That Loss of Personal Touch

Last Christmas, I put myself up for a challenge to write out and custom-make all the Christmas greeting cards I’d be sending out. I had a good idea on what to do: for every person I would be sending out a card to, I would draw, using graphite, on the card and handwrite a message on the back and/or handwrite a letter along with it.

What I learned from the experience — other than the letters occupied wider space and have become more ornate since I stopped writing in my journal — is that not only is it rewarding (oh, the joys of handwriting a long essay!) but it is more personal, genuine, and full of soul. But more importantly, it gave me the time to think.

With a computer and a keyboard, and like the millions worldwide, I have become quite adept at typing fast. I won’t go into the whole identity dissociation with the fonts — that’s another topic; however, it gave me the chance to slow down my thoughts and communicate them more effectively.

In typing, I can type just as I would think out loud; indeed, some of my posts here or in my “digital journal” have been just that: an ad verbatim written version of my thoughts, unadulterated and often nonsensical. It makes sense then that, when writing an essay in college, I have been told to always “sleep on it” and re-read the text at a later time.

While writing, however, my hand cannot keep up with my thoughts so my only option is to slow my thoughts down. By the time I finish writing the current sentence, my brain has already given the next four or five sentences another thought and has reworked them; in fact, often by the time I am done writing a single thought, I no longer feel the need to write the other ones as my brain has found no relevancy to the current subject or has resolved the conflict by the time I finished the manual work.

  

The digital age has created a generation of professional ranters — and I am one of the biggest, to be honest with myself — and I keep wondering how different and more insightful would we be had we given ourselves the chance to count to ten before writing something. Very often, this works wonders. I have had the urge to write something — be it a thought or a rant — and, instead of doing so, I have given myself a couple or so minutes to think it through before I post anything online. In particular, if I was on twitter I would write a lengthy tweet which, by the time I manage to paraphrase into 140 characters, ends up being scrapped because my brain has had the time to process the logic and the emotions, not just the latter.

And probably that’s the greatest learning from writing, and certainly from almost everything “old school”: patience. The patience to give ourselves and the people around us a second chance. The patience to ponder how things came to be and how the universe works. To enjoy a slow conversation that does not have to cover a hundred different subjects. The patience to spell out “fourteen” instead of writing the digits in a sentence. The patience to craft someone a gift instead of purchasing a mass-produced, soulless item. The patience to add a personal touch to our writing, our loved ones, our work, our hobbies, and whatever we produce, be it physical or an act of kindness or expression of the self.

Roundabout Philosophy

Here’s the thing about being human: we love bullshitting ourselves. Admit it: how many monologues have you had in an attempt to justify your actions, your fears, your success, your habits, or anything else? And how many times have those monologues changed in direction in the span of a day, or an hour?

A few days ago, I was driving to work and part of my regular route takes me through the formerly-dreadful roundabout on Al-Khail road, which was jammed in traffic. The culprit turned out to be dead traffic lights, giving everyone authority over the road and resulting in a semi-deadlock.

That scenario to me became symbolic of how we conduct our lives.

We love freedom. We fight for freedom. Many across this region have been, and many have died in the process. All of us want our voice to be heard; we want to share our opinions on issues that matter to us on a personal level and at the community level — without being thrown in jail for doing so. We all want to leverage globalisation and technology to propagate our ideas (conscious or subconscious) into the digital realm of this universe. We want to be liberated from shackles that have been limiting our movements, choices, and opportunities for generations. And we all want to do so because we believe we’re entitled to. As a matter of fact, we are.

But.

We love control. We are wired to compartmentalise, label, assess, assign, leverage, and conduct our lives in an “orderly, proper” fashion. We want to feel empowered and the way we believe we do it is by gaining control. We want to control how people correspond with us. We want to control our social aspects of our lives. We want to control our kids, how the family treats guests, how dinner is prepared, and our conduct. We want to control other people’s ideas, influence, power, resources, and habits. We want people to conform to our ideas — whether we do so through concious coercion or subconscious manipulation — because our ideas are just too damn good.

But.

We abhor being controlled. We want to be free from this “order”. We want to “think out of the box” and “liberate our senses” and “free our emotions” and “be tolerant” and “learn from differences” and and and.

And… what do you get when you give people freedom? A deadlock in a roundabout. Because not one goddamned person — myself included — would want to wait for others to pass by if I could squeeze in a bit to the right and wiggle myself out to the other side of the road. We are opportunists and we take the opportunity of this new-found freedom by trying to control it. It’s all ours. OURS! Freedom is finite and is to be exercised at the expense of others.

