Why Game of Thrones is basically about Pakistani Family Politics

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Nahiiiiii!

Like practically no one else in the world, the whole Game of Thrones phenomenon passed me by over the last few years. My ignorance of it wasn’t down to some hipster-y preference (“I only watch silent French arthouse films from 1923, so much more substantial.”) and eventually, even I got curious.

I started to watch. I watched and I watched. I squeezed in watching before going to bed and during late-night ironing. I soldiered on through all the guts and violence (motherhood has rendering me unable to watch this sort of stuff any more), I stuck through the dull, convoluted plot lines. Seeing as Game of Thrones has turned into such a cultural benchmark, I really tried to get into it.

But I’m now on the third series of the show and ready to admit defeat. I just am not captivated by it at all. The only character I like and care what happens to is Tyrion Lannister. If they just made a show of his biting little comments I’d watch it all day. Everything else just has not appealed to me at all, and now I’m bored of it. It’s like those Indian soap operas my mother likes to watch. The plot is flimsy, not much really happens and each show is padded out with pretty costumes, lots of shots of agonised faces, dramatic music and a cliffhanger ending. If you spliced Sasural Simar Ka with Saw you’d get Game of Thrones.

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Same thing.

And then I realised why. Cut out the filler violence and copious nakedness and Game of Thrones is basically about Pakistanis and Pakistani family politics, and who the hell would find a show about their own life interesting? This is why it’s failed to engage me. You don’t believe me? Observe:

Cersei Lannister

cersei-coverShe is the archetypal neurotic Pakistani mother, and not the nice sort. Sweet on the surface, horribly conniving on the inside. She is completely, utterly and totally obsessed with her son and spends her days plotting all kinds of complicated unions, family politics and such shenanigans. She was shoved into an arranged marriage that made sense purely in terms of solidifying her family’s relationships. She can see nothing beyond how perfect her horrible beta ji is, and is the only one in the world who thinks the idiot she produced is a genuis. She would probably try your biryani and smile while she backhandedly told you how shit it was: “You used ready-ground spices didn’t you dear? I can tell. I had a biryani like this once at a roadside shack a few years ago. It made me sick as a dog for weeks. I was sooo sick. Must have been typhoid. Remember that beta? Remember how sick I was and I said I hoped I’d never eat a biryani like that again? Yours tastes just like it.” *smile*

And she would totally not let you marry her son if your rotis were not perfectly round. Which would be a lucky escape for you.

Joffrey Baratheon joffrey-baratheon-7A horrible male child who has been spoilt rotten by his mother into thinking he is the most perfect specimen of man on the planet. Looks like a toad and expects to marry an absolutely first rate babe, preferably a doctor or whatever else was a big deal in those days, but she should never hurt his fragile ego by daring to be his equal. Sound familiar? Ami ji has never said no to him, and the result is that he’s acting like a self-entitled egomaniac after taking over Daddy ji’s business even though he knows nothing about how to run it.

Petyr Baelish 

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Smarmy Uncle. Hangs around in his sherwani, hiding his true motivese behind that smug smile of his. Finds various ways to make you feel like an insect. “How did you do in your exams, beta?” is the loaded question you dread from Smarmy Uncle. Also cheek pinching. Or his presence in general.

Catelyn Stark

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Not Pakistani, because she’s had five children and still looks svelte.

Brienne of Tarth 

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Butch Baji. We all knew at least one Butch Baji growing up. She was cool, and her mother was obsessed and permanently stressed out about who the hell will marry her. She would tell your own mother this over shami kebabs and tea “I keep telling her to grow her hair and stop playing sports but she won’t listen!”

Crap for girls to pass the time with

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When they’re not being chased to rape or kill, the unmarried girls in Game of Thrones pass their time in mindless pursuits like embroidery. Good embroidery is a really big deal in the GoT world, and at least when I was a girl and there was no internet, it was a really big  deal in actual Pakistani teenage girl world too. My friends and I spent hours perfect various stitches. I punched the air in jubilation when I got a french knot right for the first time. If someone had insulted my satin stitch, I probably would have burst into tears and decided to become a nun. Who the would marry me with my sub-standard crooked stitches anyway?

Plotting, backstabbing and elaborate family politics

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Game of Thrones is full of this. See the internal bickering of any land-owning Pakistani family, trying to decide who owns what plot of land, who should marry who in order to keep/gain more family land and why so and so’s khala built a hedge that encroaches on your phupo’s plot etc etc etc ad nauseam.

The Dragons150420-news-game-of-thronesPakistani Mothers in Law. No further elaboration needed.

(Disclaimer: as always, no offence intended to anyone, this is just for fun)

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Greek Kamaki in the Digital Age

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The 1989 movie Shirley Valentine, a tribute to the phenomenon of Greek kamaki

There’s no denying it – Greece is a very sexy place in the summer. The pace of life slows right down and the air hums with the buzz of thousands of cicadas. And like so many others here in the summertime, those noisy little bugs have just one thing on their mind.

But while amorous insects and balmy summer nights have remained a quintessential part of the Greek summer, there is one element of summer in Greece which seems to have disappeared, that of the traditional Greek art of flirting, known affectionately as ‘kamaki’.

