Thursday, July 31, 2008

Scenario #6: What will happen to a nation?

Several of my last posts have been about Iraqi refugees here. I think this informal miniseries on Iraqis may be coming to an end now. I almost feel like I have hit a such point in depth and soberness it's now time to revert to a more palatable reality for a while. But first I am going to share the question that has been haunting me these months that I've spent with Iraqis.

What has happened to this beautiful heart of civilisation?

I recently attended a "party" held to commemorate the end of a summer camp sponsored by a local convent for Iraqi children. There were just over 200 children bussed from their homes to the largest church in town in order to watch each other perform. Pictured is the finale of a fashion show type of skit, in which a few dozen children dressed up in different types of garb, ranging from formal-wear to traditional Arab, from ghetto fabulous to karate to spiderman! All the children, audience and performers alike were well-dressed, well-behaved and fun to be around. The camp counselors were volunteers, mostly young Iraqi adults. They did a great job of teaching the kids, took their jobs seriously, and were also great fun to be around.

I sat in the back of the hall and thought, "This is a room full of refugees?" These people with a sense for fashion, impressive musical skills (at one point a dozen boys got up on the stage and showed off their breakdance moves!), ability to have fun and overall respect for each other... this is not what I tend to think of when I think of refugees! In fact, I have met very few people, refugees or not, who are overall, as a community from a given place, so cultured: hospitable and generous, well-educated and thoughtful, interesting to talk to and interested in different types of people.

When I ask Iraqis if they want to return home, most of them say no. They say no because, "Iraq is lost." Just this morning, a young woman explained to me that if Iraq could go back to what it was before, she'd be the first person on the bus home. But that won't happen, not for a long time. If it happened this year, she'd go. But it won't, so she and her family are fighting to get resettled in the United States. In its current state of instability, Iraq may feel lost, but the loss will become permanent when well-educated families like hers are finally given the opportunity to move on. Right now, they are living in limbo, waiting for that precious visa out of here. But a small part of them still dreams of returning home and rebuilding their country. As soon as that visa comes, they can start living their lives again, but Iraq will be lost.

I don't want to make a political statement, because I actually do see this war as a double-sided issue, but from the perspective of a sociologist, I am both fascinated and horrified at the thought of a culture disappearing over the course of half a decade. Doctors, university professors, musicians, painters, cinematographers... these are the Iraqis I have met in exile. They speak of beautiful spacious houses that they had to flee and delicious healthy food that they can no longer afford to eat. Their entire heritage is being splattered across the world, making life richer for all of us who meet them, but leaving their own country culturally bankrupt.

Is it really possible that Iraq is lost? What will happen to its culture, passions, tastes, history?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Portrait #40: Two years in...

This afternoon I was invited to translate for a football coach helping with the sports component of a summer camp currently running for Palestinian Iraqis living in this country. As one of the players explained to me, they are twice-refugees. Several decades ago their families fled Palestine for Iraq, where they'd been treated like citizens but had never become citizens. Now they've had to leave that and are refugees again. A third time seeking refuge is not allowed, he said - their next destination absolutely must be a place where they can stay. A country that they can make their home and be given full rights including citizenship.

As I, the only woman in the facility at this particular hour (the women participants were on a swimming outing), sat on a plastic chair brought out especially for me, I observed these attentive, hard-working boys. They were of all ages, but most of them were in the 18-30 years age range. Most wore shoes but not all. Their clothes were clean and tidy, but very simple and rather worn. These two dozen young men sported every type of fashion for athletic chaps imaginable, ranging from surfer dude to school geek to plain old poor taste to footballer pro. When the visiting coach asked for their attention they gave it. When he played with them they tried to keep up, but their sense of awe may have hindered their ability to focus. When the older man who was their leader gave them an instruction, he to was readily obeyed. You could feel the mutual respect flowing through the group. And when I asked for water they sped off to get me some. But they were so thirsty that they ended up drinking it all before the communal bottle reached me.

Toward the end of the visit, I caught the eye of the other female in the crowd: the daughter of one of the players. The gorgeous attentive one-year old at first hid from me in her father's chest but eventually started laughing and waving her arms at me. Her mother was off swimming with the women participants in the summer camp. They had come together as a family to take some vocational training courses and to take advantage of what her father told me was the only educational or self-improvement opportunity they'd been given in the last two years. That's how long they've lived in a camp up in the northeast of the country - a region that one would not be amiss to describe as 'the end of the world'.

Two years and three months, I think he said - he recalled their departure from Iraq by the exact date. He'd come with one brother and his wife and a few of her relatives. He has another brother who stayed in Iraq along with their aunt and grandmother. That brother could stay, he said, because his name is Shiite-sounding and their house is in a Shiite neighbourhood. As for this young 23-year old, father of two, he told me he'd had to leave because his name is Sunni-sounding. That, plus the fact that they're Palestinian, was enough for him to have lived under constant threat. When they left, he'd still been studying. He'd had one month left to complete his degree as a technician, but now he's nothing. He's considered unskilled and ignorant.

So they came. But because they're Palestinian, they were taken to a camp instead of coming to live in the city like the other refugees do. Unlike most refugees here, from their arrival they have been provided by the UN with meagre housing, food, heating fuel and a few other services. But they are confined to two camps near the border. Nobody works there or does anything significant - except wait for some country somewhere in the world to agree to take them off the UN's hands.

I asked him if he wants to come in to this country, and he said that he'd only come if he would be given a passport, be made a citizen of this country. He is tired of living in countries as a refugee. His dream is Australia. "Well," he agreed, "Our foundational dream is Palestine. Of course. But that is not possible, not even worth thinking about." I asked him if he would come live in this country if given the rights of other Palestinians here, which are in fact quite extensive. He said that two years ago, he would have accepted the offer. But after spending two years forgotten at a camp near the border, he will settle for nothing less than citizenship in a country that respects his rights and respects him as a human being.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Portrait #39: This is the honeymoon stage??!!

They came to me together, as a family, thinking I could help them. I could do little more than give them an address and a name, and a bit of random advice. How can I even pretend that that comes close to enough?

