Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Our kids should grow up together

A story... made up... but absolutely true... based on account shared by a colleague.

I don't remember what started it. It was about five years ago. Five years ago... there was some kind of disagreement between someone from our tribe and someone from their tribe. So they started their own village, I guess.

See the other side of those farms there? Those houses and buildings are the new village where the other tribe is - their school is there, their market is there, their services are there. But it's so small, and they have nothing.

I live nearby, in that house down the road a bit. See it? It's my family's home, we've lived there for generations. Our neighbours on both sides are from the other tribe. I've known them since we were little kids. We grew up playing together on the streets, then we went to school together, and a few of us went off to the city for high school together. In high school I shared a room with people from the other tribe - we were from the same village, so who cared that at home we spoke different languages?

Then the problem happened. For a while we didn't even talk to our neighbours, and I can't even remember why! It was like we started hating each other overnight, but we didn't hate each other, you know? We'd pass each other in the street and I'd want to say something, but it just seemed like I'd be betraying my family. Well, now we talk again. We're not best friends like we used to be, and we don't visit. But at least we're neighbours again.

But still, my children go to this school here. They have teachers and classrooms and some notebooks. But their children... the neighbour kids walk all the way around our village, in between those farms, to the other little village over there. I visited once. There's nothing there. The school only has one little thatched room, but the children study under a tree. They don't have books, pens, or chairs. Over here, we don't have a lot, but at least my kids study in a classroom.

I know there are plans to improve the school over there. I'm glad that the other kids will have classrooms, but the whole thing is silly. I don't know if anyone here remembers what the problem was. Their children should come here to study, not fix the classrooms over there. A few days ago, I started chatting with my neighbour in front of our houses, and I'm sure he agrees with me.

So, once the classrooms are built over there, I plan to find a way to get all the children back into our school over here. We need a medical clinic and could really use a community centre. So let's use the new school there for community services. But our kids... they should grow up together.

written for Emily's imperfect prose: a little less introspective than may be norm, but this is the everyday imperfection that my life is made of.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Of people I know and of people I don't know

There's a lot of good stuff to say about life, so I prefer to say good stuff. But somehow, it seems like all of our sense of humour, all of the ironic beauty we find in life these days, relates to the bad stuff. Or involves personal commentary on a person I know.

Even the nice stories, even the tales of people who have impressed me, they are hard to tell without pulling out something critical.

The guards who work 12-hour shifts to keep us safe... they are always a source of happiness in my day. They joke, the say hi, and they make me feel sheltered. But still, they are guarding us.

The relationships between colleagues living here in the guest house... we peaked at 6, but half of us are going on leave and the other two might be moving out, leaving me alone. They're great people, but if I really want to talk about the guest house, especially if I want the story to be interesting or entertaining, I might have to throw in a personal jab at people I mostly respect.

The bugs... grasshoppers and little gnats who love my computer screen are my most populous neighbours these days. Much could be said about them, but I'd feel like I'm complaining.

The hedgehogs, those cute and adorable rodents... but they are rodents, nonetheless.

The training I attended today, which was surely an entertaining occasion... it too focused on a topic I'd rather not dwell on here if I'm focusing on the good.

I guess I could talk about our cooks, and the amusing misunderstandings I've had with them lately. Or the old guy who has come to my office everyday for the last week trying to fix my airconditioning. Apparently he's the only airconditioning guy in town. There are stories - good stories - to be told, and I do hope they come out.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

We all have our standards

This evening God put me in my place. I guess I needed putting in my place, although I'm not yet at the point of thanking him for the experience.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the church I've been attending. I spoke about how more than half the congregation is comprised of soldiers with guns, and how this made me uncomfortable but also forced me to see that people can worship in any circumstances. I appreciated seeing the guns on the floor and the joyful praise that ignored those frightful things.

But I admit: I also saw in that an excuse to feel good about myself. Proud that I work for an NGO which would not force me, not even allow me, to carry a gun. Pleased in the peaceful nature of my job. I was just a little smug about the lack of a gun under my chair.