“The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, pull back the curtains, and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.” — Frank Zappa

Has it always been like this? Most probably — but then there’s so much of it now, I have to stop and ponder why all of this is happening. There are some dimensions at play, but if I want to look back at history, there are only two constants: time, and discontent.

Indeed, being in a state of continuous dissatisfaction is what drives innovation and what drives people to break the status quo. That’s the good side of it; when the good rears its ugly butt, you get greed. Infinite greed, and that’s what is the core issue of many of our problems today. And time? Because of all of this more more more approach to living the world, we end up with stressed and highly fragmented minds. We want to reach our destination in the fastest time so we can do as many things as possible so that we have time to do even more things — most of which do not add any value. We labour during the day and moan after hours and hardly 5% of the population is truly satisfied with what they do and spend no more time than required to do what they do.

Here’s how it works: in the yesteryears, people had more time to do less things. Now, we have less time to do more things. What this results in is fragmented minds, fragmented lives, empty days and time lost. You get all sorts of books on the subject matter as well as numerous articles online. Almost every other day I come across an article with a new way to get things done or to better your “time management”. Sorry, but time is constant; it should be called “Clutter Management”. We end up discontent and we want to be free from all of this and we want to do it by taking control of what’s around us.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work. When we live in an age with a brief attention span, our lives jammed with deadlines (and what a dead, flat line life we live), and we are continuously dissatisfied and want to do something about it but can’t — because you know, someone else is exercising their freedom at your expense — we do not sit and ponder the interesting aspects and big questions of life.

We let scientists do that, and we google the results at one point. When we have the time.

Social Media 30-Day Detox Experiment

I did it. Finally. After months and months of complaining about social media — and this is from someone who works in the media industry — I decided to put my cynical self to the test and deprive myself of everything digital (with the exception of WhatsApp, which serves to be my SMS app replacement). And what better time to begin with my experiment than when I went back home to Syria before Ramadan, the place where I usually unplug from the online world? With your run-of-the-mill social networking applications hardly accessible, self-control and restraint should have been easy.

Should have been.

Though in Syria I tend to spend my time completely offline, this visit was a bit different and more often than not I had an impulsive urge to share what I was doing with everyone, especially stories that my grandmother narrated to me on the balcony as we observed the streets and prepared Freekeh. Yet I was completely disconnected — and other than email on my mobile phone, I was completely cut off from the outside world.

The first week I suffered from severe withdrawal symptoms. I had dreams of shrinking URLs and twitpics. I created conversation scenarios in my head and lived them, whether they be on twitter or Facebook. Quite sad, right?

When I accepted the fact that I could not use social media, I was flown back to Dubai. Armed with my new-found self confidence that I can remain unplugged for a longer time, I deactivated my Facebook (quite a dumb thing to do as I use many services with the FB login, but that’s another story) and uninstalled all applications (twitter, G+, etc) from all my devices and browsers.

And I came to this conclusion:

  • It is so w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l to be away and focus for once in my life! To have the time (shock) to read books and go out and do other things! To not have to deal with links about Google Plus on Google Plus!
  • Living without social media is d-r-e-a-d-f-u-l. I miss how enriching interactions are and how I felt I was part of a community.
By then it hit me that these are just services and I am the one in charge. I can allow myself to use them the way I wish, or be abused by succumbing to the addiction. I have the willpower to work from 9-5 and drop by on my breaks. I have the choice of what I can post and where. More importantly, I have the choice of what I want to read. It all seems silly, but for a guy who considers himself to be on the inquisitive side, I tend to feel obliged that I have to read everything.
I wanted to conclude with something else but I have this request to make instead: FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING HOLY, UNLINK TWITTER FROM THE REST OF YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA SERVICES! NO NEED TO REPLY TO @myexgirlfriend ON TWITTER AND FACEBOOK AND G+ AND LINKEDIN!

The Other Side of Ramadan

Today is the first day of Ramadan, and probably a rare occasion where most — if not all — Muslim countries miraculously agreed that it would be on the 1st of August (correct me if I am wrong), so let’s hope it ends on the same date as well. At least for the first time ever, I would not have to hear sarcastic comments from a Westerner fresh off the boat regarding the whole moon calculation thing.

Indian Muslim vendor separates the seeds of a pomegranate.
An Indian Muslim vendor separates the seeds of a pomegranate at a roadside stall in preparation for Muslims breaking their fast at sundown in Mumbai, India on August 19, 2010. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

There are plenty of wonderful blog posts on Ramadan, including this one from last year by Mich and an updated version for this year here. Practically any news outlet is now talking about Ramadan, in any way or another, and marketing it as a product.

This is my concern.