It used to be that once upon a time, the art of kamaki was as inseparable from summer holidays as ouzo or souvlaki.

The word kamaki literally translates to harpoon. It’s about “fishing” for a summer romance with a foreign woman, and when you go fishing, you have to be patient and just keep at it until you catch something. Such was the case with kamaki. Talk to anyone who came of age in the 70s and 80s and they’ll tell you tale after tale of women from colder climes who flocked to Greece to get an annual fix of that famous Greek kamaki.

But these days, a little bit of quick research online and I found that women of the older generation, those who lived through the height of it, will tell you that even though it irritated them in their younger days, kamaki is a dying art, and one that they miss.

When I first aired the idea for this piece in my office, Maria, one of my colleagues and one of the youngest members of our team swung her chair around to give me a live demo of kamaki.

“Wow! What a doll! Hey hey! What a woman! Hi baby!” she crooned.

We all laughed. This was her crude take on the vintage kamaki of days gone by, but connoisseurs will tell you that it wasn’t like that. Authentic kamaki was an art of flirting that was practically kabuki-esque in nature.

Back in the day, kamaki, specifically Greek men flirting with foreign women on holiday, was personified by the myth of the Greek lover: persistent, dressed entirely in white with a gold medallion drowning in the hair of his chest, with broken English and drenched in aftershave. It was as cheesy as it was cheesily charming.

I speak to some foreign women living in Greece for several decades and they share their stories of how these types would hover around airports and ferries when “hunting season” opened, trying relentlessly to harpoon girls.

There’s the story of “Kamaki Nick” from Crete who used to go to the beach early, place towels all over the beach and then wait for an unsuspecting tourist to place hers next to one of his so he couldn’t be accused to chasing her. Or the guy who used the same pick up line of wanting to practice his English on the same woman many times, sometimes even during the same day, having forgotten that he already tried to hit on her once.

“I absolutely loved kamaki, particularly if both parties enjoyed the verbal exchange, but it is dying today. In fact, men here today remind me of men in other countries of western Europe about two decades ago.” lamented one friend. Another shared a poem from a kamaki in the 90s: “You and me, under the tree, making love while the birds go tsiou tsiou.” Who said romance is dead?

Greek men are too shy now, they tell me. They said that kamaki of days gone by, which was at its finest in the 80s and 90s, was a sweet interjection in daily life, a particularly Greek way of flirting which they used to enjoy but which has since vanished. It made you feel good, womanly, they said. They miss the boldness and the flattery of it. The men now just don’t flirt any more. “Especially if they’re under 45 or those hipster types with beards? You can forget it. They don’t do kamaki.” said one of the women I spoke to.

But if you look carefully, you’ll discover that kamaki is alive and well. If the streetside kamaki of shouting out “Hey doll” or “What a smile” is fading today, it’s only because it’s moved online to more sophisticated mediums in the hands of more sophisticated users. Clued up, modern, technology rich and time poor, Greece’s millennials are giving the art of kamaki a new lease of life.

On a warm May afternoon, I meet with Adonis (not his real name) at Flisvos Marina. He’s 31 and a fitness instructor (not his real job either, but close enough to what he does and you’ll soon see why he needs the physical stamina). In his lovelife, he specialises in selling the myth of the perfect Greek lover, the ideal summer romance. I soon learn that he is digital-era kamaki in the flesh.

He tells me how it works. Modern kamaki has moved online onto a host of apps like Tinder which make instantly meeting someone easier than ever. “I don’t live downtown, so it saves me time.” he explains in breathtakingly simple terms. Apps have opened a whole new world to guys like Adonis. Through apps, it’s not been than unusual for him to spend a different night with a different female tourist every day of the week.

So what’s it all about for him? Sex, company, friendship? A little bit of all three. Adonis says Greek girls hold no interest for him, he finds them “snobbish” in his own words, and he’s never been with one. He likes meeting women from other cultures, and presents them with the illusion of the perfect summer romance which they are seemingly happy to buy into. We scroll through his phone: “She was from Columbia, this one here, she’s from Korea. This girl was from Brazil. Tunisia. Japan.”

And so on and so on, through an endless stream of pictures with different girls where Adonis is playing the role of temporary boyfriend to perfection. He really goes for it. “Do you tell them you love them?” I ask. “I do, and I really insist on that even if they think I’m just saying that, which to tell you the truth, I am.” he replies. At least he’s honest, just maybe not with the girls he sees. But perhaps they know that anyway and choose to ignore it. 

“So do you want to tell me a number?” I ask, digging into the cake that he won’t eat because he’s on a diet. “Sure” he says. “I’d say it’s about 200 women from around 50 countries.” I nod, faking cool journalistic professionalism, but I’m gobsmacked. How did someone so young get to that many women that quickly? His record was 17 girls during a four and a half day trip to Barcelona. “They weren’t one at a time.” he clarifies. “Got it!” I say. That’s plenty of detail for me.

It doesn’t always go smoothly. There is the girl who got “Adonis, I love you forever” tattooed on her arm, and the drunk Canadian tourist who went berserk when he refused to sleep with her. Not all his flirting takes place online ‒ if he sees someone who interests him, he’ll strike up a conversation. 

