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Why democracy was not born only in the West

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Image via http://blog.onlineprasad.com

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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Image via www.thepressproject.gr

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

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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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My second first day at school

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Mean Girls, basically a documentary about my first day at English school. Though I never got popular.

My very first day of school, I was excited. I couldn’t wait. I proudly put on my school uniform – white dress, white socks, white shoes , school badge – and went off. My mother hovered around the door waiting to see if I would join the chorus of sobs around me.

“Go home, no need to stand by the door. I’m alright Mum. Go home!” I said, and sent her on her way. I was five years old.

My second first day of school was a little different. I was 14 years old, wearing a tie and blazer for the first time in my life, my hair neatly tied back into a tight braid, like I always did at school in Pakistan. I sat outside the principal’s office, waiting. My mother asked if I wanted her to stay with me, and I said no, I would be alright. The truth is I desperately wanted my mother to stay.

But I knew that it wouldn’t make my life any easier if she did. I’d still have to go to a new school on my own tomorrow, so I cut to the chase and decided I might as well jump in the deep end. I remember thinking how cold it was for May. Just a week ago, I’d been in the blistering heat of a Pakistani May. The school uniform I was wearing now was a world away from my white cotton shalwar kameez. I liked it, though. I felt very smart in it.

The principal came and escorted me to my new class. I smiled expectantly at my new classmates. I was met with a sea of bored faces. No one smiled back. I was sent to shadow one of the other girls in my class until my own class schedule could be prepared. My teacher, Mr Yates, found me a free seat and sent me to sit down. Next to a boy. More details of my horrified reaction here.

Even though I spoke the language, I found that first day of school incredibly hard. I tried desperately to act like everything was fine. I asked a few times when school finished. “Twenty to.” came the reply. I’d never heard time told like that. Twenty to what? I felt I should know that, so I didn’t ask.

I was used to classes that began at 7:30 and finished at 12:30, with 40 minute lessons crammed in back to back and one 15 minute break. I couldn’t believe how long the school day was in England. It just went on and on. And you had to change classes. We didn’t do that in Pakistan either – there, the teacher came to us. It felt like a madhouse. So much noise, so much talking, such a big school, so many corridors. Just pure confusion.

And the kids – my peers were so rude, both to each other and to the teachers. I stared in shock as they answered back. They chewed gum in class. At my old school, we were not allowed to have our hair loose. Here, the girls wore it any way they liked, and in all sorts of colours – had my tight, frizzy braid been a mistake?

I spent most of my day with my cheeks burning red – the language! The profanity! And I didn’t know 14 year English boys were so burly. They were not kind or polite at all. They were crass, and rude, and HUGE! They stomped around like giants. Some of the meaner girls wanted to take a detailed history of my love life, and when I had absolutely nothing to report – no first kiss, no first anything – they looked at me like I had just arrived from the moon.

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Which boy do I like? How about none of the above?

My brain was going into overdrive, trying to take notes for things that might be useful for me to settle in and find a place in the social order of the school. But by the afternoon, I’d given up. There was simply too much ‘new’ for my brain to register and file away.

I came home with a pounding migraine after that first day of school and burst into tears. I insisted my parents had made a mistake. This was all too much, we should go back to Pakistan. But after I calmed down, I got up the next day and went back to school again.

And eventually, it wasn’t so bad. Whereas under the Pakistani school system I was an average student, under the British system, where you were encouraged to think a little more freely and not just memorise texts, I was considered above average smart. This was a huge confidence boost for me, and I flourished academically.

I’m thinking of all this today because today refugees around Greece will start going to school. This will be a combination of special schools just for them and integrations into the Greek schooling system. I’m remembering my panicked, blushing, horrified, exhausted and tearful 14 year self, who could at least speak the language, and hadn’t come from the incredibly difficult backgrounds they do. I’m wishing them all good luck and this little message from me:

Stick at it. I hope it’ll get easier.