But what they need is the big stuff, the things I can't provide. What is the little stuff? What is there that I could give them?

They told me that they arrived in this country 10 days ago. The mother of three children (16, 13 and 4) was the leader of the family entourage that called me this morning saying that they were outside my building looking for me. I'd talked to her on the phone twice but hadn't called back yet because I still didn't have any information to give her. I had told her that I'd call her this morning but she interpreted that promise as an invitation to come visit. I was glad to meet them, but what could I do for them?

She walked in with her brother-in-law and two of her three children. Her brother-in-law had been here before, two years ago, then he'd gone back home. Now he was back, this time with his brother and his family. They're not going home. The rest of their family lives abroad - spread across Europe and America, but the two brothers have been left in the Middle East living the lives of refugees. They left because her husband was threatened at work, her brother-in-law had been kidnapped and beaten, and they were under constant threat - was it because they were Christian or was it because of where they lived?

In the last 10 days they have managed to find by coincidence (or perhaps Providence) an association for refugees - but for refugees from a different country. That association will help them but only for a fee. But at least they now have a roof to put over their heads - they don't know anyone else here. Her family is all still back home and his family all lives abroad. Their first month's rent has cost them nearly 30% of their savings, though. When I asked how much money they had left to live on, she said, "Only enough for a few more months," and pulled out her wallet. While I chatted with her daughter and brother-in-law, she counted her cash and then carefully put her wallet away again. "We have US 750 left," she told me. Her rent for the first month was $400.

Her husband trained as a veterinarian of some sort, but because of the difficulties in their country, he had been working in the laundry service of a local hotel. Her brother-in-law had had a job doing office administration. Her daughter has one year to go before entering the college-prep course, and she has two younger sons who should also be going to school. The first and last thing they asked me about was traveling. Because they have family abroad, they are attempting to get a family visa to America. They have also been to the UN to register as refugees - their appointment to do so is in three months' time. "Can you do anything to speed up the process for us? To get them to look at our papers and send us to America?" I explained that the system is very structured and that's the one thing that for sure I can't help with. I asked them to invest in the present, because the resettlement process won't take less than a year - it could take many many years more than that, in fact. Should I have told them - could I have told them - that they are not guaranteed resettlement in the first place? Perhaps they know that already.

Her brother-in-law said he knows he will have to stoop to a low level, potentially a very low level, to work. She told me her husband is ready and willing to take any job he can find to help the family survive. She knows that while her dream is to be resettled to the West, she needs to focus on the present. "The first thing I must do is ensure my family's protection," she said and went on to explain how they are only eating the bare minimum of cheap food so as to make their small wad of cash last as long as possible. She put me on the phone with her sister-in-law who lives in America. Then her mother-in-law in America got on the phone to thank me for looking out for her dear ones. She was in tears, and all I could think of to say was that I wished her peace and rest in her spirit. They are getting a little bit of help from their America relatives, but apparently they are barely surviving on a minimum wage salary themselves!

We talked about getting the children into school. I hope that the organisation I connected them with will help the children register for school this year so that they don't have to fall behind. Of course, I know it will be a difficult transition to a different school system anyway, but they must continue with their lives. Their mother agreed with me wholeheartedly about that. Meanwhile, their uncle said he wants to make sure they get into school so that the family will be guaranteed residency in this country for the next year. He also told me that he is seriously willing to bring an American woman over here just to marry him and take him back with her. We joked about it and laughed, but I could see in his eyes that he really was willing to do anything. "It wouldn't have to be a real marriage," he said, chuckling, "Just for the visa."

I suggested he think hard about small business ventures he could do - something that wouldn't require purchasing property since he's not allowed to do that here. He's not allowed to work legally either, which means that even if he does find a job his salary would be low and he would be risking police attention every day at work. So maybe he could start a home-based business. His sister-in-law chimed in that she and her daughter could perhaps take in sewing projects. As long has her daughter stays in school, I said, and she agreed. They left with profuse words of gratitude, as if my spending half an hour with them telling them all the ways in which I could not help them was the greatest gift ever given to them.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Scenario #5: What does he want?

The other day I met a man from Somalia. He is a visionary of sorts. I suppose. He was referred to me as a person who wants to start a programme to help Somali refugees here, especially women. Since I'm currently looking into the needs of refugees, women and NGOs in this country, it seemed like a good connection for both of us.

It's rare but oh-so convenient when someone comes to me instead of me having to find their office, services centre or home. So when he offered to come by for a visit I readily agreed. He arrived on time and I was surprised to find a slight young-looking chap eager for a chat.

I asked a friend to get some juice to serve him, then we sat down and I asked him about his project.

He didn't answer, not exactly. Instead he told me a bit about how Somalis here have great needs, many if not most of them here are single mothers, and though he himself is not a refugee he is a part of the community and wants to help. He thinks probably they need some educational help, perhaps. He had a plastic folder with him containing a document, so I asked to look at that, thinking it might contain some information about his project. Instead, it was a summary of the goals and activities of the organisation that had connected us - a place I used to work at and so already know quite well.

So I decided to tell him a bit about who I was and what I was doing. I explained that we are looking for where the needs and opportunities are greatest and for potential partnerships, so I'd like to know about what he is doing with Somalis.

Again he didn't really explain a project. He did, however, ask me to help raise awareness about the plight of Somalis here, who have been someone forgotten, especially since the influx of refugees from that other country. He strongly recommended that I come meet some members of the Somali community for himself. Then he told me a bit more about his community, and explained that one of the biggest problems he faces is that Somalis here are too often not interested in developing their lives here - all their attention is on the West. So even though I should go meet them, I should be aware that they will be interested in little from me but help getting a visa out of here.

So then I decided to suggest a project. We've been talking a lot about microfinancing as a means of helping refugees to get some income since they are not actually allowed to work here. I explained some of my ideas to him and asked him what he thought.

His response was that it's a beautiful idea, absolutely lovely. He said this with a dreamy smile and bright eyes. But then he said that there are some problems. Somalis here are not very well-educated nor are they very interested in developing themselves - they are interested in very little other than getting out of here. He doesn't even know how many of them there are in this country because they come and leave so often. So until they are convinced to improve themselves here, there's not much point in giving them opportunities to do so.

