Thursday, 10 April 2014

A Tale of Two Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So some of the affluent and powerful get their affairs done without filing a form or waiting in queues.  It is all handled for them by others. Sometimes their applications are processed without even visiting the relevant department or ministry. Nepotism and preferential treatment is wide spread. If you don’t have a wasta: an influential intermediary you don’t go far. Certain jobs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, go to sons and daughters of certain families and one of the demands of 7irak, the popular opposition coalition, is transparency about job allocation.

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

Monday, 16 July 2012

Reflections on my short story 'The Separation Wall'

Since Israel began building the so called defense fence/wall I have not stopped thinking about walls. I visited Hadrian’s Wall several times and its scale has filled me with awe. It runs for 117km and it is 4.6 metres high. Then there is the wall in Belfast separating Protestant from Catholic, and the Berlin Wall, which was 160km long and 3.6 metres high. Not to mention the Great Wall of China. When it is finished, the wall in Palestine will be a concrete wall up to 1000 km long and 8 metres high, with a round watch tower every 200 metres.
People build walls to mark the limits of their own property and protect themselves from the other lurking outside. Their foil, the embodiment of their worst fears, is trying to get through and kill them. So it is not us who are discriminatory and violent, it is them. No, it is them not us for we are perfect. So our fantasies about difference, our anxieties about our status, can result in racial theories that reduce the other to either one of us, benign, or one of them, dangerous. So we conveniently project our darker side onto others, rather than face the daunting task of examining ourselves and trying to change.
In 1989, twenty-eight years after it was built, the Berlin Wall came down. Hadrian and his wall are no more and what remains are a few skeletal ruins. Now it is a tourist site with no political significance whatsoever. Standing there in the stinging cold I realised that the ruins in front of me were the only glimpse of hope I have. Even sturdy stone walls are transient. So empires conquer, decay then collapse to be replaced by other empires. Ibn Khuldun, the Muslim medieval political thinker and sociologist, propagated the cyclical nature of history in his Prolegomena, Muqadima. History, he argued, is a repetition of similar patterns driven by the interplay of the same basic factors: human acquisitiveness and aggression, the need for cooperation and group solidarity, عصبية, authority and the corrupting influence of domination and power.
But what about inner walls, which are constructed out of years of conditioning, preconceptions and fears? How do you convince us and them that violence is futile and begets more violence? How do you cleanse the ears, eyes, mouth and the heart? How do you create deep compassion and respect among warring parties? How do you dismantle the pervasive wall of fear?
One day in February I visited the Roman Army museum at Carvoran and climbed up along the wall until the view of the moor became limitless. It was cold and lonely up there and I tried to imagine what a Syrian soldier, protecting the Roman Empire, would have thought and felt. The Hamii archers must have been highly motivated to leave the warmth and greenery of Antioch for this cold, bleak, volcanic ridge, in pursuit of a regular wage and Roman citizenship. Their foreignness dissipated because they were on the right side of the wall, supporters of a powerful empire, civilised and civilising. What they failed to see perhaps is how similar they were to those they perceived as noble savages, the Caledonian Picts. But for the alien outsider, who crossed continents to prove that he belonged to Rome, the collapse of the patron empire must be doubly hard. It is like losing paradise twice. You lose both your country of origin and the empire you have embraced. The loss, the alienation, the sorrow is two fold.
It was difficult to capture some of these questions in a traditional linear narrative. So I created three narrative lines set in different periods and places that look on the surface disconnected and disjointed, but when all the linear narratives are collapsed into each other a higher narrative might emerge that makes sense. I also wanted the stories to echo each other somehow, something akin to a beggar’s opera. I do hope that the reader would ‘see’ an aerial shot of a number of histories, geographies and peoples. What might remain is this lingering sense of sadness and loss.
This short story marks my return to being a full time writer after fifteen years of chasing my tail as an academic. Academia was one way of making a living, while trying to scrape some time for writing, and it was the reason behind coming to Durham. Then Durham and the north east began developing in my mind and psyche. The narrow corridors of powers slowly became irrelevant and second to the landscape and people. This leafy city was the perfect antidote for the desert, and became exactly the right oasis for a Bedouin Arab like me. People think I exaggerate when I say that in the spring the peninsula looks almost tropical. So some kind of gravitation took place. Now the only cure for existential sadness, obstacles, writer’s block is the landscape. A walk down Potter’s Bank to Prebends Bridge on the South Bailey, up to the cathedral and back, eases me out of my corner.
In the past I used to feel isolated, especially with the two professions I have chosen for myself: academia and writing. I missed my family back in Jordan and I ended up suspended in no man’s land. Nostalgia would come like a viral infection, a diasporic cold. But in the past ten years since arriving in Durham everything has changed. For example, finding ingredients for Arab dishes was a nightmare and I used to travel far and wide in pursuit of flat parsley and fresh coriander. Now I can find pomegranate, molasses, tahini and even North African hot chilli paste, harisa, at Sainsbury’s. A fifteen minute international chat used to cost me about twenty five pounds, now it costs me almost nothing. At home I am connected to my sister’s computer in Amman all hours of the day and night. Of course this ability to sample the world, access it, and be connected to it has other more serious implications. As a professional writer I use technology to both receive and provide information and publicise my work. Contacting my agent and publishers is no longer a complicated and frustrating task. I run my business from my study in Durham, while watching the jasmine tree grow in the garden.
Now I am a guerrilla writer, with a computer slung across my shoulder, I travel the world both literally and metaphorically. But my desktop happens to be in Durham and where I lay my computer, that’s my home.

