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Complementary Differences

At a ‘Yin and Yang’ yoga class today- combining dynamic, fast and vigorous Vinyasa alongside gentler poses, held for longer- it seemed the difference between the two characters defined the session as a whole.

I now sit with the difference between compatible and complementary, particularly in relationships, romantic or otherwise. I often hear a desire for compatibility, and I relate to this as the implication is that there is enough similarities between you and me, so we get on steadily, smoothly and with minimal conflict. However, I have often been attracted to those different to me, be this cultural, professional or otherwise, as these differences somehow allow for a sense of completion in one or more ways. In other words, the relationship feels complementary, precisely because of the two different elements, which when combined, have the ability to emphasise and enhance one another.

In marriage, my parents were as seemingly compatible as can be. Their characters are similar (grounded, intelligent, pragmatic and appeasing), their interests (all things original and innovative) and tastes too (from food to furniture!), they shared one nationality, similar family backgrounds and theirs was a pretty small community in Baghdad in those days; they were both well travelled (before they even wed) and educated in both Iraq and overseas yada yada… you get the picture. Their union did not last five years. There was no dramatic affair, addiction, or such story. For subtly complex reasons, they parted ways with a relatively amicable divorce. Yet by its nature, the parting was painfully and humiliatingly public, particularly as divorce wasn’t as common nor normalised as it is today.

As a child, I used to imagine my parents couldn’t stay together because they were like magnets of the same charge; unable to stick together. Anything else was hard to imagine, as I’d never heard either speak ill of the other, and seemed to get on exceptionally well. 

Meanwhile, my grandparents were decidedly chalky and cheesy in their differences, and somehow managed to make their romance last for over fifty years. They had their disagreements, with pretty tempestuous arguments in their youth, and visibly struggled to accommodate their opposing perspectives and attitudes. They bickered on a daily basis. My grandfather would say things like: ‘Just as our prophet was divinely inspired when he received his revelations, I believe Mozart was too when he composed his music’, to which my grandmother would interrupt with: ‘Please keep your opinions to yourself!’ He prayed and fasted, she didn’t. They joked and laughed together (serious belly laughter!), travelled regularly together and recited poetry to one another well into their 70’s. 

There are many reasons why relationships last and just as many as to how they might fall apart, though right now, as I reflect on my partner and friends, I am grateful for our differences, as well as our commonalities. If it was all smooth and easy, how would we be challenged? Would we sincerely grow and develop together as individuals? Of course, differences, if not addressed, can also fester and rip an otherwise, peacefully artificial facade. That’s where the effort comes in, the building of trust to hold and contain, negotiations and communications, allowing conflict to energise and move forward rather than quietly stagnate.

As Ramadan approaches, I recall how my grandfather defended my grandmother, when I asked him why she was the only member in our household who did not fast during the Holy Month: ‘how a person chooses to practise their faith is between them and their Creator, and not for you and me to judge’, then he added, ‘it’s her skill, care and love that creates the most inviting home and atmosphere for us to break our fast. Plus, she has to put up with our tired, drooping faces all day!’ There was utter respect and acceptance of difference. 

My memory of them today is of an elderly couple, sitting on their balcony in Ras Beirut, where they retired, watching the sunset in silence. Together and apart. 

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I wish everyone, a harmonious, deeply reflective and attuned Ramadan, where I hope thoughts and prayers are sent to those in the Middle East, and across the world, struggling for the simplest morsels of life.

Binary: Fragmented Self

Being present, some meditating yoginis would have you believe, is equivalent to being positive. Let go of the past, only carry positive feelings towards the future and all will be well in-the-moment.

Nonsense.

Admittedly, I’m someone most comfortable sitting in zones of grey, rather than at any one end of an extremity. This includes binary divisions of positive/ negative, good/ bad, happy/ sad etc. If I heard someone express hope towards, let’s say, a better future, then I automatically hear undertones of someone who may have tasted a lesser past, or at least would like to avoid reliving something. This isn’t good or bad, it just is what it is.

