Monday, September 29, 2008

Portrait #54: Woman with a tab

She marched into the supermarket, pushing me and a clerk out of the way as she headed in. She patiently awaited her turn behind two other customers, then handed the guy behind the counter a coin for 1/2 a JD (a bit less than half a dollar), asking for a pack of some type of cigarettes.

She was wearing navy trousers and a navy button-down longsleeved blouse. Her head was covered properly with a white hijab. It wasn't a very trendy outfit, and she sported it with the attitude of someone who believes she is above such things as fashion.

The supermarket attendant replied that they didn't have single packets today, only pairs. She'd have to get two. Then they talked about different brands and a few other cigarette details. As they talked, I realised she spoke with a heavy accent. Clearly she was not Jordanian or from any Arab country, but the way she was dressed, her age, the way she acted like she belonged, all told me that she'd lived here for quite a long time. Perhaps she came to Jordan 30 years ago as a young Slovakian bride.

Then they settled up. The shopkeeper kept the coin she handed him, but they added the cigarette prices together and came up with JD 1.75, much more than she'd given him. The shopkeeper pulled down a tattered old pad of paper and wrote a quick note, and she walked out with little more than a nod.

I was next in the queue and as I started to make my purchase, I heard, in a deep smoke-raspy voice, "Please!" I glanced behind me and saw the woman standing at the entryway waiting for the clerk, who was moving boxes of inventory, to get out of her way.

When I completed my purchase, I headed out into the street towards home, and I saw her walking briskly down the street, in the opposite direction from that whence she had come.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Portrait #53: Pharmacist

I went by the local pharmacy today to pick up some Ibuprophen. I get some strange joy out of buying extra-extra-extra strength Ibuprophen tablets in small quantities from local pharmacists, so I walked to the store with some degree of anticipation.

But when I got to the door, I stopped short the moment I placed my hand on the handle. For through the glass storefront, I saw the pharmacist was praying. I could see his empty shoes peeking out from the edge of the counter, and a middle-aged man positioned right behind the counter. He stood facing the wall to the left, then he kneeled, then he bowed, then he stood again and repeated the rituals of prayer again, then again. He was somewhat casually dressed: the abandoned shoes were TiVos, and he wore khaki trousers with a colored button-down shirt.

I don't know if I got there right after he started, or if this was a long prayer, or if I was just impatient to get my Ibuprophen, but it seemed to me his prayer went on for a long time. Not to mention that this wasn't a normal prayer time of the day. But as I stood there with my hand on the doorhandle, I felt awkward, as if I was observing a special spiritual moment. His motions were slow and deliberate, and he lingered in the more pensive positions. It made me want to hide around the corner so as not to distract him in any way.

He definitely noticed my presence at some point during his prayer because as soon as he was done, he stood up and waved me in with a broad sweep of his arm. "Ahlan wa Sahlan, Ahlan wa Sahlan. Welcome," he grinned. I think as he said this he folded up his rug and slipped his shoes on, but he was so fast it was hard to catch his exact motions.

He got my Ibuprophen quickly enough. It was grossly overpriced, which dampered the experience a bit for me, but I wasn't in the mood to argue against his sincerity and enthusiasm for the sake of a mere few pennies a pill. So I took the Ibuprophen and even decided to engage his goodwill on another request: Dead Sea mud mask.

The smile faded as he looked through his cosmetic collection. He apologised profusely and asked me if I wanted him to make me some. Did he really mean to make me real Jordanian Dead Sea mud? Oh, how cool! I replied, "Maybe later." And he said, "Yes, yes. After the Eid." Eid is the end of Ramadan holiday, this week! I thanked him and headed out, but as I was opening the door, he called after me, "You're very welcome! Remember, after the Eid I will make you some Dead Sea Mud!"

Friday, September 26, 2008

Scenario #12: What did she want to say?

I don't know if this scenario will make any sense at all to any of you. That is, since it doesn't even make sense to me. If it makes sense to you, please, tell me what I missed!

We sat down with her to ask her about her experience working with needy woman. She is a social worker. She told us a bit about her educational and professional background, then a bit about the work she does now.

Then she told us a heart-wrenching story of one of her clients. We could tell that the young social worker was using her conversation with us to process out loud what she'd experienced with this woman. "Her house was so small, small doesn't even describe it. No, it was smaller than small. And it was dirty, the walls were moldy, ohhhhh... She has four children. How old are they? Let me think. Oh, she has a little girl who can't be more than four years old!... Can you believe it? Her husband beat her on the very first day they were married! The very first day..." As she sat across from us, a modestly dressed very young-looking woman with too much eye makeup, she looked almost like she wanted to cry but didn't know how to. No tears came to her eyes, just more information out of her mouth.

We talked quite a bit about her client's situation, about a woman whom she feels completely incapable of helping because the only thing that would really help her would be to leave her husband. But the woman has said that she would kill herself before she considered leaving her husband. And she has in fact considered killing herself. So the social worker is stuck and scared that any wrong move will result in the woman's death.

Once there was nothing left to say about that woman, we got up to end the conversation, but she kept talking. She offered to tell us another story, but we declined for the sake of time. Then she started talking about all the other NGOs who have visited their centres and all the other representatives of organistations that she has met.

Then we asked her a bit about herself and she told us of some difficult things she experienced during her high school years. But, she said, she got over it and is now doing ok. And she really seemed at peace about her own situation. Perhaps she feels her story pales in comparison with those of the people she meets in her current job.