He says that his ultimate goal is for the girls to have a good time. “If they’re happy, then I’m happy.” Adonis is very open about his dating life. He had told me he had no problem with me using his real name and details. But I decided not to, because he was just so darn nice. Adonis is polite and charming. He takes care with his personal appearance, not a medallion or hairy chest in sight. He speaks perfect English and four other languages. I can see why girls find his illusion of the dream summer romance so beguiling. 

So far I have one consensus that kamaki is dead, another that’s it’s alive but online, so I go to speak to the one person I know could set me straight about whether face-to-face kamaki really has bitten the dust in Greece. On a Friday night, I drop by one of Athens most famous vintage nightlife institutions, the Boom Boom Discotheque. This place has been going since the 80s and is one of those very rare venues that has crossed the thin boundary between being so kitsch it’s terrible and has reached the level of being so kitsch it’s amazing. There are helium balloons and little chintzy LED lamps with Disney characters on each table. I love it.

Sitting on leopard-print seats as disco lights and lava lamps swirl around us, the proprietor DJ Soulis, the authentic breed of the Greek kamaki of days gone by, looks offended when I suggest that kamaki is dead. “Of course it’s not dead! How else do you think people get married?” he says.

“It all depends on the woman. If the woman isn’t interested, nothing can possibly happen.” he says. At 71, he’s seen decades of flirting on his venue’s dance floor, and he insists that people still flirt.

“The problem today is that everyone today is waiting for Monica Bellucci to walk by. It won’t happen! In my opinion there is no such thing as an ugly woman. Make sure you write that down” he says, waving his cigarette at my notepad. “Every single woman has something special about her. You just have to look for it.”

“Sometimes I’ll see a truck driver or something hanging out of his truck shouting ‘Oh my God what a woman!’ That’s moronic. That’s not kamaki. You can’t take this tacky way of flirting and baptize it as kamaki.”

So where did the kamaki go? He looks at me. “You’re really obsessed with this, aren’t you?” he asks. I can’t help it, I reply, the health status of kamaki is the central premise of my article. DJ Soulis draws on his cigarette again. “Maybe people are doing kamaki online now, but the real deal is actual interaction. It’s all in the eyes. She looks at you, you look at her. The man might decide whether he wants her for an hour, a night, or more, but the woman is the one who chooses the man.

“Kamaki can change your life. It could lead to just a few minutes conversation, or it could lead to a marriage and a family. Mark my words, it’s not dead.” he says, with a wink. The disco is about to start and I make my move to leave. As I do so he hands me a little souvenir from my visit. It’s a pink bag with Barbie on the outside, and one of those little LED lamps with a “I love Boom Boom” sticker on it. This might just be the best perk of the job I’ve ever received.

As I drive home, the seafront avenue on is jam-packed with cars. Summer has officially arrived and the night is warm. Everyone is out, heading to beachfront cafes and clubs. The air buzzes with the promise of the possibility that every Friday night holds for someone free and single out on the town. “It’s raining men” is playing on the radio of one of the cars crawling along the traffic with me.

Tonight in the bars and clubs of Athens, people will meet, either after catching each other’s eyes or after whipping out their smartphones. Girls on holiday will go looking for the myth of the flirtatious Greek lover, and they might just find him. They’ll chat, flirt and get to know each other and the practised art of kamaki will come alive once more.

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Why I love the Olympic Games

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The Olympic flame is lit at Ancient Olympia (source: Getty Images)

My very first impression of Greece, my very first thought as my plane came in to land on a hot August day in 2004 was this: “They have mountains!”

If, at this point, you’re imagining what an imbecile I was, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. My first glimpse of Greece had happened thanks to a series of events which I could never have imagined, and since Greece was not at that time anywhere on my list of places to visit, I had done no research whatsoever about the country I was arriving in. Looking out of an airplane window, I had no idea then that I was getting the first look at the country that would one day be my home, the country that I fell in love with, by way of falling in love with one of its children, the soil where my own children would take their first steps.

What I was doing when I first stepped off that plane was that I was making my way, at my own expense and in my own time, to volunteer at Athens 2004. Ordinary Greeks I would later meet on my trips to and from the Marcopolo shooting centre were very curious about this. Why, if I had absolutely no connection to Greece, had I shelled out for a high-season plane ticket to come all this way and ensure the smooth running of the Games which I had no personal connection to?

“They pay your hotel though, right?” Nope. We got no expenses covered, apart from free food and drink at our venues and free travel in the city. I was lucky enough to stay with a friend from university (she’s now the godmother of my younger son). And my answer to the bewildered question of why was this: Because I love the Olympics.

I’ve always loved the Olympics. Seoul 1988 are the first games I remember. The Games were a big deal in my house. Both my parents had been athletic but somehow gave birth to four couch potatoes. They never missed watching the Olympics. After that it was Barcelona in 1992, where that summer my cousins and I would give each other stirring renditions of Freddie Mercury’s (“Indian!” my Indian mother proudly pointed out) Barcelona sung into hairbrushes, sometimes with paper mustaches stuck on our faces.