To reject a feeling I deem negative, say hurt or concern, is to narrow my self-awareness, to confine myself to an imagined way of being rather than embrace whatever the present actually has to offer. If not, I risk dividing myself into fragments, some of which I keep and others I creatively reject, ignore or numb through whatever means. Reality will come back to bite in the backside. Mark my words.

It just is what it is, amounts to: I am what I am, and all that I am, right here, right now. 

And it’s not all about me/  you, because this rejection extends to others.

Typically, perhaps predictably, if I reject something in myself then I am very likely to reject it in others. This narrows my ability to really be with someone, to listen to them on a deeper level and to accept them just as they are. Particularly applicable to accepting those we perceive as different to us, or rather, who and what we think we are.
If I cannot experience my pain of loneliness, believing myself to be too popular and keeping myself busy, how can I listen to my friend expressing her loneliness? Or if I refuse to accept my vulnerability when ill, how am I to sit with my partner when he’s ill? I may be able to do practical things for him, like make soup or help him wash, but to really be present with him, I’d need to be present with my own sense of vulnerability, and mortality. I know I limit myself when present with those who only present a positive picture of themselves, even people I care deeply for and have (unwillingly) accepted that our relationship is petrified in niceties.
Zen Buddhism and Tao philosophy embrace polarities within an individual, accepting these as equal, as part of the ‘perfection of a nondiscriminatory wisdom’, to ultimately integrate and rise above all through enlightenment. Sufism uses chants from God’s 99 Names, which often embrace polarities of the Hidden الباطن/ the Apparent الظاهر, the First الاول/ the Last الاخر, the Avenger المتقم/ the Forgiver العفو, the Harmful الضار/ the Preventer of Harm المانع. God is all of these, and everything in-between. To be present with Him, I need to embrace these aspects within myself. Not to superficially judge any one dimension as positive or negative, and willingly disown them from my self-awareness.
I’ve no intention of becoming a Sufi or Zen master- am far from it!- I meditate because being in-the-moment can offer a feeling of bliss, as there’s a deep knowing that all my concerns in life are tied to the past and the future (expectations, concerns, hopes and fears etc). In actual fact, surrendering to any given moment, after a meditative exercise, all seems well. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says: “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”
Now, how to transfer or re-integrate this joyous state into real life is another issue. Is there a value in leaving a meditation workshop blissful yet too fragile to experience real life?
Outside a mediation retreat, being present, for me, whether centring before a performance, or grounding before meeting with a client, is listening to my heartbeat, noticing my breathing pattern, and accepting whatever I’m aware of in that moment. Even if that’s shallow breathing, for example, rather willingly enforcing change, I try to accept all and trust change will come (see Paradoxical Theory of Change). If I cannot make rational sense of what I’m experiencing, I still trust its value, as all is part and parcel of what this unique moment has to offer in the here-and-now. Fear or anger can become gifts of insight, no more/ no less a projection onto an imagined future than hope or excitement.
I breath all in, breath out, and see what’s left. I may choose to sit with and contemplate whatever is most present with me, and (quite likely on a functional level) acknowledge and set aside for later, to get on with my day/ performance/ workshop etc. My intention is to accept, not reject, nor indulge to the point of excess. I don’t want to wallow in self-loathing for having missed a tax deadline, for example, nor refuse to accept that fact and risk penalties. As my Sufi teacher says, in his usual cheeky way: ‘Always moderation. Even moderation in moderation!’
Whether in a meditative space or a stolen moment on the tube, this tuning into the moment invites the possibility to feel whole and at at peace- I am everything that I am- Rather than fragment into bits we choose to present (to ourselves and others) and bits we try to chew off and hide. We accept our present reality. It’s a messy, more complex and potentially painful truth, and as various battles ease, a blissfully vibrant present awaits. And if you are fortunate (and courageous enough) to share a present with someone else, then you have the unknown of pain and bliss to experience together.