Every piece of writing is the tip of the iceberg. The number of books and other types of documents read and investigations and interviews carried out lie under the water invisible to the reader, but despite that this large part is what holds the tip up and keep the iceberg afloat, for books are written on and around books. Although The Separation Wall is original and my own creation, the different sections have been inspired and informed by the following:

This section is not based on my own experience. My English neighbours in Durham have been extremely supportive. Whenever things got tough in the past six years they rallied round in an indirect and elegant way.
Over the years I have collected many testimonies by Muslim men both here in Durham and other parts of the world. The main character Khalid is loosely based on a few histories.
9/11 and its aftermath has left its mark on many Muslim men, both in the US and the UK. The mental strain led to a rise in drug addiction, cases of ulcer – ‘those are the lucky ones’ – and clinical paranoia. For example, an Arab man who owned a business in the USA developed clinical paranoia post 9/11. After his shop was raided by the FBI he began seeing agents everywhere. He would draw the curtains, switch off all the lights then pray, afraid to be seen practicing Islam. He was convinced that armed FBI agents were following him everywhere, even to his bedroom. Although he left the USA his mental health has not been restored.
A young Arab fell in love with a Geordie girl, who worked at Safeway’s checkout in Durham. He was educated, well-bred and extremely polite, and has never done anything unlawful or offensive. Her family were so angry that he had approached her that they reported him to the police.

Kalkalie (The Roman name for Qalqilya, Palestine)
The Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network, The Wall in Palestine: Facts, Testimonies, Analysis and Call to Action, Pengon, Jerusalem, 2003
Avnery, Uri, ‘The Getto Inside’, on:
I also recommend reading all Thinkpieces:
‘Wall fears grip West Bank’:
‘UN condemns West Bank ‘Wall’’
 Ben Simon, Daniel, ‘One man’s fence is another man’s prison’
‘IDF razes 62 shops in village on seam line to make away for fence’
Gwynne, Anne, ‘Anger tears at Israel's Wall of Apartheid’
Bloom, David, ‘Letter from Jayyous’

Birtly, Anthony R., Hadrian the Restless Emperor, Routledge, London, 1997
Dobson, Brian and Breeze, David, The Army of Hadrian’s Wall, Frank Graham, Newcastle, 1972 (Northern History Booklet No. 28)
Edlin, Herbert, Trees, Bloomsbury Books, London, first published in 1937, 1992
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by E. V. Rieu, Penguin Books, England, 1977
Gardner, Rena, The Country of Hadrian’s Wall, Workship Press, Dorset, 1975 (Designed and printed for the National Trust)
Gregorovius, Ferdinand, translated by Mary E. Robinson, The Emperor Hadrian: A picture of the Graeco-Roman World in his Time, Macmillan and Co., London – New York, 1898
Shotter, D. C. A., The Roman Frontier in Britain: Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall and Roman Policy in the North, Preston: Carnegie, 1996 

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Separation Wall

Durham – 2004 
That cold autumnal night with clear skies was perfect for carrying out my mission. When I hung a camping lantern on the metal hook, left by the previous owner for a dainty flower basket, a faint sickly light spread over the garden like fungus. I tied a wire to the two pegs I dug at either end of the high right fence, sprinkled some sand to create a line then pulled the pegs out and began digging thin layers following the line in the sand. The moist sand responded unlike the sand I left behind, which was caked dry by the merciless sun. I pushed the shovel deep into the cold earth, pushed the handle down raising the dark soil which was full of broken pieces of clay and bits of concrete up and up, then dropped them on the lawn. He had to be buried instantly, but the dry sand resisted. The grave had to be a metre deep. The trench had to be thirty centimetres deep to lay the foundations. The sweet mint tea I made for myself earlier was tepid by now. I had a sip and instantly I was back in our garden in Baghdad, drinking tea with my mother and grandmother. Why did she call me Khalid? Immortal? Me? The smell of fertile soil filled the evening air and travelled beyond my garden to warn my English neighbours that I was up to no good. When they heard that an Arab had bought the house next door, they erected a fence about two metres high to protect themselves, but the brick wall I was building will be even higher, and will be solid and enduring. Although I sometimes dreamt of inclusion, most of the time I wanted total privacy and exclusion, I wanted safety. My life revolved around departures. Next stop: Durham. Mind the gap. 

