Thursday, November 11, 2010

Half the Story is Better than No Story

Image courtesy of
Cover Photo by: Adam Ferguson

The War on Afghanistan through the Eyes of Adam Ferguson

The Front Line Club hosted a talk yesterday with Adam Ferguson; he is introduced as an up and coming star in the world of photojournalism and his work recently awarded.

Ferguson begins the talk with showing the audience some of his earlier work produced as a freelance photojournalist; he then plays a slide show with background music on his work as an “embedded” photographer for Times Magazine, with the American army in Afghanistan.

One cannot help but notice the difference between the photos produced as a freelance photojournalist, and the works produced for Time Magazine. The first batch shows what he likes to refer to as the “quieter” moments in a war zone, with photos depicting day to day life in Afghanistan that are usually not covered in mainstream media. However, it is the contrast between the two sets of photographs that strikes the viewer and poses a question about the relativity between camera angles and the editorial policy of a publication.

In his work produced for Time Magazine, Ferguson showed mainly photos of American soldiers in their quests on the foreign land that is Afghanistan. Soldiers are seen smoking, working on their Macbooks, standing proudly in front of carefully placed American flags, and going about their daily routines in what seemed to be a civilian-free photo shoot. The photographs quality is superb and almost artistic but the subject matters do indeed show how strongly “embedded” Ferguson was during his time in Afghanistan.

When the time for the Q&A came, the presenter asked him about possible criticisms about his work as a photojournalist with the American army, and Ferguson simply answered that although he understand the problem and justifies the criticism he still believes that “half a story is better than no story at all.”

I took the opportunity of the Q&A session to pose a critical comment: “It is when half the story becomes the whole story that is what is problematic.” Ferguson stuttered a bit, but then in a refreshing honesty answered that he agrees with me, and that a two-dimensional perspective on the war is indeed “wrong”, but he also justified it by saying that he is not “Islamic”, and if he was then he would have had more access to the other side of the story, the other half.
He also reassured the audience that the editorial policy of Time Magazine doesn’t affect his work, which I found to be a slightly misleading statement from his side since the difference in the subject matters of his work is striking and leaves no room for questioning.

“I turned off my left-wing politics when I joined the American army in Afghanistan” Ferguson said when asked about his own personal opinion about what was happening, and how he conversed with soldiers on the ground. “I do feel like an occupier sometimes when I don’t show respect to the people and just go into a house with the soldiers while women are howling and men are being stripped of their right of privacy.” He added.

A member of the audience asked him about his personal opinion about the war on Afghanistan, and whether it was a winning battle, and Ferguson answered that he doesn’t believe it is a winning situation, and that “democracy in a box isn’t working.”

He was then bombarded with questions about techniques and lighting and black and white photography, but what was evident the whole time was the fact that these images of war which can be at times very emotionally provoking are viewed as art. The fact that documentation of massacres and killings transforms into black and white blurry “artistic” photographs was controversial and is still stirring hot debates with media professionals on the issues of representation and coverage.

Ferguson did call himself an artist at some point, but the word that kept repeating itself in the course of discussion was “embedded” which was at least true to the nature of the photographic coverage. Ferguson also shed light on the agreement he had to sign with the American military agreeing to- and in his own words: Not taking a photograph that he is not supposed to.

When asked if he was tempted to document a rather different reality from what the military wanted, he answered that he could have “broken the laws” on several occasions but he preferred not to “compromise” the rest of the trip and the potential film roll.

The talk was interesting because it simply restated the worst assumptions one might have about photojournalism and the coverage of the “other”, however Ferguson’s photography is superb and his work as a freelance journalist holds the potential of photographs sans agenda.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Clash of Identities

image courtesy of

I reach SOAS this morning ready for another failed attempt at making sense of “reading week” – which is a class-free week for us to catch up with our readings- there at the notorious SOAS steps students gathered with banners and painted faces to march together to the parliament house and protest the cuts on education proposed by the “coalition” government.

I stood there with awe and admiration, such naiveté towards the mere concept of expression, and democracy. I stood there contemplating whether to stand too close to “them” or sit a few steps away so that I guarantee a safe distance. I spent a couple of minutes trying to grasp what power was holding me back from marching with them and joining my voice to theirs, and the bigger question posed itself: What am I scared of?