Second Class Citizen

Common knowledge to Brits of Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian origin, are changes to the US Visa Waver program; namely, those who are dual nationals or who have been to these countries post-2011, other than for ‘diplomatic or military purposes’, will not be entitled to wave away the US visa application process. Dual nationals, having checked this out with the US embassy, need not mean owning a valid passport to these countries or having recently visited, but simply if you are born there, and in some cases, if you belong to parents born in Iran, Iraq or Syria.

Initially, I didn’t think much beyond the mild inconvenience of this change, knowing I’d need to apply in order to visit my (British) partner next month. Though waiting for an hour and a half (after my scheduled appointment), outside the US Embassy yesterday, I had plenty of time to reflect. Am I less of a British citizen than other Brits? Am I now a second class Brit? I felt firmly in the latter categories, assuming the British government- my own government- would have needed to approve such a change in policy. I felt unprotected, handed over by my own guardians to another’s discretion.

As I waited in one of three queues, I had an unfamiliar sense of entitlement rush through my body: I am British, I should not be here! It was doubly humiliating, chatting to others in the queue (Nigerian, Argentinian, Chinese and Malaysian) when they noted my accent, and some spotted the precious red passport in my see-through plastic envelope: ‘you are British, why are you here?!’

This sense of entitlement was juxtaposed by a much more familiar feeling of 1) anxiety, particularly in relation to the official interview- when nervous and confronted by figures of authority, I come across as incredibly dodgy (!)- and 2) compliance and acceptance. Both these are a residue of the Iraqi in me, particularly one raised under the Ba’ithist regime, or maybe more generally, developing country’s make-do attitude. I’m lucky to be in this country, I shouldn’t ask for more. Though I seem to have grown more British than I had imagined, because I do believe I deserve the rights I am promised as a fully fledged Brit!

My anger is not related to the inconvenience of queuing, which in itself is pretty harmless. This is a matter of principle: I have done nothing illegal or suspicious, to be signalled out and treated discriminately in this way. This is happening because of my birthplace, my origin and past, which presumably had been accepted and legally integrated as part of my British identity when I received my passport in 2001.

I appreciate the security threats and the refugee/humanitarian crisis, but this discrimination and alienation of Brits and Europeans minority groups cannot be a sensible solution. I can accept it from foreign countries, like waiting for some eight hours at the Jordanian-Israel border last December. Or when I had my Iraqi passport, I accepted lengthy visa processes (and rejections) from various Middle Eastern countries like Jordan, the UAE and Lebanon, as well as America and Europe. Today, my British-Lebanese friend, who has been in this country for half the length of time I have and who only received her passport last year, has more rights than I do. There is an injustice here that can be damaging on a wider social level.

My community work centres around the concept and process of integration, both personal and social. The personal encourages an individual to develop a sense of inner wholeness, particularly in relation to the different (and often conflicting) parts of her identity, e.g., Iranian origin, woman, lesbian, Muslim, socialist, pub goer, dog lover, Londoner etc. Embracing these as part of a rich and unique perspective, allows the person to be at peace with themselves, and by extension, the society they live in. Social integration is the latter, the practical and emotional ability to live side-by-side with the majority with a strong sense of belonging as part of the whole. This, as opposed to isolating herself from the majority, whilst sticking to fellow minority groups, and feeling disconnected from the whole.

That fractured existence, both on the personal and social level, I believe, makes easy prey of those young Brits (and Europeans) easily plucked and groomed towards ‘radicalisation’ by militant extremists. Those lost and misguided are lead to believe they belong, not in the country they were born and raised in, but in a foreign country. Joining a devastatingly fantastical battle between ‘them and us’ is essentially who they are, and who they should be, as they will never be accepted as part of British society. This is not just me ranting, the systemic failure to support such communities, particularly second generation migrants, has now been documented to contribute towards their demise.

