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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. 

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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). 

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. 

***

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.