Not only that, but I don't wear a uniform. Tonight when I showed up for an evening service, I noticed almost everyone else was in their camouflage bottoms, even if they were wearing t-shirts and sandals instead of buff black boots. The women all had bandannas around their heads, lending them an even more casual feel. It felt like church in the barracks, everyone dressed the way I'd be dressed at an evening barn event in summer camp.

It was comfy feeling, but I suppose I again was pleased in the fact that I'd taken the time to get dressed to come to church. I'd even done henna to my hair earlier in the day so I was looking particularly put-together. Furthermore, as I noticed the girls in trousers and t-shirts, I think I subconsciously took pride in the fact I was wearing a long skirt and long sleeves - I felt very culturally appropriate.

So, even though these prideful thoughts had not yet fully formed in my brain, God nipped them in the bud when the preacher himself, right before starting his sermon, came up to me and shouted (rain was pounding on the tin roof, there's no other way I would have heard him) something to the effect of: "When I am ministering, your hair should be covered!" Then he turned to a church leader who handed him, on cue, a light blue cap. The kind the soldiers wear.

So not only was my definition of decent dressing not acknowledged, not only was the formality of my wear disregarded, not only was my henna job not appreciated, not only was my peaceful civilian self not recognised... but I had to wear a cap that symbolised a gun-toting military for the duration of the service!

Now my fellow pacifist friends might here suggest that this is not a church I should attend. Some of us might even question that this church is really Christian. But I don't think that's true. I think this is a church that represents a culture radically different, but no less Christian, than my own. This is just one more category by which God chooses not to judge us.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Beauty... Lost in the crowd

As it turns out, Dar is not that difficult a place to live. Sure security is tight and work is insane, but to make up for it we have the UN Compound. Not only did I learn today that I can buy tonic water there, but even more importantly, they let us run around the perimeter of the compound, a half-mile lap. NGO people run clockwise, UN people run counter-clockwise. Wherever did that rule come from?

Allow me to try to capture the magnificence of running at the UN compound. Every day, my life is as follows: wake up in my little room, walk across the compound to use the latrines and sinks, walk to the other side of the compound to eat the breakfast prepared by the cooks, get in a car to drive me the 200 metres to the office, work in the office all day with a guard standing outside at the compound gate, find a car mid-day that can drive me the 200 metres to eat lunch in the compound, back to office, back to home and leftovers from lunch, enjoy a bit of TV or Internet, work from home. Sleep and repeat.

BUT... every other day, right before sunset, we pile into a car and drive the fifteen minutes to the UN compound. We may wade through soft yellow sand which sticks to our bodies, and we may tiptoe around the sewage of UN soldiers, but we run. We move and feel the wind on our face. We can see for miles in every direction around the compound - the hills to one side, the pristine setting of an enormous ball of fire to the other.

Sometimes, it's just me and one colleague. We don't take our iPods; instead, she slows down her run to pace with me as I try to keep up. We talk and chat about life, both work and not-work, and we watch the sunset together. It's lovely getting to know a lovely person.

Other times, we have company. Two days ago we were three. I took advantage of being a trio to break out on my own for a while, listening to my music and running in solitude. Today, there were six of us. The moment we hit the sand, I was on my own. It's ironic how the larger the group, the more alone I become.

As I was running today, enjoying the company of one, I thought about how I was avoiding my companions. This was one of those rare social settings in which it was ok, and so I did it. Losing myself into the crowd, I felt it's wrong to pull into my shell, but I also felt like the sun and the wind and the sand and the adrenaline and the solitude are healing my soul, one step at a time.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I know I'm supposed to pass through this phase. I know when I look back I'll hardly even remember it. But that doesn't make it easy at the moment. Life is hard right now, full of questions and doubts and fears. It's the all-too-familiar process of adjustment to a new home. All my physical needs are well cared for, but that lack of rote distraction might be making the emotional adjustment more weighty.

There's also been a slew of bad and not-great news coming my way. A bit of happy news as well, but somehow even the happy news feels sad for some reason.

Plus, while I'm thrilled to be back into the world of social development in the Arab world, it means I get to hear plenty of sad stories at work, too!

And then I run into statements written on the blogosphere about the challenges of keeping a house clean, or the right to use a baby carrier. People's sense of suffering and injustice about things I may agree with but have trouble attributing much significance to, or else things that I don't agree with at all.

