Tuesday, May 31, 2011

timor, indonesia, haiti

Last year I lived on three tropical islands. Three of the most beautiful places on earth. Three of the neediest countries on earth. Ah, but what a lovely life I lived.

While I don't have any intention of moving back to any of those places, increasingly, I will feel nostalgic about one or some of them.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a friend about diving. I am not a diver, but I know that Timor Leste is supposed to be one of the world's gems of diving. A pang of homesickness hit me as I remembered the time I dropped a friend off at a dive centre for her day's excursion. The dive centre was in the same facility as a posh restaurant where I had an inspiring business meeting. The restaurant was overlooking the pristine blue sea, with palm trees framing the view. And so on and so forth.

Below is, what I just realised, the ONLY photo I took at the beach in Timor! This is not from the restaurant I was thinking of above, but this one was possibly my favourite joint in town. They'd serve me coffee press coffee right on the beach. (Just google image search "Timor Leste" for some better photos!)

I can't remember right now what brought back memories of Indonesia. Someone asked me if it's a nice place, but I can't remember who was asking. I think they asked because I told them that I absolutely adored working in Indonesia. I had the best colleagues who were so kind and so motivated and so on top of their game. And, yes, it is absolutely gorgeous. It is, of course, the world's largest archipelago so it's not really fair to generalise. I lived in West Sumatra, home of the semi-famous Lake Maninjau. Click that link and take a moment to ponder that I took that photo with my unimpressive phone camera. Yeah, beautiful is an understatement.

I didn't have to take any photos in Sumatra, because one of my colleagues is a brilliant photographer who loves to share. I love this photo she took of me in the rice fields next to the Lake, about a half hour from the hotel-turned-office where we worked and lived. We were helping people build temporary houses to live in after their houses were destroyed in a major earthquake. What a lovely place, and a lovely people.

Then, just this evening, I was chatting with a former colleague who is currently in Haiti. It was a brief chat, but in the course of our conversation, she reminded me of the amazing house where I lived, some awesome colleagues, and the great food! Haiti is full of contrasts and those contrasts just increase the searing pain of life on that half of the Espanhola island. It's an exhausting, intense place to be. But so full of life, perhaps the most 'full of life' place I've lived in for a very long time.

All my friends on Facebook who live in Haiti are active posters of photos so I never felt the need to take my own. But I just realised that I DID take a few photos, for an assessment we were doing in a rural area regarding people's needs in water and sanitation. Great fun, right? But here's one photo to share... see how full of life these kids are? I miss that. And the food.

Oh what I wouldn't do right now for some Haitian food, on a Timorese beach, with my Indonesian colleagues... Or some posh food from a Timorese restaurant with some friends from Haiti in the Sumatra mountains... Or just to get to magically visit each place for a few hours.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

7 minutes

Today I learned that a study was recently done regarding the work burden of civil servants in Egypt. The study concluded that the average government employee in Egypt works... wait for it... wanna guess?... have a think...

7 minutes a day

So after I heard that statistic, I was summoned into the enormous building in downtown Cairo where all - yes, ALL - the country's bureaucratic paperwork is done.

A colleague and I followed our bureaucracy expert guy into the sprawling boundless complex. A girl checked our bags then we headed up the stairs with about one hundred other people. We lost our fixer and almost went to the wrong office, but thankfully I caught a glimpse of his white head about two dozen people (and two metres) away from us. We followed him through a labyrinth of hallways to get to the visa desk, where we were required to report.

Now, here's the thing. As we walked past throngs and throngs of people, certainly more than a thousand on just one one floor of the giant edifice, I realised they were all crowding up at service counters. And behind those counters were busy clerks. There were many, many busy clerks, but there were more people vying for their attention.

Those clerks were certainly working more than 7 minutes today.

They were also mainly women.

So now I have an image of, for every busy woman handling the crowds, a dozen men sitting in a back room somewhere drinking tea all day long. Just to average out the 7 minutes.

Friday, May 27, 2011

more on the laundry man

A few weeks ago I blogged about the sweet older very-Egyptian man who runs a laundry shop a few blocks from my hotel.

I did laundry again this week, and was pleased that they recognised me and gave me a discount for being a repeat customer. I decided that with the discount I wouldn't trouble them with a receipt for reimbursement; I'd pay it myself. Three weeks of laundry for 10 bucks, not a huge sacrifice, right. Plus I wasn't convinced he had another work-of-art receipt tucked away in his agenda waiting for me.

So I just paid for my clean clothes and came back to my hotel room, put my clothes away and imbibed of the beautiful smell of freshly laundered fabric. He uses a nice fruity detergent.

Just now I was folding up my laundry bag, which I insist on using so he doesn't waste any more plastic than necessary on me, and I noticed some handwriting in Arabic on the bag:
The Foreign Woman's Bag

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The day of youth

I'm living in a unique alternate universe right now, the universe in which "the day of youth" has come. Formerly, young people were seen as a minority, disenfranchised - like the Dalit of India perhaps. "Children should be seen but not heard", to the extreme. Now something has changed, and the oppressed are standing tall. This is the day of youth.