So I asked him if he had any alternative suggestions, which he didn't. In the end I agreed to meet a leader of the Somali community and we could take it from there. But I suspect his community leader will have less of a clear vision than this young, well-educated man did. So what does he want?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Portrait #38: A true sister

There's a convent here with just a handful of nuns here busy saving the world, one person at a time. They try to keep a low profile, so I won't say too much about them, but I thought I'd give you a rough quote of what one of them told us when we met her a few days ago.

The centre we run is little more than a house that our church bought several years ago. There were a couple of dozen Christian families in that neighbourhood and so the house was converted into a church where people could come to pray and then leave again. We did religious classes there for the children, but that was it. Then the refugees came. Before long we had a few hundred children wanting to come to our classes. We got permission from the church to use the downstairs room of the house, which is the church, for doing activities with the children and families. We offer social, medical and educational services as much as we can.

The number of people who come to our centre varies a great deal. Sometimes it's a few dozen families a week and other times it's hundreds. When the official service providers stop providing services, that is when many more people come to us. Often big donors will provide resources to the official service providers for six months of food distribution or something like that, but after the six months, the people come to us.

We have known many of these families for many years now. But in the last few years, we have seen the people change. They used to come for activities, for company, maybe for food or material help. Now they come to us completely broken. We have seen the change over the years. Many of them now are so poor that they are emotionally unstable for trying to deal with their poverty. Others are coming from war where they have seen awful, awful things.

We're only a few nuns and a team of volunteers. We do what we can, but the children are never satisfied. They would like activities all day every day, but we can't take on any more. We have counsellors on our volunteer team, and people come in for counselling every day. We have some professionals who work with us, and because we have built a relationship with them over the years, many of us talk with them, too. This kind of work requires long-term investment in relationships. People now come to us from all over the city, but we can't open any new centres, we don't have resources enough.

We are focusing also on the needs of the handicapped and of abandoned children. There are so many children who are here alone, without anyone who cares about them. There is one girl we know who came here with her father. It was just the two of them. When her father died, there was no one to look after her and no one to help her take care of her father's remains either. Another big problem is medical needs, especially cancer treatment. One woman we know has cancer and she has four children. She is dying and can't get treatment, so she has begged me to take her children from her because if she dies and they are still with her, they will be left with no one. Our focus is on the needs of children, youth and women in need. We want to help all of these, from anywhere, and of any religion.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Portrait #37: Trying so, so hard

The other day I was taken on a home visit to meet two refugee families. These visits are always absolutely heartbreaking and I'm not sure I fully understand how the caseworkers who do this everyday, often several times a week, handle it emotionally. How do you look into the eyes of someone who has seen hell and just wants the simplest little bit of help? How do you do this over and over and over again - to the point that you have no more help to offer?

The second family was definitely one such visit. My guides, representatives of a local NGO, wanted me to meet the lady of the house. Her dream is to complete her PhD in English but it is currently impossible. If that had been the entire story, it would have been sad. But that didn't even scratch the surface.

She is several years older than her husband and they have a beautiful 4 year old daughter. In their home country, they lived in a city outside of the capital and she was an English teacher at the university level. She has a degree in English and a Masters in Education. She'd received threats since the war began, mostly from fundamentalists who wanted her to stop teaching - particularly to stop teaching the language of the invader. But she had refused to stop.

Then, about two years ago, she was pregnant with twins. Since she was already in her forties, the family was very excited about her new babies. But then one day, they came. They took her husband away and she didn't know what happened to him - but when he came back he'd been beaten badly. Then they beat her mother. Then they put a knife to her daughter's neck and told her that if she screamed or made any trouble at all, they would kill her daughter. Then a woman dressed in conservative Shi'a garb came and started beating her, aiming for her belly.

Sure enough, she lost the babies and shortly thereafter the four of them - husband, wife, daughter and wife's mother - fled. They came to this country with nothing and soon had even less. Her mother passed away a few months after they arrived and they've all struggled with health problems since the attack. They rent a small two-room flat in a Damascus suburb. It is set up with great tender-loving care, with thin winter blankets currently hanging on the wall to hide the worst water stains and peeling paints. The NGO representatives that introduced me to this family pointed at the two mattresses on the floor that constituted the living room/sleeping room. They told me that they had given the family those mattresses and they were also sponsoring their daughter to go to daycare. Daycare classes have made a tremendous difference in helping her move on from the trauma of what she saw as a mere toddler. They also mentioned that 2 of the NGO employees are taking English lessons with this woman - that way they learn some English and she has a bit of income.

The English teacher has been unable to find work. She can't pay her rent each month so she stated bluntly that she will probably have to sell those two precious mattresses to pay the next month's rent. They barely have enough to eat, but hospitality dictated that they went out and bought colas for all four of us.

Then she pulled out two books and handed them to me. One was a book of proverbs in English, each accompanied by 4-5 line explanations of the meaning in Arabic. The other wasn't actually a book, it was about 50 stapled pages which upon close examination revealed a basic English-Arabic dictionary. She explained to me that she had written these and found someone who helped her type them up. I can only imagine the way she had saved pennies to buy the notebook in which she wrote the first draft.

Then she'd found a publisher who would print a few dozen copies of each book and sell them. She could keep half and he could keep half. But he had not come through and so far she hadn't earned but a few small dollars from that enterprise. But she was trying.

The hardest thing, she said, was that she is an educated, cultured woman from a social class that values the finer things of life, including learning. But here she is poor, she is not respected, and she has to make decisions out of desperation, just to put a roof on her family's head and food in their tummies. It was beautiful to see how they three of them love each other and support each other, but when I left I had trouble looking her in the eyes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Scenario #4: Did we foil their devious plan?

This weekend we went up to the coast for a day or two of sun and relaxation. On Saturday night we decided we could do nothing better than walk along the seafront and find a place overlooking the Mediterranean where we could drink tea, "shrub" arguile (smoke hookah), and chat while watching the calm sea and the stars.

