Category Archives: thoughts

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

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There’s a game I sometimes like to play when people ask me where I’m from. I’ll challenge them to guess, and shake my head at all their wrong answers. Egypt? Brazil? Israel? Spain? Lebanon? Mexico? Barbados? No, no and no. So far, no one has ever got it right, and I’ve been playing this game for over a decade now. I really should start bringing money into the equation.

I don’t look like enough of any one thing to be easily placed. I don’t look like enough of an ethnic minority. Dressing the way I do and acting the way I do automatically excludes me from almost every narrative of muslim women that the mainstream media uses. You won’t find me with a national flag wrapped around my head like a hijab when out protesting. Even though I still lose sleep over the same issues that affect immigrant women everywhere, I don’t make a powerful front-page photograph.

I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, by which, of course, I do not mean to criticise those who choose to express their religion in a more obvious way. I see and feel all the fallout from the rising tide of anti-muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, but those dialogues rarely see me because I choose not to make myself seen.

When the current US President signed his executive order banning entry t the US from seven predominantly muslim countries, it hurt me in a way I didn’t think it would. I am not a hijab wearing woman being constantly targeted because of her religion. I am not from one of the seven banned countries. I’m not even American. Why did I find it so distressing?

Because the mere fact that one person in power could reduce whole populations to just one aspect of who they are upset me to the point that I lost sleep over it. I’m a woman – I know what it feels like to be stripped of every aspect of who you are until you’re regarded as just one thing. All women know this feeling. It’s our deeply unpleasant initiation into womanhood, often before we’re even the age where we’d be considered women. I didn’t need to be American, or a hijab wearing muslim woman to appreciate some of the deep pain that this executive order caused. It’s easy to feel the hatred of anti-muslim sentiments when it manifests in actions like these, and it’s easy to start taking it personally.

“But you don’t look muslim” is something I hear all the time, as if there is only one particular way of being anything. The hijab has become such an iconic image and such a flashpoint for debate that the narrative around it has unknowingly managed to exclude every other type of muslim woman. It’s become shorthand for a group that’s pitied and reviled in equal measure.

Since I live in Greece, my frame of reference for my experience as an immigrant and muslim woman is going to be Greek society, but practically all of what I have experienced could apply to any country in Europe right now.

As a rough estimate, I’d say over half of the people I interact with who don’t know I’m a foreigner or muslim will have an anti-immigrant or anti-muslim statement to make. It normally starts quite innocently – I’ll be sat in the back of a taxi, quietly trying to gauge the nature of the taxi driver. Do I see religious icons adorning the dashboard? What radio station is he listening to? This being Greece, even on the shortest drive we’ll usually pass a church. If the driver doesn’t cross himself three times, Orthodox fashion, it usually means I don’t have to brace myself for prying questions about my faith, or lack thereof.

If the driver crosses himself, I get ready for what is most likely to follow. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity – Greeks are in general very friendly, talkative and curious by nature. Usually we’ll have a nice, interactive chat about our parts of the world, their differences, problems and the things they have in common. Other times, it’s either a lecture on all the damage that Islam has caused the world, or questions about why groups like ISIS do what they do in the name of Islam. If I knew the answer to that, I would have shipped out my knowledge to the highest bidder years ago. It’s like thinking that listening to a couple of U2 songs when I was a teenager is supposed to make me have an answer as to why Bono has turned out the way he has.

Sometimes revealing my religion and status as an immigrant makes the other person demand answers from me. Why is there so much crime where immigrants go (not the good type of immigrants, the expats from the north, the bad type with dark skin)? Why do Pakistanis attack foreign women? Why don’t they respect women? And why don’t your women respect themselves? Why the hijab? But this is your religion and your culture, surely you must have an answer to all these aspects which are not in your control? It’s startling the ease with which people make such sweeping statements about peoples and cultures, when in most cases I’m sure I’m the first muslim or the demonised type of immigrant they actually had a face to face conversation with.

We’re living in a Europe where people have latched on to quick fixes and easy answers, and a Europe which is decisively swinging to the right. Brexit and the fact that Golden Dawn still remain Greece’s third most popular party are some examples of that. I’ve been in conversations with people who make casually racist statements about Pakistanis without realising my origins, then look taken aback and say “But you don’t look Pakistani.” I don’t know whether it’s the light or something else, because I sure looked Pakistani enough in the UK to have racist slurs yelled at me in the street a few times.

