Skip to content

PlayArabic إلعبي بالعربي

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

This is a parent-led initiative to keep our spoken language alive, creative and fun. We will sing children’s songs, tell stories and play in Arabic. Until we know who we are as a group, and who plans to stick around, I will be leading on the prancing around and exaggerated expressions, in an attempt to engage babies, toddlers and very young children!

The idea is to create a space immersed in spoken Arabic. 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 differences, I’m planning on bringing 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 hope 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 is inspired from a Cantonese Playgroup I came across, whilst looking for an Arabic equivalent. I’ve yet to find anything like this 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 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.

The next step would be to create a database of all Arabic children’s activities in London. 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. Word-of-mouth is a powerful medium, and easily missed if you don’t have your ears pricked. If someone gets to this idea before me, even better, as my time is pretty tight with my own little ones.

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, so why use the conventional masculine form to imply it’s for all? And, fathers/ male guardians are more than welcome of course!

The first 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!

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.

Mother Who Makes

Juggling two babies under two, alongside a move back to the UK, after some 7-months in the US, is a job in and of itself. And yet, since my daughter was born, I’ve found myself desperately clawing at life beyond motherhood. I wouldn’t describe myself as ambitious, in the superficial sense of the word, and before having my own family, had possessively kept my creative practice within a tight circle of peers. Yet, more recently, I’ve felt hungry to make something of myself,specifically, to create and share my artwork.

In February 2017, in the US, I wrote something to do with identity and belonging, inspired by events around the ‘Muslim Ban’. I organised two informal events, where I shared my work with invited audiences in October and November 2017. I was eight months pregnant with my second, as I sat on a high stool to read my text and sing Middle Eastern folk songs. The response was overwhelmingly encouraging. Since then, I rushed a 10-minute reading at AWAN festival 2018, recorded my first audiotape with Audible (involved a whole day at the studio), improvised live music for London Playback Theatre, and attempted (but failed) to hand in a funding application for 1st May. Oh, yes, and had a baby. Such processes would have been relatively minor blips in my life before babies, whereas now, a measly 10 minutes at a festival involved many hours of planning, coordinating and begging, mainly around childcare, which (frustratingly) didn’t include more than one informal rehearsal with the accompanying musician.

At the festival, I was not satisfied with what I shared, even when audience members came to share how the extract I shared resonated with them. I know I could have done better, and I know I rushed, and spent disproportionate amounts of energy on the stuff around the performance. Am also frustrated that I couldn’t attend anyone else’s talk/ play/ gig (major factor of my wanting to do the fest in the first place!), as I needed to rush home to my toddler- my infant came along, where he was attended to on site by two generous friends- so is the effort worth the end result?

I’m propelled, frustrated and curious as to where this ambition has come from; why am I pushing myself?

Limited free time often means I need to choose between a shower, food or working on text/ song/ funding app etc. This of course comes after my home work, as in homemaking work. That work doesn’t end, nor has any financial gain. Neither does my creative work, which makes it (logically) even more redundant. Funding would allow me to hire a studio, to arrange proper childcare, to physically leave the home, shelf my role of mum (as any working mother does) to invest in something that has deep meaning for me, as well as occasionally yielding some profit. Instead, I steal and dodge and tiptoe my way to editing a piece of writing, and fantasise about doing bodywork and perhaps reconnecting to the disembodied lump of meat I currently inhabit postpartum. In short, an indulgence. A guilty pleasure.

‘Why don’t you just pull out?’ a friend asked a few days before the festival. Not helpful. ‘You know you don’t have to do any of this, right?’ Again, this is not supportive.

My partner reminds me that I insisted on being a ‘full-time mother’, which is true. Though the idealistic person I was then, before actually having looked after little humans 24/7, is not the person I am today.

I partly chase my creative work in an attempt to work through, and integrate the major role of motherhood into my ‘self’, rather than allow it to become all that I am. The sum of the whole is greater than its parts, and all that jazz. Partly also, to escape the often isolating job of being mum. Isolating, and frankly, thankless. Being mum is an honour. Being a homemaker, I find, less so. At least for someone who is not naturally consistent, does not thrive on daily routines, and is absent minded (even before Baby Brains). Besides, the job of keeping a home are largely menial, unappreciated, and when down well, unnoticed.

So, even if I just manage an hour working on my laptop- usually in a cafe a few minutes from home- I take a moment, take some space, I might go into flow, I come back, physically more tired, but emotionally refreshed. Then, bath time becomes a delightful event, even breastfeeding, a welcome respite, and cooking, something I rarely enjoy these days, a little more of the hobby I once relished.

In short, I need it. I need my creative, artist self, otherwise, my life feels like a constant drain. I fail to see how much I have to be grateful for, when it intensely, and overwhelmingly encompasses each and every moment of my day (and interrupted nights).

