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Covid Creates 3

I sit on the stair case of a local church, whilst two steps down, a mother helps her young son read a storybook. Three primary school age girls run up the stairs to the church, then tiptoe inside, whispering and quietly giggling. Their mother calls them, and threatens with: ‘come down or I’ll start counting!’ On the pavement below, two boys and a girl run up the side of the church, whilst some 9 mothers mull around chatting. I check my watch, it’s nearly time, then notice the little boy is looking back at me: ‘he says his friend has the same watch as yours’, the mother says by means of an explanation. I smile: ‘it’s my son’s watch.’ I collect my things and get up to join the other mothers, who ask if my daughter is starting reception this year. Then one by one, mini ballerinas in baby pink ensembles appear at a side door, hopefully searching for their connection. As each name is called out by the assistant teacher, there’s a brief excited reunion, a reconnection. Mine appears in her new ballet outfit her grandfather bought her last week. Her old one grew too small in lockdown. A lot seems to have grown too small since lockdown. Life seems to have shrunk, become more localised and tight knit. Human-to-human classes, the congregation of locals, sprawling into the outdoors, kids allowed to play, run, be noisy, on the streets… the sheer physicality of it all. The fact that we needed to bid farewell to our children outside, rather than all cram inside (a la pre-lockdown), awkwardly and silently, glued to personalised screens, meant that we took the space to be alongside one another outside. I felt catapulted in time to an imagined moment in London’s past, with kids playing on the streets, life pulsing out in the open. It’s as if lockdown has sharpened an appetite for human connections, for the local and neighbourly, and for a sense of ‘normality’. Whilst so much is happening in the world, and when much switched off not long ago, the ordinary has become precious.

Shantay You Stay

Last summer, I became a fan of Rupaul’s Drag Race. That’s 10 years after it first aired and became a sensation globally. I was aware of RuPaul as a celebrity drag queen, as well as the show, as a close friend has been a dedicated fan from the beginning, yet I didn’t feel an inclination to watch.
Honestly, I didn’t see how a reality show about drag would have much relevance to me. Drag, to me pre-RuPaul, is men dressing as women, be this in an exaggerated way, and was synonymous with transvestites, cross-dressers, transgender and transexual. I will not go into the differences between these groups- though I do encourage anyone who isn’t familiar to educate themselves- I will say, on a basic level, I’ve learned the majority of drag queens who go on this reality show are men who dress as women professionally to perform. I’ve heard contestants clearly separate themselves, majority gay men, from their drag personas, women of all shapes and sizes. They put on their costume to perform and entertain, in a myriad of variations within the genre (comedic, conceptual, pageant, fishy etc).
To me now, drag queens ultimately fulfil the role art and artist hold in society: to act as a mirror, reflecting back, with commentary, on how we see ourselves, inviting us to question and dialogue around change.
The reality show makes all this accessible, as it humanises what are often a minority within a minority group of people, historically marginalised and persecuted, often by their own family. The contestants find ways, often highly creative ways, of actively battling to hold onto themselves, their inner authentic selves, which I’ve found astounding and deeply moving. They have an opportunity to be seen and heard, not just on a platform to catapult them professionally onto the world stage, but as people, to be amongst peers, to be ‘normalised’, validated and accepted in a way that society might not have done.
This inclusivity, acceptance of difference and celebration of diversity is what excites and speaks to me most as an audience member, whose life on the surface still seems a world away.
In reality, I now see that I’ve much in common, as a human being who has struggled (like the majority of us) to be accepted wholly, and in turn, continue the struggle by not accepting parts of myself I’ve since learned are not acceptable (like being angry, dressing provocatively, being loud etc). The successful drag artists are those who have come to recognise their life script, to accept and often weave this into their artistry.
As a mother, I have often felt important life lessons were at hand too, listening to contestants’ experiences of acceptance and rejection. I am inspired and moved, not just by the contestants, but by their families, who we also hear about and often meet at the end of each series.
I resonated with this recently when I enrolled my son onto ballet classes, to join his older sister, and was met by resistance from immediate family. The implicit fear saddened (and angered) me, and though I believe I’d have taken on this battle even before my introduction to RuPaul, the impact of accepting/ rejecting a child has deepened somehow since.
Ballet is an art form where it’s male dancers are often discouraged or explicitly rejected for their passion; sadly too, more often by the male members in their immediate family, like brothers, fathers, grandfathers etc. I don’t imagine my son will become a ballet dancer, in as much as I don’t imagine my daughter will become an Olympian swimmer, because they are taking lessons, and I want to continue to expose them to experiences, expand their toolkit, offer them creative and healthy ways to express themselves, and hopefully accept themselves.
I watch some contestants thrive in the competition, as they push themselves to their limits, whilst others self-sabotage and crumble. RuPaul often shares part of his story, his struggle, just enough- almost in a therapeutic judicious self-disclosure way- to encourage and facilitate this process. Sometimes his words are heard, sometimes his words are not. All this I see as immensely reflective of life journeys in general, how we meet challenges, what we take from our environment, and what enables us as humans on a constant path of change.

Switched On

As human beings, we are wired to need human connections to feel well, alive, have a sense of joy and be curious in the world we live in. 

Fulfilling human connections help us feel loved, wanted, cared for, that we belong and are supported when in need. As adults, if we are well adjusted, we will often know when we need help, and how to reach out to enable ourselves to feel better. This may be as simple as noticing I feel tired, and being able to take a moment to rest. 

Sometimes, we aren’t able to reach out for this help. Maybe, not even know that we need help at all. Not even know that I feel afraid, or deeply exhausted, or that I’m immensely angry. 

Instead of feeling what I’m feeling, I translate my feeling into something else, and get into a place where I’m deeply upset with someone close to me for what (to them) would be a minor event, or having a confrontation with a stranger on the tube for not getting out of my way. Namely, I’m triggered into an emotional response that relates more to something that might have happened to me in the past, or more correctly, to a need that was left unmet when I was a baby or child, that as an adult, I am no longer even aware of. It’s out of my conscious awareness. 