I even wonder if we shouldn't say the oppressed has become the oppressor - after all, if the world is in the hand of youth, what does that leave for everyone else?

(Incidentally, according to the definition we are using, I will still be a youth for 2.5 more years. Guess how old I am?)

The thing is, it's a little hard to fathom how a minority can be an age group? Does it mean that when the days of one's youth are over, that person's productive role in society is over? Do today's youth realise that by taking pride in their age, they are setting themselves up for failure?

In fact none of this is true, and the older generation is just as proud of what has happened in Egypt as are their younger counterparts. They have been slowly working toward this goal not for months or years, but for decades! But it is also true that they were not able to pull it off without the energetic mobilising efforts of their progeny.

So to Egypt's youth, I want to say, remember not who you were, but who you will become. Remember who brought you into this world, who taught you, who supported you. Keep your energy and passion high, but also remember that you are the majority - 70% of the population - and consider the possibility that you mobilised more people simply because there were more of you to mobilise. Remember that the old way of doing things belonged to a small bunch of people, not to everyone who is older than you.

Please, today is a new day, and do the right thing. Please don't perpetuate the disrespect. You are standing tall, and the world is saying that this is your time. Do the honourable thing, the difficult thing: after suffering disrespect for so many years, now you can shame those who disrespected you by insisting on showing them respect. Build a society of tolerance not only for different religions, not only for women and men, not only for uneducated youth or people from other countries, but for your own parents and for who you will soon become. Then, maybe one day, you and your children will be able to stand up together.

I, Kati, am a youth who knows I won't be young for long, and this just what I think about the day of youth. I'm sharing these thoughts with the Imperfect Prose community because they are imperfect and I learn so much from you all, no matter your age! ;)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

ordering food

Have you ever worked at a restaurant? And eaten that restaurant's food every day? Did you reach a point where it wasn't appetising anymore, and then push through and keep eating it, eventually reaching a point where the very smell of that restaurant made you nauseous?

Well, living in a hotel sort of has that effect. I am convinced that the kitchen here uses some unique chemical in all its food, maybe a special type of oil or some brant of salt. It's something that adds to the lustre of a fancy hotel for the first few days, then grows tiresome, and then eventually just makes me fill a bit ill.

My room has no cooking facilities, no hot water kettle and no microwave. So I depend on the hotel kitchen for all my food. Within a week or two I realised that if I was going to eat breakfast in the hotel, I couldn't eat dinner as well. Now nearing the end of Month Two, I've stopped eating breakfast too! The neighbourhood I'm in only has one restaurant, by the way.

Enter the very best website idea I have ever seen. This site deserves some kind of international award for brilliant innovative effectiveness. It's not only a good idea, but it works. The website is called Otlob.com - look it up if you want! You can choose your neighbourhood in any of Egypt's major cities, then your restaurant, then items off the menu, then click for delivery.

So one day I have Indian, another Chinese, another Italian, another hamburgers. Brilliant: the food is reasonably appetising, and of course I save loads of money because hotel food is absurdly priced. Still not the same as cooking my own food, but a big step up from this hotel whose food now brings to mind feelings of nausea even at this moment just because I'm writing about it. (I think I can handle their waffles or pancakes once or twice a week, as long as I limit myself to no more. :( )

Otlob.com has a high success rate in my book, but once in a while they miss it. The other evening I was tired late at night but hadn't eaten anything so I decided to go ahead and order a sub and a salad from Subway. I put in the order at 11pm, but there was a glitch on the site that delayed it by 15 minutes. No worries - the food would still be here by midnight maximum.

Midnight came and went and no food came. Otlob.com has this great link that says after the alloted time period, "Your food should arrive within a few minutes. If it doesn't come, click HERE." So I clicked and they said they were contacting the restaurant. This link actually works; once I was told that the restaurant had a backlog due to peak hours and the food would be here shortly. Information is gold.

The other night, however, it didn't work. Otlob never sent me an update. So I asked the hotel reception desk to reject the order if anyone from Subway showed up, then I found some crackers and cheese and an apple to tide me over to morning. At 12:30 a.m. Subway called me on my mobile saying they had the wrong address. They were on the right street but couldn't find it. (Yeah, they couldn't find the 5-star hotel next to the embassy on a 200-metre-long street. Whatever.) I said, "Please take the food back. You are too late." They hung up, but they called again 10 minutes later with the same question. I said "I want to go to sleep! No more food, stop bothering me!"

Then I registered a complaint email on Otlob.com. The next morning Otlob.com called me and said they had followed up with Subway and would do so again. Brilliant! It didn't fix my food problem that night, but at least I knew the website cares.

And, really, all my other ordering-food experiences have been hits. In fact, I'm going to go eat my sushi dinner right now.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


When I moved to the Dar last September, I was determined to continue blogging even though certain people strongly strongly urged me to stop. They wanted me to stop because anything I wrote could - and probably would - be tracked. They had heard of people being given the boot for much less than a slightly negative blog post.

