Current Affairs

Pandemic Journal: Sweet and Sour



Durham, UK
During my daily walks I pass by fields, which are part of Durham’s Green Belt, and farms. I stand by the dry stone wall of Elvet Moor Farm watching nature at peace with itself unlike us. The large open spaces and meadows highlight how constrained we are under the coronavirus lockdown. All you can hear is the rustling of leaves and the singing of birds, punctuated by ambulance sirens. The tranquillity of the countryside is in sharp contrast with a boisterous and unruly virus, racing in the air, looking for a angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor to colonise and destroy.
Spring has sprung unnoticed. In one of the fields the sheep and blackbirds share the feed and eat together in harmony; seagulls land on the freshly ploughed fields, white upon brown, then fly off; and the sunset turns the tops of beach, birch and oak trees into gold. Families cycle together. People wearing masks wave and thank each other for observing social distancing. We inhale the fresh air, which thankfully we still can do, and resisting our primal need for closeness we step away from each other.
When I got home, I sat in the garden sipping tea with fresh mint. I know I am in trouble when I start listening to the Egyptian diva Um-Kulthum and reminiscing about a youth misspent in Amman’s cafes and restaurants. A friend said, ‘You get intoxicated and become amorous and stupid listening to her songs. You could fall in love with the leg of this table.’ We laughed and filled our nostrils with the smell of Turkish coffee with cardamom, jasmine and freshly watered oleanders. We were young and life and oyster were close to each other.
During the 1970’s gender roles were defined and strict, and women should know their place, but we didn’t. We connived to be able to go out for a walk, or a cup of coffee somewhere. In exchange for the coveted permission to leave The House of Bernarda Alba, we did all the chores. These outings were such a treat and a break from our daily routine: dusting, mopping floors, scrubbing bathrooms, preparing breakfast and dinner, cooking lunch sometimes, ironing, and then studying. All had to be done to perfection and elders appeased so we could reach our destination, Jabal Amman, and live it up.
From our kitchen’s window above the sink, I could see the Hejaz Railway winding its way on hillsides, and watch aeroplanes take off and land at Marka Airport. Washing the suds off plates, I wondered where did trains go and aeroplanes fly? What lay beyond the hills? Birds migrated, but to where? Were there other worlds beyond the horizon?
I was a nomad like my aunt and my feet were always itchy. She has style and liked to try new restaurants, so when in 1975 the Chinese expatriate Peter Kwai (Abu-Khalil) opened the first Chinese restaurant, just off Rainbow Street, overlooking the Ahliyyah School for Girls. we were there in a shot. Then I was young and troubled, but sitting in the old stone house, with red lanterns dangling above my head, enveloped by foreign aromas: the smell of chicken cooked in soy sauce, ginger, fried rice, provided a much needed respite. It was a mental escape from the harsh reality. Surrounded mainly by diplomatic core and businessmen we tried chopsticks, sweet and sour chicken, and shredded beef for the first time. Abu Khalil knew that we liked chicken with cashew nuts, and he always served complementary extra portion. It was as close as we could get to a holiday outside the country.
It is now post-coronavirus and the other day I played the gang’s favourite song, Amal Hayati: the hope of my life. I found the lyrics sentimental, even sickly. ‘Take my whole life but let me live through today! Let me stay in the embrace of your heart!’ Seriously?
We lived on a staple of romantic fiction, false premises and promises, and a culture that objectified women. You were a burden and life was a hunting ground. Your raison de d’être was to catch an eligible bachelor. Wearing glasses, having bad posture, and reading all the time, which I did, was frowned upon. ‘You are destroying your looks and you will not get married.’ I ignored the warning and continued to consume my uncle’s library like a woodworm. Fashion had to be followed religiously and time must be spent perfecting your hair, make up, clothes. As for your mind you must leave it be because the more ignorant you are the better. Men do not like clever women. We were high on the ‘happiness ever after myth’ while most of our rights were either non-existent, being eroded or inactivated. We were second-class citizens and big brother was watching us all the time. We got used to being policed and created strategies to get out of the male family members’ curfews.
Having no other option but to survive, we did. Women supported each other in real time and terms, and ‘sisterhood’ then was not incubated in an ivory tower, but the grass-root grew it organically. In our neighbourhood the women’s subculture was that of solidarity. We rallied round the weakest and most vulnerable among us: those who were ill, were beaten by their husbands, or in financial need. We shopped for them, sent them food, took care of their children until they got back from health clinics.
The equivalent of a ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘put the kettle on’ were endless cups of Turkish coffee. You put some ground coffee with cardamom in a dallah, bring it to the boil, skim the surface, boil it again then pour it in demitasses. But before that, like red Indian smoke signals, you spill some on the cooker hob, so the aroma fills the air, travels in the breeze to the women’s noses, inviting them to your courtyard. Then the daily group therapy begins, chats about the price of lemons, exchange of recipes, recommendations of Indian films that really make you weep, description of the dreams you had the night before. ‘All will be alright at the end,’ we say and drink a glass of water, indicating that we are ready to leave. There was cooking, cleaning, laundry, teaching of children, and gardening to do.
Cliché alert! We cannot walk by, above, or below the coronavirus. The only way is through it. There will be loss, pain, and questions to be asked. Will the shift in our priorities remain unchanged? Will our identities metamorphose? How will we evolve as a human race? Will we respect nature and harmonise with it? All will be clearer in the fullness of time to those who remain alive. However, if you are born a woman in a male-dominated society, and you survive that and even prosper, your life skills are robust, and a pandemic is passable.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.