Now, I’m not personally under any risk of being ‘radicalised’, and and still I wonder: How am I meant to feel integrated, as a first generation immigrant, when I am isolated from the majority and labelled under my subgroup? Why is this OK? Would it be OK if I was signalled out for being a woman? Or gay? Or Muslim? Erm, scrap the last category, as that’s already presumed in the list of countries declared dangerous…

I imagined, when I headed to the US embassy, I would go through a slightly different process, presumably as they may require more subtle security checks and more in-depth interviews, for ‘nationals of VW countries’. That I may also have accepted somehow; special cases with special treatment. This was not the case. In the end, I waited for over two hours to have a 5-minute interview, standing whilst facing an American woman behind a glass screen, with another person in the queue inches behind me. Every person I met, from security guards to this lady behind the glass, were polite and efficient. Though as I said, this is a case of principle not mere practicalities.

To the British government, I ask: how can you hand me over after you accepted me as one of your own?

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Unconventionally Contented

Up until recently, I’ve been a pretty contented single woman, gracefully accepting (at times embracing) my aloneness. Even coming to terms with, what seemed at the time, a strong possibility that I will not have children (see Gateway Women). Though I didn’t suffer a brooding phase, I felt a woman without children is a big deal, and possibly even a bigger deal in developing regions like the Middle East, where a girl only becomes a woman once she is a mother, and a boy a man when fatherhood beckons. Before children, Marriage in Islam, and other monotheistic religions (Marriage in Christianity and Judaism), views a mate as a kind of completion of the self. I am somehow incomplete without my spouse.

Often, I found those around me struggling to accept my state of being more than I was, as if my contentment was a threat to a societal norm: a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and all that! Unless those around me were chosen friends who were incredibly inspiring older women I look up to, and who have come to a realisation that convention need not be for all.

Besides, women who are not biological mothers, I’ve found to more readily take the role of Mother to those around them. Rather than focus attention on what I’ve sprouted, I attend to those I love and care for. This goes against another assumption that those without children or/ and partners are more selfish. To me, those without are more inclusive to those around them, whereas those with immediate responsibilities (understandably) prioritise their own.

I write this as I notice my former aloneness invited limited moments of loneliness, as I did exactly what I wanted, whether to make myself an omelette at midnight or hop on my bicycle at 4:30am to dance at a morning rave. Today, as a recently wed woman, I feel more susceptible to bouts of loneliness. This is partly because my partner is working abroad and I’m unable to join him until next month, and also because a life intended for two can be a lonelier place than an independent life open to one and all.

Conventionally, marriage implies being more settled somehow, whereas admittedly my experience of marriage so far has been anything but settling (with travel and a planned home move ahead!). And yet, the inner peace and settlement, which for me comes and goes, remains unsteady in a newly forming relationship. This invites vulnerability, which I’ve always struggled with, and I imagine many others used to an independent life.

Alone, I was able to fend for myself, knowing what I want and who I am. Today, the reality of who I am is reforming, remoulding to fit alongside my partner’s reality, who (in his own way) is going through a similar process. Admittedly, we both found comfort in returning to our old/ pre-marital routines, whether to grab a burrito for breakfast or vegging in front of the TV. At the same time, because I’m now married and meant to be one of two, I feel lonely when alone. As a contented single woman in my thirties, I felt more a like a fighter of convention or a butterfly fluttering to where I please. Today, well, I’m not sure yet.

So, to the unconventionally contented single women out there- my former self included!- I salute and honour you. And to the less contented single ladies, and gents, looking for their ‘other half’, then I promise you, the journey and struggles do not end with a loving partnership; it just broadens to embrace more of the Unknown. Celebrate your independence, freedom and world-facing openness, before your attention is channelled towards one other.

And if that ‘one other’ calls, and you feel the pangs of love in your soul, then embrace the vulnerability and loneliness as vital ingredients on the journey of coupledom, and I hope, transformation into something altogether different.

We’ve only just begun…

Since last July, I’ve felt stretched between life and death; in love with a man, whom I have since married, and working daily with Iraq Body Count (IBC) within the theme of death.