I countered by saying that I blog under a nickname, don't talk about my employer, and don't describe location-specific details. On the rare occasion that I do write something personally identifiable, it's usually innocuous and probably even happy. That is to say, when I lived in Syria, I blogged shamelessly and openly, just making sure that I remembered to mention my pleasure with that beautiful country, its beautiful people, and the degree to which I felt safe and protected there. If my blog were tracked, I would gain friends in high places, not enemies! Such would be my strategy in Sue Dan.

Then a colleague pointed out that in my list of blogs-I-follow in the bottom corner, there was a link to my employer's blog. Another colleague told me a tale about someone whose blog was as nondescript as mine, and who had said only the slightest negative critique one day. That person was quickly handed an exit visa.

So I deleted my employer's blog's link and took the added precaution of renaming the country, region and city where I stayed. I think you know where the Dar is, right? I think it's kind of obvious but hopefully it would at least siderail a search engine. And I kept writing nice things about my "hosts", even when I was less than happy with them.

Why do I share this story here? Because David left a comment in my blog the other day asking me about how guarded I am in what I share on this blog. He asked me if it makes me uncomfortable to see others baring all. I don't know if he was thinking of one type of 'guardedness' in particular, but I think I'm 'guarded' in two different ways: (1) honesty of the heart, and (2) details of my world.

Well, David, here's my answer if you're referring to (1) the guarded heart: I envy those of you who are able to share your whole hearts honestly. It shows that you are in tune with your hearts and confident enough to share openly. No, it doesn't make me uncomfortable, but it does make me a bit sad because it shows me just how much my lifestyle has taught me to guard my heart. After several years of moving every 3-4 months to a new country and making a completely new set of friends, I have grown weary of the emotional energy it takes to seriously invest in new people. In face-to-face relationships, I certainly don't bare as much as I used to. I have tried to maintain my blog as a haven of continuity where I can always be myself, but that's hard to do. I'm afraid my slightly-protective emotional walls now extend to the bloggy part of my life.

Now, David, if you're asking about (2) hiding the details of my world, I think the answer is much more interesting: I am guarded for security reasons. Many, if not most, of the people I blog about are considered to be living in "sensitive" circumstances. In some cases, if I write enough about them to make them immediately recognisable, I could be putting their lives at risk. Sometimes women's husbands would be upset that their wives were described so thoroughly in a public forum, sometimes refugees could be connected to something they were fleeing. I believe it is highly unethical to portray a person, even in writing, who is in a sensitive situation. But I also believe it is important for (a) the world to know what the rest of the world is like, and (b) me to process my experiences. So I settle on talking about them in vague terms, with details removed. I prefer to delete than to alter their features, and I have decided that anonymising them makes it ok. (Also, as mentioned above, my own safety could be at risk.)

But lest I sound like some kind of saintly angel bringing light to the world, I am even MORE hesitant to blog about people I know and who might read my blog! Part of this is personal fear of rejection - what if they don't like what I wrote about them? But even more, I feel like their lives are their property. If I'm going to talk about them, unless we've discussed the blog in advance, I don't want them to FEEL like I'm talking about them in any way. So I try to tell the truth without telling about them.

But then I see some of you who put your names, family photos, city of residence, and other details on your blog. Does that make me uncomfortable? For me, no - in fact, I enjoy seeing your world! But for you, well, a little bit yes, I am concerned. I know you don't live in war zones or under repressive regimes, but there are crazy people out there. Are you looking for celebrity status just so people can stalk you? I doubt that's what you are thinking, but don't you worry that that could be an unintended outcome? I don't know if it's because I've been 'forced' to be careful for so many reasons, or if it's because the issues are real, but I would be highly reticent to open my world for all to see in any public forum at all.

But that's just me, and the circumstances that have shaped my decision-making are, to say the least, somewhat unorthodox.

Will you share with me your thinking on the topic? How open are you and why? Do you think I go too far in talking about people here, or do you wish I said more?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


There is something I've been pondering quite a bit lately, and that is the validity of self-pity. I think it must be rather obvious to most of humanity that allowing ourselves to drown in a mire of self-pity is not a good thing.

But recognising the challenges in our lives and forgiving ourselves for imperfect reactions... that seems not only valid to me, but essential for dealing with the imperfect reactions, aka getting over it. After all, when we try to deny our failings we only fail more, right?

Now, if you read this blog very regularly, you know that the last few months have not been the easiest of my life. I haven't shared many details, but I've complained plenty. I have expressed some degree of self-pity here, and I have mulled over my imperfect reactions.

One of my imperfect reactions has been an inability to listen to others, and engage meaningfully in their lives. I've felt like it takes all my energy to get from day to day, and while I want to care for others and be a giving person, lately I have felt like I consistently fall short in this area. While I recognise my desire to improve, I also have been forgiving of myself, accepting that this is a challenging phase. This, too, shall pass.

