Monday, June 2, 2014

Convert


Chills go down my spine as I read about the Sudanese woman sentenced to death for converting from Islam to Christianity and marrying a Christian man. Her marriage was not recognized by the state and she was also sentenced for living in adultery. Muslim women can only marry Muslim men otherwise be judged for committing promiscuous and immoral acts (like .. as in  .. dating in western cultures). 

Chills went down my spine earlier when he told me his mother wants me to convert if we decide to marry. I asked myself what’s the big deal, you don’t practice religion at all and even wonder if there’s anything out there sometimes. I didn’t alert him to the screeching “no!” going off in my head. It’s not that I am religious but religion is part of me. The “me” I am losing gradually as I integrate into an American culture which I find refuge in; refuge from my own bigot culture. Yesterday a 15 year old boy was being sentenced in Erbil for telling his father he did not believe in religion. It was his father who reported him to the police who in turn tortured the boy. For what you say, for exactly that - saying he did not believe in religion. This apparently is illegal, so is homosexuality, so is a straight intimate relation between a man and woman who are not married, so is a Muslim converting. Other religions converting to Islam is not a crime, only the other way around. Is this a culture I want to hold on to? Oddly I feel homesick and lost without it, or at least aspects of it. 

I’d like to keep the cool stuff, the literature, the art, music, food, fashion and family rituals I grew up with. I’d like to keep my favorite neighborhoods in Baghdad, my four hour solo walks, my book-reading rituals on the roof, my weekly wandering into the Mutanabi book bazaar, my family albums, my grandmother’s slang jargon that only Baghdad people can understand. I’d like to keep the superstitions that got Muslim women going to churches and lighting candles to statues of the Virgin Mary so they can conceive children and Christians visiting traditional Muslim healers. I like the Jewish architecture of old houses, and the Ottoman relics and the bright red British Post Office sign near the Sarie market. I wholeheartedly love Iraq, want to fight for it, fix it, live in it and speak a strong Baghdadi Arabic accent.  

When he asked me if I were open to converting I felt like I was being forced to give it all up  and faking becoming someone I am not. I felt exactly the same way when someone pointed a gun at me and my family in 2005 and told us to leave Iraq. He wasn’t shoving me into anything so why do I feel shoved, lost, nostalgic and homesick when he asks? 

I think about these things as I hang out with my American friends lounging on their couch with a cold beer. They talk about the US, about people and places I have no knowledge of and sports I have no interest in. I’m relaxed and I feel safe. I feel safe until their Iraqi gardener comes in eyeing me, judging me, giving me the creeps, because he’s Iraqi, like me. Suddenly I want to know more about baseball, the Tea Party and Jay Leno. 


Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Cheese Sandwich State of Mind


I met a man like no other, a man who came closer than others. He’s a restless man, the worrying type. He has daemons from his past haunting him. He confided in me and introduced those daemons into my life.  They’re the kind of daemons that wake him up in sweats reminding him of faces he is trying to forget. He and I share a history of violence.

I let him kiss me and thus began my free falling.

I’m falling into a state of quiet empty peace of mind. The state of mind he does not allow himself to have. Sometimes I have to hold his face with both hands and look him in the eye to stop him from fidgeting and he falls back into his chair, arms rested and he closes his eyes.  

My new state of mind catches me smiling while I walk alone with my headphones on or in the back of a taxi heading home. It makes my sudden and private bursts anger against myself, of jars slamming the floor and broken kitchen utensils, evaporate the second they emerge. I’m calling it the cheese sandwich state of mind.

The other day I was home alone. It was the weekend and the day was slow. My television was off, I forgot to pay my internet subscription and my fridge was empty. All I had was a small chunk of cheese and a stale piece of bread. So I spread the cheese on the bread, sat down in my kitchen, feet up on the table. It was so quiet I could hear myself chew. That’s when the realization hit me. I am never offline, I have never had my fridge go empty, my television is on at all times and I always add at least two more ingredients to a cheese sandwich.  

I surprised myself because the plain sandwich tasted good and the quiet was calming. I can’t recall the last time I enjoyed life without the additives, ornaments and noises. I sat there feet on the table discovering the taste of cheese in my mouth for the first time.

I pulled out the pack I discarded earlier to see what type of cheese it was because all the other times I ate it, it was just something on top of something to hold a multi-layered grilled sandwich together. I started eating it while sending an email and watching television at the same time and soon enough I look down and my plate is empty and I can’t even recall what my food tasted like.
  
I hold his face with both hands. I look him in the eye to stop him from fidgeting. He closes his eyes, sinks down in his chair. His arms have fallen to the sides. Is he in my cheese sandwich state of mind? Or is he quietly and privately battling his daemons in his head? You see, He and I share a history of violence.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Cliché Killing

I wrote to a friend recently telling him about some violent experience in Iraq. He told me I was being cliche and he was right. The dictionary defines cliche as “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.” I have told the same story in different versions over and over.

 My friend in Mosul is forced to wear a hijab or else get killed. My other friend’s husband watched a car explode. My uncle pulled out the dead bodies of his coworkers from under the rubble of a blown up building. My aunt saw her neighbor get shot point-blank while she stood by her kitchen window. My other aunt watched her other neighbor cry and mourn because her 19 year old daughter was shot in the spine causing her to be completely paralyzed. My cousin got blown up in a car bomb. He was a police officer in Mosul. My other cousin got tossed in the air as his friend picked up a cluster bomb in Baghdad. His friend got blown to bits. I have been telling the same stories since 2003 because they keep happening. 13 years of “the same story in different versions over and over.”

 We are not moved by cliches. They fall flat and feel boring and redundant, or at best feel as regular as traffic on a busy highway. A cliche just is. I am not moved by my cliches. I tell my cliches to foreigners and watch their faces spasm in horror because my cliches are their nightmares.

Some time ago I was talking to an American friend of mine. He has been in the military for a over decade now and had been to horrible places, seen death time and again. I thought he was my fellow cliche-king. Let’s call him King. I told King about a time I was at an internet place where people went to access their emails. Baghdad in 2004 did not have internet connection at home. So I was at a public internet place when a man sat at the computer right next to me. He stuck a flash drive in and begun to upload a video. It was an American man being beheaded.

I told King. It made him sick, as in so nauseated he needed to step out to catch his breath. I was casual about it. I don’t support the beheading of course. It makes me angry. But it rubs on me just as much as a car accident where people die. It’s sad but it’s not tragic. It happens a lot. A car exploding and killing more than 50 people, now that’s tragic. One person being killed, that’s just redundant. I went to bed that night wondering what was wrong with me.

King has fought on real battle fields and I’ve only seen combat from way far. King must have at least once, taken a life and I feel guilty if I accidentally step on a line of ants. Yet King was crushed by my story while I brushed it off as if it was a “lets talk about the weather” type of cliche. What is wrong with me? I ask King. Nothing he says.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Across the US Consulate in Erbil Where Nothing Ever Happens


I’m sitting at a café facing the US Consulate in Erbil. There’s an armored pickup with a serious machine gun mounted on it. People say I’m sitting across from a car bomb waiting to happen. I look at the Kurdish guards in their military fatigue and red berets with their fingers on the trigger of their rifle pasting back and forth to no end. Part of me is waiting in anticipation for some action.

There are a couple of UN workers laboring away at their laptops. Typical burnt out nomads. There is a big man with a loud voice and strong Texan accent sitting at a little round table with another American wearing baggy jeans, a tweed jacket, a wrinkled white shirt, shades and a French beret. There’s a couple having a lovers quarrel mixing English and Kurdish. Kurdistan is full of Kurdish expats trying to cope with their cultural clash of their tribal Kurdish identity and the carelessness of the western identity. I sip my chamomile tea and yawn. Nothing ever happens here.  

***

Kurdistan has tightened its security after the car bombing last October. 3 more bombs exploded in Sulaymania but this was largely unreported. Arab Iraqi men were no longer allowed into Kurdistan via any of the local checkpoints from Tikrit, Kirkuk or Ninewa. Men accompanied by women they are related or married to can enter. Then recently a girl friend told me single women weren't allowed either. Then a taxi driver told me that a lot of people from Baghdad were sent back regardless, families and singles. He told me this was bad for business because taxis, restaurants, hotels and malls thrived off the Baghdadis escaping the violence into the safe Kurdistan region for the weekend and over holidays.    