Pandemic Journal: Basil and Jasmine


11/04/2020 – Durham, UK

Some days are bad. According to the Department of Heath and Social Care and Public Health England 9875 people have died of coronavirus in the UK. The figure does not cover those who died at home or in care homes so some argue that it should be doubled. I try to get my head round it, let it sink in. 9875 grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandsons, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles have died and most probably buried unceremoniously. There is stillness at the beginning as the neurotransmitters in my brain start sending excitatory messages, a drawing of breath, with fortunately I can still do, followed by anger.
Having witnessed and survived so many wars civil and otherwise, pandemics and epidemics, I despair about being a member of such an idiotic and short-sighted human race. This feeling makes death seem like a reprieve. As my late friend Elizabeth Anderson once said, ‘If death is oblivion, bring it on.’
We obviously learnt very little since 1346, when the black death swept many parts of the world. And despite all the pandemics and epidemics inflicted on us: cholera, the plague, Spanish flue, HIV/Aids, Ebola, Sars, we still prioritise amassing arms and protecting ourselves against mostly illusive enemies over our health and that of other species.
Arms manufacturers and dealers have thrived on wars in so many parts of the world from Korea and Vietnam all the way to Iraq. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the arms industry sales of the top 100 manufacturers reached $420 billion, a rise of 109% between 2002-2018.
That shows that we invested heavily not in science that cures, but in science that kills: the atomic bomb, stealth and precision guided weapons, drones. With billions of dollars at their dispense, arms manufacturers created weapons that can find you, follow you down an alleyway, dance the waltz over your head, and then explode, killing you and those around you.
I read somewhere that the Muslims in medieval Spain (722-1492) were defeated because they made a conscious decision to stop destructive scientific experimentation in its tracks. Whether that is true on or not the war machine, devouring people and capital, must be stopped and funds diverted to a ‘peace dividend’ to be spent on education, improving the infrastructure, providing health for all, and foreign aid. The UK alone spent $50 billion on arms in 2018. How many universities, hospitals, care homes, social housing, playgrounds could have been built with that amount? How many respirators, oxygen cylinders, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for NHS staff could have been resourced? How many lives could have been saved?
Some days are worse. Fear, distilled and pure, for myself and others, races through my veins, sapping my energy. I feel depleted and struggle to go down to have breakfast. I try to keep it together, but the slightest challenge unravels me like failing to open a milk carton. I keep forgetting my rituals, routines and rhythms and start again. Do I normally go for a walk before or after breakfast? Perhaps after lunch? Then lunch comes and goes with me still lying on the sofa watching television and trying to make sense of the random images. They seemed alien as if beamed from Jupiter. On days like this a phone call could drain me, tip me over. I take the phone off the hook, keep my mobile on silent, switch off my PC and iPad and block all contact with the outside world. Do not disturb!
It is a solitude in disquietude rather than tranquillity. Bad thoughts rush in tripping over each other. How would I cope if I lost a loved one in one of many the countries they are in: Jordan, USA, Bahrain, Germany? Would I be able to reach them, attend their funerals, grief with other members of my family? Will I be allowed to see them lowered into their graves, so I could in the fullness of time have a sense of closure. Would I forgive myself for the decisions I made such as making Britain my home, and not travelling to Amman when the airport was open. What about remorse and contrition? Have I loved enough?
Other days are bearable. I wake up fine and can go about my daily tasks. During such respites, death seems distant and, for some reason, I am immune to it, my blood stream is full of antibodies that can fight all diseases including Covid-19. Delusional, I convince myself that this crisis will be over soon, and normal life will resume, whatever that was. My family like going out occasionally to The South Causey Inn in Stanley – the name triggers an eruption of nostalgia – to have Sunday lunch, roast turkey, with all the trimmings, potatoes, sautéed carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli. We reminisce about such simple pleasures, which now belong to the pre-coronavirus era and console ourselves by saying, ‘maybe soon we will be able to go out for a meal again.’ We sit in the garden, thinking of our loved ones in Amman as we listen to the Lebanese singer Fairuz croon, ‘Ba’dak ‘ala bali: you are still on my mind, oh young and proud, oh fragrant basil scattered on rooftops!’
Oblivious to our hopes, fears and nostalgia, the circles of coronavirus on the pandemic meters’ maps are getting bigger, denser and angrier. Death is driving up the highway and will arrive at our neighbourhood soon. I apologise to the grim reaper because despite all his warnings, grey hair, dimming eyesight, and stiff joints, I am still unprepared. What about what I still intended to do? What about the heart’s unfulfilled desires? What about unfinished businesses? There are projects to carry out, books to write, places to visit, words to say, and love yet to be expressed.
My friend G tells me that she group-calls her sisters in London every Sunday. I suggest that we do the same. Few days ago, my sisters and I arranged a group video call with my parents in Amman. When my father saw his four daughters together on one screen, he was overwhelmed. We spoke about the lockdowns and curfews, about being careful, and how far saliva droplets teaming with Covid-19 viruses can travel. My mother said, ‘I stopped going out to the garden. Sometimes children play in the street outside.’
My mother’s ‘game’, as my father once said, is her garden. With the help of my sister E, an agricultural engineer, they created a beautiful oasis in east Amman: lemon and mulberry trees, bougainvillea where sparrows nested, and jasmine vines. Every morning she would feed the tortoises in the flowerbed, water the plants, and fill the small pool so stray cats don’t go thirsty.
‘How about if you wear a mask when you go out to the garden.’ My brother looked for masks in all Amman’s pharmacies but couldn’t find any. My sister W created a mask at home that had two layers of cotton, which could be stuffed with crunched paper towels. ‘You could dispose of the paper towels and wash it in high temperatures after use.’ Amman has many seamstresses and probably most are without income now. We decided to ask one of them to make masks for my parents. Perhaps we can get them certified and then fundraise to make many more and donate them to the old and vulnerable.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

Pandemic Journal: Stars Realignment



Durham, UK

Whenever I meditate in the evening, I watch out for Sirius, the largest and brightest star in the galaxy. Last time I noticed it I was on holiday in Tenerife in January. The sky was clear, and the star twinkled like that diamond in the nursery rhyme. It was twenty degrees and the distant sounds were that of a typical summer night: cutlery on crockery, clinking of glasses, chatter, laughter and a singer in the bar on the other side of the garden and lit swimming pool attempting an aria. The manicured garden had palm trees, with leaves braided like hair, orchid trees, flame vines, bougainvillea trimmed and used as a hedge, cape honeysuckle, hibiscus, freesias and birds of paradise. That evening their scent rose to the balcony and filled the air. I breathed in and exhaled. Then the glasses were still rose-tinted: life was good. Death was a distant eventuality rather than an imminent reality. Romance, love, happiness, recognition, and even immortality were on the cards. As Shakespeare wrote, ‘Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.’

That was before the pandemic threw all the cards and oysters up in the air and then broke the table they were on. Our lives now are divided into two periods: pre and post Covid-19 pandemic.

Yesterday in Durham I spotted the brightest star in the sky again. What was it called? Sirius A and B? It looked nothing like the one I saw in Tenerife three months ago, which seems like decades ago. It was smaller, less bright and like a tear in the dark fabric of the sky. The virus scrubbed the rosiness and other growths off the lenses. The world lost its sheen, became clearer and less safe. Sirius matured to what it is: a mass of hot gas. It was burning hydrogen into helium in its core to shine and was not the largest start in the galaxy, but it appeared so because of its proximity to earth.

I sat in the darkness looking at the silhouettes of trees and plants. Will it run out of fuel and die? The pre-Covid-19-me would have said at least it was shining bright and when it dies the heavier elements it releases will form new stars. But the post-Covid-19-me rejects that optimism. No romance, clichés, assigning objects with sentimental value, or seeing individuals and relationship not as they are, but as I wish them to be. No more artificial insemination of relationships or friendships via social media. No more self-deception.

After the pandemic is under control there will be a realignment of relationships too for some will get stronger and others will weaken or fizzle out. Covid-19 is a litmus test of people around you. Those who are genuinely concerned are blue and alkaline, and those who are not are acidic and red. You will see it in blue and red and you will not be able to deceive yourself, misinterpret it, or explain it away. This tempest will separate the wheat from the chaff, and then blow away the husks. You will be standing alone, but your loved ones and genuine friends will be standing by you albeit at a safe distance.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

Pandemic Journal: Navigating in the Dark



Durham, UK
I am back after spending weeks reading and digesting the news about the corona virus and coming to terms with a new reality. The novel I was working on seems irrelevant, and even self-indulgent now. Life has changed drastically and what was important before Covid-19 seems trivial now and visa versa. It is like installing a new GPS system that you know nothing about and then using it to navigate a new path. Every direction or decision has repercussions: when to tighten the mask, where to walk, when to turn and go back, how to act when face to face with other unwise homo sapiens, and what to do when someone directs a cough at you and the virus itself races towards you?
Before my morning and evening walks, I wear a hat, mask, jacket with hood, and gloves then venture out, stepping into a hostile environment – please bring back that of the Home Office –  that could kill me instantly.
Skilled at self-deception we denigrated death to a distant eventuality, something that happens to others, but the virus turned it into an imminent reality. We have to get ready for departure, pack our suitcases, tidy up, clean the slat, and reconnect with loved ones. Every Skype conversation could be our last so which words to select that could be our last. Will they linger in their memories?
Then resentment builds up because there is so much you want to achieve, loose ends to tie up, projects to carry out, places to visit? How could this journey end prematurely? It is absurd. And all the things you accumulated: books, photographs, paintings, heirlooms, and objects that have sentimental value, which you didn’t have enough time to explain to your children or grandchildren to instil your personal history into their memory. Could you and your story vanish just like that? Puff.
Counting steps, I breath in the fresh air. With the numbers of death rising, it tastes of salt and is laden with grief. Although no one can see or touch the deceased we feel the pain of their families and loved ones. This is bereavement at a global scale that could wrench the heart and unsettle the mind if we are not careful.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.