We found our mini-paradise in one of the most sha'abi (perhaps best translation to English would be 'ghetto') cafes we've visited. Because of their amazing location overlooking the cliffs, they could get away with rickety plastic chairs and tables, a sore lack of options in drinks, no bottled water and slow service. After all, who cares about frivolities at a cafe when you're breathing the midnight Mediterranean air? Plus, I think we were all looking forward to a relatively inexpensive night.

The cafe was located on three or four terraced clifftops overlooking the sea, and our group settled onto plastic chairs at the lowest level. There was nothing but air between us and the rocky beach below. And the people above us were out of hearing distance as well. Idyllic. The guy working at the cafe gave me a little flashlight and said just flash it in his direction if we needed anything and he'd come on down.

Well, we didn't need anything until we were done and ready to pay. So I flashed him down. He came down quickly and I said we wanted to settle up because it was late. We'd ordered 5 arguiles, 7 drinks (which, uh, included 2 tap waters!), and that was it. So he said, "OK, the arguiles are 100 each, the drinks are 35 each... so... that adds up to... mmm... 2500."

100 x 5 = 500
35 x 7 = 245
500+245 = 745
But he asked for 2500. I thought he was bad at math, so I asked him to talk it through for me.

His response was that the guy up top (he pointed in the general direction of up) actually wanted 3000, but he was going to take a loss and charge us 2500. So I talked it through for him: 100 x 5 = 500, etc. We got to 745 and I asked what else? He said, "The tissues" and pointed to two full bags of tissues that he's brought down.

Since the difference was so ridiculously big, I accepted the stupid tissue charge (50 x 2 = 100, 745 + 100 = 945). What else, I asked him.

"Well, the tables. And the fact that we didn't seat anyone else down here on this particular cliff."

I replied that we hadn't used the tables and we'd made a point of saying at the beginning of our visit that if anyone else wanted to share our cliff they were welcome.

He said, "Ask any one of the customers up there. They know they pay for their table!"

Ah, clever ones, isolating us out of sight and sound of the other customers. So I asked him how much the table was, because surely it couldn't add up to 1500 more! (1500 more is about 30 dollars - and again, this place was ghetto!) We did a little more math and I could see justification (unfair though it may be) for him charging us a total of 1600. But it was still robbery, I said, and if that guy up there, whoever he was, wanted 3000, then that man was a thief.

So he called to the man upstairs, who came down. They had their routine all rehearsed:
"Sir, you are charging me 3000, right?"
"Yes, 3000."
"See?" (to me), "I'm going to lose if you don't give me 3000."
I fussed and accused them both of robbery and worse.
The first guy continued, saying, "You know what? I liked you guys. Out of respect for you, I will take a loss if you give me 2500, but I can't go lower than that."
The second guy nodded, with a cruelly straight face.

So I asked for a minute to consult with the rest of the group, but they wouldn't let me alone to talk it out. Group members were clueless, and were asking me, "How much for the tea?" I was having trouble explaining to them that the price of the tea somehow had nothing to do with our bill... and was still fielding the rehearsed fuss of the two men continuing to demand 50 dollars at a place worth 2.

Something popped in me and I blew up. I told the man shame on him, and shame on his partner, or boss, or whoever he was. And shame on Latakia, actually, I would never come back to this seaside town again. Which is a pity because I have a dear friend from here, but if her city-mates are so evil, conniving and deceitful then I wanted to wash my hands of this place. And even more shame on them because I wanted to show my foreign friends the beauty of this place and they are only seeing the frightful state of human nature and this city's people. He in turn accused us of being rich and staying in the nicest 5 star hotel in town, weren't we??? I replied that no, we were part of a sponsored programme... Not that he believed us. Liars don't believe people who tell the truth.

What happened next was a result of our confusion over the situation. It was not staged at all, but it played out perfectly. Many members of our group had brought no money or little but pocket change. So I went around taking donations from all members of the group. One gave 50, one gave 100 and we continued to come up short. So we went to them with 1000 and asked if that was enough, but they refused. So we took up more collections... oh how pathetic we must have seemed, a group of foreigners scraping the bottoms of our pockets! We came up with 1300. The first guy was still adamant, but the second guy's heart finally gave up on the charade and let us go.

After we left, I was furious. Being the Arabic speaker, I felt like it fell on me, and I wanted to show the group a pleasant evening, not a fight. But I had to admit that in the end we did win. It was a bit confused because some contributed and others didn't contribute and so some paid more than they owed and others paid nothing. But for the sea view and perfect weather and the clifftop setting, plus the drinks and arguiles (and tissues), what we paid was a fair price.

So I got to wondering what those two men had been chatting about up top as we'd been chilling down below. Who was the boss and who was the employee? And how much would they have charged locals? And what had they expected of us? ...Because I'm sure my fight and our group's overall patheticness had not been in their plan. Yes, in the end, we won, but by how much??

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Portrait #36: Cave

Today we visited some caves in a nearby mountain village. They were quite nice, but by far the highlight of the visit was the reading welcome announcement posted in the entryway. Its author must be a fascinating person - somehow typical in expressing the poetic spirit and beautiful intentions that infuse this culture. Since the cave staff were kind enough to hand out sheets of paper with the content of the announcement, I here share with you the content of the English portion of the sign in its entirety...


Moses Cave is a hollowing out, dug with tug by Bludan's great men, along more than one hundred years.
The purpose of digging the cave was originally to dig out (Mazar Sand = Quartz sand) for building works. You can notice that most buildings in Bludan and Zabadani were built by this sand, including "Bludan Grand Hotel".
The cave was owned by "Mustafa" Family. It was lightened by Kerosene lanterns. There were more than 30 workers, produced daily about 100 m3 of sand, which were packed in saddles and carried away on animals' backs to building sites. After awhile, builders started to use breaker's sand for building instead of "Mazar" sand, which started to be not economic worthy any more, since the cost of digging was much higher than the benefits of the produced sand.
Mr. S M is now the owner of the cave. He is "Bludanian", and a relative of Mostafa Family at the same time. He thought of transforming this wonderful structure to a tourist site, so he authorized it and provided all necessary facilities such as roads, electricity, parking, internal and external corridors, gardens and also refresh the natural spring, which flows from the cave's end. In addition to a fruit industrial refrigerators.

