grey matter

Little Mandelas

Little Mandelas

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. — Nelson Mandela

We live in an age marked by contradictions. We preach love when we easily hate; we preach education and swiftly succumb to ignorance; we preach tolerance when we exercise bigotry; and we project to the world an image of perfection when — under the mask of anonymity — we expose our rancid self.

The relevance of the quote today is no less significant than it has ever been in human history, or will be in the future. We have as a species for long been assigning labels to possessions and concepts — and while the human mind has evolved to compartmentalise the world around us, it has become fodder for assigning people to “us” or “them” for any number of criteria. Criteria we have been formulating over time, but have been significantly taught while being young.

For a time in my childhood years, it has been repeated to me in school or observed through social behaviour in others that everyone who is not a Muslim is evil and going to hell, and that a certain group of people called Jews and others called Americans are the cancer of society. This perplexed my mind; why would someone who believes in something different than I be called evil? And why would someone who comes from a different country be considered cancer? I was young, of course, and couldn’t comprehend the political or religious complexities when I was exposed to these topics, creating a stereotype in my head for a long time that I have struggled with because I knew that it was wrong, but I did not know any better.

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What helped me, though, is my mixed-religion background. It helped me see how the Christian side of the family were wonderful people, and that I felt more connected to them than my Muslim side of the family. It also showed me that religion does not make anyone better or worse than the other; people showed various shades of kindness and malice, and more often than not, these acts were not based on religious tensions.

Visiting the States in 1997 has also changed my views of the world. I was in the “heart of cancer”, and every church I have seen has caused me unexplainable rage. I even remember telling my younger cousin there to always cuss at churches, because I have been told that it and their followers are evil and will be banished to hell. Thankfully, she didn’t listen — and while I have forgiven myself for having those beliefs as a kid (and growing out of them), I would have had a difficult time forgiving myself had my words affected my cousin.

I am happy because I have seen what Mandela has said as I grew up: I have been taught to hate. Taught by zealots and bitter people who hated the world and hated others. I was taught by people who told me everyone else goes to hell but have not told me that God is forgiving and looks into the hearts of people and that is what really matters. I have been taught to hate by people who have anger in them — and I do not blame them for their anger — because of geopolitics that have been shaping this region for over 60 years and continues to be so.

Yet thankfully, I had the heart and compassion to see through all of that, and that my mind always questioning beliefs and society has led me out of what I once was. I still struggle in many things, and like many of us who have had a similar upbringing here or abroad, it takes herculean effort to unlearn what has been learned.

My life is richer now because of the different people from different cultures and faiths in my life. It is, in fact, much easier to love now than before; with globalisation and the internet, the “others” in our brain are so overwhelming that the “us” are but a mere spec of mankind. In the end we are all the same. We want to be happy; we want to fall in love; we want to cherish that first kiss; we want to eat and drink and enjoy the flavours and the fruits; we want to feel safe and have a place we call home. We want to know there will be a better tomorrow and live (or wish we could) today to the fullest. We all have our fears and our sorrows, and we all have our laughs and our songs and our music.

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We as people really are not different. And those differences are what makes us amazing and exotic. Love is much more rewarding than hate. Each one of us is a little Mandela, with our struggles and our strife to make life better for ourselves and for others around us.

Rest in peace, Madiba.

Why Are You *YOU*

Why Are You *YOU*

And why is me … me?
I lay on the bed in the afternoon. Even through the full blast of the air-con, the heat and humidity of a Friday afternoon in Saudi crept through the crevices of the walls. A whiff of mlookhiyyeh being prepared flitted through the corridors; my mother was downstairs making lunch. My sister was in her bedroom. I was in mine. Dad was having coffee in the living room.
It was maybe 20 years ago when I pondered that question.
I kept cogitating, back then, on why would I exist as Kinan, and not Mohammed or Ramzi or Dania or a mattress or a table or a pebble; why did my soul, conscious, or whatever people label it, look through the eyes of *this* body and not *that* body. When I laugh, would other people find what I laughed at funny, sad — and in what intensity?
Why would my feelings differ from someone else’s? Who is this “character” called Kinan — the random(?) combination of this body with that soul?
More troubling has been determining what my conscious was. Why was that conscious “aware” — powered on — and exists? Where was it before? Where will it go?
I am 28 now, and I still don’t even know how to formulate the question beyond “why is me … me?” — but I will know the answer when I see it.
And probably only then will I have the full understanding to ask the question.
Chasing Dreams

Chasing Dreams

I flew.

My feet dangled in the air. A patchwork of farms and trees spread below me, carpeting the mountains and hills from the snowy Annapurna range in the north to Phewa Tal lake in the south. The sun was high in the sky at noon; the lake glistened, bathed in the warmth of the light. Up where I was, the air was chilly; the cold winds enveloped me and I was an eagle, high above the noise of the lands.

Back on the earth, I missed home.

