In About a Boy, Will measures his life according to units of time. Half-hour segments. It is strange how when in a relationship, or out of it, the same happens. You have your eye glued to your phone. You exercise patience. You try to kill time. Literally. I have a meeting that will take up half an hour. Excellent. That’s a half hour when I don’t have to think of him. You have a phone-call that takes up 10 minutes. No that won’t do. I should send one or two emails perhaps and that would take up more time. No, we’re still at 18 minutes, maybe if I fill my bottle of water, another few minutes will pass, but only one or two have gone, so I stare at the phone for another 10 minutes, until I am awoken from my daydream by a colleague who enters the room and asks something. Relieved, I engage in a conversation hoping that the discussion will get my mind off my phone, and the thought of him. After another chunk of time, where in another context I would feel that it is a total waste of time. I welcome the diversion. I welcome the occasion that allowed me to lose focus for a few moments. I get up, stretch, move around, I sit, I fiddle with something. I am determined not to check my phone. It’s been sitting there on my desk and I know there are no messages, I haven’t heard any notification. I still check it. And then stare for a few minutes at the messages and the time the person was last online and the no reply and the identification that the message was delivered. And was read. And it gets irritating, but you tell yourself you must exercise patience and restraint. You get up again and get some more water and then resolve to kill another half hour segment doing something useful and positive. I need to finally get to those minutes I have been postponing for the past 3 and a half weeks. That would kill some time. And you get into it and actually forget about time for a moment until you are interrupted again. And that’s the most dangerous thing, because the slightest interruption brings you back to the present moment, where you re-enter a cycle of checking messages and wondering why the message has been read but there has been no reply, or why the person has not read the message even though he’s been online or why he’s neither read the message nor been online. It’s a tiring process. It drains you and exhausts you and you wonder why people aren’t as attached to their phones as you are, or even wonder whether you did something to provoke or upset the person, you wonder what distractions there could possibly be that would take their thoughts away from you. You enter into their imaginary mind and wonder what they’re thinking, where they are, what discussions they may be having with themselves. You wonder if you are in any way part of those discussions, those thoughts. You wonder whether anything you said and did while you were together will ever be recalled, thought of, felt. Felt with any tenderness or feeling, as strong as the moment they were said. You wonder if he thinks of you at all and you feel fragile at those moments. You think the moments you spent together could not have been in vain, could not have been a dream, could not have been imaginary. But the lack of communication weighs down on you and you go back to a fleetly awakening and a determination to focus, to go back to your segments of time that will gradually enable you to go through the hours – always the hours, and the days in a sane and at the most, semi-productive day. A reflection like this takes up an hour. Two units of time. A page of colouring will take up 3 units of time, and if the music is good, you take another page which will take up another 3 units. Before you realise it, you will have used up 3 hours without you feeling it, numbed by music and colours. A film will almost take up 4 units of time. Excellent. A two hour film will enable you to focus your mind elsewhere, maybe giving him enough time to finish whatever he is doing and check his phone. Because maybe he was busy, maybe he was in a meeting, maybe he forgot his phone somewhere, maybe he was driving. And then at some point you realise that the only temporary solution out of this situation is to go to bed, and shut your phone and that would use up a good chunk of units of time.
December 29, 2016
December 9, 2016
Grateful for the silence of a few hours after a field trip to finish the book I am currently reading. The silence of a phone with no notifications and no phone-calls. The luxury of finishing an assignment and purposefully not thinking about work for just one afternoon. The peacefulness of being transported to another dimension where all that you hear, smell, taste is the world inside the book. Grateful for those few hours of disconnection from reality.
They heard the thud of wood on flesh. Boot on bone. On teeth. The muffled grunt when a stomach is kicked in. The muted crunch of skull on cement. The gurgle of blood on a man’s breath when his lung is torn by the jagged end of a broken rib.
Blue-lipped and dinner-plate-eyed, they watched, mesmerized by something that they sensed but didn’t understand: the absence of caprice in what the policemen did. The abyss where anger should have been. The sober, steady brutality, the economy of it all.
They were opening a bottle.
Or shutting a tap.
Cracking an egg to make an omelette.
The twins were too young to know that these were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear—civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness.
Man’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify.
What Esthappen and Rahel witnessed that morning, though they didn’t know it then, was a clinical demonstration in controlled conditions (this was not war after all, or genocide) of human nature’s pursuit of ascendancy. Structure. Order. Complete monopoly. It was human history, masquerading as God’s Purpose, revealing herself to an under-age audience.