I may hope ,by this cave, I have added a modest imprint, for the sake of our great country S, and the magnificent town Bludan, showing that this cave is a superior tourist site, which is headed for not only by residents, but also by foreign and Arab tourists. It's a unique model which reflects human efforts working together with nature, in order to make an artistic miracle.
I called it "Moses cave" as an appreciation and gratitude for my father "Moses" who was my ideal in patience and facing off difficulties to achieve all desired aim.
The cave was officially opened on 22/7/2006, This was during the tenure of the president B A-A.
Thank you for your kindness to visit the cave. All constructive notes are appreciated

Lastly, the achieved conceptions of creativity and fine taste applied on this monument is not more than 40% of my imagination for this site. and we will surprise you with ore and more.


[entire thing (except for abbreviated names): SIC]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Portrait #35: Doctor A

I'd been told of a medical centre that offered services for refugees/the extremely needy in my neighbourhood, so this morning I trekked down the street to check it out. When I arrived, I passed a young woman talking on a telephone as I stepped into the waiting area. Then I passed the other patients sitting around on plastic chairs and walked up to the reception desk. The man sitting there was quite focused on his game of Spider Solitaire but I was eventually able to distract him long enough to ask for Doctor A, the contact name I'd been given. The receptionist called over the girl on the phone who asked me to have a seat and wait. The good doctor was in the middle of an appointment.

I took my seat on a white plastic chair and set in for a wait. While waiting I read the signs on the wall: price lists for services which were all extremely discounted and some promotional material. Otherwise, the room was mostly white and clean and undecorated. I then watched as the young woman who had now hung up from her phone call handed out free medications to clients and set appointments for others. There was lots of coming and going: doctors, assistants, patients and family members.

After about ten minutes, a burly gray-haired man in a white labcoat came up to me. He gruffly asked me what I was there about. I explained that I'd been sent by the director of the organisation to visit and to ask for Doctor A. He said, "And what's your business here?" I explained that I just wanted to check out the facility, as per the director's recommendation - was he Doctor A, then? He exclaimed, "Doctor A? Doctor A left!" Left? "Yes, he traveled. To New York. He's gone." I stared back at him blankly.

Then he gave offered me his hand and shook mine warmly, introducing himself as "Doctor such-and-such A, at your service." I blinked a couple of times and shook his hand back. He put his hand on my shoulder in a very fatherly way and led me into his office. We sat down, and I asked if he wanted to travel to New York. He said no way. He'll never go to New York. They'd just treat him bad, for being from this country, and a Christian to boot. For some reason they never want to receive Arab Christians. No, he's from here and he'll stay here. He said all this in English, then asked me to explain in Arabic why I was visiting. So I did so and he began to explain some of the services they provide at his medical centre.

As we talked about the centre, I noticed he didn't speak in a typical local accent. Actually, I was having some trouble understanding him. So I asked him where he's from, because his accent was different. He found my question astounding and laughable, and called in one of his assistants to tell her what I'd asked. "So I don't sound like I'm from here, do I? Maybe I'm not. Haha. No, I am. But from a different part of the country where we speak with an accent closer to that of the other country."

Then he took me around to show me the facilities, bragging about the quality of the services they were able to offer. Everything seemed simple but functional and clean. He showed me the dentist office, physiotherapy room and blood lab on the second floor. Then he led me up to the next level. As we started mounting the stairs, he said, "And up here is the roof, where we put the washing and the water tanks and the satellite dish." Then we walked into a large room with chairs, which they use for church meetings, and he laughed and said, "Haha. You have to know the type of person I am! I say these things."

I knew he was busy so it was a brief visit, but I found myself grateful for men like Doctor A, who can see pain and suffering and give of themselves to help people on a daily basis. I don't know if he's paid but I do know he's not paid a doctor's full salary. But life for him is a joke and people are his kids, his to care for. And he gets the job done, spreading his teddy bear joy in the process.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Portrait #34: One of the shortest women I've ever met

This morning I had a meeting with the pastor of a church here in town. His church is sponsoring some amazing relief and development programmes and I was excited to learn about what they were doing. As has too often been the case lately, I arrived at the church just a few minutes late. I swooped into the courtyard to quickly scout out the pastor's office, but I was met by a very very very short woman. I think her head came to my hips. She looked to be in her sixties, had combed-back shoulder length hair and wore a white lacy shirt with a yellow skirt.

Without introducing herself or even a hello, she said, "I just called up to the Doctor. He's upstairs doing something and will be down in ten minutes. Are you here to see the Doctor?"

I asked her to clarify if the doctor and the pastor were the same person; they were. So I said yes, and should I wait for him with her? Her response was to ask me if I'd give him the bag of jam that she'd brought with her, so she could be on her way. Sure, I replied, why not?

But instead of leaving, she started asking me questions about myself: Where do I live and how much do I pay for rent? I could go live with her, and paying would be up to me. She's all alone in her house now, her children have all moved out, and she'd like the company. It'd be sad for me to have to pay so much rent when she has the space. And where are my parents? What does my mother say with me so far away from her? I explained that our family is spread all over the world and that we each feel we have to do what God has called us to do, even if it means we're far apart from each other. She asked, "But how do you stay here all alone? You don't have anyone?"

Then she reiterated her offer for me to come visit. If not to live, then just for lunch, or to spend the night if I need to not be alone for a night, or just for a visit, or just to know that there's a place I can go. She lives right across the street from the church, she said and pointed in the general direction of her house. She seemed sincere and kind, so I opened my datebook and asked her to write her name and number for me: she did so in perfect French handwriting. I commented on this, and she said that she is fluent in French and used to work as a translator. Her English is very rusty, though. From that point on, our conversation continued in an Arabic that was peppered with many many French words. Maybe she could teach me French, I commented. Yes, or stay with her, or visit, or have lunch... anything to not be alone.