All my life, I blamed governments and police officers for the lack of civil action and democracy, and I knew that the moment I changed geographies, that this rebellious righteous person inside of me will finally get her say, and will become a well-bannered person when the occasion rises. Yet here I was, on foreign lands, with several rights I never enjoyed walking away to situate myself and my bag on a bench nearby.

In this very cold morning and while everyone was preparing for the march, I regretted not attending “how to overcome the culture shock of being in London” seminar that was offered during orientation week. You see, I am not shocked by the alcohol, the hippies, the punks or even the porn industry in Soho; I am deeply shaken by this overwhelming sense of freedom that all of a sudden was thrown at me. I am not prepared to say what I think is “right”, nor am I ready to let go of my worst inhibitions and I don’t think I will be in the very near future.

This “cultural” shock is evident in every class I take, every assignment I prepare for and every cup of coffee I have with fellow students. You see me not sure whether I should whisper the word “corrupted government” or say it in a loud clear voice, I also constantly catch myself replacing words with politically-correct synonymous –just in case-. Who am I afraid of? I don’t know.

What are my red lines in this city? I don’t know

Who is the president I shouldn’t talk about here? I don’t know

What country am I accountable for? I don’t know

Am I now an Iraqi living in Dubai, studying in London? Or am I an Iraqi living in London? I don’t know

Am an Iraqi when I was born in Dubai, and lived there all my life? Apparently not

Am I an Emirati, given that I was born in the UAE and raised there all my life? Apparently not

So many questions that I cannot find answers for in any of the recommended readings, and books I read on a weekly basis. Neither Hunnigton, nor even Marx has the answers to this “clash of identities.”

It is a sad reality to know that the authoritarian regime that you feared all your life lies within you. With every piece of bread and every sip of water in my life I was also fed fear and cowardice. I am now comfortable with myself because I know that this “phase” is momentary, and soon I will be back to my old settings where I can exercise my right of pretending that I am the victim of authoritarian regimes, I am the “third” world, and that I am indeed just a product of colonization and imperialism, denying that I ever had the chance to challenge those notions, and break-free.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On the issues of belonging, coffee and Baker Street

It took a very long time for this post to arrive.

Today, marks my 3rd week in London away from home, and no it doesn’t feel like forever yet. I haven’t yet found my routine, but I found my routes and a street I now consider home.

London is different, whether it is a great city or not would be a premature judgment from my side, since all my accumulated knowledge of the city comes from my impressions as a tourist and what other “Londoners” told me about it. It is however different, and I am yet to understand or grasp the potential changes that will affect my life and my perceptions of it. The one change I see clearly creeping its way into my mind is my overall understanding of what rights as citizens and humans we are “supposed” to enjoy.
Prior to this experience, I always entertained and rather engaged in conversations about civil rights, human power, and un-gendered discourses candidly offering my opinions and takes on issues I thought I understood. I was naturally wrong, and that was clearly proved to me in my first week here in this city. Details of that political and cultural shocks are un-necessary.
In fact, there are many details that should be spared only because I am not yet in this calm place to accept the mundane, and critique objectively.

SOAS is great, at times very Arab which is both comforting and frustrating, nevertheless the anti-imperialist approach to education is refreshing and not very Arab-like indeed. I paid good money to come here believing in the old Arab proverb that says “Education is in England” -which of course reflects our devotion to the knowledge offered by the white man- only to be told on my first day that the education that Mesopotamia provided the world is the essence of modern academia now. I was reminded of how funny and Anglo-Saxon the world has become, and for that I am fortunate and enlightened.

I am now sitting in a small café, on Baker Street, holding on to my laptop and handbag while attempting to drink coffee and write. I am still scared of the potential mugging, and I do sometimes look very funny to the average street-walker.
But I don’t look like a tourist, or at least I would like to think so. I am often stopped in the street for directions, and 4 out of 7 times I managed to know and give the right directions with a glorious sense of achievement: The little things that make us happy!

I also feel like I belong.

London is a very interesting city, people from all races walk with the confidence that I don’t understand. It seems like they all enjoy possessing the dignity of belonging, which for me is the basis of my struggle as an individual in this world. This struggle is evident when I attempt to explain where I come from, and where I live and how these axes have failed to meet. I am now comfortable in associating myself with the only identity that makes sense to me: I am a Muslim.
And regardless of what and how the person in front of me views divinity and devotion, this association is always met with respect.

Respect, another word that is unraveling itself to me after 28 years of thinking I mastered its meaning.