There was nothing accidental about what happened that morning. Nothing incidental. It was no stray mugging or personal settling of scores. This was an era imprinting itself on those who lived in it.
History in live performance.
November 19, 2016
And another season goes by. Friends come and friends go, and that’s the way it is in our line of work. People come for a short mission of a couple of months, or three or six, and others stay. Some come for a visit, and some who have been here for years, pack up and get ready to move on while you still remain. That’s how it is, in the humanitarian world, in the military world, and in the expat world. It’s good, it’s rich, you meet people from countries you’ve ever only heard of when they announce them in the Parade of Nations at the Olympics, or at world beauty pageants we used to watch when we were growing up. You meet people from various organisations and agencies you used to read about, thinking, dreaming, hoping, aspiring to work with them at some point. But you also go through endless farewell dinners and parties and speeches and get-togethers for one last time. December is an especially difficult farewell time. So is June/July. In September we always welcome new people, in August the country is a ghost town, each season has its peculiarities, its significance.
Gibran talks of time in The Prophet. He says: But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons, And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.
Indeed this is what one must do. You hear of friends who are about to leave and you prepare for that, though one never really prepares for it. But when you have a moment to yourself amidst the demands of work and the busy farewells and coffees and colleagues from the field who come and go, you sit quietly and reflect on the times you spent together.. you remember an exceptional day at the pool, or a dinner that was out of the ordinary. You remember the day you stole out for lunch on a weekday and observed the birds along a narrow strip of sand in the middle of the sea when the tide was low. You remember the sky full of twinkling stars, an exquisite sunset, the moon’s reflection on the sea. You look back upon an afternoon of playing tennis, secretly promising yourself to take up tennis, knowing deep inside that you never would. You remember an evening at the Sky Bar thinking this is the dodgiest place in town, or a dinner at the refugee fish restaurant in the field. Parties, receptions, formal, informal, film festivals and walks down town. And then little things.. always the little things. Small gestures like, I’ll pass by to pick you up, I made a cake for your birthday, a phone-call to check how you are because you may need some tender-loving-care at that moment, a ride to the airport and a text once you return from a trip abroad, a sweetly wrapped packet of chocolate carefully placed on your desk, a friend offering to cook for you, texts and inquiries and the “family” you have, your ‘ozwa, the need to look out for each other, and random gestures of kindness when you would least expect them. You remember little things, a sentence from a movie, a joke that was said, a song that describes a feeling you’re going through at a particular moment, a word or two. And you remember the warmth of a new experience that transforms you.
The comings and goings, the time, the seasons, looking this life in the face and knowing it for what it is. As ‘Virginia Woolf’ says in the film The Hours, “To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. .. Always the years between us, always the years. Always the love, Always the hours”. Things are not that dramatic, but sometimes it hits you that there are so many welcomes and farewells, so much travelling, so many beginnings and a few endings. And sometimes it doesn’t really hit you, because you know that the beginning was the beginning of a time together that will not end with a flight back home. There are memories that have developed. There are smiles and gestures and hugs and jokes and words exchanged. My recent trip to India and reuniting with friends I hadn’t seen in 17 years and picking up from there, as naturally as if we had been together a few months ago, is in itself worthy of wonder.
My friend Anna Rohleder says she travels to get lost. I do too, and in India, I felt I was losing myself in the continent. I didn’t travel too long nor too far, but between the different groups, I tried to lose myself in the vastness of the country, and in the crowds of participants of the reunion. On the last days especially, I lost myself because it was exhausting to be surrounded by friends and exploring a country of wonders without having the time to reflect and to observe. I usually get lost when it is my birthday because I don’t want too much fuss, because then too I want to reflect and see where I stand and where I will soon stand. I get lost at times here.. the Kempinski pool and gym are expensive. Everyone says so. For me it is where I can get lost for a few moments, where I can walk aimlessly on a treadmill while listening to music without interruptions and where I can swim monotonously for some time, without having to engage in conversations or eat or be constantly on the move. I need the time to get lost. Last year I did a lot of travelling, I did a lot of working too and both the travelling and the working were good for me. Now I am here and it is my friends who seem to be travelling, one after the other. I always said it was harder for those who stay, and I’ve always been happy that I’m the one who picks my suitcases up and leaves.. most of the time. I’m the one to explore the new territory, or return temporarily before coming back again. Now it is different. As I stay longer in Djibouti, I see more and more people leaving. And I feel more and more the need to “get lost” to process this leaving.
