Skip to content

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…

Show Me Minds

Last night, my brother booked a family outing for us to see Derren Brown‘s Showman and the first few thoughts wrestling their way into my mind was that my show of choice would have been The Magic Flute or Hakawatis, not a magic show! Then the oily hypnotist character from Little Britain, who hypnotises his dates into ordering the less expensive options on the menu, popped into my head. This, before I snapped myself into excitement at a precious family outing and more generosity of spirit than I was allowing myself. Amidst a packed auditorium at The Apollo, I wondered if all these people are fans of magic and mentalists, like my brother, who is a talented storyteller, slight-of-hander and performer himself. What were all these people hoping to see?

What was on show was the power of the mind; both the conscious mind, which feeds us the narrative that best suits us, and the unconscious mind, like the dragon quietly laying under the waters. Hypnosis and Brown’s showmanship aside, the parallel that came to my mind was a webinar I had watched earlier that day, on working with children who have suffered sexual abuse. It seems a big jump from a West End show, but bear with me.

The speaker of the webinar, child therapist Valerie Sinasson, asks why the antelope feeds in front of the lion, and suggests this is in fact the safest place to be because the prey can keep their predator in sight, to know when they are hungry and about to attack. A similar pattern often plays out with children who suffer abuse at home, not just practically, in wanting to stay with their carer/ abuser, but inwardly, in their mind.

Our mind (and body) is amazing at keeping us safe, and to help us survive even the most unimaginable circumstances.

Sinasson references Fairbairn theory of Moral Defence, which theorises that a child, abused by their carer or someone close to them, is most likely to self-blame, and rationalise, for example, ‘this is only happening to me because I’m bad’ or ‘I behaved madly and made him hurt me’ rather than consider the possibility that the very person who is meant to protect and nurture is causing the most harm, which rationally is too much for that child to fathom. The notion that ‘Dad is doing something bad’ or ‘Dad is bad’ is both dangerous, as it makes home an unsafe place, and impractical, because a child is defenceless against a parent who is abusing them.

I keep my loved ones good and I take all the badness, goes the intelligent, survivalist thinking of the child suffering abuse. Not dissimilar perhaps to the many victims of abuse who grow-up to inadvertently (and unconsciously) perpetuate abuse as adults- whether as perpetrators, victims or/ and enablers- do so because on some level, they are keeping close to home, to what has always felt safe, normal and familiar.

Back to Brown, without giving away the content of the show, as specifically requested by the showman himself, I witnessed adults forget everyday facts with Brown’s hypnotic tricks, so that they, in a moment, alter their perception of reality to adjust to this missing information. I thought of how our mind does this in unique ways every day, when an emotion/ a thought/ a feeling/ a knowing is too much to accept rationally– perhaps it’s too painful, uncomfortable, frustrating or even, dangerous– so it is held onto by our unconscious, just in case. Reminders are sent out, when our unconscious believes we are safe enough to tackle this bit of info that has been filed away; a trigger (the term applied ad-nauseam) is the unconscious mind sending out an alarm, a reminder to tackle a feeling, a memory, an experience once hidden, buried away. This is why those suffering with PTSD often get triggers when they are in safer circumstances, not when they are in the battle field, so to speak. When I interviewed Iraqi civilians who were directly effected by the second Gulf War, it was often when they left Iraq, when they were physically safe in the UK, that they began to experience their first triggers, and later, some diagnosed with PTSD. Their mind and body– because our mind is our whole being not a separate entity– knew when an experience was too much to take head on, stored some of it away, and only brought it forward when the individual was deemed safe enough. Safety may not seem obvious to the individual, as it is after all, the unconscious mind acting, and the conscious mind is therefore left clueless as to the rational behind their responses.