Syrian refugees are being pushed to move to camps and out of cities. Local authorities have informed the UN and civil society that they should no longer support refugees in urban areas and channel their efforts to camps. 60 per cent of Syrian refugees in Kurdistan live in urban areas. A man working for an oil refinery in Erbil told me that they had to let go of all their Syrian and Arab Iraqi staff. The Kurdish government gave its orders, no Syrian or Arab Iraqis allowed on oil refineries, period. It was considered unsafe.

***

So while Da’ish opens the gates of hell in Anbar (couple of hours south of Erbil) and Ninewa experiences five car bombs a day (45 minutes south of Erbil) and Kirkuk recovers from the shock of having a shopping mall hijacked recently by a militia causing dozens to be killed (even closer than Ninewa) ; while all of this happens shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, cafes, pubs and parks buzz with locals and internationals like we were in a bubble sealed from the rest of Iraq.

I look again at the Texan then at the machine gun. Nah. Nothing ever happens here.  

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Bahai Biker

The Bahai Biker
As I went flipping through Oprah Magazine, the issue that tells you how to make 2014 the year to be happy I thought of my Bahai Biker friend from Afghanistan.   

I bought the magazine at the airport while I was waiting because I needed to flip through something light and colorful and I was feeling a little down. Page after page it talked about how to be happy; about meditating, letting go of grudges, trusting your guts, drinking herbal teas, getting enough sleep, keeping a pin board with pictures of things you want in life, how the right diet and hairdo can transform your life.

In the midst of my life’s frustration uncertainties and fears, one of the things that keeps me going is a photo of a little Syrian girl from one of the refugee camps. She had a confidant gaze, bit of a smile, hands in her pockets grounded firm in her denim overalls and rubber boots at a camp full of tents and mud. On the back my Bahai Biker friend wrote “follow your dreams, who knows where they’ll take you.”

When I first met my Bahai biker friend I was at a café in Erbil waiting for him. A friend told me he was a journalist who needed to talk to someone from the UN. I was sitting there thinking of consultants, contracts, payments and reports due. Then he shows up, scruffy long hair and beard, tattoos on his arms, a back-bag, a large camera, big army boots and dripping mud from just coming back from a refugee camp where he’s been teaching filming . He left a trail of mud that led from the door to my table. The café waiters rushed after him and he apologized and laughed.

The children on camp found him quite entertaining. He jokingly showed me a video of a little boy singing Justin Bieber in broken English while the swoosh, swoosh of his feet paddling in the mud were heard the background. My biker Bahai friend walked in with the biggest kindest smile on his face – like he’d known me for years – he was in every bit a little boy himself.   When he spoke of the things he’d done and seen on the refugee camp just outside Erbil he made me laugh and I had to check myself because to me refugees are unhappy and camps are miserable.

He is a war photo-journalist gone from Kabul to South Sudan and on his way to Syria. How he can remain so positive about himself and humanity after being exposed to war zone after war zone is beyond me.


And so when I am about to indulge on buying things I don’t need or go on a eating binge that I will loath myself for later or shuffle through papers at my desk I cannot bring myself to bother with, I think of him fondly now and then and wish him well. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

He’s Jewish


A month ago I met a man who liked me. We walked and talked for hours. He asked me if I minded him being Jewish. Of course not! I said loud as if to confirm it to myself. In truth I did not care but I sunk a little thinking of all the battles I had to fight to justify my friendship in a part of the world that openly hates Jews. I did not have a problem with him my society did, I told myself. My society is at war not me. 

We went on walking and we got to the downtown area in Amman at Friday noon prayers. He told me he thought it was beautiful and that he liked the sense of community. All I could think is let me get this white American boy (and Jewish too!)  out of here before a protest starts as it often does lately in Amman after Friday noon prayers. He saw something beautiful in a culture I come from while I saw danger.

We told each other neither of us was religious and didn’t particularly belong to one culture, religion or race. I went to his house and read the book labels on his massive book shelves. I fell in love with his library full of great thinkers from all over the world. I could set camp in his living room for months by those shelves. He liked Jazz and was experimenting with classic Arabic music. He collected art work and had just purchased some Arabic classics. He taught me how to cook and we watched a couple of his favorite comedians who made the most politically and racially inappropriate yet hilarious jokes and we laughed and laughed. And for the evening I totally forgot he was anything but himself as I saw him in the privacy of his home. He started to grow on me because while neither of us was religious, he was for real and I was in knots and full of shit.

My meeting him has brought forward some soul-searching. I’m starting to see some things different. A couple of weeks ago I was rushing to catch a flight. In front of me were some men who looked like they were possibly from Yemen or Saudi. They had short trimmed hair and beards. They fit my profile of everything evil and extreme. I was trying to rush past them, to race them, to win, to prove a point, to get them to get the hell out of my damn way until one of them made way for me, smiled and helped me with my laptop bag that was just about to fall off my shoulder. He had a very kind smile. He broke my anger and I smiled back. 
   
I was talking to one my Palestinian friends about my struggles against myself. He told me that if I did not try to be true to myself I will forever be a slave to the whims of others. Then he quoted Gibran

On Children
Gibran Khalil Gibran

 Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday

Here’s to the wisdom of Gibran and may we find some in all of us.
Your Drama Queen
  

I'm Back! My New Spin on Old Issues

I guess the last time I wrote was 2 years ago or so. I stopped writing because I realized how pathetic I'd become moping online. In order not to repeat myself time and again (and to spare the handful of readers who read my blog) I went offline.

I'm still divorced. I am .. yes still single. I still struggle with the same old issues. I will continue to blog about  women's role in this Arab society, conditions of migrant workers, extremism, racism and refugees.

I will try not to blog about my self loathing and loneliness. I'd like to think I've grown during this time to have a different take on it all. I almost deleted old blog posts but then decided I had no right to. They are part of who I am for better or worst.

Stay tuned - or not!

Cheers

Your Drama Queen


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

the fence of the Iraqi Intelligence headquarters

I was triggered to write about the fence of the Iraqi Intelligence headquarters in Baghdad today when I read something about how a collective consciousness of a community can wash out a minority when it comes to spoken or documented history. This could be political when one group overpowers another or because this group is so small a minority or represents the poor that they get overpowered.

I am a Sunni Arab. My family had always had some privilege for as far back as I can remember. I had friends who were Shia, Kurds, Chrisitan and Sabia. Their beliefs were never an issue to me; I didn't care or mind what people believed in. little did I know at the time that I had projected upon them my own personality. It was not until 2003 that I heard my friends talk politics and religion saying things I didn't want to hear. I was irritated and felt cheated. But then I thought, really … who the F*** could express an opinion those days anyway!

The remedy for me would be taking a long look at the fence of the Iraqi Intelligence headquarters near my house in Baghdad. No one could not as much dare look in that direction when driving by. In 2003 the wall was sprayed from start to end with statements made by political, religious and ethnic groups I never knew existed. All of Iraq – except Sunni Arab Muslim – had a say on that fence. It was comic, vulgar, bold, crazy and reflected the utter mayhem of the city. Homeless families moved in there and had their laundry flapping to the wind inside the compound. Saddam's picture of about 4 meters tall was pealed off and shot at. This is a time for me to shut up watch and listen.

Humanitarian!!

So I’m at this charity dinner with lots of UN and NGO people and the theme of the evening is Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Technically speaking Iraqis are not “refugees” in Jordan. An Iraqi in Jordan with no annual residency card does not have the protection a refugee should have according to international standards and the UN is not obliged to relocate these Iraqis within 6 months as is the case with refugees. The whole night was a stomach-twisting joke to me.

There was food and liquor, my fellow Arab-Muslims were the biggest drinkers gathered around their own tables talking with a passionate tone about Arab politics. The internationals tended to cluster around the buffet mingling with other internationals. Then there was the Iraqi group (also guilty of clustering in our little shell) including me and five more people which just so happened to include Arabs, Kurds, Muslims, Shia and Sunni, and Christians, from Baghdad, Erbil and neighboring countries. And by God we Iraqis were all pissed!