Sometimes I feel like their wounds dismiss the pain felt in my own wounds entirely.

What is justice? Who defines justice? If you follow my blog, you know I have a strong sense of justice. I believe some things are absolutely wrong and yearn to see more of other things in our world. How do I respond when other people's sense of justice is violated and I can't find it in my heart to empathise?

Monday, September 20, 2010

In which I become a movie star

A few days ago, I wrote about Arabic, and how all those years I spent learning Syrian dialect, while entertaining to my new friends here, have hardly prepared me for communicating in Dar.

Well, today I learned that some people might just think I'm a movie star! Oh, yeah.

So imagine that Hollywood was in London. In other words, that fabulous British accent that English speakers around the world drool over is the language spoken in all of the biggest cinema blockbusters: combine the beautiful accent with the silver screen.

This is how Darians apparently perceive Syrians! And some of them are convinced I really am Syrian - maybe I'll let them just think that.

A colleague had his engagement party today, so we attended festivities last night and mid-day today. At these events, I got to know his 19-year-old sister, a gorgeous skinny girl who herself was wed a few months back. According to the groom, she spends all day watching TV. To be specific, she watches Syrian soap operas.

So when I first spoke, she asked me, with a glimmer in her eye, "Are you Syrian or Lebanese?" Even though I told her neither, she introduced me to all her sisters and cousins as the Syrian girl. Like she'd discovered a hidden treasure. Her little brothers also threw me some awestruck glances, as if they were seeing television unfold in their very own courtyard!

Yup, I'm totally going to live this up.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

a wise man

You know the kind of person that you just want to sit at their feet listen to them talk, because every word they say seems to be soaked with wisdom and depth?

I met someone like that yesterday. A friend of a friend told me I just had to meet this man, but didn't explain to me why. So I went to his home with no idea of what to expect.

When we arrived at the house, a 2-year-old boy was standing in the entry. We shook his hand: it just seemed like the right thing to do. He smiled back as we passed into a small courtyard containing some vines, flowers and household junk. I followed my friend into the salon: two beds with brown embroidered bedspreads and six metal chairs with flimsy cushions. A small television with a battery pack sat in the seat of honour at the end of the narrow room. Broken concrete floors and shipped yellow painting on the walls told me that this was not a wealthy house. But everything was tidy and clean and I felt I was in a home where there was love.

After waiting a few moments, a booming family man in a light blue robe burst in. He greeted each of us warmly and chuckled as I told him a mutual friend had recommended I come to meet him. He disappeared again and when he returned, he bore a tray with Sprite and candies

At first, we talked about mundane things: common friends, the fact that he's originally from a different part of the country but has lived here for almost 30 years, some of the projects he has worked on. Then, on a whim, I asked him if I could broach a more personal question: "Have you ever been asked by any of your neighbours or local friends to settle disputes, like between families or between tribes?"

"All the time!", he said. He hesitated to give me details, but I sensed it was humility, not timidity, that held him back. So I probed a bit more and, sure enough, he started talking. He told me of how he'd been called to distant villages to settle land disputes between nomads and farmers. How he'd been asked to review agricultural data and property deeds to recommend a solution when people he knew were at an impasse with a neighbour.

But as we talked, I discovered that there is one issue that he holds more dearly than others. That issue is gender. He shared a story of a man who divorced his wife over the phone. My new friend called up the man and asked if he could arbitrate to reconcile him with his wife, and began a slow and painful process of tempering his friend's expectations and encouraging the wife to make the decision that would be best for their children. He engaged trusted elders in their respected families to convince them, and they are now back together.

He also told me more heartbreaking stories, of women who had been mistreated by their husbands, and his face was pained as he told the stories. But I knew he was a wise man when he also explained to me the advice he would give to women to avoid such situations in the first place. No issue is one-sided, and here was someone who saw both sides.

I'd already overstayed my welcome, and he had a family to tend to. As I left, his wife came out to bid us farewell. She was a strong, joyful woman, and I could see in both pairs of eyes that they are good partners. Then we accompanied us out to the car, and he greeted our driver like a long-lost friend. I asked how they knew each other, and he just laughed and said he knows lots of people around town.

