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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…

Including Otherness

After some three years of barely any activity outside of the mum sphere, I took on a week long acting job- workshopping a novel that’s being adapted into a play- and another, once monthly job, assisting on a psychotherapy course.

Six straight days of working, split into three full days and three half days, is the longest I’ve ever been away from my children. I managed to tuck both babies to bed every night, and prepped meals and such to the best of my ability, AND I had a heavenly week of being back in the world. At least that’s how this has felt.

Practically, my ‘workload’ doubled, as I came home to catch-up on all my homely duties. Though, I’ve been energised by using my body, my mind, expressing my emotions and ideas in a way I haven’t done in a long time. Also amazing to be with other adults, outside the context of motherhood, and of course, the luxury of solo trips to the loo!

I digress.

What I’m with right now, and eager to share, are some challenges that both the theatre workshop and psychotherapy course groups seem to grapple with at certain points:

How to include Otherness.

In the context of theatre, the challenge was to find ways to transpose a foreign novel onto the stage, without the cliches we might inadvertent impose.

The novel being workshopped was originally written in Arabic, set in Baghdad, so do we put on Arabic or vague Middle Eastern accents to convey a different language? Or do we stick to the (largely regional English) accents in the room? Can we avoid the fetishised, Orientalist flavours of Scheherazade as storyteller or a call to prayer as soundscape? Do we risk dehumanising characters by hiding behind accents and costumes? And if we distil the story, and keep much closer to home, do we risk missing the flavours of the original novel?

In the psychotherapy group, where the majority in this profession remain of a European white disposition, a question was raised on how to include the client’s cultural identity into the therapeutic space, when the therapist does not belong to that group. And in this particular case, most therapists on the course worked with children. A double whammy of a challenge!

During an art therapy exercise, called ‘house, tree, person’, I drew a palm tree. After the tutor demonstrated how a therapist might use the drawing relationally with a client, to initiate dialogue, the group was invited to make connections between the drawing and the drawer’s personality. Observations were formulated into questions, then checked-out with the client, as to avoid imposed assumptions. Seeing my palm tree, one of the participants, an experienced therapist, asked if I felt exotic. I said I didn’t feel ‘exotic’, and the word didn’t sit right with me. The palm was exotic to them, not me.

I was later struck by something the tutor said:

‘You need to stay with your whiteness to help the client be in contact with their own cultural identity.’

What he meant by that, I think, is being aware of who you are, of your position, to make space for difference. To make difference OK, safe, maybe even beautiful in its own way.

There’s no diversity without difference.

Privilege, in my opinion, is when a person is unaware of the power they have by virtue of who they are, whether that’s white, wealthy, socially connected, male etc.

In the theatre workshop context, I’m moved by the director and playwright’s fight to be authentic, and doing so in this refreshing way: refusing the easy representations of this part of the world.

Instead, finding their own truth, and evocative mediums to create a new piece, deeply rooted in the novel. Characters were drawn from the writer’s wife or an actor’s father, words were transcribed from an improvisation and directly from the novel alike, and the drafted script spoken with the actor’s Liverpudlian accent or natural Middle Eastern lilt.

The Arabic names often stood out, anglicised and out of context, but there’s time for more grappling, before any need to polish for production.

————–

Specifically:

Theatre director, Jack McNamara of New Perspectives, was workshopping Frankenstein in Baghdad, a novel written by Ahmed Saadawi.

Gestalt psychotherapist, Jon Blend, was running Gestalt Creative Arts Approach to Working with Children.

PlayArabic| Every Friday Morning for all of May!

On the cusp of giving-up on this little idea, due to lack of numbers and commitment, I decided to follow advice, which seems somewhat paradoxical, and run the group weekly every Friday morning for all of May.

I was at Mayfair Library last Friday morning, with both my toddlers and my enthusiastic mother-in-law, not expecting to see anyone… and alas, no one came. Well, one of my best friends managed to make it, but an hour late, and when my kids were running up the wall after being at the Library from 10:15am. However, even without any participants, we sang Arabic songs, went through some simple vocabulary books, played with my Sufi meditation veils, making Arabic letter shapes on the floor… so at best, we will share some of this with one or two others, and at worse, we will utilise the time to playing in Arabic ourselves.

Every Friday 10:30- 11:30am from 3rd to 31st May 2019!

Gatherers

He went to the mosque today, as he always does on Fridays. I often forget until we reconnect at the end of the day, when the babies are finally asleep.

‘What was the khutba about today?’, I often ask. I’ve joined him in the past, though not since our first was born. A clash of prayer and nap times.

I have not forgotten today.

The thought of him making his way to the mosque, preparing to pray and standing alongside strangers praying has haunted me all day.

Jaami3 is one word for ‘mosque’ in Arabic: the place that gathers. A place people come together to be together. Be present with one another, with themselves and with their Creator.

The thought that my man, the father of our children, may go to pray and not return has clung to me since 5:30 this morning.

That’s when I woke up. That’s when I heard the news, as I emptied the dishwasher, eagerly waiting for my morning coffee to brew.