Then came Atlanta in 1996, when I was old enough to appreciate the significance of Muhammad Ali lighting the torch. What a moment. I watched the opening ceremony of Sydney 2000 at my parent’s house, and the closing ceremony sitting on the carpet of a family friend’s house in Cardiff, days before I started university, because in typical Asian parent style, my parents were horrified that I had applied for university at a non commutable distance from home and so had immediately located someone they knew in the city.

Sandwiched in between it all was sporting greatness. I knew I would never reach those heights, for a start, I was much too lazy and unathletic. So the next best thing was to go to the Olympics. I dreamed of going to the opening ceremony, any opening ceremony, thinking of the years of Olympic opening and closing ceremonies I had watched, envious of the noise and the crowds and the people lucky enough to be there, and I would think “One day, I’ll be there too.”

And so, at the end of a bad 2003, I went online to look for tickets to attend Athens 2004. The Olympics were finally swinging close enough to home to make attending them something that wouldn’t bankrupt me entirely, and I wanted to go. But then, once on the site, something else caught my eye.

A big button, emblazoned with the word “Volunteer”.

I had no idea you could do that. That sounded amazing! I’d get to be inside the Games without needing any athletic prowess whatsoever! And so I applied. And that’s how I ended up stepping off a plane into the blinding heat of August 2004, to mixed reactions of Athenians who told me what a bad idea the games were, to others who were more enthusiastic.

But none of it mattered as I sat in the stalls during the final dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony, which my Greek friend had wrangled for me after hours of belligerence on various telephone lines, her argument being that a foreigner who comes all that way to support the Greek games deserves a ticket to the final dress rehearsal. I was so overcome at fulfilling a lifelong ambition that I spent much of the ceremony wiping away my tears of happiness. In fact, I still cry whenever I watch the Athens 2004 opening ceremony, because I still consider it the best of them all.

As for me, nothing could dampen my spirit. Apart from the friends I made during those days, my destiny was set on a course I could never have dreamed of. The shooting centre venue manager ended up becoming my husband, and here I am today, 12 years later, now calling Athens my home.

Perhaps it’s because, in spite of the world we live in, I really want to believe that it’s not such a terrible place. Every Olympic year, we get blanket coverage of how terrible it all is, that the games are a waste of money, a beacon of corruption and so overflowing with drugs that it would make Colombian cocaine baron blush. The host city receives such scrutiny and, often, derision, that the Olympics now face a new problem in that no one really wants to host them any more. To this end, it’s been argued that Greece should host them permanently, and I would love that.

In Athens, the coverage was about how the country was not ready. And, even if you put aside what an economic disaster they turned out to be, Athens was not ready. On our first training day, we toured the shooting centre in tight-jawed shock as our superiors waved us around what was supposed to be the shooting centre in two days’ times. It wasn’t finished. Workers welded and hammered around us and we gulped in polite terror – shooting was going to happen here? But when we rolled up for the first shift two days later, it was all ready.

For Beijing, coverage circled around the awful air quality, the corruption and violation of rights and poor water quality of the open swimming venues. Sound familiar? Brazil has been put through the same battery of misery mongering – they’re not ready, bad water, it’s not safe, gentrification etc. London was about how the games had cost way too much and caused the gentrification of East London, making it unaffordable to those who used to live there.

I’m not going to argue with any of that coverage, because the fact is that it’s true. But there’s also another aspect that gets ignored. I know because I was there, I was part of that face of the Olympics which so few wrote about. The human side of the games is the ultimate feel-good story.

The Olympics, stripped of the misery and scandal, are the ultimate gathering of the tribes of the world. They are the place where hope triumphs over adversity (and, sometimes hope triumphs over the reality that you’re so bad you’re good). The Olympics are where people from around the world travel to one point at their own expense for no other reason than that they love the games. Lifelong friendships are formed and, sometimes as in my case, lifelong partnerships.

I know what it felt like to be inside the Olympics, and I’ll never forget that feeling. When I recall that feeling, I don’t feel any of the negativity which persistently surrounds the Olympics, the world’s media bah-humbugging their way to the opening ceremony and then gleefully recording every failure. I just feel the glory and the magic, shaking hands with people who were the best in the world at what they did and hoping that some of their brilliance rubbed off onto you. I remember high-fiving friends from all around the world and sharing stories with other volunteers who had previous games under their belt. I remember happiness and the sense of wonder that got to be a part of something so big.

I loved the Olympics long before they permanently changed the course of my life, and I continue to love for the original reasons I loved them. For the human element, the winning athlete running their nation’s flag around the track, the message of hope they bring in the form of a flame lit in Ancient Olympia (again, in Greece this ceremony is widely mocked, though I love it, and would love to see it live one day), the volunteer who goes home proudly wearing their uniform on the flight, and now that Greece is home, the pride I feel when Greece leads the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony. It’s the story I’ll bore my own grandkids with: I was there. I felt the Olympic magic. It’s something you can’t capture or explain unless you’ve felt it yourself. That’s why I will always love the Olympics.

Rio 2016, good luck!

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An EU immigrant twice over

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It’s been a bad few days for Europe.

From the moment the referendum was announced, I had a feeling that Britain would leave the EU. Every time the issue came up on the Greek evening news, I’d tell my husband “They’ll do it. They’ll leave.” Of course, my language was a little more colourful than that.

