Are you there, European voters? It’s me, an immigrant

d2f3fbb254a014713f9220e39f5f7710Have you ever been talked about in a room while you were stood there in front of the people who were doing it? I can’t say I’ve had much experience of it, apart from the early days when I was still learning Greek and people didn’t know i could understand what they were saying. Not so long ago, it happened at a gathering of Pakistani women where a couple of the other women assumed I was Greek (I can’t win) and began talking about me in Urdu.

Now and then it happens on Greek twitter when trolls think that as a foreigner in Greece I couldn’t possibly have any working knowledge of Greek. Sometimes, I get nice Twitter messages in Greek too.

But if you combine being an immigrant with European elections and Twitter, prepare to be talked about as if you’re not there. A lot. 

The latest such election was that of Italy, where again, us immigrants got nice, thick lashings of why we’re to blame for everything.

Watching Twitter activity on the day of the election, I was not surprised to see nationalists from the UK and America jump on the Italian election bandwagon and urge Italians, who they’ve never met, and whose politically dynamics they are completely ignorant of, to “take back your country”. Let’s all take a short moment to remember how well nationalistic voting worked out for both those countries.

Even that well-known mutated offshoot of Trump, Katie Hopkins, grabbed the chance for a trip to Italy for some dolce vita and racism.

Us immigrants in Europe get talked about a lot. We are the go-to group of people to blame. Twitter trolls talk about us. Outright neonazis talk about us. Genuine concerned citizens worried about the direction of their country talk about us.

And political commentators talk about us, along with journalists, columnists and pretty much everyone else. By and large, except for a few notable exceptions, none of the people who like to talk about us and write about us are actually representative of our group.

In a political sphere, where immigrants have become the number one scapegoat, and where we’re apparently such a huge problem and a threat to everyone’s economy and existence, for some reason we rarely get asked to talk about it.

In the wake of the #Metoo movement, it has largely been women who have been writing and commenting about the everyday sexism which blights our lives. If the majority of editors allowed 80% of the coverage on this movement to originate from men, it would be nonsensical.

Not so when it comes to immigration.

What goes into the thought process of editors repeatedly commissioning pieces on immigrants in Europe to be written by non-immigrants in Europe? I’m not for a second suggesting that many of my peers don’t do an excellent job covering this issue, because they absolutely do. But, it would also be nice to get the chance to say “You’re all talking about me as if I’m not here. I come from this body of people you’re so terrified of. Do you want to perhaps hear what I have to say?” If you did, it might shock you that the economy, terrorism and integration issues are also topics that immigrants worry about as well.

It is the cheapest, nastiest type of populism that takes a minority group of people and marks it as responsible for the country’s ills. Our voices are not heard when we start to see this happening, and they are not heard when it is in full swing. We are not listened to when we see the growing danger, alter our way of talking or dressing to avoid confrontation and see people voicing a very dangerous rhetoric become ratified and established within parliaments as if their violence and bile was completely normal and valid. It is the normalisation of the abnormal, which began a few years ago in Europe and was given the seal of approval through the anomaly of the Trump presidency.

Taking the example of Golden Dawn, I and other observers were worried about them long before they gained any sort of real power. But immigrants were repeatedly told that they were no big deal, in a country where we around us could feel the hostility rising, and felt powerless because we don’t enjoy the right to vote. And since we can’t influence the vote, in Greece at least, political parties practically fell over each other to court the far-right voting pool into their own parties in their never-ending race to the very bottom. In doing so, they normalised racism to a degree that I had not seen before. “Yes, but” became standard fare in conversations with people who I knew, who knew me, and who still yes butted their way through discussions on immigration with me.  

Violence and the populism in Greece escalated hand in hand, and we know what happened next. With a neonazi group safely established in parliament, people still don’t believe us immigrants when we tell them about the racism we’ve experienced. I have been asked to list incidences of violence when talking about racism, as if being kicked, beaten, knifed or spat at is the only type of racism that counts.

One thing I’ve been told again and again is that racism is rising because “Greeks are tired of foreigners telling us what to do and bringing our country to its knees.”

There is no way to win that argument, and I’ve tried, because no matter how many times I point out that 30 years of bad governance by Greek politicians, not foreigners, destroyed the country’s economy, it will still circle back to the argument of the honourable Greek being humiliated by the rest of Europe.

In the case of Greece, the advent of the economic crisis brought about an escalation in nationalistic and plain old racist rhetoric. Politicians and the media talked about us all the time as if we couldn’t possibly follow their arguments or understand what they were saying. We were, and are, considered invisible to the point that all this can be said about us as if we’re too ignorant to understand the conversation.