Yes, I most certainly want to sit at his feet for hours on end, and learn from him - and from his wife.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Friends, once again

I heard them outside as I typed away in my little dark room. I was writing emails and reports, reading planning documents and the like. Outside, they were chattering and giggling. Then I got an invitation to join them and play ping-pong. I told them I'd be out shortly.

An hour later, my eyes blurry and my brain tired, I decided it was time to join the living. I stepped out into the courtyard and here is what I saw: green, purple, yellow and pink skirts and headscarves, all decorating teenage girls with timid and hopeful smiles. Six girls crowded around the ping pong table, trying to share the two rackets as their basketball coach - my housemate - taught them how to play. Another half a dozen sat scrunched onto a bench in the little bit of shade against the courtyard wall. One girl sat on a floormat, nestled up next to the other coach.

It was a fun party, but certainly a shy one. The girls talked and giggled, but hesitantly. I don't imagine they attend social events very often - teenage girls in El seem to have a lot of housework, schoolwork and family visiting to keep them busy. But these girls were different: they had joined the basketball team.

They greeted me with hesitant smiles, and I'm ashamed to say that I greeted them back even more shyly yet. I didn't shake their hands and I'm sure I was completely inaudible when I told them my name. When they learned I could speak Arabic, though, they warmed up anyway. They asked me to sit with them, and when the food came they saved me a seat and beckoned me to eat.

I didn't. I couldn't. I was too weary. They were lovely girls, inviting me into an experience of mentorship and affirmation, but all I could think of was how hard it is to keep up with a dozen teenagers, and how tired I am of making new friends. But these girls don't know that about me, nor did they judge me.

Afterwards, my housemate invited me to join them at their next practice. They'll love talking to you, they'll love that they can communicate with a foreigner!, she said. I will visit basketball practice soon, and make friends with these demure teens who have broken social norms to become athletes. But only once I find the energy to really talk with them.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Habeeby... Arabic, my love

Arabic is a fascinating language. I maintain that it is the most difficult language in the world, that is, it's the least likely to ever be mastered by a non-native speaker. In fact, it's a rare gem to find a native speaker who has mastered the language!

It's also beautiful. It is THE language of poets. I have a friend from Iraq who is a poet - at 18 years of age she won a regional contest so she must be good. When she stands up to recite a poem, I don't understand a word. But my heart is inevitably touched. The sound of the words, the tone of the spirit in the phrasing, it's music!

Arabic also has many different dialects, some as close as the New York Twang is to the Southern Drawl, and others as different as Spanish is from French! This second comparison might fairly apply to the relationship between the Arabic I speak and the Arabic spoken in Dar.

Case in point: today I was talking to the cook in our compound about the water filters. I asked her where she was going to put the water filters (in Arabic). She replied, "What?" (in Arabic). I asked her if she planned to put the water filters in the living room (in Arabic). She replied with a confused look. I asked her if the filters would stay in the kitchen (still in Arabic). She nodded in agreement. This evening I arrived home and found the filters in the living room. Oh yeah, we totally speak the same language.

This evening I asked her to pick up something for me in the market. I wonder what she'll bring back!

But what's truly fun about being in Dar, where the dialect might as well be a different language from the Shami (Damascus) dialect I speak, is that everyone knows the Syrian soap operas and so they try to stay up to date on Shami slang. My arrival has become a source of great entertainment for many of my colleagues, who try to think up good Shami greetings whenever I walk by.

"Kif Halek!", they'll greet me, trying to sound Damascene (Darians could just say "Keif" if they want to ask me how I'm doing), but in fact sounding like a textbook.

"Shu Akhbarek?", they might ask me, meaning "What's up?", but only remembering to ask me once we're in the middle of the conversation.

"Shu biki?!", they say cheerfully. This means, "what's the matter with you?", but close enough.

Sometimes when I enter a room, I can see that they've been prepping. They smile at me, pause, crunch up their eyes as if trying to remember, then sputter out a typical Damascene greeting which makes me feel right at home.

I appreciate the effort because I don't yet know beyond a few words of Darian Arabic.

But then, of course, we are likely to switch to English, since their Arabic and my Arabic might as well be two different languages.

