September 12, 2006

Decisions in a closet

In a few days , I will be travelling to another Middle Eastern capital . Travelling is a pain - agreed.
But for an Arab woman , it is more than just a nuisance , it is torture .
Everytime , I am set to go to some Middle Eastern city , my mind gets into semi automatic gear and I am always amazed as to how I can process several thoughts simultaneously all at once .
One of my biggest obsessions when travelling to another Middle Eastern country is what shall I wear - I become totally fixated on this thought .
Some of you may think it is female vanity or simple coquetterie . I can assure none of that is true .
It goes beyond that . For a non veiled woman such as myself (rightly or wrongly) , what I decide to wear is of crucial importance these days . I say these days , because am old enough to know it was not that way before - before meaning in the early 80's and 90's .
Now , I have to be very very careful . My wardrobe has become a "lieu" for deep reflections .
Is this dress too short ? are these jeans too tight ? is this skirt wide enough ? what about this shirt , is it transparent by any chance ? and the t-shirt , make sure it has sleeves and it goes on and on ...
I can assure you that I am a relatively modest dresser and do not enjoy parading or exhibiting myself in public . Ok, I may be a little eccentric in my taste but there is nothing shocking or unpuritanical about it . Yet despite all of that , I am not at rest and there is no respite .
If I am to compare myself to the increasing number of women clad from head to toe , then I will invariably appear naked in comparison . There is no way I can win this battle .
I feel constantly judged when travelling alone in the Middle East . People are simply not used seeing a woman by herself . They almost always assume you mean business and men know what business I am talking about . A woman can have 10 phds and 20 years of work experience in her baggage but when she travels alone , she is immediately seen at best as an object of curiosity or at worst as an "easy target " specially if she happens to be an Arab like myself .
So I find it absolutely necessary to keep that "frigid death " look on my face so as to ward off unwanted predators. And needless to say that this put-on demeanor has to be crowned with a serious frown .
The most difficult moments when travelling alone is eating time . Eating becomes a torturous process. I find myself having to stick to the hotel restaurant because wandering alone , in particular during the evenings , in some restaurant is a definite no no .
I have had the experience of going out alone at night and I did mention one incident at this jazz club in Cairo but I have heaps of other incidents I can share with you .
Everyone stares at you , women think you are after their husbands/boyfriends , men think you are a hooker prowling for a client , even the waiters try to hit on you . I feel so uncomfortable that I always gulp my food down , my stomach in knots , pay my bill in a rush and head back to my hotel room . Many a times I have cried myself to sleep from sheer frustration .
A woman cannot reclaim the night alone in this part of the world . She has to be accompanied . And if she happens to be alone , then she has no one to blame but herself . She should either be with her family or husband . And if she has neither , then ....then she sits in her hotel room and eats cold sandwichs watching Al Jazeera . Do you understand now why most Arab women are desperate to get married .
Marriage is the passport to civil society , it procures you a place , a space to move , a title of respectability . And if you happen to be unmarried like myself , by choice , then you are doomed forever . You are neither a mother , nor a wife - you are just a woman alone in a wild world .
Freedom has always a price and sometimes a costly one and It seems that I will not stop paying its dues .
Ok , so I was saying ...ah right , my clothes ...So what do you think I should wear ?

September 11, 2006

To Arab Americans in their Ghaflah

I dedicate this poem to you , Arab-Americans .

Ghaflah - The Sin of Forgetfulness

born by the mediterranean
our mothers bathe us in orange -blossom water
olive trees and cedars...
we come to america where they call our land
the East meaning different/dark/dirty
we soon forget....
we know that barbie
looks better than Scheherazade...
proud of our colonizers tongue
we forget the Qur'an sings in arabic...
we stared at pictures of our children
eye sockets carved out by rubber bullets
on the 10 o'clock news
our brothers and sisters spit up blood and teeth
and CBS declares them "terrorists"
now we turn away from bruises and broken bones
body counts and funerals
we know we cannot help anyway
we forget we once stood on the same ground
they die on ...
we look for the arabia packaged by the west
we eat pasty hummous at eight dollars a plate
and tell each other
how much we miss home .