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More good advice from Mean Girls

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With a little help from my friends (and pills)

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I try to avoid writing these posts. Mostly because they scare my mother, who thinks I am utterly miserable, to which I wave my boxes of Xanax in her face and say “I’m okay, Mum!”

No, really, I’m okay, most of the time. Sometimes, I’m not though. Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with myself. My life feels like an impossible mountain I’ve been sent to climb with a spool of string instead of rope helpfully tucked into my pocket by the Universe. And as wonderful as it is to mark World Duchenne Awareness day each year because it brings us one step closer to the cure, it’s also involves me coming face to face with the fact that all is not right in my world. I’m not always up to that task.

Remember the movie Run Lola Run? Whenever the scenario doesn’t play out the way Lola wants, she goes back to the start of it to try again. This is the feeling I had the moment I was given Hermes’ diagnosis.

My brain just couldn’t process what I was hearing. My son has what? No, you’ve got it all wrong. That’s not what you were supposed to say. I came here today for you to tell me that the genetic test was normal, my husband isn’t even with me, that’s how ordinary this conversation was meant to be. You’re not supposed to be telling me my son has Duchenne. Go back to the start and tell me something different, tell me what you were meant to say, which is that everything is fine.

I think of that moment still, though not as often as I used to, because it represents the moment my life was cleanly cut from the path it was following and set on another one. For the first year or so after Hermes’ diagnosis, I obsessed over that moment. It played out in my head again and again, as if I was trying to retrace a terrible mistake I’d made and trying to work out all the various things I could have done to make it right. It was if my brain felt it was missing something, some small clue or detail.

Where was it? Where was the one thing I had missed that would unravel all of this mistake and put it right? Was it how the doctor’s assistant didn’t look me in the eye when she came into the room? Was it the two spots she pointed to on the paper in her hand she showed him, saying quietly “Here, and here”? What did that mean? What did “here and here” mean? Where was the clue? Was it in the way the geneticist clasped his hands in the seconds before he changed my life? Where was the clue?

If I could just find it, I’d unlock what had gone wrong and be able to set it right. That would be my Eureka moment. But even my frantic brain knew somewhere that that wouldn’t happen.

In my weak moments, I’m resentful of being reminded of Duchenne in my lives. Hermes is starting to struggle a bit more, and when I hear the impatient kids on the stairs of the slide behind him stomping their feet and yelling at him to move faster, I really want to let rip at them. Very, very rarely, I am angry with everyone else for being able to walk away from my life, when I have to shut the door behind them and go back to living it every day.

I don’t mind telling people about Hermes, but there are times when I’ve got so used to this reality that I forget the impact it might have. I’ll flippantly mention life expectancy, and the next thing I know the person I’m talking to is sobbing. Whoops! “It’s okay!” I say cheerfully “It’s not so bad!” Cue more sobs.

The truth is that often, life is okay. It’s fine. It really, truly is not so bad. We’re happier than a lot of people. Having such a shadow cast over our lives has made us appreciate the light much more. Eating a delicious slice of melon turns into this year’s landmark event – “remember the summer of 2016 when we ate that really delicious melon? Those were the days!” We save the seeds for planting later, knowing exactly that we’re much too neglectful of our plants for them to ever bear fruit. We’ll ignore that, and plant them anyway.

Our joy is in our life as a family and the friends who rally around us – even a small gesture like changing your profile picture to a Duchenne balloon means so much. So, despite it all, somehow we do find a way to be happy in our new reality, and for everything else, there’s Xanax.

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Why Game of Thrones is basically about Pakistani Family Politics

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Nahiiiiii!

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

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

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

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Same thing.

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

Cersei Lannister

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

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

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

Petyr Baelish 

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

Catelyn Stark

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

Brienne of Tarth 

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

Crap for girls to pass the time with

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

Plotting, backstabbing and elaborate family politics

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

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

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

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Greek Kamaki in the Digital Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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