I’ll admit that belonging to a group of people that gets demonised all the time is starting to get wearing. I now dread being asked where I’m from, because that once innocent question has become so loaded in the last few years. I’m tired of the elaborate process of constantly trying to reassure the other person that yes, I come from a country that Greeks lately throw around as shorthand for something grubby and unwanted, but don’t worry! Look! I fit in! I am a contributing member of society! Now please feel free to tell me your expert opinion on what my home country and its people are like, since I’m trapped in your taxi so it’s not like I would dare to contradict you anyway!

There will now be much commentary on the rise of populism in Europe, the danger that this type of nationalism poses and what can be done. To that I’ll say, us immigrants saw it all coming years ago, and we did raise our voices. We did try to warn about the danger, but we weren’t listened to or our fears were played down: it’s a non-party, Greeks/Brits/Americans/Italians are just angry, it’ll blow over, no one takes this seriously.

As immigrants, we have to be exceptionally good (doctors, scientists, token Muslim who saves someone during terrorist attack) or exceptionally bad (terrorists, criminals) for our narrative to ever make it into the press.

Beyond these two narrow frames, we are talked about very often, but hardly ever listened to. Economies and tax revenues to a degree function off the back of our labour contributions, and elections are fought and won on rhetorics that demonise us, but we as a group are otherwise ignored. And as long as we are working and contributing, all is well. Should we dare to claim something back (as if our right as taxpayers), we must again quietly listen to the hysteria about “immigrants claiming benefits”. It happened not so long ago in Greece, when it emerged that one in 10 of those who received a special payout from the government was a foreigner, sparking outrage, screaming TV debates and vicious online coverage. How very dare we work and pay our taxes fair and square, and then claim a benefit that we’re fully entitled to.

This will all be recycled and reproduced for the next round of elections. It’s happening already in Greece with the main opposition party, New Democracy, not feeling at all ashamed to court the extreme right, with the result that their position in the polls did not go up, but that of Golden Dawn did.

Too bad for New Democracy, and even worse for us immigrants.

It’s easy to buy into this simple explanation of immigrants being to blame for everything, of us being the reason for you being priced out of the market (rather than unscrupulous employers who won’t pay a reasonable wage), because it makes the native population feel safe, and seeking safety is a natural human instinct.

That too is a trap, because if anything the pattern of how the far right and populism in general operates has taught us is that their narratives work inwards from the outside, moving in circles and increasingly giving the people in the centre new groups of the population to be scared of or to dislike – the unemployed, the homeless, the disabled, LGBTQ individuals, women, single mothers, the list is literally endless.

So you might think you’re securing your own future by voting for such groups, but it’s very likely that you’re not. And the next time this all swings around again, remember that you too could probably benefit from talking to immigrants rather than talking about immigrants.


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Nine bangles on each hand


By now, anyone who knew who she was has heard about the sudden death of Bollywood superstar Sridevi. For those of us who grew up with her movies, the news was even more of a shock, because out of a gigantic movie industry which turns out over 700 movies a year, with just as many wannabes, hopeful stars and pretty-faced hopefuls, very few ever leave a mark in the way that Sridevi did.

There was something about Sridevi, I understood this even as a little girl. She appeared in some 300 movies across her career before taking a break in the mid-90s. The following are some of my favourite, and act as cultural landmarks in my childhood and teenage years.

The first Bollywood movie I remember loving was Nagina (1986). In it, Sridevi played a form-shifting female cobra who can’t resist dancing to the sound of a snake-charmer’s flute. Her famous snake dance became a favourite of mine, and as a child too young to understand how contact lenses worked, it seemed like magic to me that Sridevi’s enormous eyes were blue in the movie.

This was followed in 1987 with Mr India, another fanastical jaunt in which Sridevi played a snobby but well-meaning girl who of course eventually falls in love with Anil Kapoor’s broke-but-happy character. Along the way, there are orphans, a bomb hidden in a doll, a magic watch that turns you invisible and a bad guy with a pit of acid.

In it, Sridevi performs a dance sequence which either delighted or insulted all of Hawaii, but we didn’t care.

She also falls in love with Mr India after he rescues her, leading to this fantastic kiss scene.

I mean, who needs Stanley Kubrick with special effects like that?

In 1988 came the follow up to Nagina, Nigahen. As is always the way in Bollywood from the 80s, both of Sridevi’s character’s parents died in a car crash, one of those parents being the magical shape-shifting snake played by Sridevi. So now it’s down to the daughter (Sridevi again) to beat the bad guys with her magic snake dance and contact lenses.

But none of those movies even comes close to Chandni (1989), the epic love story which we all adored, the soundtrack from which I still listen to today.