عمان عمانان: غربية وشرقية

أدي تصريح منسوب إلى ابن وزير العمل والسياحة في الأردن نضال القطامين إلى زوبعة افتراضية اجتاحت مواقع التواصل الإجتماعي منذ عدة أسابيع. فقد قام ابن الوزير بنشر تعليق على الفيسبوك يهاجم فيه سائق سيارة من نوع كيا بعد مشاحنة نشبت بينهما حين توقفه عند إشارة ضوئية. و كان ابن الوزير قد قام بنشر ما يلي على صفحته في الفيسبوك “الناس غاضبون مني لمجرد أني أسوق سيارة مرسيدس س كلاس. وكما وصفه بعض أصدقائي , هذا شخص حاقد.  ومن الصعب فهم نفسية هؤلاء السافلين المريضين والمتخلفين فكرياً في هذا البلد.” وقد اعتذر القطامين لاحقاً عن تعليقاته قائلاً أنه لم يكن يقصد أية إهانة. كما عبر عن دهشته من مدى ردود الفعل تجاه الحادثة

على الرغم من اعتذار القطامين إلا أن تعليقاته التي ترجمت إلى العربية, و انتشرت بسرعة, أدت الى ثوره افتراضية في مواقع التواصل الإجتماعي. وقام العديد من النشطاء والمغردين بنشر تعليقات استياء واستنكار اتجاه الحادثة تحت وسم ابن _الوزير#. وفيما اشتبه بعض المعلقين أن الحكومة ترغب في إثارة النزاع الطبقي, عبر آخرون عن غضبهم لأن راتب الوزير القطامين مدفوع من عرق جبين المواطنين الذين يدفعون الضرائب. ورغم أن هذه الحادثة ليست, بحد ذاتها, بتلك الأهمية، إلا أنها تعد مؤشراً على حالة الامتعاض من الطريقة التي يعامل فيها الأغنياء والمتنفذين مع الفقراء والأقل حظاً في المجتمع الأردني, ناهيك عن أمد طويل من اللامساواة

العاصمة عمان مقسومة إلى شطرين أشبه ما يكونوا بكونين متوازيين, يقع الشطر الأول في الناحية الغربية وأغلب سكانه من الأغنياء المترفين وأما الشطر الثاني فيمتد في الناحية الشرقية من العاصمة وأغلب قاطنيه من الفقراء المحرومين. بدأت تجربتي مع ما يعرف ب”الربيع العربي” في كانون الأول عام 2010. ففي عطلة العيد المجيد اندلعت مشاجرة بين طفيليين  وهم شرق أردنيون و محسيريين وهم فلسطينيون  في منطقة جبل التاج في عمان الشرقية وهو أحد الأحياء المزدحمة والتي غالبية سكانها من الفقراء. وأدت المشاجرة إلى قيام شرطة مكافحة الشغب بمحاصرة الأحياء الحي مستعينة بالآليات المسلحة والسجون المتنقلة مما حدا بالمتقاتلين المشحونين ومعظمهم من الشباب بالهتاف تنديداً بالاضطهاد وبإلقاء الحجارة وحرق الإطارات ومهاجمة السيارات . فما بدأ كمشاجرة بين مجموعات متنافسة أخذ منحناً سياسياً تجلى بقيام المتظاهرين في نهاية المطاف بترديد هتافات تطالب بالإصلاح. ومنذ تلك الحادثة, بدأت الأزمة بالتصعيد حيث أصبحت هناك حوادث طعن و إطلاق رصاص متكررة في حي كان ينعم بالأمن والسلام

فور بدء قوات الأمن استعمال الغاز المسيل للدموع قمنا بإغلاق كل النوافذ والستائر وتلثمنا بالأوشحة. ذهبت خارجاً لأرى ما يحدث وحاولت تسجيل الإشتباكات والتقاط الصور ولكنها لم تكن واضحة بسبب الظلام والدخان. وفي صباح اليوم التالي لم يبق اى اثر لليلة السابقة، اذ تم إحضارعمال النظافة قبل الفجر لتنظيف المنطقة من اي دليل للاشتباكات. كان الأثر الوحيد المتبقي لما رأته عيناي هو علبة الغاز المسيل للدموع ،المصنوعة في البرازيل،  التي سقطت في حديقة  أحد جيراننا في الحي

وفي اليوم التالي كان لدي اجتماع في فندق حياة عمان الذي تصل كلفة الإقامة فيه لليلة واحدة إلى 515 دولار أي أعلى من معدل الدخل الشهري للكثير من الأردنيين، أما الجناح فتبلغ كلفته 6166 دولار. عند دخولي الفندق، وجدت نفسي وسط  واحة هادئة مليئة بالأزهار المستوردة الباهضة الثمن تتوسطها مدفأة وشجرة عيد ميلاد مذهلة انعكست صورتها على الواجهة الزجاجية فوق ظل لمئذنة مضيئة منتصبة فوق تلة بعيدة. وكانت نغمات الموسيقي الكلاسيكية الممزوجة بأصوات قرع الكؤوس و الضحكات  تتردد في المكان ورائحة العطور والسيجار الغالي تعبق في الأجواء. كثيراً ما يقوم فندق حياة عمان بتنظيم حفلات تذوق النبيذ للأغنياء وأصحاب الذوات.  ووظيفة رجال أمن الفندق، الذين يقومون بتفتيش الأشخاص والأمتعة ،هي حماية رجال الأعمال الأجانب والسياح وكل من يستطيع شراء مشروب بسعر 7 دولار. أما قبح الأحياء الفقيرة ومخيمات اللاجئين و بيوت صفائح “الزينكو” فهي بعيدة عن العين والقلب.  فهذا الجزء “الراقي” من المدينة يكاد لا يدرك شيئاً عن ذاك الجزء الثاني القابع على مرمى بضعة أميال فقط والذي كان متقداً في الليلة الماضية، خاصة أن مثل هذه الأحداث لا تحتل سوى سطوراً قليلة في بعض الصحف الإلكترونية

ترجع بي ذاكرتي إلى الوراء عندما كنت جالسة في أحد مقاهي عمان الغربية أحتسي القهوة مع صديقة لي لينضم إلينا ابن أحد العوائل الغنية المتنفذة. أخذنا النقاش إلى الوضع الراهن، وحين قلت أن الفجوة بين الفقراء والأغنياء آخذة بالاتساع و أصبحت أكبر حجماً وأكثر وضوحاً مما قد يؤدي  إلى تداعيات لا يحمد عقباها كانعدام الأمن والإستقرار رد قائلاً: “يجب على الفقراء أن يبحثوا عن وظائف ويباشروا بالعمل”. استأذنتهم على الفور وأخذت سيارة أجرة لأعود إلى عمان الشرقية حيث يسكن والداي. في الطريق, قال لي سائق التاكسي أن الفجوة بين دخله وما عليه إنفاقه شهريا تبلغ حوالي 423 دولار. بحسب إحصائيات البنك الدولي 12% من الأردنيين تحت خط الفقر

