The yearning for the West

I was caught in a heated conversation with a few individuals, who I shall refrain from naming their nationalities (to avoid a typical stereotype), but who I can say have clearly not spent sufficient time in the Middle East, or have even made an effort to remain well informed about current affairs here! These individuals were arguing with me that yes there are huge issues in Syria, and yes there are people fleeing for safety etc, but that Arabs in general love to jump on the opportunity to get a Western passport whenever possible as it is their means to a “better quality of life”, and that they’re “sure” there are lot of people sabotaging the system or left the country earlier when they really didn’t need to.

Any my question to these individuals was: how many Syrians do you know and have you ever visited Syria previously? And their answer was “no” to both and to be honest I got very angry because I am tired of people making sweeping assumptions about other nations, ethnic backgrounds, races etc without spending the time or effort to even understand how people of that background think even! We’re so caught up in bundling everyone in this “Other” category, yet we pride ourselves that we’re living in times where everything is ‘globalized’!

My answer to this group was had you been to Syria or interacted with Syrians throughout your life you would have realized that they are one of the most proud nationalities you will ever come across. Syrians have always struck me as taking so much pride in their nation – even to this day with all the atrocities taking place back home…they would speak in a heartbroken tone over the state their beloved country has come to. Syrians took pride in everything that was Syrian made and in every little spot in the country.

If you ever spoke with a Syrian you would see how much their eyes light up when they tell you that this jam, or dish, or even tomato is a produce from some part of the country. They would take pride in talking about their grandma’s cooking, and that countryside home they would always visit. They would take pride to talk about people’s simplicity and their desire to lead quiet, family-oriented lives enjoying having their children and their grand kids around them as much as possible. They took pride in their TV shows, and their history and their historical sites. They simply took such pride in saying “I am Syrian”. When I visited I felt you could hardly meet people more attached to their land and their homes than Syrians.

So to suggest that many Syrian refugees are just ‘jumping’ on the opportunity to a “better quality of life” in some cases is a highly misinformed and pretentious comment to make in my opinion! For the overwhelming majority of Syrians, I am convinced they would have never thought of leaving their homes, memories, and their attachment and pride in their land if it wasn’t genuinely a matter of life and death!! Moreover, where is this guarantee of a ‘better quality of life?’ If they even make it to the other side alive, it is only the beginning of one life of hardship where they are just grateful for still being alive!! To belittle the Syrian refugee crisis to a matter that is not purely around survival is completely unacceptable in my opinion.

I think this made me realize that sometimes it is important to disconnect from social media, from the generalizations and terminologies and stereotypes pushed at us 24/7; an inundation of news and views that leave us with insomuch as seconds to attempt to formulate an ‘independent’ opinion.

Step back to reality and meet people on the ground and form your own views. Put a face to the names and titles. Put a story to the numbers. Allow yourself to feel for another human being. Allow yourself to understand their fears, hopes and aspirations. That’s the meaning of ‘being connected’ in my opinion – being connected isn’t just about being plugged online following everything everywhere when your thoughts are so insular!! It is a shame that despite all the technological advancements and platforms to connect with people – nothing will fix viewpoints like this apart from the real everyday interactions that ironically enough we are having fewer and fewer of!!

A yearning for the simple times

I really miss moments of moderation and simplicity of thought in everyday life.

I miss the days where people can just simply eat and drink without having to preface their food or drinking options with several descriptive words of what diet they are following, what foods they’re cutting out, what latest dietary trends are out there and feeling a need to convert everyone on the table to said food choices. I miss the days where people can just workout without having to sound excessive and without having to feel like if you’re not part of the crossfit community (or similar other communities) then whatever you’re doing doesn’t count & can be easily discarded. Same would hold for fashion statements, and travel options among many other ‘life choices’.

I wonder if our parents when they first had us spent so much time analyzing every move and every bite and every choice a toddler makes like I observe many young parents doing nowadays. I don’t have kids of my own so it would be difficult to judge this one – but I believe there is an evident rise in what has come to be termed as “helicopter parents”, parents who are continuously (& many times subconsciously) attempting to over-engineer their kids’ life to ensure them some ‘ideal’ form of success that they themselves may never achieve.