We gestured again to leave, but we asked her one last question: had she had on-the-job training? This started yet another extended conversation about how she had been taken advantage in her current job, and her salary had been withheld for several months under the guise of 'training'. She talked about this situation with some bitterness and we listened as sympathetically as we could, but we couldn't help worrying about the time.

By this point I realised there was something she wanted to say. Something she was anxious to tell us. She wasn't letting the conversation end because she was desperate for it to continue. But I'd run out of questions to ask! I felt we'd already talked to her about so much more than we'd intended, and asked her much more personal questions than she might have expected. The conversation ended because I didn't know where to take it, so the clock won and we left for our next appointment. What was the magic question that would have allowed her to say what was really on her mind?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Portrait #52: She likes bright colours

Is it possible for someone to "mumble" into a room? The way she walked looked kind of like a mumble. Small steps, eyes looking nowhere in particular. Her hijab and abaya were old and tattered-looking, a dull but unmistakable yellow from top to bottom. Her face looked old, like she's nearing the end of a long, hard life. But slow as her movements were, I got the impression that beneath the abaya hid a strong and well-preserved body.

She sat down and we explained that we wanted to get to know her and ask her some questions, in order to understand a bit better the situation of women like her. She replied by unfolding a rumpled piece of paper that she was holding tightly. It contained her son's name and photo and some medical information about him. She wanted help for her son. That's all she wanted. And if we couldn't help her son, she pulled out another piece of paper with similar information about her husband. Perhaps we could help him.

I don't know if she really understood when we said we couldn't help her with her family's very real needs. But she opted to stay and answer our questions nonetheless. And so we asked her about her family, about her background.

What really struck me about this woman was that she is clearly a strong woman who looks out for her family. Her husband doesn't work, her sons don't contribute to the household expenses, and women in her family are not supposed to work. So she begs. And one daughter does work now, which makes her the only person contributing to their household expenses. Another daughter is staying with the family for a while because she is fleeing a bad marriage. The woman I met helps keep them together, goes to charities to beg for help, and looks out for her grandchildren. She came across as strong and determined. And as completely battered.

She didn't even know what violence is. And when we asked her about men beating their wives, she didn't know that that's bad, she said it is just normal. She is 55 years old, and her husband used to beat her plenty, and her daughters have experienced it, too, but that is the way life is. Her sons don't do anything for her, in fact I got the impression they like to make life difficult for her. Her parents never sent her to school, and they found her a husband when she was still a girl. But she didn't come to us a sad woman, she came to us for help, and said that she takes life as it comes.

I hesitated to write about her on my blog because it's so personal to talk about this woman whose name I don't even know. But the truth is, it was a privilege to meet her because there are so many women out there with stories like hers but who never have this kind of conversation with a foreigner. In the end, this one woman just blends in to the mass of scarf-framed faces that surrounds her.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Portrait #51: There's such a lot under there

She sat down in front of me in one of those chairs that comes with a flat surface to write on, the kind that fill high school and university classrooms. Gently perched on the edge of the chair, she gripped the seat's wooden board. Her face peeked out of a large black headscarf that covered her forehead, chin, and shoulders, reaching down to around her waist. Beneath that she work a flowy black abaya with white embroidery on the sleeves. Underneath the swathes of clothes, she appeared to be all of five feet tall and to weigh maybe a hundred pounds. Her face was tiny, her hands were tiny, and I got the impression that there was a lot more black robing than there was woman.

I'm not sure she knew why we asked to talk to her until we'd all taken our seats. Then we explained that we wanted to understand more about women in Jordan, and that hearing her story could help us do that. She looked from me to her friend then down at her hands and nodded matter-of-factly. She didn't seem thrilled, she didn't seem disappointed.

So I started asking her some basic questions: how old she is, how many kids she has, why she comes to the community association, about her fears. Each question got a simple answer, but each sentence spoke volumes.

She said that she comes to the association for help because she needs cash assistance. Her husband, who apparently weighs at least three times more than she does, is out of work due to health problems, and the only income in their family is from one of her sons who left school to work. So she comes to the centre to ask for help. Right now it's Ramadan, so the aid is more plentiful, and that's why we met her here today. But, she said, many people that she knows won't come because they are shy and concerned about their reputations.

Her husband doesn't let her work. He doesn't think she should be out and about. But she does come here. And she attends Qur'an lessons in the home of a neighbour. And she teaches her children the values of Islam. She looks for a way to get her daughter the surgery that she needs - but her other daughter is a good student so she encourages her to stay in school.

She can't be bothered with politics. But she knows what happens around her. She sees the addictions and the domestic violence, and she recognises that she and her neighbours are usually too scared to get involved in other families' conflicts, even when they see someone suffering. Because everyone's biggest fear is of scandal.

When I asked her if she had any wild, improbable dreams, she said yes: her dream is to be rich so that she can give things to people.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Chapter 5: A painful drop in class

I am a busboy. I put out napkins, fill up salt shakers, wipe down tables, carry plates of food, clear tables, deliver bread and help keep the kitchen clean. There are some things about being a busboy that are fun. I can now pile half-empty plates 20-high - the customers like to watch me clear the entire table all in one go without a tray or help from anyone. Sometimes they give me a tip for that. I'm now working on devising a creative way to use trash from the tables to wipe down tables.

Today is Friday, the busiest day of the week. From midday on, the restaurant is full. It's an old Arabic house with tables in the courtyard, the diwan and some of the other rooms, and right now it is one of the most popular destinations in the old city of Damascus.