يقبل معظم سكان عمان الشرقية بأي وظيفة كانت مثل ترميم الملابس وبيع السلع الرخيصة وتصليح الأواني وتوصيل الطلبات والمشتريات للمنازل. وعلى الرغم من ذلك، ازداد عدد الشباب المتسكعين في الشوارع. وبحسب تقارير البنك الدولي إن معدل البطالة الرسمي المعلن عنه يقدر ب 15% بينما يتراوح في الواقع ما بين 25-30%. ويصل معدل البطالة للشباب الذين تتراوح أعمارهم بين 20-23 سنة إلى 40% و36% لمن تتراوح أعمارهم بين 25-39 سنة. إن عدم وجود فرص عمل إضافة إلى قلة المراكز الترفيهية والمساحات المخصصة  للمجتمع المحلي يؤدي إلى الشعور بالإحباط العام  الذي يحوله أقل استفزاز إلى غضب عارم

لذلك، ضربت تعليقات ابن الوزير على الوتر الحساس لا سيما أن الفساد والمحسوبية في تفشٍ مستمر. عندما كنت في الأردن، ذهبت إلى إحدى الدوائر الرسمية لأقوم بتجديد بطاقة الأحوال المدنية. أما رحلتي لفرع دائرة الجوازات العامة في المحطة، فقد استدعت إلى ذاكرتي شيئاً مشابهاً رأيته في بوغوتا. ففي عام 2008 ذهبت إلى العاصمة الكولومبية لحضور المؤتمر الرابع و السبعين لنادي القلم الدولي كضيفة شرف. حين وصلت الى الفندق كان في استقبالي ثلاث مجموعات مختلفة من الحرس إضافة إلى الكلاب البوليسية. فالجرائم منتشرة والأجانب في خطر إذ لا يسمح لهم  بالتجول أو حتى مغادرة الفندق بدون حماية أمنية مشددة. وفي إحدى المرات التي غادرنا فيها الفندق ركبنا باصاَ صغيراً مر بنا في شارع بدون أية إضاءة. بدا المنظر كأنه نسيج من وحي مخيلتي. فجأة، وجدت نفسي أمام مشهد من فيلم عن نهاية العالم إذ كانت الحشود تتجمع لشراء البضائع أو للمقايضة عليها في الظلام، أي سوق سوداء بالمعنيين المجازي والحرفي. نشر الباعة المتجولون رقعهم على الأرض لتترامى على جانبي الشارع. وعلى بعد بضعة أمتار ترى النيران والدخان وتسمع الموسيقى الصاخبة، ورائحة الطعام الدسم تفوح في الهواء.  احتشد الناس في الشارع يغنون ويرقصون في الظلام مما اضطر السائق إلى القيادة بحذر ليتفادى الاصطتدام بالأكشاك المتنقلة

على خلاف بوغوتا، كان الوقت مبكراً والشمس ساطعة في عمان. أخذت تاكسي إلى المحطة ولكن المرحلة الأخيرة من رحلة تجديد البطاقة كانت بطيئة. بدا المكان مثل سوق البراغيث او الجمعة إذا كان مليئا بالاكشاك المتنقلة لبيع الملابس والأحذية والأثاث القديم والأساور وقلائد الخرز. تم نشر البضائع ومعظمها مستعملة ورديئة الصنع على الأرض بل وتجاوزت الرصيف لتُنثر في الشارع نفسه فكان لابد لسائق التاكسي من توخي الحذر كي لا يدهس الباعة وبضائعهم المبعثرة في كل مكان

عندما وصلنا الفرع المحلي لدائرة الجوازات بدا كل شئ متواضعاً ولكن منظماً. وكانت الإشارة الوحيدة من الماضي التي تلوح في المكان هي الرجل المسن الذي يجلس على كرسي قش ويبيع الطوابع في الخارج. قدمت طلبا ثم دفعت ووقفت في الطابور. لم أرى أي دليل على معاملة تفضيلية. في أثناء انتظاري اتصل بي مسؤول رفيع المستوى وسألني عن مكاني. وعندما أوضحت له أنني أنتظر تجديد بطاقة الأحوال المدنية أجابني مستغرباً: “لماذا؟ سأصطحبك إلى مدير الجوازات العامة وتجدد بطاقتك بينما تنتظرين في مكتبه مستمتعة بكاسة شاي”. رفضت عرضه بأدب

هذه الواقعة تدل على أن  الكثير من المتنفذين والأغنياء في البلد يدبرون شؤونهم دون تعبئة نماذج أو الإنتظار في طوابير حيث يدير لهم أمورهم ومعاملاتهم آخرون. وفي بعض الأحيان يحصلون على مبتغاهم و يقومون بإجراءات رسمية بدون أية زيارة، حتى لو شكلية, للدائرة أو الوزارة المعنية. وهذا خير دليل على تفشي الواسطة والمحسوبية. فإذا لم يكن عندك واسطة فلن تستطيع تدبير امورك بسهولة. على سبيل المثال, هناك وظائف معينة في وزارة الخارجية تذهب فقط لأبناء وبنات عائلات معينة. لذلك كانت هذه النقطة بالتحديد، أي الشفافية والوضوح في توزيع فرص العمل، من مدرج مطالب حملة “ظلمتونا” وتيار الإصلاح الأردني حراك

بناءً على ذلك، عندما التقي سكان عمان الغربية مع سكان عمان الشرقية، الأغنياء والفقراء، على تلك  الإشارة الضوئية, كان من الطبيعي أن يكون هناك حالة تنافر واستياء أدت إلى مشاجرة. وإن ردود الفعل على العبارات التي كتبها ابن الوزير على صفحته في الفيسبوك، مشيراً إلى الجدال الذي نشب بينه وبين المواطن الأردني العادي، هي ليست موجهة له شخصيا ولايمكن إدراجها ببساطة تحت بند الغيرة أو الحسد أو النزاع الطبقي بل هي خير دليل على حالة القرف العام من الواسطة والمحسوبية والفساد المتفشي والحرمان الاقتصادي

تم نشر هذا المقال في جريدة القدس العربي

Behind the Façade in Amman

Statements attributed to the son of the Minister of Labour and Tourism in Jordan, Nidal Katamine, caused an uproar on social networking sites few weeks ago. He posted a tirade against a motorist driving a Kia, who started an argument with him on a traffic light. The minister’s son posted the following on his Facebook page: ‘People are angry with me because I drive an S-Class Mercedes . . . He is what my people call a ‘hater’. But you don’t seem to understand the psychology of sick minded backward cunts in this country.’ Katamine apologized for his remarks, saying that he did not intend to cause any offence, he also expressed surprise at the scale of the reaction to the incident.

Despite his apology his comments, which were translated into Arabic and circulated, caused a storm on social media. Under the hash tag ‘son-of-the-minster’ activists and tweeters posted comments, which were either deprecating or critical. Some suspected the government of stirring class conflict. Others were angry because his father’s salary is paid by the taxpayers. Although this incident is not important in itself it points to a malaise in Jordanian society: the way the rich and powerful treat the underprivileged. And a large number of poor Jordanians have been at the receiving end of unequal treatment.