In some ways my invisibility gives me a truer picture of what people are thinking right now – in the absence of a hijab, no one self-censors around me. If they don’t know me at all, the speak even more freely, sometimes looking at me for back up. “Am I right?” the barista might say after his little speech about how immigrants are ruining the country, even though you didn’t order your morning coffee with an extra shot of racist rhetoric. And I’ll sigh and feel myself deflate a little, because I know that once again I have to defend my position. I’ll admit there are times when it’s just too much trouble to do, and I’ll try to get them to drop the subject by saying “It’s a free country, you’re allowed to believe whatever you like.”

The last time this happened, I was at a pharmacy in Kavala in the firing line of a chain-smoking pharmacist, who, as she took her time to ring up the medication I was buying, began to ask the usual questions. Where was I from? Athens, I replied. No, where are you originally from, she asked.

So I told her. She shook her head and took a drag of her cigarette. “Muslims are terrible people. They are the worst people in the world. Everywhere they go, they cause trouble. You are lucky you married a Greek and escaped all that.”

This line of how lucky I am to have escaped whatever horrible life I would be living otherwise (commuting on the Tube and paying London rents under grey British skies, I assume, which okay, it does sound nightmarish) by marrying a Greek is one I’ve heard a couple of times now. I always correct the person with what a loving and progressive family I grew up with. I was brought up with my own set of wings, I didn’t need a man to come along and help me fly out of a cage I was never locked in in the first place. That’s often rejected if it doesn’t fit into the other person’s narrative.

I argued. She kept smoking, and kept going back to the same line of how terrible all muslims are. “If you walked around like you are now, with your head uncovered, don’t tell me they wouldn’t kill you in your home country.”

I looked at my jeans, trainers and baggy sweater dress. “They wouldn’t” I replied. “They would,” she insisted. She once more fell back to her line of how terrible muslims were. My words made no difference, so I threw my “it’s a free country” line at her, paid and left. I would go home to tell the story of the racist, chain-smoking pharmacist in Kavala, and she would probably go home to tell the story of the muslim woman who didn’t even know how oppressed she was.

My invisibility is most definitely a privilege, too. I don’t have the dramatic immigrant story to tell. I cross borders without problems thanks to that coveted dark red passport (soon to change back to black, I’m sure). I can sit within earshot of a xenophobic conversation and know that it’s not likely I’ll be dragged into it.

The flipside is that my invisibility is a problem for the other side of the argument too. I’m not muslim enough, so how could I understand the dilemma of the hijab-wearing muslim woman? I vanish on the streets, so how could I know what it feels like to be the Pakistani woman in traditional clothes being yelled at by the native shopkeeper for touching the vegetables on display? I’m not eastern enough for the east or the west, which leaves me in a kind of limbo.

I can do a disappearing act if I want to by just blending in, or declare my origins with how I dress, although this was something I stopped doing after Golden Dawn’s 2012 victory in Greece. Emboldened, people became openly racist, and I escaped into neutrality by just not wearing traditional clothes outside the house. I went back to wearing whatever I wanted two years ago, because allowing fascists to censor part of who I am is not a lesson I want to pass to my children, and there’s nothing better than Gul Ahmad lawn in a Greek summer.

So I’m left with quite an attractive option, which is to embrace the fluidity I possess, all the while being aware that I will not be able to stop defending aspects of who I am to people who insist on sticking me inside a narrative which suits them, and that includes the one of the successfully integrated immigrant, rather than just me being me. Nothing in this life comes for free.

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What Americans in Athens Think About These Elections

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American elections are always a global event, but this year, more so than ever. In the birthplace of democracy, elections are nothing new. But there’s one group of residents who will be watching these elections with particular interest. These are the Americans living in Athens, a long-established and vibrant community from across the Atlantic.

Americans have been arriving on these shores in a steady stream for decades, engaging in elaborate word of mouth games to root each other out in the days before social media, and dealing with the consequences of American policies which sometimes breed anti-American sentiments in Greece. They’ve learned to love loukoumades as much as donuts and eat their pumpkin pie savory instead of sweet.

And they’ve left their mark. There’s the private American Community School established in 1946, which currently occupies a sprawling space in Aghia Paraskevi and makes you feel like you’re looking at a school in California rather than Athens. Election fever saw them host their own mock presidential debates among students. Head to Kolonaki, and you’ll find the Hellenic American Union, established in 1957 while in Pagrati, there’s the Athens Centre, running since 1969, where you can enjoy culture, Greek lessons and more.

And there’s also IKEA. Yes, IKEA. I know it’s Swedish, but several Americans I spoke to said they go there when feeling a little homesick, because “IKEA looks the same everywhere!”

The Americans in Athens have been talking, debating, encouraging friends to vote and arranging election parties as they wait for November 8. Now when I speak to them, they find themselves in a quiet period, the eye of the storm so speak, as they prepare for what comes next.

“I feel like I won the lottery!”