This afternoon, were busier than usual for some reason, and I was rushing to keep up with all the tables in my area. But I was working hard and getting my job done as quickly as possible. The waiter who supervises me wanted the customers to come and go faster, though, because he gets to keep all the tips that they leave with the check. So he started to get mad at me and shout at me, sometimes even in front of the customers - maybe he thought it looked good for him to act authoritatively.

There was one table that had loads of food and so many plates for me to clear. Cold dips, hot dips, salads, sambosas and kibbes, grilled meats... I couldn't clear the whole table on one trip, but I did the best I could. I got more than half the plates off and took them straight to the kitchen then went back for the rest. On my way back to the table, my waiter stopped me. He grabbed me by the collar of my white shirt and pushed me into the kitchen. He started shouting at me and hitting me on my shoulder. "You son of a donkey! You good for nothing, you can't even get the tables clean! You're no better than a dog, just laziness. Your mother must curse the day you were born!" Then he pushed me toward the wall and kicked me on my legs.

My waiter is a short fat man in his forties. The entire kitchen staff watched as he screamed and kicked. We all knew I could beat him anytime, anywhere, but I couldn't fight back, not right there in the restaurant kitchen. It wasn't the first beating I've received. I was attacked by extremists more than once back in Mosul, and I've been attacked by gangs on the streets of Damascus, but this was the first time I was made to feel worthless. The other times it was a fight between me and them: I hated it but I felt like they only bothered to attack me because I was worth something. That's what my mother always said: everyone hates Christians because we are special.

This time, it wasn't that. I was clearly the lower class, nothing more than the busboy. Even a pudgy middle-aged waiter held infinitely more status than me. I held back the tears as I thought of my father, an English professor who had translated for representatives of big corporations. He had completed school and university and postgraduate studies. In another place at another time, if my father were here, everyone in that kitchen would have treated him as an honoured guest of the restaurant. But now I'm here, and I've shamed my father's memory, because I am nothing more than an uneducated Iraqi refugee.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Scenario #11: Culturally Exotic

This is my 100th post! I feel momentous... and to celebrate I am writing this on a quiet Friday afternoon at a cafe overlooking Amman. The cafe is part of the Wild Jordan complex, which is dedicated to environmental awareness and conservation and healthy-ethical living in Jordan. I like it here. But anyway, on to the scenario.....

Since last night, I have been thinking about how to describe the call to prayer in words. Chances are, you have probably already heard at least snippets of the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. It makes good background music for videos about Islam and the Arab world, and if you're ever anywhere near a mosque at prayer time, you can't avoid it.

But what you might have missed was the piercing, almost painful, beauty of the sung Quranic recitation. It's always a man singing it, and the Qur'an sung well is chanted entirely using nasal tones. Quranic recitation is actually a science: people study for years and years to master the correct tones and beat count and pronunciation of the words. The idea is that God is in those words when recited properly. So when listening to the call to prayer, we should be listening to the perfect expression of God's words, which is highly poetic and precisely musical. If you think actually hearing it might describe it better than I can do using typed words, check out a youtube Adhan.

In Amman, I have especially enjoyed listening to the call to prayer because Amman is a city built on a series of hills. When standing at the top of one hill, I can see one or two or three other hills, each of which has several mosques perched on its terraces. And the call to prayer makes for an impressive musical round. One call starts from one mosque, then across the valley I hear another one start, then a little further away another, then a voice bursts out from the mosque right behind me. And the sound of each echoes off the other hills.

Yesterday, though, I heard a different version of the Adhan. I was with friends visiting their house in the village. It's about an hour north of Amman and has that feel of village innocence, isolation and harshness. Kids running around, women inviting us into their homes, men smoking cigarettes... So peaceful yet a bit frightening. As we were just about to leave town, yesterday, the call to prayer started. But this time it was sung by a boy probably about 12 years old. His voice had not yet finished changing, and I didn't get the impression he had attended as much Quranic recitation class as the big-city mosque muezzins generally attend. Many mosques actually use recordings these days instead of risking a less-than-perfect recitation. But not this mosque. That boy sung his heart out, shouting out the words of the Qur'an with a squeak in his voice, calling all the faithful in his village to pray, without concern for the imperfection of his pronunciation and tone.

It was the first time I'd heard such a realistic, down-to-earth Adhan. It occurred to me that this was as it should be, a boy singing the sacred words of his religion to call the faithful in his village to prayer. I was fascinated with what I must admit was the morbid enchantment of a tourist.

I was brought back to reality half an hour later when we were looking for a restaurant for dinner. Back on the highway into the city, we had several restaurants to choose from, each on the way and with similar menus. I suggested as a criteria that if any of those restaurants served food with rice, we go to that one. But Arabic restaurant food is rarely served with rice, so this proved to be a difficult criteria to fulfill.

We ended up at a lovely place filled with greenery and a light breeze... but no rice. They served rice earlier, but not at this time of the evening. Fair enough, we told the waiter. We'd happily eat our grilled meat and salads and dips with bread and no rice. But the waiter was fascinated by my obsession with rice. He apologised over and over for not having it.

Then, a few minutes after we'd ordered, he came up and asked if we would like him to go get some rice from his house. It was just behind the restaurant, he said. I felt bad and was inclined to say no, but he seemed sincere in his offer and in fact eager to please... and I really do like rice. So after a few moments' hesitation, we accepted. As he scurried off to procure the rice, it occurred to us that he and his wife were probably sharing a tourist moment themselves.