My home, praised and sung to since time immemorial. A place I never lived in for too long, but always called it home. Where my grandmother wakes up in the morning and, despite her age, goes to the local markets to pick the fresh crops of the day to cook me my favourite meals. Where I would go every two days to the dairy shop with an empty, white plastic bucket and return with one filled with yoghurt. Often, it would be a blue bucket: that is for when I get goat’s yoghurt. The milk bucket was white, but large; the metal handle always strained my flimsy hands.

I remember my mother — beautiful and wearing a purple and white dress — on the balcony watching me cross the street on my own. I felt powerful and confident; a whole new world was out there for me to explore, beyond the confines of the street. I ventured into the wilderness behind the grocery store. Back then, it was a long stretch of meadow and patches of barren sand; now it is a sports complex. I had on me a water pistol to defend me from evil foes I would encounter. All I had encountered on my adventure was a tomato plant; it had sprung from the earth defiant yet lonely. My neighbour kept it.

Two decades later, I was walking through meadows in Pokhara, Nepal, with a backpack filled with crackers, cheese, a water bottle, a jacket, and two flashlights in case it got dark while I was still out. Bugs found their home on my legs (and a spider on my scalp); I carried them with me on my new adventure to find pieces of my soul I have been chasing. Dreams I have longed to be fulfilled. I found myself at sunset by the lake; the air was crisp and cold and the afternoon sun was breaking behind the mountains. I breathed in the realisation of a dream. For so long have I seen photos of lakes and mountains and longed to be there on sunsets or sunrises. And here I was, enjoying the scenery, bugs and all.

What Ramadan Isn’t

What Ramadan Isn’t

Every year, bloggers and local papers write countless posts on what Ramadan is for the uninitiated, with many — like myself — citing gripes frequently, but for the most part, newspapers love to shed light on how wonderful Ramadan is.

From my experience and from non-Muslims’ experiences around me, how Ramadan is portrayed is exactly like how any product is portrayed prior to its market debut: Phenomenally spiritual, wonderful, enchanting — and ultimately falls short on these promises. People have come to see Ramadan as a symbol that encompasses everything negative about Arab Muslims living in the Middle East: lazy, impolite, excessive in consumption (of edibles and non-edibles), and discriminating against non-Muslims.

In effect, what people see of Ramadan these days is exactly everything that is not what Ramadan stands for: discipline.

At some point in history, Ramadan joined the ranks of Christmas and Thanksgiving and other religious holidays in their notoriety for exorbitant consumption. The major difference is that Ramadan is one lunar month long, which effectively makes it the most expensive of months for everyone — be it brands, consumers, or just plain residents who are trying to make their way through the world.

I will borrow some of Christianity’s teachings of the Cardinal Sins to elaborate on how people these days make Ramadan the sad state it is in — what Ramadan is, in fact, not:

LUST

Forget about sex; this isn’t the sort of lust I am talking about. It is expressed moaning and griping for everything that is out of reach. Water. Food. Coffee. Chocolate. Yes, it seems cute and funny sometimes. But eventually the persistent nagging becomes worrying. The lust for that cigarette break. You’d see people experiencing withdrawal symptoms from everything they could put in their mouths. And good God, the accompanied bickering (and self-victimization. See “Sloth”).

Worse than the relatively understandable moaning the first few days, what ticks me off the most is the lust for everything luxury. Brands (see “Greed”) just love how people want to consume in Ramadan everything that is “exclusive”. Countless “Ramadan Specials” and “Ramadan Promotions” that draw people in for that luxurious Iftar (breaking the fast; the first meal). People actively look for those Ramadan tents to indulge the rest of the vices in. And the greatest indulgence of all is….

GLUTTONY

That’s right. With the UAE trying to control inflation during Ramadan period because there is a “high demand for commodities”, you’d wonder if the world is coming to an end. Anyone who has been to an Iftar buffet can see exactly why people complain from gaining weight in the month despite not eating half the day. Stores run out of food items quickly.

Let’s pause for a minute here. The population is unlikely to double a week before Ramadan. And, in practice, when people go out grocery shopping for the week, they’re shopping for a two or three-meal-per-day week. And probably add in a few extra items for the sake of indulgence and maybe for the night when friends would come over. Come Ramadan, and the very same people who should shop for that one meal for Iftar and the other smaller meal before sunrise would now shop for what you’d think is either a family of 826 or for an average family which is effectively constantly eating.

Food becomes the primary form of entertainment and indulgence. And, sadly, the tonnes of wasted food that gets thrown away is probably one of the worst by-products of a fasting Muslim.

GREED

This one goes out to all brands, hotels, companies, and institutes that feed on the lust and gluttony of people. Hungry? Come eat at our exclusive luxury buffet for only this much and that much. Why, you also get a nice view of Burj X at 90% humidity. Hey, check out our wonderful brand! See what we do in Ramadan! See how we play with your emotions so you can come purchase our products! Buy this bundle of electronics you don’t need in our EXCLUSIVE Ramadan offer! (also check back at our other “exclusive” offers every three months)

SLOTH

If there’s anything a fasting Muslim is ever good at, it’s this: “Hey… yeah can we postpone this? I am fasting you know.” Everyone is lethargic and no one wants to do anything. I sympathise because the lack of food and water will eventually hit cognitive abilities, but some people just push it way too far.