Kalkelie – 2004
Looking at the evening sky I could hear the dogs barking and the clink, crack, slam of machinery. The sun was about to set turning its backs on us mortals, captive here on this very earth. Once upon a time, the storage room was full of wheat, hay, barley, guava, jars of pickled olives, tins of olive oil and plum, peach and apple jam filled in small glass jars, so you could see the white almond flakes floating about. You would not expect less of the precious soil of Kalkelie, the bread basket of Palestine, for whatever you threw came back three fold. The sick smell of damp and mould filled the empty room. The walls, which used to be white, turned grey as if in mourning. It was summer time and the engagement season had begun, but the beats of the tabla were muffled this year and no one had any energy to ululate. Grief, sister, took it out of you. The thick old walls blocked off the heat of the sun, leaving the storage room cold and eerie as if haunted by ghosts. I untied my headscarf, took off my black dress, my white bloomers, cotton slip, and plastic slippers then stood in the middle of the room shivering. I ran my fingers over my sagging tummy, which was stretched to the limit by the five pregnancies I had had. You would think that giving birth to five sons is a good thing and that you would not end up alone in your old age, well think again. My mother’s good luck charm was in the Damascene wooden box, my late husband had given me on our wedding day. The dark oak was engraved then filled with fine pieces of mother of pearl, and whenever you opened the box the redness and brightness of the velvet lining always came as a surprise. My mother, God bless her soul, was called Halimeh, patient and mellow she was; like a full moon, she was; like a balm for your soul, she was. She used to carry a straw tray decked with food to the court yard, calling our names one by one until finally she called mine, Huriya, virgin of paradise. They are all dead now, except me. 

Magna - A.D. 197-217
‘From Alexander to Augustus, his son, many greetings! Every night I ask the Mother of gods, Ceres, dea Syria, who weighs life and laws in her balance, to protect you. Your father, Augustus the Hamii, is an archer in the Emperor’s auxiliary army and will be stationed at the fortress of Magna, honoured guard of the Roman Empire’s northern frontier. I will be a proud Roman citizen in twenty-three years, for which I left Antioch the valley of greenery on the Orontes River, heading towards the unknown. I should go. It was my call and bounding duty. I slung my composite bow over my shoulder, and slid my sword in its scabbard and travelled towards my destiny. The Roman generals recruited a legion of archers able to shoot arrows as far as the sanctuary of Zeus and beyond. The auxiliaries, who were lightly armed, and we the archers, were ordered to march first, followed by armed footmen and horsemen, while the carriages of commanders were at the very end of the column. We marched through the wilds of unknown countries, crossed rivers and seas until we finally arrived in fog-bound Britannia. I am safe. Salutations to your mother, my brother and his children and all your loved ones!
Deliver at Antioch to Augustus, from his father Alexander the Hamii.’

Durham - 2004
There they were at the end of the horizon: the Cathedral and Castle, which I have read about so much since Durham Gigabyte offered me the job, constant reminders of my foreignness and insignificance. I got out of the train dragging my suitcase, which contained all my worldly belongings, behind me. In the corner at the back, where I had folded my underpants neatly and arranged them in a pile, it laid quietly, inside a wooden box, wrapped up in tissue paper and held into place with rubber bands. I could hear it throbbing sometimes.
I walked down North road pulling my dusty suitcase behind me. The screeching sound of the worn out wheels announced my arrival in this town. Passers by fixed me with their accusative looks. I had dark hair, eyes, skin, and like my father I wore a fine moustache. What is the colour of the heart’s chambers? Although innocent I walked like a criminal waiting to be convicted. If I kept my head down I might not be spotted inhaling their fresh air and taking up their space.
Then I saw her, walking in beauty down the street, the mother of all English roses, and suddenly my suitcase became lighter and the air cooler.
I dug the soil even harder, looking for the source of my pain. It was so quiet I could hear my heart beat. I was a man with a mission. I put the sand and cement in a large bucket, added some water then began mixing. When I poured the grey mortar into the trench it filled it lazily and the smell of fresh concrete filled the air. We had to bury him in the garden, where else? In the darkness I could see my grandmother’s forehead gleaming with sweat while she struggled with the shovel. ‘Let us hope that the neighbours are heavy sleepers.’

Kalkelie - 2004
When I touched the blue beads of the good luck charm, I started crying like a suckling without her mother. Naked, wrinkled, old and defeated I stood in the middle of the storage room sobbing. My eldest son went to America thirty years ago, and not a word, my sister, not a single word. Some say he got married to a beautiful American woman, from a grand clan, and was ashamed of his peasant family, and others say he was dropped in the Atlantic when the marine police approached the ship, looking for illegals. Rumour has it that the Greek captain who dropped him in the sea was killed in Tangiers by the families of the other Moroccan immigrants, who were with him on the same boat, and who were also flung hurriedly overboard. My second son joined the resistance movement and then died a ‘natural death’ while being interrogated. My third son, the apple of my eye, who used to bring me dates whenever he came to visit, was shot by a sniper while walking home. Alcohol and smoking killed fourth son. As for my youngest, he went to a far away land to fight the communists, enemies of Islam, twenty years ago, and since then my eyes were never soothed with his sight.
In the black and white photo, which I kept in the box, my children looked happy standing there under the fig tree. My husband, who passed away in his sleep, was carrying my youngest son in his arms. My mother stood right next to me, holding my eldest son’s hand. Framed by the veil her face looked round and radiant. Then suddenly an invisible hand cut the string that binds the rosary, and all the beads rolled down each in a different direction, never to be found or held together again.