So many things to write, tweet and talk about, yet I find myself again in the position of the observer, I am appalled by my inability to express but I am also comforted by the fact that I wrote something today, and the rhetoric I am using to justify this inadequacy is acceptable for now.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Help Victims of Pakistan

One of my friends in Dubai is organising this Suhoor event to support the victims of the floods in Pakistan. Please help us spread the word and raise funds for our brothers and sisters that need us. Let us make the best of the last days of this holy month, and help with this cause. Please take a moment to read the invitation, and tell all your friends and family.
Looking forward to seeing you there, inshAllah.
(Details are in the above placed e-flyer)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Parking M28

My fascination with parking lots grew more on the 21st April 2010, which incidentally happens to be my birthday. I had pre-planned it this year to be spent alone, there was this need to validate the last 27 years of my life, with a couple of hours of pure contemplation about the condition of it all.Naturally, and because of the weather I had to spend it indoors. Yes, I spent it in a mall. I remember walking for a couple of hours, I was just walking because I had missed it, and there was no better alternative for me at the time. 

It wasn't long after until I came across a door that was slightly open, the big sign of "no entry" didn't bother me really, I didn't want to think of any doors that wouldn't open for me on that day.And there it was, a roof-top parking lot that was under construction. No cars, no painted pillars and no numbers. I walked until I reached an edge, one of the edges. The chaotic concrete jungle facing me didn't stand a chance next to the deserted spaces behind me. It felt deserted though it was brand new. There was something so melancholic and real about the way it appeared to be, somehow at the moment it made more sense to me than the whole city.I thought of names, and numbers in one of my attempts to organise my space, but then realised that my attempt to rebrand what is raw was a mistake i often publicly criticise. I soon came to the conclusion that my space should only be named after me and my years, just like the old simple days when naming was purely for definition purposes.

I thought of names, and numbers in one of my attempts to organise my space, but then realised that my attempt to rebrand what is raw was a mistake i often publicly criticise. I soon came to the conclusion that my space should only be named after me and my years, just like the old simple days when naming was purely for definition purposes.I sat on one of the many pavements still waiting for the black and yellow paint, I then switched off my phone. I started thinking about all the cars that have parked in my life before, and all the cars that are parked still. I also passed by some spaces that are still reserved for cars that no longer exist.Parking M28. Yes, that is more like it, I caught myself smiling in victory with my little genius finding, after all I had to practise some sort of positive affirmation on my birthday.I took a quick glance at one car in particular that was parked in the shadow of my mind. It was so dirty and bare, the owner didn't even bother to cover it. It has been there probably for years. Such a waste of space, but soon I told myself it will be towed out. I took another look at my reserved spaces, and prayed a little for those who once occupied it, and continue to own it.I also couldn't shake off the pleasure that stemmed from the mere existence of cars that spent hours only in random spaces. Those cars changed the way this space functioned, and though they no longer had access here, I thought about how good it was to have them then.I made sure that the spaces allocated for my family members were the covered more "expensive" ones. And instead of randomly placing them around the space, I made sure they all go to the front, right next to the door.

At the far end, at the spaces that required quite a walk, there were only 3 to 4 cars parked there. It made sense, actually I was impressed, I expected fewer.It was starting to make more sense to me as I continued to draw the plans in my head. I thought of everything; the lighting, the lines and the covered spaces. I mapped the entrance and the exit, and made one much harder to access than the other. I thought of my space this year, and how different it looks. It is no longer filled with static vehicles, everything had to move, shuffle and change. I also considered the major changes I will apply on lighting, as there was absolutely no need for me to spoon-feed the drivers directions on the know-hows of this space. The plan is pretty direct, and those who get lost should not be entertained. I wanted to take immediate actions at that moment, but I hesitated because I knew that it would be a premature move. I needed to start thinking about costs, and with the way this mind was going, I knew more changes would come up in the next few weeks, probably days.

I am waiting for the final plan to realise itself before the end of the year, and the beginning of a yet another refurbishment plan to welcome M29. Until then, I made the entrance with special access cards, and put a time limit for free parking.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

New Blog

This is my first post in this blog, I copied all my older posts from wordpress to this one. I had a blog on this website for as long as I remember, it was never active.
Now they are all here, minus the great comments I received on my older blog. I will add them as part of the posts in the next few days.


