Friday, November 27, 2015

What is a homeland?

“What is a homeland?"

She leaned forward, surprised, as though she didn’t believe what she heard. She asked with a delicacy that contained uncertainty: “What did you say?”

“I said, what is a homeland? I was asking myself that question a moment ago. Naturally. What is a homeland? Is it these two chairs that remained in this room for twenty years? The table? Peacock feathers? The picture of Jerusalem on the wall? The copper lock? The oak tree? The balcony? What is a homeland? Khaldun? Our illusions of him? Fathers? Their sons? What is a homeland? Is it the picture of his brother hanging on the wall? I’m only asking.”

Excerpt from 'Return to Haifa' by Ghassan Kanafani, translated from Arabic

Good question, Ghassan. What is it that makes me think of this 'homeland' everyday? A land that I was not born in, a land where I never lived? What makes me cling to other people's memories it created, scrutinize its black and white photos, follow closely its news with a heart twinge? Where does it come from - this deep sense of nostalgia, for a time and place I've never officially belonged to, that never seems to let go of me?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Sneak peek -because I care about what you think

I've been working on a book for a very long time now. Sometimes it feels like an endless tunnel. When it does, I go back to my blog and read your encouraging comments. It keeps me going. I want to share the opening of the book with you and I would love your honest feedback.


If you could only see me now, Abu Tawfeeq. I am not the Najma you married. I have passed ninety, and I wait everyday for the moment God decides to take His property back. Even Nabeel doesn’t need me anymore. He can move around in his wheelchair faster than I can push him. He’s made some new friends in the neighbourhood. He comes back with a full stomach, and only takes a couple of spoons from the meals I make him, just to humour me. Maryam comes to visit me from time to time, but I don’t know what to talk about anymore. I bore everyone, even myself.

Nabeel’s been spending a lot of his days on his new devices. He taught me how to use the Skype today. You touch the blue button and touch the name of the person you want to talk to, and lo and behold, they are there in front of you. A talking picture.

‘Halaw, Mama,’ said the picture of Nada.

‘How are you?’ I shouted. The picture and Nabeel burst out laughing. ‘You don’t have to scream Bibi, she can hear you perfectly,’ Nabeel said. It sounded so simple, so easy. Suddenly, I could no longer pity myself from living away from her. It was Nada’s voice but not really, and it was her face, but not really either. I touched the talking picture and felt angry- I don’t know why.

‘Put the webcam on, habibi, I can’t see her,’ the picture said. Nabeel made some moves on the screen and an old lady popped up. It took me a second to realize the old lady was supposed to be me. Her skin had the coarse, spongy look of a badly peeled tangerine. Beaded into this face were two crinkled eyes, a bulbous nose dotted with spots and odd patches, and a puckered mouth. ‘Look at how they’re making me out to be,’ I cried. The picture and Nabeel laughed again. ‘Mama, it’s a camera. They’re not drawing you! Masha’Allah, you are still the beautiful moon you use to be.’

I let them catch up with each other while I sat back, not in the mood for conversation. It had been a while since I had stepped on to the stool by the sink to take a look at myself in the mirror, but how could this much change since then?

As I sat down on my bed last night, plaiting my hair before tucking myself in (I can never plait them as perfectly as you did, though), I looked around at the furniture and had a moment of realization. That the bedroom knows me better than any person does. The bed with its white oak headboard, the table de toilette with the coffee ring stain that still refuses to go, the beige painted walls that are peeling off in many places. This room and these pieces of furniture saw me transform from a shy bride to a hideous widower, day by day. I wished I could give them tongues and see what they had to say about me, after all these years of their silent observation. I thought of how much has happened, of you, of my poor Mustafa, of all the ladies I knew who had passed on. And I thought of Baghdad, and its endless heartbreak.

The days merged into each other, the events swirling in my memory, indistinguishable from each other. And I decided that if it’s the last thing I do, I must write it all down, document everything. Maybe it’s the heaviness of my life that’s weighing me down, and if I empty myself of it all, I will be light enough to leave. 


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Forgotten tragedies

The clock strikes 00:00 and the world erupts in celebration. People swarm around landmarks like bees, their shining teeth reflecting the blue, red, yellow of the sky.

January 3- Baja, Nigeria
Gari, five years old, son of a herbal doctor. He holds his father's hand and runs. At some point, his hand slips. His father tries to look for him through the frenzy of gunfire and screams. A group calling themselves Boko Haram have taken over their town. Gari is one of over two thousand martyrs who were killed that day, not counting those who drowned crossing the Lake Chad. These are only estimates, they say, nobody stayed back to count the bodies.

February 15- Sirte, Libya
Yusuf stands in an orange jumpsuit at the shore of the Mediterranean coast. Before him stand a savage, merciless bunch. One of them holds a camera. Later, the video of his beheading would go viral, play on laptop and phone screens around the world, maybe even reach the eyes of his family back in Egypt. But for now, he and the twenty others with him are entirely alone with their killers. They die whispering Yasou.

March 24- the French Alps
Paul boards Flight 9525 bound to Dusseldorf. I imagine he hears the safety instructions without really listening to them, his mind probably filled with thoughts of the internship which he is due to begin next week, or of the change of flights ahead of him on his way back home to the UK. Or maybe re-living some moments from his trip. In any case, thoughts far away from the pilot at the front, who has locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit and is steering the plane deliberately into a descent. Paul and the one-forty-four passengers and six crew members die far from the rest of the world, their bodies hardly recognisable.

