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Fez, Morocco.

9 Aug


Can the reward of goodness be anything but goodness?

Sura 55, Verse 60, The Holy Qur’an

Kilimanjaro

23 May

I love the Noisettes and Shingai is one of the most bad-ass, gorgeous women out there. I love them even more when they throw some African vibes into the mix.

Inspired by a trip to Malawi, where they played at the Lake of Stars Festival:

A cool tribute to Miriam Makeba.

Worlds

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.

Now

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.

In the Clouds

19 Aug

My travel companion on this trip in Asia, Andy, is a professional photographer who has travelled extensively for his work. Before we embarked on our journey to Uttarakhand where the Central Himalayas are situated, he shared some simple but wise words: ‘The harder it takes to get to a place, the more beautiful it tends to be.’

The toughness of getting to our destination is not to be underestimated, starting with the seven hours on an overnight train from Delhi which took us to a town in the foothills, before a thirteen hour drive to a town called Jasimpath which was our base. To get to Subhai village, we had to drive another two hours and hike ten kilometers up an incredibly steep mountain. When we reached the top we were left breathless by more than just the trek, awed by the view of the valley below. The mist moving slowly across mountains gave a strange but wonderful feeling of being up in the skies, within reach of the clouds.

The remoteness of these villages in the Himalayas is part of what intrigues us visitors, touched by the hospitality of the mountain people who live here. But to the residents it means months of being cut off from the rest of the country, particularly during winter.
As well as being geographically quite isolated from India, sharing close borders with Nepal and Tibet, the Himalayan region also faces exclusion on a political level in the way in which government representation functions- through numbers. That is to say, the more populous the state, the more representation through Members of Parliament it will receive. In the entire state of Uttarakhand, there are only five MPs to represent the state population on a national level, compared with seventy-five MPs in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

A primary school was brought to the 41 children of Subhai village by the government of India in 2007, following the ‘Sarva Siksha Abiyan’ (Education for All) movement which started in 2001. Whilst other states in India steadily move to improve the quality and standard of child education, isolated communities such as these are merely concerned with basic access to the facilities which they are still not receiving fully.  Bright-eyed and beautiful, the girls and boys of this village are deemed ‘statistically insignificant’ by their national government and with tough road conditions and harsh winters, teacher absenteeism remains extremely common.

It has to be said that policy-making is very intellectually advanced in India. A large amount of sensible and principled laws exist, but the fact is that they are very far removed from the practice at ground level. Although the Right to Education Act in India has taken on many forms in recent years, it is still far from being implemented in areas such as these, illustrating what is probably India’s biggest development challenge: the gap between policy and implementation, without the infrastructure to bridge it.

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.