All mundane, all seemingly meaningless aspects of life’s routine.

I’m haunted by the wives, the mothers, the sisters, the grandmothers, who have been denied their precious mundanity. Denied their loves. Their sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, wives, sisters, daughters…

Shootings in churches, in temples, in synagogues. Were these people at their most vulnerable, or at their strongest; present, open hearted, meeting with their Maker?

I will not linger on my anger at ‘murder’ instead of ‘terrorism’. Or the fear mongering, fostered by white supremacists/ nationalists groups and the media and all the other masks that cover the deep, deep sadness I feel right now.

Percolated Happiness

I heard of a study conducted with longterm couples, pairs of over 15,000 people who had been together for 40 years or more (yet to find its source). What the majority experienced was that after the initial years of being in love, in lust, in the process of infatuation that easily slips into conflict and toxicity- it’s a fine line between love and hate, excitement and anxiety etc- comes a mellowing, a balance that only time ultimately strikes, a sense of ease, peace that gentle humour and processes of validation help achieve. That’s perhaps not particularly surprising.

More interesting, the majority had also experienced 2-3 meaningful relationships, prior to settling down with their longterm pairing, where they fed-back: the experience of being with any one of their partners, longterm partner included, was essentially the same.

Once the initial excitement settles, and the steamy love goggles clear, you end up facing the same intrinsic conflicts with whoever you end up with.

Reflecting on my own experience, when in conflict with my longterm partner, I essentially face the parts of myself I struggle most to accept.

Imagine a mirror that magnifies all the little bits you usually are quite happy to skim over. The same mirror, when things are flowing and there’s laughter and play, reflect the parts that make you feel on top of the world.

With a personal example: I can struggle to think of myself as hard, insensitive, even potentially intimidating and exclusionary. I know I’m kind, empathic, patient, warm and loving. So to accept someone else’s experience of me, without defence and judgement, can be a very bitter pill to swallow. And when that someone is the one I hold dearest to me, it’s doubly painful.

To actively listen, accept the other person’s experience, to honestly look inwards, reflect on the situation, to accept whatever insights that might arise (no matter how ugly), and to be ready to experiment in order to engender some kind of change… ‘this is where the work is’, as my psychotherapy teacher used to say.

I draw comfort from other studies, which point towards a milder relationship, where much of the tempestuous excitements and toxicities percolate into a smoother, gentler flow.

Meanwhile, find joy in the ride, and happy St Valentine’s!

PlayArabic إلعبي بالعربي

What to do if you can’t find an Arabic Playgroup in your area?

Start one!

What is PlayArabic? 

This is a once monthly, parent-led initiative to keep our spoken Arabic language alive, creative and fun.

We will sing children’s songs, tell stories and play in Arabic.

The idea is to create a space immersed in spoken Arabic.

Dialects and differences

I’ve been asked whether this will be focused on Modern-Standard or dialect, and if the latter, whether I plan to use Egyptian, Levantine, Arab Gulf, North African etc. Well, I plan to do what I do with my two year old daughter, who I speak with exclusively in Arabic; I speak naturally in my own accent, but replace any specific Iraqi dialect words into modern-standard. For example, I don’t say خاشوگة or أوتي (khashoogha or Outti), I say ملعقة and مكوي (mal3aqa, makwi). So that when she hears and speaks with non-Iraqis, most importantly, her father’s family, she can understand and be understood.

Besides, rather than shying away from our dialectical (and cultural) differences, I’m planning to bring these to the fore. When we come across a word, like ‘hat’, which has a colourful array of variations in spoken Arabic, I hope we as parents can share these in the group. A way of acknowledging and even celebrating our differences.

Eventually, I’d love to do the same with nursery rhymes, as there are regionally specific ones too. This is another way of engaging and connecting diverse migrant cultures, in a similar line to what I’ve been doing for years in the community workshops I’ve organised and led.

The name 

The Arabic name is a play on words, purposefully using the unconventional feminine verb, whilst assuming it applies to both female and male subjects. Usually, it’s the other way round, as was the position English language took before the advent of gender awareness, for example, Mankind.

Arabic has yet to have such a linguistic revolution, or at least, I’m ignorant of any that have already taken place.

Besides, in my experience, such groups are usually dominated by women, whether it’s mums, nannies, grannies etc., so why use the conventional masculine form to imply it’s for all?

And, fathers/ male guardians are more than welcome, of course!

Cantonese Inspiration 

This group, including the English name, is inspired from a Cantonese Playgroup I came across, whilst looking for an Arabic equivalent. I’ve yet to find anything like this in Arabic for under 5 year olds, which I find shocking and sad.

I loved the story of the British-Chinese mother, who set-up the first group. She came to he UK from Hong Kong when she was eight, struggles with her own Cantonese, but found a way of passing on her mother tongue, as well as improving hers, through the Playgroup.