During the last few weeks, though, I've heard from a few good friends of mine about bad times they are going through. Just like I won't betray too many details of my own circumstances here, I also think it best not to share any details of their challenges, anonymity or not. But believe me, they are dealing with some hefty pain. Things in the realm of war and abandonment and suffering. Things that make my imperfect reactions to difficult circumstances feel much less justified.

My friends need a friend, and if I can be a friend to them, I should. But I feel like I have so little to give! I have been forgiving myself my inability to invest in others, and when I spent time with friends I feel like this is a season when I need them to patient with me, hoping and praying that soon the tides will reverse. But how do I deal with the fact that there are people who are dear to me, who right now need me to invest in them and be patient with them? Where am I supposed to find those emotional reserves?

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I'm sitting in my room right now waiting for the reception desk to call me to take my room upgrade - my reward for staying the hotel more than 30 nights. (Has it really been 30 nights already? That's a lot of nights for a hotel room!)

While waiting I was watching the sunset over the Nile since, in order to get the upgrade I need to surrender my Nile view. I'm curious as to whether it will be worth it; a Nile sunset is a worthy commodity.

And while watching the Nile sunset I got to thinking about homes I've lived in. I have lived in 8 countries in the last 3 years, and have had at least one home in each country - usually more than one. Believe it or not, I am a nester. It's important for me to feel like my physical space is my own, a place to live, with a special touch. So each one of these dozens of homes has been special to me. I thought I'd try listing one special thing about each home here. We'll see how far back in time I can go! (Moving backwards in time)

1- Current room in the Kempinski - Nile view, very comfy bed!
2- "The palace", our nickname for the guesthouse in Kht where we waited out our two months of exile. More living rooms than bedrooms, so I made one of them into my room. My room also therefore became movie room, and I loved hosting the other girls for episodes of Glee. The highlight of the house, however, was the most spacious, well-equipped and happy kitchen EVER.
3- My room in the office guesthouse in Kht. I stayed there three separate times but always got the same room. It had two very uncomfortable beds and I had no privacy since it was in the office building. But spacious room.
4- Isaac's old room in the Dar. It had a lovely aura around it, was spacious and breezy when the windows were open. I loved that room and looked forward to making it my home for at least a year (I lived there less than one month, as it turns out). When I moved in, I asked the cleaning lady to clean but she didn't do a very good job because I re-cleaned and removed about 1639 pieces of mouse turdy from behind the desk and closet. Ewww.
5- The guestroom in GH4 in the Dar. This had a door straight to the great outdoors. Highlights were the entire set of new furniture they put in for me, the sandbags they gave me to protect against critters entering through the gap under door, and bazillions of grasshoppers. And learning that all my housemates could hear EVERYTHING that went on in that room.
6- The most amazing house ever in Haiti. Where to start? Well, it all starts and ends with the view over Port au Prince. I truly love that house, and hope that P&M are remembering to enjoy it in my absence.
7- GH81 in Port au Prince. This was also a happy place, where much cooking ensued. I had lovely housemates, other short-termers. And we had a mouse, a shameless bugger who ran around the ground floor all the time and once, when I spilled some condensed milk, licked it all up while I waited, ashamed, in the other room for him to stop. Again I say, Ewww.
8- The nicest room in our humble hotel-turned-office in the little village of Lubuk Basung, Agam, West Sumatra, Indonesia. I got this room because in the second-nicest room, where I was originally placed, I didn't feel entirely safe. At 5 in the morning men would chat outside my window and one morning I really think someone tried to come in to my room. I told my boss and he chivalrously offered to switch. This room had its scare of interesting experiences, too, mostly critter-related! Like here, and here.
9- My precious pink house in Dili, Timor Leste. I have such a tender spot in my heart for this house, and I still mourn everything that went wrong in it, and because of it. I miss my housemates, I crave for a happy reunion with my landlord's family, and I want a second chance at making that into a place of joy. Much joy was had there, to be sure, but just as much pain as well.
10- "Casa Minha", my temporary abode in Timor Leste before moving into my fab house. It was attached to one of only two nightclubs in town, and this one was known for its heavy fighting, specifically between Portuguese GNR, UNMIT and Timorese Police. Yeah, the country still has a few issues to sort out.
11- Der Mar Elias, the monastery where I lived two summers in a row leading the Damascus Summer programme. It's not actually a monastery; it's a hostel. But calling it a monastery makes it a safe places for families to send their daughters to live in while they study. I think my most distinct memories from there were when I cried. Specifically, once when my feelings were very badly hurt, and again when I learned my grandmother had left this earth.
12- My flat in Kosovo, next to Jazz Bar 101... ok, I don't remember the number of the Jazz bar, but that's ok, it's the only one in Pristina and it's really a nightclub not a jazz bar. I loved living next to it, even if it did make my flat noisy at all hours of the night.
13- My dear friend S's house in Nicosia, Cyprus. It was a five minute walk from the Cypriot Green Line dividing North (Turkish) from South (Greek) Cyprus. Her building had men who regularly summoned prostitutes, and in her flat we cooked cooked cooked! I learned to bake bread there.
14- A teeny tiny hotel room in Amman, Jordan, where the NGO I worked for put me up. That room will always be special to me, because it's where I recovered from eye surgery. Three days of not being able to handle any light at all, followed by perfect vision! It's also where I interviewed at midnight (due to the time difference) for my current job.
15- The boss's house in Amman, Jordan, where I stayed until he returned and then they moved me to the hotel. This was a beautiful place of rest, with trees and flowers and perfect weather - and while staying there, I made myself iced coffee every day. Yummy!

