people. The parents of the alleged attacker came out and spoke about his psychological problems, that he listened to darker heavy-metal music and became involved in Satanism. There were debates on the radio on who is to blame for this tragedy; is it the parents ? the music ? the internet with its unbarred access to all types of information, cults and quirks ? Can parents really stop a child with psychological problems from turning into a psychopath ?

There are no easy answers. The world has become a very small village, and if you want to protect your child from what you consider to be negative influences you have to keep them locked at home, away from television, internet, school and even next door neighbors; it is an impossible task. Mothers of older children in my play group complained about their children’s obsession with collecting monster figures and wondered whether the appreciation of such grotesque toys would twist their sensibilities and judgement. I can think back to many different fads that came and went. A decade ago there were the Tazos, and when we were young there were also pictures of monsters and silly cartoons that we collected from the boxes of cream cheese, or in the wrappers of bubble gum. Most of the cartoons and pictures did not make sense, but the thrill was the collection in itself, and there will always be something like that to catch children’s attention. My parents did not encourage obsession with these silly collections, but they tolerated it, and in time the novelty wore off and died, and we moved on to the next fad. I think I will do the same thing with my own child.

It is however important to keep a finger on the pulse, and be involved in your child’s interests, if possible. As long as these interests are aired out and expressed in the open, they do not get the chance to turn into spores of evil. A parent has also to strike a balance between firm prohibition and gentle disapproval. Limiting the former to acts and behavior that are truly against healthy moral judgement. I would like to think that when the time comes I would be able to perform such a role in my son’s life, but it is a long process, and I have to earn my credibility as a mother with the passage of time. One day my son’s behavior will be the ultimate measure of my success- or failure. Unless we prescribe to the argument that nature rules over nurture, but that is a subject for another day.