Magna - A.D. 197-217
‘Before all I pray for your health. I myself am well, and make supplication for you before the gods. We arrived in the place of yew trees, the fort of Eboracum on the Ouse River, in good health on the moon day of the month of Aprilis, and were posted to Magna. I beg you then, son, look after your mother and do not worry about me; for I have come to a fine place. You probably never saw a yew tree in your life. It is thick and green with needle shaped leaves with fine buds; it is poisonous to cattle and people plant it where they expect to be buried. One day my yew tree, which is neither of the East nor of the West, will be planted to mark my grave.
By now and with the judicious help of your tutor Alexus, you must be able to read and write Latin. Persevere, young Augustus, for your future will be much better than mine! The world holds no greater son than you. Please write me a letter about your welfare and that of your mother and of all your folk. Many salutations to you all, my brother and his children!’

Durham – 2004
My neighbours were polite but curt. Java, which I spoke very well, was worthless in such surroundings. Like a vast blue sea language, history and culture stretched between us and turned us into little islands of solitude. ‘Did you say Kaleed?’ If I took the garbage out, I would feel their burning gaze on my back, and whenever I washed the car they would put away their gardening tools and hide indoors. I told my colleague James, ‘It is Neighbourhood Muslim Watch,’ and he thought that I was serious and that there was such a scheme in Durham.
Getting permission to build this damned wall around my own garden was difficult: deeds, drawings, history of building, precise plans, neighbours’ consent, and finally the council’s approval. If I had an army of space invaders I wouldn't have asked for permission; I would have terminated all my neighbours with laser guns. I began measuring my property very carefully. The fence at the back ate up four inches of my land and if I replaced it with a wall I would gain up to three inches of my neighbour’s land through straightening the curve. Not bad! A greater kingdom for king Kahlid! I began dreaming about building a brick wall around my garden so high that no one could see me or hear me.
When I was young my father used to watch me carefully for two reasons: He was afraid of me and what I could do and he was afraid of them and what they could do. The intelligence service was spying on him, so he spied on all of us and policed us. Fear in our house ran down the walls like nicotine. Whenever my mother hid the cat, slippers, belts and wooden stools in the cupboard of my bedroom and shushed me to silence I knew that my father was having one of his fits. After three hours we would come out of our hiding place and assess the damage. My grandmother would whisper, ‘The dining table was broken. Not too bad this time. Allah gave then took away.’ My mother would start laughing, a sound somewhere between a titter and a sob.

Kalkelie - 2004
My mother Halimeh, who was so patient and mellow, began to lose her patience and sight. She refused to leave Tira, where she had lived all of her life, although it had become a handful of deserted stone houses. Ours was one of the best in the village. It had high, round-arched windows and a flat roof, with a yard full of olive, orange and lemon trees. I used to chase the hens out of their barbed-wire cage and my mother used to chase them back, lock the padlock and then hide the key in the cloth pocket. Whenever I wanted to be close I would stick my fingers inside her dress, pretend to look for that hidden pocket, and linger above the generous breasts. ‘Do you want a dose of kindness, Huriya?’ She would hug me and shower me with kisses.
I begged her to come and live with me, and promised her that I would do anything, absolutely anything, if she blessed my house with her presence. She finally said, ‘I will come to live with you on one condition. Soon when I die bury me in the court yard of my house in Tira next to your father’s grave, may Allah protect you!’ I held her rough hand. ‘I promise.’
She walked to the bedroom, took my father’s black and white photo off the wall, wiped the dust with the end of her veil then kissed his face. ‘Mercy upon you, mate of my soul! Your sweet breath still fills this room.’ She ran her hands on the bedcovers, embroidered by my grandmother then the wardrobe, the bedside table, the mirror frame and when she saw her reflection in the mirror her chin began quivering. ‘Get me a glass of water, bless you!’
When I came back I found her sitting at the end of the bed, her wedding chest was open and she was packing. She wrapped her summer and winter dresses, her ivory comb, her cotton drawers, her head scarves and her Ottoman milaya wrap in a bundle then stood up.
We shut the windows and doors then secured the main gate with a padlock. I could see her new neighbours watching us through the metal bars of their windows. A final glance at her overgrown garden and empty courtyard, then she balanced the bundle on her head. ‘Let’s go.’