Babies, unlike adults, are completely helpless and vulnerable to the world around them. If hungry or scared, they rely 100% on their carer to attend to them, to feed them, to cuddle them and help them feel secure. This applies to young children, and even, into young adulthood. How responsive is my environment to meeting my need, determines how secure I feel in my world. 

This may be sounding a little cryptic. Or maybe an oversimplification of an immensely complex subject. 

What I’m struck by, is how research, particularly neuroscience, has allowed us to have empirical evidence into the impact of healthy human connections, ie, relationships that enable us into being our best selves, to heal and repair, and relationships that leave us switched off. Not just metaphorically switched off from feeling something nourishing, even something painful, but literally, our genes switch off the parts of our brain that feels joy and love. 

In epigenetics, methylation is the process whereby gene function and expression is modified, and this is not exclusive to you, but can be something you inherited. So we don’t just inherit a set of genes, but we can end up with sleeping genes that then impact how we function in the world. 

An example, let’s say my mother as an infant did not have a loving, responsive mother, who worked to meet her baby’s needs, or as a child, she was reprimanded for crying, repeatedly punished if she expressed her anger. To survive, she adjusts her behaviour to meet her environment, and her brain helps her by forgetting her unmet need. Now, if she’s scared, she might frantically tidy to calm herself down. She might eat to swallow down her rage. This is an adult just getting on with life’s challenges as best as she can. These are her coping strategies, left unchecked since she’s been a child, unable to do much else. 

This isn’t just a behavioural response. Her nervous system has also learned to cope, to translate her needs and her world in this unique way. Her genes have also taken note, and politely switched off the parts of her brain that is nourished with playful curiosity, true intimacy, with enabling human connections. 

As an adult, as a mother herself, she projects her fear onto her baby. She may become overly anxious in her responses. If baby cries, she panics. If her young child is angry, she panics. Maybe, in time, she snaps and punishes them like she was punished. Or maybe she is scared, and finds other ways to quell her angry toddler with sweets, presents, and other momentary distractions. 

Her baby, toddler, young child grow up in their mother’s world. The old wives tale of a nervous mother raising a nervous baby, according to epigenetic, rings true. 

It’s not all doom and gloom.

The research also shows how intervention, say psychotherapy, can rewire us, not just to feel and behave differently, but to actually wake those dormant genes that switched off with developmental trauma (the baby not attended to, or child growing up tiptoeing around her father’s anger). I’m purposely not tackling examples of physical abuse or physical abandonment, and focus on emotional abuse and the impact of an emotionally unavailable primary carer, because again, research has shown the impact of the latter is as damaging as the former. 

Back to the good news. 

Research shows that being able to access our needs, maybe even gain emotional awareness so we know what we are really feeling, then to be able to put words to our true feelings, calms us. Calms our nervous system, the part of our brain that might have been triggered because it has a sense memory of our deep anger, fear and the sadness of not having been taken care of as as a child. 

As an adult, when we are able to recognise,be with, hold and care for our younger, wounded child, then we can begin to repair. 

The therapist, in these cases, may be the first person who is allowed a glimpse into my deepest fears, to meet my raging toddler self, to help me learn that expressing my need does not make me a ‘cry baby’, or if I’m a man, does not mean that I’m weak and needy. 

The stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness, in my opinion, is a major barrier. The idea of getting help when we are not diagnose with a mental illness still seems strange to the majority. In my culture, as in the family and environment I was raised in, those who are mentally ill need to get treated, otherwise, you’re OK and you just get on with life. Maybe why, I met many clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, in Middle Eastern circles, but not so much psychotherapists and art therapists. It’s clearer, cleaner and easier to Other those with mental illness, than to accept most of us can do with attending to unmet needs. 

Truth is, the majority of us have our unique ways of dealing with our world, which would fall under some neurotic pattern of being. We can still function as ‘normal’ individuals in society. I can eat whenever I am distressed, or stonewall my wife when I’m angry with her, which she in turn can manage by avoiding conflict... 

And yet, if you’re in a position to invest in yourself, to do the work in a therapeutic space- not just self help books!- to heal yourself, then it wouldn’t be just you potentially living in a brighter world with those around you, but you’d also pave a path for future generations, to help those you love to switch on and into a better world.

————

I’m clearly not a scientist, but am sharing the above as new learning, four weeks into a therapy training course. I’m struck by the evidence that shows how effective therapy, and some other mindfulness type work, not just in profound individual change, but beyond ourselves. How our parents’ life experience impacts us, and more, how we are able to repair not just ourselves but generations to come. 

Caged Kings

‘As an Iraqi, I’m grateful that part of our archaeological heritage is kept safe at the British Museum, as opposed to looted/ wilfully destroyed by religious extremists/ vandalised on site/ ineffectively conserved.’

The above is a longer version of a tweet I drafted, then discarded.

It was a response to this thread, condemning The British Museum for looting archaeological artefacts. This was/ is the case of the Parthenon, or Elgin Marbles as they are politically incorrectly named, or Assyrian reliefs, part of The Museum’s current exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria.

I discarded my tweet because it didn’t feel right, as if I’m somehow betraying my country folk with an accusation of distrust. Or that I was condoning Colonial dominance, maybe even diminishing its devastating impact on the world, not least the Middle East.

At the same time, I feel oddly positioned in terms of the morality concerning this topic. I have a BSc in Archaeological Science, and my final year dissertation looked at the history of archeology as a discipline. More, I worked at The British Museum’s Coins & Medals Department on their Islamic coin collection, so I got a taste of the day-in-day-out workings of this institution. This included many discussions on how to make collections relevant and accessible to the public, as well, almost always, the lack of funding.

I heard of the BP protests before the exhibition itself, through a group I am part of (be it inactively) The Iraqi Transnational Collective (ITnC). A few ITnC individuals were involved, with other community groups like BP or not BP!, in organising the protest inside The Museum.

Too entangled in my family life to pay much attention, I did not fully register news of the exhibition. It was only until after I tweeted to say how much I enjoyed the Ashurbanipal exhibit, I received a private message with this video outlining the story behind the BP protests.