"Guess what?" his wife will be saying today to her neighbour. "Some foreigners came into my husband's restaurant last night at 8:30 p.m., right after the Iftar was over, and asked for food with rice! What strange people those foreigners are, eating dinner two hours after Iftar during Ramadan, and wanting rice at that hour! So my husband came and asked me if we had any extra rice from our Iftar. I was going to throw that rice out, but the foreigners wanted it! The crazy, rich foreigners ate our trash."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chapter 4: Canada

Is it really all that much to ask to move to Canada? My mum's brother lives there with his family. There's only six of us. Canada's a big country, I read somewhere that it is bigger than Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia combined, but that its population is less than Iraq's. It's got so much empty space!

Iraq is lost. We can never go back there. Even if it were safe, we might still have enemies targeting us for revenge on my father or because of something I did or something Mama did. Even if we felt safe from that, the memories of what we lived through there are too awful. Even if we got over the memories, Iraq was never ours in the first place. Well, it was. But a very long time ago. Now, if you're a Christian you are no longer welcome.

Syria hates us. Whenever I'm on a bus or in a store, I can tell. As soon as they hear my accent, or sometimes they can even tell just by looking... I can feel their stares and their anger. I can feel the hatred shooting out of their eyes like lightning bolts. Sometimes they tell me that it's my fault prices have gone up so much, or it's my fault that Damascus isn't as safe as it used to be. I want to ask them if they know how much prices have gone up back home? Or if they realise that I am paying three times more in rent than my Syrian neighbour pays? Or why they complain about the tiny bit of crime in Damascus when we have survived a war?

I want to go to a country where I can move on, where I can be myself. I want to get a job that pays a proper salary and I want to work somewhere where I am respected. I want my sisters to finish school and marry good men. I want my grandmother to spend her last days resting and my mother to enjoy new clothes and nice appliances in her house and the knowledge that her children have a future.

We don't belong here because we are Christians. I know Muslim Iraqis are also living hard times in Syria, but at least this is their world. I am tired of always being the target, always being the brunt of someone's jokes. I want to go where people think the way I think and celebrate the same holidays as me.

I've never known a normal life, and I can't even imagine a world where I wouldn't wake up ten times at night thinking the police is knocking on the door to deport us. What would it be like to walk on the streets without staring at the ground for fear of someone around me getting mad? What would it be like to plan a future, to get married and dream with my wife about our house and our children and their families? Is it really too much to ask to go to Canada?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Chapter 3: A doctors visit

It was my day off. I didn't have to be at the restaurant until 6 p.m. and the rest of the day was my own. My grandmother had been needing to go to the doctors' for a check-up for a while, and now she needed a renewal of her diabetes prescription. So Nour and I took her to the Red Crescent Centre.

There was really no way to know how long it would take to get in to the building, to find the right administrator, to get an appointment, to wait for the appointment, then do whatever else they told us to do? So we left as early as possible to be there early. We got there around 9:00, I guess the clinic had been open for an hour already.

We got off the minibus at the end of the street and had a ten minute walk to the clinic from there. Teta was tired, but she is a strong fighting woman. She and Nour linked arms and walked down the street. Oh so slowly, why do women have to wander so slowly! We were already late, and the longer it took us the worse our wait at the clinic would be. I thought of Teta's doctor in Mosul, who had actually been the family doctor and looked out for most of our family's health needs. We would just call ahead to make sure he was in, drive five minutes down the street, and then walk right into his office. Back when we felt like we were worth something.

I whispered to Nour that I was going to go get our name on the queue and marched ahead. When I glanced back, I saw my little sister and my elderly grandmother chatting, looking into store windows as they walked. But Teta really was tired, I knew, and so of course I couldn't ask them to hurry up.

Thanks God, I hadn't been sick since we came to Syria. Neither had my mother or my sisters or little Rashad, except for one day stomache bugs. And there was the cold we all caught that wouldn't go away, but I'm sure that was because we hardly ever heated our house last winter. But Teta... Teta has been sick for years. I've never known Teta when she didn't have diabetes and high blood pressure, and then she had a heart attack right around the time of the Fall in 2003. Since then she has not had energy to do much at all and just sits at home. But my Teta is the best kind of Arab grandma. As soon as she gets a little flicker of oomph, she uses it. Almost every day it is she who cooks our food, and my sisters have pointed out how the house is always a notch cleaner, it seems, when they get home from their computer course on Mondays and Thursdays.

Even so, I had been with Teta to the clinic once before, and Mama had brought her several times, too. She was no stranger to this place, although that didn't mean anyone acted like they recognised her or treated her as special in any way.

No, we had to queue like the rest of them. I inched around an elderly couple and made my way into the downstairs office. At the reception desk I was given a number. That was something, I now felt a pinch less guilty for my impatience now that I had a numbered slip of paper in my hand, proving I had reason to walk ahead of my family. As I waited for Nour and Teta to round the corner and for our number to be called, I stood against a wall facing the receptionist. I watched her as she attended new arrivals and took note of how many numbers she handed out before Teta and Nour arrived. Six. My anxiety had gained us the time of six people.