Magna - A.D. 197-217
‘Before all I pray for your health. I myself am well, and make supplication for you before the gods. I am now stationed at the fort of Magna south of Hadrian’s Wall and Vallum as part of the Cohors I Hamiorum. Our job is to guard the junction of Aesica and Camboglanna overlooking the Tipalt Gap and keep the Caledonian Picts out. It was impossible to introduce the barbarian Picts to the Roman way of life. Can you imagine a highlander wearing a toga and conversing in Latin? The Great Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of the defensive wall to mark the northern limits of his empire, using local labour to cart Roman stones, but although the locals worked hard they were not allowed to carve their names on the stones like the Roman quarrymen. So, my son, the barbarians built this wall to keep themselves out and separate themselves from the civilised Romans. Our job is to guard the wall, keep Rome’s enemies out and stop the Caledonian terror. But the worshippers of Brigit were undeterred; they smeared themselves with blue paint and screeched like monkeys, when approaching the dark ridges of Magna. They would throw their ropes and ladders to climb up and before they were close enough to throw their javelins, we would plant a Hamii arrow in their very heart.
We are soldiers and this is what great soldiers do.
Virgil puts me in a pensive mood. Standing here on the wall, looking beyond the end of the world, I sometimes wonder what the future holds. Will this wall, this great edifice, outlast us all or will it be dismantled by the same barbarian hands that had built it? Will it endure under this western gloom or will it become irrelevant for humanity? Why? “Felix qui potuit rerum cognescere causas: fortunate who was able of things to know the causes.”
Please write me a letter about your welfare and that of your mother and of all your folk. Many salutations to you all, my brother and his children!’

Durham – 2004
It was so cold that my breath froze forming different shaped white clouds. The smoke signals were barely visible; they rose all the way up then evaporated leaving nothing behind. I had laid the first layer of bricks, knocking each one gently into place, scooping off the excess mortar with my trowel then dropping it into the plastic bucket. The horizontal liquid in the spirit level indicated that the wall was even. I looked up to check if I were being watched. There was no one around except the king himself, me. The moon had disappeared finally, and a hushed silence descended on the neighbourhood like fog.
The plastic garden chairs were the cheapest in the market. Most of my salary went on the mortgage and monthly bills, and falling in love cost me dearly. I used to do my food shopping at the cheap corner shop, but since I set my eyes on her I began buying the bread bun by bun when it was her shift at the checkout in the most expensive supermarket. It used to cost me twenty-seven pounds to buy all my rations for the week, but buying only two items at a time and driving to her work place five times a week added about a hundred odd pounds to my monthly expenditure. The plan was to expose her to my dark face as much as possible until it became familiar so that when I gathered some courage to approach her, she would not panic and call the manager.
Like a mole I worked frenziedly at night, burrowing holes. When the first metre of the wall was dry and solid I began laying more bricks. The garden was rectangular in shape and through straightening the lines and raising the brick wall it began to look and feel like a room. I was close to finishing so I decided to work all night if necessary and receive the new dawn in the glory of my new safe haven. I wiped the sweat off my forehead with my sleeve, and sat down. Even my arm was trembling with exhaustion.
I had a funny feeling that I was being watched. Pairs of eyes flashed in the darkness: my neighbours? The police? Anti-terrorist Branch? Probably some FBI agents? The wall should make it really hard for anyone to see me while squatting on the lawn talking to myself or hear men when listening to Arabic songs.

Kalkelie - 2004
Towards the end of her life my mother began seeing her children floating around. ‘They are back,’ she announced, ‘like threads or thin clouds inside my eyes. I could see them, feel their presence, and hear their voices summoning me to join them. It shan’t be long now.’ I took her to the storage room and despite her attempts to push me away I undressed her then washed her body with soap and water. ‘See how your daughter treats me,’ she said to the walls. Since she had moved in with me she would not let me wash her clothes so her long black dress had gotten really dirty and her white drawers had yellow stains running down them. I wrapped her in my father’s woollen cloak and asked her to sit on the doorstep in the sun to get warm. I washed her clothes and hung them on the washing line to dry.
She sat there on the doorstep talking to the clouds, ‘I told him that this defeat will be followed by many others, even more bitter in taste . . . he melted away that night like a grain of salt . . . they will kill us . . . the tar lined his lungs . . . white clouds of dust to build a new road . . . olive trees . . . why doesn’t he listen to me?’ She seemed distressed. Her left eye wandered away to one side and she rubbed her hands together. I hugged her filling my nostrils with her scent. She was so thin. A bundle of bones replaced the robust woman who used to be my mother. I sat her down and gave her some warm milk with honey. When she finished drinking it I helped her get dressed. Her hair was patchy and grey, her breasts almost touched her waistline and her mouth was slightly bent to the right as if she were about to smile. That night when the moon was in the middle of the sky, clean as a baby and smelling of lilies, Arabian jasmine and olive oil, my mother departed.

Magna - A.D. 197-217
‘I called you Augustus after the great Roman Emperor, who lived in modesty, a model leading citizen’s life. Power did not corrupt him or stop him from taking heed or consulting the senate. He was the perfect democrat. When I left you, my son, there was little time for saying goodbye. I looked at your brown eyes, kissed your hands and left without a backward glance. I knew if I looked back I would have lost my nerve and would not have been able to pursue my journey; I knew in my heart that I might never see you again, and that our farewell was final. Since then I suffer from a permanent tightening of the chest and a mild cough. How did I come to be here? What evil or good powers were to blame for this? Who would put things right for me?
The inkwell has dried up and I have to lay down my nib for the night. Salutations, young Augustus!’