Sridevi was an expert at iconic dance sequences,and Chandni is no exception. In this movie, she delivers one of her best performances to Mere Haathon Mein, the lyrics of which translate to “I have nine bangles on each hand”.

Naturally, within days of the movie releasing, replica outfits appeared at the weddings, the dance was executed at henna parties as quickly as you could nail down the choreography, and nine bangles on each hand briefly became the standard, even if in the movie dance sequence, Sridevi is actually wearing many more than that.

On a revisit, there is a lot wrong with the movie. Off the bat, Rishi Kapoor’s character, Rohit, a slick city boy, spots Sridevi’s character Chandni (moonlight) at a wedding and immediately professes his love by stalking and sexually harassing her.


Nothing says love like unwanted physical contact after ambushing you on a dark stairwell. *swoon*

She responds in the only way possible for a 80’s Bollywood heroine by falling in love with him.

But there’s a problem. She’s from humble roots and Rohit’s family won’t have any of that. Like he cares! The movie goes on to set several impossible-to-meet standards for young men in the 80s. The sweaters for a start.




Then there are Rohit’s insane declarations of love, one of which is when he flies a helicopter over Chandni just so he can shower her with rose petals.

The moment he reveals to Chandni that he has plastered an entire room in pictures of her is forever preserved in the amber of Bollywood cinematic history. I honestly feel a little sorry for any young men who were on the dating scene at this time. I’m sure many a relationship fell apart because of a lack of a wall of pictures of you.


“Well, it makes up for the sweaters you wear, I guess.”

It’s the visual representation of falling in love, mirrored with the reverse sentiment when Rohit has an accident and tries to drive Chandni away, so invites her around to see how he has whitewashed over all her photos.



This movie was also among the first to heavily feature Switzerland in a fantasy honeymoon dream sequence, giving us the gold standard of 80s Bollywood cinema, the sari-clad heroine dancing in the snow, and everyone suddenly wanting to go to Switzerland on honeymoon.

The 90s saw Sridevi going from strength to strength. In 1991, she starred opposite Anil Kapoor (Viren) as Pallavi, and then Pallavi’s orphaned daughter Pooja when Pallavi and her husband are both killed in a car crash (naturally).

Again, it’s a slightly strange film which we consumed without question because we just didn’t question whacky Bollywood plotlines: Viren had fallen in love with the older Pallavi, but she loves someone else. When she dies, she leaves behind her daughter Pooja who Viren becomes the guardian of, providing all she needed but never visiting until Pooja grows up and then – gasp – she’s the spitting image of her dead mother! After some twists and turns, Viren and Pooja fall in love, which is not at all strange considering the 18 year age gap, guardianship etc.

This movie contained two iconic dance sequences, the first is Megha Re Megha.

And the second is Chudiyan Khanak Gayeen. This second dance sequence is one that we all tried to copy, and Pallavi’s yellow and blue outfit made a guest appearance at many a henna party for months afterwards. Fifteen years later, it was the dance I copied and performed at my big sister’s henna party.

Sridevi’s death will be greatly mourned in Afghanistan as well, thanks to her portrayal of a fierce Afghan woman, Benazir, in the lavish 1992 epic Khuda Gawah. Shot in Afghanistan, India, Bhutan and Nepal, The film earned her a huge fanbase in Afghanistan through its depiction of Afghan culture at a time when the country was no more than a footnote in the Cold War, and Sridevi’s Benazir was cheered for toppling the stereotype of the downtrodden and disenfranchised Afghan woman.

There were no fabulous dance sequences to copy from this movie, but it did give South Asia a taste of Afghan melodies with this song:

Bollywood is an industry spun out of dreams. It thrives on them. To this stage, Sridevi brought a kind of charm and natural comedic timing we’d not seen before. From the 50s through to the 70s, Bollywood was happy to feature strong female leads. That changed from the mid-70s onwards, and especially into the 80s, when female leads were universally beautiful, coy and always stumbling into some sort of disaster from which they needed rescuing.

Sridevi was one of the first actresses to break that mold. Of course, she appeared in plenty of demure roles too. But for the most part, the reason she is so loved, remembered and now mourned is because she was different. She’d deliver punchlines with perfect timing and danced like a dream. More often than not, she played three-dimensional characters who were clever and witty. Whatever she wore in a movie set the trend for the next few months, and even beyond her movie career. Just a few years ago, I bought a replica of a sari because I’d seen Sridevi wear it. 

Kapoor arrives for the gala presentation of "English Vinglish" during the Toronto International Film Festival

This one.

