Saturday, 22 March 2014

Lightening Never Strikes Twice

Unless it's Afghanistan. 

Thursday night I was saying to my husband that we should move to Kabul so that I can get back to doing what I really love - rebuilding education systems.

I said to him, "We can live in the Serena, it's safe there." 

"I don't think so," he said.

" No, it's a fortress with those huge walls.  Lightening never strikes twice, so they're not going to go attack it again."

Not ten minutes later, my husband, who is constantly live streaming Tolo news from Kabul (and by constantly, I mean constantly; he takes his phone into the shower with him so he never misses a thing), says:

"They just attacked the Serena."

I remember the first time it happened. When the hotel's gym was attacked and six people were murdered.

Press rewind. To the first time I visited the Serena. It was to tour the gym and see if I was willing to buy a membership - at the ridiculous price of $300 a month. But it was so beautiful. A peaceful escape from the dusty chaos of Kabul life.  Lemongrass wafting from the oil lamps. The rubab, plucking gently throughout the corridors. Dark wood and marble floors. The smiles. So many smiles.

I don't remember her name.

But those eyes. Rich brown almonds. Warmth. Kindness. The fire of intelligence.

She became my friend. I think.

The tiny girl who brought us rolled up towels, scratchy from drying in the sun and dust, and the prettiest little travel sized shower gel bottles. They smelled of lemongrass, too. She always tucked a few extras into my towel. She couldn't have been more than 20. I helped her with her English, which was great anyway. She taught me some Hazaragi. We laughed. She dreamed of studying. She was supporting her family. She was proud.

I had been going to the gym every single day for about a year. It was so beautiful there that on occasion I would go just to lay down on the lounge chairs in the changing room, smell the lemongrass and read a book. Sometimes I'd fall asleep, waking only hours later.

And then, I got a cold. A cold that turned into bronchitis. That turned into pneumonia. I didn't go to the gym for weeks. Then I packed my bag and started out after work. The driver was there, waiting. I was walking out the door when I thought to myself, you know what, you shouldn't push it. You don't need to go today. So I told the guard to tell the driver that I wasn't going. I went back inside.

And then the gym was attacked. 

My friend. I never saw her again.

I went back to the hotel. But I never used the gym again.

Did she die? I don't know. It's nearly impossible to get accurate reporting on Afghan deaths. Afghans are not the focus. I asked at the hotel about her. Some staff said yes, she died. Others said, no she went back to her village. Nobody seemed to know.

If she died, she died handing foreign women towels at the gym. How stupid is that?

If she died...

I killed her. 

We all did. 

Afghans are dying because we're there. The hotel was attacked because we were there. We think we're there to help. But this is the truth: Afghans are dying because we're there.

"But they want you there. It's not your fault," said my husband from the shower this morning.

"Isn't it?"

"You can't close countries," he said.  "Countries need to interfere. So she could work like that and meet you, and learn English." 

He pauses. "Better for her to die like that than be closed in her house beaten to death by her husband."

And there it is.

May they all rest in peace
With love and grace, and lifetimes of memories

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Searching for Silver

One of the most alluring things about the Middle East is its women, and their self-adornment. Pure joy for me is meandering slowly under the hot sun through the exotic bazaars in Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus and Amman searching for long-lost treasures. Middle Eastern jewellery is magical. The textures, the shapes, the jingling sounds all tell the stories of the women who wore the pieces, and the men who made them. Each bracelet, each medallion, each pair of earrings is a window into the life and culture of one of the most fascinating regions in the world. The styles and designs are as diverse as the beauty of the women who wear them. Each piece is laden with symbolism, heavy with the weight of desert life: harsh and stark, but also painfully beautiful.

An Egyptian woman in a traditional Bedouin niqab adorned with coins and amulets.
The silver jewellery that Bedouin women wear is not just for adornment; it is part of the dowry receives upon marrying and is an eternal marker of her social status. At traditional Bedouin weddings, the young bride will literally be cloaked in several kilograms of beautiful, hand-crafted silver. From the wedding day onward, these beautiful desert nomads carry the weight of their entire wealth on their person. The jewellery was theirs forever to keep, and to dispose of as they wished. Like a savings account, the jewellery was a safety net in case of divorce or economic hardship. The jewellery not only showed her husband’s social standing, but it was also a symbol of how much he valued her. How much she was loved. The more jewellery she had, the more the community knew how much he loved her (Note to husbands everywhere!).