( Extracts from the Poem by Dima Hilal , from the Poetry of Arab Women , N.Handal, 2001)

September 10, 2006

Enheduanna & Goethe - A poem

The following is an extract from Amal Al-Juburi poem . An Iraqi Poetess living in Germany.

Enheduanna & Goethe

We are both different :
you thought and spoke your verses,
I gave my poems birth,
then conceived my thoughts.
Why do you blame me when I gather
the tribes of lovers and the exiled
into the day's cemetery?
You have awakened women whom I imprisoned in the dungeons of hell.
O West, I am hurtful...
There is no piety in my heart
but I am the priestess of the great suffering,
I drag your land from the webs of words
while you drag me to your "West-East Divan"
We both balance on the same rope
though we part walking toward two abysses .

(Extracts from The Poetry of Arab Women, ed .by N,Handal, 2001)

*** Note to the reader : Enheduanna was a Sumerian Princess , daughter of King Sargon, and also a high Priestess of the moonGod of Ur and a poet for the Goddess Inanna .

La Gasolina Fever on a Saturday Night

Saturday night . Had not gone out socializing in ages . Tonight I made up my mind . Enough being cooped up in my apartment commiserating in total recluse .
I was going to join the rest of the human race in their mundane activities . Armed with the thought of being part of a group even for a few hours , filled me up with a burst of energy .
I joined a bunch of friends . We met up in an unassuming joint, simple people, unostentatious attire , good music . The night was young and welcoming .
Hits blasting on the speakers - hip hop, reggae,funk,techno,rap. latino - did not matter, I danced to all of them . I whirled , twirled, jumped, stomped , shook .... like some heretic exorcising himself about to be born again . The external world no longer existed , there was just me in this little universe .
Then something strange happened . The DJ decided to play a latin hit and the lyrics came closer and closer about to engulf me and the song went : " Me gusto la Gasolina, me gusto la Gasolina..."
I saw G.W.Bush cloaked in a Vampire's black cape , two long sharp protruding teeth, blood dribbling at the corners of his mouth , grey metallic eyes shining in the obscurity, a sly smile covering his thin dark red lips and he was humming " Me gusto la Gasolina , Me gusto La Gasolina ...Then out of nowhere appeared all his advisers and in a chorus like manner ,took up the refrain ..."me gusto la gasolina , me gusto la gasolina "....
Then a thousand skeletons walked through the walls and jumped onto the dance floor moving feverishly singing along " NO me Gusto la Gasolina , NO me Gusto la Gasolina ..."

September 9, 2006

A souk in Damascus

S. called , she said : "Let's go downtown" . Downtown usually means the heart of the City, and that means : souks , bazars , vendors, merchants, hustle bustle , cacophonous car horns , crowds , traffic jams name it .
I have never felt comfortable in crowded places . I avoid shopping malls and souks like the plague especially during peak hours . But this was no peak hour .
A feeling of angst washed over me . I could not tell where it was exactly coming from, or why it had suddenly emerged leaving me so indecisive and so restless .

"So what do you say ? " S. retorted impatiently . "Some other day " I, sheepishly, replied.
I could tell S. was not pleased and I felt a little guilty . After all this was not our first time downtown , and in the past it had been a relatively hassle free outing - apart from some occasional lewd remark or an unwelcomed stare from some passer by - usually male .