Before working with IBC, my knowledge of this not-for-profit organisation was limited to their function, namely, recording casualties of war and current violence in Iraq from 2003 until the present day. What I saw was a dry database with records of violent incidents and respective number of dead, maybe with a handful of demographics facts (names being a rarity!). Unaware of their vision or their story, I somehow dehumanised an organisation that aimed to humanise the ever increasing death toll in Iraq. These were originally British citizens who disagreed with their country’s decision to take military action in Iraq, who felt responsible and yet helpless. IBC was created, by volunteers, to calculate the human cost of war, to make a statement: the figures you hear about in the media, are people with lives and loves and hopes and dreams.

The name alone is designed to provoke, and it often does, especially at Israeli security checks, as I  learned a few days ago: ‘is this organisation political?’, I was asked, ‘well’, I hesitated, ‘only in a human rights kind of way…’. My husband and I waited for several hours at the Jordanian-Israeli border crossing after that.

My past trips to Lebanon, Syria, the UAE and Yemen did not help our case. My husband’s biggest bugbear (and source of much pride) has little to do with what he has done, but rather, what he happens to be: a Palestinian.

Rather than striking fear and victimhood into our minds and hearts, such countries may also have much to offer by means of human stories of survival, daily narratives from those who have gone through extraordinary circumstances, who deserve to be heard and potentially allow us to learn something for ourselves.

This is the idea behind Iraq Digital Memorial, an initiative from IBC, namely: to humanise the numbers compiled in the IBC database and those listed in media reports, and to invite Iraqis themselves to create a memorial for their family and friends. Individual profile pages of those who have died, with photographs, music clips, description of who he or she were, and how their family and friends continue to remember them today.

‘Remember this is a 6 month job contract!’, a concerned friend and mentor warned me back in August, when he sensed my enthusiasm and longterm planning on the memorial.

IBC is twelve years old. Like an adolescence on the cusp of adulthood, they are transitioning from a basic function: a clear aim of documenting deaths with questions of accountability; to moving into a richer process of honouring the memory of those who have died, as well as finding a way of recognising those who survive (possibly thrive) and continue to live.

My post with IBC may have an end point, though Iraq Digital Memorial is a longterm initiative, especially as the intention is to design an interface based on human-to-human meetings, with Iraqis who have lost friends and family, whose different grieving processes is taken into account.

I’ve met with Iraqis who have lost family and friends, as well as those who haven’t, but whose opinion seemed relevant and important to include. The last participant I met with was one such example; a young US-born Iraqi activist, who has been documenting various grassroots civil society initiatives in and outside Iraq. Initially, discussing death seemed, to him, somewhat contradictory to his mission of highlighting inspirational stories of hope towards a better future of Iraqis. A memorial seemed an unhelpful reminder of pain most Iraqis wanted to escape. And yet, acknowledging death, being real with what is, we are potentially better able to embrace life more fully, to move truthfully from ending to beginning.

Marrying someone I did not know this time last year has left me with my fare share of beginnings, and a part of me was (and continues to be) eager to ignore endings and to look forward, not back.

Then, I believe: whatever issue (or knot) I refuse to acknowledge, I inevitably pass on to those around me, in some form or another. From odd coping mechanisms, which alienate those I live with, to cycles of violence [LINK TO SCILLA] that ensure our future is locked into our past. This works on a collective level too, if a group of people (a generation, particular community or family) choose to avoid, then the wounds are passed on (see transgenerational trauma and Epigenetics).

Speaking of his personal experience, I heard my partner say: ‘Heartbreak can be worse than death’. Yet, he chose to face his pain and work with it, and by ‘it’ I of course mean, with himself, namely this wounded part that needed attending to. I can only avoid and ignore my own experience/s by essentially, in some way, dismissing myself.