I am in the business of providing a safe enough space for a person to feel able to bring to the fore their thoughts, feelings, experiences in the here-and-now, which may have been stored from an earlier time, and last night, I found myself welling up in the dark auditorium, both in awe of the power of the mind, and the unfairness of the world. The children who work so hard, on an unconscious level, to survive, and how much space is eaten up in that process of survival, and why so many fall behind in school, may seem ‘off with the fairies’, may shut down/ or act out aggressively, and how, if that is the only reality they have experienced, may find themselves falling into the dreadful patterns they were locked into as children. There is always hope, and to me, it is also immensely sad.

And then, ‘the perpetrators’ of abuse. Sinasson talks of how children defend their abusive carers, and watching Brown’s hypnotised individuals construct a new reality for themselves, I thought of the abusers. Not just those who abuse children, but to my mind, the toxic men who intimidate and coarse their partner, and to someone else, appear soft spoken, intelligent and possibly successful professionally. How does that work? Can both realities co-exist? To the outside, it may appear that the partner is not being sensible/ inciting frustration/ and in other words, being bad in some way– which is how we as a society, as family members/ neighbours/ friends can inadvertently gaslight victims of abuse– or these perpetrators are unknowing showmen, living a different reality their mind has cleverly constructed for them. Perhaps the idea that they are abusing their partner is too painful and the possibility that they, as someone likely to have experienced coercion, manipulation and bullying themselves, are now the coercive, manipulative bully, is too much to take head on; and so they delete this bit of fact from their mind to live with a cleaner, easier, safer life for themselves.

This pattern should not atone for their abusive actions, though it may help their victim/ survivors to understand that their experience of abuse is theirs and may never be accounted for by their perpetrators, because their abusers may never feel safe enough in themselves to face their actions. Irmgard Furchner, the former Nazi secretary found guilty of crimes against humanity, will likely hold onto her version of reality, which her unconscious has cleverly constructed for her, than take accountability, though in this case (relatively rare), her silent victims receive a form of justice that says: we don’t need you to accept your part in this, but we see you, and in front of the world, you will be charged. Regardless of the length of sentence Furchner received, I believe the outing of someone who has remained hidden, in more ways than one, is of immense importance. I sincerely wish all those surviving abuse, irrespective of their age and circumstances, receive their form of justice.

I now realise that these hoards of people squeezed into The Apollo had come to witness their own power, which Brown skilfully reveals through emotive storytelling, hypnosis, magic tricks and special effects. Brown, to me, was the medium in which I was able to be with both the awe and discomfort of the power of my reality. I felt small in my conscious mind, and intimidated by how much I don’t know I know, and wondered at the reality we each construct for ourselves, every single moment of each day.

Perhaps this is the power of the arts too, particularly performance, whether opera or a magic show, in highlighting something we can easily miss so that it is on show for us to examine, protest, adore, wonder at, write about…

Spiritual Container

Two years ago, whilst I was going through a particularly turbulent time in relation to an individual in my life, my therapist invited me to practice saying the following inwardly: ‘Thank you, you are giving me exactly what I need.’ At the time, I was too overwhelmed to appreciate the statement, though her words stayed with me, and whilst I continue to manage my relationship with said person, I’ve found grounding and hope in that whatever I am receiving right now- no matter how frustrating, disappointing or painful- is what will ultimately deepen my understanding, create meaning and enrich my world. 

My therapist (at that time) was practising transpersonal therapy, which integrates spiritual and transcendental human experiences as part of the therapeutic process. Essentially, taking into consideration the whole, beyond the human individual. She linked the statement to the Buddhist notion of Karma– more in relation to unfinished business in past life than good or bad deeds- though I found meaning within my own faith through kisma wa naseeb/و نصيب قسمة (concepts akin to ‘fate’ or ‘fortune’, deriving from the Arabic root of ‘part’/ ‘share’ respectively). I understand both to be the small part or share of the whole, namely, what I am experiencing is part of a much wider picture that I cannot fully comprehend. To accept this part, the fortune I am given- particularly when it is unsavoury- is to trust in Divine wisdom, and that all parts fit, even if I am unable, from my vantage point, to see exactly how.

