Sunday, December 30, 2012

Snippets from 2012

'This is my new favourite place to eat,' she says, reclining back next to me in the yellow leather couch with a small content smile, and I immediately decide it's going to be my favourite too. I can tell she feels so at ease, and there's nothing that can spoil my good mood now. Opposite us sit my sister by blood and another sister by heart, conversing softly, and the sound of the fountain on our side drowns out what they say. We lean forward, attacking the strawberry-filled white-chocolate-topped crepe with our forks. They say money can't buy happiness, but good food with the right people always does.

It's past midnight, and we're watching the video of my uncle's wedding. The wedding that happened in 1997 and that I've watched- at least- forty times since then. It is the funnest that's ever been, and although I wasn't there, I've memorized every detail and could relate it second by second with my eyes closed. All of us are huddled on couches, watching, screaming and laughing like there's no tomorrow. At some point, my uncle's kids decide to renew their parents' marriage. (Our family's adoringly crazy like that). The television screen shows a young couple, standing on the large, green front garden of our family home, against tall palm trees and a Baghdad night sky. A few feet away from the screen are the couple in real- him greying and her three pregnancies later, with an audience clapping and singing around them with the enthusiasm of a fresh event. 

When we finally go to bed, massaging our tummies from all that laughter, I'm crying. Miles away from us is the setting of that happy day, the front lawn dead and yellow, trees abandoned, the home deserted. I want to go back home, and I was never there to begin with. Will I ever? And if I do go "back", will I feel as at home as the other authentic Iraqis? 


(8) du du du du du du (8) Adds life to life... 
Du's tag-line was made to describe my sister, actually. We're at the airport waiting for her to come back and awaken our dead home. If there's anything I learnt this year, it's that you can miss someone so much it aches.

There's a conference on technology and business happening in the hall across, and I'm staring angrily at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, wondering how she got here. What on earth do you have to do with this? And why, why, did you agree to be a speaker? You who can't open your mouth with more than two people looking at you without blushing crimson!

Suddenly, a girl staggers in, panting and shaking. She leans on the sink. I steady her and the next thing I know, she's passed out. Fifteen minutes later, I walk into the conference room calmly, knowing exactly why I was destined to be at the bathroom by the conference hall that exact moment. It had nothing to do with a talk on how technology shapes business.

Cafe Ceramique. There's an aura around here that makes me feel there's nowhere else I'd rather be. We've picked our ceramic bowl and the colours we need. Now we divide the bowl in four sections, decide that each of us will paint the personality of whoever sits next to us. For two hours we bend over the bowl with careful strokes. Occasionally gasping over a minor mistake. And occasionally turning our attention to the meals on our side. But mostly, concentrating on painting. We agree not to look at everyones' parts until we're done, but it's easy to tell what someone's painting by the smile or smirk on their face. Later, we all leave the cafe loving each other a little bit more.


Monday, December 24, 2012

"I knew nothing but shadows, and thought them to be real."

Dorian Gray has just come back from breaking a heart. He takes off his coat, rubs his eyes sleepily and casts a lazy glance around the room before doubling back. Slowly, he walks closer to his portrait- the one his friend Basil has created with all the love imaginable- the one he has decided to burden with age and sin on behalf of his person. Lines of cruelty have magically appeared around the painted lips.

I wonder how different you'd see my face, if every wrong deed left behind its trace. And I wonder, would I be able to stand straight before a mirror, look right into my eyes? Without the luxury of any disguise?


Dorian Gray is several years older and crueler. Only the picture in the room can testify to this. And a loving friend who looks at his cursed creation in horror. Then before he has the time to get over it- the sudden plunge of a knife, a stifled groan. A calm Dorian steps out on the balcony to watch the city.

I wonder if Oscar Wilde was suggesting, that the prospect of eternal beauty is the real testing. And I wonder, at what point a heart dies? Becomes indifferent to conscience's cries?

"The Picture of Dorain Gray"
Read it!