Besides, I sincerely believe I am a better mother, when I am in touch with the creator in me.  The maker. And I believe I’m doing something that one day will make my children proud.

***

I borrowed the title for this post from from Mothers who Make; a UK-based network aimed at supporting mothers who are artists, working in any discipline and at any stage of their careers.

Spectactors

We’re running some 15 minutes late, which I hate in general but especially when heading to the theatre. I tell myself, if we arrive and the show has started, then we can just go out for dinner instead. Walking into Chelsea Theatre, we approach a small desk, where some three assistants flick through papers looking for our reserved tickets. They don’t find anything. A woman writes down my name, and a man hurriedly ushers us in. We walk into a packed auditorium. I cannot see any empty spaces, except next to an elderly man a few rows from the front, who had placed his coat next to him, in an attempt to reserve the place. He sees me, politely clears the seat with a shrug of resignation. I look at my husband, then the usher, ‘we’ll find him a place, don’t worry!’ I apologise to the man as I sit in his friend’s seat, whilst watching to see where my husband will be squeezed in. They seat him at the end of a row on the other side of the auditorium, between a very young woman and another elderly man. Some half dozen people walk in after us, some argue and gesticulate until they manage to allocate themselves a makeshift seat, others are more embarrassed and accept the rejection, often after a wave and smile at familiar faces, watching from the safety of their seats. By now, the show itself is nearly 45 minutes late in starting. The woman to my left informs me that it’s been this busy almost every night since the play’s run, and this is the last evening. I’m intrigued.

The lights dim, as someone crosses the stage, and pairs of eyes peek through the heavy curtains backstage. Instrumental music comes on, as a woman dressed in a ballet tutu dances onto the stage with a big grin. This must be symbolic of something, I console myself, though as the minutes march forward, I’m half filled with dread; what have I dragged us into? It’s so precious to have my husband in London, and for us to be able to find an evening to ourselves without our toddler, only to be separated then squeezed amongst unfamiliar bodies watching a grown-up woman do an impression of a ballerina?
The night before, I had read a Facebook post on a friend’s wall praising a feminist Iraqi play and recommending people to go see it. I’m all about community art and theatre, and it’s not often that I have a chance to witness an Iraqi feminist play, so I immediately followed the reservation instructions and texted my name to a listed mobile number. I’ve grown familiar with two types of ‘community theatre’, one where a group of amateur theatre makers put on a play, often a classical one, usually to the interest of locals. I imagine this more in small towns and villages, rather than big cities.Then there’s the type of community theatre that I’ve been involved in, where a performance is devised with a group of people, maybe of a disadvantaged background or/ and those of different religious, political or cultural affinities. The process of making the show engenders dialogue, and that’s really the point of the whole thing. I would not apply the same criteria to such showings as I might to a professional production, say at the Royal Court or National Theatre. 
As a group of masked men approach the stage to engulf our ballerina, I wonder to which category this play belongs.
Shelving my snobbery from there on, I watch as short scenes play out to essentially demonstrate the fickleness of men, and often, the endurance and courage of women. Generally, male characters who have betrayed their wives by taking a second wife with good connections to get ahead in life, or taken a third and fourth wife, as well as a mistress to cheat the benefits system in the UK, or an academic, having divorced his learned wife in favor of an illiterate rural woman, finds she has more sense than he does. ‘Is it common to marry more than one woman in Iraq?’, my Palestinian husband asks. Not that I know of, though perhaps this is now a trend (?). A Greek chorus, composed of three young women, sang short ditties summarising the moral of each scene. Still, there was no question that with every scene, with every ditty, we were all attuned to our actors on stage.
IMG_4919.jpg
There’s a scene between two female political candidates at a talk show, where two types of people are represented: the intellectual woman, refined in her language and manner, wearing quite ‘westernised’ clothing, juxtaposed with the more cliched Iraqi woman, wearing a jilabiyya, carrying her groceries, being bullied by her buffoon husband… the former is all about smooth talk, whilst the latter is all about action. Clever and funny, with more than a grain of truth. As each woman stated her argument, audience members cheered, commented and jeered accordingly. I imagined Brazilian theatre maker Augusto Boal’s inspiration for Forum Theatre, whereby members of the audience are encourage to shoutout ’stop’, only to enter a scene themselves as protagonists and attempt a different result to what the play originally showed, whilst the actors onstage improvise around each intervention. Boal named his audience members ’spectactors’, as in a cross between spectators and actors, making a move against the passivity of those watching a play. In a wider context, encouraging active and engaged citizens of the world, not those apathetic to anything that doesn’t directly impact them. This was at the heart of the play, namely, ‘we’ as Iraqis need to take responsibility for what is happening and not hide behind fatalist facades. 
In any case, there was nothing passive about our Iraqi audience members, as individuals and groups spontaneously voiced their opinion, laughed and clapped to express their stance. I found these moments the most enjoyable part of the evening.
The style of the play sprints between the farcical comedic and realist tragic, which seemed so aligned to my eyes and ears that I was only made aware of the juxtaposition when my husband pointed it out. My initial response was simple, and made up, as this is not corroborated by anyone or anything I’ve read: As Iraqis, we are often sick of the daily tragedies, the realities of life, and so we often need humor to lubricate us into accepting the harder truths. And these were old school Iraqis. The first generations of the community, who may have been in the UK for ten or twenty years, but who maintain life within a diasporic bubble. Theirs is an Iraq of the past, long gone and replaced by something scary and unfamiliar. There were also Iraqis with clear, living connections to today’s Iraq, and who resonated with the actions on stage from a slightly different perspective. Whether in the UK for 3 months or 30 years, in the end, as Iraqis in diaspora, we were all part of the same subgroup, whether or not we feel we are part of the same ‘community. 
For my part, I relished hearing the Iraqi dialect on stage. Not only that, but different dialects, like the illiterate rural woman pronouncing tea as ‘choy’ instead of the urbanite ‘chai’. New to me. And her intellectual husband who made statements in modern-standard Arabic, and did asides to translate each phrase into common speak. Quick, witty and uniquely Iraqi.
The play culminated in a character, so far on the periphery, who walks centerstage to address the audience. He weeps as he bemoans his fate, his losses and the death of his hopes and dreams. He weeps as he declares no choice other than to emigrate and leave his home. At this stage, I am totally with the crowd, wiping away streams of tears, because this is real. This is no longer about make-pretend characters or a Greek chorus singing a flat tune or some intellectual exercise. This is what is actually happening- and what has been happening- in Iraq for a long time, and we all empathise.