My sleep deprived mummy brain connected the dots.

In short, the objection is in the contradiction between BP sponsoring an exhibition on Assyria, and its role in modern day Iraq, namely its implicit role in the ongoing destruction of Iraq post-2003 when it gained access to Iraq’s oil fields.

This also stands beside BP’s destructive forces, not only in Iraq, but environmentally on a global scale

BP and corporate sponsorship aside for a moment, and back my erased tweet and moral conundrum.

Provenance is one issue often linked to discussions on The British Museum holding world heritage artefacts. I’d personally choose to separate these two.

Regardless how the Assyrian palace gates made their way to their current location, they have arguably been in better hands than their place of origin. I wouldn’t go into spine curdling examples of various destructive forces that prevailed over Iraq’s fragile remnants of the past; from collateral damage to ISIS.

I know, from my time working there, objects are no longer acquired without rigorous inquiries into their provenance This does not make-up from past objects being, for lack of a more suitable word, looted from their original homes. Still, I choose to focus on a more recent past, where these objects have, for better and for worse, been kept safe, taken care of, exhibited to the public for free, studied by experts from across the world…

If Iraq was a peaceful country, with a thriving national museum, world renowned experts in their field, a budding tourist industry, where many from across the globe trotter over to marvel at these ancient wonders, then I would reconsider my current position. Sadly, this isn’t the case. For now, some of our most precious artefacts are kept safe inside foreign cages.

My father has been a dedicated collector of a particular type and period of coinage. When I worked at The British Museum, he used to tell me that one day, he will leave his beloved coin collection to me. Once, he asked what I’d do with them, and without a moment’s hesitation, I happily declared I’d donate them all to the British Museum. ‘Why?!’, he gasped, ‘these would be yours, why would you donate them?’ My reply, of course, is that I believe in open public access, not private collections. He wasn’t convinced, but accepted the argument. He then asked, ‘why the British Museum? Why not a museum in Iraq?’ I gave reasons equivalent to the above. He just looked sad. Not for me or him, but I imagined, for the state of our beautiful Iraq.

He also never mentioned bequeathing his collection to me after that.

Back to BP.

Well, I don’t know. BP has been a relatively longstanding corporate sponsor of major art and historic houses in the UK. The protests have played an important role in inviting us, the public, to question how these national institutions receive funding. And I felt pride at the scale of the protests, and that Iraqis were in the news standing together (literally) with a united cause..

The hypocrisy from BP does not surprise me.

The British Museum played a significant role in publicising and helping document the many looted objects post-2003 (led by Dr John Curtis), and continues to support Iraqi experts inside Iraq. Both the latter began during my time there.

There isn’t, for me, a clear moral position here.

As an ignorant punter, I loved the exhibition. The digital features brought life and colour, literally, to these ancient reliefs. The outreach activities, packed with families during this half term week, inspired me and my toddler with its invitation to look at Assyrian cities and motifs. Again, I felt inklings of pride as my dear Iraq was being seen and discussed outside the usual contexts of war, casualties and destruction.

BP was not on my radar until my visit to Twitter.

I once refused to take a (very well paid) voiceover job promoting Nestle, because, well, it was for Nestle.

Has my moral compass become slack?

Or maybe, I’ve come to accept that you take what you can get, even when an evil giant offers you a golden egg…

***

There’s now a parallel exhibition on until early next month, at the lovely P2 Gallery space, with a familiar sounding title: I am British Petroleum, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice.

I plan to visit the exhibit, to refresh my moral compass…

Playing on the Barrier

Addressing a group of children in Arabic, from a children’s home (or maytem/ orphanage) in Basra, Iraq, in 2013:

‘I know I’m here to lead this workshop, and we will hopefully play, have fun and learn from one another, but to do this, I need your help. My Arabic is very, very, veeeeery rusty’, the children giggle, and look equally surprised as excited, ‘so I will make a lot of mistakes, and need you to correct me… I may ask you for help, but sometimes I wouldn’t even know what word I need or if I’ve made a mistake, so you need to jump in to help… Can you please help me?’

I’ve been reflecting on this experience, as I read Shanaaz Hoosain’s thesis (from 2007) on Resilience in Refugee Children: A Gestalt Play Therapy Approach and how ‘that language barriers appear to be a problem in therapeutic work with refugees. However, the researcher found that this can be effectively used in play therapy as an opportunity to empower the child.’

Though I didn’t have this knowledge at the time, I was nonetheless training in Gestalt psycotherapy at the time, and undertook wonderful Jon Blend‘s teaching in Gestaltist Violet Oaklander‘s creatively therapeutic work with children. Still, I was working intuitively and sincerely.

Since my last visit to Iraq as a teenager, I had not needed to speak exclusively in Arabic to people who did not speak some English. I was nervous about leading 3 workshops a day, for one week, with three different groups of children and adolescents, all to be conducted exclusively in Arabic. I found naming this difference, between me and the children, and also, openly acknowledging my limitation in relation to a life skill they had mastered, was a great icebreaker. It paradoxically brought us closer together, and encouraged the children to take control, to speak to an adult in a way that is normally culturally inappropriate.

From previous workshops, I’d found that asking simple introductory questions at the start of the workshop, like ‘what are we doing today?’ or ‘what did you notice on your bus ride here?’ were met with blank expressions, quick glances between participants to check if anyone has an answer to this bizarre question. I’d facilitated workshops in the UK, some in state schools in deeply underprivileged parts of London, but this barrier, this response to figures in authority, wasn’t as rigid. If I was there to run a drama or art workshop, for example, then I was seen as less important and less scary than a teacher at their school.

As a child, I was rarely asked a sincere question by an adult, be this a teacher or family member. Questions were often used to test, where there was a clear right or wrong answer, and anything in-between was viewed as disobedient. So I got the children’s response, and I respected their well-founded fear of the repercussions of getting it wrong.