Picture this; two major speakers give speeches about the suffering of Iraqis “oooh” folks to our left and right sigh and look at us. We appreciate the sympathy but cut it already God damn it! One American criticizes the hell out of the US soldiers, talking to me. I don’t like to be driven by politics and just because the media emphasizes something that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the truth. Yes, but the Iraqi police are doing their wide scale ethnic cleansing, they kill more fellow Iraqis than American soldiers do. I try to explain to the American but he won’t hear it. Hey I blame the US Government for all the chaos in Iraq and some of the US soldiers in Iraq are monsters but they are by far are still more disciplined than my fellow Iraqis. The man wanted to crucify me, I’m the poster child, the victim and he was the hero who was going to save me and talk on my behalf. You know I test such people by being rude to them sometimes and they always take up with my attitude. “God bless your guilty white ass” (a phrase from Frasier TV comedy) always comes to my mind when I meet people like him. It’s just another form of racism, if I am the same treat me like an equal and stop being grotesquely nice.

Then another American shows his documentary of Iraq. In it we are begging and crying. After two speeches people were growing weary so not too many people were all that interested. The Arab bunch went back to its whiskey and politics and the internationals were having a second round of salads. The American who did the film had pulled a chair close to the screen, his face full of emotions, mumbling words before being said. I could easily tell he had watched his own film tens of times. I looked at him then moved my sight around the room, few people seemed to care and even those I had a hostile reacting towards because I wanted to walk up to them and yell “do not pity me!” It’s not their fault, I was just pissed. All the fellow Iraqis were deeply scarred. Worse of all the dinner was out of town and we had to take this all night. I spent the rest of the evening looking at my feet and counting dirt specs on my shoes.

Why Iraqis in Jordan are in a pickle

I was at some other meeting about Iraqis in Jordan and there was a representative from the Jordanian Government, people from the US, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the rest – two thirds of the attendees – were Iraqi from the south, middle and northern Iraq. I learned some interesting facts and connected with allot of interesting people which was good but I also had a clash with the Jordanian representative which is what is bothering me so bad that I had to write. I hate to be wrongly accused but I also want everyone to like me. That’s why I’m a coward in conformational situations. Unlike this blog I’m really timid in real life. So anyway…

The situation of sending international funds to aid Iraqis displaced in Jordan (most are illegal, not granted refugee status, Jordan calls them “guests” thus they can’t have jobs and provide for themselves) this situation has proven to be harder than I thought to work around. Until recently I would think “duh! Build more schools and hospitals in Jordan to accommodate Iraqis here, how naive of me.

Donor governments cannot channel millions of dollars to help Iraqis here because Jordan wants these funds channeled through its government or as I understood it “send the money to us and we will spend on our Iraqi ‘guests’” and this will not fly with donors governments. There needs to be a more direct way. The Iraqi government is too much of a circus with little integrity, experience and resources for donor governments to trust them with that. The Iraqi government did say we will channel 25 million US dollars for our Iraqi communities displaced across the border, wonder how they’ll do that?! Then again this is the same government that rejected the UN calling Iraq an emergency zone (in UN terms – Iraq needs funds for emergency operations not capacity building). Lets call a spade a spade Iraq IS an emergency zone but this statement also means the failure of the Iraqi Government. So between these two jaws thousands of Iraqis who fled with the shirts on their backs must suffer of unemployment, no legal status and lack of basic human rights.

Now coming to why I’m bothered. The above was a side-chat at a coffee break because no one wanted to say this to the face of the Jordanian government rep. Before that attendees were talking about the mistreatment of Iraqis traveling into Jordan by land or flying. If you read my last piece you’ll get an example of that. All the Iraqi NGOs were talking about how they or their communities get treated. People get picked off the street and deported for no reason. Others are denied entry into Jordan and treated like dirt. The Jordan rep got defensive and said these deportations do not happen for no reason and that the person deported must have broken the law or have a forged passport. That was more than I could take so I spoke up. I mentioned real life situations I personally witnessed where people were mistreated and deported for no reason and on very arbitrary bases. For example someone who is denied entry on the Iraq-Jordan border could keep a low profile for 12 to 24 hours and try again when there is a different officer and some are allowed in, meaning there was no legal basis to deny entry, it’s just the officer’s mood. Also Iraqis entering Jordan ARE treated like dirt most of the time.

I said there needs to be clear legislations as to who should enter Jordan, tell me why you won’t let me in, it’s my right! Tell me why you deported me too, I overstayed my visa? Fine why deport me there are hundreds of thousands of illegal Iraqis here why me? And I said Jordanian border officers need to educated, instructed, or bonded by legislations not to mistreat Iraqis.

And oh boy! Her face turned red and she lashed at me and said I need to apologize. I didn’t and other people tired to tame the situation by going into side subjects. I tired to explain that no one is undermining how Jordan opened the door to the flood of Iraqis and what affect we Iraqis have on Jordan’s recourses and infrastructure. I tired to say that this small number of bad apples is affecting the way all of Jordan looks. But the damage was done. I’m sure she thought I was an ungrateful beggar and that I too should be deported.

I hear it allot here where people tell me that I took a job a Jordanian deserved better, that I’m a burden to Jordan economy, damn it people even blame us for bad weather! I’m not use to this, maybe they are all correct but I don’t want to be here, I didn’t choose to and I do want to go home! If I go home I’ll be killed. Maybe I should.

Rock-sorta-concerts in Baghdad before 2003

We had concerts once a month in Baghdad. Same crowds same bands. For the rest of the world .. yep Camel Jocks do rock! At the corner of the room there would always be a guy from the Iraqi Intelligence to make sure these gatherings don’t turn into something else, considering that we (westernized Iraqis) were viewed as silent opposition to the regime at the time. We all hid Seattleite receivers in our houses (banned by Saddam) to watch, tape and exchange what ever interested us on news, music and movie channels.

I’m remembering the flow of faces, most were killed or fled and very little of those crowds are left in Baghdad today. My last gathering with the concert crowds was in 2005 shortly before I left Iraq at some friends’ house. Their office was attacked by a detonated car in 2003 and each had undergone more than 20 surgeries since. They were leaving Iraq once and for all and we went to say good bye. We spoke about their “accident,” remembered good old days and mourned the dead. But for the most part we laughed until our soda drinks foamed out of our noses.

The thing about these concerts was that we could never make it passed Bon Jovi, anything rockier than that and the intel guy gets off his chair and gives us the redeye. One guitarist whom we nicknamed Ozzy coz he looked like him and led one wild life “by Baghdadi standards” and he could play the guitar amazingly with his fingers, toes or even a screwdriver (no kidding I saw him do that once). I remember Ozi once messed with the intel guy by playing a slow rock song then escalating his guitar faster and just when the intel guy leans forward to stand up Ozzy dives his electric guitar into a heavy and slow tune. It confused and annoyed the shit out of him. We all made fun of the retarded intel guy. It was the only time and circumstance where we felt empowered.

I do remember one concert where we tricked him and locked him out of the concert hall. It was winter and we were at “Saddam Art Center” where there was plenty of marble and the room had an echo to it. Suddenly out of no where one of the guys dragged in a harley and did some stunts on stage in front of the band and there was a circle near the stage for the head bangers. It was the wildest thing ever for me. Then when the night was over we opened the door acting all neat and in slow motion. Baghdad had a strange feeling to it compared to the atmosphere we just experienced. The breeze was cold and quiet. We totally understood Pink Floyd because they sang, we felt, about us.

Baghdad became a living hell by mid 2004 after it being full of hope and excitement for us in 2003 with all the outside world pouring in and all those business firms and news agencies and all. Now that we scattered across the four corners of the world or 6 feet under I write this in tribute to my friends dead and alive. Shine on you crazy diamonds, shine on.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Angry, The Way of the World

I haven’t written in a while, I’ve been angry and I’m trying to keep it clean on the blog.I am terribly bummed for not being in Cairo right now, I was supposed to travel right when the protests started. I would have been in the protests filming. Jordan is being the quiet pressure cooker that I always thought it to be. A few days a week I go to a riding club, I’m struggling to afford it but I love being close to horses. I’m obsessed with them. There in the quiet open spaces outside Amman - not the slum outskirts, the other side - I see rich people. Polite, classy and detached. They remind me of the scene of the white room at the opening chapter of Great Gatsby or the Polo part scene in Passage to India. There I see giant horses who never leave the stables and foam at the mouth every time they are ridden and there I see “common” horses (Arabian half breeds) working 10 or 12 hours a day. It’s the way of the world some would say. I don’t believe that’s true, ways change. I stand inside the box of one common horse, a mare, holding a brush with one hand and sugar cubes in the other so she stops snapping at me trying to bite and kick, not that I blame her, and I think of protestors in Tahrir square in Cairo and wish that the masses overpower their corrupt leader.