I am filled with the realisation that this is what community theatre is about; this reflection of life on stage, this interaction of audience members to what they witness, the meeting of friends and neighbors in the auditorium, as well as new meetings between people who essentially belong to the same ‘community’. Of course I wish our efforts are more organised- why the obscene overbooking and the lack of a program? I am sad that I do not know who directed this, or the names of any of the actors, or the lyricist of the ditties- and I’m also guilty of being late and expecting to have a seat regardless. All these, I realise, are peripheral, when the essence of theatre was so beautifully demonstrated with an auditorium full of spectactors ready to go on a journey via the stage.

Meaning II

When I first became a mother, just over a year ago, I was asked if my life has since gained more meaning, which I wrote about here. I rejected the idea that my life before baby lacked meaning. Reflecting more deeply on this, for me, the meaning I believe I’ve gained has a lot to do with how my child has become the nucleus of my entire life.

In the past, I pondered my choices and actions, and wondered how life would have turned out had I done this instead of that, or accepted this offer instead of that. I still ponder, though today, the possibility of altering the direction of my life, and risking alternative routes that may divert from my present is too distressing a possibility to linger on. Distressing because I would not dare risk anything that may delete my child’s presence in my life right now.

Yes, I could have done this, and was idiotic to reject that, and still, today, with my baby having her morning nap as I write, I dare not risk altering the course of history lest it leads me away from this gift in my life. A gift, until I had her, had no wish for.

I believe in fate, though I hope not in a fatalistic way. I follow the Arabic expression: use your mind, then rely on God. Namely, make plans and endeavor to execute them, and ultimately, your life is always in God’s hands. My grandfather quoted this, and lived by it, and he was a very ambitious and goal oriented person, and yet, was able to accept when life didn’t quite go to his particular plan. And as an Iraqi, his life certainly didn’t go to plan, as the country went from revolution to war to sanctions to whatever state it’s in today! He found meaning, and so the sensical wasn’t always in question.

I consider all those in the world who are suffering right now. From wars to natural disasters, cancer to bereavement; how to make sense of all this in the context of faith? Maybe we choose to accept because if we struggle to make sense of what life hands us, our alternative is to make meaning instead.

 

Qawqa3a|A shell

Why allow others to tarnish your words; 

To harden your message; 

To encase and package it; 

To narrowly channel it,

Into an empty shell? 

A mere qawqa3a;

Where the living being crawled out long ago.  

A shell of what it is. 

***

Writing as a stream of consciousness. Exercise done at a workshop by Writers Ink in May 2011. After reading a poem by Muhmoud Darwish, we were asked to write with the  title ‘I long for…’. 

Evidently, I’m no Mahmoud Darwish, but wanted to share nonetheless, as with recent attacks done in the name of the religion that expresses my faith. 

Qawqa3a

The life you inspire into me,

I complicate.

The health you bestow upon me,

I disregard.

The food you offer me,

I limit.