I hung up the phone and was adamant about getting to the bottom of this . Why this angst ?
I was curious , very curious .
I put on my CD of the day - The Jubran Trio - made myself a cup of tea , lit a cigarette, and sunk in my chair .
And for some unknown reason , the Hamidiye Souk of Damascus came to mind .
I saw myself about 11 years old , walking in that long souk, packed with vendors , high pitched shouts , endless rows of goods and a mixture of smells of perfume and grilled meat .
My mother would take me there everytime she visited Damascus which was often since we drove there from Beirut . I could see myself holding her hand and feeling rather intimidated by the crowd of people walking up and down the souk , negotiating , admiring , checking price tags and quality , meticulously examining what was on sale. I could see her talking to the shop owners and bargaining down prices , I could see the ice cream seller parading his skills , or the coffee seller with his clinking cups , or the old worn out shoe shiner sitting in some corner, eyes glued to the pavement and checking every step and what kind of foot wear every passer- by had on .
I could hear my mother's voice brashly saying " Yalla , you are too slow , move faster ", and ...
I could hear some creepy voice whispering in my ear whilst my mother was busy checking yet another shop : " you are a pretty girl ... aren't you " and I could feel some invisible hand either brushing my hair or pinching my bottom or whatever part of my body it could get hold of .
The scene was repetitive , to the point that subsequently , when it was time to go to the souk , I would freeze and refuse to get into the car , that cursed car that would take me to Damascus .

Now it is all coming back . Now I understand why I was always sick when I returned home , why I had headaches or stomach aches . Mother always blamed it on the ice cream vendor .
He had nothing to do with it . It was this evil whisperer and that anonymous hand that were the real culprits .
Of course , I could not tell her then and never told her since . I kept dutifully silent and would bite on my lips and hold back my tears till I felt them swelling in my throat about to strangle me. No, I said nothing .
It is only now , decades later , that I am allowing myself to feel the anger . The anger at having been viewed at this tender age of 11 or 12 , as some public property . The anger at having my body seen as some good along with the other goods exhibited in this souk . A piece of something to be examined and fondled ....

The Jubran Trio kept playing on their ouds , a soothing musical piece . I took another sip of tea and remembered , not long ago , the sight of a little veiled girl standing next to a very stern looking father . She was about 6 , and I felt quite disturbed .
Something about my facial expression must have been a give away for she kept staring at me with those big innocent eyes of hers , as if she was pleading with me . Maybe now I have a better understanding why he had to veil her at such an early age and imprison her under a piece of cloth . Maybe he used to be one of those young men , lecherously preying somewhere in some souk ....

I called S. a few hours later . "Do you still want to go downtown ?"
"Did you finally make up your mind ?" she asked .
"Yes , let's go ".
I grabbed my hand bag and tied a headscarf around my neck , just in case ....

September 7, 2006

A Minaret in Switzerland .

My friend H who lives in Zurich sent me this piece of news today .
In Switzerland , a supposedly direct " grass root democracy," a "center" party is preparing a cantonal/federal bill opposing the construction of any minaret attached to a mosque.
The reasons forwarded by this " center party "are that the : " Islamic culture is totally incompatible with Western culture " and " Islam and muslims are an aggressive , expansionist force that have no place in our territory ".
Hence , the minaret a symbol of Islam's call to prayer is about to be banned in the future and the edifying of any mosque will have to be done without it.

Do you think this might be Anti-Semitic by any chance ? Let us go and ask Herr. Goldstein whom I believe is an active member there and hear what he has to tell us .

September 6, 2006

A cause for Rejoicing

A very short Poem by M.Jalal Al Din Al Rumi.

The Hiding Place

The most secure place to hide a treasure of gold
is in some desolate unnoticed place.
Why would anyone hide treasure
in plain sight ?
And so it is said ,
"Joy is hidden beneath Sorrow".

(Mathnawi III,1133-34)

September 5, 2006

Cairo and all that Jazz........

I had just finished a workshop in Cairo . I had one more night to kill before heading "home".
I browsed through the glossy "Cairo by night " for any interesting events .
To my surprise and joy , here it was . A fusion jazz night playing at the one and only famous jazz club in Cairo located in the proper middle class neighborhood of al Mohandeseen.