We then went into the office lobby to wait for the pastor/doctor to arrive. I reached to pick up the jar of jam that had been sitting on the ground between us. She gasped and fussed when I picked it up by the handles of the plastic bag in which it sat. The petite madame took the package from me and gently cradled it in her hands. We walked into the lobby and a moment later the pastor/doctor and his wife arrived. They oohed and awwed over the jam and smiled when she introduced me. Then they quickly ushered her out and began their meeting with me.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

announcement: new blog address

Hi, all! I have had to make a simple change to my blog. I'm now redirecting my blog to I don't really think that changes much, but if you use an RSS reader to download my blog, I don't know if it will work anymore. You may have to update your RSS reading program. Sorry for the inconvenience, but thanks for reading.

(picture: Damascus at night, enjoy!)

Scenario #3: Three details

Today we had a meeting with the manager of a coffee shop chain about an event we'd like to do at one of his shops. We met at the coffee shop itself, and he was intent on offering us drinks or cakes or something, but we'd already ordered our coffees so that made his hospitable intentions difficult. He led us to a table where we sat down, joining us for about two seconds before disappearing behind the counter to finish making our drinks and to talk with his employees.

As we sat there anticipating our conversation, we considered what evidence we had about what type of person this manager was... and whether he'd be amenable to our proposal.

Here's what we ascertained. First, he was much younger than any of us had anticipated, in fact quite young-looking to be managing a chain of coffee shops. Second, he left three items on the table: a sheet of paper, a lighter and a pack of cigarettes.

So we considered what those three items might tell us about him. The sheet of paper was blank: completely white. The lighter had the Audi (car company) logo on it. The pack of cigarettes was a simple white box, of a relatively obscure brand, with just a little bit of writing on it. On the front it said simply, "Smokers die younger" and on the side it said "Duty-free sale only." So we deduced that he's a simple, linear-thinking kind of a guy, who owns a reasonably nice car and travels abroad frequently. He's probably a carpe diem kind of a person who gets straight to the point. I was gratified to discover that over the course of the meeting he didn't actually smoke the cigarettes, which suggested to me that he has a strong sense of business identity and social responsibility. I suppose one must have those characteristics if he's running a chain of coffee shops at a young age. The meeting was short but to the point, but it ended well, meaning we'll probably be seeing him again...

Friday, July 11, 2008

Portrait #33: Fun and Fanatic

Today I'm going to portray someone I actually know, because she once again inspired me last night. I was invited to her nephew's wedding, and got to see her and all her sisters together in one place. Her nephew was not there, of course! This is the type of family where the men have their parties and the women have their parties, and nair shall the two meet. Well, until the groom shows up at the end to whisk off his new bride.

Anyway, Um Mohammad (I forget her son's name, but half the women I know are named Um Mohammad so it can work for her as well - "um" means 'mother of' and Mohammad is a popular name) is an extremely devout woman. She prays regularly, attends Qur'an lessons and readings, avoids vices such as television, and does not let any unrelated man see anything but the bare minimum of her face. When she leaves the house, she wears all black and a headscarf pulled around her face to cover everything but her eyes and part of her nose. When she's at home, she still usually keeps her head mostly covered. She would never let me take a photo of her for anything but my own personal edification, and even then I think it's more because she is kind to me than because she's cool with me taking her photo.

But Um Mohammad is one of the funniest and most fun-loving women I know. And she has class. When I lived with her neice, she would come over to kidnap the young beautiful lonely girl for an evening on the town. She'd grab her daughters, her sister, her neice and anyone else should could find, load them all up into her son-in-law's van (a cheese refrigerator that he drives for work), and have him drive them all to a restaurant with a view and shishas and good food. They'd get home sometime in the early hours of the morning, or perhaps they'd all crash together at Um Mohammad's house, dispersing each to her home after breakfast.

Last night, she was wearing the classiest dress at the wedding: a retro black-on-white whispy flowing thing. Her hair was piled up on her head in a simple but attractive way, and her jewelry and makeup were showy but certainly not overdone. Her daughters wore some of the most stunning dresses in the room and the three of them must have spent all day in the salon to obtain the looks they portrayed yesterday.

My favourite moment was when Um Mohammad and two of her sisters grabbed (fake) traditional Arab swords and took over the dance floor, waving those gilded weapons around the air and pretending to fight, showing off their belly-dance moves. They are not young nor are they slim, but they can dance and they can have fun. Then they went around the room grabbing random neices and cousins to join them in an assortment of wild and cheerful dances, then to pose for the cameras.

Those photos will never make it onto anyone's wall, nor will they be passed around to show to the extended family. Well, maybe they'll be shown to the women. But this fun was strictly women-only, for that is the honourable thing to do. And for Um Muhammad, it is the way she lives out her religion. Islam teaches her to have strict values and to be unbending in her commitment to live a moral life, without sinful distractions. But her Islam also teaches her to be educated, to have high standards of fashion and education, and to know how to have a good time.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Scenario #2: A street fight

Street fights are actually not an uncommon sight here. It's a passionate culture, and when an argument breaks out it's taken seriously. My favourite street fight story is of the time I saw one car cut another car off in heavy traffic. The driver of the victim-car calmly stopped his car, got out, walked to his trunk, opened it, and pulled out a crowbar. Then he started shouting and running toward the other car, waving the crowbar madly in the air. The two drivers had a bit of a shouting match while the traffic around them stopped and we all watched them argue. Then after about two minutes, the offender-car driver got back into his car, the victim-car driver put his crowbar away and got back into his car, and both men drove away. Traffic picked up again and we were all on our way.

Since street fights are not really all that noteworthy here, I didn't really stop to pay attention when I heard shouting and saw a crowd gathered across the street from me one afternoon. I ignored the fight and walked on toward my bus stop half a block down.

But it took several minutes for the bus to arrive and my attention was constantly diverted back to the shouting a bit down the road. Usually these fights end quickly when the men are shouted-out, or when someone intervenes to stop them. But this one wasn't slowing down, and everyone in the area was beginning to pay attention.