The weather is nice, which is a rare occasion in August in Dubai. And yes, I mean the nice that people from other parts of the world would agree on, the “nice” that is not wishful thinking, or the settling for the less.
The weather is nice enough for me to write on my porch tonight, no AC, no artificial air playing with my artificially shampooed hair. It is natural, its all real now.

I am drinking Pepsi, which has a strange foreign taste in my mouth during Ramadan. Pepsi in Ramadan is too western for me, it feels like cheating, do you feel the same? I never drink pepsi, coke or any other fizzy “western” drink in Ramadan, I don’t know why. It is always water, Vimto and other “eastern” drinks such as Jallab, Qamuriddine or Tamarind. I do know Vimto is an English brand, but we might as well buy the brand and call it our own, I doubt any other race enjoys it as much as we do, especially and only during Ramadan.

What else, what else? Yes, I am going for a dental surgery on Thursday. Nothing serious, but guess what? I have a tooth that decided to come out now! Yes, now.
I have been waiting for it since I was 6 years old, I gave up at 12, and puff! here it is at the age of 28, signaling yet another beginning, and another end. It is so weird to run my tongue on it as we speak, it feels very first-grade. I am actually suffering growing pains, that is rare, and somehow nice.
I guess that’s nature’s way of telling me I am still a kid.

But I am not a kid, I said goodbye to my childhood long time ago. And I am not one of those who miss it. What to miss? The agony of going to school? of proving oneself, of your first crush and your struggle to fit in? Nothing to miss.
Did I mention I was a middle-child?

I am also worried about how much blame I put on the “Devil” during the regular non-Ramadanic days throughout the year. I blame “him/it” for many of my thoughts and my evil cravings.
“He/it” is supposed to be locked away during this month, yet I find myself still entertaining many thoughts I shouldn’t. I also wonder why is it that my life is sin-less in the most-humanly way possible, is it because I refrain myself? Or is it really because I don’t have many options?
It’s good to think this way, I once read that only the educated one questions his worth and being everyday.
I guess tonight I am highly-educated.

I know how to cook. This alone is a statement that will suffice without justifying it with a paragraph of my know-how’s.
From Dolma ( Iraqi Cuisine) to white rice, to eggs benedict.
I know how to cook.

Soon, I will be going away, not for long but not for a short while as well. Am I excited? I don’t know. Will I be leaving home? What is the definition of home really? I still have to renew my permit to stay at home every two years or so. Why am I not talking about it? I don’t want to jinx it, I am one of those Arabs that believe everyone is waiting for the chance to evil-eye me.
I am Iraqi that way, or “Dabbaghian” that way. It doesn’t matter I guess.

لا أعرف لم قررت الكتابة الآن

فأنا حالياً لا أشعر بحزن، ذلك الحزن الذي يلهب كلماتي دائماً، حزنٌ لا يعرفه سوى الكاتب الذي يعترف بقرارة نفسه أن آلية كلماته تنبع من الشعور بالجنون و القهر. و أنا لا أعيش أيضاً قصة حب، وهميةً كانت أو واقعية. ليس بي لوعة مشتاقة كالتي ألهمت ناظم الغزالي في أروع ما غنى، و كبريائي شافٍ تماماً من كل جرح. قلبي سليم و لا تنقصه أي قطعة، مرتاحةٌ أنا و الحمدلله

أستغرب هذا الهدوء في كياني، و ذهاب فورة غضبي التي لطالما اشتكى منها الجميع، شعورٌ بالسكينة لم أعتاده، هل هو هذا النضج الذي يتكلمون عنه؟ لا أدري

فحتى دفتري هذا، شهد منذ شهورٍ قليلة غضب قلمي تجاه فساد الحكومة و ضعف الرجل و قلمي الآن هادىء ، و لم أعتاده هادئاً

لا أعرف لم أكتب الآن و جل ما يدور بذهني خططاً لغدٍ لا يتضمن سوى مساعدة أمي في إعداد الإفطار و نيةً أن أقرأ جزءين من القرآن الكريم.. الحمدلله

الحمدلله، فهذه السكينة هي علامة المؤمن و ذلك الهدوء الذي لم أشتك منه حتى الآن هو جل ما يتمناه كل انسان. و لكني لا أخفي عليك يا دفتري شوقي للمرأة التي كانت أنا: لضعفها و دلالها، تلك المرأة التي عاهدت نفسها أن تغير العالم، و تقهر الظالم و توقظ النائم حتى و لو بأضعف الإيمان. تلك المرأة التي نذرت حنانها لأطفال لم تلدهم و قلبها لرجل لم تلتق به بعد. تلك المرأة التي هزّت دموعها الصادقة جدران غرفتها و ألهبت نظراتها قبائل من الرجال