I simplified my question to, ‘what is your favourite food?’ and when my question was met with heavy silence, I disclosed (sincerely) that ‘Mine is bamya ou timan and of course with 7ikaka…’, which received some recognition, and with another prod of ‘ah, does anyone else like bamya? 7ikaka?’ Low and behold, Middle Easterners connect with one another on the subject of food!

Later, I left all such verbal introductions after an initial simple game, where even the rules I managed to explain through physical and facial expressions, so we connected through play and shared experiences. Play, connect, share and make meaning together.

Today, back in therapy training, I wonder at the therapeutic barriers that exist, whether cultural, racial, linguistic, and how we can meet the client in the here-and-now whilst holding the differences between us. What form do these barriers take when they are translated into boundaries, those that keep us safe, though still arguably entrenched in Western models and processes? How can I, as a non-European therapist, adapt these (and to these) whilst staying true to my own background and cultural integrity?

Disembodied Christmas

‘I don’t celebrate Christmas’ sounds overly harsh to my ears, a little too Scrooge-like for an occasion that celebrates family, connectedness, sharing of presents and feasts, cracker jokes and prayers. What’s not to celebrate? For me, I simply did not grow-up with Christmas, first in Baghdad, then in London but within a diaspora bubble. 

My first experience of a British (English) Christmas was at the ripe age of 22 years, when a generous university friend invited me to their family home for the occasion. My friend’s parents refused to accept that I would spend Christmas alone- I did not have any family in the UK at the time- and insisted that they adopt me for the holiday period. I remember feeling particularly foreign and alien to the tradition, which I was vaguely familiar in a ‘I’ve read about this’ or ‘I think I’ve seen this in a film’ type way. I felt a little like I’ve stepped into an odd reversed National Geographic experience, where I am observing white English people in their natural environment, following their unique customs and rituals… having said that, I’d been to Midnight Mass with a different university friend before that, and was perplexed and saddened that they kept their Christian practice hidden from our social group (predominantly English, UK born and bred), for fear of becoming the subject of jokes. I openly fasted in Ramadan- though the main response for this was silence- I was confused as to the open hostility of Christians practising their faith, but all unanimously celebrating Christmas… it’s like Christmas has been sieved of it’s Godly message to be a safe shell of presents, food and fun with the family. 

Even though I’m proudly British now, these customs remain alien to me. When such nuances come into a discussion, I find myself feeling like a polite guest being hosted by people of a different culture. My understanding remains, often, superficial, disembodied, lacking the visceral memories that help understanding penetrate on a deeper level.

I wonder, this year, if the core of the ritual has come to life more for many. As the threat of ‘Christmas being Cancelled’ becomes a reality, I find that whether a family has chosen to take the risk to be together (at any cost) or has agreed to stay in their own bubbles, something of the essence of Christmas has surfaced. Whilst on the one hand, Zoom family gatherings can seem disembodied, I’ve heard many make peace with the quiet, cocooning of immediate family, or the reflective sides of solitude. There seems to be more awareness of who is spending Christmas alone, and people reaching out to check-up on friends, loved ones to see how they will be in this time. I find this deeply touching. 

In my heart, I feel a shot of sadness, as I accept that my children’s childhood will feature Father Christmas, lights, a decorated tree and presents for this time of the year, whilst the traditions I grew-up with, will remain alien, clearly marked by the difference between their different norms at nursery/ school and our home. I think of my Christian Iraqi friends and their families, whose minority experience I had not considered (sitting in the privileged majority position!), until I myself became a minority. I wonder how they might have felt, when Eid was a giant explosion of colour, feasts, new clothes parading to visit friends and families, and their Christmas was a smaller event, still celebrated, though on a smaller scale. My brother’s first sighting of Santa, in a hotel in Baghdad in the 1980’s, resulted in a fearful explosion of tears, as he clung to my mother, desperately screamed to all around him that this is the ‘Big Bad Wolf!’

Accepting my children’s dominant language, cultural references and ways-of-being in the world as fundamentally different to my own childhood’s is a reality that I continue to make peace with. I hope to celebrate the essence of all of these traditions from celebrating Jesus the Son of Mary, the love, acceptance and peace he had offered to the world… at their essence, these stories intend to keep us together, to help connect us to one another, as well as to our inner well of strength, patience and security. 

Wishing everyone a peaceful, restful and quietly joyful Christmas… 

Building a Bridge

How can we engender change? Be this, in one human being, within a family, in a community, a society? And if changes are made, how do you integrate these into the institutions that manage our lives? And if an institution implements some changes, how can they integrate these, so that it flows into being, and not stumbles like Frankenstein’s monster, an amalgamation of uniquely disparate parts?


Integration of change is what helps a person feel (and to be) whole.

If you want to change a habit, like smoking, it would help if you adjust your other habitual patterns to support that change. Why were you smoking? What was it supplementing? What resources are you putting in place to help catch you when you’re stressed or surrounding by smokers, and when you inevitably slip into another smoke? What if you want to set-up a support group to resource yourself? And if this group begins to grow, and other substance abuse issues become relevant? How do you accommodate new members and different habits? What if you tackle the tobacco industry, to change the system that sell cigarettes? Do you set-up camp outside the factory or head offices, demonstrating daily, getting news coverage and expanding the movements? Do you invite those who might benefit from your movement to engage? 

Tobacco companies rely on smokers to smoke in order to make profit. Though if smoking is exchanged for racism, ie, tackling racism on a personal level, to communities and institutions, then would the case be different? If a system is inherently racist, is it not relying on that statuesque, that imbalance of power, to function successfully? 


According to DiAngelo, all ‘white people’ are inherently racist, because this is the system they come from. This has evoked a lot of anger and controversy in the US, especially as DiAngelo’s framework positions American history at its bedrock. Much of her argument applies to the UK, and I imagine, in a contorted, ‘reversed racism‘ way, to countries created and colonised by Britain and other European powers. We look to the West for standards of living, from education and the arts (discarding vernacular learning material and losing oral and traditional music) to beauty (nose jobs and Brazilian Blowouts!). Often, even after many decades, these changes remain superficial, like attached limbs. I may pass for Spanish, dressed in a flowing dress with long flowing hair, study in an American University of [insert name of a capital from a Developing Country], sip a glass of wine or grab a Happy Meal at McD’s (bit of an odd combo!), but scratch beneath that skewed Western model, my inner working system remains as imbued in racism, sexism and whatever forms of marginalisation my family, community and I have come from. 