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Marty Eisenstein is a guitar teacher from Boston who has been living in Athens since 1993 after following his wife here. He’s been teaching music lessons at one of the city’s private schools, Campion, for 23 years now, and has a daughter who just started state university.

Marty is a rare breed because he’s also Jewish and a guy! “There aren’t that many American guys here!” he says with a laugh. He’s hoping Hillary Clinton wins, but “I don’t want to jinx it.”

The difference between how Greeks and Americans view these elections is pretty distinct, according to him. He was in the US a few weeks ago, and says that while in America, people might call Hillary Clinton dishonest, in Greece they call her “a monster, a warmonger. That’s the first thing many Greeks say.”

He doesn’t think much will change to his day to day life, since he’s not had much hostility anyway. He does remember one moment of anti American sentiment so sudden and so strong that it made him cry. “The lowest moment in my 23 years was during the bombing of Serbia. My local bakery owner turned to me and said ‘We’re not the same, Greeks and Americans.’”

Whatever happens, he’ll still be here, teaching guitar the next day. “I lived in Israel for a few years and I think Greece appeals to that Mediterranean gene I have. In that sense I like it here, that’s what’s kept me here I think. I love the place in a lot of ways.

“If you think what Greeks have been through economically and politically, anywhere else, people would have taken guns on the streets already. It doesn’t happen in Greece. To me that’s an amazing thing. and now that my daughter is going to university for free, as an American I feel I won the lottery!”

“Trump? He’s a faflatas!”

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Stacey Harris-Papagioanou moved from Chicago to Greece in 1985 and divides her time between the glamorous island of Mykonos and Athens. Both sides of her family as Mykonian, which is why she can still afford to live on an island the rest of us can only dream about.

“The summer romance with my ex was the catalyst for moving here, but my real love was Greece.” she says.

She has two children, and has always cast her vote as an absentee. The moment she realized how important this was was during the Gore-Bush elections of 2000. “That election was so close. So not only did I make sure I was always registered to vote, but I made sure all my friends were too.”

Stacey is a very active member of Democrats Abroad, and when we speak, she’s just spent the week calling everyone to make sure they are ready to vote.

There is a big buzz around this particular election. “Everyone is saying vote, whatever you do, go and vote, and a huge percentage have already taken part in early voting and absentee voting.”

She’s only ever experienced anti-American sentiment twice, once during 9/11 when she heard people saying that America had it coming, and now when Greeks ask her “What’s wrong with the people in that country? How can anyone vote for Trump?”

“Trump, there’s a Greek word that describes him perfectly. He’s faflatas (someone who talks a lot but does little)! The difference between the candidates is night and day, and what that means for the rest of us will be night and day.” she says.

In stark contrast to the Greek way of doing things, Stacey says Americans have gone quiet and avoid political discussion as the election nears. “People don’t talk too much so as not to fight, unlike the Greeks that are very passionate and don’t mind telling their opinion to anyone. Americans a bit more reticent in that respect.”

And when she wants to get a flavor of America in Athens, she goes to the usual places one might suspect – the Hard Rock Cafe in Monastiraki, TGI Friday’s in Kolonaki and Applebee’s when it was still open. “Or a coffee with members of the American Women of Greece, of which I’m a member. We can talk about home, or where to find ingredients. We used to make tacos from scratch when I first came here, now you can just buy them in the supermarket! It’s so much easier for the new girls!”

“I was called a spy!”

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Christine Jackson has been here since 1972 after coming to Greece with her husband and arrived right in the middle of the Junta. “I was working at Deree college when the polytechneio events took place. I wasn’t there that day but colleagues heard the tanks go in.”

Christine is one of the longest established members of the American community in Athens. “Once I was called a spy! That was during the Cyprus crisis. It was totally unprovoked, I was on the street and my accent must have been wrong and a man called me an American spy.” She has one daughter, who played a caryatid in the Athens 2004 opening ceremony.

After working at the Deree college – “which I discovered wasn’t actually American,” she worked for the next few decades at the Fulbright Commission, advising Greek students who didn’t have scholarships but wanted to study abroad. “It’s an addictive job. I still do it.”

When she wants to get her American fix, she heads to the Athens Centre in Pagrati for cultural events and poetry readings. It’s a place where she’s met and become friends with other Americans in Athens over the years.

A fellow American who she very much admires is the former ambassador to Greece, Brady Kiesling, who resigned after America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, becoming the first of three US foreign service officers to resign in protest. “That’s such a rare thing for a person to be that principled.” she says.

Christine says she’s very concerned about the outcome of these elections. “I think it will be a tipping point if Trump wins.”

“You can love your country and see that it needs improvements. Greeks certainly do that with their country. Patriotism is hollow if it doesn’t embrace the fact that you want the country that you love to be its best self not its worst self.” she says.