أشتاق لها أحياناً نعم، و لكني أفضل الأيدي التي تكتب الآن، فهي أهدأ و أنضج و حتى التجاعيد الصغيرة التي بدأت بالظهور تحت أعين صاحبتها أجمل بكثير من بشرةٍ ساذجة لم تعرف يوماً الحقيقة المبسطة لعالم ظنته معقداً

هذا ليس بتشاؤم و لكنه الهدوء الذي أخبرتك عنه يا دفتري، هدوءٌ أعلم أنه يضايقك و يريحني

و تعلم ماذا أيضاً؟ سأتوقف عن التساؤل عن أسباب كتابة هذه السطور، فلربما هذه بداية لكلمات لا تعتمد على فنجان قهوة، قضية وطن مجهول و عنفوان امرأة لم تأب السكوت. و إن كانت هذه هي أمواج الهدوء التي تسبق العاصفة ، فدعني أيها الدفتر أستمتع بها فأنا لم أعرف قط لذة هذا الهدوء

Let The Whole Dictionary Burn

Needless to say how I felt as an Iraqi watching the Wikileaks footage of the Iraq strike killing Reuters photojournalist and civilians. It is really not even necessary to write down how I felt as a human watching how disposable we have become. This feels almost numbing because it resembles that video game I played with my brother that day, disposing also of figures and silhouettes , but the difference is: they were not real.

It is that simple really, our distorted logic refuses to believe that this was not a video game. Yes, we are all raged by the audacity of those soldiers and the humiliation of our silence, however, we tweeted a bit, updated our FB statuses later on, spoke to our friends and families about it and possibly used creative curse words in the process and then jumped into the next trending topic.

But this particular video took away something from me.

The words which the soldiers had the impudence to use while aiming to kill those journalists and civilians shocked me. I was expecting of course the profane language, but to have the nerve to use words that are otherwise beautiful and meaningful as synonym to kill was also very demeaning and telling on the double standards american soldiers live by. They are in Iraq to “save” us but all they were really doing was “engaging” with us on a completely different level.

To engage with a man you intend to kill is ironic, and a part of me believes it is not just a random selection of words. There is irony intended, sarcasm noted and most importantly hatred felt. It is like saying “I love you” when all you feel is hate, and “trust me” as you remove your knife from his back.

Please don’t get me wrong, this is not what shook me about the video, nor do I care about which words are dead to me now. Let the whole dictionary burn for all I care if it means saving one soul.

As an Iraqi, I have witnessed loss of life and pride several times in my short-lived life. I have lost members of my family to war, lost my family’s savings in the staged looting directed by america during the invasion and witnessed the demise of my beautiful country. As an Iraqi I am so accustomed to pain that suffering becomes optional. I have become so used to bad news, that good ones are almost humorous to the ear.This video didn’t make me angrier at the “americans” but rather furious with our state of nothingness. We have become our worst nightmare; nations that unite under the skirt of a dancer and divide when the music ends.

Note: I refuse to capitalize america and/or american. This is not a grammar mistake, it is intended.

Bugün beni Türk sayin

I want to write something, and yet all i come up with are scattered thoughts and meanderings. Yes, I am in a state of shock, and awe at the human condition, and at israel’s continuous audacious existence in this world. A state of crime. That is what it has always been.

I want to write something legitimate. Perhaps a full analytical article of the Flotilla massacre and the crimes committed against our brothers and sisters in Occupied Palestine everyday. An article that would begin with explaining exactly what happened in the infamous conference that was held in Bal city in Switzerland in 1897, when the Zionistics agreed to make Palestine their national state. The Article would then chronologically take the reader through the time line of events leading to the establishment of Apartheid isreal. You know: the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the 1936 till 1939 revolting of Arabs in Palestine against the slow but steady silent invasion of their lands, to the 1948′s war, to our loss in 1967, our temporary victory in 1973, of course not forgetting Jamal Abdul Nasser ( God rest his soul), and all his efforts in fighting for Arabs.