How do I integrate changes so that the facade flows with the interior? This is something I’m grappling with as part of a diversity student group at my therapy training college, so both the personal and family examples, as well as the community and institutional ones are relevant. 


I’ve taken action in the form of classical activism; placards and letters, petitions and rallies, almost all in the context of anti-sanctions and war. That’s what it took for me to hit the streets, as a 19 year old, to talk (in my odd Americanised Arabic accent) to complete strangers in Sheffield town centre. I felt utterly conflicted when my halls of resident cohort refused to sign my petition, in support of lifting economic sanctions. They didn’t have a reason beyond: as this is my government’s decision, it must have value. I wasn’t angry towards them. I was confused and disappointed. Being with them after that, I was careful to exclude the parts of me that might come across as ‘overly foreign’/ aggressive/ overtly Arabic/ Muslim etc. Our friendship became stunted, as I wasn’t able to bring myself fully in, and in time, unsurprisingly, was lost.

I also found that the Socialist Party folk, who instigated these passionately fuelled actions, blew with the newspaper headlines. When Iraq wasn’t on the front pages, they moved on to the next hot topic, and I moved away from them too. I’ve since worked with burnt-out NGO workers, who seemed unaware that were barking instructions on the very people they were meant to be helping, who raged at an invisible system and were utterly fed-up. I worked in charities that patronised the underprivileged; cultural centres and art organisation who championed the underrepresented, and that’s all well and good, but how do we change the bigger structure that holds all this together? How can we hold our anger/ fear/ guilt to really meet the other, to engage in productive steps forward. 

What I didn’t like about DiAngelo’s book is the immense shame it roused in people, who are the very same who need to wake-up, to enable, to ally with the Undepriv’s and Underrep’s. That shame triggers rage or worse, from my perspective, silence. Neither are conducive to real change, as both are likely to lead to various forms of disengagement. That’s the fragility; the threat that I may destroy the very system that sources my power. It’s a big ask. Why should I put myself at a disadvantage to help you? 


What I do like about the book is how DiAngelo sets deeply productive steps to inform, to engage, to move forward (and I need another post to do those justice!)… though the bridge onto that path remains unstable. 


Personally, I want more events/ workshops/ initiatives that explore white privilege/ guilt/ fragility/ history in a creative, open, brainstorming way that invites safety and authenticity. I want to hear someone share their lived experience of how they went to a majority white school, hangout with white friends at university, and now works in a majority white workplace. How? My background is so fundamentally different- I didn’t have meaningful relationships with white English people until Uni (!)- so I am sincerely curious to learn. For the conversation to move from the periphery, we need to really engage the majority. I believe that for a ‘white’ person to open themselves up to examination, to go to that uncomfortable place, and be with their inner fragility, we (the other side listening) need to also hold ourselves, to be present; holding the intergenerational anger, the daily micro-aggressions, the need to blame and scapegoat. Another big ask.


Maybe that’s why it’s easier, for both sides, to polarise, to Other, to separate. I am this, and you are that. There’s safety in here too.


I don’t have a nice, rounded ending to this post. 

Bully Boys

My daughter had ‘odd socks day’ at her nursery last Monday, symbolising support for difference, which marked the first day of an anti-bullying week. All students, from nursery through to year 6, had a brief to complete, and ours was a poster. This ignited a process of reflection on this theme (for me) and brief questions and exercises (for my children) to discuss the meaning of ‘bullying’ and how can we resource ourselves to respond to a bully, to ally with those being bullied. 


I’ve been pondering the myriad of forms ‘bullying’ can take, from discrimination and institutional racism to workplace intimidation, and more manifestations in domestic abuse, like gas lighting, shaming and punitive punishments for children, whether at home or school. What’s the line between abuse and bullying? The cliche of the playground bully is limited, when we know of cyber bullying, and the impact of social media on us, particularly children and adolescents. Maybe all abuse involves a bully, though not all bullies are abusive; can you bully someone without abusing them in the process? 


I am also with how wider families, friends, neighbours, even health professionals, often resist calling-out abuse, for fear of breaking-up a couple and families. Or worse, that this abuse rears its ugly head in their direction. Often, abusive patterns that are anchored in power imbalances are so much part of a culture- be this any family’s unique ‘culture’, wider regional, national or religious cultures- that even well-meaning people struggle to recognise potential injustices at play. It is part of a ’normal’ spectrum that can leave individuals, families and communities complacent in their silence. This is enough to turn a blind eye, to swallow down your intuition and to assume it is none of your business. 


Someone being bullied and abused, particularly by a loved one, may struggle to see this as such and will assume that they, the victim, is somehow deserving of this mistreatment and often find ways to excuse their partner/ parent/ school mate/ aunty or family friend. Fear of being punished, shame and even embarrassment that they are ‘making a fuss’ can all muddy the waters, so a respectful, firm and holding intervention becomes a necessary resource for them. This can take the form of simply making a private, quiet space to ask how the person you are concerned about is doing, listening to their experience, holding back on judgement and sharing your concerns. Finding words to affirm their experiences and emotions can help them validate their diminished sense of self, which often is the first element that takes the biggest bashing. If this is an adult, then it is more complicated, though not unreasonable to be direct in your confrontation, if you have witnessed what you know (in your heart) is not acceptable. I’d like to believe, if tested, I’d take the risk of getting it wrong, be corrected, even told off, then risk allowing a husband to bully and shame his wife. If it’s a child, then it absolutely is your duty to call this out. 