“If you can’t beat them, join them”

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Anna Goritsa came to Athens nearly 20 years ago to marry her Greek husband. She has two sons who are going through the Greek public education system. As an event travel consultant, she works with US companies based in Greece, so she’s around other Americans frequently, along with charity work and embassy events which keep her in touch with the community.

This for her is an election that’s turned the status quo on its head. “We are living in trying times and I believe that many of us who live in Greece are insecure on what the outcome will be. I’m very concerned. I believe that many US citizens will not exercise their right to vote during these elections.”

“When I am able to watch the elections with my fellow US citizens here in Greece, regardless of their affiliations, it’s more fun because we know why we are arguing. And yes we try to avoid prickly topics because we respect each other’s opinions. When watching with my Greek friends who have never lived or stepped foot in the US we argue for the sake of arguing.” she says.

As for anti-American sentiment, she’s experienced it a few times, but that changed with Greece’s economic crisis. “Greeks are experiencing anti-Greek sentiments all over Europe and have realized that the citizens of a country should not be judged for the policies of one’s government.”

Despite the downs, there have been some funny moments too. Back in 1997, Anna says she couldn’t find good-quality deodorant in Greece and so would have family and visitors bring stocks of American deodorant for years!

The American community in Athens has been a vibrant and well-established one. They’ve been through a lot together. But, Anna says, it’s very different for the new generation. “They’re not surviving because their potential and options are very limited and many are moving elsewhere. The same challenges exist today as 20 years ago for the newcomers. The number one survival quote when you move ANYWHERE in the world is “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

“I can’t wait till it’s over”

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Nick Barnets, a freelance journalist, has been coming to Greece all his life. He spent his summers in a village in Halkidiki but moved to Athens full time in 2014 to strengthen his career as a journalist.

For him, the elections are not just a political event. As a journalist, they affect his livelihood too. His job involves covering international affairs, and that will be affected by whoever is the next president. “Since I cover Greece, and occasionally Cyprus and other parts of Europe, the way the next president’s policies affect these areas will definitely affect what I’ll be reporting on and where for sure.”

Like everyone I spoke too, he’s anxious about these elections and the way they have polarized politics in the US. “I fear regardless of the outcome, there will be now more than ever in recent history, lots of hate and anger. If Donald Trump wins, there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for him. If Hillary Clinton wins there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for her.”

He’s finding watching these elections less intense that the last ones, because the last time around he was working as an election researcher for CBS News. This time, he can take a back seat and observe.

“This is the first time I’ve watched a presidential election from across the Atlantic, but it’s not as distant an observance as I thought it would be. Of course I’m also a political junkie, so I’m keeping up with it vigorously despite how upsetting this election has been.”

Anti-American sentiment is not something he’s experienced, especially not since Obama’s presidency and Greece’s recent turmoils which have meant that Germany has taken the place of America for disgruntled Greek sentiment.

Nick says his Greek friends are terrified of Donald Trump becoming president and are disappointed that Hillary Clinton is his main opponent in these elections. “She’s never really been popular here herself. They just can’t believe that we could end up in a world with Donald Trump as President of the world’s most powerful country.”

Perhaps it’s because of his job, perhaps because of the relentless, vitriolic and divisive nature of these elections, but Nick has had his fill. The sooner it’s all over, the better, as far as he’s concerned. “I can’t wait till it’s over, November 8th can’t get here soon enough for me because on the one hand I am always excited for watching the election results but also want this particular election to just be over with so we can move on.”

As one of the new generation of Americans in Athens, Nick doesn’t feel the same pull as the previous generation for getting a piece of America in the city when he’s homesick. That’s partly thanks to social media which keeps him well-connected with Americans friends and family. “But I do feel like I’m right back in the US whenever I’m at The Mall, because despite the stores being different and everybody speaking Greek, it really feels more America than Greece there.”

“I haven’t voted in a while”

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I’d easily call Rhea my favourite American in Athens, since she’s the first one I ever met. It was in her bohemian dance studio, festooned with belly dance costumes and off-the wall souvenirs she’d picked up over the decades that I learned two important things: how to dance first with my heart and then with my body, and how to stop taking life so seriously. It was there that I made my first Greek friends with my patchy, faltering Greek. She’s been somewhat of a mother to me, having seen me grow from a new student shrinking into the back of the room, through motherhood, miserable life events and the crisis which meant I couldn’t afford dance classes any more, and she lost nearly all of her students.

She then did something which I felt at the time was the equivalent of a cancer patient cutting all their hair off before it falls out. She stripped her studio bare. Today, all the costumes have been given away, the zebra-skin wall hanging is gone, the swords and coin belts have disappeared. My heart sank the first time I visited her after she carried out this purge.