When our number was called, about half an hour later, we walked up to the appointment-making attendant. As we explained the purpose of our visit and she wrote our name in her ledger for Dr. Mustafa at 11:00, I was reminded of my absolute detest for these places. Places which were set up for refugees, where they acted like they were doing us an enormous favour. As I handed the receptionist 20 Lira, the "reduced" fee for an appointment, I felt cheap and like I'd been sold out. She took it with a smirk on her face that said, "You freeloader, what makes you think you deserve discounted medical services? Everyone knows Iraqis have money while us Syrians struggle to live day by day - thanks to your people pushing up prices!" I knew that was what she was thinking because once someone had actually said it to my face. Not at a medical clinic, that was when I was picking up our family's food rations a few months ago, but the man who had said that had the same look on his face.

The waiting room was crowded, but we found a seat for Teta, and Nour and I took turns standing by her while the other wandered. On my turn to wander I went for a walk around the block and bought myself a Fatayer. I felt guilty, thinking I should take one back for Nour and Teta, but I couldn't figure out how to give them their Fatayer without everyone else in the room - who was surely just as hungry as my Teta - seeing. I could buy some and give them to Nour and Teta on the way out, but by then we'd be on our way home. So I bought myself a Fatayer and gobbled it down quickly, brushing my shirt and chin to make sure no traces of flour were left that could betray me.

There was a water cooler in the waiting room, so I filled a plastic cup with water and took it to Teta, and then Nour left for her walk. I told her not to go far and wondered if leaving the room was too far already. Everyone has heard the stories about things done to Iraqi girls on the street. But it was too much to ask, really, to make her just stand there in that hot, smelly, unventilated waiting room without any movement or fresh air. Teta was a strong woman and she was seated in a chair; Nour was still young and needed activity and fresh air, so I let her go and prayed she'd come back quickly.

The appointment itself was uneventful, except for the prescription for the diabetes medication. The prices went up again. We still only have to pay 20%, but 20% of one hundred dollars was... much more than we had. We asked the doctor what we could do and he said we could petition the director of the clinic for a further discount, or talk to our case manager at UNHCR. But he doubted it would work; discounts are rarely handed out, and in our family we have two people working full-time. The discounts usually go to people needing major surgeries and who have no one working in the family. The doctor said this kindly and apologetically, but as soon as he'd said it, we were whisked out of his office. Before I knew what was happening, Dr. Mustafa was already on his next patient and we were standing in front of the pharmaceutical counter with a pricey prescription in hand. I glanced at the pharmacist serving other clients, then glanced down at the prescription and bill, then glanced at my sister. "Yalla. I'll take care of this later," I said. "Let's go home and have some breakfast."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Scenario #10: Cheaters!!

Last night I went to a quiz night, my first quiz night. After living almost four years in England, my first ever quiz night was in a five star hotel in Amman. Quiz nights are supposed to involve beer and dark musty rooms and wooden creaky chairs in pubs, from what I've heard. This one was in the Four Seasons Ballroom, with the questions and their answers projected on three screens, computerised marking systems involving two laptops and five mini laptops, and a posh buffet served in between rounds 4 and 5, out of 7 total rounds.

It was sponsored by an association of Jordanians who had studied in the United Kingdom, so it was, I suppose, the optimal, if not a bit surreal, meeting of upper class Jordanian society with the English pub tradition.

And it wasn't actually written anywhere official that using cell phones to access the internet was not permitted during the quiz.

So perhaps table 11, right next to us and very strongly in the lead, was not completely amiss to be googling all the answers on their iPhone, but all of us at our table of mostly foreigners and mostly people who not only studied in Britain but actually were from Britain, felt like table 11 was cheating and should be disqualified.

We noticed the so-called cheating somewhere around round 3, and realised it was all around us. Table 3 behind us had three phones on the go, Table 2 across the aisle pulled a phone out now and then, table 9 a bit to the left seemed to be spending a lot of time text messaging. When the answers were announced, it seemed like everyone around us cheered gleefully. They seemed to be saying, "Yay! We put the right answer!" How exactly they were so excited about finding out they were right when they had JUST googled it was beyond me.

When rankings were announced halfway through, with table 11 in the lead, they really got down to business. All the phones came out, and they bunched together and strategised: these people write, these people plan and these people man the iPhones. But to be fair, there was one question which asked to identify a song played backwards, and they got that one right, too. There's no way they found that one on Google.

At one point, we pulled the quiz organiser over to ask, and he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Yes, it's a problem. It has been a problem for years, but we can't do anything about it. The good, thing, though, is that they will pay a hefty fee for using the hotel's wireless because all other internet connections here are jammed!" Well, that is something. Were we wrong for wanting people to do the quiz without accessing external resources?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chapter 2: The photo album

This evening the electricity went out again. Both water and electricity are a problem in this flat! The electricity goes out every day for an hour or two, but not always at the same time. The water only comes on in the mornings and if we're not careful, our water tank is empty by night. But if we do our washing and fill a few buckets in the bathroom to flush the toilet then we're just fine.

Since the electricity was out at 11:00, we couldn't watch Noor, our favourite soap opera that comes on every evening. I was sad because I admit I really do like the show. The main character is beautiful. And we always watch it together. I'm not always home from work in time to watch Noor with the family, but they put it on the big screen at the restaurant where I work, so I can follow the story as I bus tables. And of course catch glimpses of that girl, the really pretty one.

Tonight, though, was an early evening. I had worked the afternoon shift and since it wasn't too busy I was allowed to leave at 10:00. Just in time to get home to be with my family. It's been a few weeks since I've been able to watch Noor with them. The nights I'm not working late I have been visiting Hanan and her family, or doing church activities. I was really looking forward to spending this evening with my mother and Teta and my two sisters. Rashad would already be in bed since he has school tomorrow, though.

