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time and timing

22 Sep

These thoughts and these words have been floating around in my head for a few months now, but I have been waiting to write them. I am not sure why exactly, perhaps to soak up exactly what it is that I have been feeling so strongly. This is what it boils down to: time and timing, both, and how lucky I have been this year for these two things to collide for me.

I have had months and months of time with my family and friends, the opportunity to re-connect in old ways and connect over new ones. And I have had the right timing to do so, but also the right circumstances, for which I only have the universe to thank for. One tiny example is that of my best friend from high school moving back to the Emirates over the same time period as me, to a neighbourhood new to us both but to a city that we left in 2003. There have been many more serendipitous ‘collisions’ such as this one and I have brought many of my ‘pieces‘ together (the Middle-East during an Arab Spring no less, Mauritania and my father, French and my childhood friends, my mother and her gentleness). Full and complete.

Now, it is time to leave. I am getting on a plane tonight and moving to a country in Central-West Africa that I have never been to before but that holds some of the ‘pieces’ I mention above (Fulani language/culture, the opportunity to speak French daily) and I am hopeful it will bring me new growth and challenges. I am moving in with a man, which is a big step for me romantically, and something that I have not yet attempted at the age of 26. Along with the hopes, I have my fair share of doubts and questions, but I would rather have those than regrets.

Here comes change!


make it meaningful

6 Sep

Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful…and decide what you want and need and must do. It’s a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.

– Zadie Smith, On Beauty.


30 Apr

This was originally posted at Gender Across Borders and can be found here complete with old photographs. It’s my little contribution to a cool series of writing, This AND That, which features ‘stories from women whose identities have crossed paths along the lines of gender, culture, ethnicity and nationality’.

I knew which worlds I belonged to from the start.

When I was four years old, having just moved to the United Arab Emirates from my birthplace of Kuwait, I approached a couple in a restaurant. ‘You’re from the Philippines’ I said, pointing to the lady, ‘and you’re from here’, I said to her partner in the traditional white dishdasha. He smiled broadly, and playfully asked, ‘And you, little one, where are you from?’  I am noos-noos. Arabic for half-half.

It didn’t take me long to realise that I was much more than half anything. That the English part from my mother was as complex as my Mauritanian background, inherited from my father. That I could have been Senegalese and not Mauritanian if my father had been born on the other side of the Senegal river, where his Halpulaar community is from, had colonialists not arbitrarily split the countries in two.

I cultivated what I learned in the French education system; Voltaire and civil liberties alongside verlan Parisian slang. I accepted that I belonged to the waves of the Indian Ocean, it taught me how to swim and fight for breath.

As a teenager I lost myself, in literature and in my imagination. I was both black and white, slave and slave master, woman and man, oppressed and oppressor. I was a metisse in the French Caribbean, a mulatto in Brazil, a half-caste in Britain. As my perception evolved, I found myself to be claimed by various nationalities depending on where I was in the world- Indian, Cambodian, Moroccan, Venezuelan, Egyptian- a whole host of countries completely removed from my genetic pool. If I followed the old-school of thought which states that you should see yourself as society sees you, I would be utterly and totally confused. Because in this crazy 21st century of ours, where borders and travels become much more fluid, there is not one society. There are many societies to follow, many religions to practice, many languages to learn. Many songs to sing; this is our blessing and our curse.

I see myself in both my grandmothers, one Mauritanian and one English. They are a part of me, and as much of me as each other. I am not discounting the vast differences in their upbringing and way of life, but there was a lot of sameness, too. They both married, bore children, suffered miscarriages, lost husbands. My grandmothers took risks and loved. Joy and sorrow, passion and reason. They both lived.

When you come from different worlds, and when these worlds come together, this forces a visceral awareness of others. At the age of four, my awareness was just beginning, but it has continued to unlock many more conversations and connections since then. I have spoken with female labourers in India, smiled at women toting babies on their backs in Ghana, and walked beside abaya-clad Emirati women in luxurious shopping malls. The basic joy of human contact has intensified my belief; parallel universes interconnecting with our own. I knew which worlds I belonged to from the start.


1 Apr

12 months ago, I was in London maniacally preparing for a work trip to India and Nepal. This was how I spent my April: spending time with an organisation working with deaf-blind children in rural Gujurat;, visiting the biggest red light districts in Mumbai; celebrating Nepali New Year (2067!) in the pure mountain air of Pokhara where street children as young as 6 stick their heads in plastic bags to sniff glue.
Over the course of three weeks, I was inspired, challenged, and humbled. And I still haven’t found adequate words to describe the Mumbai brothels I entered in particular, or the energetic children (they are just children) whose mothers work in them.

This was the first of intense work trips for me in 2010. I returned to India and Nepal to visit NGOs, as well as Bangladesh and Cambodia in August. In terms of personal travel, I had the most beautiful romantic time in the south of France and Italy. And in June, my love and I broke up, in Australia of all places. I escaped to Switzerland in November to visit some close friends I hadn’t seen for a long time. 10 countries in 2010.

I ended the year in a state of exhaustion- a tiredness that was partly physical, but mainly wearing in emotional and mental ways. All this to say, I took a huge decision, to leave my job after 3 years in an organisation which had been so good to me, and move in with my parents for a few months for the first since I left home in 2003. This was a simple choice in many ways, that of spending quality time with my parents, both of whom I enjoy being around, in the sunshine of the Middle-East where I grew up. But I was still terrified. I have been very goal-oriented over the last few years, and as I was ringing in the New Year in January, one of my first thoughts was, ‘Now what?’
So I have worked hard to remove the ‘what’ from that question, and just bring the ‘now’ to the centre, closer and closer. I have been able to take a step back and appreciate things for what they are. To focus on personal relationships, to reconnect with my parents as an adult, to make time for friends. I feel rested and stronger. My brain has reassessed certain experiences and made healthy space for some new ones. Some things I will process for a long time, some images I will keep with me, and that is okay too.