Rhea arrived in Athens in 1975, and of all the Americans I spoke to, she is the only one who had absolutely no connection to Greece. As a professional belly dancer in California, she had a dream that she was dancing under the Acropolis. So she upped and left, and has been here ever since. Her tales of life in Athens, including the time she chased down an aggressive driver and attacked his car with her dance sword are endless, hilarious and sometimes sad.

Is she voting? “No. I haven’t voted in a while. I’m not going to go to the American Embassy and lose an entire morning or afternoon. I hate to say it… but no actually I don’t hate to say it. I never talk about politics. I’m telling you because you asked me. We’re not going to hell in a hand basket. The world will go on as it is.”

Athens’ 12-foot American

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My final American is tall and stoic, clutching a scroll in one hand and staring quietly at the traffic and offices opposite him.

He doesn’t say a word to me, but I don’t mind. You see, he’s a statue. The statue of President Truman to be precise. This rendition of the 33rd American president, a known philhellene, is a lightening rod for anti-American sentiment. Since it was erected in 1963, it’s been rammed with a car, bombed, toppled over and splashed with paint.

On the day I meet him, with hours to go until polls open, Mr Truman is looking pretty good, but a closer inspection reveals little specks of red paint clinging to the bronze and larger splashes generously flecked on the surrounding ground.

In an election campaign where both sides paraded childish statues of each other, at least this statue of an American leader retains some dignity, even when he’s brightly decorated with pink and red paint. It could be worse. He could be a statue of Donald Trump.

A condensed version if this article appears in Greece Is. 

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The patient on the table.

About 10 years ago, there was a famous case involving a routine procedure that went horribly wrong. A mother of two went into hospital to have a simple nasal procedure. Moments after the anaesthetic was administered, doctors discovered they were unable to establish an airway.

We’ve all seen this procedure in television medical dramas. It’s supposed to take just a few minutes. In this case, a very rare complication arose and the patient’s airway was obstructed. No matter how hard they tried, the doctors failed repeatedly to intubate her and get vital oxygen flowing to her organs again.

As the minutes ticked by, it was clear that panic had set in. There were three doctors in the room, and despite obvious alternatives, they were so focused on this one technique, on succeeding in getting the intubation done that they could not see past that one approach even when it was clearly not working.

Three experienced nurses who were also in the room, however, soon recognised that something was badly wrong. One of the nurses fetched a tracheotomy kit and let the doctors know that it was available. She stood by with the kit as they ignored her repeated attempts to announce it as a suitable alternative. The kit was never used, and the airway was never successfully established.

The patient suffered severe brain damage due to the lack of oxygen over 20 minutes and her life support was switched off several days later.

This tragic story illustrates what happens when those in charge doggedly focus on one approach when it’s clear that it’s not working instead of thinking of alternative solutions, or listening to better suggestions. When panic sets in, it can make even rational people act in bizarre ways that lead to disastrous consequences.

So too is the case with Greece and the country’s bailout programme. Last week, Greece’s debt to GDP ratio hit an all-time high of 177.1%. The bailout programme that was supposed to save the Greek economy has obliterated it, and austerity has caused the debt to go up rather than down.

It’s time to state the obvious and say that austerity has not worked. Five years in, it is an approach that has created a horrendous social disaster, ruined the Greek economy and continues to stretch off far into the horizon with no end in sight.

Despite obvious proof that austerity has failed spectacularly, it’s surprising then that no one has come up with any sort of viable alternative, and this is the only solution still being pushed on Greece by its creditors.

Let’s break it down in simple terms. When you borrow money, you are rightly expected to pay it back. Greece is not saying they refuse to pay. But at what point does a debt become completely unsustainable? When people get into severe debt, they either have to declare bankruptcy (default on their loan) or are given help in restructuring their loan against their available resources to create a viable repayment plan. We’re still waiting for that in Greece.

After an abysmal Eurogroup session in Riga last week, where the country’s finance minister allegedly received a verbal battering from his European counterpart, Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras removed Yanis Varoufakis from the Eurogroup negotiation team when he reshuffled it.

Varoufakis has rubbed up his counterparts the wrong way with his repeated opposition to the austerity programme and as patience ran out with Greece, a sacrifice had to be made. The markets immediately reacted in a positive way to this news. However, this move amounts to not much more than shooting the messenger. Whoever represents Greece at the next Eurogroup still has to carry the Syriza government’s message.