There was a kind of easy naturalness about her that made you feel like she could be your friend, even if that was all concocted for the silver screen, and watching her videos again today is a rare chance to see an hourglass figure which movie houses now seem to run screaming from, even in India.

Try as we might, we could never recreate those enormous eyes, and unlike on-screen Sridevi, we did not move in the world with a fan constantly blowing our hair into a billowing cloud away from our faces so that it didn’t get stuck to our cruddy 80s lipgloss.

In losing Sridevi so suddenly and at only 54, it’s not just Bollywood royalty that suffered a loss. Those of us who grew up with her movies feel like a part of our childhood just vanished. She left behind her on-screen self, which has stood the test of time well enough that we still risk wrecking our knees and tripping on our lenghas copying her peacock walk in Chudiyan Khanak Gayeen. We are older now, and we can’t make the same exuberant entrance that she did, her face popping on screen suddenly between a frame of her bangled arms in Mere Haathon Mein.

But we still try, and we still think we can pull the dances off, and that playful, crackling on-screen aura of Sridevi is part of the reason why we feel that way, and why nine bangles on each hand is a code that every 80s girl from the subcontinent will silently understand.

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Brave friends


Image by Simona Ciraolo from Hug Me

It takes a particularly brave person to be the friend of a parent with a rare disease. We are not always the easiest company. I sometimes close in on myself and turn my back on everything. I get angry that life could be this way and shut down. When I shut down, I also shut people out.

It’s a brave friend who takes the time to ask “How are you?” knowing that that simple question could unleash a tirade of everything I think has gone wrong, or me tearing myself open for them to observe all the pain I am in: see here? This is my heart, see this spot right there? That’s where the pain never stops because I can’t make my child better. See this part of my stomach? That’s what clamps up so I don’t eat because I’m in a panic about the future. And here, in my mind? Do you see these ash-coloured dreams I dreamt for my child before the diagnosis? Sometimes I go back to them and poke them about, stir the ash around them a little, for no good reason, just to make more of a mess in my mind. See this part where my worry lives and doesn’t let me sleep? Do you see all of this? Are you taking in this anatomy lesson in my personal sadness?

The friends I have know this. They know that I’m sometimes like a simmering volcano because I am so tired, so hurt, so confused, that just asking how I am makes me erupt.

Brave friends are willing to stand in the gale force of my agony and face how bereft I feel. Because apart from the positivity and the determination to give both my children as normal a life as I can, there is also a lot of raw sorrow.

I am in awe of such friends, because the easy option, as I’ve seen several times over, is to not ask. The easy option is to not check how I’m doing, because my answer might be too much for them to handle. Self-preservation is a simpler solution, and I don’t begrudge people that.

I have had people who I thought were friends step out of my life and vanish as if we had never met, and it just makes me value my friends more, because they can ask me “How are you?” and they can take it when I reply “Not great. My son is getting worse, and I don’t know what to do. And what if he asks me if he’s going to die from this and I don’t know what to say? And what if his brother clocks on that this whole thing goes downhill? And what if it makes him go off the rails as a teenager? And what if I forget his medication? And what if, what if, what if?” Other times, these friends will read into my silence and know that something is wrong. That they can pick out the conversation hidden inside the words that I don’t speak never ceases to amaze me.

I don’t know if I thank these brave friends enough. I probably don’t. But they are a priceless asset to rare disease families, because they are the ones who see you trapped in the tornado of your life, and they willingly step into it with you. They choose to be at your side even though they know they can’t fix things for you. They talk to you about their lives outside the tornado and the things their own children do, and they do this with sincerity and honesty, even though they know that the milestones they talk about might make you burst into tears because your own child will never meet them. They ask me how the last appointment went, hoping for good news but ready for hearing about how it all went wrong.

If they are afraid of all this, they hide it very well. Without brave friends, this whole journey would be so much harder.

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Little minnow in the sea


It’s a strange place to be, to not be able to find words when words are what you making your living from. But I’ve been trying for over a month now to find the words to describe what I’m feeling, or how it feels to be raising a child with a rare and fatal condition. But the words won’t come and I feel like a minnow in a very big, very black sea, opening and closing my mouth in the darkness and unable to get a single sound out.

It was my wedding anniversary the day we were in hospital for Hermes’ six month follow up with his consultant in the UK, because Duchenne has no sense of timing. As the appointment started, the physiotherapist asked us if we’d noticed any decline in our child. No, my husband and I both answered. “He’s been doing great!”

But when the assessment started, sitting in the frame of the physiotherapist’s room, I could tell that this time around it was a lot harder for him. I became quiet. We both did. When it was over, I dreaded what was coming as the physiotherapist tallied up his score. Still, I don’t know what it is about hope that lets you fool yourself the way I do sometimes. I had seen with my own eyes that my son hadn’t done as well as the last time, yet I kept thinking “It’ll be fine, this is just a blip!”

