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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.
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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.

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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.

Bearing Vision 

‘I needed to do something so I can breath’, said entrepreneur and social activist, Rashma Saujani, as she addressed us at Creative Resistance last night. She sat, with her toddler on her lap, and spoke of her involvement with the Women’s Marches here in the Bay Area: ‘I didn’t want my son to grown up believing this is OK.’ Others spoke too and acknowledgement was given to the various women present, who all led marches in particular cities. All with impressive turnouts

For the first time in a while, I was very clear about why I was there and what I wanted to do. Last week, I envisioned leading one or more gatherings with those directly impacted by the so-called ‘Muslim Ban’, such as myself, and those who aren’t, but are curious to attend. The intention is to create a space to share experiences, stories, ask questions, show support, connect on a basic human level in the here-and-now, rather than get lost in the heady politics. 

Since the ban, some expressed surprise: ‘I didn’t know that I knew someone directly effected by the Ban!’ Sharing my current status with my mother/baby group last week (luckily I changed groups!) invited support and apologetic statements. 

Hence the gatherings idea: so people can connect on a deeper level, feel a sense of validation and receive the healing that comes with making contact with other human beings. 

With no idea what to expect yesterday, and running some 45minutes late, I nervously walked into a large, trendy open office area, with booze and popcorn dotted throughout the space, boards with idea plans, screens with projected images, bowls of badges with attractive feminist logos. The people present were a mix of social workers, artists, therapists, young techies and entrepreneurs. Rashma herself set-up Girls Who Code, so even your average start-up-y is not average, by virtue of being a woman! Most of those present seemed out of place in this part of the Bay, as opposed to trendy Mission, so I drank every bit of this buzzing energy. 

Spoke to three people about the gatherings, and all, with typical American can-do attitudes, were full of beans for the idea. Right now, it’s an idea, though I do want to realise it into a something somehow pretty soon. 

Last night, I got the support I wanted, and I left on a high. 

I said that this isn’t my battle, and maybe it’s not. I do want to look back one day, with my daughter, and say: our time in the US was brief, but we were part of this incredible movement!

I didn’t even make the march in SF, and I’m not sure why exactly, as I was aware of, and anticipating, it. The domestic mommy bubble can be pretty all-consuming. 

On a deeper level, the instinctive reptilian responses to trauma are fight, flight or, sometimes forgotten, freeze. Maybe, with the blow of Trumpy and the Ban, I’ve been frozen, feeling stuck and numb. Stuck emotionally, as well as geographically. Being amidst the women yesterday, I felt a thawing. A stirring of potential. 

A witness assures us that our stories are heard, contained, and transcend time.

 

Last time I said it’s not my battle, and I’ll only be a witness. Though for a moment, I forgot the imperative role bearing witness can be in the process of healing. 

Picking Battles 

I’m moved by friends expressing words of concern and sympathy with the latest US movements. Thank you. 

‘Tara: sorry we have a giant orange piece of shit running the country. Hope this madness doesn’t end up affecting you. As an American, this is embarrassing.’

As much as I’d like to lay all the blame on Trump, to me, this is not new or shocking. As a British-Iraqi, I’ve already been marked out and denied the visa waiver I had been entitled to as a British Citizen (ranted about it here). And that was under Obama. This seems an ugly extension of what already began under the last administration.  

And I’m with Omar Kamel, who suggested many Arabs were glad to see Trump’s vulgar in-your-face attitude and actions come to the fore; as this longstanding attitude is simply being made glaringly visible to the world. America has always put America first, but now, it’s doing it loud and proud. The facade has fallen. 

‘Thinking of you, given the extraordinarily nasty immigration restrictions that just came in – are you in the U.K. or US (or somewhere else) at the moment?’

I’m in the US, largely at home with a new baby, in a quaint, white, affluent neighbourhood in San Francisco, which feels as far from Trump’s America as possible. I am mostly in contact with darkly positive, competitive, double pumping mums, who juggle start-ups and Baby Bootcamp in Lululemon gear. Very, very far from Trump. 

‘I’m so angry, and I feel so helpless, I want to go on every demonstration I can! And she [Teresa May] is a witch bitch!’ 

I’m not angry. Or maybe my anger had been suppressed for so long, it’s turned cold and passive. 