And so on and so forth in this economic mess and its even messier handling. The mouthpiece has been changed, but the message will most likely be the same. Why is it that five years later, all we have on the table is Europe’s “austerity or nothing” and Syriza’s “a little bit of austerity or nothing”? It’s important to ask this, because whatever the treatment, it’s the patient, the Greek public that bears the brunt of it, and right now the patient’s vital signs are looking critical.

Maybe someone somewhere should listen carefully and give a voice to the equivalent of the nurse standing in a corner with an alternative solution.

This article was published in the Khaleej TImes and Athens Views.

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The Greek Crisis explained with My Big Fat Greek Wedding

I put this together to take a break from the seriousness of the crisis. With much love and hopes for a sensible end to this current mess!

Once upon a time, there was Greece

 

Greece wanted so badly to be like the rest of Europe

 

With some trickery from Goldman Sachs, they succeeded!

 

The years passed and the same two governments kept rotating.

 

And then, disaster struck. A giant fiscal imbalance was uncovered.

 

Things got bad.

 

Really bad.

 

Everyone began to freak out that Greece would leave the Eurozone.

 

The citizens of Greece began to lose hope.

 

It was time to change governments.

 

But the same old ideas were proposed again and again

 

Maybe our approach at the Eurogroups was all wrong…

 

So the negotiation team was reshuffled

 

But in the end, we’re all Europeans

 

And maybe we can find common ground after all

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Beating Old Donkeys

There is a really wonderful story my father used to tell me and my sisters when we were little. It’s a story his own mother used to tell him, about a mongoose prince. It’s a long, meandering story that used to be a great way to pass the time during the extensive power cuts of my childhood in Pakistan, and it’s one of the joys of my own journey as a parent when I listen to my father tell the story to my own sons.

I won’t go through the entire story, but the rough premise is this: a prince is born to one of a king’s  nine wives, who is half mongoose, half boy. In order to see which of his nine sons will inherit his throne, the king sends the sons on a quest. Whoever returns with the most riches will be the next king.

Long story short, the mongoose prince returns to the kingdom with an old donkey and tricks his brothers into thinking that this donkey craps money when you beat it with a stick. In exchange for possession of the mystical donkey, he asks for all their treasures from their quests combined. This they do, and thus take possession of the dud donkey.

The other brothers beat and beat and beat the old donkey, but nothing comes out except piles of manure, and finally, one coin, a khotta paisa, which is difficult to translate except to say it was unusable money. Sort of like the donkey pooping out a drachma coin right at the end.

I was thinking of this story again these past two days.

As I said in my last post about my accidental and might I add very much unwanted notoriety, I got an email from a journalist at Ethnos newspaper on Thursday. The email was polite, saying the paper was writing a story on the impressions that foreign journalists had of Greece’s new finance minister to run in today’s Ethnos.

I politely declined. I wrote back a long email explaining my position, that while the coverage of my tweet to the minister had been fun and games for the tabloids, for me it had badly impacted my image as a serious journalist. If they wanted to talk to other foreign journalists in Athens for their story, I offered to put them in touch. Journalist to journalist, I thought this would get through.

To his credit, the journalist replied giving me fair warning that the chief editors were going to put me in the story any way, that they had read my blog and would be using that in their piece. I wonder why they even asked me in the first place if they’d be putting me in the story any way. I can only thank my lucky stars that I hadn’t been stupid enough to answer the questions in the email.

This was bad enough. But when I saw the context of the piece that Ethnos ran today, going something like “The journalists of the Varoufanclub chasing him for an interview!” I saw red. I was furious. I’d say this is a good approximation of my feelings when I saw the headline.

To be fair, the online version doesn’t give the whole article, so I marched to the nearest news agents and slammed a copy of Ethnos on the counter.

“EUR 4.25.”

How much? Okay, I didn’t want to find out what the article said that badly.

I thought about writing this article, because now I don’t know who is reading my blog, what they might take from it and what they might twist, but I’m not a fan of self-censoring. As it is, whether I have an opinion or not about the new finance minister, I can’t say anything in case it gets misconstrued.

I now avoid tweeting about him, or retweeting anything from him and that’s mightily difficult in a period where the main news out of Greece is economic. But I can’t sit here with people thinking I voluntarily wanted to be a part of that article when I specifically asked not to be, and was told tough luck, you’ll be in it anyway.

What business does a puff piece about the new finance minister’s “international fanclub of female admirers queuing up to talk to him” have on the front page when there is so much real news going on? It doesn’t take much digging to reveal that Ethnos has a very thinly veiled anti-Syriza stance, so they seem quite happy to go around mud-slinging and if it comes at the expense of further erroding my professional credibility, that’s all collateral damage as far as they’re concerned.

But parading non-news as news, especially more than a week after the event, only serves to make them look unprofessional.