I wonder if a group of people can sit now and discuss a topic without being tempted to pull out a phone and Google the topic of discussion, or their set viewpoint to pull out an article from somewhere that can instantly support their argument (been guilty of such behavior myself). I find that it is very rare to come across ‘free’ or raw thoughts that have been generated by the individuals themselves (even if said thought/opinion may have wrong elements that can be corrected later). The pressure feels so high now in discussions to instantly try to prove a point of view wrong or right through pulling any data, article or random research here or there without cultivating independent critical thinking.

This nostalgia for moderation would be 10x amplified if I start thinking of the political and religious spheres. Discussions in these areas have lost the simple decorum of exchanging viewpoints, listening, taking sometime to consider the opposite viewpoint and then debate it back and forth. Such traits have been diminished to the minimal and replaced by a great desire for each person and each side to prove themselves correct.

It makes me wonder – in many discussions we sit and talk about religious and political extremism and wonder how people can be so extreme in their beliefs and little do we notice that many of us have already become extreme in our daily habits, hobbies and discussions – we just gloss over this form of extremism since it clearly doesn’t have the same level of ramifications as political or religious extremism. But what disturbs me is that with this extreme mindset develops a strongly judgmental nature to anything that is different – anything that doesn’t conform to what each one has deemed to be their way or choice of living.

What’s ironic is that the reason I believe people nowadays have become so vocal about their interests, hobbies, food and travel choices is precisely as a reaction to a previously homogeneously marketed world that stifled variety and differences. Yet somehow in picking for our own choices we don’t realize that we are already in the process of drowning out the differences.

Granted the above reflections pertain to more privileged socioeconomic circles of any given society.

Milan inspired reflections on the square

In my opinion, one of the quintessential experiences of most European cities that I have gravitated towards for years, (even just as a tourist) is that of the European square / plaza; it’s that central town square or market place that many literary and history books credit for being a main contributor to the development of democracy & representational self-government throughout Europe, a characteristic of European cities for over 2,000 years.

In reading more about the significance of these squares I came across the following passages which particularly resonated with me:

..”The sense of inclusion”, the feeling that one is a member of the neighborhood, or of the city, is subtly reinforced by the square’s visual enclosure. Being “inside” the square, surrounded by continuous building walls, with the sky as a ceiling, makes one feel temporarily “at home”, and nurtures the citizen’s sense of belonging.”

….The European square is a place for dialogue and discussion, meetings and greetings, for shared experiences and forming bonds. What do people talk about in squares? No subject is taboo! Mainly they exchange stories about their lives and experiences; details about family, work, state of health, plans and hopes. This significant conversation and dialogue the ultimate expression of life in the city” (Mumford) creates community. As Wendell Berry observes, “community exists only when people know each others’ stories”.

“The European square fosters sociability, that is, interaction for its own sake, to give pleasure to each other, not to enhance one’s status or position, but to increase each other’s sense of well-being. Sociability may involve gossiping, bantering, storytelling, joking, flirtation, intermixed with seriousness, concern for the other and expressions of support, even love.”

These readings & these experiences remind me of how much I miss spending time in such squares back in the Middle East. I consider how the squares of the old Arab cities have been almost eradicated and destroyed or left to the natural urban decay of centuries. I think of how new cities completely lack these random forums of interaction and creativity and sociability ..& it makes me wonder if this was a random urban planning mishap or an intentional move to quench that evolvement of what the European squares have come to symbolize over hundreds of years.

In Egypt, we had our brief glimpse of attempting to revive this concept. Tahrir Square for my generation at least was meant to symbolize change and maybe some day grow into this. But that didn’t last long. I think of all the other squares in history that have been wiped out of history books with all their potential, especially when juxtaposed against the beauty of those that have survived and are here to stay for future generations.

For the time being, the present takes me to enjoying this particular one, the grandeur of Milan’s dome, passageways, restaurants, hustle and bustle with hundreds of people crossing paths at different stages in their lives – the lovers, the heartbroken, the healthy, the sick, the dying old and the exuberant young from all different ethnicities and walks of life, enjoying a laugh, an exchange of thoughts in different global languages yet all sharing the same fresh air, the possibilities of blue skies and the freedoms of the low flying pigeons who can’t seem to ever step away from the buzz of these places. It seems quite befitting to experience this while listening to one of my favorites, Ed Sheeran’s love ballad, Perfect:

“Well, I found a woman, stronger than anyone I know
She shares my dreams, I hope that someday I’ll share her home
I found a love to carry more than just my secrets
To carry love, to carry children of our own

We are still kids but we’re so in love
Fighting against all odds
I know we’ll be alright this time…”

Random women at a community iftar

Had the opportunity to have a ‘community Iftar’ yesterday which turned out to be a much more interesting encounter than I had anticipated. I sat with a friend I have only recently been acquainted with, a vivacious French woman who has recently moved to Dubai after almost two decades of work experience across multiple sectors in Europe, with both of us munching at an interesting menu that was supposed to be a Japanese-Arab fusion. Seated on the bench next to us were two clearly younger women (mid 20s probably) who we hardly had any interaction with throughout the Iftar time. At one point my friend goes to the restroom, and I ask one of these girls to pass me the Arabic coffee on the table, and she responds by saying “here is your qahwa (coffee)” in a very Saudi accent, despite her looking Southeast Asian to me. I was super intrigued, and so started making conversation with the two girls. I quickly realized this girl was half Saudi-half Chinese, and more interestingly the Chinese part comes from her father’s part (such a rare occurrence in the region in my opinion). Not only that, but this girl had studied law in Australia, and spent some time there. As an added coincidence we found out we both went to the same high school and know of common friends! Her friend was an Iraqi-Australian, with a very interesting immigrant background story herself.

Despite the fact that at that point my friend and I were about to leave, we ended up sitting for an additional two hours to discuss lots of global topics, including the current wave of feminism, and the changing role of women in society and the workplace with these girls. I sat back (while recovering from my post-Iftar food coma) and marveled at the varied experience on the table, not only across cultures and backgrounds with experiences being relayed from all of the Middle East, Europe, the US, China and Australia, but also across the different age brackets, with the age range going from 25-43, and truly internalizing how much has changed in society and the workplace when it comes to women for the different generations present at the table.

At one point, the Saudi-Chinese girl was retelling one of her discriminatory work stories (ironically bought about by a female manager), and her passionate and outspoken response to her manager refusing to accept the incident. My friend, the French woman, who is in her early 40s said:

“See this is what I love about millennials. You’re very outspoken about everything, and you want to change everything, and you will refuse to be just bossed around for no reason. Good for you, but there is a sad part of me when I see how passionate you are about speaking out on everything. My sadness comes as I reflect on my own career and wonder why I never spoke out myself, and why my generation did not act in the way that you did. I was almost raped three times in three different work contexts. That is aside from the endless trail of incidents of very visible sexism I have observed working in the hugely machismo automotive sector. I was told to fetch the tea when I was meant to be the presenter in different meetings. I was told off in Germany for putting on French manicure and some light makeup, and told I didn’t look professional enough and that I wouldn’t be taken seriously by the men. I spent years waking up every day thinking of how I can shield and hide my feminine self as much as possible going into work every day. I was always referred to in emails as Mr. Vincent, even when I would respond back and make it clear I was a female. I was told to go through ‘customary check ups’ of the automotive company I worked at for years in Germany, where the first health checkup needed on the front cover of the manual was that of the prostate, and HR didn’t even bat an eye or internalize that the manual itself did not assume the presence of any women, and this was in the 2000s. But I stayed silent, and kept going on because my female colleagues and I – we could see that those who spoke out and complained too much ended up somehow losing their jobs. And for me maintaining a job and financial independence was key. But now when I see how outspoken you all are I say maybe my generation we were just cowards.”

The Saudi-Chinese girl quickly puts her hand on the woman’s shoulder and responds: “No. You can’t ever think of it that way. Why don’t you think that because you persevered, because you stuck it out you and your female friends, you were not laid off, and so eventually you were promoted, and then you started being aware that you should hire more women as you were just saying. As a result there are a lot more women in the workplace now and it has become a more normal occurrence that we can now afford to speak up in the way that we do. So in a way your silent perseverance is what enabled us, because maybe had you spoken out earlier, we wouldn’t have been here today because you would have been silenced or removed from your post and that status quo would have prevailed.”

The French woman, taken by these words, teared up lightly, and said “oh thank you what a lovely way to frame it – to make it feel like we’re all part of one journey, as opposed to disjointed stories…you’re so right!”