Then the verdict. Six points down from the previous visit. I was stunned into a cold, creeping silence. We nodded. We left. I kept thinking “But it’s my wedding anniversary today…” as if that would make any difference. Because I know full well that it doesn’t.

He’s only six. My child is six, and at six he has reached and passed the strongest he’ll ever be in his life, and now he’s slowly rolling downhill. Piece by piece, he will lose more of his mobility. My child is six, and I will not get to sit in that doctor’s office and be told that he is doing better, getting stronger, jumping, running, riding a bicycle. Better and better each time, the way it’s meant to be. Because it just won’t happen.

My child is six, and at six he has two files full of medical documents and I hate the sight of them sometimes.

So far, I’ve done as well as anyone can with dealing with each part of the challenge that is life with Duchenne. But realising that the reality of this condition is now setting in, that our trips to the park are numbered, that when he says “Let’s play catch!” I better get up and do it no matter how tired I am because that too will eventually go, all of this has been a hurdle I just can’t seem to get past.

And that’s when I realised that there are two types of panic. There’s the type while explodes inside you and has an immediate effect. Then there’s the other type that I became acquainted with just over a month ago. The slow, horrible, sticky, stringy panic which wraps its cold tendrils around you and builds in tiny, thin layers. It wheedles its way into your brain and catches you up short, so that when you’re laughing with friends, the unwelcome thought flashes across your brain that your child’s body is falling apart.

This new type of panic settled itself like a spiky little ball in the pit of my stomach and stayed there, so that for around ten days I struggled to eat. For two of those, I lived on just tea and toast, because anything else hurt too much. Weight dropped off me, and I thought of those stupid banner ads that promise the one weird trick that makes your fat melt away. I think I found it, guys! It’s having a sick child that you can’t make better.

I stopped sleeping because my brain decided it didn’t need it any more. When I slept, I saw strange, convoluted dreams of car crashes, sea demons and my children falling like dolls from roller coasters while I watched, screaming.

The theme was always the same: I watched as my children were hurt or frightened, and I couldn’t do anything but see it all unfold.

So why am I writing this? Because when the spiky ball of slow-burning panic settled in my stomach, I felt the need to talk. I wanted to tell everyone, random people on the street, and I wanted to be angry. I wanted to say “Don’t tell me this will be fine, because I know already that it won’t.”

But the words refused to come. And so I smiled and nodded and said that everything was fine even though it wasn’t.

The timing was so bad it was almost poetic. My youngest sister got married a day after the hospital appointment. Why spoil the big day? Why spoil the post-marriage joy? Then summer rolled in. Why spoil everyone’s summer break? Did I really want to message a friend sitting on a beach and say I need to talk, I don’t know what to do right now?

And so I sat on it and let it burn me slowly. I wrote this post to see if I could find the words, because I know words, I love words, and for them to evade me like this in every way makes me feel like I lost a piece of myself.

I feel scared, because until now I thought I was doing well with a positive attitude, but now I don’t know where the line between staying positive or kidding myself lies. Or, even worse, kidding my child. “My life is terrible!” he said during a recent tantrum, and I felt my insides crumble a little. I know it’s not to do with this disease, but one day, it might be. I know that the future is paved with bad appointments like the one we just had. From here onwards comes a slow dismantling of my child’s beautiful little body, and I hate this disease for doing that. I hate it for taking so much from him.

The rows and rows of brightly coloured treats that he can’t have because he’s on steroids and can’t have sugar any more – when did childhood become so full of sugar? And as a lifelong sugar addict, I abruptly lost interest in sweet treats since my child couldn’t have them any more.

I remembered myself on the highway in the back of a friend’s car on a trip to France, eating three cream cakes in a row because I wanted them immediately and couldn’t wait, or pace myself. It was well before I got married or had children, another lifetime. I remember the eclair, the pain au chocolat, some other tart with strawberries and cream.

The passion with which I ate them and the pleasure they gave me feel as if they are a scene from a movie I once watched and not a memory from my own life, a time when sweet treats were so normal. Now I scan the pastel rectangles of ice cream flavours looking for sugar-free options and all I see in the swirls of caramel and chocolate chips are the dirty trick that life played on me. It just doesn’t taste good any more.  

And I panic, because I wish I had someone to blame, something to shake on sleepless nights and say “You’re not taking him! He’s mine! I knew his soul before he even came to me, I saw him in my dreams before he even existed! I heard his heart before anyone else did. Stay away from my child, he is mine!”