This has turned out to be a transitional time, one that I connect a bit with ‘coming of age’, which I know is traditionally associated with a young person’s transition to adulthood but which I now feel people go through at different points throughout life. Perhaps that is why it is a theme that is come up in all of the books I have read since the start of the year (more detailed post about the first few just below).
In all of these books, as different as they are, I have connected with the ideas of growing, questioning, longing, adapting, changing. All characters seem to be questioning their life, finding themselves in situations they might not have prepared for, eventually changing in ways they might not have predicted. I suspect this might be me projecting a little, an Anais Nin case of ‘we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are’. How do you see things right now and are you happy with what you are seeing?

Staring at the Sea

18 Feb

Daydreams. One of the best Cure albums. Being home.

Who is staring at the sea is already sailing a little.

Home is Ghar

13 Aug

The memory is this: a South Asian man, country unknown, sweeping the side of a Gulf street. He wears a rag to cover his head, minimal protection from the hot sun that beats down on his dark skin. Highlighted by the sweat that trickles down his brow, he glistens in the light.

I don’t really know why this image sticks in my mind above others, only that I saw many such men growing up in Abu Dhabi. Most of them remained anonymous, despite them sitting behind tills at the corner-shops, irrigating parks, driving school buses, serving poolside lunches; the silent backbone of a society. I never really questioned their presence there, their ability to keep trudging through the racism, low wages, and daily disregard. I simply believed what those around me did, that what they left behind in their own countries must have been awfully hard for them to come here and choose this life.

Today, I am here, in the poorest of Indian villages. Rice paddies, vegetable patches, the view of greenery continuing as far as the eye can see: breathtaking fertility almost personified by the amount of young children running around. The agricultural activities here are mainly undertaken by women who farm the land, leaving the men – husbands, brothers, fathers- to migrate. With most not having had the opportunity of further education, they have no choice but to take on menial jobs for relatively little pay.

I have learned a bit more about the complexities of migration from South Asia since my Abu Dhabi days, but it varies hugely throughout different regions and the terms used to describe the phenomenon can be quite confusing. From what I can gather however, human trafficking from South Asia, though understandably dramatised, is very often ‘voluntary’ (in the most loose sense of the term) and the basis of it all is quite simple. Like most of what is going in the world today, migration in itself stems from a fundamental need, which is that of social and economic independence. And so it is clear that the reasons for leaving, the reasons to search for more, are really rooted in love and hope, for family and community betterment. But it is also clear that there is a huge amount to be gained here in Uttar Pradesh, with untapped resources and opportunities rooted in this land and its people.

I can’t assume that I can understand the loss caused by migration, nor will I try to. Yet, being here in a village that has been left behind but which still has so much to offer, feels like coming to terms with a part of the bigger picture. I grew up using Hindi and Urdu words like Sida to direct taxi drivers to go straight ahead, but only today have I learned the word Ghar, which means Home.


27 Mar

I’ve been listening to Fairouz this morning. It is really reflective of my mood right now, the strangest feeling of nostalgia and introspection. Conflict and peace.

I long for familiarity. Home. This is part of an ongoing struggle, one that lies in knowing my identity is based on so many different little pieces, sometimes contradictory, sometimes linked to places and people I have no claim to anymore.

Over the past 6 and a half years, I have strongly connected to the U.K., where my mother is from. This hasn’t been an effort or struggle in any way (despite what some people seem to assume), and I think that is down to the logic of the term ‘mother tongue’ – my mother passed on her language, words and habits firsthand and that sort of bonding is strong wherever it is you are brought up. But when I used to think of England, it was mainly the regular summer memories in my maternal grandmother’s kitchen that would come to mind (the kitsch wallpaper and cups of tea with ginger biscuits!), and my experience has obviously expanded drastically since I have made my own life here.

My relationship with my father’s background is more complex and manifests itself differently. My father never sat my sister or I down and consciously taught us about his country, but by being around him (and occasionally the Mauritanian/Senegalese community in Abu Dhabi), it is something we felt and lived.
I have a memory of being quite young, reading a book about capital cities and realising that I hadn’t actually been told what the capital of Mauritania was. I quickly scrolled down all of the unfamiliar names, Nairobi, N’Djamena, Niamey… I came to Nouakchott, Mauritania, and thought I know. I knew Nouakchott as a word, even though I had never explicitly been taught it. And that is how I feel about my relationship with my father: a lot of the learning has been second-hand, and much less direct than what I have taken from my mother. I don’t know if this is down to male/female, father/daughter relationship, or to my dad being a very private man, but my relationship with him and consequently with Mauritania, Senegal, and Halpulaar culture feels somewhat diluted if still extremely intense.

Then there are links that do not ‘belong’ to me: the Middle-East, a French education (which created an interest in French politics, an understanding of the French way of thinking/sense of humour, French music, friends, etc…). There is something that feels difficult about being an outsider to a culture you feel very close to.

I miss hearing Arabic every day, I miss Abu Dhabi and the Allahu-Akbar call to prayer outside my apartment…looking out and seeing men spilling out of the Mosque and into the street, repetitive bowing and kneeling…. paralleling my mother’s yoga movements in the living room.

When I am in a nostalgic mood like this one, I wonder if I will ever feel full? Satisfied? I suppose my contentment cannot lie on the feeling of those pieces coming together, but sometimes I so desperately want them to.

“People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.” (Kundera)