This can also relate to life perspectives: I may choose to see the end of a relationship as living proof that romantic love is doomed to fail, as I had chosen to do for years (largely without my own awareness); or we can work to heal ourselves, muddle and struggle to reconnect with the world around us, and transition towards new possibilities. This is what he chose to do.

Grieving is a unique process, without rules of right and wrong.

In relation to literal death and the people I met, who courageously shared their experiences of losing a loved one to violence, well, they dealt as best they could with the resources they had/have at hand. And the latter often was considerably more than anything available to Iraqis inside Iraq, as physical safety was a constant factor for those living in the UK and US. Therefore, as well as acknowledging individual deaths and survival experiences, Iraq Digital Memorial also aims to be a collective place of sharing and connecting. As a mother who has lost a son or daughter, I may be able to learn of other mother’s experiences, learn from her responses and perhaps share some of what I found helpful in my own process. An online support network, which digitally connects Iraqis, inside and outside Iraq, with the wider world.

All this is in theory, as the memorial currently consists of a vision, a collection of opinions from potential participants and a design waiting to be mapped out. IBC is in it for the long haul.

As for me, I continue to find much of my own life experiences- some relating to endings, some beginnings- unearthed into the present, as my partner and I travel through our respective homes. From San Francisco to London, Dubai to Beirut, Amman and Ramallah, and back again. None are Home, and all are homes with family we love.

I wish I can take him to my home in Baghdad, which my family no longer own. Even if they did, I would not risk his life. I am proud of the Iraqis I have met over the last five months or so, and look forward to their sharing some of their stories with you.

Watch this space.

Though don’t hold your breath.

In the Eyes of the Living.

When a friend forwarded Outreach Worker at IBC a few months ago, I thought: An important project, though maybe too miserable for me to take on?

Then I wondered: Why do we need to honour the dead?

Spiritual and religious reasons aside, I don’t believe the dead need honouring, commemorating or even remembering. The living do, as we search for a way to honour our memory of a loved one who is no longer with us in body. When their life ends, I would want to find a sense of completion, and possibly peace, to continue living mine as best I could.

Though in the context of violent conflict, as the case is with Iraq and sadly much of the Middle East now, how can I find peace when so many are losing their lives at an astonishing rate?

I came across Iraq Body Count website (IBC) when it was first set-up in 2003, by volunteers in the UK. I remember logging on to their database, with a daily recording of lives lost to violence, and saw named incidents, and mostly, numbers of recorded dead. In 2003, I was too emotional with the war, and inwardly conflicted, as my adopted county of citizenship, the United Kingdom, lead a war on my country of origin, Iraq. I couldn’t relate to the lists of the dead, and didn’t want to. It was too painful a reality to face.

Revisiting the site, in preparation for the job post, the only question that kept coming up for me, as I saw entries like ’17 dead in Mosul, suicide bombing’, was ‘and then what..?’. How can I relate to this information? Who is the person behind the death?

To explore the living survivors of lives lost.

Applying for the post, I decided that, if offered the job, I’d only take it if I was able to explore the living survivors of lives lost; the psychotherapeutic resilience entailed in carrying on with the business of life, when my son or best friend are killed suddenly and senselessly.

Having taken the job of Outreach Worker for IBC, I am now asking: are Iraqis, inside and outside Iraq, starting at home with UK Iraqi diaspora, ready to begin to face the pain of those lost to violence? If yes, how do we want to do this? How can we, as war continues today?

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By Iraqi artist, Jawad Saleem (1919- 1961).

Iraq Digital Memorial is a potential future, online record of the dead, as remembered by those living who knew them. It’s a simple concept: if I have lost a friend or relative in 2003-onwards, I log on, get authenticated, and share what I knew about this person. This sharing would be in two parts: factual demographic information, like their name, age, profession. Then the second part, is to include short stories, personal narratives, of the deceased; what do I remember of them? What were they like? What reminds me of them today?

The second, personal part is what I’m more familiar with, though the importance and relevance of the latter (IBC’s bread and butter!) only hit me when I was chatting to family a few weeks ago, namely, my stepmother.