Amman is divided into two parallel universes one on the west, mostly affluent, and one on the east, mostly poor. This is how I experienced the so called ‘Arab Spring’ which began in December 2010. One Christmas three years ago a fight between Transjordanian Tafilis and Palestinian Mahsirys erupted in Jabal al-Taj, a crowded poor area in East Amman, and instantly the riot police surrounded the neighbourhood with their armoured vehicles and mobile prisons. The mostly young men charged, shouting abuse, and hurling stones. They attacked stationary vehicles and burnt tyres. What started as a quarrel between rival groups turned political and towards the end the demonstrators shouted slogans calling for reform. Things have escalated since in what used to be a peaceful neighbourhood and incidents of stabbing and shooting are reported recently.

When the riot police began using tear gas we closed all the windows and curtains, wore scarves and wrapped them like masks around our faces. We were worried about my mother who has a chest condition. I went outside to see what was happening. I could not film the attacks because it was dark and smoky and the photos I took were blurred. The morning after there was no trace of the night before. Street cleaners were brought in before dawn and they swept the rubbish and carted all evidence away. The only evidence that what I saw actually happened was a canister of tear gas made in Brazil, which fell in one of the neighbour’s gardens.

The next day my meeting was at the Grand Hayatt Regency hotel, where a room costs up to 365 JOD, higher than the average monthly income of many Jordanians. You could also pay 4365 JOD for a suite. I walked into an oasis of calm, imported expensive flowers, open fires and an amazing Christmas tree. Its reflection on the glass was against a lit minaret on the distant hill. The sound of classical music, clinking of glasses, and laughter, and the scent of expensive cigars lingered in the air. Hayatt Regency often organise wine tasting for the uber wealthy. The body and luggage searches before you get in, and security guards protect foreign businessmen, tourist and those who can afford a drink for about 5 JOD. The ugliness of poor neighbourhoods, refugee camps and shanty towns is out of sight and mind. This part of the city knew little about that other part of the city few miles away, which was on fire the night before especially when such riots merit few lines in an on line newspaper.

I remember sitting in one of the cafés in west Amman having coffee with a friend. The son of a rich and influential family joined us. When I said the gap between rich and poor is getting wider and more visible and this will lead to instability and lawlessness. He said, ‘the poor should find jobs and start working.’ I excused myself and took a taxi to East Amman, where my parents live. The driver told me that the gap between what he earns and spends is about 300 JOD. According to the Word Bank 12% of Jordanians are under the poverty line.

Most East Ammanis take any job going: mending clothes, selling cheap merchandise, fixing utensils, couriering groceries to houses. But over the years the number of young men gathering in street corners rose. According to the World Bank Report unemployment is officially pegged at about 15%, but actually may be in the range of 25-30%. The unemployment rate for those between the ages of 20-24 is almost 40% and is 36% for those between ages 25 and 39. Living with no job prospects and few urban recreational centres or spaces, the youth are frustrated and their anger comes to the surface at the least provocation.

The son of minister’s comments hit a raw nerve because corruption and nepotism are rife. I went to one of the departments to renew my Identity Card. The trip to the Mahatta branch of the Passport Office reminded me of something I saw in Bogotá, Columbia, where I was a Guest of Honour at the 74th World Congress of International Pen in 2008. When I arrived at the hotel I was welcomed by three different groups of guards and sniffer dogs. Crime was wide-spread and foreigners could not leave the hotel or travel unescorted. In a mini bus we drove through a dark street with no lighting and the sight seemed like a figment of my own imagination. I was suddenly in a post-apocalypse film where crowds gathered to buy or barter goods, a black economy literally. Vendors spread their knick-knacks on the ground on both sides of the street. There were camp fires and music, and the smell of street food filled the air. People haggled, sang, danced in the darkness and the driver had to drive carefully to get through the makeshift stalls.

Unlike Bogotá, it was morning and the sun was shining in Amman. I took a taxi to Mahatta. The final leg of our journey was slow. The place looked like a flea market and was full of makeshift stalls selling clothes and shoes, old furniture, bead bracelets and necklaces. Most of the used goods and low quality items were spread on the floor and infringed on the main road itself. The driver had to navigate carefully so as not to run over peddlers or their merchandise.

When we arrived to the local branch of the Passport Office all seemed humble, but orderly. The only nod to the past was the old man, sitting on a straw chair and selling stamps outside. I applied, paid and joined the queue. There was no preferential treatment and the only thing that you might encounter in any other county was that one of the female civil servants was in a bad mood. A high ranking official rang me and asked me where I was. I explained that I was waiting for my new ID card. He said, ‘Why? I will take you to the head of the Passport Office. It will be renewed while you enjoy a cup of tea.’ I politely refused his offer.

So some of the affluent and powerful get their affairs done without filing a form or waiting in queues. It is all handled for them by others. Sometimes their applications are processed without even visiting the relevant department or ministry. Nepotism and preferential treatment is wide spread. If you don’t have a wasta: an influential intermediary you don’t go far. Certain jobs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, go to sons and daughters of certain families and one of the demands of Thalmtouna Campaign and Hirak, Jordanian Reform Movement, is transparency about job allocation.

When the residents of the two parts of Amman met, the rich and poor, at that traffic light, they didn’t like each other and an argument ensued. The reaction to the row of the Minister’s Son with an ordinary Jordanian citizen and his Facebook status is not personal, or can be easily classified under the politics of envy, or as spite and class war. It shows simmering resentment at nepotism, pandemic corruption, and economic deprivation.

Marginalised, Demonised Revolutionaries

Adam Shatz concludes his article in the LRB by saying ‘if the Egyptian movement to be crushed it will be, in part, because of the conviction that ‘we are not them’.’ Egyptian men and women, Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed as other and inferior for so long that their uprising took the world by surprise. Neither the think tanks in Israel or USA predicted the spread of mass civil unrests in different parts of the Arab world. The lack of respect for Arabs and Muslims in the corridors of power and the way they are daily reduced and deformed on the pages of newspapers are some of the reasons behind that.

In 2007 The Guardian’s research into one week’s news coverage showed that 91% of articles in national newspapers about Muslims were negative. The London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who commissioned the study, said that the findings were a ‘damning indictment’ of the media and urged editors and programme makers to review the way they portray Muslims. Livingstone said. ‘I think there is a demonisation of Islam going on which damages community relations and creates alarm among Muslims.’

According to Sander Gilman ‘such images both result from and result in action. Our fantasies about difference, our anxieties about our status, can result in medical theories about the Other which relegate human being to the status of laboratory animals (in Auschwitz or in the America South); in racial theories that reduce the other to the status of exotic, either dangerous . . . or benign.’ Writing of stereotypes and pseudoscientific theories that were commonly used in colonial discourse turned ‘Muslims’ regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture or language into laboratory animals and made places like Camp X possible, where the suspects, who were never put on trail and found guilty, are treated like animals.

Muslims are perceived as either ignorant and rich or bloody thirsty terrorists. Arabs, marginalised, demonised, racially abused in the West, treated as backward by many of the Israelis revolted against their oppressors. Egyptians got sick of their corrupt, brute dictator who doesn’t allow free speech, elections and tortures and imprisons and even ‘disappears’ his political opponents

The initial reaction by the BBC was to ignore the news in Cairo, concentrate on Sharm el-Sheikh and British tourists and the whole ‘Egypt conflict’, as they called it, would go away. Many western commentators and journalists stated that the Egyptians and are not ready for and/or deserve democracy. The arguments can be summarised as such: democracy is for white people, Christians, Jews and Israelis and Muslims and Arabs do not deserve it. Cohen, cited by Adam Shatz, and some websites like Israel National News referred to the people in Tahrir Square as ‘mob’ conjuring up images of the dangerous and unruly Ottoman savage outside the walls of Vienna in 1529. Richard Cohen argued in the Washington Post that the west had to choose between two alternatives: human rights or history:

Those Americans and others who cheer the mobs in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, who clamor for more robust anti-Mubarak statements from the Obama administration, would be wise to let Washington proceed slowly. Egypt and the entire Middle East are on the verge of convulsing. America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same.