Wow, I think I did it. Only 15 homes. That takes me back to summer of 2008. All of these places were and are precious to me. People keep telling me that one day I will wake up and realise that I've been living in the same place for ten years. I think that'd be nice, but don't have enough faith in myself to make it happen. I'm grateful for the gift of making each place home, though.

Friday, May 13, 2011

further defining stress

Someone recently sent me a forwarded email about stress. It included an illustration that went roughly as follows:

If you are given a cup to hold in your hand while standing up, will it be easier to hold if it is full or mostly empty? What if you are asked to hold it all day long, from morning until night? Will it matter anymore how full the cup is? After all, your back will be breaking and your hand trembling from holding a cup still all day!

And so goes stress. Even the most minor of stresses are brutal on the system if maintained for extended periods of time.

This resonated with me, because I look around and I see many people who are in much much much more difficult situations than me, and feel like an idiot for feeling so debilitated. I am finally recognising the lines of connection between the stress in my life and certain areas in which I seem to be slowing down or losing skill. But at the same time, these realisations seem utterly unjustified since I'm sitting on a very comfortable mattress in a fancy hotel room writing this, yaknow?

And yet, it's true. There is some stress that I have been carrying around with for years. Even though those are minor stresses, they've been around for a long time.

That's all. Just another morsel of thinking in writing.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Intimacy and other random thoughts

I'm just a tad unnerved by the realisation of how little anonymity I can have on this blog. Either I hide every single detail about myself, or I accept that every minute detail can be known. I tend to strive for a happy medium, something that is true and informative, but not too intimate. But that doesn't work. For the resourceful surfer-hacker out there, all can be uncovered.

So today I think I will ponder the concept of intimacy.

If you've been following my blog lately, you know that I've been putting a lot of energy into rather weighty topics. More than usual, that is. After all, I'm a sociologist, so deep thinking is my trade. While I prefer to write my portraits, these days, it seems the portraits are consistently pointing me to analysis of some sort. I'm not doing such a great job of enjoying those portraits merely for the beauty of the people I'm attempting to portray. Instead I'm probing, analysing, seeking.

I feel like if I understand their story, perhaps I will understand my own story just a little bit better. During the past week some colleagues and I have been meeting with local youth networks and they have been drawing their social maps for us. The social maps are a good reminder that everything in our world is interconnected. Your life may overlap with mine only through this blog, or through reading each other's blogs. But what happens to me impacts you in some small way, and what you learn can be insightful to my own view of the world. It's a beautiful thing, this interconnectedness.

Which brings me back to intimacy. I am noticing in my complex web of layered relationships, that most people I know are better at intimacy than me, are able to open their hearts further than I can mine. (For example, most people wouldn't spend most of their blog post on intimacy writing about social maps!)

And yet, you might posit, this blog is so introspective, it shares so much! That's what I used to tell myself, but I'm seeing that voluntarily peeling back one layer of skin is a great way to get out of having two or three or four layers ripped off. Generally, avoiding deep wounds is a good thing, but there are also many instances in which the wound is needed, if for nothing else than to heal a yet-deeper wound.

There is a lot about myself that I don't acknowledge even to myself, and much more that I don't acknowledge to others. Part of it is my reaction to my lifestyle, which has left my skin too tender to react to further cuts in a healthy way. Raw, irritated skin probably can't handle more than one layer of removal. But habits die hard, and if it's not something I do, I'm not sure how it's something I would learn to do.

And that's about all I have to say about that, because this blog is an acknowledgement of what is, not an attempt to peel more skin. Not yet, anyway.

...sharing my very-very-imperfect words with the lovely community of much-more-perfect-than-mine words, Emily's Imperfect Prose

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Responding to my own blog! (more of my take on it)

Blog comment threads are supposed to be active and fast-moving. I guess I just don't have what it takes to participate in, much less moderate, a comments discussion, because after I wrote my blog about the reaction to Bin Laden's death, I got some very interesting feedback, both on my blog and on facebook, but I didn't come up with any good responses quickly. I'm still not sure I have a good answer, but I'm ready to try, so I figured I'd better just write a new post and start over, so to speak. If you missed the first one, here's the link: http://blog.patrianoceu.org/2011/05/my-take-on-it.html
(And I'm sorry this post is long.)