Almost no one else I know thought the same thing, though. Especially other journalists living and working in Greece, some of them from London. So what was different? For a start, none of them come from the West Midlands. I was born in Kidderminster, and even though I grew up in Pakistan, at age 14 we returned to my city of birth.

Secondly, none of the other journalists I know in Athens are ethnic minorities. You could argue that this plays no role in perception when you are all receiving the same information. I’d argue that it does. As an ethnic minority, you hear the same narrative in a different way. It’s one thing to hear Brexiters demand their country back from foreigners. It’s another thing to have experienced that. I am one of the immigrants that they want their country back from. You can argue all day that it doesn’t apply to ‘people like me’ but you know full well they’re not talking about French bankers or Russian millionaires in London.

So let’s go into how I ended up being British. My father is from Pakistan. He studied medicine in the UK and worked there for 8 years, meeting my Indian mother in the process. Back then, his work and time spent in the UK was enough for him to gain British citizenship.

I, like my sisters, acquired this citizenship at birth. Even though I have joint Pakistani citizenship, I’m afraid I don’t have a dramatic immigration story to tell you about when I moved to the UK. We got on a plane and got off it. We went through passport control with our British passports. That’s it. Much to my schoolmates’ disappointment, there were no shanty towns from where I originated, no donkey cart which I rode to school and no rickety boat which I came to the UK on.

I went to school in England and university in Wales. I worked consistently since I was 17 years old. My father went back to working as a surgeon on the NHS and my mother as a theater nurse. I claimed job seeker’s allowance once for a total of two weeks before becoming employed again.

Fast forward a few years and I got on another plane and left to live in Greece to join the man who was and remains the love of my life. I now work and live in Greece, paying my taxes fair and square. I was unemployed for a while last year, but claimed no benefits from the system.

I have two children who were born in Greece. They are half Greek, part Pakistani and part Indian. They are entitled to British nationality and travel on Greek passports.

So my story is one of an immigrant twice over, and one of a European citizen. I have always believed in the EU, even if, lately, living in Greece has put me at the sharp end of much of the EU’s flawed policies.

But having lived in Britain, and having spent my formative years out in the sticks of the West Midlands, I had some inkling of how the average Briton thinks. And I knew that, far from the glittering lights of London, they were more likely to accept a narrative that immigration and the EU were to blame for everything from zero hour contracts to lack of housing to the collapsing NHS.

That’s not because I believe they are stupid. It’s because I believe they were misinformed and given easy answers to questions that are much too complicated to be condensed into a Yes or No referendum.

And, let’s face it. There is also the issue of racism, which I myself have been at the receiving end of, like every other ethnic minority I know who lives in the UK. Whether you like it or not, your ethnicity influences the prism through which you view the world. Unfortunately in the case of the referendum, for me it amplified the voices that wanted nothing more to do with foreigners coming into their countries and taking their jobs. They were by no means the majority, but they were loud and obnoxious enough to mean that the very next day, my youngest sister experienced this in my hometown:

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In answer to that argument, I put forward only the Greek case. Some 200,000 qualified Greek professionals have left Greece since the start of the economic crisis. Taking advantage of the EU’s free movement policy, many of them settled in the UK. The majority of them are doctors, lawyers and engineers. If they attended Greece’s free state university system, this means that the Greek state shelled out for them to become qualified, but now reaps none of the benefits. Those benefits go to the UK. Which is why scaremongering flyers about English potholes and the Greeks laughing at the Brits from atop fancy bridges were ridiculous.

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But this was a referendum in which the non ridiculous and cool-minded decision making didn’t manage to find a place. It was a referendum of utter nonsense, one with Boris Johnson preparing to sell the entire country down the river by sailing down the Thames in a Brexit convoy that would have been Monty Python-esque funny if it wasn’t so completely appalling at the same time.

So far, I have lived and worked in Greece without any problems. Employers asked what nationality I was, I said British, they said OK. Unlike American friends, I needed no residence permit to live in Greece. I went to the local police department once, registered the district I lived in, got a little card to prove that I had done this, and that was it. I needed to do nothing else as a citizen of the EU. I know that this won’t change immediately, and it might not change at all, but it’s an extra consideration that I didn’t have last Thursday morning.

And when it comes to what a Brexit means for medical research and the kind of innovative medicine that involves a cohesive EU, it’s a subject that has hit so close to the bone that I can’t even bring myself to look at it. A gamble was taken on the futures of my child and every person with a rare or complicated condition who is hoping for a medical breakthrough. One mother whose son also has Duchenne posted a picture of his sleeping face on Friday morning on Facebook, describing how she was stood by his bed in tears, about to wake him for school, and heartbroken that our fight for a cure just got harder.

My husband, who advocates for our son and the Duchenne community in Greece full-time (and no, apart from the occasional flight expense for a medical conference within Europe, before you start talking about free loaders and NGOs, he doesn’t make a single penny from what he does as an often 60 hour a week occupation) spent all of Friday on the phone to British patient advocate and medical research groups. They were utterly devastated and didn’t know what to do next.