Again, Trump can’t take all the credit, as our very own unelected Teresa is openly complicit. Yet again, unsurprisingly, Britain is the US’s loyal bulldog. What’s new?

My community work was all about exploring and facilitating the process of integration for migrants, and creating a space for dialogue between people of difference, to allow diversity to thrive. In the U.K., I would be hitting the streets, setting-up a gathering, meeting with friends. Here, I’m a guest who’s landed in a home undergoing a crisis. 

Right now, I’ve no intention of setting roots here. I respect the battle some are gearing up for, and I want to say: this is not my battle to fight. I am only your witness. Right now, what I am witnessing includes waves of support, beautifully articulated and diversely expressed anger. Those who had taken their values for granted, are standing up to defend themselves and others. This, for me, is a big part of the current picture. 

‘I’m wondering how you are feeling and how you might be affected by the insane and unbelievably destructive immigration ban in the US at the moment?’

I feel sad, and somewhere I feel angry, for those whose lives depend on the US. Some have literally had their lifeline cut off. 

For me, I’ve desperately looked forward to family visiting. If they can’t come, then I would want to leave. And if I can’t come back, then I’ll be grateful to have (once more) fled a battleground. 

Hardcore Bubble

Two months after I gave birth, I moved from the UK to the US, to live with my partner in California. If you imagine sun, sea and surfing, then I should say, I’m in Northern California, and in the notoriously cool and windy microclimate of Pacific Heights in San Francisco. 

After being here for two months, I have yet to make a single friend. This is unlike me, as I usually relish throwing myself into new and challenging situations and groups. This has not been the case here. 

Instead, I miss home; my friends, the familiarity of London, my cat, bicycle and overall, the various networks I tapped into for emotional support, work opportunities and play. Here, I’ve largely been in a lonely bubble. 

Add to the mix the postpartum hormonal fiesta, and the speed in which so much has happened in the last year, well, I’ve landed with a thud. 

We are staying in a pretty pink cottage, in a posh part of town, people seem friendly, our neighbours have been kind and welcoming, and most important, being together as a family is truly a blessing. And yet, here I am, with a sticky stuck feeling. 

As a new mum, life’s focus whittles down to one important (little) person. Everything else fades into the background. Without the traditional system of family and community nearby, then this can be very isolating. The world shrinks, and can feel a pretty lonely place. 

As much as I love being with my beautiful baby, I sometimes wish I had work to go back to (!), adults to engage with, the satisfaction of working uninterrupted on a single task, and the appreciation of a job well done! Alas, until I tap into relevant networks here, I’ll be home, and discovering that being ‘full time mum’ or ‘homemaker’ (what a title!) is hardcore. The mothering bit is a pleasure. It’s the other bits that grate. 

Becoming a mother is one recent, and tremendously important part of who I am now, and it’s one part of me. In London, where I had people and structures already built, I felt connected. Not only to others, but by being with those who know me, I stayed in touch with who I am beyond being a mum. I felt together and whole. 
Here, my identity first and foremost is of mother and wife- both relatively recent phenomena- then alien, on both counts of being British and Iraqi.

In our neck of the woods, the corporate, tech and managerial worlds rule. Though not too far there’s a lot of the community/ therapeutic/ creative spirit I’m craving. Yet I’m struggling to make time beyond the domestic sphere I’m inhabiting. 

I’ve written about developing a ‘sense’ of self and belonging, and maybe this is what I’m missing: in my shrunken bubble, it’s been hard to fully immerse my senses into my surroundings. 
When motherhood came into my established life, it was a new layer to a pretty solid foundation, and I was able to begin the process of integrating this new phenomenon into what I already had. When all this shifted, and I carried myself and baby somewhere altogether new, I’ve only had newness and little by means of an anchor to hold onto. Both my inner and outer worlds dramatically shifted. And continue to shift. 

Whilst in transition, I’ve sometimes felt like I’m breaking down. 

Gestalt therapy proposes that there is no creation without destruction, and the ‘self’ is continuously being created and destroyed. This takes place when in relation to the environment and ourselves, be this the physical, social, emotional. In order to create a new picture, the old one needs be broken down. I’m holding onto this. 

Only The Lonely is (I hope) my temporary state, and I need to trust at the end of the this destructive phase, something deeply sincere and beautiful will emerge.