This faith that I hold, particularly in my darkest hours, is my spiritual container, what essentially holds me when I am struggling to hold myself.

In moments of happiness and deep gratitude, my impulse is to thank God, and when at an ebb, when life seems relentless, I am at God’s mercy. On both ends of the spectrum, I trust that what I am getting right now is what I need and deserve, and importantly, what I can manage. The belief that I can carry whatever adversity lays in my path is an extension of my faith, namely, that God would not burden an individual beyond her capacity is a concept carried from Christianity into Islam. In both cases, the concept highlights that ‘God is not the giver of trouble. God is the giver of Life.’ Ultimately, God is my Protector, a loving forgiving presence, who is able to see beyond what I see, to hold me even when I struggle to hold myself. This is when faith is a resource, a container to hold the more turbulent moments in life, and a regulator of intense emotions and pain. And to engage and to be with difficult emotions, like anger, envy or hatred, rather than dismiss and deflect these, is (in my belief) part of my spiritual process, because I am endeavouring to emulate God’s infinite capacity to hold all, which I ultimately will fall short of. God ability to give life, as well as takes it, to expand as well as constrict, means that these facets need to exist together, and are neither good or bad, but part of a greater whole. See Neil Douglas-Klotz‘s wonderful book on applying God’s 99 Names to daily practice).

I leave you with a well known prayer to welcome the new year, which helps me remember that accepting my fate is a mindful, reflective practice, not a passive act, and an extension of my faith in both humanity and The Divine:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.“

Serenity Prayer

Care of Self

If you do not know how to take care of yourself, and the violence in you, then you will not be able to take care of others. You must have love and patience before you can truly listen to your partner or child. If you are irritated you cannot listen. You have to know how to breathe mindfully, embrace your irritation and transform it.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Warrior Mothers

We did a family camping trip last weekend, and I felt like a warrior mother, sharing my tiny borrowed tent with my two children, weathering a thunderstorm one night, loosening up routines that ordinarily bind our hectic life together…and letting go to discover, find joy in simple pleasures and to celebrate being together with the minimal every day comforts (often invisible, taken for granted). The fun my children had, at this mini break, was familiar to me from my own childhood, as I watched them exploring the surrounding nature, make new friends and even make do without their toys and routines. 

This familiarity stems from my own mother taking my brother and me out to a water reservoir in the desert, when we were children in Iraq (ثرثار), where with several other families, we spent days swimming, cooking and eating together, playing with friends, making new ones, almost always falling asleep outside, only to wake in the car the next morning. The discomfort of that sleep was counterbalanced by the excitement the next day offered. 

The challenges were different -swap thunderstorm, mud and damp clothes for scorching heat, lack of natural shelter and sun burn- but the spirit of adventure, of a mother not playing it safe as a single parent, modelling strength alongside vulnerability (she was always discovering alongside us, avoiding the Super Hero role some parents cling to). To this, I am grateful to my mother. 

One week ago today, my mother won the highest award her profession has to offer. Whilst this was an honour, what has taken us all by surprise, is the public response she has had. People she knows well, old school friends she hasn’t spoken to for decades, former students, to complete strangers, poets and artists, eager to share their joy, the pride they feel as fellow Iraqis that one of theirs has shone on a global level. I believe this has touched my mother’s heart more than the award itself. 

What this award fails to acknowledge is how this woman built and rebuilt her life as war, sanctions and political unrest dictated much of her life’s trajectory. Her career has been the one constant, perhaps a refuge, from all the unknowns, anxieties, fear and anger. Whilst some turn their anger and sadness inward to starve themselves, smoke or exercise to vent, others transform these powerful emotions into ambitious drive, a determination of the same intensity as someone escaping a frightening predator. This is my mother. 