A woman from Bethlehem adorned in her bridal jewellery.
In Arab societies, social standing was not just about wealth. It was about sons, too. From a woman’s jewellery you could tell how many children she had, as it was customary to receive gifts of silver upon the birth of each child. At a glance, her jewellery could tell others how many sons she had: the women of Western Egypt broke the tips of their pendants each time they bore a son!
An late 19th century Bedouin woman adorned in ethnic silver jewellery.
Since time began, women of the Middle East – and probably all around the world - wore jewellery as charms to ward of evil spirits, disease, bad luck and family calamities. Every piece of jewellery, whether worn by Jewish, Christian or Muslim women, embodied the deeply held spiritual and religious beliefs of the region. Certain symbols and amulets, like the Hand of Fatima (also known as the Fatima Hamsa), were incorporated into all pieces for protection from the evil eye. The number 5, central to Islamic mysticism, appears consistently throughout Bedouin jewellery. Symbolizing the five fingers of Fatima, and the Five Pillars of Islam (the Muslim version of the Ten Commandments), pendants and necklaces will often have 5 jingling, dangly bits incorporated throughout to scare away the evil spirits with their beautiful, holy tinkling sounds. In one collection, held in a museum in Amman, pieces are engraved with both a Christian cross and an Islamic crescent moon, demonstrating the thousand year old religious pluralims of the region. 

A piece I picked up on my recent trip to Jordan. See the five dangling bits, symbolic of  Islam's Five Pillars? I love the sound it makes when I walk. So peaceful.
Although the birthplace of monotheism, Middle Eastern jewellery demonstrates the firmly held animist belief that all entities – animal, plant, man and stone – have souls. Turquoise stones are therefore a common element in Bedouin folk jewellery because the beautiful blue colour is thought to ward off the evil eye and to be an overall stone of protection. Plus, turquoise is said to glow when its wearer is happy, and lackluster when its wearer is sad. Stones of a red hue, be they carnelian, garnet, coral or agate, are the most favoured. Green stones are thought to prevent disease. For over 2000 years, jewellery of the Arabian deserts has contained amber, coral and turquoise stones. Other stones are not uncommon, especially a smooth white bead that was thought to promote lactation, and dark green beads which were thought to prevent post-natal diseases.

Walking through Souk Jara in Amman, I stumbled across a lovely old man selling authentic Bedouin jewellery. See the rich turquoise, coral and green stones? These colours have been part of desert jewellery for over 2,000 years.
Bedouin women are heavily adorned with necklaces, anklets, bracelets, earrings, hair plaits and sometimes nose-rings. Silver coins are a common feature in almost every piece and they are more than just symbolic. In the early 1900s, the women, if disaster struck, would remove a coin from her jewellery and use it to buy much needed supplies. The jewellery itself, pure solid silver, was made from melted down Ottoman coins.

 These lovely earrings were given to me as a gift by a dear Palestinian friend. 
A traditional niqab (face veil) incorporating all the traditional elements of Middle eastern jewellery: coins, amulets, red and blue stones.
Today, you will not find a piece of Bedouin jewellery that is more than 50 years old. The tradition of passing down jewellery thorugh the generations was uncommon. Each young bride wanted her own, new, jewellery to symbolize her husband’s love and present-day status. Therefore, when a Bedouin woman died, her jewellery died with her. It was sold, melted down and fashioned into something new.

As the centuries have passed and the world’s fashion tastes have turned to gold, the Bedouin women’s traditional jewellery has become collectors’ items, filling textile and jewellery museums around the world. Collecting Middle Eastern jewellery, then, has become a political act of cultural preservation. 

In memory of generations of desert women, I am always searching for silver.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Kuwait: The Playground of the Rich and Fabulous

I arrived in Kuwait at midnight on Thursday, and was greeted by an oven-like breeze of 43 degrees!

With so many meetings, I won't have any time to write a proper post before leaving, so I thought I'd share with you the view:

Marina Hotel, Kuwait
Until next time!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Neither Whores Nor Submissives

I’ve been travelling in and out of the Gulf States regularly since 2007. With each visit, and each cup of steaming, cardamom-infused Arabic coffee, I’m delighted to see a press which is slowly becoming more open, and getting braver in its analysis year by year. No longer only a mouthpiece for the Monarchy (although yes, when tackling domestic politics this is sadly sometimes still the case), many newspapers, like The National and the Gulf News are increasingly tackling relevant and sometimes difficult international issues.