Here are a few blurbs taken from the comments that I had trouble responding to. They're my food for thought in today's post.
  • Nations are not individuals, and the purpose of our government is to protect its people.
  • USA does not turn the other cheek. USA is not a Christian nation or nonviolent. Where do you see that in our history?
  • Hearing Afghans comment on the evil and suffering Osama has caused THEIR country over the past 10 years has put this in perspective for me.
  • One might also ask why is the pain of an American worth LESS than the pain of someone in those countries? Yes they've had a long history of violence, but does it really make it any easier for Americans?
  • Perhaps, news of OBL's death is the closest thing we'll have to a V-day in the War on Terror. Does that context allow for some sort of celebration?
I think what I'm about to say doesn't directly respond to any of those thoughts, which are of course all very valid. But your thoughts sparked new thoughts so that's what I'm sharing here. In essence, this discussion helped me realise just how awkward and potentially misleading the phrase "war on terror" is.

As a war against a concept instead of a war against a nation, I am thinking that it falls better into the category of the "war against drugs", that is, a pervasive type of crime rather than a particular enemy. We fight the criminal activity at home and work with other governments to break up drug lords' kingdoms elsewhere. We have not and, as far as I know, will not declare war on Colombia or Mexico, for example.

Somewhat as an aside, doing a little bit of web research to decide what I want to say here today, I learned that the average annual number of illicit-drug-deaths per year is approximately 17,000 people in the U.S.A. This is just a bit less than the annual number of homicides in the U.S.A. (upwards of 18,000), many of which are of course also drug-related. (THESE are in fact a tiny fraction of the number of deaths each year due to tobacco (435,000) and - checkthisout! - poor diet and physical inactivity (365,000)!)*

I also came across a plethora of numbers quantifying the human toll of the "war on terror", but I didn't find them very useful to analyse because they're usually given as cumulative totals instead of annual figures, and cited according to any given nation and nationality. But one article suggested that from 2001-2006, the total total total figure might be as much as 180,000 deaths, or 36,000 people who died each year, worldwide, in this "war on terror". Just now as I write this, I see that that's around the same as the drug-induced plus homicide deaths in the U.S.A. only, per year. All these numbers are frighteningly high, of course, because each of those staggering numbers represents human beings, and I don't want to be blithe about any of it, but nonetheless I appreciate them for the perspective they give.

Back to the topic at hand, I found it interesting that about half the people who read my blog agreed entirely with me, and the other half responded by defending the U.S. military response. (I'm relieved no one disagreed with me by trying to argue that it was a good thing to celebrate death!)

And I think that maybe, just maybe, the reason why the whole response to Bin Laden's death, which brought back memories of the response to 9/11, evoked such extreme responses, comes down to how we define "war". Is there a "war on terrorism"? Yes, there is. But have we declared war against a nation, or is this war a rhetoric for a type of crime that is particularly malignant? Well, that's where we diverge. In the war on drugs there is no "V-day", there is no victory. There is just the hope that the crime rates will decrease and survival rates will increase.

Whereas, in a war against a nation, someone one day surrenders or withdraws and the other guy gets to say they won. I personally do not see that happening in the war on terror. We will not have victory and nor will they. Yes, we should keep struggling to decrease the criminality and promote respect for human lives, but we should not deceive ourselves that one day we will win the war and terror will cease. When people find new lucrative or politically effective ways to achieve their means, they will use those means as long as they can possibly get away with it, so I unfortunately believe that the world will always have drugs and the world will always have terror. Let's just do what we can to keep them to a minimum. Law enforcement arrests and prosecutes, and in my career we educate, all of us working toward the same goals of life and prosperity, especially in people's hearts.

And thanks for the reminder that Afghans suffered at Bin Laden's hands as well: terrorism is everywhere and opponents to terrorism are everywhere. This is why I think it's really dangerous to treat this "war" like the kind that Congress declares. Because it justifies us thinking that Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan is the enemy; even worse it teaches us to say Muslims or Islamists or religious fundamentalists are the enemy.

So no, I'm not saying that the United States should be wussy or something like that, although I still rather passionately believe that nonviolent responses are stronger and more effective.** I'm saying that the way we are fighting the war against the crime has some pretty awful repercussions for our foreign policy, which is actually pretty much a different thing, though of course there is overlap. If we raid a plantation in Colombia and take prisoners, we may be getting the "bad guys", but if we aren't also working to promote a positive image of our shared values and goals with the Colombian people, they are going to side with their drug lords, because that's human nature. Right now I fear the U.S. is making exactly that mistake in catching the "bad guys" of terrorism; this was a golden opportunity for us to show the world that we share those values of life and prosperity, but instead, in order to score political points at home, our government has allowed, even encouraged, the media and its citizens to push an us-against-them idea that us=Christian Americans and them=Muslims everywhere else.

Now there's one other thought rolling in my head that I'm not exactly sure where to place so I'll just tack it on here at the end: how do you bring justice when the criminals have already killed themselves? I'm not thinking specifically Al Qaeda here, because this question is, I think, more applicable moving forward than looking to the past. But all around the world, I see this story repeating itself: out of our desperation for closure, are we looking for justice in the wrong places? Are we blaming Muslims or Palestinians or Pakistanis for a crime committed by their brother or neighbour, because their brother or neighbour is already dead and that is just terribly unsatisfying?