I know that Duchenne isn’t the end of the world. I know someone somewhere wishes desperately that they were in my shoes. And six weeks on, I am starting to feel better. I’m eating more, though sleep sometimes still won’t come. But I know that that will eventually get better as well and build me up until I’m ready for the next hurdle.

I won’t stop, because I can’t stop. I will keep on being positive, because the fear that my positivity is denial is just a fear. And perhaps a little bit of denial about the long term is what keeps me from losing it altogether.

Tomorrow is World Duchenne Awareness day. Around the world, we’ll be marking this day to celebrate our children and show them that they are not alone. The road is a long one, and I don’t know where it leads. But I know that this disease is not taking away words from me. I will find a way to not let it. I will find a way to talk.

And it is not getting my child without a fight.

With thanks to Google this year for donating their time to create this 3D mini documentary, which features my son and a snapshot of our daily life. If you’ve always wondered what my pyjamas look like, take a look here.

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Why democracy was not born only in the West


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I wrote a version of this article for a special issue on Democracy released by Greece Is in September 2016. I chose to write about the flaw of treating democracy as an exclusively western concept, an approach which wipes out the thousands of years of democratic approaches which existed in the Indian subcontinent. I thought it might be relevant as we ponder 70 years since the partition, so I’m sharing it for you to read.

In the summer of 2015, I found myself, like so many of my colleagues, standing on a beach ankle-deep in orange life jackets as I watched a wave of humanity wash up on Greece’s shores. It was a shocking moment, one I was not prepared for and which took me days to recover from.

What hit me the hardest was that I was witnessing the fallout from the disintegration of more than one society, and that if Fate’s hand had moved slightly differently, it could as easily have been me clinging to that boat, a precious child shivering in my arms, as I made a break for freedom. It could even have been you.

What I came face to face with on those shores a year ago, and what I continue to encounter in my work with refugees, is what happens when people are denied their democratic rights or when a society as a whole is denied democracy altogether. In the past, these people and societies might have found some way to blunder along, unaware of what it was that had been kept from them.

But we live in a digital world, and these people now know what lies on the other side of the sea. It’s the precious commodity of democracy and everything it entails. It’s out there, it has been denied to them, and from Syria to Eritrea, people are on the move, flocking to the shelter of a democratic society.

“We want to be free.” This is what the survivors of these journeys have told me again and again. Digging a little deeper, what became obvious to me was that they were equating this freedom with democracy.

Democracy is rightly enshrined in Western thinking. However, while no one could argue against Greece’s role in the birth of democracy, it would be misguided to treat democracy as an exclusively Western trait of society. When we follow this line of thinking, we end up on the path that sees countries in the West waging wars in the Middle East under the clumsy premise of exporting democracy.

This creates the problem of an Orientalist point of view as well as a colonial one. It treats the Eastern world in general as oblivious to the beauty of democracy and in need of having their eyes opened; in this scenario, non-Westerners are no more than passive recipients of the West’s great idea, like sheep sitting dumbly in a totalitarian field, waiting for a shepherd to come and open the gates to the green pastures of democracy.

A Western-centric approach to democracy largely excludes the evidence of democracy’s existence in ancient Eastern societies. The earliest evidence of this can be found in the Rig Veda, part of the ancient Vedas which were passed down orally and are thought to date from 5,000 BC or earlier.

The most striking example is this passage: “We pray for a spirit of unity; may we discuss and resolve all issues amicably, may we reflect on all matters (of state) without rancor, may we distribute all resources (of the state) to all stakeholders equitably, may we accept our share with humility.”

Brahmanical and Buddhist literature from the 5th and 6th centuries BC describe large swathes of northern India functioning as independent republics, much larger than the equivalent Greek city states of the time. These Indian states were also described by the Greek writer Diodorus Siculus (90-30 BC), who wrote about what they were like around the time of Alexander’s invasion. His account appears to draw on the explorer Megasthenes’ records of travels through India.

About these republics that replaced monarchies, Diodorus wrote: “…most of the cities adopted the democratic form of government, though some retained the kingly until the invasion of the country by Alexander.” But whether democracy came from the East or the West is of little concern to those who don’t enjoy its freedoms, be that in how you are able to dress, to interact with the world, to make political choices, to air those political choices, to express your sexuality or to choose when and whom to marry.

No one appreciates these blessings of true democracy more than those who have been denied them, and on this point, the Eastern world needs no lecturing. I say this as someone who was made keenly aware very early in my life what it means not to be an equal in society. I knew how it felt to grow up in a patriarchal society which is structured to remind you that, as a female, you are worth less than a male.