When I got to our harra, I saw that the lights were out. So I stopped at the dukkan, the minimarket downstairs, and bought us some candles, as well as some other things I'd remembered being low: sugar, rice, yogurt. I walked slowly up the stairs, thinking about all that wasted daydreaming I'd done for the last few hours, about how I'd rushed home for nothing.

They were all sitting out on the balcony, enjoying the cool air and the faint light drifting our way from the street. Mama greeted me with three kisses as she always does. I handed her the shopping bag and greeted Teta, then I took Mama's seat while she rushed in to the kitchen. We didn't say much as we sat on the balcony staring at the mountain that towers over Damascus. Teta and I perched in plastic chairs, while Marwa and Nour shared a folded up blanket in the corner.

After a few minutes, Mama brought out my supper on a few plates and arranged them along the ledge directly in front of me. Rice and lentils, cooked just the way only my mother can, and some salad and a dollop of yogurt in a bowl. I smiled my thanks and moved my chair out of the way for her to go sit by my sisters, but instead she scurried back into the house. I shouted after her, "What, Mama? Come sit down."

When she returned, she had the lighter from the kitchen, the candles I'd brought and a big book. In the dim light I couldn't make out what the book was, but she was obviously excited as she proceeded to light the candles and drip some of their wax to get them to stay in place on an old piece of metal she'd found lying around. Then she took her seat on the blanket and waved her arms for Teta and me to come closer if we could. I kept eating but strained my eyes to see what she was looking at.

She opened the first page and I saw three photographs aligned from top to bottom. It was the photo album! As soon as Nour had found out we were leaving, she had refused to sleep, instead worker her way through our old albums and boxes of photos, choosing the very most important memories to put in the one book that would take up half of her luggage space. It had seemed a very frivolous choice to me, as I had packed my small bag with cologne, my CD walkman, my very nicest clothes and a few other trinkets that I thought might be worth some money. But Nour had ignored my scorn and everyone else's rolled eyes as she had rearranged photos so that our family's memories could all fit into one book. Then she had gone around the house, taking her favourite photos out of frames, and tucked them into the album.

"What made you think of this today, Mama?" asked Nour, obviously pleased that her efforts were finally being recognised, a year and a half later.

"Oh, I was thinking about home today. The weather this afternoon reminded me of the breeze we would get on summer afternoons in Mosul. Then I got to thinking about how that breeze turns into harsh winters, which made me think of that day that we all went up on the mountain together after the fall of the regime. Do you remember that day?"

Hanan let out a laugh. "Oh, wow, I had forgotten! That was the day we stuffed fifty snowballs into Baba's jacket!"

"Baba..." Nour said.

"My poor son..." said Teta.

I kept eating and returned to staring at the mountain.

"And so," continued Mama, "I remembered the album and I was pretty sure that Nour had included some photos from that day in the album, right Nour?"

Nour nodded.

"So, since we are all out here together tonight, I felt like God made it happen. That I'd remember the album, that my dear son would be home tonight, that we'd have no TV... It's time for us to look at our pictures, don't you think?"

Mama giggled, and I couldn't help but wonder if that wasn't her way of fighting back the tears. As for myself, my curiosity was finally roused, and I scarfed down the rest of my food as quickly as possible then dragged my chair over so I was looking right over Mama's shoulder. Teta looked down for a moment, but then said that she was tired and was going to sleep. Now it was just the four of us, and we spent the next several hours, long after the electricity came back, poring over photos.

There were the photos of our last Christmas in Mosul. It was just us then, that was only two months before Baba died. By then most of our relatives had left. It was a quiet Christmas at home, but Mama had tried extra hard to make it special in a hundred different ways.

There were the photos of Rashad's baptism. That was before the war, when things were hard but in a very very different way. I never noticed the troubles back when I was ten. I just remember the party, that they dressed my baby brother up in a bright white dress and that all my aunts and uncles and cousins came over for a huge party.

There was my parents' wedding photograph that Nour had carefully taken out of the frame in which it had sat for twenty years on the wall by the stairs. She had placed a blank sheet of white paper on either side of it to protect it, and today we passed it around gently, taking in details we'd never noticed before. I had never before noticed just how happy Baba had looked on that day. Hanan made some comment about Mama's hairstyle.

There were scenery photos. I must admit my sister did a good job of picking out pictures to help us remember home. There was the outside of our house, there was a photo of every room in our house. There was the view of Mosul taken from the mountain on the outing that Mama was remembering this afternoon. There was a scenic photograph of Baba's village which we had visited every summer.

The album went on and on, but it wasn't quite full. The last five pages or so were empty. I asked Nour about that and she said she had wanted to save some space for the new memories we were making here in Syria.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Chapter 1: Thank you

"Ahlan wa Sahlan. Welcome. Tafadal, Tafadal, Make yourself at home."

"Thank you."

"What can I bring you? Tea? Water? Cola?"

"Oh, nothing, thank you. This is just a short visit."

"You honour us with your presence today."

"We just wanted to visit to find out how you're coming along. It's just a routine visit."

"No, no, you are very welcome in our home. What you have done for us is something amazing. My sister is so thrilled with the hairstyling course she is taking. We're really hoping that next year she will be able to get a job at the salon down the street. That will make such a difference."

"Yes? Are you able to pay your rent on just your salary?"

"Oh, no. My mother works, too. And my sisters help her take in sewing projects. The sewing projects make very little but at least it's something. But even then, you know... It's not enough. We keep trying."