Durham – 2004
‘Mali shughul bilsuq maryt ashufak.’ I have no reason to go to the market place, but I passed by to have a glimpse of my beloved. My English rose, who was probably nineteen or twenty, was tall with thin legs and arms. She had long arty fingers with small round nails always painted discreet pink. Her long blonde hair was neatly tied back with colourful bands. Whenever she looked at me with her amazing blue eyes my heart would to stop. Her radiance was so unbearable I used to lower my gaze and think of my father’s finger. Everything she did made me feel stronger and weaker at the same time: the way she tilted her head to one side, the way she straightened the bank notes with her delicate fingers before she gave them back to me, the way she rubbed her forehead when she was unsure about the price of lemons. How young and fragile!
When I finally gave her my card with the money, she smiled then lowered her gaze. She did not report me to the security guard as I expected. Then the waiting for that damned phone call began. Seven weeks came and went without a word although I kept my mobile phone hooked to my belt all the time. Nothing. Perhaps she threw the card in the bin; perhaps she wanted to call me late at night when no one was listening; or she was too afraid of my foreignness. I worked hard on convincing myself that she would never ever ring and after I succeeded the phone rang and it was her. She said that her mum would like to meet me on Sunday and gave me their address. A bit quick, I thought, but after all I am a foreigner and had to be vetted carefully.
I would break her in gently. First I would introduce her to coffee with cardamom, then mint tea, then my Arabic CDs, then the photo of my family under the palm tree, then lamb stew. She would get excited and curious. I would be patient and take twice the time I spent getting to know my childhood sweet heart. As a computer engineer I wanted this relationship to function properly and had to do a realistic estimate of the time it would take to get intimate. My pragmatism told me that it would take at least nine weeks before I could kiss her. She would fall in love with me and in six months time I might even ask for her hand in marriage.

Kalkelie - 2004
Clink, bang, whirr. One morning, sister, I heard some explosions just past the valley, so I ran to have a look and there they were blowing up rocks and clearing the land to build a fence. We were given no warning when the dynamite would explode, so you would be having your morning coffee with your neighbour and off it goes splitting your head apart and throwing the cup out of your hand. Then they uprooted hundreds of olive trees, fifty of which were yours truly, to clear the land. Clink, slam, whirr.
I stood in the storage room still not knowing what to do next so I performed my wash and did my ablutions. I poured some warm water over my head and lathered my hair with soap. I was losing so much hair and if you look carefully you would find my grey hair everywhere even in the bread I ate. When I pulled a strand of hair came out in my hand. At this rate I would be bald soon and the beautiful thick braids, my late husband used to praise, would be no more. I rubbed the loofah with soap creating lather then scrubbed my legs and arms really hard until they turned red then poured some water over my head. No matter how hard I scoured the pain and the noise lingered.
My legs were trembling so I sat on the straw chair and put my head between my knees as advised by the doctor of the town. Since his house was demolished last year you would find him in the middle of the market place sitting behind a small wooden table, under a green parasol. He was given forty-five minutes to move before the bulldozers began flattening his house, so he hurriedly collected his photo albums, shoved his cloths into black bin liners, and rescued as many medical tools as he could from his private surgery. He said there was nothing wrong with me, ‘Except you get dizzy with exhaustion sometimes, so place your head between your knees or lie down until the spell passes.’ ‘Nothing wrong with you’ was exactly what I did not want to hear. I wish he’d said you have cancer in every bone of your body, I wish he’d said your heart is about to stop, I wish he’d said you have blood on your brain and you will end up unconscious for the rest of your life. But he said there was nothing wrong with me, sister

Magna - A.D. 197-217
‘After serving on the wall for a month, doing both day and night shifts I was granted the privilege of a day’s leave and a visit to the bath house at Vindolanda. We go to the public bath to cleanse ourselves, relax our limbs and see our friends. As soon as you enter the tepidaria you could hear the grunts of men lifting weights and the slaps of masseurs on naked bodies. After anointing my body with olive oil, I sat down in the hot water next to Antony the Roman, which proved to be a big mistake. He had been eating fermented fish again and his halitosis filled the air. Although I had several fits of coughing, Mark, in his youthful impatience, went on ranting about a woman called Regina, who apparently fell for the charm of a Pict farmer, who used to cross the gate frequently to sell his produce. The commander stripped her of her Roman citizenship, ordered his soldiers to cut off her breasts, stitch them to her mouth, as if she were eating them, stick a long piece of metal all the way through her and hang her naked on the main road. They say that the commander wept and tore his hair all night.
There she was, naked and defenseless, dangling from a post outside in the parade-ground. Regina looked so haunting in the sunset.
We normally inflict this on our enemies. We are soldiers. This is what we do.
How is your mother, the mistress of my soul?’

