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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. 

Better Half

I’ve taken for granted that I’m a feminist. After all, can I, as a woman, expect equal rights as men, and not be a feminist? 

Though I’ve often secretly thought of myself as an ‘Eastern Feminist’, as I’ve come to believe life is not simply about an equal share, but a fair share. Sometimes these are one and the same, and other times, these are distinctly different. Learning to recognise the latter is key, and having the courage and will to stand my ground is second.


Above: Adam and Eve with the Tree of Life. 

For me, it’s not about splitting a cake in half regardless of how hungry I am. If I am mildly peckish, and my fellow man is famished, then I would be content having enough to satisfy my hunger, whilst he quells his. Rather than insisting on an equal half, when I don’t need as much and likely to leave my share to waste uneaten.  

This relies on sharing with someone who would not interpret my giving him more than half as weakness or stupidity. If I’m famished the next time, then he needs to allow for that too, and accept that I may want an equal share, or even, more than half. 

The issue here is difference. I am different to a man, and deserve to have this recognised and respected. My body can bleed once a month and produce a human being. A man cannot. Statistically, I will live longer than my male partner, and physically, he’s stronger than me. That’s not to say all men are stronger than women, or all women can or want to have children biologically. Yet bypassing this difference can eat into the beauty of who we are, and rather than bridging differences, we risk burying our essence in sameness. 

Now, I believe unequivocally in equal pay, the right to vote and such basic human rights. And today, when I am caring for my newborn, whilst my partner works at his day job, I cannot deny we are doing different things with different challenges and rewards. To say these are the same is inaccurate, and I would say, insulting. My ‘work’ is 24/7- the term ‘full time mum’ has come to hold very literal meaning these days- and yet that’s not to say it’s any more valuable or demanding than his work.

If we recognise and respect our current roles, and give equal weight to each, then we are better positioned to support one another. If he just sees me as a glorified maid, and I see him as a money maker, then eventually, something is bound to give. I can work, and may choose/ or need to again in the future, and he may want to try taking an equal portion of our child’s care, but this is what we have chosen to do for now.

So by ‘Eastern Feminist’, I shift the focus from two of the same, to two different shares satisfyingly balanced. Yin and yang relies on recognising the beauty and validity of each. God’s 99 Names often refer to opposing qualities, which to me imply equal importance of death as death, or constriction as expansion.  
I am both different and equal to you. 
Much of this is of course cultural, and follows what we identify as desirable and acceptable ways of being. 

I’ve met feminist women in bright red lipstick and hair down to their hips, who delight in receiving jewellery and meals bought for them by men. And men who claim to be champion supporters of women’s rights, justifying the services of young prostitutes whilst on holiday abroad. To me, these stand out as contradictions.

Meanwhile, as I settle into motherhood, it’s becoming clear to me that embracing this role full time is not given the same weight as working in a job. This I find sad as it implies a form of devaluation of what it is to give yourself to motherhood. Nonetheless, I will continue to explore, with my partner and infant, what we need and exercise my right to choose. 

Cosmic Goddess

‘Interesting how we began with Nammu, queen of the cosmos, only to end with the perspective of woman as Queen of the household…we have moved women from the public to the private spheres; what can we do to encourage them back into public space?’

Last Tuesday, I attended ‘Iraqi Women: Between Home and Diaspora’, an event organised by the recently formed Iraqi Transnational Collective. The above quote is an insightful comment, referring to a short talk I gave at the start of the evening, and a meaty panel discussion relating to the Ja’fari law and a questionnaire showing some Iraqi women as quite satisfied in-the-home. The speaker managed to zoom out of a busy verbal space, to reflect and deliver a wider perspective of our evening, and ended with a question. A feat I find impressive, as is not the norm at such Middle Eastern type discussion forums. More on that later.

Originally, I’d planned to attend as an audience member, as well as a member of the ITnC collective, but when my friend Sara Alsaraf was (understandably) unable to deliver a story she had offered to read, I offered to step in. My mouth acted before my brain, as usual, so the preparation for my short talk happened hours before the event. A full transcript of this can be found below.

Back to the discussion.

Tuesday evening was wonderfully full, and in my experience, of having worked with various Iraqi migrant groups in the UK, it always is. When Iraqis gather, who generally are hopelessly segregated through sectarian violence, or at least portrayed as such in the media, they do not want to leave one another. We struggle to end the evening. As one person put it: the conversation at the door on the way out is longer than the one indoors. Most questions, in the panel discussion, look like statements that are thirsty for a release.

There’s often a need for Iraqis to broadcast a viewpoint or idea- and I can include myself in this category!- where a person has a monologue that does not need engagement from anyone else, which if allowed to run free, can run for miles. I understand the impulse to broadcast as an individual’s basic need to be seen and heard, even witnessed, and ultimately validated as a human being. An essential nutrient that’s sadly undernourished in most Iraqis, and those in the surrounding MENA region, where we cap conversations and censor discussions, to conform to the standard viewpoint. 

Our bloody history repeatedly represses those in the minority. A historic imprint many migrants continue to carry, especially those who chose to escape their home for such reasons. My mother continued to whisper the name ‘Saddam Hussein’ for some 15 years after leaving Iraq, having grown accustomed to walls-with-ears. Maybe our need to broadcast is also an act of defiance, needed to be strong and flowing to avoid any blockage.  

In the context of workshops, I’ve encouraged dialogue over discussion, which implies a deeper, embodied experience of sharing than an intellectual heady one. I’d experiment with allowing individuals to unleash their verbal stream-of-consciousness, encouraging other participants to simply listen without interruption or commentary- and there is an exercise to help support this that I’ve personally found very helpful- but how much space can we realistically give/ and take? 