I would also write about the famous saying by HH Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the late president of the United Arab Emirates ( God rest his soul): Arab blood is more valuable than Arab oil. Outraged by the Israeli expansionist policies and the humiliation of Palestinians, he joined King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and the Emir of Kuwait in unleashing the oil embargo weapon against the United States and the West even as war raged on in the Suez Canal and around the Golan. The UAE which was only 2 years old nation defied a super power to defend the Arab Honour.

I would then move to the first Intifada, the second one, Qana, Southern Lebanon, Gaza, Qana Again, Jenin, Baghdad, Golan, Afghanistan, and and and.

I want to also write about the failure of the Arab Nationalist Movement, the demise of Arab bravery and opposition, the death of Abdul Halim and Fairouz songs, the irrelevancy of our blood.

I want to write about other things as well, Like for example how some Arabs are now busy dialing all sorts of numbers, and spending all kinds of money to support Star Academy, while being really upset and angry at the Flotilla because ” they asked for it, why would they poke at isreal?”

There are so many things to write about.

The illusion of twitter yet the comfort that at least we can tweet, the “approved by officials” one day late protests in Arab countries, the continuous futile debate about why we should not support Lev Levive and Starbucks, and oh yes the cool Arabs drinking coffee at Starbucks.
The death of our dignity, the absence of our intelligent minds, the demise of our civilization.

I want to write about so many things, but I won’t.

I want to be on-board of the FreedomFlotilla to write about other things that matter, to stand once and for all in the face of the oppressor, to say NO to everything that is wrong in this world, to perhaps gain the “Shahada” and leave this world in the best way any human could possibly ask for; fighting for justice.

Also in other words, I am not an Arab today, nor tomorrow for all I care. Recep Tayyib Erdogan restored my faith in humanity, Turkey is now protecting my dignity. So please, allow me to consider myself Turkish today.

Bugün beni Türk sayin : Today consider me a Turk.

لم أعرف حينها ان تلك الكلمات ستشهد على جريمة صمتك. و لم أعي أن صمتك هذا الذي كنت أفاخر به الأفواه المتكلمة سيقتلني. كثيرةٌ هي العوامل التي لم آخذها بالحسبان وأنا أدون لك مشاعري على ورق رمادي ظناً مني بأنك لا زلت تقدس الكلمة الصادقة و العبارة النابعة من الصميم. كثيرة هي السيوف التي رسمتها بحروف عربية كريمة متجاهلةً لسانك الذي لا يفقه من جمالية لغتي شيئا

وها هي السيوف تطعن خاصرتي و العبرات تتوقف عند حدود وجنتي منتظرة تصريحاً مني بالعبور

فيا ويلك من تلك العيون المتكبرة وذلك القلب الحليم الذي يرفض الإستسلام إلى شهوات الغضب و الجنون ليعلن بصمته هذا ترفعه عن ضعفك و تمرده على لعبةً لا و لن يألفها

لم أعرف حينها أن تلك المنفضة التي تركتها ورائك ستبوح بأسرارٍ رفضت شفاك عن البوح بها. وتلك الأوراق المبعثرة التي شهدت ضياع كلماتك ستلقى مصيرها في سلة المهملات، جميعها مع صورك. ما كنت أدري وأنا ألملم بقايا رجولتك أنك سوف تنتهي في خانة المنسيين

و من ثم يأتي صوتك البعيد في سماعة الهاتف ليسأل عن أحوالي، و أجيبك بكل ما أوتيت به من هدوء : أيا فجيعتك بخسارتي

La Ballon Rouge 1 - Egypt 2005

I sometimes write about my travels, which is of course ironic because I am not a traveler, in fact, when I do travel its always a pleasant surprise.
When I was a kid, I watched the famous 34-minute short by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse titled “Le Ballon Rouge”. It follows the adventures of a young boy and a mute red balloon. Since then, I have always fantasized about being the red balloon, so free, so beautiful and so red.

When I travel I am le ballon rouge.

Before Egypt, I had never travelled on my own. It was totally understandable given that I come from a culturally sensitive family that finds it foreign to send their kids on travel journeys on their own. I was 23 at the time, which was also unthinkable for my father who still believed I couldn’t be trusted with my passport on my own. Another issue was the passport, you see being an Iraqi was never easy; having the Iraqi passport is another story. With almost no proper government present to solve simple issues of immigration and belonging, losing an Iraqi passport is basically the shortest road any to political suicide. It was almost a shock for me to see my friend at some point with her passport in her suitcase and not locked in a safe somewhere where nobody could ever find it.