There will have to be another account of India, with photos even. All this time, I have not been able to sit and write about it. I think the nature of the experience required some reflection, and though the details risk being forgotten, the time it takes to process a reunion of friends I hadn’t seen in 17 years, and the magnificence of the country I was visiting with all its temples, and palaces and adventures and road trips, requires a little more than an immediate write-up and a display of pictures.
Apart from that, Djibouti goes through waves of emergencies and crises unique to its location. It played a central role because of its proximity to Yemen during its crisis. It’s been on standby since Kenya announced the closure of Dadaab refugee camp. And yet again because of what is going on in neighbouring Ethiopia, it has begun to receive hundreds, even thousands of asylum seekers of the Oromo ethnic group choosing to leave Ethiopia to find refuge in Djibouti, where even this small number may cause strain on a country where scarce resources are available to the host community. Scarce to the people, but not scarce to a small minority where, some sources assume that if money coming into the country was equally divided among the population for just a few years, this country – which is witnessing one of the highest development growths in the world, at an annual rate of 6%, would actually boom and provide equity to all its population in 5-10 years. But what do you say to the tiny minority that enjoys the privileges it receives. And what do you say to a population that values khaat more than it values producing food for its family. It is said that the government once prohibited khaat for a few years and the crime rate grew so significantly in the country, that they had to permit it again. It is also said that agricultural development projects allocated plots of land to some farmers and taught them how to cultivate certain crops which could grow in this harsh climate. The farmers only used part of the land which was enough to grow their daily intake of khaat and left the rest to deteriorate. Likewise, fishermen only fish what is necessary for their daily intake with a little extra to sell, but not much more. No entrepreneurial skills or ideas. Education is one of the lowest rates of the world, and the businesses are all monopolized by the powerful few who reap all the benefits available in the country and make things really expensive for those living in it. It is a sad state.
And yet the country itself has its advantages to those who can afford them. It has lovely beaches, a world of wonder underwater, a rare season of whale sharks, mangroves, and a salty lake second to the Dead Sea in Jordan, and magnificent volcanic hot springs. You have breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. It has a variety of restaurants serving international cuisine, and you have supermarkets that import French products and you occasionally even have Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream! It has stability and security. You have a small expat community where you can form bonds and friendships, and you have the opportunity to excel at work if you really want to. There are sacrifices involved, but it is possible. You also have minimal traffic and the opportunity to exercise and to read and to unwind if you want to.
I’ve been reading Pamuk lately. His latest book, A Strangeness in my Mind. Yet another 700 page novel about Istanbul and the life of the people of Istanbul. And yet again, I never tire from his style and his descriptions of a city I would dream to live in and be a part of. This novel is about a boza/yoghurt seller and his extended family. Each member of his family has a story, a history, and a struggle. I am also re-reading The God of Small Things. Once again as I read it, I realise and appreciate the beauty of the language that Arundhati Roy uses as she writes. Almost magical. Expressions flowing like a stream. Now she is about to publish another novel, and you read that piece of news and you wonder how someone with such a style could have gotten away with writing just one novel in 20 years.
I listen to music too. I’ve been listening to more music lately and re-listening to old music, and once again I wonder why one tends to disregard something that lifts one’s spirit up so much. Why do we forget to listen to music? For the past few days I have been listening to music in my room in the morning as I get ready to go to work. And since then I have had a little bird come and visit me, coming in between the shutter laps of my window. It’s the most beautiful thing. On Friday, the day we learnt of Leonard Cohen’s passing, I had two little birds come and visit me.
I have been listening to a lot of Cohen lately, even before he left us. His voice and his latest album have touched something in me and I listen to him, as I do Joan Baez and Joni Mitchel and a few others of their generations. Today I learnt that he joined the folk scene a little later than the others and he was and felt at least 10 years older than them, so thought he never really fit in. Today I had some time in the morning, and I listened to song after song after song.. the more spiritual ones. The less known ones. There is much to discover in this singer/songwriter/poet/mystic if you will, and there is more music to be heard.