Durham - 2004
I wore my best suite, dabbed some aftershave on my chin, bought the largest bouquet of flowers and drove to their house. Their garden was in full bloom. The palms of my hands were so sweaty when I finally rang the bell.
When I knocked the last few bricks into place my whole body was trembling. The spirit level was not even so I had to hammer down the last two rows shattering the mostly dry mortar. I sat down on the damp lawn chiselling the mortar off the bricks. Eyes flashing everywhere! The two men, who sat smoking and drinking coffee in the blue car outside my house, were special branch. The police were following me wherever I went. They kept changing their car in order not to be noticed, but I knew that I was being watched constantly. They even got my neighbour to park their car for them and get out of it then give them back the keys when I was not looking. Whenever I picked up the phone I could hear the hissing of tapes being rewound.
I fitted the last brick into place. Two policemen came out of her house, and asked me to follow them to their car. Like an idiot I gave the officer the bunch of flowers then walked behind him. The wall was so high and menacing, no one in their right mind would dream of entering my territory. My garden seemed larger, safer and well sealed. I suddenly felt invisible.
I went in, drew all the curtains, ran upstairs, opened my suitcase and got the wooden box out.

Kalkelie - 2004
I would sit for hours next to my mother’s grave under the fig tree. ‘At least you are here mother, in my own farm, rather than up there in Tira on your own. You keep me company here. Honouring you means burying you quickly, doesn’t it? So rest in peace, mother, rest in peace.’ My neighbour would come and say, ‘You are not talking to your dead mother again. You did everything you could to bury her over there . . . come, come have some tea with us.’
When she died I washed her, wrapped her in white sash, put her in a coffin and asked everyone to help me take her back to her house in Tira. We hired a donkey cart, put the coffin in it, and walked in a procession to the gates. When we arrived there, we explained to the young soldiers that it was a funeral and that the person who died owned a house in Tira and wanted to be buried there. They said we could not go out because the curfew was about to begin and that we needed two types of permissions to get through the gates and checkpoints. I pleaded with them to let me, my mother’s body and the donkey through and send away the friends and relatives. I said I would carry her on my shoulders. How about if they buried her for me in the courtyard of our old house? The soldiers smiled and shut the gate.
I washed my hands up to my elbows three times, gurgled with water, blew my nose then washed my face. I was clean, pure and ready. I put on my white pilgrimage clothes, which I bought five years ago, and never wore. It was too expensive to travel all the way to Mecca to visit the prophet’s grave, peace be upon him. I put on my white veil, making sure that every hair was well covered then I walked out of the storage room ready to be reunited with them.

Magna - A.D. 197-217
‘Every night I ask the Mother of the gods, Ceres , dea Syria, who weighs life and laws in her balance, to protect you. I hope that you are well. I am unwell, coughing green mucus and blood all the hours of the day. Mea culpa. The dark rocks of Magna and the cold are as sharp as knives held close against your neck. I sit here defeated by two ferocious enemies, the weather and old age. I also cannot sleep at night so I spend the time looking at the green glass of the small window dreaming of a grand return to Antioch. When I walk through the door, you would be eating your breakfast by the fire. The minute you set your eyes on me you would recognise your father, your king, and the bowl drops out of your hand. I would run towards you, my son, my young master, hug you and kiss your forehead, your eyes, your hands, even your lovely feet. You would kiss the back of my hand. Your mother would hear us crying and would come out to greet her husband and lord. She would kiss my hands and head then put her arms around me, never to let me go again. We would walk in the warmth of the sun by the Orontes River, united, together, a family at last.
I left in pursuit of Roman citizenship so you can become a citizen too, proud, focused and educated. It was my call. If only I could last until I am granted full citizenship, but with the cold chills and the cough I am not so sure any more.
Sometimes I hear the cries of your dead baby sister. We placed her in a pot and buried her under the floor tiles of our house so her soul would not feel lonely.
This might be my last letter to you so goodbye, my young master. Kiss your mother’s hands for me. Salutations to my brother and his children and all your loved ones!
Is it true that you have become a father?’

Durham – 2004
The sun was about to rise and the lawn was covered with dew. With a pair of pliers I pulled the screws out, opened the wooden box, and unrolled the praying mat looking for the soft tissue paper. Sometimes I heard it ticking. It fell out on the mat. It was about six centimeters long. Just before we buried him, I kept an eye on his body while my mother and grandmother dug the grave. When I held his hand, which was covered with dry blood and dirt I realised it had no nails, and that his little finger was dangling in the air so I pushed it back into place, but it came off in my hand. If my mum saw me she would have killed me. I wanted to throw it away, but instead I put it quickly in my pocket. Keeping his finger hidden turned out to be life long preoccupation and I had to work and travel under the shadow of my dead father’s finger.
Now it was just three slim bones. I placed the mat in the middle of the lawn, sat down and began digging a small hole. The birds began cooing their greeting to the morning. I placed it carefully in the hole, put the soil back and pressed it gently into place as if planting a delicate flower. I finally buried the whole of my father.
Dawn was about to break, so I stood up, pointed the compass glued to the mat towards Mecca, and placed my hands on top of each other on my tummy the way he used to do. While reading a verse from the Quar’an he often recited loudly, I heard a strange sound. A dark hand carrying a gun appeared from behind the shed. Special branch officers must have broken in. I rolled up the mat and said, ‘I was not praying, honest.’ Then I heard the click of the safety catch so I threw myself on the ground.
I lay there waiting for the trigger to be pulled, for the bullet to split my head open, but nothing happened. When I finally looked up there were no special branch spies, no guns, and no dark shadows in my garden. I, Khalid, was the only agent inside those walls.