Monday, September 13, 2010

dresses and plastic guns

Yesterday was the last day of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that celebrated the end of Ramadan. It kind of plays the social role in Muslim communities that Christmas plays in Christian communities. For example, children are given special gifts on the first day of Eid. Then they parade them around and play them into the ground during the next couple of days.

For the last four days I've been enjoying the parade of women's fashion around town. Girls have all received new, bright-coloured clothes, and they've been wearing them to go visiting or just to promenade around the block. I don't know what will happen to those clothes for the rest of the year - they are certainly more special-looking than the everyday I attire I usually see. The big thing this year for teeny-bopper girls were white boots with lots of bright shiny dangly things. Everything else was some variation on bright colours: mainly yellow, purple, green and magenta.

For the last four days I've been alternately fascinated by, then horrified by, the abundance of small boys playing with plastic guns, as often as not pointed at me. With a big grin, a 4-year old lad - one of many - will see me pass by and point the barrel at me. He'll giggle as he pretends to pull the trigger. It's a game, and his face betrays no thoughts of hatred or violence, but it does not seem to be a healthy start to a long life in a conflict-ridden region.

I remember my first Eid in the Palestinian camps of Damascus: children there did the same thing. But the Palestinian boys were playing with long-barreled plastic rifles pointed at each other. These boys in Dar are playing with small plastic pistols, pointed at ME.

So girls dazzle the region with fashion and grow into tall, proud beauties. And boys dream of the day they'll get to hold a real gun.

(I know I'm a bit fixated on the topic of guns, but I think that fixation tells a bigger story. I'm noticing the guns because they surround me on all sides. I've seen all these things before, but have they ever all sprung in my face as blatantly, all at once, as they have during the past week since I arrived in El? I hereby pledge that this is my last post talking about guns, at least for now!)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A new twist on worship

I once took a "what religion are you" quiz online - sorry I've long lost the link - and it told me I'm a Quaker. I was quite happy with that designation, as I have a high level of respect for Quakers. One of my favourite aspects of their creed is Pacifism - avoidance of all things that smell remotely of violence. I don't like violence very much, and by association, I'm not a 2nd amendment fan either: I don't like guns.

But I'm a Christian, and I love the fact that Christianity is a global religion, and it's fun to meet new Christians in new parts of the world. So when I was invited to church yesterday I eagerly accepted. The church was the local International Episcopalian/Anglican church (every city seems to have one), and it met on the United Nations compound. It turns out the vast majority of the congregation was Nigerian, so it had a distinctive African feel - music, dance, loud long sermon and everything.

As the opening hymn was starting, a man in uniform (most of these Nigerians were in uniform, as they are part of the peacekeeping forces) took his seat a few rows ahead of me. He had a gun slung over his back. I restrained my shock and kept mouthing the words as he blithely took the gun off and set it under his seat. It was twice the size of his seat and the barrel was facing me, but I figured he wasn't in church to kill. He must be on duty but wanted to take some time out to worship; I could hardly hold that against him.

But as my eyes wandered around the room and more Nigerian soldiers entered, I came to realise that there were at least 30 guns on the floor of that room. The service didn't feel violent, or confrontational, or any of the other adjectives I'd usually associate with guns. Even so, I had to force myself to ignore them in order to not feel too discomfited by them.

God and Guns, who woulda thought?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

uhhh "firecrackers". yeah, that's it

I grew up in Sāo Paulo Brasil, one of the largest cities in the world and certainly one of the more violent cities as well. It's home sweet home, but when I was a kid we did hear the odd gunshot out the window at night. Since we lived in a tall building encircled by a fortified compound, I never - er, rarely - felt any personal fear, but the danger wasn't ever too far away.

Meanwhile, Brasil is, as you surely must know, a land where people love to, and know how to, PARTY. Very few lands on this planet can compete with mine in terms of its fun-loving nature. Among other things, this means that on New Years Eve, whenever a key football team scores or wins a game, or on any other festive occasion, firecrackers are set off all over town. Sometimes it sounds like a storm, and sometimes it even sounds like a gunfight, when there are lots of firecrackers of different sizes.

So this is the mental framework with which I am approaching life in a region that is widely famed for being trigger-happy.