I pray my little Jordanian country side bubble will not be burst. Where the hell will me and my family go if Jordan becomes the same as Egypt, we cannot go back to Iraq. Jordan needs reform and I believe it’s heading there. The rural parts of Jordan are neglected, the middle class is burdened with debt with little means to support them to get out of the rat-race and move up a notch. The economy in Jordan is a market open only to the big bucks, not small investments. Iraqis and Palestinians have the bare minimal of legal protection, health insurance, ability to travel and other basic rights. Honor killings still exist. Protests are not permitted without the government's permission, like I said, not permitted. It’s migrant labour force is treated like trash. Sure Jordan has problems.

But the economy is still growing at a healthy paste despite the global crisis in the economy, the infrastructure and basic services are good and cities are gorwing, Amman it’s one of the safest cities for single women and Jordan all-in-all still has chivalry, elections are held and the government is shuffled. The only one fixed here is the king and his most significant role is symbolic in the sense that Jordan’s competing tribes all agree on him and argue in parliament. I don’t see any other system working for a country of Jordan’s demographics. For a country with so little natural resources I think Jordan is functioning by some miracle or loads of international aid for it being one of the rare peaceful spots in this hellhole, if even on a surface level.

A friend of mine called Jordan a fake democracy. “So what if the King and Queen speak English and go on Oprah! They don’t represent us!” I asked him if he’d rather have the Islamic brotherhood instead. “why not!” “but you drink alcohol and your wife is in strapless gowns!” “This is democracy isn’t it! The Muslim Brotherhood represents the streets and the majority of the masses.” “Street credibility” Michael snapped his fingers at the realization, he’s an American who’s moved recently to Iraq and is disillusioned with the US foreign policies in Iraq. “Moderate people like you and me are a minority in the world today” he said and sunk in his chair. “We’re the minority” his words rang in my ears. It truly is a time for extremes and extremists. Do I really support democracy then? Will I still support the protesters if the Muslim brotherhood took over and dragged the entire region into wars?

The instructor asked a rider off his horse because the horse refused to jump a fence. He jerked the reigns and started hitting the Arab half breed horse in a frenzy, that horse belonged to the club, a working horse. K with her blond curls flew by on her giant European white mare. She hugged her mare around the neck when she jumped the fence smoothly. For a second I could see her look behind at the horse being hit. She quickly adjusted her eye sight to the next fence. It’s the way of the world.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Iraqi PM al-Maliki visits Iran - Middle East - Al Jazeera English

Iraqi PM al-Maliki visits Iran - Middle East - Al Jazeera English


In it's attempts to "liberate" Iraq the US created another Iran and brought to life one of Saddam's most feared prophesies, and I didn't even like him!

I was optimistic when I went to vote and I could tell that I was not the only one when I arrived to the vote ballot at a public school building in Amman, where Iraqi in Jordan went to vote. We smiled at each other gliding through the school corridors and felt proud dipping our fingers into that blue ink. Looking back I realize how stupid and gullible I was.

My interview for immigration is in two weeks.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Modern Day Slavery in Jordan


In this modern world of today - when we preach peachy speeches about compassion and tolerance; a time of human rights, women’s rights, child rights, civil rights, social and cultural rights, gay and lesbian rights, indigenous people’s rights, animal rights, democracy, orientalism, liberalism, freedom of speech, individuality, free trade, the Euro and Obama - at this modern marvelous world of today’s improved human race, somewhere in the city of Amman in a country called Jordan, which’s King and Queen are advocating for all of the above, lives a Philipino domestic worker named Trakhma. Trakhma gets beaten up by her employer at least once a week, is not allowed to use the phone, nor leave the house, is dispossessed of her passport, does not speak Arabic, has no idea where in Amman she is or how to go anywhere, is never given a day off and had her signature forged by her employer on her contract renewal when she clearly did not want to stay. Trakhma is one of thousands of abused female domestic workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and some other cheep-labour countries. Trakhma is a Filipino slave in Amman in the year 2010. She is still captive despite my relentless efforts for her to escape so far.

I got to know about her from Jenny our domestic worker. I feel guilty and wrong about hiring her. We always had help around the house in Iraq. We’re a big family with an even bigger social life. In Iraq domestic maids were not from a particular race, they were just the same as us, just less fortunate financially. Sometimes she was Shia Arab, Sunni Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian and they would come in for a few hours to work then go to other houses, they would clean 3 houses a day on average, it was a job in which they negotiated their fee and came and went as they pleased. But with Jenny it feels different.

When all the help is from a certain race which is not local, because the locals think they are above some jobs which they find demeaning, the labeling and the enslaving begins. I had a UN co-worker who was from the Philippines. He had a diplomatic passport and lived in an upscale part of Amman. The harassment him and his wife got were un-freaking-believable. They were ignored or shoved around at supermarkets or had to carry extra papers at airports to prove they were not runaway workers. The same labeling applies to Egyptian men for example, they are all born as janitors. I have another friend, a very high up regional manger in the UN who is married to a Dutch lady. The common assumption in Arab airports is that his wife is the diplomat and he is the butler.

Jenny was different when she first came to us from her former employer who treated her like most domestic workers are. She was always afraid and very quiet. My mother expected Jenny to help her self to anything in the fridge for example and realized that she was only having stale bread from the breakfast table. Now when I ask her for something and she’s too busy she tells me to buzz off and I like it!

Back to Trakhma, Jenny tells me she showed her bruises on her arms. Her employer, on the way to our house, threatened Trakhma not to show her bruises or say anything to my family. My family and Trakhma’s employer know each other, as much as I hate to admit this. She confided in Jenny and Jenny told me. Trakhma’s employer is woman married to a filthy rich Iraqi man which three self centered and arrogant children. Her oldest is a boy who hits Trakhma every day, throws furniture and glass and sharp object at her, pulls her hair and twists her wrists. Why does he get away with this, I can tell you this one, Trakhma does not need to explain, it’s because he lives in this culture that idealizes anything with a dick. He is the only son to a rich Iraqi family and he gets away with everything. Trakhma is nothing but a maid from an inferior country that produces nothing but maids in a land far far away and where not sure where it is on the map, Philip-something-land.

I called up the Philippine Embassy here in Amman and their first assumption was that my maid escaped. “No! No! No! I am trying to help one escape” “who is this!” I gave my name and job address. “You are from India right?” “no I’m Iraqi” “and your maid did not escape?” “no” “and you are calling to help another woman escape” “correct.” The advice I got was she should escape, the embassy may help her with her flight and legal travel documents. They also told me that she did not have the option of staying in Jordan and working for another employer, which I know is what she wants because she needs the money. The Philippines has stopped its agreement with Jordan which allow its labour force to come to Jordan. If she ends her contract and leave she cannot come back to Jordan.

So I looked for other options and found the Oversea Welfare and Workers Association. They gave me the same options as the embassy but said there is a loophole. I love loopholes! If Trakhma escapes and manages while in hiding to find another employer, the Association can try to talk to her former employer (i.e. snobby woman and her sadistic son) to persuade them to hand in her passport and work contract. That way she can have a work contract “before” she leaves Jordan which means she can come back.

I got exited, told Jenny who in turn told Trakhma. On her attempt to escape her employer found her phone and took it. It had our numbers on it. I want to go to her house and pull her out of there but Trakhma is too scared. I feel I must let her initiate. To me I strongly believe she should leave but she is thinking of the complications of going home with no money and she’s rather take a beating to save a penny to send to her family. She will only escape for another employer and I am deeply frustrated. I can only wait for her to make a move. I hope she does soon and I will be there.

Off to steal some of dad’s liquor,

Your’s Drama Queen

Friday, April 16, 2010

The City of Ghosts and Sand Storms: Trip to Baghdad

Baghdad April 9, Baghdad International Airport:
Our morning flight from Amman to Baghdad was postponed to the afternoon. Then while on the jet we were told the flight might get canceled, I prayed it would. I kept telling myself I’m crazy for traveling at such a bad time. It’s been a crazy week after some relevant calm in Baghdad for months. This past week over 200 were killed more than twice as many injured, Al Qaida declared responsibility for the bombing against the Iranian, Egyptian and German embassies, no one came forward on the 5 apartment buildings. The flight wasn’t canceled and the pilot told us we were about to take off. when he said his name on the speakers I couldn’t hold back a small chuckle; I turned to the man next to me “hehe our pilot’s name is Jihad.”