To take pleasure, to lose herself, to escape, she reads, she writes, to connect and feel, she teaches, to energise and create, she designs. The line between personal and professional, pleasure and work, friends and colleagues, is thin, if invisible. My mother’s career became her backbone, what kept her up and alive, to strive and keep a sense of normality amidst the unpredictability that infected her life, our life, as this continues in our MENA region and globally. Those inspired by her, project onto her their own successful future, a determined optimism, an escape from yesterday’s pains and today’s unknowns. 

I want to acknowledge my mother’s other role, which is rarely deemed worthy of an award; that of being a mum. I was aware from a young age that my mother has a life beyond me, my brother and our home. She has students, colleagues, an office, conferences and late nights facing a drawing board. Bedtimes were at 6pm, which I bitterly resented as a child, to make space to continue working into the night. I knew this work was important, and as a child, felt equal measures of frustration and pride. 

Back to my own family camping trip, this was exclusively with a group of single mothers- some separated from life partners, others bereavement and some by choice- as I watched these woman, all smiling, supportive, playing, cooking, telling off, I wondered at the invisible pain and sadness that intruded on their lives and the coping strategies that have been put in place. I know from my mother, her hard work and determination sit alongside the pain, loss and fear she has experienced in her life.

Did I ever wish I had the Middle Eastern mum who greeted me home after school with freshly baked treats and cuddles? Or the mama who visits me in London, as a young adult, to cook, stuff my freezer full of food and clean my flat before returning home? Did I envy those with mothers busying themselves with matchmaking, closely followed by pressure to produce grandchildren? Sometimes, yes. And today, as a mother myself, I take comfort in the belief that if I was to go full force ahead to pursue my passions, realise my talents and adventure alongside my children, I know that they will grow with a sense of their own power, dreams and strength to find what sustains and revitalises them. And, if like me, they don’t settle on one profession, choose to wander and discover, then to know their mother would love them unconditionally, and besides, she has her own life to pursue without the need to live theirs. 

On Display

I stood to gaze at the bones of a young child, who died of brittle bone disease some 5,000 years ago, exhumed in Egypt sometime in the 19th century. My young children nudged me to read the caption, and I hesitated, wondering: is it morally, ethically acceptable to display human remains in museum exhibits? Put on display in the same vein as a coin, a chair or another inanimate object? 

The ‘mummy galleries’ at the British Museum attract ‘more visitors per year than any other area of the Museum’s public space’. I studied archaeological science at university- including human skeletal studies, i.e., ageing and sexing bones etc- and I hadn’t quite considered the matter ethically until last week. Perhaps with my own mortality closer at hand and looking at this child, not much older than my own. 

The Egyptian mummies at the British Museum are a familiar classic, which I’ve enjoyed in my own childhood, and enthusiastically took my children to visit after school. And last week, an insight landed on me like a bucket of warm water; these displays were once living and breathing human beings, not too different to you and me. This was someone’s child, and the others were someone’s mother, grandmother… 

Even the humblest of archaeological enthusiast would be familiar with the process of mummification. Essentially, loved ones cared for their dead in a very particular way, took exceptional care, precision and cost to secure their life in another world, beyond this one. This is not the ending they had envisioned. The voyeuristic stance I took, looking at these people in cases, left me with immense guilt. This is objectification, Orientalisation and colonisation, all proudly exhibited.

I wrote elsewhere on my belief in public collections of a private (here), and the complex issue of funding. I believe, regardless of the colonial powers that acquired the British Museum collections, these are best cared for and safest here. This applies to archaeological heritage from my own country of origin; the Babylonian and Assyrian reliefs, the Balawat gates etc. With much disagreement in my own family, I believe our country is too political volatile, constantly threatened by religious (and non-religious) fanatics, under skilled, under funded and unable (right now) to care for these world heritage objects. More, these glorious objects will not be viewed by anywhere near as many people as the ones here and in other privileged countries. 