I also appreciate the openness of the group, as they are very organised, candid about how they set-up and run their multitude of groups, and share all on their website. A resource I’ve made full use of that with PlayArabic. I tried to make contact, to say Thank You and maybe pick their brains a bit, but not had any joy.

Support Networks 

The next step would be to create a database of all Arabic children’s activities in London. Been searching for Under 5 groups in London since summer 2017, and hadn’t found anything. In my opinion, in our Middle Eastern/ Arabic culture, we lack the ability to create support networks, and tend to function in pockets of specific groups (I touch on this in a blogpost here). 

Since organising PlayArabic, I’ve become aware of little music groups and informal classes and such that are not well advertised (or not made public at all!). Friends and friends of friends got in touch to share. Once I made contact, everyone has been warm and welcoming. It’s just hard to find that initial thread into such groups. Word-of-mouth is a powerful medium, and easily missed if you don’t have your ears pricked in the right direction. Could even be an App…if someone gets to this idea before me, even better, as my time is pretty tight with my own little ones.

The first play session will be at 10:30- 11:30am this Monday 29th October 2018 at Mayfair Library.

Yella, yella!

Spread the word, turn on your singing voices, limber up to act out stories within stories for the next generation!

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LegacyW

Naming a baby after her grandmother or his grandfather seemed silly to me, if not selfish. We risk denying this child the chance to carve out her own legacy, by imposing her familial one onto her. A case of the past drowning the present.

However, when I fell pregnant with my first baby, my partner requested that, if it’s a boy, we name him after his own father (baby’s grandfather).

I found it hard to refuse and chose to surrender to his wish.

Our daughter was born and named, and when our son followed, I felt quite relaxed into his predestined name, which luckily I have always loved. Still, I feel we impose much of ourselves onto our children, and most of these we aren’t even aware of, that their name at least, I believed, should be unique to them.

Having spent the past month on my father-in-law’s farm, just outside of Amman in Jordan, I have had the chance to assimilate the meaning of this tradition.

Now, all I’m about to say is greatly aided by the fact that I am a big fan of my father-in-law, as well as my in- laws in general. I imagine naming your most precious being after people you do not particularly care for would be an incredibly hard pill to swallow.
From the moment we first arrived at Amman’s Queen Alia Airport, way past midnight, when my father-in-law carried his namesake, something inside me clicked.
Though I couldn’t articulate what felt.
And when we first made it to the farm, around 3am, I came into the living room, having tucked my daughter into bed, to find junior on his tummy flaying his chubby legs in an attempt to crawl towards senior, who lay in a semi supine position, watching with admiration.
I enjoyed the two Ali’s, and felt warm, though the penny hung in the air.
It was last week, on a Friday family luncheon at the farm, surrounded by aunties and uncles, as they reminiscing about the olden days when the older generation was around, that my father-in-law’s cousin stopped mid-sentence, looked at me and said:
‘Wow, you’re Umm Ali! I mean, it’s obvious, but I hadn’t realised it before. You are Umm Ali.’
She looked around to my husband’s aunties, who also stopped when their own mother’s title was mentioned, and nodded in acknowledgement, as if in a dream. As if the reminiscence continued silently in a difference form.
Maybe I should mention the Arabic tradition of Kunya, as in referring to someone as Umm and Abu, ‘mother of’ and ‘father of’, followed by their eldest son’s name. If the individual has no sons, then the daughter claims the privilege.
And what happens with the absence of children?
All that stigma aside, I sat on that Friday luncheon, suddenly heavy with the realisation that I now carry the title of my father-in-law’s mother.
A formable matriarch, pious and kind, mother of six- three of whom I was surrounded by on that day- I felt the responsibility and privilege of inheriting her name.
I also became aware that my son carries the same name as his grandfather, as my husband his etc… the legacy was glaring.
I’ve never been particularly quick on the uptake, though this realisation really has taken me a silly length of time to fully appreciate.
I knew all this in my head, though now, I feel the penny has finally dropped straight into my belly.
My father missed his namesake, because his grandfather discarded this tradition last minute.
Story goes, my great grandfather sat listening to a recitation of the Qur’an, awaiting news of his grandchild.
When news came of the birth, the story of Zakariya was being recited, which sits in Surat Maryam, Chapter 19 in the Qur’an:
“O Zakariya! We give thee good news of a son: His name shall be Yahya.’
As a result, my father was named Yahya, the Arabic for John. So my uncle, the second eldest, carried on the namesake tradition. I always admired the spontaneous and intuitive way my great grandfather discarded generations of naming.
The story of my father’s name, to me, is as meaningful as the legacy of naming after family members.
My own name is a result of a legacy, though one my grandmother began by giving my mother and then me Kurdish names, which I mention in this article. Our way of safeguarding a part of our heritage that otherwise can easily be lost.
Then there are life’s crazy coincidences, or moments of fate, when my cousin, our own grandmother’s namesake, Saniha, gets engaged to a Mohamed, our grandfather’s name.
Though this seems the beginning of another story altogether. .
Still, namesakes are namesakes, and perhaps these legacies are the frame for whatever the new generation chooses to bring forth.