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The morning after the night before, with my left hand wrapped in a pressure bandage after having typed and Tweeted myself into the land of sprained tendons, you would never realise that Briton’s economy is crashing and taking down the world’s stock markets if you looked at the pages of the Daily Mail or the Sun. I don’t want to believe that Brexiters live so much in their own world that they actually believe this jolly line. But since they bought the moronic colonialism, racism, small minded and isolationist mindset and the talk of an independence day from Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and co, I’m not sure what to believe any more.

Now that it’s all over, I am disappointed in so many ways. Every morning brings new considerations for me as British citizen living in Europe. I reached Friday night after the referendum feeling completely exhausted and, I won’t lie, a little traumatised. For one thing, living in Greece means my brain has reached saturation point when it comes to political drama and collapsing economies. The Greek economy is as fragile as a house of cards right now. It cannot afford any knocks, but the waves from the fallout are heading our way and were immediately felt on the Athens Stock Market when it opened on Friday.

The EU gave me a home. It gave me an education and several jobs. It offered me the chance to follow the man I loved without the heartbreak and indignity of the authorities keeping us apart or poking their noses into our relationship to validate its authenticity.

When the other shoe finally drops for the Brexit voters, it will be too late for them, and too late for Europe’s economy. In nearly every other political process, I have made predictions that were off the mark. This was the one time I hoped my losing streak would hold. It didn’t. I was right, and I really wish I hadn’t been.

 

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The Story of Robert

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It’s funny the people who come in and out of your life. This random thought, plus my latest bout of nostalgia for the place I grew up, combined to dig up the story of Robert from deep in my memories.

First, I need to set the tone. My hometown where I grew up is Bahawalpur, currently in the top 10 of Pakistan’s largest cities. But back then, it was a sleepy sort of place. The city has been built on land snatched from the desert, which regularly reminded us of its original claim with spectacular sandstorms. It was hot and dusty, and foreign visitors were few.

There wasn’t that much to see there anyway. So when Robert (not his real name), turned up at our door, I just assumed he must be a relative from my mother’s side of the family. My mother is Indian and her family is scattered all over the globe. Apart from my grandmother who visited every two years from the UK, and an actual Aunt Flo who visited once from India, we had very few foreign visitors in our house.

I’m not going to tell you the story of the two hippie backpackers which my parents put up in our house after the girl took too much of something and ended up at the hospital where my father worked, because I don’t remember this incident. Apparently she just slept for three days, so there isn’t that much to tell. More amazing than the story is the fact that once upon a time in your living memory, Pakistan was part of the hippie trail.

Back to Robert. Robert was American, which was horribly exciting to me and my sisters. As far as we knew, there was only one American in all of Bahawalpur and he was staying at our house. Did he know President Bush? Did he know Michael Jackson? He was American! He must! We told everyone, and invited our friends around to witness this phenomenon.

Growing up in Pakistan, we were used to a culture where adults made a big deal of children. Sadly for us, Robert had absolutely no interest in talking to us or answering our stupid questions about America. He generally tended to just put up with us rather than indulging us. No cheeks were pinched, no sweets were lavished. He had no postcards or pictures or magnets or stories of his hometown to share with us.

One day, we bought a coconut with its entire husk still on. Hours of fun ensued while the adults tried everything to get the husk off (pro tip: next time just let the guy with the machete do it). Robert was finally triumphant, using the little hammer from my DIY kit which had mini versions of actual working tools, including a saw which I tried and failed to saw the garden’s eucalyptus tree down with. He placed the narrow end on the coconut and used a full-sized hammer to bash my little hammer. Sparks flew, and finally the coconut was open.

We waited patiently to be offered some rather than jump in on the coconut, and we watched as the white and brown crescents disappeared one by one into Robert. He didn’t offer us any. “I don’t think he likes children very much.” was my only thought.

The next day, Robert had a very bad stomach. Wherever he came from, it was obvious that they didn’t have coconuts there.

Then Robert went away for a day, and when he came back, he was grumpier than normal, and my mum made her delicious salt and pepper lamb, pressure cooked until tender which was her specialty for foreign visitors with delicate stomachs, of which we were not allowed to have any. We were instructed not to pester him, which was fair enough because his obvious discomfort with our company meant that we’d lost interest in him anyway.

And then he was gone. So who was he? “A friend” my parents would say. And why did he come to Bahawalpur of all places? “For an operation.” In the context of our young ages, that was all we could get out of them at the time.

It wasn’t until I was old enough to understand when I remembered Robert and asked my parents again what that was all about, seeing as he’d never come back to visit. My mother stifled her giggles.

Gentlemen, cross your legs.

It turned out that Robert was a very devout Christian, and I’d hazard a guess that he was also suffering from a serious mental issue, who said he had received a vision from Jesus saying that he should have his family jewels removed because they were unclean. Having failed to convince any doctors in the US to carry out the surgery, he’d managed to locate one willing to perform it in Pakistan. And that’s how he ended in and out of our lives again.

When I first heard this, I roared with laughter. Of course, with time and maturity I feel sorry for Robert, who obviously suffered from deep-seated problems he’d not been able to resolve except for handing over a wad of dollars to get what he had convinced himself was the cure.

My mother told me that years later, Robert called them out of the blue while we were still living in Pakistan. He’d had another vision. This time Jesus had told him that he should marry and have children with a pretty cousin of mine who had happened to visit while he was with us.