Even professionals, like nurses, health visitors, doctors, child and couples therapists are often misinformed on abuse and what it entails. Maybe they are afraid on a deeper level, to name what they suspect. I know, from experience, couple therapists who will do all they can to avoid sharing their opinion, so as not to be called in to bear witness in court, risk being sued or worse, risk placing their professional reputation at the stake. In fact, some believe that couples therapy can do more harm than good  as the premise is grounded in mutuality, which has systemically fallen apart in abusive patterns. The Family Courts are rife with silenced abuse, protecting an abusive parent’s right to see their children (changes are slow but imminent here), known cases where rape victims face their perpetrators to give evidence in court. To me, this is forms of bullying on a wider, structural level, that leaves us all, as a society, complacent.


Child abuse cases where social workers, teachers, emergency care nurses and doctors assumed the incident was an accident, assumed the child went to school, chose to assume the parent or ‘auntie’ is benign at best. No one wants to cause trouble, to ruffle features, to stir the water, to risk a backlash… and sometimes it is our duty, as a fellow human beings, to check-out if someone is really OK. On a smaller scale, if a mother has to consistently manage emotional abuse from her partner, to meet his anger when her infant cries or justifying herself to his reprimands, to live with perpetual anxiety and fear, how can she be fully present for her children?

A bully doesn’t need to use bad language, to physically hit or even to raise their voice. Some bullies actively derive their power from their anonymity and invisibility, in the case of cyber bullying, or from skilfully masquerading a warm, charming persona to all, except a reserved few. Often, cold, manipulative anger is a dish the more refined bully likes to serve his chosen victim/s. If these victims have an Allyship to help hold them when they are more vulnerable then they will survive to better recognise and call-out bullying. 

Emerging Difference

I ran into a neighbour yesterday, and when I enquired after their niece, the reply was that she is coming home from school hungry, as she doesn’t seem to be getting enough to eat at the meals the school provides. I said I often pack a little snack-box in my daughter’s nursery bag, in case she gets peckish, and the response was that’s against the school policy. Why don’t the girl’s parents feed this experience back to the school? The response was that they- first generation immigrants from a country with a long history of government oppression- were afraid to criticise the school for fear of alienating their child, and instigating some sort of backlash reaction towards her. They did not want to risk their daughter’s safety. My neighbour then shared a little of their own fear of police officers, and other forms of authority, which stems from direct experiences in their country of origin. 

I’ve been reflecting on my own attitude in approaching conflict, and how I manage my need to take action. I’ve recently been criticised at being indirect in my approach, particularly in confronting differences of opinion. Instead of openly meeting a challenge head on, allowing anger to be openly expressed, I tiptoe around direct action, in an attempt to find a way to appease, to quell, to make the situation safe, before tackling the issue at hand. I am aware that I’m not easily roused into anger, which is of immense value in being responsive and not reactive; and also lacking as the implication is a disconnect, an inauthentic response to a given situation.

There is value in meeting difference here-and-now, taking action in-the-moment, which can mark a line between a healthy response from an unhealthy one. A neurotic pattern is for someone to freeze in the moment, only to think back on what he should have said or could have done. This can imply something unresolved, unprocessed trauma somewhere in their lifetime, or even, generational trauma from decades of suppressing anger and avoiding confrontation- until it is repressed out-of-awareness- for fear that it would lead to persecution and danger. So I keep myself safe, small and quiet, and get what I need to get done without ruffling any metaphorical feathers. Equally, another pattern is for someone to be easily triggered into reacting with anger, then be left to deal with the damage, which leaves ‘anger’ with a dangerous reputation. Healthy expression, for me, is spontaneous yet contained with awareness, articulated simply and directly, it’s hot enough to take action and change the situation, but not so hot as to burn the house down. This takes practice and trust, and I believe, a lot of unpacking of the generational elements at play, not simply the personal, individual ones.

I recognise the anger I feel when I hear cases of child abuse or when I’ve worked with people in hideously disadvantaged situations, like a refugee camp in a banana field in south Lebanon or working children in a refuse site in Basra, Iraq. The anger at the injustice sits in the pit of my stomach, like a lead weight. However, this ‘anger’ is contained and productive, where I can articulate myself, hold my self aside from the people and situation I am working in, in order to meet them. I still need to vent (boxing works wonders!), which often reveals the kernel of my intense emotion as deep sadness. I learned to recognise my anger in my first therapy training in 2013, and in group process, had a few opportunities to practise expressing myself with others. I found that the majority were able to take me, and that I often wasn’t received quite as strongly as imagined I would be. I wasn’t the raging hulk figure my anger represented for me. Still, my instinct, my deeply ingrained habit, is to avoid real head-to-head confrontation, and in that moment, to step away from my anger, until it’s safely contained and productively packaged. The problem arises when I confront someone who has a very different relationship with their anger, and I struggle to meet them in that place. Some people’s anger clears their thinking, drives them forward, helps them resolve relational issues whilst all is open and in the air. Left to cool, like oil in a baking tray, it can turn to a stale and congealed mess.

Being part of a diversity student group at my therapy training school, I notice my difference in response to others in the group, and I wonder if/ and how a generational impact of authoritarian abuse of power has impacted my experience of meeting challenges associated with differences. If I’m unaware of quietly redirecting someone’s anger or consistently quelling a call for action, then I can impede growth, whether personally for me and others, or/ and for a group as a whole. A group that is, ironically, exploring difference. Difference is often pathologised, in the context of institutional marginalisation, where tokenism and the lighter/ more fun forms of multiculturalism is paraded to distract from meeting at the boundary. I don’t have answers. I do believe that differences in ways-of-being in-the-world need to be held, side-by-side, and honoured, in order for something unique and spontaneously to emerge.

Scattered Minds

“We bequeath to our children not only what we honor in ourselves and in our parents; each generation also passes much of its own negative experiences on to the next, quite without wishing to do so. We need not be helpless in deciding how the story of our families will continue in the future, but first we have to recognize the themes and events that have shaped our present.

“Blame becomes a meaningless concept if one understands how family history stretches back through the generations. “Recognition of this quickly dispels any disposition to see the parent as villain,” wrote John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist who showed the decisive importance of attachment in infancy and childhood. Who should we end up pointing the accusing finger at? At Adam and Eve, or perhaps at some poor anthropoid ape ancestor digging at the earth, a crudely sharpened stick held between palm and prehensile thumb.”