WRATH

So not only do people make Ramadan as an excuse to not do anything, but they get bitchy about it, too. And you haven’t seen wrath unless you’ve been in rush hour traffic in Ramadan.

THE DISCRIMINATION

Though Muslims and non-Muslims both get shorter working hours, from what I have seen in the UAE and KSA is that laws are enforced to “protect the feelings of fasting Muslims” such as having food courts in malls close or be obscured by a labyrinth of curtains. No one is allowed to eat or drink in public, lest a poor, hungry Muslim feels just awful for not being able to eat or drink or have that much needed coffee.

If that is the case, why is the law not applicable outside of Ramadan, too? I mean, there are plenty of hungry, poor people and labourers on the street all year round, right? It’s OK to eat in front of them while they drool? Isn’t “feeling for the hungry and poor” one of the many aspects of why Muslims fast? So how are you feeling for them if you’re not confronted with the temptations? If you’re in your ivory towers of law that forbids temptation during the day and floods you with it during the night, in what possible sense are you fasting?

And why should non-Muslims be subjected to it anyway? They need to eat. It’s their right. They go to a shopping mall and they can’t even snack without hiding behind curtains. Listen, if a Muslims really wants to eat, he or she will eat. And I admit I’ve done it before.

 

So, here you have it. Things what Ramadan is NOT about, but have become the status quo thanks to us.

 

Image Credit: Sarah Kujubu

Rewriting

Rewriting

“And what would you really like to do?” I was asked by the interviewer.

“Well truth be told, I would really like to pursue photography,” I replied, a bit too arrogantly.

“No. Let me rephrase. What do you really want to do?”

I looked back through books of my thoughts, jotted down across various types of paper and ink (mostly black), and through characters I have left behind in the digital realm. In 2004, I quoted the late Alone Shepard – a remarkable woman who has shaped my approach to writing since I attended her “Media Writing” class that year – in the preface she has written for our college literary magazine, Realms:

“Writing is in its essence a speech act, shaped somehow into form, where it can become art. Poetry began as song.

“Why do we want to sing and speak our thoughts? And why do we want to shape them into the form of written language?

“Many might answer that we write to communicate, which is ultimately true. Strangely though, writers never say this. Writers will instinctively talk about a deeper level of impulse, more interior, and more invested with intention and need. Writers will talk about a kind of compulsion to write – even if no one ever reads the words. Sometimes, it seems, it is enough to have spoken to oneself. As one of our Realms writers, Kinan, says, the writer’s first impulse is “I desire.”

Desire. It is what drives the world. It is what drives us to do what we do, buy what we buy, say what we say, and eat and drink to our heart’s desire, as it were.

In 2005, I was given enough motivation to express my feelings through writing; I have been a pawn in a lover’s chess game of five. The fascinating days of college. When no one believed my narration of the events, I set out on a small crusade to fulfil a desire in me — a desire to be heard… by myself. In 2005, I was a completely different person than I am today. I was a different person two years ago. I was a different person a few months ago. In my core, though, I could see the little boy I have known all my life. The little boy who looks out from my right eye to look into the left as I face the mirror. My eyes chase each other, each yearning to talk.

Seven years ago, when my feelings had the better command of my language, I have written:

To write what we have suffered an enjoyed is to endow our memories with the duration of our existence. We write so we can read and reread, so that we can remember in secret, and then weep in solitude.

And today, this is why I am rewriting, again. Reading what I have been writing all the past few years shook my core. I am a different man, but the same man. The pages of my journals – digital and traditional – have been too empty. I chat away my years and never write something tangible. People dedicate their tweets to their children – something admirable, and cute, for sure. But my 40K or so tweets add nothing of true value. Not as much as a few pages of any journal entry I have been writing since I learned I could write about unicorns waging wars against each other.

We spend the days “fixing things” that need not be fixing. In an age that conditions us to have results now and deliver results within impossible deadlines, we lose ourselves to work that only benefits the pockets of a few, while we empty the pockets of our souls. My time has not been mine for the past few years, but now, I write this in the office, with emails coming in, and new deadlines and calendar appointments coming in and out. The best time to have a break is when we do not have time to.

And today is as good a day as any.

“You know what, Kinan,” Ms. Shepard told me as I walked her to the car after class, “I see you an old man, sitting in your chair on the porch of your nice little house, writing Hallmark cards.”

Probably not Hallmark cards, but when I close my eyes and see myself in the future, I do not see myself as an old revered photographer, or a market leader in whatever field I am in now or will change into; I see myself as exactly that: sitting in a chair, in front of  a little white house.

Writing.

 

Image credit: 81. pen and paper by geronimo89

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