I finally walked back to check it out when I heard the most frightening sound possible in such a situation: a woman screaming. When it occurred to me that a woman might be in trouble, I started to get frightened and not a little bit concerned. So I walked back in the direction of the fight but kept from joining the throng of men crowding around. I couldn't see anything, but I could still hear the girl screaming, or maybe it was more like whimpering. Then I saw a teenage girl come out of the crowd and rush around the corner, along with a young man. I think she was the source of the screams. They huddled together in the entryway of a shop around the corner. But the action continued in the place where it started, as well. There was more shouting and thronging.

Then a man appeared from well down the street carrying a wire basket of some sort. He ran toward the crowd, through the crowd, around the corner, and toward the huddled couple. Then the girl's screams picked up again and it seems she started running away from the man.

At this point, traffic was ridiculously dangerous, due to the fact that no one was stopping but everyone was looking. It was clear that there were already too many bystanders for me to make any difference, and in fact the crowd might be aggravating the problem. So I walked back to the bus stop and my bus arrived quickly. I got on the bus amidst screams and stares, but no one around me could tell me what was going on.

So the questions in my mind... What happened? Was it a robbery? If so, it's amazing that a simple robbery caused a whole neighbourhood to shut down for a few minutes - I guess that is a good deterrent to future robberies. Or was the girl attacked? If so, maybe I should be thrilled that a whole neighbourhood came to her defense in one way or another - or disappointed that people just stared and that she wasn't pulled away from danger more quickly. Who else was stuck in the middle of the crowd, that I didn't see? Was that person ok? What in the world was the wire cage all about???? And, is there anything I could have done? At all?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Portrait #32: He's a part of the ruins

Another character that I met during this weekend of doing non-touristy things at touristy sites was a restaurant owner. His restaurant is perfectly located for attracting a steady clientele: it is the only establishment that sits right outside the entrance to one of the country's top tourist destinations: Crac des Chevaliers, an enormous Crusader castle situated impressively on top of a hill which can be seen for miles and miles and miles.

My friend, our driver and I spent the afternoon in this man's restaurant while the rest of our group wandered around the castle. When the group finished their tour, they all raved about the view from the top. It is indeed an impressive view, but the view from the restaurant was nothing to shy away from: the entire valley below, pocketed with villages and farmland, could be seen through a frame of pomegranate and apricot trees. It was all the more inspiring to think that the produce from those trees was a part of our lunch.

When we walked in, we were greeted warmly by the entire staff, and even more warmly by the owner. Our visit being off-season and late in the day, the restaurant was empty, so we sat down right next to the window, and the owner joined us for a chat before the meal, and then for a good long visit after the meal.

He was a jovial man with crew-cut white hair. His teeth were stained and his skin sunburnt, and he was a bit short and round, but he sat comfortably in his chair and energetically talked about the reason that he doesn't serve a lot of lamb in his restaurant: very few cuts of a lamb are actually good to eat and he only wants to serve the best - and he doesn't want to let the rest go to waste. He explained that to make kibbe naie (a delicious raw meat dish) it can only be fresh, as in the meat can never have been refrigerated. He talked a bit about his plants and his trees and about the flavours he uses. This discourse took place to the backdrop of our tummies growling during the brief wait for our food to arrive. He must know his food well, because each dish was special, uniquely flavoured, and absolutely delicious.

He let us eat in silence, but as soon as we were done, he came back. He sang for us, a song about each one. His Arabic was eloquent and poetic, which means I didn't understand much of it. And I'm afraid I've now forgotten the little bit that I that I did understand of the proverbs and poems he recited for us, but I really wish I could have taken out a notebook and written down every word he said. His wisdom and his poise demonstrated a strong education, and a deep pride in his heritage as an Arab from one of the seats of local history.

I asked my friend how long he'd been here, working this restaurant. She looked at the driver and he shrugged. They both nodded their heads broadly and my friend said, "Wow. I think he's been around about as long as these ruins have!"

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Portrait #31: Tourism Man

I just got back from a weekend of tourism. But since I'd already seen all the sites we were touring (in some cases, multiple times), I spent a good bit of my time hanging out with non-tourists. Guides, hotel workers, restaurant workers, drivers, sales people... It was a chance to remind myself of what life is like on the underbelly of tourism.

One character that my friend introduced me to owns camels and horses, and he rents them out to tourists. He also owns a store that sells Bedouin jewelry and scarves and the like. He also sells trinkets up at the top of the town citadel, which he reaches on his motorcycle. He also seems to spend a lot of time hanging out with his mates who also make a living off of their town's tourism industry.

My friend and Abu Muhammad go way back. She has watched his children grow up, so she took me to visit his family. His daughters are 9 and 2 and he has the happiest little baby son I think I have ever seen. His wife looks quite young, but apparently she had completed a degree before she married him. They live in a simple but well-situated home, one block away from the major sites. His oldest daughter is bright and doing well in school, and is already practicing her English with tourists who come through town.

But before we visited him in his home, we saw him in the ancient city ruins, where he and my friend made a deal to offer sunrise camel rides to members of our group. When he found a taker, he enthusiastically asked her for her hotel name, phone number and room number. A bit offput, the client asked him to just communicate with her via my friend, a suggestion he accepted but reluctantly. He let another member of our group ride his motorcycle while he chatted with my friend and he shook all our hands warmly.

Then we saw him again up at the top of the citadel where he must have been selling some trinkets or something. I didn't recognise him when he came up to me with a kuffeya (scarf) wrapped around his face, asking me to give him the baby rose I was holding (a gift from our most excellent driver). Even when he took the wrapping off, I still didn't recognise him, since somehow in the last 1/2 hour he had changed his clothes. Finally, he reminded me that I'd met him a few minutes ago in different garb. So then I relaxed and handed him the baby rose. He gave it back to me with some kind of flowery statement about how my beauty meant I needed to keep the rose. Then some blonde girls walked by and he whispered to me, "Those are Dutch girls. There's something special about Dutch women, they're beautiful."