From Gabor Maté

The above Quote is from Gabor Maté’s Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I was originally looking for another one of his books, but downloaded a Kindle Sample and got hooked! I don’t think the thinking is exclusive to ADD, as he talks of the generational impact of unprocessed trauma, as well as the links between child development and neurological plasticity with emotional wellbeing and our environment.

Halves and Quarters

Below quote is a conversation between a 7 year old daughter and her mother, from Diana Evans’ ‘Ordinary People’, a delicious novel I’m currently reading:

“‘ I’m half English, a quarter Jamaican and a quarter Nigerian.’

‘No, you’re a quarter Nigerian, a quarter English and half Jamaican.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I’m half Nigerian and half English, and Daddy’s completely Jamaican.’

‘But I want to be completely Jamaican too,’ Ria said. ‘I want to be all of them.’

‘You can’t be all of them and only one of them at the same time. You can either be just one thing or a mixture of things. Anyway, you’re British as well.’

‘So I’m four things?’”

I’m reminded at how I did something similar in dissecting my identity, and how a core weekend tutor/ facilitator at the Gestalt Centre, said: ‘you are not a quarter this and a quarter that… you are not halves and quarters. You are everything that you are. You are all Kurdish. All Arab. All Iranian. All British. You are all of you.’ I was gripped, though I didn’t comprehend the depth of her message. Still, it stayed with me, and I come back to this image of wholeness whenever I find myself fragmenting with the differences within.

Ending with another quote from Lebanese Amin Maalouf’s book ‘In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong’:

“What makes me myself rather than anyone else is the very fact that I am poised between two countries, two or three languages, and several cultural traditions. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off a part of myself?” 

Colours

Asked to do a self-portrait at art class, when I was 11 years old and freshly arrived into the UK from Iraq, I enthusiastically drew myself as pink skinned with pale green eyes and bright yellow hair. Classmates sniggered at my picture in break time, and I wasn’t sure if I’d inadvertently walked into another opportunity to be bullied (I was an easy target in those early months) or another case of lost-in-translation— Art and Arabic were the only group classes I attended, as I was learning the language. Turns out it was a bit of both, but more, a culture clash that I continue to excavate deeper layers into.

In Iraq, I was a relative minority in how I presented physically: I was indeed ‘blonde’ compared to the standard black, my hazel eyes relatively ‘green’ compared with the average dark brown, and my skin ‘white’ in relation to the warmer, olive skin tones.

I’m setting aside for a moment the European ideals of beauty, which often grade beauty in a hierarchical colour palette. Setting that hefty piece of the puzzle aside for now.


Even amongst my international schoolmates, my colourings had shifted with the change of country. I was now olive skinned with mousy brown hair and brown eyes. The variation I experienced in my youth transposed into a monolithic non-European/ non-white category. Not only that, as I didn’t have a Middle Eastern ‘Fro’ or silky mane to proudly exhibit or the big black almonds to peer through, I teetered precariously on an edge.


At 21, when my first white hairs prematurely came out of their closet, I began to colour my hair darker than mere mousy, even at one point, dying my brows and lashes to match. I didn’t fit my own image of myself anymore, so I attempted to fit the image others seemed to hold of me. At university, I was mostly with white English friends and a sprinkle of Brits of South Asian origin, but I was firmly, the only foreigner.

A foreigner who lived in a diaspora bubble. I proudly ate baked beans (an English national dish!), served cold (it’s surely sweet and intended as a salad side dish!). I enjoyed various privileges like being left out of the South-North England divide or Public-State school prejudices. Spared by virtue of being on the periphery and in a box all of my own. Even my religion was left alone, possibly with a potent mix of fear and ignorance.
And when talk inevitably shifted to childhood references, I stayed quiet, inwardly recalling the Ba’ithist propaganda songs and dances I took part in as a child, the school trips visiting ‘war heroes’ in hospitals, namely, dismembered and traumatised soldiers returning from the battlefields. TV programmes proudly exhibiting those with lost limbs still managing to survive daily tasks like brushing teeth and fixing lunch… no Magic Roundabouts or Where’s Wally.


In London, I’m a Londoner. Simple. In my therapy training course, I’m again a minority. Not just me as an individual, but ‘me’ on an institutional, and systemic, level. My college is not an exception in this, although other organisations have been more forthright in exploring both the minority position and ‘whiteness’. Black and Asian networks (BAATN), Irish communities (iCap), those working with gender and sexuality (Pink Therapy), others getting uncomfortable with discussions on ‘race’, ethnicities, culture and power (Aashna and Minster Centre).


The mental health professional field is contradictory. On the one hand, the intention is to heal, strengthen and support clients to live more fully, with integrity. On the other, the profession’s history has some pretty harsh realities of suppressing, even creating scientific justification for Othering those who are different; often dehumanising an ‘entire’ race or community, justifying and enabling atrocities from slavery to pathologising homosexuality, to putting many women in mental asylums for not acquiescing to the male figures in their lives.

I’ve been part of a student-initiative looking at our experience and relationship with diversity and difference, both personally and professionally, and although I’ve done a fair amount of work on this theme, I find it’s (I am) an evolving process. I only woke up to the historical element with Rose Cameron’s book, which covers marginalisation on an individual, institutional and systemic levels.

I’ve always been clear: I’m not white. I may look white to some, but that doesn’t matter, because I am not ethnically ‘white’ or European. I know what it is to be exoticised, Orientalised and objectified based on what I look and sound like. The frozen fear I experience, when the whiff of persecution sways in the air connects me as much to childhood experiences of war to my great grandparents’ stories of migration as refuge. Black Earth Rising is as much my region’s turmoil as it is Africa’s, from the draws of the colonial powers and corruption to genocides and survival guilt.


And I am white. I am visibly not black or brown. That reality, and privilege, of that reality, is something I’m choosing to be with. In the past, I’ve been frustrated at not fitting into any one category, of being an ‘invisible Muslim’, questioned on my Iraqi-ness by other Iraqis etc that I’ve often refused to accept the privilege that comes with that same facade.