Everywhere you will read something along the lines of “Ramadan is a time of reflection” and “it is a time of prayers, feeling for the poor, meditation, and sharing” among other things. Then in the next line you would find ill-crafted text that goes “Join us at our luxurious and exclusive Ramadan tent with open buffet for only AED 400 per person”. Then a little asterisk leads you to the fine print which mentions that your AED 400 does not include your shisha and the 15% tax.

Right.

In case you are interested, this is an image of what feeding the poor is like, just in case the exclusive tent does not have charity envelopes for you to donate in:

A child in Kabul, Afghanistan
A child sits with a plate of food that was distributed as part of the holy month of Ramadan, at a refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)

Here’s a list of things I do not like about how Ramadan is being practised these days (generally as well as locally):

- Marketing products you hardly ever needed with plasters boasting a Ramadan discount or something along the lines of “in the spirit of Ramadan”.

- The endless barrage of TV soaps and shows, most of which are pointless and have nothing to do with the “Ramadan spirit” or “time of reflection and meditation”. Unless you’re a mosquito that can’t avoid anything glowing, that’s hardly meditation.

- Speaking of glowing, what’s with the jewellery industry crafting gold and diamond necklaces specifically for Ramadan? Is it a status symbol that I wear a ridiculously priced (and usually terribly designed) piece of jewellery that shows my religious support?

- People storming markets and grocery stores as though they have heard that there is no more oil in the world to transport anything further and what you have is all what you would eat till you die from starvation. People should be eating less during Ramadan — you’re shaving off more than half of the day fasting — yet somehow gluttony has become synonymous with Ramadan.

- Ill-tempered people. Okay I understand you have not had your coffee and you have not had your cigarette. That’s the point of fasting: testing your temper and tolerance. Fasting is not an excuse for you to be bad tempered. It is a motive for you to control yourself. I can understand some random bursts here and there — we are human, after all — but to still be a crazed lunatic as Ramadan comes to a close means you have missed the point.

- Speaking of lunatics: people driving. I do not need to elaborate.

- What pisses me off the most: Non-fasting people should not eat and/or drink in front or close to those who fast “to protect their feelings”. I appreciate your concern but Muslims should toughen up and stop victimising themselves with fasting excuses. Again, it’s testing your temptation. If you’re not fasting, you should be able to eat and drink as you please. If you don’t want to out of respect, that’s your choice, but having a law that can put you in jail because of eating and drinking in public is uncalled for. In malls, you see food outlets closed with very few open and barricaded to hide those who are eating. Seriously? My friends in Lebanon and Syria thankfully report otherwise.

I can go on and on but that would bore you. So if you have any other gripes at how people practise Ramadan, please mention it in the comments.

You’ve Been Raped! Shame on You!

I won’t be discussing politics here but what caught my attention while reading this article on the Washington Post is that a few good men have pledged to marry the women who have been recently raped (the point of who is the rapist is not my point of discussion).

“It made us so mad. Such an injustice. We have decided, we will marry them,” said Ibrahim Kayyis, a 32-year-old baker from Jisr al-Shugour, a town that was stormed by troops.

To reclaim their “honor,” families in Syria have been known to kill raped female members. Even if families allow such women to live, they are not eligible to marry.

“We sat and discussed that we want to change this. We don’t want to change just the regime in Syria, but also this kind of stuff. So we will marry them in front of everyone,” Kayyis said.

Now, in all seriousness, this is 2011 for the love of everything you hold dear! How can anyone punish someone for being raped? Because they’ve been raped now the entire family’s honour is “stolen”!?!?! This is an ongoing topic of discussion over at Kinzi’s so you can read all about it there. I am not less flabbergasted today than I was a few years ago when it was a trend in Jordan. If there’s anyone – rather, anything – dishonourable it is the rapists in society and the social system that insists on propagating this idea of equating good women with virginity.

I can bet my balls that there aren’t many virgins out there left in this wilderness. I had a neighbour in Damascus who was finding it needlessly difficult to get married as she was married before. Society automatically believes that it is her fault and that she’s no longer a virgin. Oh, poor man’s ego,  preoccupied with the thoughts of whether her former husband is better in bed and that she won’t put hummus on the table next morning!

I’d like to say “go get laid” but most men – ironically – are. So I’d just say go get a life and a brain while you’re at it. They’re no less women after being raped than they were before; they’re still human beings and women are the pride of our nations and humanity as a whole. They’re our mothers, sisters, and they will raise our future generations. We should take care of them and go after the rapists. Otherwise, what kind of message are we giving our youth and the world at large? That we accept rapists in our society and favour them over our women?