Monday, December 17, 2012

What does Freedom mean to you?

This is a speech I gave in April at a university event to mark Bangladesh's Independence anniversary, which I'm posting in light of today marking two years since the spark that triggered a series of movements to freedom. (I didn't win the speech contest, but I hope it interests you!)


It was 10:30 am, the 17th of December 2010. 

Just another Friday in the world of Mohammad Bouazizi- a 26 year old vegetable seller in his small, unnoticed town in Southern Tunisia. Mohammad was doing what he had been doing for the past seven years, walking around town with his vegetable cart, when he was stopped and his cart confiscated by a policewoman. Trying to save his (and his 8 member family)'s only source of income, he asked if he could pay a fine instead, and was replied with an insult and a slap on his face. An hour later, at 11:30 am, Mohammad was standing in front of the municipality headquarters, dousing himself in flammable liquid to set himself on fire.

That Friday morning, Mohammad had no idea that ten days later, his decision would lead to the revolution that brought down his country's dictator of 23 years. He would never have imagined in a million years that his decision –a vegetable seller in an unnoticed town- would create a chain of revolutions across the Middle East, forcing dictators out of power who had been oppressing their people for decades, and moving a people who had been silent since almost forever.

Mohammad sure didn't have any of this in mind when he set himself on flames. And of course he didn't live to see the outcomes, so we cannot question his motives, but we can speculate. 

And I like to think that Mohammad's move was not an impulsive act made in blind anger, but a calculated one, irrespective of its morality. He knew it would mean the end of his own life, and the suffering of his loved ones. But for the mere inkling of a possibility that it would somehow not go unnoticed, he considered his own life worthy. For the sake of the concept of 'freedom' living on, even if it meant his not being able to taste any of it, he was willing to sacrifice everything.

Mohammad isn't alone in his sacrifice. Since that Friday, 35,000 lives have been given up in the name of freedom. But people have been dying for freedom since the beginning of time. In the Bengalis' long struggle for the Independence that we are celebrating today, three million were killed.

These are numbers of lives ended, not the number of broken hearts that followed.  But that is irrelevant to most of us. The blood that has been spilled hasn't stopped this chain of revolutions being dubbed the "Arab Spring." We hold high the pictures of our martyrs, and we speak of those whose lives were given for freedom with pride. When Mel Gibson in Braveheart screamed 'Freedom' just before his execution, all our hearts jolted with pride. To us, freedom is worth any sacrifice. An essential ingredient in our lives which life is bland and not worth living without.

We worship freedom, yet every person in this room, and each of the seven billion people walking on earth at the moment, has a different idea of what freedom really is. Imagine now, that while I am standing before you talking about what freedom means to me, I am suddenly transformed into Adolf Hitler, sprouting a moustache and stern expression, here to tell you what my idea of freedom is. I would probably be telling you that freedom to me is the right to choose which race may continue to exist. The freedom to exercise my power in my country and beyond, the freedom to do whatever I want to, without being labeled the ultimate example of the "bad guy" for eternity. I doubt any of you would empathize, although I assume all of you value your own freedom as much as he did.

So if we want the concept of freedom to be workable, I can't say it is the lack of restrictions. Nor can I say that freedom to me is the right to being myself, or following my dreams. What if being myself doesn't allow you to be you, and what if following my dreams makes it impossible for you to follow yours? Who has the greater right to freedom then? Wasn't Hitler, after all, just being himself?

A sweeping epidemic is gripping all of us these times- the elimination of responsibility. This plague is not so apparent; it comes dancing to us sugar-coated. What could be sweeter than a world encouraging you to just be yourself? The right to do whatever you want to do. The world is your playground, they say. The word 'freedom' has become a word to mean 'getting away with anything'. It's become a word that releases us from any sort of accountability. 