My mother said “I told him ‘I didn’t think that was going to be possible, Robert. For one thing, she’s got married since then. And, you know…'” She didn’t bother to colour in the details of what the other, very obvious thing was.

Poor Robert. I do wonder where he is today, how his life went after he left us, and what he remembers from his visit. Perhaps he thinks of us now and then, like he came to my mind randomly two days ago. Perhaps he hung up the phone that day and Jesus told him never to talk to us again. Who knows.

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Depression and the devilish imp

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From the comic by Nick Seluk and Sarah Flanigan

I didn’t know whether I should write this post, but earlier this week, I did something I’ve not done before. After suffering one anxiety attack after the other for almost a week, on Monday I decided to put my question to Twitter.

I asked people what to do about the anxiety attacks because I felt like my body was disintegrating under the weight of them. Nothing that usually helped was working. And people were surprisingly forthcoming in sharing their experiences. A perfect stranger sent me this song in a message, which helped so much.

Before I go further, I want to make a few things clear. I’m not an attention seeker, I’m not doing this for anyone to feel sorry for me. I know depression carries a stigma, and I know that certain people will look at me differently after reading this, and not necessarily in a good way. I’m writing this because there is something so shameful about having mental health problems, that I am wary and embarrassed to be writing this post at all. Should it really be that way?

In writing it and talking about the fact that I get depression and anxiety attacks, and that lately the latter of the two has floored me and I don’t know how to deal with it, I feel like a failure. How did we get to the point where a legitimate, organic health problem is seen as a failure? Maybe we never left that point. I don’t know of any diabetics who check their blood sugar and grimly think “I’m a failure.” Or a cancer patient who walks out of hospital after receiving medication and thinks “Well, I had to turn to the drugs in the end. I failed. If I had a quieter mind the meditation would have worked. I’m not dedicated enough.”

It’s depression awareness week this week, and it coincided with a really bad time for me. I had been free of anxiety attacks for nearly four months, and then something insignificant set me off again. I just want to share a little of what it feels like, and that it could happen to you.

I have a friend, Angela. She is lovely, charming and beautiful. She’s fiercely intelligent and very driven. I first met her through my belly dance teacher in Athens. Angela is her niece and when I met her, she was spending a few months in Greece for work, and hating it. Her job involved negotiating about business with powerful Greek politicians and business figures, who almost invariably made blatant passes at her.

Once, she invited me and my husband over for dinner. It was all perfect, but I noticed Angela fretting in the kitchen, looking worried. “I forgot to take my anxiety medication.” she said, frantically mixing pesto into some pasta. Anxiety medication? I remember thinking. Why would anyone need medication for being a bit nervous? Didn’t we all feel that way sometimes?

I didn’t understand then, because “A bit nervous” is all I’d ever felt until that point. I hadn’t experienced the whole hog, the heart palpitations, the agoraphobia, the pins and needles in your hands, the shallow breathing, dizziness, difficulty swallowing and chest pains that come with an actual anxiety attack. I didn’t know it could happen to me.

Here’s the thing about having depression. I hate it. I don’t often say phrases like “My depression” because I don’t consider it mine.I can write it, but I can’t say it. I don’t want it to be in any part of my life, and by saying “my” I imply that the depression belongs in my life. It doesn’t. I say “I get depressive episodes” or “I have depression”. But I don’t like to say “My depression”.

Saying that, the depression in my life does have a name. I call it Gary. Don’t ask me why, I chose the name at random. This was after my last severe depressive episode which was over a year ago now. That time, it hit me out of nowhere. I didn’t see it coming. I felt like I had been rugby tackled to the floor by an unseen force that was now sitting on top of me and not letting me be normal. It felt like another entity, a being that was out to ruin my life and who I had little control over. So I gave it a name.

Since then, I’ve been wanting for a long time to turn my experience of depression into a comic or something, some way to convey how awful it makes me feel, but also the dark humour that comes with it. Life with Gary. But I just don’t have the time.

Two nights ago I was lying in bed after listening to a This American Life podcast, called Faustian Bargains. It’s about people who made deals with the devil, and how they turned out. Whether you have depression or not, you should listen to it. It’s really interesting.

As I lay there, I began to wonder to myself: what kind of bargain would I make if it meant I could never suffer another episode of depression or anxiety? Let’s say a devilish little imp turns up, surgical tools in hand, and says “I can cure your sick mind but I’ll demand payment in body parts.”

I really thought about this, running through all sorts of options and scenarios. It gives you some idea of what depression and anxiety do to you – you’re lying in bed thinking of deals with the devil if it meant you’d be free of them.

So my bargaining went something like this: being the mother of two small children, I couldn’t sacrifice something that would seriously impact my parenting. That ruled out giving up an arm or a leg. I could give up a kidney, I reasoned. But what if the devilish imp was a bad surgeon? I couldn’t do an operation requiring recovery time, my children still need too much of me to care for them.

I couldn’t give up something minor like an ear or a pinky, Yazuka-style. It would have to be a reasonably valuable part of the body. In the end I settled on an eye. One eye, in exchange for never having a depressive episode or anxiety attack ever again. Now the question was how much pain should be involved. Does the devilish imp have some voodoo he does, and your eye is gone? Or does he beckon you menacingly, crooked fork in one hand?