As an avid jazz lover , I was really looking forward to this fusion of East/West .
I called the number . Finally someone answered . A man .
"Cairo Jazz Club ".
"Hello , my name is Layla Anwar , am passing through and would really love to attend tonight's concert . I am calling to book a table ".
" Welcome to Cairo ya Set , how many will you be ? "
"Ermm...just me "
"What do you mean just you ?"
"I am passing through on a professional trip and I just ...."
"Sorry , we are fully booked ..."
"But , you just said ....."
"We are full . "
"Wait I am a tourist , I just want to listen to some Jazz."
"Women alone are not allowed besides what is your nationality ?"
"What has my nationality got to do with it ?"
"I need to know what your passport is .. you are an Arab aren't you ? "
"Well obviously, I am speaking to you in Arabic ".
" No unaccompanied female allowed..."
"Why not ?"
"Well you know ...."
"No I dont know , why not ?"
"We are a respectable place ..."
"Listen I am a ...."

Click - the line went dead on me before I could finish my sentence .

I waited 30 minutes and called again putting on my best Anglo Saxon accent . Mind you I could have also put my best Russian, French or Italian accent , but I settled for the nasal English .I figured people were more accustomed to it .

"Cairo Jazz Club"
"Hi , my name is Christine Smith. I am from the USA and ..... "
"Welcome , welcome , what can I do for you ? "
"I need a table for tonight "
"Of course Ma'am , what time ?"
"9 pm . And by the way , it is a table for one "
" Very welcome to Cairo , very welcome Ma'am, your table is ready anytime ..."

Don't you just love it ? This East/West fusion and all that Jazz.........

Headless in Baghdad

I had just finished paying for my coffee when my eye caught sight of an old newspaper, left behind, resting on a chair waiting to be picked up . I felt maybe some omen from the Gods is in store for me . I took it , stuffed it in my handbag and left the place quickly like some thief running away with stolen goods .
Days passed and the newspaper sat there , staring at me . I finally acknowledged it .
I nonchalantly flicked through it . So far nothing special, same stuff you read daily ...
The repetitive news that no longer affect us - 35 dead in Iraq , 7 killed in Afghanistan , 10 shot in Gaza - you now the usual ....
But page 2 was different . Right at the bottom of the already yellowed paper was the long awaited sign from the Gods ....
It read : "One of the most important treasures stolen in the ransacking of Iraq's national museum three years ago has been recovered ..." .
The recovered piece was one of the oldest archeological pieces over 4'400 years old - a statue of the Sumerian King Entemena of Lagash from Ur .
Our king had been taken across borders , through Jordan, Syria, Italy, the Netherlands, and miraculously landed in Washington .

The Departments of Antiquities worldwide rejoiced . Our king returned to the land of the Tigris and Euphrates . Even the Director of the Iraqi Antiquities museum is beaming with joy .
He said " I shall wall him off so no one can steal him again ..."
They even took a photo of King Entemena . Standing majestically , his hands crossed against his chest .
I smiled , finally a good piece of news . That was until I took one hard look at the picture . Our king from Ur had no head .... He is back in Baghdad ...headless .

I ripped the newspaper angrily . I am not even allowed to rejoice a little for recuperating tid bits of my own history . Of course he had to be headless . How could I forget that .
Gods of Sumer , anymore omens in store ?

September 4, 2006

The Corner/Al Zawiya - A poem

This poem was written on a table napkin in a small Iraqi restaurant called "Al Zawiya" in January 2005 .

The Corner/Al Zawiya

Stuck in a Corner
our backs to the Wall
fighting off
Memories and Ghosts
that erupt
to haunt us .

Barricaded in a Corner
of our minds
A battle is waged
armed with arrows
of pictures , snapshots
in black and white
scented with perfumes
of musk and amber
cardomom and honeyed tobacco.
Images swaying
to the sound of the Nay
dancing in ecstasy
to the beat of ancient drums .

Stuck in a Corner
our backs to the Wall
Spirits from Sumer and Babel
emerge from under
the smoky tables
tugging us
to the vivid blue
of the Euphrates .

Stuck in a Corner
our smoke unites
with the smoke
of my grandmother's wooden stove
mingled with the smell of fresh bread
and tea .

Stuck in a Corner
our backs to the Wall
sounds and visions
creep through the cracks
of our minds
oblivious to our shields
catching us by surprise
covering us
like the morning dew
that deflowers
the orange blossom trees
in the old aged garden
of Babylon .