She related how, in 2003, she and my father escaped the imminent 2003 war, to stay with my brother in the UAE. And how, her mother, in Baghdad, took it upon herself to check on their pet cat, Simsim, and golden labrador, Lucky. Her mother, without much thought, drove towards my parents’ home, and upon exiting an underground tunnel, found herself face-to-face with a US tank.

Now, as far as I’ve understood, under Saddam’s regime, Iraqi citizens were cut off from the internet and world media to the extend that many were unaware that war had broken out (!). There was no moving public announcement, such as the one
British Prime minister Chamberlain made on the eve of the World War II in September 1939. The more privileged, like my parents, knew and made decisions accordingly, for example, some with children or elderly chose to stay put in the hope the war would be short lived. Witnesses spoke of US army tanks, on Baghdadi streets in March 2003, shooting all who roamed the streets, meant that many civilians killed had truly been innocents going about their daily routine, suddenly struck dead.

My step-grandmother (is that a term?) wasn’t shot, possibly (my stepmother believes) because she was driving my father’s olive green, American jeep. She tore her white underskirt, and came out waving it as a flag of surrender towards the soldiers. She was promptly sent home, shaken though otherwise alive and well.

My stepmother cried as she recalled her brother, who lost two of his best friends to US military tank firings that same week, angrily accused her of risking their mother’s life: ‘she would have died because of your stupid animals!’.

‘The truth is’, my stepmom said, as she wiped her nose, in a busy London cafe, ‘she wouldn’t have died because of our pets, but because she’d have been shot by a military tank!’.

This, to me, is why the factual side of casualty recording is so imperative: my death is recorded with the hard truth of who I am and how I died, regardless of how others make sense of my death, how I am remembered by those who knew me and what follows after my death.

The combination of such facts, juxtaposed by the personal narratives, the oral history otherwise forgotten, is what makes this initiative so unique and potentially powerful.

“We are not ready, we will never be ready, but this is important to do now…”

Another British-Iraqi participant, when asked if we are ready to begin commemorating our dead, said: We are not ready, we will never be ready, but this is important to do now, before we choose to forget or obscure the truth beyond recognition.

The ‘digital’ aspect means that unlike physical memorials, it is as alive and flexible as the living, and can potentially act as a pausing reminder of those who are lost to a rapid, ceaseless conflict. Particularly as the information, both factual and personal, would be directly uploaded by those who personally knew the dead, this could also be a reflective and healing process in itself. What and how I choose to share publicly, with the world as my witness, can help find this sense of completion in myself.

At a talk on ‘The Cycle of Violence’ by peace activist, Scilla Elsworthy, she spoke of how anger and vengeance only breeds more anger and vengeance, and how we need to step back and begin a process of reconciliation, which comes in many forms. I rarely pluck up the courage to speak in public events, though I found myself asking, if we can begin to heal from the traumas of violence when war was ongoing, as the case is with Iraq. She didn’t flinch,  and sincerely replied: ‘yes, you lay the ground and sow the seeds, to begin a longer term healing process’.

“Everything is impermanent, even war. It will end some day.”

In the least, as people reflect on how they may want to share- or not share, as the case may be- their awareness of their suffering invites mindfulness, which paradoxically, allows them to be present with their suffering without being overwhelmed by it. The Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, recalls living in Vietnam during the war, which seemed never-ending and ever consuming at the time. When people asked him if he thought war would end, he struggled as he couldn’t see an end in sight. But he knew if he said, ‘I don’t know’, that would only diminish the little hope they were searching for, so he replied: “Everything is impermanent, even war. It will end some day.”

I hold onto this statement with Iraq in mind. We need to begin sowing the seeds of a peace my generation is unlikely to see, though I truly believe will come in time.

Iraqi Digi Mem flyer PNG yahya

Call to Action: Arabic translation to follow!