I sat back and smiled and thought what great interactions come when people from different backgrounds collide, have a discussion and share experiences and more importantly when women of different ages and backgrounds sit at one table and relish each other’s true presence as opposed to sizing each other up on society’s metrics of youth, beauty, fashion etc. There was so much to take in at that table. The Iraqi path to Australian immigration, the Saudi-Chinese girl’s mother’s struggle and strength to marry a non-Saudi, the French woman’s path of independence and her own intriguing story of adoption and tracing her roots back to North Africa. The beauty on that table had nothing to do with how these women looked or dressed or how old or young they were, and that feeling felt very refreshing. Now I felt re-energized to lean back in…only to grab the dessert on the table though;)

Cartoons in the Middle East – Afikra

Attended an interesting talk once about the rise of animation in the Middle East. This presentation had many interesting insights, that reminded me of how much a country can gain and lose when it opens and closes its borders to immigrants. Some of the interesting insights I found out about were:

– First anime can be traced back to an earthen 5000 years old that was found in Iran. The artist had portrayed a goat that jumps towards a tree and eats its leaves around the circumference of a pot, so that as you rotate the pot you can see the movement. Similar forms of pottery with sequential pictures are found in medieval Islamic Persia. This was a precursor of the History of animation.
– In the region, first ever regionally cultivated animation came out of Egypt, BUT the first cartoon character and animation was actually developed by the Frenkel Brothers, three Russian Jews who were seeking refuge in Egypt and made it their home. They watched the rise of Disney’s Mickey Mouse and quickly thought there should be a character cultivated in the Arab world that is the equivalent of Mickey!
– They submitted a concept animation to Studio Misr in Egypt (the leading media production company then) and were refused funding, with the leading producers saying animation will never pick up and there will be no demand for it. Supposedly the brothers were literally told by the producers “animation dah fel mesh mesh” (animation will only pick up when hell freezes over).
– The Frenkel Brothers were then even more determined to prove Studio Misr wrong and somehow went about and managed to fund their first concept. They created the first cartoon character with the name “Mesh Mesh Afandi” . This was somewhere around the years of 1936-1939 (build up to WWII).
– Mesh Mesh Afandi became such a big success and animation picked up in Egypt, that even the Egyptian army at the time starting using animation and cartoon concepts for propaganda and promotional material to endorse the army!! (I guess some things never change after all:D)
– Unfortunately, as the Egyptian revolution later took place in 1952, and many Jews felt prosecuted against and felt unsafe in Egypt, the Frenkel Brothers left to France, where they continued to develop Mish Mish Afandi. They removed his ‘tarboosh’ (the traditional hat worn in Egypt by the average middle class cleric) and had him wear a burette and called him ‘Mimosh’ to make him feel more French. Mimosh however didn’t meet the same level of success in France as in Egypt.
– Nothing happened much in the animation space in Egypt or the rest of the Middle East until end of 1970s, and 1980s. Cost of animated movies was very high and there was still minimal interest in production of local content. At the time supposedly some agreement was put in place between Japan and many Arab countries allowing for the importation of many Japanese cartoons to be dubbed over and aired on the local channels then. This was especially rampant in the GCC countries. One of the most renowned of such characters is Captain Majid (original Japanese character was named Captain Tsubasa). The choice by many Arab countries for Japanese cartoons over American was that they felt Japanese cartoons carried no political agenda, and were not enforcing any Western ideals.

The rest is more or less known and now the Middle East animation sector is attempting to play catchup to the West, relying mostly on dubbing of cartoons and animation movies and Western content. Only recently has there been more funds allocated to try and produce content that expands upon this region’s rich culture and history using the newest forms of technology to be able to appeal to an Arab audience that has been long enamored by the likes of Disney and Pixar.

My biggest takeaway from this presentation, especially relevant nowadays with all the discussions around refugees and immigrations was the idea of how much Egypt gained from the Frenkel Brothers when they sought refuge in it. The Brothers set the foundation for the industry, and created content that was very culturally relevant to the extent that the Egyptian army started using it! They were raised in Egypt – they were Egyptian just like any Egyptian born there! The flip side of that was then how much Egypt lost as it closed down its borders and sought more isolationist ideology that minimized over the years access to such diversity as had previously existed.

I have yet to find one example throughout history where over the long run a civilization, a nation, or an organization has been adversely affected by embracing diversity!

Thanks to the Afikra community for this event & presentation