Frank was an older gentleman, an American contractor and retired military man from Florida and a pure Republican. With us being mostly at odds when it came to war and how things were managed in Iraq and the US’s intentions towards Iraq, we had quite an interesting chat. He could tell I was anxious at takeoff and landing and thankfully got my mind off them with his chat. When we were close to Baghdad my heart began to race, we got totally submerged into red-brown clouds; we were encountering a ‘mild’ sand storm by Baghdad standards. We landed, wished each other luck when went on our very separate ways.

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When I stepped out of the airport my heart began racing again with fear, sadness, nostalgia and extreme love and hate for Baghdad. There was a small roundabout with grass and roses. It had been watered and the pavements hosed down to wash the sand off. The smell of sand, wet grass, roses and a faint diesel smell from the generators and something else I couldn’t quite detect that smelled like home. It made the air feel like it had a flavor and texture that made Amman, with its landscape of clean new apartment buildings, feel like a chemically enhanced tasteless apple, smooth shape at but tastes like cardboard when you take a bite.

My fear grew as we drove off, me and two other co-workers both Iraqi. I noticed we were all clutching to our cell phones like they were our lifelines. “How long will it take us” one of them asked. “Oh it depends on the explosions” our driver said casually. I felt a kick in the stomach. Everyone and everything looked suspicious, every car moving or parking felt like it could explode. Streets were dirty and full of holes. It seemed the government was slow in fixing the roads after explosions, this was not the case until I left in 2005. Houses were covered with a uniform of beige that looked like it came from not just one sandstorm but years of them. Houses inhibited and deserted all looked the same, neglected and in need of maintenance. I was on full alert, not because I thought I could spot a bomber nor because I could do anything about if I did spot one, but because I wanted to maximize my vision taking all of Baghdad in, my eyes were like wide scope lenses capturing everything. We got to Al Rasheed hotel. The taxi could only drop us across the street, we had to carry our suitcases and walk across and into the maze of concrete walls and checkpoints before reaching the hotel. My suitcase had wheels, it tipped to its side twice while I was rushing across to plunge into the maze where it was safe. After all, Al Rasheed hotel hosts diplomats and expatriates and Iraqi officials, all of whom fit the profile of jackpot targets. I need to be behind a concrete wall if a bomb explodes.

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To enter Al Rasheed Hotel, we went past the 8 check points. The first was Africans, they were terribly flirty. Then we got to a Kurdish check point, they carried my suitcase after I played the damsel in distress card. At the next check point were the Nepalese. that is where dogs got to sniff our bags for explosives. I love dogs and I’m not a traditional Muslim. My co-workers were disgusted at dogs sniffing their clothes. Muslims consider dogs to be unclean. At the last check point – Iraqi – I saw a sign that read ‘please remove any copies of the Quran (Muslim holly book) before putting the bags in the cage. Here dogs sniffed our suitcases from outside the cage without physically touching them. You could see how the Islamic culture was represented at this check point but not at the earlier Nepalese one.

Rasheed Hotel was empty and washed out. There was a romantic paining by Widad Al Orfali where Baghdad depicted with peacock feathers, mosque minarets and other romantic details. I find her too fancy and prefer the real reflection of Iraq with its innate aggressiveness that I know Iraq to have. Give me a sculpture from someone like Faik Hassan, give me a work of art that will slap one in the face with violence and noise! Damn it that’s what Iraq is made of, you romantic decorative softies! Then again, we don’t want to scare off the “tourists”i guess the feathers have to stay.

I called my mother and my sister to tell them I made it to the hotel and was safe. So how is it? My sister asked. I said its fine, I’m on the 13th floor and have quite the view. ‘Step away from the window you idiot’ my sister yelled. ‘why?’ ‘Because of bombs stupid! Last time aunt what’s her name stayed there a bomb shattered the windows of that entire front’ ‘nah I think the 13th floor is too high up for bombs’ I dismissed her fears. I wanted to wash off a whole day of airports and check points. I stood under the shower, note to self, next time wait to see what comes down first, before it pours down on you. A reddish brown mud came down. It cleared after a few seconds and I continued to shower. There was the odd looking tap coming out of the wall with a steel plate drilled in the wall above it that said 'press here for chilled water'. We never drank bottled water in Iraq before 2003. I wondered where the pipes led to, where would the chilled water have came from? Does it go downwards towards one massive source for the entire hotel? Or from room to room where there's some refrigerator on each floor? Needless to say, it was now covered with rust. Room service guy was offering his “services” at 2 AM. I shoved furniture behind the door because the only lock on the door could be unlocked with a master card. I got over that and ignored the funky smell of the bed sheets. I slept like a baby, I was that tired.

First thing I did when I woke up was walk to the window. The windows looked like they’ve not been cleaned in years. I tried to open them but they were sealed. I looked out at the city. The Green Zone was to my right, traffic to the front and left. The Salhea apartment buildings were ahead. I remembered the last time I was there. Duraid lived there with his wife. He had insisted on putting up his rock band posters on the living room walls, much to the protest of his wife. Last time we met he was telling me what a bad idea it was to join the English broadcasting radio station because Uday Saddam managed it. He was shot dead years ago for working with CNN. His widow is now living in some far eastern county, as far as she could possibly be from Baghdad. There were lots of new compounds and junk yards with lots of damaged cars and trucks. The scene reminded me a lot of the Valley of Ashes from Fitzgerald’s American classic ‘The Great Gatsby’. Except I don’t think Fitzgerald would have visualized billboards with faces of men with haggard looks and scruffy beards named as terrorist and calling for their arrest. I don’t think he would have visualized all the Islamic propaganda as green flags flapped on ministry buildings, green is for Shia Muslim. I was especially depressed about how far Islamic propaganda had taken over the city when, on our way out of the airport, I saw a large sculpture with a man dressed in a traditional Islamic garb standing and a women sitting by his knees covered in a abbaya or chadour. This does not represent Iraq! This doesn’t represent me! I hated it. On top there was scrip that read ‘no to injustices and dictatorship.’ What the hell do you call that then!

I got dressed carefully. I remembered in the old days Rasheed hotel had cameras in every room. The brother of a friend of mine was a small time officer in the Iraqi intelligence. He told us once he knew guys who use to turn on the cameras on newly weds. I wondered if those cameras still existed.

I walked to the breakfast area ‘Rayhana Café.’ It was empty and the food was cold. There were cold hotdogs like they were just defrosted. The omelets were oily and cold. The tea was great though, I had two cups and bread and jam. I sat with a lady from the Prime Minister’s office, ex or current I did not ask. She lives at the hotel. Her daughter is studying journalism in the UK and was doing an internship with the BBC. She was very proud of her and all she talked about. My father thinks the new government is all a bunch of ignorant riffraff. I thought of him at that moment. The last time I was at ‘Rayhana Café was in the late 1990s when a couple of my father’s European friends stayed there. The food was good, the place was totally packed with Europeans and there was A LOT of Iraqi Intelligence officers around. She left and I sat alone looking at the tall palm trees, the sun coming in, the African and Nepalese security guards are laughing at something, the large beautiful fountain with a theme from A Thousand and One Nights gleaming with the water trickling down. This could be a very pleasant place. Baghdad is so beautiful.

I sat and waited for our security escorts in the lobby. The furniture was the same from 18 years ago just washed out. The windows were fractured from explosions but intact, some had been shattered and replaced with wooden planks. There was a pub that looked like no one stepped into to it for the past few years. it was so quiet and covered with dust. It made me feel lonely. I thought it made a great setting for a horror movie with ghosts or zombies.

Our security escorts arrived to take us into the Green or International Zone. We hopped into the car and cruised through the maze of concrete walls, ruined palaces and barricaded buildings with sand bags and bricks, nothing but sand and silence. We got to the conference center where there were lots of armored cars and hunky security guys with big tattoos. A girl’s got to love conferences in the Green Zone!

With Baghdad being ever the absurd city, the US owned conference facility has Saddam’s initials in the carving on the ceiling all across the room. I sat down with a smirk on my face, because it felt absurd. I didn't like Saddam but to have his initials on a facility owned by occupation was just too funny. Years ago reaching the moon would have been easier for me than to set foot into a place as exclusive as one of Saddam’s villas. ‘Did you see Saddam’s bed room?’ a co-worker asks all exited. It was an average room with a high ceiling and a bad ostentatious taste. It was all the folks at work could talk about and they talked about it until the repeated reference to Saddam's bed room became kinky then redundant.