* Stats were repeated on a few sites, but the most informative was http://drugwarfacts.org/cms/?q=node/30
** In my line of work I get some pretty inspiring stories about community-based nonviolent work in Latin America that is making impressive headways in the war on drugs. We have those stories in the Arab world, as well, although the rhetoric of war and fighting still tends to be louder at the end of the day. That, I suppose, might be a topic for another post.

Monday, May 9, 2011

sunsets and symptoms

Watch this space, for I may soon be giving up my Nile Sunset View, cashing it in for a suite overlooking the historical architecture of the neighbourhood. They would have given me a my 'medina junior suite' today, but it would have two single beds. I'm holding out for the king-sized bed.

I woke up this day feeling shaky and appetite-less. I wonder if it's psychosomatic, because a colleague yesterday gave me a little lecture that could be summed up as follows: "If you have any symptoms of post-traumatic-stress now, it will only get worse." She went on to tell some rather shocking stories from her own experience which made me feel petty and pitiful at best. But I think her point was still valid: I'm coming out of some seriously crazy and stressful years, and if I find a way to slow down and normalise my life, little by little, I can expect the symptoms of the last few years' stresses to bubble to the surface. They will emerge because they can, because I give them time and space to do so.

So after she said this, I decided to wake up this morning with stress symptoms. I don't think the symptoms would really move that fast, though, and maybe the whole thing is just a great reminder that our bodies really do follow our minds. Or it's a great reminder that I need to take this slowing-down thing seriously.

In response to the fluttery tummy feeling, I just walked to McDonalds and ate a Big Mac, Fries and Milkshake. It helped, but only a little. In fact, the horn-infested fast-moving rush hour traffic I navigated to get there may have cancelled out any comfort-food benefits on my system. But this I will say, the fries were fresh and may just have been my best McD's fries ever.

Anyway, random post, I know, but I miss my blog so thought I'd stop by with my thoughts for the day. And writing always puts things in perspective: the act of typing words-to-blog has definitely helped the tummy situation.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Saving is great! Another woman's words...

I didn't write this story. It's actually a modified version of a case study collected by a colleague last week, and I've been working on translating it tonight. But it's what's on my mind today and I found it to be encouraging and so I thought I'd share it with you. The story probably needs some background to really make sense, but I hope you at least enjoy the spirit of what this lovely woman is saying!

I am 39 years old, a housewife, and I live in a camp for displaced people. I am from one of the Noo tribes - originally from a part of the Noo Mountains known as the six villages, of a tribe called K. My village is located east of our tribe's mountain and is bordered to the west by an agricultural project where they grow sesame and bread and corn and cotton. I am descended from a Muslim family both by my father and my mother's father. I now live with my husband and my three children. My husband was working in the Military army, but was transferred out, and he now works as a day labour construction worker.

I first joined the women's savings group 13 months ago, and am in my second cycle of savings. The savings group is called “Togetherness”.

I heard about the savings group idea through my husband, he told me that there were girls teaching the women in Block 15 and gave me the name of the teacher there. He said, "There are people who have a savings fund and I spoke to the leaders of the group and told them to come here." I went, along with some of the women from my block, to Block 15. We met the teacher and we agreed to hold a meeting with the women of Block 37 to tell us the idea behind saving. I did that because I really wanted to do something for women's development in the Block.

Most of the women in my group are from tribes near my own, but there are actually women from all over. The great majority of members are married and all of them are Muslim. Before starting the group I was making handicrafts in my spare time, and a few other women spent their time in Qur'an classes before. Now I continue to build my little

business of handicrafts.

Our group means togetherness - people are interdependent with each other, solving the problems of others and solving our own problems. So saving together creates a unique social fabric. I did not know members of the group before but now relations are strong among all the members of our group.

Before, I didn't know that savings together would mean things like a constitution and laws and fines. The most important element was to have a regular meeting of all members in one place, as we do in our group. This means that social relations are strong between me and the women, women who I did not even know before. For me, everything about my life became completely different, even the my daily routines changed: before I didn't have anyone by me I could consult about my needs, and I'd only want to talk to my family who don't live near me. The second thing is that I visit all the women of my group on a regular basis, we have become like one family.

In general, we have been sharing a lot of traditions and customs among members of the group, especially since most members come from different tribes. First, we learned folk dances, and then also we have exchanged cuisine traditions such as the number of food dishes with tomatoes that you cook with water from the watermelon and different spices. One time, one of the group members took a watermelon and brought a whole plate of the dish to the group members. Some of the other women brought different dishes such as one with leaves from a watercress tree, and onion tree leaves, and also radishes and chilli leaves with spices as well. The members all take part in all of it. Members also shared seedlings with each other.

Our house was lacking some of the things that my husband can't provide me, but by saving I was able to set up my house. The most important thing is that my daughter is in peace. She had left school because of her father's inability to pay tuition fees, and thank God, with the savings, I was able to pay for her and she sat for the final exam, and everyone in the house was happy. We didn't lose a whole year for her because of tuition fees. So you see, the savings group has provided each family member with some benefit, thank God.