I can relate to both explorations into whiteness and those from ethnic minority perspectives. And I’m not sure how I fit into any one of the organisations listed above. Beyond my individuality, my entire country is a misfit of ethnicities, religious, colonial influences (from Ottoman to British) and languages and tastes and smells, and I am still more white than the majority of my own family. When I don’t want to stick out, I can better hide under the umbrella of my relative invisibility. That’s my reality.
A sleeveless top and exposed hair as telling as my pasty olive tones.

I’m sitting with the privilege of not having my race thrust upon me at every turn by those unaware of theirs.
And I feel a nonverbal affinity with those of ethnic minorities groups, which I sensed without any cognitive understanding, when I chose my first psychotherapist in 2013, the start of my therapy training; I didn’t care where they were from, as long as they were ‘ethnic’, and basically, not white or European. I had experienced different colours of objectification that frankly, I was less interested in exploring their colour blindness than my own baggage. It’s not my job to educate my therapist, that’s their responsibility (and their training college).

However, the affinity I felt with ‘minorities’ also blinded me. I was unable to feel provoked when my formidable mixed race trainer/ teacher pushed me for a year, possibly in an attempt to explore transferences, yet was triggered at the first push from their white, male colleague. The same-ness I felt towards them and their race blinded me to their power, their hierarchy, essentially, them. My heritage of safety in same-ness needs to shift to truly accept- on a body and spiritual level- the beauty and richness of difference.

Music in my Soul

‘No, I’m not fasting.’

Hard words for me to say. An admission of not practising my faith in this Holy Month.

I want to say this first week has had a considerable impact on my life; a delicate veil of listening more deeply, a silent dhikr/ a remembrance of God’s infinite wisdom, of prayer and reflection, modelling rituals to my children, sharing these with my mother, who thanks to COVID is stuck here with us!

This would have been my first Ramadan when I’m not pregnant or breastfeeding (both of which exempted me from this part of the practice), and so far, strictly speaking, I’ve not been ‘clean’ to fast (thanks to my intense monthly cycle). And regardless, I do not, right now, feel in the right place to truly slow down, to turn my gaze inwards, to switch off and float, as I’ve enjoyed doing during this Month for most of my adult years. By the time I graduated from university, my family had all left the UK, so fasting become a solitary practise for me, my eccentric way of tuning inwards, of letting go (physically and spirituality) of basic needs. I’d practise Kundalini yoga, alongside silent dhikr at home, a Sufi circle or the occasional tarawee7 in the mosque. I also made sure that at least a handful of times, I invited friends over for Iftar, regardless of whether they shared my faith or practise, to share in the spirit of Ramadan. This was my past practise, when I had my support system in place, when my responsibilities were different, and life felt more steady and stable.

Right now, I need my strength, my clarity of mind, my feet strongly rooted to the ground, to anchor myself, to be present to my current reality. I have a myriad of reasons, beyond COVID, to say that I do not want my faith to be a burden, but a support. How can I support myself with God firmly in my heart? 

Ramadan is not simply about eating, or not, it’s generally agreed that the practice is deeper than the physical, but why is variations on fasting disregarded so quickly by other Muslims? Any variance is viewed, at best, a joke, at worse, an insult. A taboo at both ends. This judgement is subtle and familiar.

‘Fasting’ as far as Muslims are concerned is not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. Simple. If you choose to have water, that’s not fasting. If you smoke, that’s definitely not fasting- and I have personally silently judged smokers who claim they are only ingesting air! But I’ve admired those who say they will only drink water but not eat, or have a banana with their medications in the morning and continue until sunset, fast half the day, like we did as children… these creative modifications strike me as people choosing to find a way into their faith, fitting themselves into a practice that can otherwise seem unattainable. Can they not say they are ‘fasting’? 

Similarly with reciting the Qur’an. A woman is not to recite to a mixed audience. Anyone reciting has strict rules to adhere to, like which vowels to elongate and how to clip particular consonants. Do not make the recitation akin to singing! Although musical, this is not music. This is the word of God. No one is to recite with any mistakes. A mistake is near blasphemy, an insult on what is perfection and inimitable. 

I recently recorded a short chapter from the Holy Book, and when I played the recording to my mother, she looked concerned: ‘There are two mistakes!’ I was aware of one of the mistakes, but I was glad to have recorded something in-the-moment, that’s alive and connected. I wanted to share with friends, the unconventional way I choose to vocalise God’s words to my children every night at bedtime. There will be mistakes, because I learned these chapters by heart as a child, and to my ears, this is music, because to me that is not an insult, but the highest praise. 

‘The same archangel Gabriel who visited our Prophet (Peace be Upon him)’, my grandfather used to say, ‘visited Mozart and Verdi, because their music is divinely inspired.’ 

A blasphemous statement to many Muslims, but to me, this was an enlightened man, whose love for God was echoed in all that he loved and what enriched his soul, from nature to music. 

My experience last Ramadan was torturous attempts to connect with a man who attended Friday prayers and did not eat from sunrise to sunset, but who chose to punish and deny me the pleasure of sharing iftar with him, to leave our home ten minutes before his first and final meal of the day, knowing the peace and pleasure I have in cooking for those I love. Alas, how we adhere to our faith is not in his or my judgment, but in God’s infinite wisdom, His ability to see beyond the surface, into our heart and soul.

When I questioned my grandfather as a child, asking why all our household fasted except my grandmother, he immediately defended her:

‘Whether your grandmother fasts or not is between her and her Creator. Besides, your grandmother looks after you, she prepares a sumptuous meal for us, puts up with our low energy and short temper, even our stinking breath! Perhaps to God, her actions have more value than our fasting, because we fast for ourselves, but her actions are for us all.’

Islam places a lot of value on niyya, or intention, as that is the essence of our thoughts and actions. Practise without intention is misguided, but to those following the petrified shell of religion, rules are paramount.

To those of us who choose the malleable, subtle, inner workings of our faith, we carve our path to the Divine, and do so with music in our soul.