Stuck in a Corner
against the cold Walls
of Exile ,
Ishraq streams in so gently
with the grace of a long
forgotten Queen
pulls a chair
sits besides me
and drinks from my Cup .

September 3, 2006

In Memory of Nadem

It has been almost two years since you're gone .
It is ironic that even when people are gone we can't mention their names and we stick to the first letter of their name. Your family will be also be kept a secret because I do care about them and I want no harm to reach them.

You told me : " Baghdad, here I come " - I said : " Please don't ".
You insisted. I knew you had not visited in years, from fear of the old regime.
And I also knew that you were worried about your sick dad, whom you had not seen in ages.
You wanted to see him before he passed away as you never got the chance to see your mom.
I could hear the anticipation in your voice and I knew you heard the fear in mine .

You arrived with your bubbly self. Jovial, kind, full of love for people regardless of who they were.
You really believed in "radical change" and you dedicated your whole lifetime to its ideals.
You hated the American presence yet you came. Maybe you saw some hope deep down, behind all the rhetoric of Imperialism. I cannot tell, we did not have enough time to speak.
You were rushed, almost ecstatic after such a long absence.
Then you dissapeared. No news. We waited for that phone call and we have been waiting ever since.
Your family got worried. With the little money they had saved, one of them took a taxi and tried every police station, every hospital in Baghdad. You were nowhere to be found .
He decided he will go beyond Baghdad and finally, he found you . He found you in a morgue, he was only able to recognize you because of some piece of paper you had in your pocket.

The Americans killed you N. We don't know why, but we know they did.
Maybe they did not like your smile, or something about your face, or the color of your hair, but you were shot dead. Your computer was stolen and you were left, disfigured, in the street. Someone carried you to the local morgue . You were found there, lying cold amongst thousands of others: nameless, tagless, faceless.

The Americans finally apologized to your family - they said it was a "friendly fire". They gave them in compensation 200 dollars. They refused with dignity. This is the best they could do in their condition.

This is how much you were worth in their eyes N. All your years of absence, of struggle, of exile, of hopes amounted to 200 dollars.

In some crooked way, and I know you will agree with me, I am happy you died the way you did. Knowing you, you would not have wanted to die some "banal" death.
I cannot but see the irony. You thought you had saved yourself from the so-called "tyrannical" regime through years of exile, only to be killed by your "liberators". In fact you were killed by the people whom you fought against for so many years with the only weapons you had - your ideas and principles. That, my dear friend, makes you a hero.

Rest in peace N. you saw the Light. And remember us, those left behind, hiding in the darkness of their "Liberation."

September 1, 2006

The Ghetto story a la Samuel Beckett.

The word Ghetto was first used in Dante's language - Italian . The first ghetto recorded was in Venice and was populated by Jews. If my historical memory is correct ,that must have been around the 14th Century.
The second most famous Ghetto was the Warsaw ghetto and again it was populated by Jews and that was during the 2nd World War.
The third even bigger and most famous Ghetto is the West Bank and is now populated by Palestinians .
And then, there is another ghetto within a ghetto and it is called Gaza.
And within the Gaza ghetto every home is a ghetto , where none can leave .

So the ghetto and the ghetto within the ghetto and the home within the ghetto are now all sealed by a great Wall .
No , not the Berlin Wall - that one fell down. A new wall - higher, taller, thicker, stronger, sturdier.

So those inside the Ghetto can be : packaged, stamped, confined , constricted, squeezed, caged, restricted , limited , a piece of their own land.

So let us figure it out together ....

Those who were initially outside the Ghetto became inside the Ghetto by those who were in Ghettos and who no longer are in Ghettos but keep others in Ghettos so they can fulfill their own dream of "Freedom" in a land that is not theirs.

In fact, the Ghetto Jews of Venice and Warsaw have become the Palestinians of the West Bank.

Is that an absurd twist of History ? a trajic repeat ? a farce ? or simply a deliberate Crime ?

I will let you be the judge ....