Sharing this today with the lovely group of people over at Emily's Imperfect Prose

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

my take on it

This morning in a local English-language newspaper, there was a photo of people dancing on the streets in D.C., next to a quote from a local bloke saying that he can't help but feel a bittersweet sadness about the whole thing.

Osama Bin Laden's demise has been the watercooler topic of choice today in my office, at least among the internationals! All of us seasoned expat aid workers with Middle East experience had roughly the same reaction: we are not mourning per se, but we don't like the image of partying either. In general, my colleagues feel that celebration makes Americans look like barbarians, takes away whatever credibility or global solidarity we may have merited, and illustrates what's wrong with the U.S.'s image in the world. They pointed out that celebrating death today has invalidated our righteous indignation when Palestinians partied after 9/11, and now it is we who deserve the resentment of victims who have lost loved ones.

(Palestinians, it might be argued, have suffered a proportion of wrongs that greatly outshadow any wrongs suffered by Americans at the hands of terrorists - but whose counting? After all, death is death and it is always a bad thing. Parties about death = always bad. In my humble opinion.)

One colleague took it a step further and pointed out that this was a well-timed political move on the part of the U.S. administration. I might take it yet another step further and recall the Postmodern theory behind the film Wag the Dog. Click that link: that book will totally mess with your mind if you haven't heard about it before. A bit sensationalist it may be, but in tale of the Hunt for Bin Laden, it makes resonates to me. Are we sure he really died two nights ago? It wasn't a look alike? He was not a young guy and he lived in caves; does no one but me wonder if he didn't really die of old age 5 years ago? Either way, I pray for mercy and I pray for the grace to pray for his friends and loved ones, and for the others who died in that raid.

Furthermore, I find myself wondering, does his death really matter, in the historical sense? Has al-Qaeda been defeated? Has justice been done? I fear that we may just have further fanned the flames of global hatred. Some groups are already declaring revenge for the famed leader's death. So do we really think that, when all was said and done, killing this famed terrorist will have been worth it for the West, particularly the U.S.A.? What if his death inspires more terrorists to take more lives?

From the very beginning, I believe 9/11 could have been an opportunity for the U.S.A. to show the world how to turn the other cheek, the Ghandian and MLK teachings (teachings they learned from Jesus!) about the power of nonviolent resistance. When I read about nonviolence, I read of something very difficult to do but very powerful in its impact: in this case, it would mean defeating war by declaring peace.

I tried hard not to offend anyone in writing this, and if I did, I apologise. I'd love to hear your thoughts and think it through together.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

laundry man, passionate about ironing

I walked up to the unlabeled store front and he was standing in the same position he'd been the last couple of times I'd come by: behind an ironing board, furiously pressing clothing with a very hot iron that let out noises of a steam engine.

He looked up at me through his bottleneck glasses and said, "Maybe tomorrow?" But just as I was starting to get irritated with him and protest that tomorrow all stores would be closed, he started laughing. He was proud of his little funny joke which fully defused the tension from the fact my clothes had not been ready when I'd come by earlier on my lunch break.

He reached to a hook and pulled down my bag full of clean and pressed laundry: 3 skirts in the loose sense of the word (trousers, a dress, etc.) and 10 tops in the loose sense of the word (blouses, pyjamas, cardigans). I started to count them and he started to be offended. I tried to convince him that it wasn't out of mistrust of him so much as mistrust of myself, and he obliged me even though he kept telling me it was all there. And it was.

So then I asked him if he could write a receipt. "To get reimbursed?" he asked. "It's worth a try!" I replied.

He opened an ancient diary and pulled out one of two receipt slips tucked in the back. Even though it had been laid flat in a book, he proceeded to iron the receipt. Once it was starchly pressed, he filled it out, slowly and thoughtfully. He totaled the amount in Arabic numbers then wanted to rewrite the total in English numbers, presumably so my boss could understand. The price was 74 (that's about 12 USD), and in Arabic they write numbers from the smallest denomination to the largest. So he wrote out the '4' with the painstaking care of a first-grade student. Then he started the '7'. He stared at the sheet and twisted up his face as he tried to figure out what to do. He drew a curve and felt something was missing. A bit more staring and he nailed it, although the '7' as he wrote it fell well below the '4', creating a rather uneven number. So he wrote it again on the other side of the sheet, like a student practising his numbers. Then he wrote it again in the 'grand total' space at the bottom of the sheet and proudly handed it over. I felt like clapping at the same time as my heart sank in pity.

Next I handed him a 100 note and he called out to his friend, who had been watching the entire exchange from the street, to give him 26 in change. His friend handed him a 10 and a 5 note, and he proceeded to iron them. Then his friend produced another 10, and he ironed that. Still missing one, they started digging in their pockets and I insisted not to worry about it. Finally convinced, he handed me two crisp, like brand new, notes of 10 and a matching note of 5.

I thanked them and promised repeat business then left, feeling incredibly guilty as I folded up my pressed change and crammed it into my little change purse. It sure feels good to have clean clothes, though!