The senses you sculpted into me,

I dull.

Yet I utter your words every day,

I sing your praises hourly,

I breath your presence constantly,

My beloved.

The Giver of Life, the Taker of Life.

Al-Mu7ee, al-Mumeet.

Al-Dhahir, al-Baatin.

Al-Awel, al-Akhir.

I am embedded in your cycle;

Your balanced polarities.

Intertwined in your design;

Your sealed book.

Struggling with the questions you posed.

Show me:

What is in my heart?

Tell me:

Who am I?

Must I wait for the Day of Judgement?

Must I leave this world,

Before I have understood it?

To ask;

To seek;

To ponder;

To reflect;

All because I long to understand you,

My beloved.

Why allow others to tarnish your words;

To harden your message;

To encase and package it;

To narrowly channel it;

Into an empty shell?

Qawqa3a;

Where the living being crawled out long ago.

A shell of what it is.

You, who is beyond all human judgement;

You, who knows what is in my heart;

Judge me.

Weigh me.

Lift me.

Reveal yourself to me.

My trust is in you,

And in you alone.

Pour into my heart,

And let me feel you.

I long for you, my beloved.

Meaning

I’ve been asked a couple of times recently, if my life has taken on a ‘deeper meaning’, now that I’m a mother. I’m never quite sure what to say, so as not to seem uncaring or ungrateful. Of course, my daughter is not only the most important part of my life, but my current situation dictates that my daughter is my life. Yet, I’m not sure I can say my life has become deeper or richer. If anything, my current world is incredibly small, and as it centres around an infant, it is actually pretty basic too.

Before I had a baby, I was sure, from an emotional and developmental perspective, that full-time motherhood is the way forward, at least for the first three years. Some friends argued that they couldn’t afford to do this. Some for financial reasons, and others, didn’t feel they could sacrifice a career they’d worked incredibly hard to build. Though I respected both needs, I inwardly judged: why would I have a child if I was only going to pass it off to carers for the majority of her early life?
Up until recently, I always prided myself for not needing to ‘do’ so much to gain other people’s respect and admiration. I did what felt right, I worked hard because I believed in what I did, not because I wanted a promotion or any public acknowledgement. I didn’t think twice about changing from working in a museum to theatre, to psychotherapy and community work. If something roused my interest, and challenged me on a personal level, then I went with it. I happily took odd jobs when my medley of freelance work didn’t pay off. No longterm plan. Or at least, this came and went as with everything else. I trusted this impermanence, as it was familiar. Now, I question all this. Maybe it is better to set a track and work at it, to invest in yourself, as this ultimately is an investment in those around you. A legacy to pass on.
I question my diving into non-profit work, and my skepticism with the corporate worlds. Because today, I feel guilty seeking work that would not contribute financially to our family. If I volunteered (or the equivalent) to work with refugees, then I’d need a carer to look after my child, whilst I looked after others? It doesn’t make sense. Though it didn’t make sense when I worked for nearly four months in a refugee camp in South Lebanon in 2014. It didn’t make sense, but it had meaning. I had meaning. Even with the intensity of the work, the anger and sadness I carried on a daily basis, I felt a deep connection to humanity.
I am very clear about the importance of my role as a mother. And I also did not imagine I’d have as much love, and patience, as I do for her. In truth, she has been my anchor over the last couple of months. And, my ‘work’ is an endless series of feeds, nappy changes, laundry, washing-up, setting-up the pram in the garage, grocery shopping, putting away the pram, putting away toys, bath time, feeding, more laundry, making and mushing food, more laundry…Pretty mundane and thankless tasks. Hard to feel I’ve accomplished anything, when cooking dinner, whilst taking care of baby (and myself), is often the biggest challenge strategically.
This is not forever, and my head tells me that I will miss these days, when she will be too big to carry and too mouthy to listen. The days are long, and the years are short. Right now, I do not have the capacity to think in years, as I’m stretched in one long day.
My mother recently described her three years of postgraduate study in the US as ‘the best years’ of her life, and has spoken about her ten years teaching in Baghdad as the most important, because she knows she made a difference in so many people’s lives. My parents divorced less than two years after I was born, so I find it difficult to imagine that the years into which I was born were anything but incredibly painful for those around me. Yet I appreciate that my mother’s life has always had much more than ‘us’, the children. She has always worked incredibly hard at her teaching job, as well as her consulting work, and always pursued conferences and research too. Under Ba’thist Iraq, she was not allowed to resign from her public university position, but she made the most of it, and carried on climbing when we moved to the UK and later, to Lebanon. She continues today, and I am very proud of her.
What would have come of her had she chosen to stay at home? Would she have been as proud of her life today, or been able to make meaning of her years? Her career has been her lifeline, and today, I can better appreciate why.