However, this thought is specific to human remains from whatever age, from whatever culture, humans who once lived, who had children, and mothers who grieved for them and who died and were desperately missed by loved ones, or even if they went unnoticed, forgotten. 

If I tragically lose my child, I would not want them put on show for others to gaze at, and luckily, I don’t imagine anyone would be interested in such a display. And today’s present is tomorrow’s past, a foreign country to excavate and escape to.

Behind the Breath

‘Fear is excitement without breath’ is a famous quote by one of the founders of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls. His partner, Laura Perls, arguably, had a major influence on the birth and development of this therapeutic modality, particularly in its focus on embodied work. This wasn’t a free association process, with a patient talking away uninterrupted, their head spinning from a sparking unconscious, whilst their body sinks into a sofa, dead to the world. This was about being in relation (or in contact) with our world (inner and outer), building an awareness of ourselves in the here-and-now, as well as out in-the-world, and how to meet at the boundary between you and me. Laura Perls’ thinking was ahead of its time, and her partner, the male, maverick, showman, fell into an all too common historic pattern, where the wife/ the mother/ the woman/ the female contributor is missed.

Her ‘breath work’ invited clients to ground themselves, to tune in, be aware of their breath, in order to really be present, with themselves first, then with the other. She spoke of the importance of self-support, and that the work of therapy, or even the work of living, cannot fully take place if the client has not found their own ability to support and resource themselves. She spoke of ‘living on the boundary, one must have access and use of one’s excitement, and if you get anxious instead of excited, it means that you don’t allow yourself to support the development of excitement with the increase intake of breath.’ This all feels like the root of the famous Fritz quote, and I wonder of the intimate conversations, the thinking aloud and the influences that fed the mouthpiece, the script that played the actor.

Real creativeness, in my experience, is inextricably linked with the awareness of mortality. The sharper this awareness, the greater the urge to bring forth something new, to participate in the infinitely continuing creativeness in nature, This is what makes out of sex, love; out of the herd, society; out of wheat and fruit, bread and wine; and out of sound, music. This is what makes life livable and incidentally makes therapy possible.

Quotes compiled by Anne Leibig, and full article can be found here.

For this international women’s day, I am thinking of the unsung intellectual women, the creative conceptualisers, the lateral thinkers, the rational brains that were held in the form of the female sex, who as a result were silenced, and if we are lucky, some have since found their voice back to us, to sing a tune from beyond.

Covid Creates 4: Envisioning Silver

Responding to a tweet, I imagine was written in humour, has activated my otherwise fatigued grey cogs:

‘TV Pitch: Silver Mirror. Instead of showcasing endless nightmare versions of the future, an anthology series that envisions a better, more equal, and just world. @NetflixANZ hire me.’

With increasing news of how Covid is impacting mental health, both for adults and children, I wonder at our ability to envision wellness, a different, more ‘positive’ future, not just as individuals, but as a society… 
There are real, direct and practical implications of Covid and the restrictions it has enforced locally and globally, for example, closure of schools and loss of jobs, delayed response to GP and mental health facilities (already strained and slow pre-pandemic), as well as the pressure cooker of families all working and homeschooling in the limits of shared physical space, single-households more alone and isolated than ever, and the closure of leisure, cultural and sports venues… and I wonder if amidst all this, what was already in short supply is proving particularly dangerous, namely, our ability to tap into our sense of resilience, not just to cope with the present but to envision a better future, is drowning in the currents. 