The media likes to take a story and beat it and beat it, trying to get it to yield more, when the fact is that beyond a short window, most auxiliary news decays and is not newsworthy any more after 24 – 48 hours. For example, on Wednesday I wanted to start working on a story about where the tie that Matteo Renzi gave Alexi Tsipras came from. It’s an Italian made tie, and I could just picture some little old artisan making gorgeous hand-made ties in a backstreet of Rome. But when I woke up on Thursday to the what the ECB had done late on Wednesday night, this was no longer a story.

Do you see what I mean? You’ve had your fun, now back off. Stop beating up the donkey, there’s only manure in there.

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Filed under Economy, Greece, thoughts

How to do one load of laundry in 6 days

My laundry, never

A few moments ago, in between a call from my husband that he was on his way home and breaking up another fight between the boys, I grabbed a laundry basket and threw a load of laundry into the washing machine. So far, so multitaskingly good.

However, I started that load of laundry on Sunday. Today is Friday. I have probably reached the pinnacle of my career as a slummy mummy in taking one week to do one load of laundry. In my defence, I… okay there is no defence for it. Here’s every slummy mummy’s guide to taking six days to do one load of laundry.

Day 1 – 

Prepare a load of laundry and separate into appropriate colours. Throw into the washing machine and start the cycle. Leave the laundry in the washing machine overnight, telling yourself you’ll lay it out tomorrow.

Day 2 – 

Open the door of the washing machine in the morning in an attempt to air out the washing so it doesn’t start smelling musty. Tell yourself you’ll hang it out later that day.

Day 3 – 

Remove the washing from the drum, sniff for acceptable levels of mustiness, pile into laundry basket and place on the sofa. Forget it there overnight.

Day 4 – 

Forget laundry on sofa. You know it’s there, but you are ignoring it, until it magically hangs itself out to dry, or walks itself back to the washing machine. In your heart you know the acceptable level of mustiness has been surpassed by now.

Day 5 –

Pile neighbouring piles of dry laundry on top of the laundry basket and hide your guilt. Ignore it for one more day.

Day 6 – 

Admit defeat. Check for mustiness level, retch, remove dry and clean laundry from the top (retaining the pieces that are contaminated by mustiness) and put everything back into the washing machine for another cycle. If you have no dignity, go back to step 1.

 

There you have it. I hope I’m not the only person to do this, but I sort of suspect that I am.

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Filed under motherhood, thoughts

Blurred Lines

I just finished reading a fascinating book by Jenny Nordberg, The Underground Girls of Kabul. This was one of those rare books that makes your heart ache when you come to the end of it, hoping against hope for a happy ending, but knowing that the reality is probably a lot bleaker.

Nordberg stumbled across the phenomenon of Afghanistan’s bacha posh by accident. These are girls that are dressed up and passed off as boys, sometimes as an act of rebellion by their family, sometimes out of necessity in a patriarchal country where the demand for a male child is absolute and all consuming, and sometimes for the magical properties that having even a pretend son can instill – after a streak of girls, a pretend son is thought to induce an actual son to be born.

The book was often hard to read, and it made me reflect on all the parallels I experienced growing up in a patriarchal society.

Let me start by saying that Pakistan is nowhere near as bad as Afghanistan when it comes to this sort of thing, but it is still pretty bad. I am one of four girls. I spent my childhood watching people commiserate with my parents. “Four girls?,” they would say, genuinely upset for us “Don’t lose heart. The next one might be a boy.” It’s only by sheer good luck that I was born into a family that invested in its female children and cared about their future to the point that they made the extremely difficult decision to move to the UK just so that we would have a fair shot at an education and a career.

In doing so my father sacrificed his own career and position as a professor of surgery at a respected medical school – literally a lifetime’s effort – and it’s a decision I am grateful for every time I walk out of the front door without a second thought.

Growing up in an extremely patriarchal society is not easy if you have been born into the wrong gender. Boys in Pakistan are prized above all else. Even extremely educated women will not rest until they have a son. It’s their one and only goal in life. When a boy is born, much celebration goes on. Sweets are distributed and the mother is smothered with love, attention and praise.

When a girl is born, absolutely none of this occurs. Children are extremely perceptive, and I was aware from very early on that I didn’t belong to the ‘better’ gender. I saw it in the faces of the new mothers we would visit in hospital, sitting morose next to their unwanted female children. It made me angry. I heard it in the condolences to my parents about only having female children. I saw it in the little boys who were trained from the moment of their birth to have an enormous sense of entitlement. No matter how much of a front I put on, it used to burn me to my core when I’d hear them chide “You can’t do that, you’re just a girl.” Their obnoxious and inflated egos were fueled and encouraged by their obsessed mothers.