The night before our travel back to Amman, I sat in the lobby because staying in my room felt too depressive and I was trying to keep my mind off tomorrow’s ride to the airport. I was scared again. The lobby was full of men and only one other woman. There was a Sheikh sitting to my left talking loud on the phone about money trying to catch my attention. As much as I was enjoying the attention I don’t think I want to have dinner alone in this environment. I hated to eat alone so I just went to bed. I couldn’t get a wink of sleep, I was anxious about tomorrow’s trip. The road to the airport is known to be one of the most dangerous.

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Our driver showed up in his beaten up Hyundai. We take this crap while my boss gets into an armored vehicle. Maybe we Iraqis are a dozen a dime, maybe we are. The driver was on the phone the entire time checking with other drivers where there were shootings, bombings, check points and so on to avoid traffic jams. It almost sounded like he was going to abduct us, I wasn’t that paranoid, he just sounded that way.

We crossed the first few check points and made it close to the airport building. There were Iraqi and African women where we were inspected. I could not tell from the accent where in Africa they come from, I admit to be ignorant to the tens of cultures of Africa. I do find it surreal to find them in Baghdad. They feel so out of place. We went back to the taxi and waited for the bomb sniffing dogs. On the other lane were the cars leaving Baghdad International Airport, or BIAP for short, former Saddam International Airport. I realized as I was leaving Baghdad, and because they more visible at BIAP, that it was totally taken over by privet security companies. I saw very few Iraqi police and army at the airport and I had not encountered a single US military personnel. Is this the plan for US withdrawal from Iraq, remove the marines and replace them with privet security companies. What is their accountability? Where would their chain of command lead? Which government if at all would be held accountable if they go postal on a group of civilians?

On the other lane was a convey of an Iraqi security company or so the name implied. The security guys were Iraqi, American and African. They were armed to their teeth. I could tell because I saw them put their weapons back on. How many weapons can you wear on your hips, thighs and ankles! Standing in between these big armed hulks with short trimmed hair and tattoos, was a skinny smiley civilian. He was American and looked like he worked for State Department or maybe a privet business company. His haircut, neatly pressed trousers, white shirt and watch all gave that impression. Minutes after they drove off we heard machine guns. “they must be aiming at that American convey” our driver said. Thank god we made it this far I thought.

When we finally reached the main building by the arrival gate we said good bye to our driver. I felt a mix of relief and guilt. I was very glad I arrived safely at the airport but I felt sorry for the driver. He picked up his cell phone again and started asking other drives about that shooting. I would have been most depressed if I had to turn back. I can only imagine how he must feel ferrying people to safety, to this portal out of this hellhole called Iraq then heading back into hell.

On the plain I pulled out a silver pendent I bought from a gift shop at Al Rasheed. It was at least 50 years old and had a scene from the marshlands in the south of Iraq. I felt nostalgic the minute the flight took off, how psychotic of me. How I love and hate Iraq.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentines and the Amiriyah Bombing

I always remember Valentines as the day right after the Amiriyah shelter bombing in 1991. More than 400 people, mostly women, children and elderly were cooked to death when the shelter was hit by US ‘smart bombs.’ Husbands and older sons stayed behind to protect their houses from being looted risking the air raids and sending their elder, younger and souses for protection – tragically. This was almost 20 years ago but I remember the stories vividly like I had heard them yesterday.

One of my relatives worked in the army. He was among the team pulling dead people out of the shelter. He didn’t recall seeing any survivors. Because the shelter was ‘bomb-proof’ ironically all its doors were sealed solid when the first missile hit. The second missile penetrated the shelter and the flames burned people alive.

I was with my family in Mousil where we had escaped Baghdad during the 1991 war. My relative came to visit every leave he got from the army. On one of his visits he sat to my aunt’s kitchen table and began to tell us about what he had seen 2 days ago. The things he said were so horrific that they forgot there were children, me and my siblings and cousins, around with mouths gaping and finger tips gone cold with horror. It was not until he had said enough that someone noticed and yelled at us to go play outside. Snaps of what I remember include;

‘We had to be so careful when taking out the bodies. We were moving one charcoaled man/woman we couldn’t tell, very slowly but then the leg came off entirely and I was left with the soft foot and a long bone that came out in my hand clean with no flesh on it.’

‘Most bodied were still burning that we burnt our hands trying to carry them. They were charcoaled on the outside and ruby red under .’

There was one heap we could identify as a mother and a baby. She was curled around the small infant.’


‘There was a man sitting outside the shelter holding a revolver. He was shooting his gun at the ground, crying and yelling I am going to kill them all.’

‘There were many bodies we had to scrape off the walls. It looked like they ran to the ends of the shelter to go further away from the flame then just hugged the walls and burned standing that way.’

‘They were all burned completely until all was charcoal. We couldn’t tell a person from an object from the walls sometimes. It was all one black heap, like they all became infused into one thing, they just melted.’


Those are the images that immediately come to mind.

I strongly believe that life should move on. That the families of those killed in the Amiriyah shelter should be allowed to grief in privet and move on to the best of their capacity. This blog post is not for them. This is a cry for the rest of the world to bring justice to these families. Those responsible should be charged for war crimes and massacre. Iraq and humanity owes it to them to bring a sense of justice in this chaotic world.

here are some links on the Amiriyah Bombing
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amiriyah_shelter_massacre
http://www.nodo50.org/csca/english/al-amiriya/al-amiriya_eng.html

Your haunted drama queen,

Happy Valentines.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Abuse

My relationship with men is strange, or I seem to deliberately come across bad apples because they fit a pre-fabricated image of what a relationship looks like to me, because I tend to victimize myself, because this is what I grew up with. Good men confuse me and I become undeceive as to what I should feel towards them.

My mother got home late tonight. My father is with his second wife tonight and my mother exploits every minute of freedom when he is not home. She threw her self at the couch, kicked off her high heels, slipped of her leather red jacket exposing a top with bear shoulders. My mother started telling me, my sisters and her mother about this Iraqi woman who lives in Jordan with her husband and three children. The husband has put her under house arrest and he hits her. My mother's advice was to tolerate him for the sake of her children. In the past I would attack my mother for such statements. Now I keep quiet but my resentment shows on my face. “what do you want me to tell her!” mother gives me a defensive look. “She has no degree, no skills and no residency in Jordan. She should keep her children in school, under a roof, in warm clothes what am I suppose to advise her!” she was trying to convince me that she was right. Again I said nothing. I felt helpless.

I can't begin to tell how often I heard women justify their husbands' and fathers' abusiveness. From the horrors of Noor's father who called a man a stud for molesting his daughter while calling his daughter – 15 at the time – a whore, to Wassan being raped on her wedding night while the husband's brothers and cousins waited outside the bedroom cheering and demanding to see the blood-stained wedding sheet to prove her virginity to many other stories of the sort that I grew up repulsed at the thought of intimacy. I must give my ex husband the credit for being a very patient man.

Now that I find myself sexually and intellectually more open I hit uninhibited territories and I'm confused. Non Arab men are exceptionally confusing to me. I want all the liberties their societies have. I suppose I find them just as exotic as they find me. “you need to stop doing this to yourself, it's very destructive behavior.” he told me on the phone the other night. I thought of him and remembered some of the positive things he told me about myself such as the potential I have, all the men who will want to keep me company and all the successes I will have once I am out of this strict environment. He sees in me the woman I want to become but I still feel clumsy around him because I can't shake the victim in me that I am accustomed to. “and why are you telling her this, its not like she could hold on to HER husband.” my grandmother said to my mother thus closing the argument. I rest my case. I'm off to bed.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Webdeh & Gibran

Webdeh is an old and artsy neighborhood in Amman. I use to go there a lot as a student in 2001,2,3. It and Jabal Amman – a more youthful and hip neighborhood, also old but renovated – are my two hang out places. Jabal Amman is where I lived with my ex and going there makes me feel intensely sad, breathing feels like scarring. Webdeh is a place I reserve for myself. He was never into that part of town. I rarely went there when I was married but now I’m back to my old ways.