This trip I read an interesting article in The National’s Saturday Magazine about the violent gang rapes of women and girls in France’s ghettos and what the feminist movement Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) is doing about it.
The magazine article was interesting, not only because of its contents, but because of the way it was juxtaposed to an article I read only minutes before in the main paper about France’s ban on the veil (and the similar laws that Belgium, Holland and Italy are proposing). The newspaper article showed an image of a woman fully covered in niqab, (only eyes showing), with arms raised towards the sky. In her hands she held a cheque, made out to the Government of France for 120 Euros. Exactly the fine for donning the niqab in public. The article went on to replay the same old debate, addressing the same boring old questions: is France within its rights, or has it gone too far? Is it a woman’s right to express her religious belief in this way, or is the veil merely a manifestation of her total oppression?

In reading the magazine coverage of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, it became clear that Europe’s debate on the veil merely obfuscates the larger, more sinister issue, the issue nobody wants to address: in the banlieues – the outlying suburbs of French cities – which are largely populated by immigrants and impoverished white people, young girls (as young as 5 in some cases) are gang raped. Day, after day, after day.  Except that in the ghettos, no one calls these attacks rapes; instead, they are called tourantes, because the girls are “passed around like cigarettes”.

In Muslim countries, especially those that are still largely traditional and conservative, the shame of sexual assault stigmatizes the whole family, so victims often remain silent. Reading these two articles got me thinking. Are the women in France fighting so hard for their right to wear the hijab, niqab and burqa only because it is their religious right to do so? Or, are they fighting for the veil as a way to protect themselves? Are they thinking that if they hide their beauty, their curves, their sensuality, they’ll protect themselves from assault? They may be doing so without even being aware of it.
So, France, here’s how I see it. Instead of stepping up to the plate and going through the trouble of empowering a disenfranchised, uneducated, and thus violent, male population – which is the real source of these  women’s oppression   by offering education and employment opportunities, you’re just prattling on and on about the burqa.

If the French Muslim women who wear the burqa stand up and take it off, will they be liberated?
No. Because a piece of cloth cannot oppress.

But a community of angry, disempowered, uneducated and unemployed men can.
France, stand up for the women of your country. Make the streets safe for them. Make their families and neighbours accountable for their safety.

Then maybe, just maybe, you will lift the veil.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

12 Million Square Feet of Bling

I had some free time after meetings yesterday, so I did what you do when you come to Dubai: I went to the mall! But it wasn't just your run-of-the-mill neighbourhood mall. It was the Dubai Mall: 12 million square feet (50 football fields) of BLING. And I loved every inch of it!

With 1,200 shops, 140 restaurants, 22 cinemas, the largest indoor fish tank on earth, and 47 million visitors a year, Dubai Mall is like the West Edmonton Mall on steroids. A lot of steroids.

The Guiness World Record holder for the largest single-pane indoor aquarium on earth.
Ok, I know. You're  wondering why, when I'm a passionate advocate for economic empowerment through fairly traded goods, I'm a fan of all things luxurious, Gulf-style. Is there anything Fair Trade in that mall? No, probably not. But there is a 20,000 sq. foot organic supermarket. That's a start in a region that has so much money it doesn't know what to do with it.

Here's what it is for me: after working in development for 13 years in the poorest countries on earth, I find it refreshing to travel to the opposite side of the spectrum - the richest nations on earth, with all of the glitz, glam, and glitter. Here's a short video clip of designer row:

The gold souk (market) is fantastic. Row after row of rich yellow gold: bangles, earrings, necklaces, cuff links. The gold is endless!

The attention to detail is spectacular. A chocolate is not just a chocolate, a date is not just a date. You're not just buying the product; in Dubai, you're buying the lifestyle. All 47 million visitors can live the lifestyle of the rich and famous, for just one day.

There's something for everyone: shoes for Mom, gaming area for Dad, and ice rink for kids. What's not to love?

To top it all off, there's the greatest architectural achievement in modern human history: Burj Khalifa.

I, for one, am enjoying living in suspended reality here in Dubai, even if it is only for 5 days.