In turn, the girls were groomed from early on to be pliable and manageable future wives. Their personalities were squashed and smothered, not allowed to develop. They were not allowed to have opinions, laugh loudly, shout or fight. They were to be presented to the world as blank canvases. Needless to say, they were very boring.

As a child I have memories of sobbing my heart out at the weddings of vivacious cousins I was particularly fond of, knowing I was about to lose them. I knew the drill well enough. Very few of them came back out on the other side of marriage with their personalities intact. The majority did what they had to to survive the marital home and joint family system and disappeared into a featureless mask of neutral emotions and expressions.

The injustice of the system used to drive me to fits of rage. It didn’t matter that I was a wanted child by my family. Society had made it clear that I would always be second best.

The bacha posh of Afghanistan existed in Pakistan too. From time to time, you would come across a female child dressed as a boy and encouraged to have male mannerisms. Here’s a secret I never shared with another soul until I put Nordberg’s book down yesterday:

“Do you know,” I said to my husband “That until I was around seven or eight, I thought I would grow up to be a boy?” I used to use that thought to console myself. Don’t get me wrong, being a natural born drama queen, I was quite fond of all the trimmings that came with being a girl.

But I also hated being reminded of my weakness as a female. So I used to think to myself that it was okay, because one day I would be a boy and then I’d get to see what it was like on the other side. The realisation that this wouldn’t happen wasn’t gradual. It was sudden. One day, just like that, I realised the notion was ridiculous, impossible, and then it felt even more unfair that I was born a girl.

Coming from that sort of society to the UK was positively paradise. It was also hard. When the opposite gender are gradually separated from you, you learn very little of them. I was 14 when we moved to the UK and went to a co-ed school after my convent-run all girl’s school.

On my first day, the teacher searched the class for a spare seat and found one next to a boy. I crammed myself into my chair as far as I physically could to put as much distance between the two of us as I could – heaven forbid we should touch. I was mortified and on the brink of tears when a girl offered a spare seat next to herself, which I gratefully accepted. Those types of reactions make me realise what a sick and messed up system it is to segregate genders so severely that when you finally meet, it’s so upsetting you freak out.

In a segregated society like Pakistan, where girls and boys are kept so strictly apart, strange things can happen. On one of my trips back when I was 17, I met up with my old school friends in their college. They were updating me on their lives, and showing me pictures of a recent stage show the college had put on. Each class had to present something. Several of my friends had dressed up as the Backstreet Boys. We laughed over the pictures of them in men’s clothes, the exaggerated poses and the goaties drawn on with kohl pencils.

One of my friends then told me that during the show, some of the other girls had become obsessed with her. They wrote her love notes and sent her presents, asked her to pose in photos with them while she was in costume with her arms around them. It seems that where the natural teenage impulse to meet and flirt with the opposite sex is so heavily repressed, even a fake teenage boy is better than no teenage boy at which to direct these feelings. This friend continued to receive notes and presents well after the show.

When I read Nordberg’s book, I realised that beyond a certain age I had never stepped out of the house alone. I had grown up subconsciously trained to avert my eyes, walk less tall and shrink my form. I automatically and seamlessly slip into this mode on visits to Pakistan. I even do it outside of Pakistan every time I walk past a group of young men. Don’t attract attention, eyes down, head down. It happens without me even thinking, and at 32, I wonder if I can train myself out of it.

Moving freely in the world is a privilege and a gift you aren’t aware of unless you have not had it before. Moving away for university was ridiculously exciting, and I still remember my first unaccompanied train journey. I knew that it was the thinnest of turns in destiny that separated me from my present life and the alternative.

As I have grown, however, I’ve once again began to feel the weight of my gender. As a woman, I can expect to be paid less and my opinions not given as much weight in my professional life. I can be expected to put my career on the back burner while I raise a family. I will get asked about my childcare arrangements at job interviews – it happens every time. Nordberg very eloquently points out that even in the West, women in the arena of men must dress, act and talk like men. She must wipe out her femininity to succeed.

Finishing the book was hard. It’s one of those books that you can’t walk away from. It will be on my mind for days and weeks as I wonder about the protagonists. Meanwhile, the world over, little girls are being born and tears of sorrow are being shed at their arrival. I have two sons of my own now and I am raising them as best as I can to consider all people, male and female, as equals. One day I may have a daughter. I wonder if she too will still be pondering these same issues further down the line?

UPDATE: I tweeted this blog post to Jenny Nordberg, author or Underground Girls of Kabul and she tweeted back! She has forwarded my story to the main character of her book, Azita. I am so touched that she reached out to me and shared my story on her own twitter feed. Please drop by www.bachaposh.com to learn more.

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Filed under Pakistan, Pakistan, thoughts