And again, later that evening as I held his son in my hands and as my friend chatted with his daughter, he brought up his weakness for beautiful women. While his wife was in the kitchen making tea, he elaborated on how he just can't resist a lovely woman: he can't help himself, that's the way he is. He loves women.

This morning, after the camel ride, my friend mentioned that he'd been flirtatious as always with the camel-riders. And she told me that many of the European women who come to this isolated traditional town, which just so happens to host some amazing historical ruins, actually do fall for this man. After all, he is dark dark dark, with beautiful eyes. Many a European woman has been swooned by him, and he has been happy to oblige.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Scenario #1: A boy, a bus and a lack of shame

The other day I was walking to town, taking the route I usually take. The sidewalks aren't great, but the road is heavily trafficked, so I generally switch back and forth quite a lot between crooked quiet spaces and car-swept smooth treks.

On one such switch, I found myself walking behind a big coach bus. Standing behind the bus was a boy, somewhere roughly around 7 years of age. As I walked towards him, I noticed he was facing the bus, with his head just about parallel to the top of the stowage space under the passenger area. And then as I walked passed him, I noticed that he was peeing on the handle of the stowage area door. Aiming very carefully for the handle, in fact. He looked up at me briefly, then went back to soaking up that handle. Oh, the poor bus driver who had to open that cargo area next!

Several questions came to mind. Most basically, Did he have no shame? Did he have no sense that peeing in public might not be such a great idea? I supposed that his parents had never taught him that and, considering other things I've seen in this country, perhaps they actually taught him the opposite: find a slightly isolated area, face away from the world, and fire away.

Then, I wondered, Why the handle of the cargo stowage door? Why was he aiming for a part of the bus in the first place? Perhaps there is something innate in a young boy's mind that tells him he needs to aim for something, and that was the something that caught his eye. Or, in a much more interesting scenario, maybe this was youthful revenge! Maybe he knew the bus driver. Maybe the bus driver was his own father, in fact! And he was angry and so aimed for a spot he knew the driver would touch. Oh, or maybe he'd had a negative experience with a bus stowage area in the past, maybe someone had locked him in one or taken something terrible out of one, and this was an expression of his bitterness, of his processing that experience. All in the deep thoughts of a 7-year-old.


I'm starting a new series on my blog, to complement the portraits I've been doing and loving. In a social-literary-theory type of a way, I see the portraits as not only moments to capture people I have encountered, but also as pieces with which to build a critical understanding of the culture and issues in the society where I am. In other words, I'm still doing social critique but in, well, hopefully a less "critical" way!

So now I'd like to add to that "scenarios", which will add a bit of critique to my portraits. Lately, I've been increasingly noticing that the people I'd like to portrait are mysteries to me. That I find myself making up stories about them to explain what I've encountered. Often it is the very question mark surrounding them that makes them portrait-worthy. See Portrait#29, for such an example. Even though in that case I managed to solve the mystery by the end of the day, it was the curiosity and the scenarios we made up to explain the girl that caught our attention.

Anyway, so I present you with Scenarios, a series of portraits where I get to combine my own social critique with an incomplete story and guess at what's going on. Like all experiments, this may be fun or it may not make any sense at all!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Portrait #30: Three Incredible Chics

Yesterday I met three women who have huge hearts and are making a difference. They each believe in what they do and demonstrate the potential and influence women in this country have. Each one encouraged me in a different way.

1. Through a friend of a friend, I met a woman who works at a local church. She is from a devout Christian family and her life has always revolved around the church - she told me she grew up teaching Sunday School and that her family has always been the last to leave the church when there's a meeting. When she visited some Iraqi families a few years ago, she was hugely impacted by what she found. She met children who had nothing to do, spending their days wandering the streets aimlessly or looking at naughty websites in Internet cafes. Some were victims of abuse and many had experienced emotional trauma. So she decided to do something to help, and opened a small school for Iraqi children who are unable to register for regular school. She has found volunteers to cover English, Arabic, Math, Science, Geography and other classes. All the students are also taught about spirituality and faith. She believes that the pain in these children's lives can only be solved by spiritual means and so has made that her focus. There are now more than 200 students in the school, and several hundred families receiving other services from the church through their connection with the school.

2. I had heard about a women's non-profit that recently acquired funding to start a shelter for battered women. This is a huge problem here (as it sadly is in most of the world), but one which is extremely taboo to discuss openly. So this shelter is very innovative not only in helping women in need, but also in raising awareness and discussion about the issue. Yesterday I got to meet the woman who founded the organisation and who is the mastermind behind the shelter. She runs two businesses in order to support herself and her children, as she is divorced. She was married to a foreign man who was abusive toward her and who then divorced her in a cruel way. Now she shares openly about her experiences as a way of opening a discussion about domestic violence. Currently, she is a very busy but successful businesswoman who somehow has found time on the side to plan and develop this amazing outreach to women from her country who are in need of help. Her dreams are big, and she is making huge steps towards reaching them.

3. The third woman I met yesterday was someone who was recommended to me as a good professional resource on women and girls. She used to work for the government as an educational specialist but has now switched to working as a volunteer for an international organisation. She is paid well in her 'volunteer' position, but it is temporary and she was criticised by many of her family and friends for giving up the stability she had in a government job. As we talked, she told me of her own journey toward empowerment and spiritual development. She is unusual in that she is a 40-something religious Muslim who is single and lives alone, far away from her family. She didn't used to cover her head, but now she does, and has found greater freedom in her life by embracing the full visible identity of a good Muslim woman. Nonetheless, she is eager to separate her faith from any sense of conservatism. She believes that Islamic leaders have a great deal to contribute toward women's empowerment. As she chain smoked over coffee, she explained to me that women here are scared to leave their comfort zones, and that the real problem is what women do to each other. Yes, men may pressure women, like her brothers used to pressure her, but it is women who teach their sons to play that role and their daughters to serve men. She will have none of it herself, she said, and would love to find a way to break society out of that mold. To her, the most important thing that can be done is awareness-raising, showing people what life can be like, giving women opportunities to see what a life of freedom and empowerment can look like. Then they will grab it and do amazing things with it.