It was in August 2005 that one of our distant relatives who live in Egypt suggested I come to Egypt and spend some quality time with his daughter who is a good friend of mine. My father hesitated at first, rejected later. But only when my visa to Egypt came the next month, he got over excited with the fact that I actually got a visa that he couldn’t resist the temptation of accepting the offer.
When I packed my bags the second day my mother was almost crying in the next room, scared of the idea of me being on a plane with strangers alone. She was super excited that I was going, but also fearful that the plane will crash, I will be lost in Cairo Airport or that my bags get lost. Another thing to understand about my family is that we fear many things that we cannot suppress, repress and master. We are and will forever be in love with situations that are within our control.
The day came that I had to travel, and my father coyly suggested to take permission from Dubai airport’s security team to drop me to the gates. I refused begging him to let me experience the standing in line, and the humiliation that usually comes from traveling from one country to the other on my own. I told him ” baba I am not going to Amreeka!” He nodded with disapproval but only managed to accompany me to the security checkpoint.
After I saw him disappear into the crowds, I choked on my tears a little and was very disappointed that I didn’t live up to my expected independence and strength. It was only when I reached the duty-free shops at the airport that I felt this rushing sensation of freedom taking its toll on me. I couldn’t explain it at first, but I realised it soon after, I was free, and I had to have coffee. I waited in line for my drink, so proud of my suitcases and my organisational skills as I looked at my watch with 40 minutes to spare until take-off time.
I lost track of time standing in line, gazing at travellers and trying to find young liberated souls like mine. I got my coffee and decided to sit on one of the benches and pretend to read a book like all those interesting travellers I used to see before. As I attempted to get my book, I heard them calling for my flight, saying it was the last call. I panicked scared that I would miss my flight; the gate was at least 10 minutes away. I didn’t understand the concept of final calls. I remember panicking, and running with one hand carrying a hot cup of latte and another trying to balance my backpack on my body. Coffee stained me, burnt me and the bag opened its mouth suddenly to scatter my life as I knew it on the airport floor.
I was sure at this point that I had missed my flight and so scared of my parents’ disappointment when they find out. I heard my dad’s voice telling my mother confidently that is why he doesn’t send us on trips on our own, all while packing my scattered belongings into one tiny bag.
I managed to reach the gate only to find that people were still checking in, they were relaxed and so was I at that moment.
By the time I reached my seat on the plane, I was emotionally exhausted. I fastened my seat belt and prayed a little to find myself 4 hours later waking up to what was not a smooth landing at all.
As I walked towards Immigration at the airport, I realised I was already embracing a new culture. Loud people, very loud chaotic people going through customs and passport control without hesitation, without a pause. I embraced that culture quickly and found myself standing impatiently as well and cursing secretly at the “system” like they did. When my turn came up, the officer looked at my passport and asked me to step aside. I sat on a wooden bench next to a very angry woman, one look at her, and I knew I was in trouble. I sat there for almost an hour trying to put logic into why the “other” Arab, English, the American and the French were admitted into Cairo with a smile. I didn’t understand it then like I don’t understand it now. Why? Did I not speak their language? Do I not share their culture ? Isn’t Iraq the country that welcomed millions of Egyptians in the 80′s? At that point, I really did not want to understand.
To my luck, and as a testament of how nice the Egyptian people are (regardless of what rules govern them) a young officer approached me and finalised my papers in no time. He flirted a little, which did not bother me because he was really funny.
Note: Egyptians are funny.

I left the airport to see my relative waiting for me. I walked to his car trying to grasp as much as possible from the city. First shock: no 4×4 cars.
Driving to Masr Al Jdeeda, I started noticing how vibrant Cairo was. Full of life and screams out revolution and resistance, that city was something else.

The trip was short and somehow surreal. I spent it being less like a tourist and more like an Egyptian, thanks to Dina my friend there who managed to quickly give me a crash course on education, political system, traffic, infrastructure and football in Egypt.

I don’t remember much, but I remember fondly the times I spent in Korba, that almost European part of Cairo that was filled with people who seem to belong to one age group ( 15 – 30). I remember also the time I spent at Ayn Shams University with Dina, and to my luck it was on the same day the infamous Zamalek and Ahli were playing, so needless to say it was epic!