If 9/11 hardened the Muslim Christian binaries and turned Arab dark features into triggers for alarms everywhere, at shopping centres, trains stations and airport 25/1 in Egypt softened those binaries and blow up static, ahistorical and clichéd representations of the Arab. The cracks between western propaganda and reductionism, for most of the reports in the British press were found ‘inaccurate and alarmist’, and flesh and blood Arabs and Muslims began to show. Egyptians, who have similar dark features to Mohammed Atta, proved to be genial, peace loving, press savvy, able to use social networks for maximum effect and steer media representations of their civil disobedience. Aljazeera’s live coverage is punctuated by the crowds shouting silmiyyeh ‘peaceful revolution’. Suddenly a shift in paradigms occurred and was reflected in the tone and content of the coverage. The fossilised image of the evil Muslim that can be traced back to the defeat of Moors in Spain and beyond was shaken. For the first time in a hundred years or more Arabs began to respect themselves and make their own history not Cohen’s. As a result some of the writing in the press on the revolt was tinged with admiration on this side of the divide. New formations are evolving in the western mind and psyche as we speak. This is one of the many triumphs of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. It also shows that peaceful resistance and dialogue are far more superior weapons to violence and terrorism.

The Egyptian Malaise

One way forward is for the state to deal with its people as full citizens regardless of their religion and honour their rights. Liberation, equality and democracy are interconnected. They have in common a concern with emancipation. The Interior Ministry said a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible. The circumstances of the attack, compared with other incidents abroad, “clearly indicates that foreign elements undertook planning and execution.” An al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq issued a threat against the Church in Egypt in November. A statement on an Islamist website posted about two weeks before the blast called for attacks on Egypt’s churches, listing among them the one hit. No group was named in the statement.

Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, said: ˜We are concerned that incidents of violence and terror against Christians in Egypt are increasingly spiralling out of control. They continue to go unchecked and unresolved, and their perpetrators are not brought to justice. This passiveness has sent out the message that Christians in Egypt are an easy and legitimate target. Today’s event demonstrates this and puts matters on a wholly new level.”

According to a report by the Freedom of Religion and Belief Program – Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, “˜The judiciary, particularly sitting judges, does not often hear cases of sectarian violence, and it is extremely rare for such crimes to be referred to trial. On the other hand, the Public Prosecutor’s role in dealing with the violence is shameful: although Egyptian law gives that office the prerogatives of investigating judges authorized to conduct immediate, independent investigations to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice using evidence of their crimes to protect society from lawbreakers, the Public Prosecutor’s Office tends to aid the security establishment in imposing “reconciliation” procedures, even when these are against the law . . . At other times the Public Prosecutor conducts investigations for show that lack all evidence, which means that either the perpetrators are not identified or they are acquitted if they are referred to trial.” These shambolic procedures are not unique to cases of sectarian violence or Egypt and can be found in other Arab countries when dealing with civil unrest.The issue here is not who is responsible, but how the Egyptian government will deal with the attack and the perpetrators. Will they be imprisoned and tortured in the dark without public trial or will they be brought to justice? Will the affair be wrapped up and dealt with through archaic “reconciliation” rituals or conducted under the gaze and scrutiny of the national and international media? Will those responsible be held accountable and penalised openly, an example for others who contemplate such criminal acts?

Moreover, the growing problem of sectarian violence in Egypt cannot be dealt with in isolation. It is part and parcel of the states flagrant disregard for the International Bill of Human Rights and other human rights treaties, which Egypt is a signatory to. The state stopped applying such laws and treaties since it imposed emergency law  Egyptians are living under Emergency Law since, except for an 18-month break in 1980. The law has been continuously extended every three years since 1981. Under the law, police powers are extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship non-approved political organizations, and unregistered financial donations are formally banned. Some 17,000 people are detained under the law, and estimates of political prisoners run as high as 30,000That has to change for terrorism whether home-grown or foreign to be uprooted. Al-Qaeda feeds on anger, frustration and resentment.Terrible incidents, like the Alexandria bombing, show the need for Egypt to move towards participatory democracy and respect for human rights. This would deal with the causes rather than the symptoms of terrorism. The shock and anger of the people on the street will no doubt turn into healthy opposition to the defunct establishment as it did in the past. Perhaps the lives of those who were killed in Alexandria would not be lost in vain. The attack might strengthen the Egyptians resolve and unite them. And this would show not only in opposing terrorism whoever its sponsor is and challenging those who are determined to splinter Egypt, but in voting out Mubarak in the next round of elections. A legitimate regime in tune with the needs of the people will be better equipped to snuff out terrorism and sectarianism.

The House of Songs

There was, there was not, at the oldest of times a country which extended from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. In that country, which I shall call Baghdad for the purposes of this narrative, Islam was the predominant religion.  Islam, or that particular interpretation of the hadith and Qur’an, perceives a specific role for women which in practice places them at the bottom of the social hierarchy – “men are superior to them by a degree”1 . Islam identified women with chaos, anti-divine and anti-social forces. To contain women’s power, a system of segregation and confinement was superimposed on the many and diverse societies in Baghdad.  The unchecked rights of men, polygamy, divorce, and even beating, were all strategies to subjugate women.  A true Islamic Baghdadi house was a house where men provided for women, protected them and policed them.

There was a story-teller in Baghdad called Shahrazad. Committing her life to telling tales in such hostile surroundings, she entered into a conflict with the religious and political orders. Becoming a woman writer in Baghdad was to face a double challenge as there was a consensus in that land that denied woman a voice. Although writing in Baghdad was not a respectable profession and was considered by the men of religion as an act of subversion, many women, like Shahrazad, chose writing as a means to freedom by taking sides in the social and political struggle.  But these women were writing in societies which forbade any discussion of sex, religion and politics in the classroom.  As a consequence, they experienced slander, banning and imprisonment.  To cross the defined border and encroach on traditionally male space was to risk being accused of becoming a loose women, a whore, a belly-dancer. In most Baghdadi countries, women’s writing was read as autobiographical.  Many women writers like Layla Ba’labakki, Zabia Khamis, Suhair al-Tal, Nawaal el-Sa’daawi, were held legally responsible for their creations.

Shahrazad suffered the consequences of living as a woman in a conservative Muslim society.  When she became a reporter with a local newspaper, she was asked to cover “women stuff”.  When she moved on to other areas like politics and economics, many of her articles were censored.  Political, social and religious censorship was the Baghdadis’ daily nightmare – their strait-jacket.   Commenting on the question of freedom, Margaret Walker writes, “Without freedom personal and social, to write as one pleases . . . the writer is in bondage.”2 In Baghdad Shahrazad had no social, religious or political freedom – she was in bondage.  Returning to the house of obedience before sunset prayers, she was forced to wear the veil and could not criticise the regime.

Shahrazad watched her mother sadly, a mother who spent most of her life in the house – the domestic world of most Baghdadi mothers, in a land without peace.  She continued her daily work, trying to keep the household together, while waiting for her husband and sons to return from the front line or the chambers of the secret police. She suffered bereavement in silence. She strove to keep the morale of the family high, to stabilize the home, as war followed war.  Regimes that neither Shahrazad nor her mother had voted for or supported, took whole nations to war destroying generation after generation.  Through their windows, they watch, bewildered, as the funeral procession passes, the coffins streaming down the street.