That being said, as a woman and an ethnic minority, I also remember the sense of injustice I felt when I discovered that the West did not exercise democracy in its fullest form, either. Knowing that, as a woman in the UK, I will consistently earn less for the exact same work as my male counterparts, I don’t feel equal, even if I enjoy the right to vote on the same grounds as my higher-earning male counterparts. The discrepancy becomes even more stark when race is factored in. Western democracy was supposed to give everyone an equal say and footing. It doesn’t.

The conclusion is that democracy, like so many of humanity’s creations, is not perfect. It is a millennia-old creature that is still evolving; it is also something which cannot be applied in blanket form around the world. Like any creature, it needs to adapt and adjust to its environment in order to survive. Its flaws, always there, are perhaps simply more evident these days, in the face of the results of democratic processes like the Brexit referendum or the confusing circus that is the American presidential election [As we know, Donald Trump was since elected as president, and I don’t think I need to go into how that made me feel].

Nonetheless, democracy is precious. It’s a veil, thin as cigarette paper, which separates order from chaos and freedom from fear. Its flaws and its fragility are exactly what make it worth preserving and perfecting. Greece may have had an overdose of democracy in 2015 with two general elections and a referendum, leaving many complaining – yet another democratic process?

But to those people who collapsed gratefully onto the shores of Greece and who continue to make the journey this year, even with the odds stacked against them, too much democracy is better than no democracy at all. It’s worth remembering that when you’re trudging to the voting booth yet again; this is a right and a privilege that you are lucky enough to be able to take for granted.

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“It’s as if they don’t exist”


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Summer has descended on Athens with a bang. After a transition period from spring into summer, where the weather flip-flopped so often the more organised among us gave up packing away our winter clothes, and the disorganised (me) felt smug that ours were still in a jumbled pile with all the rest of our ironing, the dragon of summer is here at last.

Temperatures have begun to soar in the city and with it, everyone is trying to find ways to stay cool. After my trip back home in March, I’m well armed with a colourful selection of crisp, cool cotton shalwar kameez  in bright colours. With temperatures of over 40C predicted for this weekend, they’re my outfit of choice as I to and fro through the city.

But I wish I could tell you that I wear them with carefree abandon, because I don’t. And the reason for this can be traced back to 2012, when the no-one-takes-them-seriously-they’re-kind-of-a-joke neo nazi party Golden Dawn were voted into parliament.

I had never felt unwelcome in Greece, or under threat. After that happened, I did.  I stopped feeling like I could wear whatever I wanted. I began avoiding eye contact. I didn’t want any trouble.

Eventually, I began to turn my point of view around, deciding that neo nazis were not going to stop me from being who I am. That’s not to say I’m fully confident in displaying that I’m different. On the metro this morning, sporting a deliciously cool blue and white bell-sleeved kameez, I didn’t look around. I read a book or stared at the floor.

Mostly, nothing happens. Sometimes I can’t tell if the looks are curious or hostile. Yesterday, a Greek lady at the seafront spent a good 15 minutes fussing over my son’s Eid shalwar kameez, saying how wonderful we both looked in our traditional clothes, and how pleased she was to see it.

Another time, wearing a bright yellow shalwar kameez with green patterns across it, I sat enjoying a coffee with my Greek husband, when the man at the next table began loudly talking about how the foreigners were to blame for everything. “We should find them where they sleep and burn them alive. We should destroy all their shops” he said to his friend. I wondered, had he noticed me sitting at the next table? I looked up. Oh yes, he had. He was looking directly at me as he made his little hate speech.

Obviously, this feeling of not feeling safe in the place you live is a completely new sensation for opposition leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who, in comments made in this article, said he fears for his safety because of left-wing terrorists:

“Opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis of New Democracy blames Tsipras’ left-wing party, Syriza, for fomenting the anti-establishment hatred that he says is behind the attacks. He accuses the prime minister of failing to take adequate action to protect potential targets, including himself, if — as he confidently expects — he becomes the next Greek prime minister. The next general elections are scheduled for 2019.”

He goes on to make this astonishing claim, which is what first brought the piece to my attention via an angry tweet by journalist Yiannis Baboulias:

However, Mitsotakis played down the impact of Golden Dawn on Greek society, saying it was “so extreme and so vulgar” that it was marginalized. “It’s as if they don’t exist,” he said. “The violence has been almost exclusively from the left in recent years.”

I am stunned beyond words. For sure, Greece has a problem with left-wing anarchists and their strategy of delivering parcel bombs to Greek politicians, or leaving bombs in public places (which are usually called in before hand). Their destructive activity should not be played down.