"You have been here a year and a half, yes?"

"We left our home in Iraq on 17 March 2007."

"Have you lived in this house the whole time?"

"No. This is our third house in that time. But the rent is much better than in the previous two houses so things are better now."

"Have you been in Masaken Barzeh since you arrived?"

"Yes. My mother has a cousin who lives here, and she helped us when we first came."

"What about your father? He is back in Iraq?"

"No. He died. In a car bomb."

"Allah Yarhamhu. May God have mercy on his soul."

"Thank you."

"So, according to our papers, you live with your mother, your grandmother, two sisters and a brother."

"That's correct."

"And you're the oldest?"

"Yes."

"How old are you?"

"Twenty."

"That's a lot of responsibility."

"I don't think about it."

"Allah Ya'atik al Afia. May God give you strength."

"And you too."

"So tell us, what can we do for you?"

"You are the first people who have helped us at all. I couldn't ask for anything more. Like I said, my sister is very happy with her course. And we appreciate the fans you gave us, as this has been a very hot summer. And the vouchers for heating fuel and blankets, last winter was very difficult. But more than anything, I think finally knowing that someone cares, that someone is trying to help. That's what we really needed."

Monday, September 8, 2008

New blog series!

As many of you know, during the last several months I have been focusing a lot of my energies on learning to tell stories of justice, society, need and hope using literary forms. The Portraits and Scenarios have been a means of exploring this, and I've also been writing fiction in other venues.

Well, in the last few weeks, I've decided there's a story in me that I want to tell. And so in the next few weeks or months, I think I'll put the pause on Portraits or Scenarios (unless/until something something amazingly portrayal-worthy comes up!) and instead share the story.

This story will be about a young man whose name I haven't yet figured out. It will come to me, I know it will! By tomorrow when I start, hopefully.

He's 20 years old and he's from Iraq, but has been living in Damascus with his family for about a year and a half. He came to Syria with his mother, his grandmother, his two younger sisters and his younger brother. Right now our unnamed hero is working at a local restaurant and his little brother is in school. His sisters are doing vocational training courses, and his elderly sickly grandmother is trying to run the household while his mother works at a factory.

As you might imagine, he's been through quite a bit and bears a lot of responsibility. My idea is that in each blog post I will tell a little bit more of his story, give a little picture of what life is like for him and what the world around him looks like, too!

I love this blog, it's been one big experiment. But it's been fun to try things out and it's great to have people following me on this journey. Comments, of any sort, are welcome, seriously! And I hope you love the story of this gallant young man named.......

Friday, September 5, 2008

Portrait #50: The Arab Girl of the 21st Century

This is from some notes I jotted down earlier this year after finishing my internship with UNIFEM, where I worked specifically on women's rights and empowerment. But, realistically, I learned a lot more from relationships than I did from interning in a UN office...

- Isn't it my right to want to be protected? Maybe I am giving up some of the freedoms for which my parents fought so much, to be assured of safety. It's scary to think of jumping out of the nest into the unknown that lies beyond the cage.

- I'm looking for friendship, where will I find it if not through family? And if not family, then what, School? Mutual friends? Work? Church? Oh yeah, I quit school years ago, only have a few friends, try to keep my head low and stay out of trouble at work, and I don't go to church! Maybe my sisters will be my friends, and maybe my parents will find me a man.

- It's a compliment to look Lebanese, it's an offense to be Lebanese. Lebanese have the best sense of fashion around, but they have too much freedom! It's about wanting to be a good girl, bint, with a good reputation and marriage material, but yet to have fun, to not lose out on life. Can I have friends who are guys without paying the price?

- Stepping out into the world without family is dangerous. Anything might happen. No protection... It would mean I'm willing for anything to happen.

- I know I have my rights but but I just can't pay the price. A girl can choose her husband, but she can only enjoy her family's help, which is very essential, if they are a part of the choice. A girl can work but she must be willing to give up her reputation. A girl can live alone, but she must be prepared for the assumption that she's therefore a bad girl. A wife does not have to take abuse, but she has to be prepared to be frowned down on by her friends and family if she reports her husband. Not just women, a man can do deviate from what his family expects, but then who would he marry? How would he deal with the social torture and ostracism?

- This world is a lonely place...

- It's a myth that I could be forced to marry someone against my will. Well, I'm not really forced, but if I don't I may lose my family's sponsorship. When I don't the fact is I won't be as happy. I know I won't be happy for having made my own choice. Maybe someday my children might enjoy the freedom to choose more, but not me. But there's a simple contentment that comes with submission, isn't it best to take what's guaranteed than to fight for more?

- Of course there are ways of getting back, of asserting oneself. But who really likes those people? It's the ones that don't insist that are most lovable.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Portrait #49: Yet another international taxi ride tale

There's something somewhat disconcerting about waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, running a few errands, then getting on a taxi with all your belongings and moving to another country. It's all a bit too casual and straightforward. I think that three-hour check-in, long security queues, and the unavoidable earpopping are important rituals in any big move. Alternately, huge moving vans, loads of paperwork, road trips with sketchy hotel stays, or other such rituals must be involved. But to leave home number one at 12:30 p.m. and pull into home number two at 5 p.m., with nothing marking the transition other than a few new stamps in the passport... was this really a move?

And for this reason I am grateful that I moved to Jordan on the first day of Ramadan, and that I caught the consummate stereotypical 1960s Dodge Skylark taxi as my transport of choice, and that my driver was on the verge of tears the whole way. It made the occasion more memorable.

