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.

Thoughts on South African Politics

This weekend was a busy weekend for us here in South Africa, because we witnessed the inauguration of our fourth democratic president, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. Some radio stations called him the fourth democratically elected president, which in my opinion was slightly inaccurate since the third president (Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe) did not come into power as a result of a national election.

I was part of the election process on the 22nd of last month.  I voted for the first time in my life.  In my country of origin there was no point taking part in a referendum – it is a one party state with presidents chosen for life (and then passing the presidency on to their progeny).  So I had a certain pride in making my mark here in my adopted country.

The process went on as expected with our ruling party the ANC (African National Congress) taking over 66% . Further results show that opposition parties are a fragmented lot in this country; the biggest is the DA (Democratic Alliance) receiving 16.75% of the votes followed by the new party COPE (Congress of the People) which took 7.5%. The latter party was formed by disgruntled members of the ANC who did not approve of the current leadership and went into opposition attracting a few Mbeki loyalists.

In this fourth democratic election there were only a few surprises. The ANC has lost some votes to the opposition (they came just short of a two-third majority), and the DA won absolute majority in the Western Cape Province. We now have a new Premier in the Eastern Cape : Helen Zille , leader of the DA, who was previously the mayor of Cape Town – I only found out recently that Ms Zille was an anti-Apartheid activist during the seventies, and  famously uncovered the circumstance of Steve Biko‘s death when she worked as a journalist for the Rand Daily Mail. The victory of the DA in the Western Cape is important because it is the first time any party manages to wrestle an absolute majority from the ANC in any of the nine provinces.

The elections had their serious moments and their really strange ones. Here in the Western Cape I saw election posters for the Cape Party, whose major objective was to declare the Cape independent (A republic of the Western and Northern Cape) – They got 2552 votes in the provincial elections, according to these results,  accounting for 0.13% of the provincial votes.

For me these elections and the subsequent events threw my adopted country in a positive light.  Despite all the negative hype about corruption and rape charges and the controversy around the person of Jacob Zuma, he has made all the right noises so far throughout his inauguration and cabinet selection. He is reaching out to South Africans of all races, and vowing to build the economy and combat poverty and disease.

Yesterday I listened in to the President’s announcement of  his cabinet selection. I noted that he formed a new ministry for Women, Children and People with Disabilities. To lump women and children together with the disabled may seem strange in other parts of the world, it may be b even unusual to single all these out as a separate category from the general population.  However, this is a testimony of how much work is still needed before real equality is achieved in society.  Our new president has charmed the majority of the population in this nation, and he is working on winning even his most bitter detractors, but how much he will achieve remains to be seen.

I can already see one bright spot though. News readers around the world will no longer have to wrestle with the name of our new president.  Although former president Kgalema Motlanthe is not completely out of the picture, he is now our deputy president.

When I Missed the Man who Made History

I walked past a coffee shop in Sea Point in the late afternoon and they had their televisions on CNN broadcasting the inauguration of the first US President of African descent. I am one of the few people who are missing out on this historical occasion, because when I moved with my son to our own place, buying a television was not among our priorities.

Since his election Barack Obama featured prolifically in South African news and media. And while South African media rarely pays attention to foreign political events, Obama features strongly, perhaps even more strongly than our caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe. Mr. Obama has us riveted because of his African descent and his powerful message to the world.

For me Obama is a little bit of hope in a hopeless world. Perhaps his policies will not differ much from other Democrat presidents, perhaps he won’t be able to do a lot for the Middle East, and he certainly will not be able to save the world as we all would like him to do. But we will always remember that he delivered us from the insanity of George W. Bush.

On a more personal level, he is the “the voice”. I love listening to him speak. That is why, again, it was a shame that I missed his inaugural speech. I will have to settle for its highlights on the internet.


Whenever I think of Gaza I remember a cartoon I saw many years ago when I was still a citizen of the troubled Middle East.  The cartoon could have been by the late Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali, but I could not trace it on his official website.  In the cartoon the Arab nation is depicted as a wounded woman; a knife had just stabbed her chest. An arrow points to the bleeding wound, proclaiming it as Gaza غزة . The cartoon works best in Arabic and particularly for those of us familiar with the Eastern Mediterranean version of spoken Arabic, where غزة (Ghazzah) means a stab, and is perhaps a derivative of غرزة a stitch, usually made with a sharp needle or similar instrument.

In my mind Gaza is still bleeding, and it is a wound in the heart of the whole world. I feel sorry for those who are forced to endure life within its borders, because I know that most wouldn’t want to live there if they had a choice.

Gaza is worse than a Bantustan. It is one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The living conditions of the people there are among the worst in the world. Now they are living under the shadow of death,  destruction and war. I have nothing but sorrow and sympathy to offer them.

This blog is not about politics.  I do not want to stand for a cause or declare myself as a militant supporter of one side over the other. I will not write from the viewpoint of an Arab, although I spent the best part of my youth in the Middle East, and I am familiar with the pain, the disappointment and their by-product of extremism.  I am writing because I do not understand how some South Africans Jews who have never been to the Middle East and know nothing about the conflict, choose to support the attack on Gaza.

I performed a google image search on Gaza and came up with over 15 million pictures. They are mostly of death, destruction and misery without end. Gaza is still a wound that is bleeding the world. Nothing has changed in the last two decades; violence breeds extremism and then more violence. So the the bloody history is poised to repeat itself again and again, as long as radicals on both sides of the divide keep calling for each others blood. It is never going to end.