Webdeh always had something magical about it; I’d often bump into artists or musicians and start chatting. Or I’d see a stunning piece of art that would haunt me for long. But most times it would just be the feel of the old hood, the smell of a homemade meal, a view from a park with children, elderly people watching passers-by and shy couples, the friendly stray cats. Then there is the view down the valley, Webdeh is on a hill top. Down there would be the hustle and bustle of the busy downtown area. Webdeh, like a refined elegant old lady looks down quietly with its old villas, schools, churches, mosques, art galleries and parks.

As a student I use to go to Darat al Funon in Webdeh to study or read for leasure. Darat al Funon always got me creative, sometimes I would write. When I went today it had a different experience. I was lonely. I didn't feel the place the same way I use to. And I remembered, the last time I went I wasn't scarred. I didn't breathe pins and needles. Today I was lonely and craving for company. And there was not a single charming stranger to talk to and all the art work was boring.

I sat with my book at a café. Two waiters asked me the same question “are you alone.” I was defensive in my answers. Yes! And yes! I pulled the cushion from behind my back and put it in my lap, as I often do when I feel insecure, opened my book and begun to read. “you are far greater than you know, and all is well” I read Khalil Gibran’s line and sighed.

After two cups of coffee and some 50 pages – the waiters got on my nerves - I left and went off wandering. I reached Dar Al Anda art gallery. It has a large terrace that stretches off the cliff like it was hanging in air. I leaned towards the railing resting my entire weight on it, waiting to fly or fall, watching the sun set on the valley with all its little doll houses. “you are far greater than you know, and all is well.” All is well. I breathed. It still hurt. Life is full of pleasant surprises, any minute now a charming stranger will walk over, doing exactly what I’m doing. We will exchange a glance and a smile. Hi my name is … and I’ll reach across to shake his hand. All the pins and needles I breathe will instantly turn to rubber and bounce off me. I looked around, the gallery was closed and I was the only one standing. The mosques echoed each others call for Maghreb - sunset – prayer.

“You are far greater than you know, and all is well.” I brushed a red fig leaf off my shoulder, rolled my hair up and held it with a pen. I stood straight now, missy miss independent. I took a cab home. All is well. All is well.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happiness in a Jar

I sit to my kitchen table and gaze at the jar with a purple label. It’s suppose to me a mild anti-depressant that I should take only if I’ve been sad for over 4 days. That sounds silly. On days 4 I place the purple jar on the table, gaze at it and see which of us two wins.

To fight the jar I list snippets of happy times;

Al Qush – Ninewa Iraq October 2008.
I climbed into a cave on top of Rabban Hermizd monastery built in the 6th century. People there believe that a saint worshiped there and that the cave is inhibited my angels. I went looking for the angels. It was steep and my foot slipped. My friend, a Kurdish photographer who spent a lot of his time tracking the PKK in the mountains leaped after me and caught me, just in time. He actually had his heels placed solid in the dirt and was hugging me with both arms. ‘Are you crazy!’ he let go, ‘follow me’ he said. The cave was carved into a chamber that led to another chamber. There were two arched doorways into the cave. When I stood at the foot of one it felt like I was in a room of a house that defied gravity and way flying. The wind was strong and smelled like dry grass and the earth. Clouds felt so close like I could touch them. I could have sat there alone for an hour without blinking. I inhaled as much as my lungs could take of mountains, clouds, god, saints and angels.

Jazz pub – Paris November 2008
I was out to party with a fantastic group of hip multi-ethnic strangers. Something my strict upbringing didn't allow. We took the subway to Saint-Michel. We wandered around the Quartier latin and had dinner at a small diner that smelled like strong cheese. I tried oysters cooked in white wine, I've never tried either before. We had lots to eat and drink. We got lost in the maze of streets and crowds and cuisine from all over the world. Then we wandered into a hidden jazz pub in the basement of a building. I had never experienced jazz either. We sat on barrels and benches. The place was crowded and everyone there was in a jazz trance. There was a very sexy vibe in the air. Before we left I took a photo of the carving on the wall, it said jazz 1921. we kept walking by the Seine river then wandered into an Irish pub. We walked for three hours to our hotel at 5AM. We'd been out since 9PM the day before. I had experienced Paris and it was like nothing I've tasted.


A morning with my dog – last week:
My dog gets impatient with me because I won't get out of bed to take him out to play. After his whimpering and bed sheet tugging fails he gets his tennis ball, jumps on the bed, lays on top of me and hit my forehead with the tennis ball. I give up and open my eyes. We wrestle and I laugh to tears. He wins and I slip into a coat, a pair of jeans and sneakers and we run to the street at 6.30AM. I leave behind some sappy love loves plying on the radio every morning. I hate the silence. My mother jokes that I like to entertain ghosts. I walk my dog up to a hilltop where I live in Amman. On that hill steep valley. From there I can see the sun hanging low in the sky as it does early mornings. I hear every sound up there. My skin is all open for perceptions and sensations. My dog rests his head in my lap, I lean over, bury my face between his large pointy ears and I rub behind his ears and stroke his back. He surrenders to my hands and stands still – just for a minute – before he's back to his hyper active self. We slowly walk back home to sappy love songs and ghosts. I turn the radio off. I sit and stare hard at the purple jar. I think of all that I've experienced in life, of all that has made me who I am. I think of my weaknesses, my dreams, desires, fears. I hug myself and fall cheek down on the table. I surrender and cry a little. I put the purple jar of anti-depressant back in the fridge and post a blog. My blog, the one place I don't I fake courage and indifference.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Torture(r)

I replied to a phone call from a woman who heard I could save her life. I couldn't. But I listened as she told her story with sobs and statements of protests. We sat in her kitchen the next day sipping Turkish coffee, her with a cigarette. She took a deep breathe, sighed – her face now in a mist of smoke – pressed her fingers on her eyelids so she won't cry and she began to tell her story.

In 1995 the Iraqi Intelligence tried squeezing information out of her young sister who worked at a tourist company. They were interested in the tourists, a certain profile of tourists. The sister declined time after time. Months later they ask her to escort them in a privet car, they used their official badges and told her she'd been called in for questioning. They gang rape her and drive her back to her work, telling her she will be killed and her family if she doesn't comply.

Out of fear for her sister's safety she smuggles her – at great risks – to Jordan. The rape incident was kept between the two sisters. She never went to a doctor, a therapist, never told her mother – nothing. After all, rape by itself is a death sentence. In 1996 the Intelligence notice the sister is gone and come to her – let's call her Hanan. Hanan is told she must participate in torture. She is a dentist and they needed someone to pull out teeth during interrogation and – pulling them out right so prisoners don't die too soon. Hanan, out of sheer horror of facing her sister's fate and for fear for her elderly parents , complies. She partook in three torture sessions and fainted the third time. She woke up to find herself back in her clinic. She quickly brushes her skirt and feels her legs. She had not been raped. Not raped yet, Hanan thought. She tells her parents about her situation and her sister's – dropping the rape part out. They decided to smuggle their second daughter into Jordan. The plan was for them to follow. Hanan makes it to Jordan in 1996. Three months later the Intelligence realize both sisters are gone. They burn their house down . The father dies of sever burns, the mother lives. She is taken in by relatives until 2003 when the government is overthrown. That year the two sisters travel to Baghdad for the first time in years and bring their mother with then to Jordan. All three seek asylum to the United States. It takes years. Finally Hanan's mother and sister are accepted. Her case is pending. They wait for months so they can travel together as a family. But then Hanan learns that the US State Department has rejected her case because she has participated in 'crimes against humanity' referring to torture. Hanan is shattered. She urges her mother and sister to travel to the US promising them she will find a way to follow. Her brief yet intense involvement with the Intelligence scared her. She felt that some one must want her dead after what she had done and did not want to go back to Iraq. The mother and sister are now living in a gang infested hood in California, with no work or language skills. Hanan learns as soon as they leave that she has cancer.

She looks out her kitchen window gazing at nothing. She takes another breath of her cigarette. The smoke floats upwards and scatters. I have one hand in a fist on my lap the second supporting my chin. “I just want to be with my family, I don't want to die alone. Don't they understand I was forced! What could I have done! This is not fair!”

I think she knew from the start that there was nothing in my power I could do to help. She thanked me for visiting and I left. I never went back there again. I don't know what happened with her, if she's still alive. It's been months now and I'm still haunted by her.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Identity Crisis

this post was triggered by, and dedicated to Michael

I was looking at some websites talking about Iraqi women writers. I came across a popular website (River Bend). I read the reviews, most were favorable but there's always the other point of view. The critical crowd said she was Americanized, that she was probably not really Iraqi, or that she was some Iraqi-American expat working in the green zone for big bucks, detached by the rest of Iraq. Sheesh! If SHE isn't Iraqi then I'm toast.