Today was the last day of Ramadan and tomorrow starts the 3-day holiday that follows. So as soon as the sun went down, people started shooting their guns. Everyone has told me it's local tradition. They just let out a round into the air, kind of like some folk in Brasil might set off their firecrackers. And really, these guns sounded more like Brasilian firecrackers to me, than like Brasilian guns.

I was sitting outdoors with a dozen other expats as the guns went off, and they started sharing stories of loose bullets with tragic endings. Then they decided we'd better drag the chairs inside so none of us would get hit by a stray bullet (inside the compound, under an awning sheltered by some trees). But I was still straining my ears trying to believe that they actually were guns and not firecrackers.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

why it will be hard to think of creative posts

I'm slowly but surely settling into life in Dar, and I'm infinitely grateful that I have a slow start: Eid is starting tomorrow. The office will be closed for 4 days as people celebrate their restored right to daytime eating.

I've been a bit of a blurry sinusy daze since I arrived, but I've already noticed a few things that make me think Dar is not going to be quite as wealthy in bloggable portraitable experiences as, for example, Port au Prince or Damascus. Those cities are bustling with people living life right out in the open for all to see, just begging for the chance to welcome us into their excitement.

El, the town where I'm based, feels more like a village than a town. It certainly is a town because the village feel extends for a couple of miles. The driver who brought me back from the airport thinks the city's population is 18 million. While there may not be quite that many people crammed into the many houses spread around town, I suppose it's true that there are a lot of houses spread out and about.

Nonetheless, it's a quiet looking village. People walk around, drive around, push their animals around, ride their animals around. I inevitably see a person passing by when I walk down the block from one office compound to the other. But it's usually only one person that I see, or maybe as much as one carful of people.

This isn't the main reason I fear a lack of interesting sights, though. The main reason is that once again I am confined to strict security rules: 9:00 curfew and no walking. Just like Haiti. Except here our house is full-service: they're used to security lockdown here! We have cooks, cleaners, laundry washers, and guards who also turn on the generator. We have drivers on standby to make sure we can drive the 200 meters back and forth from home to office. And we have 3 meter high walls on all sides of the compound.

My world here will probably be very small. I may have to resort to telling stories about people I know and my everday life! Bring it on.

Monday, September 6, 2010

tribute to drivers

If you travel very often, particularly to new locations, then you are well familiar with drivers and airport pickups. The first person you meet in a new country, whether they were assigned to come get you because it's their job, or they offered to come because they are a friend of a friend, or they drive a taxi and you hailed them at the airport - or train station or bus station or wherever it was you arrived into.

Whoever this person is, he, or possibly maybe she, is your first human introduction to a new place. As you leave the point-of-arrival and drive down the roads through the city, town or countryside, you can ask him questions about what you're seeing. A particularly friendly driver might play the tour guide as you're driving. A particularly unfriendly driver suggests to you that this may not be the friendliest place.

You gauge your linguistic compatibilities with this place by your ability to communication with your driver. You conclude something about the culture on the basis of his driving style.

I've been doing a lot of arriving during the last year or two, and my drivers are people who have served me well, taken a risk in picking up a stranger at the airport, and continued to follow my progress during my stay in a new place.
  • How embarrassing that I can no longer remember the name of our driver in Kosovo, a boyish looking blonde who felt completely incapable of speaking so much as a word in English. By the time I left I could speak with him in basic Albanian, and the ride back to the airport was one of my most memorable as I was 1+ hour late leaving for the airport and he drove like an absolute maniac to barely catch my flight.
  • Luis, the humble Timorese driver who was waiting patiently for me at the airport in Dili. He said he'd rather speak English with me than Portuguese, but his English wasn't enough for a conversation. He was always so nice to me whenever we had car-business to address.
  • Bernard, who picked me up in Haiti. He parked the car in a conspicuous spot then left on his own errand, even though I'd been fully warned of security rules and risks. So I stood by the car for 15 minutes and eventually he showed up and drove me to the office. French would work for him, he said, and he soon was assigned the night shift. He was my favourite of the night drivers.
  • Ali picked me up in Khartoum last week and also didn't feel the need to come in to the airport to find me. Eventually I wandered through the airport parking lot and found the car with our logo. He apologised, saying he'd just really wanted some water after fasting all day. He was very friendly, shook my hand and chatted in the office the next day. This morning he took me back to the airport to catch my flight to Dar and gave me a going-away gift of a hollowed shell that he said Sue Danese use as a bowl for eating or drinking.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

first impressions

If I don't record first impressions they're soon gone, so below lie a few initial thoughts from my arrival into Khartoum

- When I showed up at the gate, 15 minutes before boarding started, the desk attendant greeted me by name. I guess it was obvious since I was the only white person on the flight.