I used quotation marks for ‘positive’ because I grew bored and cautious of the term, when used as a delusional broad brush stroke for an IG filtered facade, denying anything deemed draining, dark, unattractive, not Like worthy. Positive Psychology  for example, is largely about honing in and bolstering the strengths, raising awareness of what is working, not just what isn’t. As well as meditative and spiritual practices, from mindfulness to daily prayer, there are practical applications to professional and institutional workings aimed at re-orientating focus from ‘what are we doing wrong?’ to ‘what’s working?’ 
Appreciative Enquiry is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes’ (Starvos et al. 2015).
When I was introduced to Appreciative Inquiry  by a supervisor on a pilot humanitarian project in 2014, I felt like someone had ushered me into a parallel universe, where my starting point was an inquiry into what’s already working, then imagining how good it could be, conceptualising my ideal vision then creatively sourcing the steps I need to get there. I often arrived at sessions exhausted and full of the struggles and realities of working in a refugee camp inside a developing country (already struggling with its hosts let alone its migrants!). Whilst I felt my feelings were held, validated and attended to, I was also invited to stay curious with ‘what am I doing well?’, which for me, often needs to be excavated from the rubble of ‘what didn’t I get right this time?’ attitude. Something as simple as having managed a session where the children didn’t all shout at the same time for an hour, where we managed to draw a picture together, move to music, play a game…or the mothers attended the weekly Women’s Circle; I remember reviewing my discouragement that then the women often brought their daily chores with them (peeling potatoes, folding clothes, breast feeding their infant), smoked and joked alongside the deeper sharings and breathing exercises, until I saw that they were claiming this space as their own, and this is something to celebrate, not commiserate because I wasn’t managing to recreate some Californian, Esalen-eque group in South Lebanon (!). These simple realities would have been easily missed, when this transient community had no promise of stability, when the host population was being attacked by ISIS, who were (then) the newest monster to crawl out of the woodwork, screaming a vision of beheadings and enslavement.
I imagine for the majority of us, it’s so easy to believe I am not as competent as others perceive me to be, where concepts like Imposter Syndrome were originally conceived with high achieving women in mind, and I would argue, alongside these women, stand the BAME/ IPOC/ other minority acronyms for people who were told a story that no longer serves them. Transactional Analysis’ Critical Parent ego state arouses the inner voice of the parent who put you in place as a child, who told the 8 year old you that you should be this and that, who reprimanded me for asking too many questioning, who told you that you needed to watch your weight, who said that girls shouldn’t speak too loudly and that big boys don’t cry… these voices weave themselves into our inner fabric, so that I don’t recognise theirs from mine. You don’t need to be believe in a one true voice, though perhaps recognise the voices that serve you today. What are the Nurturing Parent voices that hold, soothe, energise, propel, and encourage me to realise my dreams, to creatively envision? A Critical Parent is still needed, for example, to be on time to my dentist appointment (if I can get one!), to stop myself from watching a fourth episode of a Netflix series, and a Nurturing Parent parent may come in to encourage you to have a soothing bath and catch some rest, to help me see that maybe I needed to watch the fifth episode because I’ve worked really hard today and needed to vegetate and reboot. Not put me in time-out, scald with reprimands that diminish and humiliate me…

I mentioned spirituality, which includes faith and religious practice for me, and whilst I appreciate many are (rightly) cautious and skeptical, it’s still a key resource for many. I’ve been revisiting the Muslim and/ or Sufi practice of evoking God’s 99 Names, where polarised, expansive facets of the Creator, nature, the cosmos, are roused within. For example, Al-Jame’/الْجَامِعُ guides towards a pathway of gathering, whether of people in your life or of the resources needed at the moment, inviting a process of gathering parts of yourself that can help you better reflect your purpose in life; or Malik Al-Mulk/ مَالِكُ ٱلْمُلْكُ offering an opportunity to open your heart to a passionate vision that would compel you to live your life in service to Unity. Unity of self, of your home, your community, world, past-present-future and also, according to the spiritual belief, unity of God. Not in a shouty fanatic way, but in an inner, integrated and grounded way, holding both the challenges of reality, alongside gratitude, joys, beauty and accomplishments worth acknowledging (maybe celebrating) at every turn.

This is what propels me, what nourish and feeds me, and what I believe can support moving away from the black mirror of society, to a brighter, more silvery one.  

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.