Kalkelie - 2004
I said goodbye to my dead mother then went to bed ready to leave. Pure, humble, perfumed and dressed in white linen I lay in bed waiting for the end. By now I had gotten used to the visits of old father suffocation. It was as if heavy slabs were placed right on top of you. ‘I beg you Allah forgive my sins, don’t leave me on this earth, take my soul tonight, unite me with them!’ All I wanted, all I wished for was to die in my sleep. I closed my eyes hoping not to open them ever again.
When I heard the cock crowing my heart broke.


First published in Bound and Magnetic North.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011


X-Rayed Zantedeschia by Boo Beaumont.

It was winter. Lying in bed I watched us crack. You packed your bags, but left the black wedding suit labelled ‘Next’. Your manhood’s paraphernalia: cufflinks, ties, boxer shorts, the watch I bought you, cards, anniversarial vowing of undying devotion and my love for lemons that perhaps rubbed on you.
They brought me so far: watching flames in the fireplace tilting this way and that in his cottage, funereal music, phone calls through crackling lines, e-mails, freesias, endless cups of English tea, Farsi fereshteh, Palestinian fatit humus. ‘Have a warm soup dear! Keep calm and put the kettle on!’
It is autumn now. I stand on the wet grass with the viaduct behind me, each arch lit a different colour. X-Rayed flowers projected on the sandstone wall and round-headed sashes of the church.  Austere into sublime. We look, but don’t see what lies beneath a face. Images of inners exposed melt into each other. The scan shows how they regroup, disperse, tear, mend. Petals pulsate and reach out. The stoma and grana capture light, turn it into energy. Nectar. An eternal call answered. Breathe out! Cells dancing to the music of be. Soundtrack cyclical. A libretto without a tenor. Flora in f major. Life.That you could not pack.

Metamorph by Boo Beaumont. Durham Lumiere 2011

This piece was inspired by Boo Beaumont's Metamorph, Durham Lumiere 2011. See more of her work HERE

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Is the Arab Spring Leaving Women in the Cold?

Jordanian women demonstrating, Jan, 2011 - copyrights 9 News

Some Arab women argue that the revolution is about regimes not gender equality and the majority of Arab men share their views. Although Arab women are active participant in the Arab uprisings menfolk are not supporting them. Not one single slogan called for equality of Arab women or drew attention to their inferior position. Most Arab men and some women fail to see gender equality as part and parcel of the process of democratisation. The ‘women’s question’ is key to unleashing liberal and modernist forces in the Arab world, but old practices and prejudices prevail. Therefore, the following challenges face Arab women:

  • The state has tentacles in most women’s organisation and NGOs. Usually leaders of such organisations are stooges of the state. Like other civil organisations in the Arab world women’s organisation need to be ‘de-regimetised’. A painful, perhaps long, but necessary cleansing process.
  • Many Arab women are collaborators in their own demise. Women of the Arab world are divided along political and interest group lines, rather than united by common aspirations and objectives. Many believe that women’s organisations are weak because they see themselves as rivals: bickering and manoeuvring for position. They need to unite instantly to fight for key positions in future governments
  • One of the most important institutions in the Arab world is the family, where patterns of oppression are normally produced and reproduced. The Arab father (or the Arab ruler) aim to superimpose a consensus through “ritual and coercion”. After demonstrating in Arab capitals women went home to an archaic structure. Some were energised by the uprisings and decided to divorce their abusive husbands only to find that the whole system is tipped against them. Family Laws, mainly based on the Shari’a Islamic Law give them few rights, economic or otherwise and the legal justice system is male-biased
  • Separation between mosque and state is a prerequisite for true liberal participatory democracy and gender-equality in the Arab world. Although the Muslim brotherhood was forced to disavow a long-held principle that neither a Coptic Christian nor a woman could run for president of Egypt many of their members will oppose nominating let alone electing a woman. See also the position of Islamist in Tunisia, or virginity tests conducted on arrested female demonstrators in Egypt etc.

A positive outcome of the ‘Arab Spring’ is that women learnt a number of tactics and strategies of civil disobedience and the skills are being used at every level: familial, local, national and even international. Women in the Arab world today are fighting for labour rights, betters schools, roads, clean water etc. The road is long and the perils are many, but in the fullness of time the outcome is guaranteed: Arab women, the last colony, will be liberated.

Read the full article in Critical Muslim, published on 25 October, 2011.