And I raise my-ever-pressing question; what defines Iraqi? Should Riverbend, me and other Iraqi bloggers fluent in English write in bad English to come across as Iraqi? Would I be more Iraqi if I dropped the swear words and the slang off the blog? Should I wave the 'we hate America' banners, tattoo the Iraqi flag on my forehead and play Iraqi music so loud that I piss off every Jordanian to my left and right.

Edward Said, a prestigious Palestinian American political and social scholar, was pivotal in defending the Palestinian cause giving an image other than hooded men with rifles or strapped with explosives. But he was called 'Americanized' and not true to his cause. Its either hard core or nothing.

When the Iraq/Jordanian border first re-opened after the toppling of the former Iraqi government in 2003 I took the first buss home. I lost all contact with my family and didn’t know if they were dead or alive. I had my headphones on the entire time during the 16 hour drive. I needed a distraction. I had Counting Crows, Guns’n’Roses, Noah Jones and some other bands. Coincidence had it that I had no Arabic music on me. I grew up speaking English and Arabic, it didn’t bother me. Not until I got to the border and saw American soldiers examining our passports. They were polite but all I could think of is I have a total stranger, a total outsider, AN OCCUPIER running my country for me. It was a moment to take sides. I pulled back, pretended not to speak English, and I turned my music off.

When I got home I looked around my old room. I had my grandfather’s gramophone records, either classical like Vivaldi and Mozart or oriental like Arabic and Turkish. What the hell was I afraid of? I’ve always been a little bit of everything. I use to spend hours on the roof drinking tea, the really strong cardamom flavored tea. I read poetry to my grandfather, written in Iraqi slang, the kind of Arabic only Iraqis could understand. I asked my grand mother if I looked like AJANIB "foreign" a term we use for westerners. ‘Nonsense’, she said, ‘why do you ask?’ god bless grand parents.

Yesterday I was chatting online with a Michael. A man from a multicultural background who's traveled a good deal and been exposed to so many cultures. His nationality comfortably floats between two continents, if he chooses to claim any of the two. He doesn't care about terms like 'patriotic' 'dogma' and such. I'm trying to find my middle ground – trying to find flexible interpretations to these terms, trying to belong. A wise man from India once made me a compliment when I took him in a tour around Baghdad in the early 1990s. He said that I belonged to no one and that I had a universal character. It was a compliment but I felt like I was walking on quicksand.

In the meantime I've decided to watch Michael lean back in his chair like it was a solid extension to him,look around like he owns the place and fill the room with his cosmopolitan character. Maybe I'll learn a thing or two.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Twig

Tomorrow is the Eid celebration. My grandmother has been watching the Haj ceremonies on TV. There are pilgrims in white pushing and shoving by the millions soaked under the rain. 50 died today because of the cold and exhaustion. I wondered why they kept going to the point of exhaustion and death instead of getting out of the rain. And I tried keeping a straight face when my mother talked about miracles, miracles I don't believe in. Family members around me are fasting, praying, humming with prayer beads today and the Islamic TV shows are in my face all day. My ears are humming and I'm all religious'ed-out.

I feel their comfort in belonging to something. I respect that. But it all feels too naive for me. My argumentative nature doesn't help because I feel lost. Thinking gives one a headache, doubt depresses, not belonging brings loneliness. We're social creatures and my interpretation is we feel safe by following a pack and a norm, a symbol, a god, a prophet, saint, pope, imam, a cross, a Budah, a Meqqa anything, something. Religions and beliefs are not a bad thing. Societies need rules and regulations with their reward and retribution. The world would have been chaotic otherwise. But they are also a dangerous tool to direct masses into hatred, lack of common sense, to dictatorships.

Having said that I must get off my high and mighty pedestal and confess – I wish I had the comfort and security of having an idol to look up to. I remember over the years how I clung to things of religious and sentimental value growing up. When I was around 10 or so my grandmother brought me a green ribbon she tugged off a cloth on the shrine of a Muslim saint in Baghdad. She fastened it on top of my bed to protect me from evil spirits. I'd lay in my bed on exam nights, lift my arm up and rub it, hoping for good grades. When I was in my early 20s I too made a wish and tied a ribbon on the ancient fig tree on the side of the mountain by Mar Meti monastery. A year ago I found a new object to idolize, a twig – yep you got that right, a tiny dry branch, a twig.

When my ex first broke the news of his desire to split, I was pretending to have that fuck-it attitude. So I went with some girl friends to get pampered. One of the things I did was go to a spa. I was feeling particularly vulnerable laying face down on the massage table near naked allowing a total stranger to touch me. She was a large Russian woman with a motherly touch. Something in me clicked and I cried my heart out. In between sobs I told her my husband left me. I bit my tongue after that and sobbed quietly for the rest of the massage. A week later I go to the pool there, the large Russian woman calls me to the massage room and then with great care, like she's about to show me a gem or the secret of life, she unfolds a plastic wrapping and with a smile carefully places her hand onto mine and reveals THE TWIG.

Dummified I look at her. She explains that she knows this old witch who does miracles. She went to the witch and asked her for a charm to make men go crazy about a woman. 'sew into the hem of your shirt or hide it inside your bra and men will go crazy about you.' she smiled and added confidently 'you'll have your husband back' and gave me two assuring taps on the shoulder. I was very moved by her kindness. There she was, a total stranger who went out of her way to try fix my life. I tugged it into my bra the next time I saw him – how desperate of me! - and it didn't work, naturally.

Despite my knowing its just a stupid dry branch that smells funny, I still keep it. It's wrapped snug in its original plastic and placed in a small jewelry box on my dresser table. I kept it for the symbolic value of hope in it and for the kindness a stranger displayed for me. Today the twig is my little lucky charm, not that I believe it works, but just because – like all those masses on TV, I need something – even tiny - to cling to.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Heart and Home

When we’re alone, as in not emotionally involved, we tell our selves all sorts of crap about how great it is to be free and single, how we’re going to travel, go bohemian with zero responsibility towards anyone and how we are going to ‘experience romance’ i.e. screw everyone in sight. We tell ourselves that being tied down restrains us from these adventures. This leads to the final argument that … it is great to be single. What a load of crap we feed ourselves. In the end, we are all looking for that great mono-relationship.

If we do some sincere soul seeking we realize that these are all defenses the lonely use to keep their head above water. We all play cool when we’re alone; we take our books and newspapers and go to our regular cafes. We sit there and keep occupied so we won’t feel awkward about sitting alone. And who has never lifted his or her head and looked up when they notice or feel someone looking at them. How many of you out there – I dare you – have not looked back at them. If you are anything like me, then, just like me, you try to go through this phase with dignity and try not to act desperate or do or say something stupid. And if you are like me and most of us, you inevitably will say something to someone attractive, that makes you want to put your foot in your mouth. But can you blame us! We, like all species, need to be in pairs and groups. After all, doesn’t the old saying go, home is where the heart is.

Years ago a friend in school asked me, what is home to you. I answered ‘my room.’ He found that strange. He said I was the only one who gave that answer. I was not involved with anyone, in fact at that point in my life I had never had a boyfriend or even a crush. My relationship with my family was tense and I was a discrete kid who kept to my books, dvds and music. My room had everything I needed and I made it to be a very cozy nest. I stopped doing that close to 10 years ago. I rarely put any effort to decorate any of the apartments I’ve lived in since I got to Jordan. I’ve lost that enthusiasm. I have a few friends who work in jobs that keep them traveling. When I see how homey their houses are , I wonder how they have the energy to decorate their transit houses – won’t call them homes. How do you invest in a place you know you’re leaving in a year or two? How do you invest in anything you are going to leave behind?

When I use to be married I felt ‘at home’ with him. I felt safe. I told him and myself that over and over. Now that he’s been out of my life for a while I realize that I didn’t quite invest in the house me and him lived in either. I ask myself this question and I don’t know how to answer it; had I lost that sense of home – that energy to nest - when I left Iraq, regardless of being in a relationship or not? Had I lost it for good? Or is it still there and maybe he was a factor to my instability. Did I on some unconscious level feel insecure with him while on the surface I was just believing in a lie to keep me secure – that he’s my for-ever-after? Is it losing him or is it losing Iraq that caused me to lose my inner home. What is home after all?