Living Networks

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I’ve been working with diaspora communities in the UK since 2010, and remain fascinated with how these function as a network; connected to one another, their current place of residence, country of origin and often to a much wider global community. How do communities achieve this, and why are some more successful than others?

My first exposure was to diaspora Armenians in Iraq, as with the rest of the Middle East, experiencing individuals and families with a strong sense of duty to the country they reside in, often having provided them refuge from persecution (see Armenian genocide), and unquestionable loyalty to their own people and beloved Armenia. My family have always had a ‘culture crush’ on Armenians (my opposite to ‘culture clash’!), praising Armenians in Lebanon for remaining neutral in the Lebanese civil war. Though the latter is debatable, as with all the below, my point is the balance of identity, between loyalty to past seeds and nurturing of current roots.

I then think of Palestinian diaspora, spread all over the world since the first exodus in 1948. I am still astounded to meet third and forth generation Palestinians, all steadily fleeing their homes and all united in knowing their Palestinian identity. This is not questionable. I recently met a young third generation man, who shared his family story, told to him as a child by his grandmother. She stroked his hair, with his head on her lap, recounting how Israeli authorities requested his grandparents, a young couple with a newborn at the time, to vacate the house for an hour as part of routine checks, only to return to an occupied home, stripped off its contents. In that instance, they were homeless, denied their Right of Return. To this day his gran carries the key to her old front door, hidden against her left breast, inside her brassiere. This is a familiar (near cliche) Palestinian narrative, with countless variations, and importantly, a red thread uniting a people to a dream, a vision, intention, a clear future plan that keeps a global community moving forward. My Palestinian motto: I have been pushed, and I will rise again and again, because I know who I am and I know who you are. I’ve always found Palestinian social events a world above other Arab ones, in organisation, originality and turnout. These tend to be widely publicised and well-supported by a far reaching and living network.

And who more diverse than the Jewish diaspora. Let’s zoom into a small cross section of young British Jews. Youth networks link young Jewish Brits to a sense of identity fundamentally tied in with the creation and existence of Israel. This may begin with a bar/bat mitzvah party, youth groups to gap year activities, including stints with the Israeli army (why not, eh?!). This loyal support often continues into adulthood, from major political and financial aid, to smaller local community initiatives. I would be first and foremost Jewish then, secondary to that, any other identifiers I may also belong to. A somewhat inbred loyalty, where any questioning of Israel or Israeli policies is depicted as a personal and collective threat to Jewish people as a whole. If the Palestinian statement is ‘I am a survivor’ then the Jewish one is ‘I am a victim’ (a fine line). The chosen people, envied and persecuted throughout human history, in the most inhumane ways imaginable, will (possibly rightly) never allow the world to forget. I recall a young Israeli playwright speaking of his frustration with, what he felt was a morbid industry of remembering wounding narratives (he’s not alone, see Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel).

There’s out-and-out resentment expressed for all three communities above. These ‘narratives’ can be seen as indoctrinations, ‘sense of community’ as insular, separate and potentially threatening to the whole, which in a way, they are. Speaking of threats, I wouldn’t go into the mess of ‘the British-Muslim community’, which strikes me as a network mobilised with fear and petrified in doctrine.

I am in awe of how all three named examples have managed to hold onto a collective identity that binds them across the world, be this ethnic or/ and religious. I am particularly struck as a British-Iraqi, whose global Iraqi diaspora are (arguably) by far more diverse than all three above communities put together, and yet there’s no ‘community’ to speak of. No global network for the whole. Instead, the whole is diminished by the divisive nature of its parts, as each ‘community’ sticks to its own bubble, with some religious examples: Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Sunni Muslim this, Shi’i that, Mandean, devout atheists and communists (arguably, religions themselves)…

I don’t have answers and am aware of my generalisations, though I’ll be grappling with this, particularly in relation to Iraqi Diaspora communities, with a new and challenging Community Outreach post I’ve recently taken on. More on that later.

Do share your responses to the above- any thoughts, insights and objections- and let’s actively chew on this together…