Shahrazad did not want to be like her mother. She would shake her stick at what Ian McEwan describes as the “monochrome, the monological, the monotheoretical, the monotheistic”3 . When faith is presented as all or nothing, when two plus two no longer equals four, when singing is no longer a means of deliverance, the writer must decide: to follow the men of religion, to be a clown of the court, or to write the truth of her heart. Shahrazad wanted to safeguard her integrity, and the purity of her tales. She wanted to look at her face in the mirror without seeing an ever-running, red tear.  She wanted freedom, to teach her children songs of peace, so she left Baghdad.  She refused to let her song be silenced or distorted. She would sing loud and clear and so she crossed from one language into another, committing herself to a life in exile.


Exile is a sad country.  In exile the rift between the rural image of the homeland and the western city cannot be healed.  It is a severing from home, Eden, childhood; a sense of loss, displacement, uprootedness. In exile, nostalgia becomes a form of loyalty to the house in Baghdad, to the garden with its tall palm trees, to the mother’s headscarf, to the past, the village; all are images held still in a medium which beautifies.

In exile, you quickly develop a double vision, where images of the streets of Basra merge with those of Kentish Town.  You begin looking forward at the country of adoption while always looking back at the country of origin.  You check your position at every junction.  You adjust your mirrors, your sense of belonging, and drive on exploring a new map.   You keep examining and re-examining your loyalties to both the still picture in the mind and the present living landscape.  You no longer take things at face value.  Doubt, dissent and questioning become part of your life.  You become a hybrid, forever assessing, evaluating, accommodating.

Exile is a sad country.  The first cultural shock comes when you fail to recognize the truth of your experience in the Western perception of it.  You feel out-numbered and out-organized by a culture which validates and enforces the supremacy of everything that is Christian, western, white, written. At the least provocation, distaste for immigrant culture comes to the surface.  What you have left behind in your country of origin becomes clear: dictatorship, fundamentalism and the mutilation of the mind.  But you cannot fight the authoritarian sultans and mullahs without fighting reductionism, colonialism and misrepresentation in the western media.   In your country of adoption, you suddenly realize that – to use the words of Fred Halliday –  you have to “turn a critical face both ways, towards the country of origin and its traditions and the country of reception.  The challenge, the alienation, the “offence” are two-sided.”

In this multi-cultural, multi-racial society Shahrazad, the daughter of the vizier, became an emigre wrapped in her raincoat, untouchable, without background or history. She stood outside the circle with the “miscellaneous whining coloured” who are denied access to the circle where, as Edward Said writes, “stand the blameless, the just, the omnicompetent, those who know the truth about themselves as well as others”5 .  She began asking herself: Who am I?  Where do I belong?  Where is my fatherland?  What is my mother tongue?  To whom should I tell my tales?

When she first arrived in her country of adoption, she was given a simple answer to her questions – the cricket match test.  After filling in endless forms as the immigration officer checked the reams of black lists, she was asked, “If we play cricket against Baghdad, which team would you support?”  She found no words in any language to answer his question. She stood there opening and shutting her mouth like a fish. Would they open her heart? Open heart surgery?  Probe into her immigrant’s heart and see what is etched there.  The house of obedience which Shahrazad had left behind rose again as the house of confinement.

The real test for Shahrazad came the year of Desert Storm. This was not cricket :  her country of adoption began a war against Baghdad.  Day after day she watched the bombs falling on her people. Some of her Baghdadi friends who had escaped the sultan’s secret police were detained and imprisoned. Other Baghdadis, who had lost members of their families, had to go through the agony of watching the western media coverage of the war. Baghdad was destroyed but the sultan lived on. This operation, launched in the name of ‘law and order’, left nothing but disorder and destruction.

Are there any bandages for the eyes, the ears and the heart? The causalities along the Basra road were buried in the sand :  almost a generation of Baghdadis was “neutralized”, many of them peasant boys coerced into conscription.  The poet Tony Harrison writes:
“So lie and say the charred man smiled
to see the soldier hug his child
This gaping rictus once made glad
a few old hearts back in Baghdad
hearts growing older by the minute
as each truck comes without me in it”6

Shahrazad had met the “old hearts back in Baghdad”. For her they have faces, they have names. She sings their songs, understands their sadness, laughs at their jokes. But they said they would kill them and they did – the soldier’s bodies on the Basra road – but the old hearts remain.

She tried in the name of understanding and assimilation to join the majority of the public who gave their stamp of approval to Desert Storm.  But there was another wind, blowing strongly from Basra, carrying the smell of ripe dates and the memory of her mother’s patient eyes.  She could not join the chorus of those who said, “I love you” to the war machine. Shahrazad the story-teller, the daughter of the vizier, became an embittered emigre. She buttoned up her raincoat, standing in silence on the outside.  The walls of the house of confinement were closing in. Exile stops being a rift and becomes a wound.  Mahmoud Darwish describes this state of siege:
Out of the window of this last space.  Our star will hang up mirrors.
Where should we go after the last frontiers?  Where should the birds fly after the last sky?7

She vowed to tie her tongue with the same yellow ribbons that were tied round the old oak tree to welcome the allied forces back home.  May this tongue never utter another word in English, the language of her coloniser and invader.  The English language is contaminated, corrupt, full of “neutralizing “, “terminating”, “taking apart”, “knocking out” and “cleansing” hostile targets.   Shahrazad felt betrayed by her first love:  the  English language.   It was no longer the clear, sharp, crisp language which she had pursued the way her bedouin ancestors used to pursue fresh water.

She remembered the language she had fallen in love with when she was young.  Her first experience of the English language in secondary school was memorising Shakespeare’s poems and listening to the radio.  One of the things she had to do to join the secret Society, a local adolescent group, was memorize English songs.  She learnt by heart Love Story and Nights in White Satin, put on a tee-shirt, worn out jeans, pinned the sign of peace on her chest, put a flower in her hair then – yeah man – was given membership.   She sang in English, “Imagine there’s no countries.”

“May my tongue never utter another word of English”, she said. She wanted to follow Ngugi’s example – “to resolve the question of language, which was clearly inseparable from the question of to which tradition I would reconnect myself”8 and in his defiance of the intended detention of his mind and imagination he decided to write in Gikuyu.  He argues that the colonial system imposes its own language on subject races and then the acquisition of their tongue becomes a status symbol. The alienation from the mother tongue, and adoption of the thought process and values of the colonial system distance you from the masses of your country.  Ngugi decided to communicate with the people he left behind in Gikuyu, the language of his new commitment.

Shahrazad felt besieged by a culture which validates and propagates everything that is Christian, western, white, written.  With images of Alhambra, when Islamic culture was the bearer of science and art, sliding across the English horizon, she raises her raincoat’s collar, and walks on.  She had decided to decolonise the mind and the tongue.  She had vowed not to utter another word in English. The house of confinement became a ghetto where you shut your ears, eyes, mouth and heart to the host society, like the three monkeys.

Her decision was reinforced by the misrepresentation and hostility which reached unprecedented levels during the war.  The west was trying to penetrate Baghdad for political and economic reasons.  The conflict or quest for oil, territorial expansionism and the multinational corporates bid for hegemony produced a dominative knowledge where the opposition was portrayed as ignorant and backward, Baghdadis tarred with the same black brush, justifying the violence that followed.