On Tuesday, as usual, with both events I have attended and those I facilitated, audiences/ participants are left wanting more time and space, as well as some who had left early of course. I don’t know if there ever could be enough to complete what some of us need to gain a sense of completion.

Tuesday evening felt like a tasty appetiser, with some familiar ingredients that were reminders of both Iraq and London, and which did their job to leave us wanting more.

Details of the event last Tuesday can be found here, and if interested in learning more about ITnC’s work then get in touch via our Facebook page.

______________

Transcript of my talk:

This evening, I’m standing in for our dear friend and colleague, Sara Alsaraf, who I spoke with yesterday, and who is sad not to be here in person with you, but for a very happy reason: Sarah gave birth a few weeks ago, earlier than expected, and is now fully attending to her beautiful baby boy at home.

Sara intended to read a story of one Babylonian goddess, but as I’m not familiar with that story, I’ve chosen an earlier Sumerian goddess to talk about, and will tie this into later history, then bring it all back to this evening.

[Storytelling on a pretty large scale, so please bear with me.]

———

Our Sumerian goddess, Nammu…

Nammu is said to have been supreme and alone, the One, needing no one and the not created by anyone. She is the primordial creator of the cosmos, goddess of the sea and mother earth.

Nammu was so full of love, of energy and light, that she, through her own primordial waters, gave birth to An, the sky god and to Ki, the earth goddess. Then [it gets a little incestous here] An and his mother, Nammu, give birth to the god of water and wisdom, Enki.

It’s actually Enki who chooses to create humans, and chose to sculpt them out of clay, and to fashion them in the images of her parents and siblings…in the image of the gods.

———

[made of clay and in the image of the creator… is this sounding familiar?]

These parallels with later biblical narratives, also include the first account of ‘Eden’, the creation of many languages (as declared in the Old Testament), the story of the flood and the man assigned to save humans with the help of an ark… and the list goes on and on.

———

Nammu remains the earliest recorded deity in history, predating Yahweh, the name for God in Judaism, which I mention as reference, being the earliest of the three Abrahamic religions.

According to Genesis, Abraham’s home can be traced to Babylonia, to the ancient city of Ur. Today, this would be in Southern Iraq, specifically in a place called تل المقير in the town of Nassiriya [not far from Basra].

Scholars may debate the existence of Abraham, but what is harder to dispute is the Babylonian influences on the Old Testament, later reworked into the Christian bible, and later still, finds its influence into the Qur’an. 

This is a historical view, where ‘new’ religions are not created in a cultural vacuum, but are re-worked, re-interpreted versions of what came before.

When Abraham went on his infamous travels [starting in Ur and ending in Judea] he took with him these Babylonian ‘stories’. Before the Babylonians, there were the Sumerians, who are our earliest point of reference for these stories.

The Sumerians, with their brick pyramids (the ziggurats), are attributed with the invention of writing. And their favourite topic to write about were their gods and goddesses.

[A little time-frame here…]

Abraham lived around 1,800 BC, and the Sumerians existed (literally) thousands of years before that, around 3,500 BC.   

———

So moving a few thousand years on from when we last left Nammu, and seeing her through an updated Babylonian lens:

She has now moved from being the first and only One, to existing amongst thousands of gods and goddess, their consorts, daughter and sons, and lovers.

Her name has also changed to ‘Tiamet’, her new Babylonian identity, who’s main role, in an adapted creation story, is playing nemesis to the Sky god, Murduk.

Murduk would have essentially been Nammu’s great, great, great grandson.

[sounding a bit like an ancient soap opera, right?]

Murduk is portrayed as the masculine hero.

[I imagine him complete with bushy beard, hairy chest and gold medallion]

He meets Tiamet in a battle, and by then, she’d created some ‘demonic monsters’ to help fend for herself. But these were no use.

He murders her, and from her carcass, light explodes to create the universe.

[‘And then there was light.’]

———

Eventually, when later Babylonian priests re-tell this story, our goddess is practically erased from history and disappears from the creation narrative altogether.

[Until archaeologists traced her remains in the 19th Century.]

And the biggest difference between the Sumerian narratives, and the later Babylonian and biblical ones, is that whilst Sumer’s original creation story had an empowered female at its centre, the Babylonians and their predecessors had replaced her with a male god.

———

[As well as Abraham’s profound diasporic influences on the bible, as a migrant from Ur…]

What seems relevant this evening, is how such, later writings have managed to diminish and marginalise the female role in history, and in turn, the significance of women today.

I wouldn’t go on about how Iraq had progressive women doctors, lawyers and such back in the 1940’s and ’50’s, as that might imply women in Iraq today have regressed in comparison. When I believe it is the circumstances, the entire context [in Iraq and the wider MENA region] that is caving in, and not the women themselves at fault.

It is wonderful that we are gathered here to celebrate and explore Iraqi women today, both in and out of Iraq, and we will hopefully listen to some real life stories and witness many exceptions to such marginalisations.

For now, I would also like to invite a tribute to an often undervalued, yet all too common, female role: that of the mother.

In today’s masculine driven world, we seem to value the progressive, professional woman, the educated and forthright woman, those fighting for causes and battling for space, even the career mums…whilst the majority of women, not least in Iraq, take on the simple, everyday, responsibilities of motherhood.

And if the first ‘full-time mum’ [so to speak], who also happened to be the Mother of the Cosmos, Nammu, was elbowed out of history, what chance does the average human mother, not least in Iraq, have for her voice to be raised and her story to be heard?


Some online references for more info:

Gillian, M. E.’s Alban’s Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt’s ‘Possession and in Mythology (2010). 

‘In the Beginning…’ blogpost, from The Queen of Heaven WordPress blog site (3rd September 2010).

Stikker, A.’s Closing the Gap: Exploring the History of Gender Relations (2002).