April 2- Garissa, Kenya
It is 5:30 am at the Garissa University College Campus. Elizabeth, linguistics student, awakens to the sound of chaos at the dormitory. A group called Al-Shabab are rounding up students, taking some hostage, killing others. Elizabeth rushes to call her family, back in the town of Kitale. Her mother hears three gunshots before the call ends. A hundred and forty seven students were shot that day, lying face-down on the grounds of dormitory halls, at the mercy of masked men.

May 3- Baghdad, Iraq
It's a busy Saturday night in the Karrada district. Restaurants and coffee-shops buzz with customers. Ali is one of the customers, sitting with his friends at a coffee-shop, drinking chai. Maybe they are playing cards or mheybis. Maybe they are ranting about upcoming exams. A car casually passes by and explodes. Ali dies instantly, along with thirteen others. Meanwhile, a tweet from an ISIL member lays proud claim to their lifeless bodies, to this burning city.

June 26 - Sawabir, Kuwait
Jasim, a PhD in Psychology, Chairman at the Kuwait University. It's the month of Ramadan, a Friday, and he is headed out to the local mosque for prayers. Inside, he bows down in prostration with the congregation. They bow down and don't notice the suicide bomber in the corner. He sneaks in, carrying his explosives with him. Earlier, a group calling themselves ISIL released an audio statement, calling on Muslims to "clear the Arabian peninsula from the Shia heretics." So here he stands, the suicide bomber, looking down at the worshippers before him. Dr Jasim dies with twenty-six others, their cars still parked outside, their throats still dry.

July 31- West Bank, Occupied Palestine
Ali, eighteen months old. Lives with his parents and four-year-old brother in the village of Duma. Somebody thought a good idea of "revenge" would be to put his house on fire. What can your child do at eighteen months? You can expect your eighteen months' old child to be able to walk, maybe needing a helping hand at climbing stairs. He may be able to string together a phrase or two to make sentences. At eighteen months, your child can recognize himself in the mirror, realise he is more than just an extension of yourself. Not for Ali, though. He burns to death, a victim of hatred.

Is it just me, or does every passing year bring us a more exuberant celebration than the year before? Is it just me, or does every passing year bring us more frequent, more morbid and more forgotten tragedies?

Note: All characters and incidents appearing in this work are entirely true. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Twenty-three lessons to learn at Twenty-three

It's funny how time works. I remember as clear as crystal how the world smelled to me as a ten-year old. I remember my days being ridiculously long- endless stretches of moments that asked to be filled. I remember seeing myself through the eyes of twenty-somethings: a kid, a human half-done, a work-in-progress. And I remember standing in awe at them. They seemed so complete. So free and so in-charge of their lives. Their legs walked the earth saying 'been there, done that' and I longed for my drawn-out days and half-baked body to hurry up and let me begin my life.

Little did I know. Later on, every year that would go by, I would feel life tugging me by the hand further away, to the exposed world that I watch through the filmy layer of my sheltered cocoon. I usually resist, but by now I have realised how futile it is to... that if life's hand doesn't manage to pull me, its sharp nails will scratch at the lucid layer protecting me until I am out there. There are signs of inevitable ageing, and there are signs of growing up- signs that the years are changing who I am and not just leaving their effect on my body, transforming the thoughts that keep me up at night from 'What will the other kids think of my new haircut?' to 'What am I getting out of this job?'  And if I had to write one thing to my ten-year-old self, I would break the news that at twenty-three, she'd be as half-done and as much as a work-in-progress as she'd always been. I'd ask her if she could put those end-less days to use and find out some answers for me. 

-how to keep my practical glasses on without losing the ability to dream

-how to drink-in thought, theory and philosophy without allowing them to remain just that: inept thoughts
-how to swallow failure without degrading myself
-and how to pride in achievements without getting them to my head
-how to make out the people worth keeping
-but treat them all the same
-how to clutch on to everything I believe in
-but always keep room for change 
-how to remember to respect hard work
-but not the power it sometimes gives
-how to be patriotic without losing the global heart
-how to be helpful without turning into a doormat
-how to look for beauty everywhere 
-but not to confuse all that glitters for gold
-how to draw the line between ambition and obsession
-or between being peacefully distant and dangerously withdrawn
-how to continue being a student long after leaving the classroom
-and how to recognize the teacher in every encounter
-how to say more through what I do than what I speak
-how to look at every day with a new vision
-how to keep the big picture in mind
-and most importantly, how to always be able to step back from the frenzied speed the world runs at, slow down, and take it a step at a time.

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Maybe my train doesn't make much noise but I know it's moving
at its strange pace where years go by quicker than days

I'm trying not to lose count of the faces that board then move on to another division.
Already many have reduced to a memory
a half-remembered name
an obscure vision.

And I'm trying hard to bear in mind 
that this train will be leading me somewhere
its time and place defined.

That's a sensitive topic around here
Let's not think about that now, some passengers say, 
with a slightly reddened ear.

Others smile nervously; 
a few think for a while then get back to whatever they were doing 

I don't blame them. Sometimes it's easy to ignore, act clever
sit back and admire all the work I've done stuck on this train 
since as long as forever.

Repaired windows, the ceiling's stronger foundation
the seats that I've made more comfortable
none of which will matter when we reach our final destination.

Say it again 
and again
and again to yourself, 
this alone is your saving grace-
not to get too caught up in the journey
to remember the resting-place.

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