The western media, the so-called fourth authority, paved the way for military action by presenting Baghdadis as either dark, incomprehensible terrorists, or stupid, medieval and rich. They were classified into two groups: one to be fought and “neutralized”, the other to be outwitted and conned.  Baghdad became “Arabia”, an extension of the desert so romantically and faithfully portrayed by Lawrence of Arabia and his predecessors.  From a hazy, soft focus painting on the mantelpiece, “Arabia” became part of the West’s daily television time.  For the vast majority of Baghdadis the romantic vision of Arabia belonged to the colonial past, together with the books of Burton, Doughty and Lawrence.  But for the foreign media, that “Arabia” of the mind still existed and was in constant conflict with the present-day realities of the region.  Instead of challenging the handed down misconceptions most of them were actively consolidating myths of a former age.  Western photographers used the camel to reconcile this myth of “Arabia” with the realities of Baghdad at war.  Young, closely shaven white soldiers, in sun-glasses were photographed against a backdrop of camels, thus reconciling “Arabia Deserta” with images of an advanced western world.

Fleet Street obligingly worked on the image of the sultan who until recently was the bulwark of the west.  He began  growing horns, exhaling smoke and stood high, threatening “democracy and our way of life”.  The sultan was inflated until he was so big that his people became him. The Baghdadi people disappeared off the scene – journalistic “collateral damage” of the first kind.  You heard the thunder of war, the turkey shoot, but nothing about the defenceless opponents of this mighty war machine.  It was a false war which bore a false victory.

Shahrazad was screaming against this latest military adventure, but few people heard. Deafness9 , which was so eloquently described by John Berger, became endemic.  She looked around her, tried to communicate, but got no response apart from polite smiles and small talk.  Where does the bird fly after the last sky?  Exile became a sentence of solitary confinement.

Shahrazad remembered why she had committed herself to living in exile in the first place.   She wanted to safeguard her integrity and the purity of her tales.  She wanted to teach her children songs of peace – she would sing loud and clear. She had emigrated in pursuit of democracy and freedom of expression.  She left Baghdad when she read Sartre, “one does not write for slaves.  The art of fiction is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy.”10 Freedom of expression, and democracy which she had pursued were under threat.  The moment journalists put on army uniform and began parroting the generals, freedom of expression began receding.  Censorship, the corruption of language and the compromise of some journalists, academics and commentators brought back bad memories. That, after all,  is why she had left Baghdad.  But the dream she had pursued had been shattered. The house of obedience became a house of confinement,  then a ghetto and was slowly becoming a mental hospital.

When you fail to recognize the truth of your experience in the Western perception and  representation of it, when you realize that you are – after all these years of living in exile – still dark, incomprehensible, untouchable, completely surrounded by high white walls: you have very few options left.  You become the dark, invisible and ignorant immigrant you are cast as; ever-grateful to the host country for allowing you to step on its soil.  You begin shrinking in order not to occupy more space than you should.   You embrace your inferior position whole-heartedly and bowing becomes part of your life.  It is better for a westerner to direct a film about Baghdad, no matter how distorted the characters are, than neglecting the culture altogether.  In short, you become a coconut: white in the inside and black on the out.  Hollow on the inside with no spine, substance or colour. Exile becomes the country of coconuts and slavery.

Or you see Ghandi, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sheltering Sky, Harem, Jewel in the Crown  and refuse to accept these distorted characters as your representatives.   You become so embittered and anguished over seeing yourself mutilated every day on screen that you build a castle around your immigrant heart and refuse to have anything to do with the host society.  Like moles you live underground, in the darkness.  You decide that your native Urdu, Swahili or Arabic is better than their snobbish English.  You impose values and ideas on your children long since discarded in your country of origin.  Anger and bitterness feed your fundamentalist and puritan ideas.   The only self-defence open to you is to shrivel, wrap yourself in black, and hide in the mosque.


But Shahrazad, the oriental story-teller, the immigrant daughter of the vizier, turns her face towards a sky beyond the last sky, and sings with Maya Angelou:
“You May write me down in history
with your bitter, twisted lies.
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”11

Shahrazad, like many other writers in exile, would shake her stick at misrepresentation, reductionism and ignorance. She, the deaf, mute, ignorant native, announces that she has arrived – the character backdrop of a foreign landscape faithfully and romantically described in travel books.  “I am here,” she says, “the native who never wrote about you behind your back”.  She tries to imagine herself in western works :  The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Cry Freedom, Heart of Darkness.  She watches  films made by the host society, like The Sheltering Sky and argues that the vast majority of Baghdadi women have professions other than the oldest one, Baghdadi men are not lascivious beasts and the societies of that land have changed since the western observer first landed.  The black experience does not need a white middle man to represent and legitimize it.  She begins to talk herself into being; to paint her image into existence, to write herself into their literature.

She realizes that Baghdad will be built again by its own people, that palm trees out-last storms, and that brave spirits shall overcome. She unties her sore tongue and begins singing in whatever language comes first.  She admires Ngugi, but finds herself standing up and walking out of his puritan camp.  She joins the camp of Chinua Achebe where “to throw out the English language in order to restore linguistic justice and self-respect to ourselves is a historical fantasy . . . we needed [the English] language to transact our business, including the business of overthrowing colonialism itself in the fulness of time”12 . The reconciliation with the English language takes place despite her ambiguous feeling towards it.  She should celebrate her uniqueness in English, and describe her new world in order to understand it.  She should write her colours back into the predominantly white tapestry.

She sings with Achebe “The Song of Ourselves” celebrating differences and similarities, rejecting absolute truths about herself and others, welcoming disruptions of linear narratives, embracing debate, uncertainty and dissent.  Standing outside the whale, “in this world with no safe corners”13 , she sings for bridges, those destroyed and those to be built.  The truth is that there is no house apart from the fragile, strong house of writing, the house of song.  The song which delivered Shahrazad in the past will deliver her again. She, like many other immigrants and exiles, will survive by building a house of songs.  Shahrazad, the immigrant daughter of the vizier, the oriental story-teller, becomes a phoenix, a beautiful, colourful bird of survival, forever flying beyond the last sky.

1 The Qur’an, Surat “Al-Nisa”.
2 Margaret Walker,  “On Being Female, Black and Free” in The Writer and Her Work, ed., Janet Sternberg, W. W. Norton, New York, 1980.
3 Ian McEwan, New Statesman, 3 March, 1989.
4 Fred Halliday, “The Struggle for the Migrant Soul”, The Times Literary Supplement, 14-20 April , 1989.
5 Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile”, Granta 13, Autumn 1984.
6 Tony Harrison, “A Cold Coming”, The Guardian, 18 March, 1991.
7 Mahmoud Darwish, “The Earth is Closing on Us”, translated by Abdullah al-Udhari, in Victims of a Map, Al Saqi Books, London, 1984, p.13
8 Ngugi wa Thiong’s, “The Language of African Fiction”,  in Decolonising the Mind.
9 John Berger, “In the Land of the Deaf”, The Guardian, 2 March, 1991.
10 Sartre, “Why Write?”, in 20th Century Literary Criticism, ed. David Lodge, London. 1972, p.371.
11 Maya Angelou And Still I Rise, Virago Press, London, 1986.
12 Chinua Achebe, ” The Song of Ourselves”, Newstatesman and Society,  9 February, 1990.
13 Salman Rushdie, “Outside the Whale”, Granta, 1985.