It is Saturday and tomorrow we start a new week, a new emergency and a new season of hard work. Tomorrow, a series of Japanese films will be shown at the Institute Francais and starting next week on Mondays, a series of films of Catherine Deneuve. So there are little perks about Djibouti that we come to enjoy because they make a big difference in the routine of our life. It is Saturday and life will go back to normal. No more farewell dinners for now. For now, just a focus on the present, a need to embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.
August 11, 2012
I don’t want to leave Cairo but I long for the quietness in London.. the ability to hear my own thoughts.
June 17, 2012
For years I have travelled with three dear travel companions: The Prophet, Letters to a Young Poet and Le Petit Prince. I always also carry my little pocket Quran. Today at Shabana’s funeral, I realized how little I have read – or listened to – Quran since I got here. When I left for the UK, I only took my Letters to a Young Poet, and I have needed to go back to it twice in the past few months.. Today’s play on Gibran brought back a whole era of my life where I lived and breathed Gibran. Today’s funeral, yesterday’s talk at the City Circle, my new circle of friends and the Thursday Threshold meetings have made me realize how much of Rumi I used to read and have forgotten. His wisdom was a true guide and a pathway into my soul.
What is it that has happened? Have I outgrown my travel companions? Do we ever outgrow our books?? Have I suppressed my feelings and emotions so much these past years that I have eliminated the very words that give me solace when I travel, when I experience a new beginning, when I make a new friend, when I feel the need for company, or when I just want to share a part of me with someone. And for what? For a relationship that didn’t work, or a job that took up all my time, or simply because life now robs us of precious moments when we can read and reflect and spend time with a friend reading passages and poems and discovering new realms together.
It is these words that made me who I am.. that reminded me constantly of my humanness.. I feel devoid now, and empty.. simply not me. And I long to be me again.. I long for Rilke and Gibran and for the little prince to be by my side again.. my companions who made me feel that there is still some humanity in this insane world we’re living in.
May 2, 2012
After almost a year of not posting, I have rediscovered my blog :D
I was intimidated by the amount of blogs out there with which I have been out of touch, the new forms of websites that I still don’t quite understand such as tumblr and sound clouds and what not, and by my mother’s insistence that I write!
I attended a talk the other day and wrote a little review about it, and since it has been posted and with all the comments I’ve received, I decided, it was time to break the barrier and get writing again.. small steps, one at a time.
Let’s see what happens..
July 9, 2011
Today is the independence of South Sudan. After decades of civil war and struggle with the North, the people of Southern Sudan have earned their freedom and their right to a country of their own. Through various peace agreements, the latest of which was the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, leading to an overwhemlingly successful referendum last January (2011) favouring secession from the north and which culminated in today, the day of independence and final separation from the Republic of Sudan, the newest nation in Africa and the world, the Republic of South Sudan, is born.
Though themselves diverse in race, religion and ethnicity, the people of South Sudan are very different from the North. Their struggle after the longest civil wars in Africa, decades of marginalisation in terms of services and resources, displacement of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes because of war and conflict, and more than 1.5 million deaths, this independence is well earned. The road however is still rough and long. Conflicts still abide, and health care and education are minimal. Most of the neglected tropical diseases known in the world are endemic in South Sudan, maternal and infant mortality rates are amongst the highest in the world and enrolment in education is very low. Infrastructure and institutions need to be built from scratch. However from the happiness and relief of the people that I have witnessed this past month and especially yesterday and today, from the large numbers of displaced Sudanese who are rapidly making their way back to their country and from the speeches of the dignitaries who were invited to the international celebratory event today and the support they showed, there is a strong will and desire to reconstruct this country and develop it and make it a nation worthy of the struggle of its people and those who gave their lives for its freedom. The country is still treading its first steps but I am optimistic and its people are confident that it will rise to a beautiful nation that recognises the rights of its citizens and respects their diversity and humanity.
July 8, 2011
Here’s the link to how you can help :)
It’s been a long time since I had the chance to follow blogs and read what my friends and fellow bloggers have to say on their websites. Today after spending the day following the news of Tahrir and of South Sudan, I logged into some blogspots and felt a deep nostalgia.. Apart from the immediate news about the revolution and following millioneyas, I hadn’t followed any blogs on the events in Egypt, any updates of my friends’ blogs, nor much online reading in general actually. I’m happy to see that some have resumed writing after periods of silence and I’m ever so glad to touch base again with the bloggers I’ve always enjoyed reading. There’s so much catching up to do.. reading and writing, and more sites to discover..