Notable #1: The first day of Ramadan. It's still summer in the Middle East. The sun comes up around 4:30 a.m. and sets around 7:15 p.m. Right now we're riding a heat wave, with temperatures hitting 40 every now and again (in Fahrenheit, regularly surpassing 100)... and, to boot, it's been muggy, too! Now factor into this general climate the idea that during the current month, almost 90% of the people in the region are not eating anything, drinking anything, brushing their teeth, or indulging themselves in any other way from sun-up to sun-down... It makes a 4-hour taxi ride through the desert sound rather stifling. I was oh-so eager for a drink of water on this whole trip, but since I was sharing the taxi with 3 fasting individuals, I couldn't bring myself to taunt them.

Notable #2: The car. Since this is a semi-permanent move (which in my life of transition means nothing more than that I currently have no plans of returning to home number one), I had a good bit of luggage, so I thought it was appropriate that I purchase two seats on the shared taxi: a seat for me and a seat for my stuff. This ended up meaning that I shared the front of a sprawling 6-seater with no one but the driver. I had a perfect view of the highway ahead, and I had plenty of space to sweat all on my own, with nothing but two of my bags inching up on me. The seats were navy blue and the windows were lined with navy blue curtains. Fortunately the front seat curtains were tied up, but I felt bad for the potential claustrophobia of my backseat mates. The gas gauge was broken, and drivers here are famous for filling their cars up with just-enough-petrol to make it to the next and cheaper station. So I spent a few minutes wondering if I should worry about the possibility of breaking down due to an empty tank, but I soon concluded that if we did it wasn't my problem so I might as well enjoy the ride. Or enjoy the reminder to pray, for as I looked out the front window, I saw that we were swerving from the far right to the far left of the highway and back again, inching up around cars at a very high speed, slamming on the breaks when we were getting too close and weren't going to make the weave in time. How fast were we going, anyway? I checked the speed dial to find that it, too, was broken. The doors were also broken, but our driver never noticed a door was not properly closed until we were on the highway, and he wasn't about to slow down while the passengers one-by-one had to open and re-shut their doors. In fact, the only thing that was in perfect condition on this car was the emblem that announced that we were riding a Dodge Skylark.

Notable #3: The driver who almost became the first Arab taxi driver I saw cry. But he didn't cry, he just panted a bit and his eyes got somewhat glossy. The first day of Ramadan fasting must be the hardest, and making the long hot drive down the highway couldn't have made it easier. The fact that he wasn't supposed to be the one driving all the way to Amman - a cousin or an uncle who bailed on him was meant to have taken over right before the border - must have been frustrating, too. Then there were the packs of cigarettes he was smuggling. And the medicines. And some other identifiable goods in a plastic bag. He needed to keep track of all that, and he was a very young-looking chap. Oh, it must have been a hard day for him - and he must have been running very, very late for something, considering how fast he was driving. I hope he got a good 'break-fast' at 7:15 before catching the highway back to Damascus that night.

So when I arrived in my new Jordanian home, I was thirsty, sweaty, and my head was spinning. My four bags and me had all made it safely across the border, and I felt I'd had my proper share of transition rituals.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Scenario #9: A co-wife?

Imagine this scenario, then tell me, can you explain how the girl reached her conclusion at the end? (And if you know me and will be trying to figure out if this has any bearing on my personal life, let me just preface by saying it may be about me and it may not be about me, but either way, anything slightly smelling of essential details have been changed...)

Western chic to Arab chic: "So, what's happened with you? Any news?"
Arab chic replies: "No. Nothing."
Wc: "What happened to... that one who was going to come meet you?"
Ac: "He, well, he flew away. He's gone, gone like a bird."
Wc: "Oh. Is there anyone else?"
Ac: "Well, there's a family in the neighbourhood looking for a wife for a man who owns a farm, and there's also two established city men looking for wives."
Wc: "And?"
Ac: "I don't know. They might not be good moral men."
Wc: "Well, we'll see, right?"
Ac: "Yes. We'll see. It's all in God's hands. What about you, any developments?"
Wc: "Me? Oh you know me, not much."
Ac: "What about that one guy...? Did he propose?"
Wc: "Him? Hardly! You know, with us Westerners, these things take time!"
Ac: "Yes, but you've known each other for months, haven't you?"
Wc: "But we're only friends."
Ac: "Friends?"
Wc: "You know, we just talk. It takes a while to get to know someone, anyway."
Ac: "Is he engaged?"
Wc: "No."
Ac: "You asked him?"
Wc: "No. But he's not engaged."
Ac: "Has he asked you if you're married?"
Wc: "No!"
Ac: "Has he asked you if you're in love? If you have any proposals waiting? If you want to get married?"
Wc: "No."
Ac: "Why not?"
Wc: "I don't know. It's just not something we talk about a lot."
Ac: "But you'd like to marry him."
Wc: "I don't know. It's too early to know. But since you mention it, that reminds me that I did have a very strange dream about him."
Ac: "Really? What did you dream?"
Wc: "Well, I dreamed that he was married."
Ac: "He's married?! You didn't tell me that!"
Wc: "No, no, he's not married. Just in my dream. But we were still friends."
Ac: "So you married him."
Wc: "No, we were just talking. And he brought his wife to meet me."
Ac: "Oh... I get it. So what the dream means is that he married you and then he got a second wife. Your co-wife."