- In contrast, when the British flight attendant was handing out landing cards, she asked me if I was a Sue Danese citizen. (I know: Huh?)

- Women seem strong yet clueless. The women sitting behind me on the plane couldn't find their row without help, but they walked straight up to the customs officials and asked for priority treatment since they had children.

- The immigration guy who stamped me in thought that my middle name, Ann, was hilarious. He kept saying "Aahn!"

- When I came out of customs, I didn't see the driver who had come for me. So I wandered around aimlessly for a while. I only received one half-hearted offer of a taxi ride! What other capital city airport in a developing country doesn't have dozens of taxi hawkers flocking the exit of an airport?! In fact, hardly anyone talked to me at all, except for some men gesturing for me to take a seat next to women if I was tired of standing.

- In a similar yet even more impressive vein, when we arrived at the guest house the driver started to pick up my suitcase when he realised the handle was broken. I apologised and offered to carry it myself, and he very-readily accepted! Are people here really that direct, or was he desperate to eat since the fast had just ended a few minutes earlier?

And a new phase begins. Herein I add the tag "Sue dan" to my list of blog tags. Click there to read whatever adventures lie ahead. Well, once they've happened. Right now there's nothing there to read.

I can't even start to think how he justfies this.

The other day I saw something deeply disturbing. It was made all the more disturbing by its innocuous timing and location. It could have been anyone, on any street.

It's an image - or more than an image, a sound - that I haven't yet managed to push out of my mind. Nor do I want to: it somehow feels like it would be wrong to forget.

Walking on a road that was busy, but not so busy that individuals could blend into a crowd, my friends and I heard a woman let out a scream. At first we thought nothing of it - perhaps it was a scene on the television, or perhaps a cat yelping. Then we heard it again and turned our heads in the direction it was coming from.

Just as we found the source of the screams, we saw a man in the driver's seat of a white sedan land another blow on the maquiaged coiffed woman in the front seat. Two little boys, on either side of five years old, stood in the back seat watching. They were quiet and calm and didn't seem to think anything was out of the ordinary. The windows of the car were down so we had flawless audio of the scene.

The couple argued a bit more and the woman then turned her head straight ahead and tilted down. After a moment of silence they burst out in argument again and another arm swung at her. At this point, my friends and I were blatantly staring while we discussed what we could do to help the women. I kept whispering, "I wish she'd just get out of the car." But of course she wouldn't leave the kids. When the husband noticed he had an audience he drove off... but he only drove down a couple hundred metres and we followed them to where the scene continued.

Four construction workers were goofing around, fake-fighting, right in front of the car. How do you start to juxtapose four men slamming each other against the floor in jest, with a man beating his wife in a car, right in front of them? The construction workers acted as if they didn't notice. Perhaps they were too absorbed in themselves to notice.

We walked up and my marvelously gutsy friend knocked on the woman's window and then opened her door, asking if she was ok and if she wanted to get out. She shook her head no and turned her eyes down. The husband said everything is fine and we shouldn't worry. My friend angrily told him off for being a wife beater. The couple's two sons stood there watching. The car sped off and I saw that the back window was decorated wtih the sticker of a university in the U.S.A.

I don't want to forget because it says something terrible about society when men get away with domestic violence on the streets of a populated area . I wanted, desperately wanted, him to take it inside. Which is likely what he did after we confronted him. But once they are inside, there's not even the faint hope of help for the woman. I know it happens behind closed doors, and I hate that fact. But I really don't want to see it. But maybe it's better if see it, so I don't forget.

Please, don't forget. Perhaps if we tell stories like this and remind each other that there is never, ever, ever a justification for a man to beat his wife, just maybe that can be a first tiny baby step to stopping it from happening.