I got as far as contemplating how long that would take to recover from, and theorising that I could still work and parent pretty much uninhibited, before I realised what a ridiculous exercise it was. There is no magic imp waiting to make a devil’s bargain with me. If only it were that easy.

You can’t understand depression until you’ve been through it. This is something that even the very closest people in my life don’t understand. I’ll be told that it’s mind over matter, it’s a choice, I could choose not to feel this way, to pull myself together, don’t feel like that, you have so much to be happy about (this one in particular makes me feel 100 times worse). I’ve never taken medication for depression or anxiety, but this week when I began mentioning it, exhausted from the constant racing adrenaline, nine out of 10 people pursed their lips and said something like “I really don’t think you should go down that route.”

I hear this all the time. When I meet friends who have been through or are going through depression who mention medication, I always ask them how it went for them. They’ll always tell me it was a big help. I say “was” because in Greece, the doctors that at least I’ve encountered are not as trigger happy as their British or American counterparts. They will give you the lowest dose you need, and keep you on it for the shortest time possible. Talking to these friends, anti depressants are used as a crutch until you are well enough to walk without one.

So why this hostility to medication? You can’t imagine the feelings of failure it creates, and when you’re stuck in a spiral of anxiety, you’ve tried everything that normally works like exercise and meditation, and you just want a little bit of relief, to be told “I don’t think you should take medication” is as destructive a piece of feedback as it is infuriating, because I only ever get told this from people who’ve never experienced depression or have never taken medication for it. I’d sooner listen to someone with depression who had a bad experience. I can relate to that. But I’d never turn to a friend about to get a broken leg plastered and say “I don’t think you should do that. Have you tried acupuncture?”

People with depression are hidden. We’re perceived as weak. We’re infantalised because we couldn’t possibly have considered the consequences of seeking medical help in the form of a course of anti depressants. We’re perceived as having made a choice: we could choose to be happy but we don’t. If the people who thought that only knew what it felt like, and that it’s not something we choose, they too would be lying in bed contemplating a deal with a fork-wielding imp.

We’re stigmatised and it works: we’re so embarrassed at our perceived failure that we don’t tell anyone about it. It always amazes me when I reach the end of my tether and confess I’ve been suffering for a while, the number of friends or colleagues who will quietly lean in and share their own experience of a period of depression in whispered tones. “But don’t tell anyone.” Don’t tell anyone I am literally a head case, a nutter.

I’ve often been told I’m too honest. When I finally appealed for help on Twitter, I got one or two messages from well-meaning fellow anxiety attack sufferers who advised me not to be too open with this information. You’re probably thinking the same thing while reading this. It’s TMI, Omaira, no one wants to know or cares about how you can’t get your life together. But I don’t sit here writing regular updates about it. I don’t indulge it, because I don’t want my mental health to define who I am. My life is just fine, thank you, but my mind blue-screens from time to time, just like your perfectly fine gallbladder might malfunction from time to time.

I am writing this because I don’t think mental health should be such a taboo (and even as I type that, I don’t believe it myself, and I’d love a world where it would be as okay to say you have depression as it is to say you suffer from migraines). I don’t parade my mental health on a T shirt, I don’t walk around with a banner reading “I’ve got depression, deal with it! (because I’m not!)”. There is nothing glamorous or fashionable about how bad it makes you feel and how dysfunctional you become, and how much energy gets consumed in those periods, forcing yourself to come across as normal so that you don’t scare your friends and loved ones, or pushing your already fractured brain to meet deadlines and perform at work when you can’t string two thoughts together.

It’s basically like a sinking ship, in the engine room, all the red lights are flashing and all the alarms are going off. It’s chaos, noise, fear, a mess. From the outside, you still see a ship apparently sailing along serenely in the sea.

I hope reading this helped you if you’re suffering from a depressive period. We’re not alone. And if you’re someone who still doesn’t get it, that’s okay. You’re free to not understand, but all I ask is that when people like me need people like you to lean on, just let us lean on you for a little while. Don’t prop us against a wall. You don’t need to understand or even to agree. You might disagree with anti depressants, but sit with us and read the literature to help us choose the best one.  We need you, so badly. You just need to be there and ask “What do you need me to do?”


(This is a pretty good BBC documentary that might help you understand more)

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Get your Schism on!

Dateline: Atlantis

pope-patriarchThe Papal visit commemorative print-out-and-keep guide to the Eastern and Western Christian churches.

This week, after overcoming some minor technicalities, Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church will be visiting the Greek island of Lesvos with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Athens, to show support for the refugees arriving on the island and the local people who have been helping them.

If you have ever wondered how the churches compare on a number of key indicators, here is a handy guide.

Dogma

The two churches parted ways in the Great Schism of 1054, which marked the climax of series of disputes over issues as diverse as simple turf wars, through to who should pay whom their respects, and which bits of the Holy Trinity the Holy Spirit emanates from.

Semantics

Labels are important. Orthodox (meaning “correct”) vs. Catholic (meaning “for all”) suggests that the…

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April 15, 2016 · 1:31 pm