But to dare to claim that nearly all the violence of recent years has come from anarchists, rather than from a murderous group of neo nazis, who killed, looted, burned and attacked with impunity because no Greek government took them seriously, is so outrageous it’s insulting. It’s not left-wing terrorists and their MPs who are currently in their second year of a trial for a long list of criminal activities, murder and attempted murder. It’s Golden Dawn, whose case file runs to over 30,000 pages long.

And I’m angry, because time and time again, no one in power in Greece has taken them seriously. They were left to run riot, until the murder of Pavlos Fyssas. I’m no fan of having molotovs whistle past my ear every now and then, or to see brand new metro stations smashed to pieces. But I’m much less of a fan of being stuck in a taxi and not knowing how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” because I don’t know what the motives of the person asking me are. I’m much less of a fan of the constant, low-level sensation that all visible foreigners have lived with since Golden Dawn’s rise that they could be anywhere, and you could provoke them just by being you. I’m lucky, because like I’ve said  in the past, I can vanish if needs be.

Mitsotakis said that Golden Dawn’s actions are so extreme and so vulgar it’s as if they don’t exist. This comment makes no sense. How can anyone say with a straight face that Golden Dawn’s actions had no impact on Greek society? How can anyone say that their black-shirted thugs and cult mentality didn’t at the very least embolden others who might have been leaning in their direction, but needed just another push?

How can anyone say that their actions and their existence did not impact Greek society, that they didn’t at least lead to some soul searching among ordinary Greeks about how things could have got so out of hand that a country once brutally oppressed by nazis now had neo nazis serving in parliament?

It would take exceptional short-sightedness to make this statement. It would take not seeing the depth of the problem that is Golden Dawn, or choosing not to see it, or choosing not to see the immigrants who – surprise, Mr Mitsotakis! – also live in Greece and love it and call it home.

So no, Mr Mitsotakis, it’s not as if Golden Dawn don’t exist. It’s as if WE don’t exist. By joining the ranks of Greek politicians who have constantly played down the threat of this group of neo-nazis, or in this case saying that the issue of left-wing anarchists is a more serious one, you might as well have walked up to me in the street and said that to my face. You might as well have told me it’s as if I don’t exist.

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Hot Pink Chicks


via Business Insider

According to a 2015 report, poultry farming contributes around 1.3 % to Pakistan’s GDP annually since the advent of poultry farming in the 1960s. Chicken represents around 26.8% of meat production per annum. The industry employs around 1.5 million people across the country. In short, Pakistanis LOVE chicken!

Some chickens are bred for their meat, others for their eggs. For egg-laying chickens, the female ones are the ones which the industry prizes.

This leaves a problem. Million of fluffy little male chicks which are considered useless and destined for a quick death. The alternative presents itself in markets across Pakistan every spring – fluffy make chicks dyed hot pink, orange and green and sold as pets.

When I was little girl, you could either get natural yellow chicks or pink ones. Buying a few of these chicks each spring was a ritual for me and my sisters. We’d fuss over them and feed them grain, taking turns to watch over them when we’d let them out into the garden to forage for bugs.

As fun as it was, there was a lot of heartache involved. The chicks were not hardy. They’d start dying off for no reason. My vigils and prayers were useless. Crows would swoop down and snatch them from under our noses on their outings in the garden, or a cat would pounce during the few seconds we’d turned our backs.

It’s a short, sharp introduction to the circle of life for little children. I’ve shed countless tears and buried so many fluffy little chicks in my back garden, their little graves decorated with pistachio shells only to find a cat had turned up later and snatched the body. And yet, every spring we’d go back to the market for more chicks to do it all over again.

In all the years we did this, only one solitary chick every made it to adulthood. We coaxed him through colds and sniffles, warded off cats and crows and soon he grew into a fine rooster.

But raising him turned out to be a harsh lesson in parenting, because this rooster which we had all nurtured so lovingly into adulthood was the meanest, most vicious and completely ungrateful rooster I’d ever met. He was so diabolical that cats didn’t dare come near our yard because he’d attack them. We’d creep into the yard carrying a stick to ward him off when we had to go out to collect or put out laundry, because he’d attack our legs with such fury our shalwars would end up with holes. We’d all run screaming from him on more than one occasion. Eventually, we gave him away to a rooster fighter. I’m sure he had a dazzling career.

When we arrived in my village, I’d asked for a couple of those pink and orange chicks to be brought for my own kids to play with. And so it was as history repeated itself. Across 10 days, they fed them and played with them, collecting them back into their cage at night and watching them in the garden during the day. By the time we left them, their fluff had started to be replaced with proper wings. There were no assassinations by crows or cats. My kids got to live the glory of the hot pink chicks without the pain.

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