The Pyramids of course were beautiful and huge to the say the least, but I was more interested in just walking Cairo and trying to understand the city that dominates most of our popular culture in the Arab world. I wanted to visit Maa’adi, Zamalek, Hilmya, and other areas that I remember from famous soap operas I watched as a kid. I wanted to see the Nile, and test the famous saying that if you drink from its waters you are bound to come back. ( That didn’t happen yet, Visa issues as always).

Egypt was a turning point in my life to say the least, it was the trip that opened the door to other destinations for me. A trip that taught me that Arabs outside of the Gulf region are very different from the ones living in it. It made me realise that the so-called common culture Arabs pride themselves with could possibly be a myth today, it wasn’t the same for me. Young men and women sat on dinner tables like us, in franchised restaurants we often visit here but discussed issues we did not acknowledge back then. It was foreign to me then to sit through dinner and hear conversations about bridges that are almost collapsing, the tyranny of a government, the audacity of a president and the threat of poverty that they all feared. Young men and women below 25 were worried about poverty; I felt spoiled rotten.

I don’t recall much of this trip because of my failure to document on paper what I experienced on a daily basis. The only memories that come to mind are the ones in the airport and that day I sat for dinner and left hungry for life.

1 minute and 40 seconds later

January 20, 2009

Regent Park, London

It is cold tonight, and I just returned from a journey I spent exploring the many neighbourhoods of my mind within the context of a foreign city. I took 5 buses, 2 trains and walked from east London to it’s centre, all whilst listening to one looping track on my iPod and drinking all sorts of coffee my stomach can handle. So many things happened today, so many things to tell. I don’t remember most of them, but I remember this: Today, I saw you walking here too.

I saw you walking along Tottenham court road, stopping by Pret A Manger for a some coffee, and continuing your steps to a direction I chose not to know off. Were you carrying a bag, your laptop or nothing? I wasn’t sure, I was only certain that you were there too.

I saw you secretly stealing glances at people walking and shedding around you, all while listening to music that blocks the sounds of an unfamiliar city. I saw you stopping in front of Foyle’s bookstore, and contemplating whether to spend the last 20 pounds you have for the day on a book you will probably not read.

I was not following you, and you were not tailing behind me, we were both walking along the same lines. Living parallel lives with different directions in sight. We no longer belonged to the same dream, we no longer walked to the same destination. And it was then that I felt an awkward cautious sense of relief.

That awkwardness scared me at first, you can perhaps label it as fear of the unknown. I was also freed.

As I continued walking, I aggressively tried to confront that relief and understand it more. I felt I needed to give you or rather us really some momentum, after all it was us, the Me and the You. But I couldn’t think of anything and was just hoping for you to start disappearing into the crowds.

It was then that you stopped to look at me and smile. I pretended to be rushing and neglecting, but the sincerity of the look in your eyes stole a smile from my lips too.

I don’t know what you were thinking at that moment, I know I was still hoping you’d disappear.

1 minute, 40 seconds later I decided to continue walking.

9 years, 1 minute and 41 seconds later, I let go.

Mariam and/or Maryam

According to wikipedia, Mariam and/or Maryam means the following: Maryam or Mariam (Arabic: مريم‎) is the Aramaic and Arabic name of Mary the mother of Jesus , mentioned in the Qur’an. The name has the same form in Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian. The Hebrew variant of the name is Miriam.The name may have originated from the Egyptian myr “beloved” or mr “love” or the derived ancient Egyptian name Meritamen or Meri-Amun, “beloved of the God Amun”. It was incorporated in the Exodus narrative as Miriam, the name of Moses’ sister. It became common in ancient Israel, hence its appearance in the Gospel narrative as the name of Jesus’ mother and several other women. It is also believed that the name means ‘rebellious’.

My name reflects so much about me, it is a story on its own.

I’ve had several attempts with blogs, even had some sort of a website when I was 15 writing about my favourite music, films and a little more about life behind the books. I am no stranger to the concept of publishing my writings as well, I’ve published works since I was 14 and was the editor of a publication for several years.

I stopped writing 3 years ago when It became too painful for me. The process in which I write, the words that come out of the slick fast movement of my fingers on the keyboard, even the final editing process were all becoming very difficult.

I stopped writing 3 years ago, and today I write again. I fear the grammar would betray me, the expression would fail me and the subject matter will prove to be nothing more than average. But time is running, and my thoughts need to be documented.

There are no excuses, I am Mari/yam and this is my blog.