Yet the word freedom originated as exactly the opposite- it comes from the German word "Friede" that signifies the period of peace after the end of a battle between two German clans, during which the clan that had committed the most wrong was to own up to its wrong by giving up its supply of meat. Freedom is recognizing that our actions are ours alone, that it is we who choose to implement them and with that arrives a duty to implement them with caution, bearing the consequences, keeping in mind that we are all linked to each other with infinite invisible and unbreakable threads.   

I find it ironic that the human race has been fighting for freedom since the beginning of time when all they have to do is take a single deep look inside themselves. Maybe they are looking for the brand new freedom that doesn't really exist where you can pretend you're not responsible for anything…the weird kind of freedom that two extremes like Hitler and Mother Teresa could both claim to have rightfully exercised.  

Because the kind of freedom I know was stamped onto my soul as soon as I came into existence. It isn't something I must ever fight to achieve because it can't be taken away from me. It isn't something that needs to be taught, because it is instinctive. 

To love without expecting to be loved back, 
to give without expecting to take back, 
to speak the truth even if it makes my voice shake,
 to consider my body parts too noble for profanity,
 to be in control of my senses and my emotions instead of enslaved by them.  
The freedom I talk of that comes free of charge to everyone with the package of being human, and it is up to you and I the extent we would like to use it. 
It is our humaneness.   

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cruel Kids- Part II

I may have done my share of persecution as a kid, but sometimes I think about situations where I played victim, painful as they may be, because self-pity can be so comforting!

So this particular tragedy took place several years prior to our previous episode. It was a rainy day outside, with the sort of cold weather that lashes at your face like a whip. A group of six and seven-year-olds huddled around their teacher on the thick, soft carpet of their classroom's "book-corner". The warming radiator and the soft voice of the teacher sitting before them made them feel all cosy, tucked in safety away from the fierceness of the world outside the window.

I sat cross-legged with all my classmates on that carpet, listening intently to our form teacher and trying very hard to contain my excitement and mirror their expressions. POSTMAN PAT was coming to our school! Postman Pat with his black and white cat! 

'He's not even a real person,' said one bored boy.
'Yes, he is,' the teacher's smile remained unwavering. 'He particularly asked to see you lot. He will be telling you all about the secrets of his job, and taking individual pictures with each of you. Wouldn't you like a framed photo of you and Postman Pat?'
I noticed I was sitting up on my knees by now, and quickly re-positioned myself.

'Now what I want you to do is think about any questions you might want to ask him. Think carefully because you might not get another chance at this.'

I knew right away what I wanted to know. Everything to do with how letters my sister and I were writing to our father overseas, with lame school rhymes and crooked arabic lettering, were reaching quickly enough for him to read and reply. 'I'm going to ask him about post between different countries', I blurted out. 

'Not now...keep your questions in mind and ask Postman Pat in person.'

So a few days later, Postman Pat and his black and white cat arrived, and we all stood there shyly while he let us stroke his cat and told us all about the mail and how it worked. I kept trying to peer into the open mouth, which is where my sister had told me a disturbing night before I would find a pair of eyes of the person suffocating under a costume. 

It was finally time to ask questions. Several arms shot up in the air, including mine. 'Let's just go in order, shall we?' he said, stroking his chin and pointing at the first person in line. He continued answering questions until there was just one person in line before me. He pointed at her.

'Dear Postman Pat,' she recited loud and clear. 'I  would like to know about post between different countries.' 

'Oh, my! I was waiting for somebody to ask that question! Come here, my girl.' She sat on his lap as he delivered the explanation with renewed enthusiasm, an explanation that I was only half listening to. And then too soon it was my turn, and I stood there tongue-tied as he went, 'No question? Not curious about anything?' 


I KNOW. It's silly and I wouldn't give it a second thought if something similar happened today. Who cares about who asked the question as long as it was answered? But seeing as how I can't look at that photograph of Postman Pat and myself in a strained smile without remembering this, I know kids can be super-sensitive sometimes.


In other news, I read The White Tiger, The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and The Very Thought of You for the December 1st-3rd Read-a-thon, and have reviewed them here if anybody is interested.

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