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!!

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…”

Conversation with a Rwandan taxi driver

Conversation with Rwandan taxi driver…. #postwartrauma that never goes away…makes me think of all the Syrian stories, not just now, but for decades to come… #randomramblings

Driver: [with a big smile full of pride] How do you find my country?
Me: [I go on enthusiastically listing all the positive impressions I have had of Rwanda]

Driver: Do you speak French? I’m old generation I feel more comfortable speaking French

Me: Yes a little

Driver: [proceeding to speak in French] You know the young generation they don’t want to speak French anymore. It’s a reminder of the old Rwanda, of all the differences and all the struggles. It’s also a reminder of how much we feel France made the situation worse instead of better. English is associated with better times. It is like starting from scratch – has memories of safety and stability…now it is the official language across the board.

Me: How do you feel about the genocide?

Driver: You know when you’ve seen too much blood, when everyone has lost not one person, but several… when children have been taken away from their parents, wives raped and you live in fear every day…actively having thought is difficult…if it is in the past – it is too painful, and if it is to the future – it is too unpredictable and too much of a luxury that many are deprived of. I just get myself so busy with all the different daily things that I have no time to think. Maybe the younger generations because they haven’t seen it all can think of the future – I hope they can.

Me: Do people still define at ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’?

Driver: No!! Well at least not openly….it is almost a crime now. These references have been removed from all government talks, papers- it is illegal now to include it in any document. We only have one reference – Rwandan. Defining ourselves as anything but that is dangerous – because it already cost us so much….nobody wants to remember that – and no body that has seen it all wants to fall back to that.

Me: What do you hope for your kids?

Driver: I worry that even though we’re doing better now, that our neighbors like DRC are still struggling – I fear one day we’ll wake up and be drawn right back into it. Like this safety you see around you is just a dream we wake up from. Sometimes it feels almost too good to be true. Most of all I wish my kids can think of a future – to give them that luxury I couldn’t have.

Life advice from a Mauritian billionaire

“Your generation…I don’t get you [said with a genuinely befuddled expression]… so many of you are happy just passing idle time standing on the platform waiting for the perfect train that’s just going to lead you to the best destination where all your hopes will suddenly be realized. You talk among each other and over-analyze everything. You show each other pictures or the lives you want to lead, of the partners you wish you have, of the places you wish to go and the things you’d love to do. But then, one train passes by and you say ‘oh this one is too crowded! I’ll wait for the next one.’ Next one comes and you say ‘oh, but this doesn’t have the right crowd in it.’ Next train you say ‘oh this doesn’t look as good as the previous one [the one you forgot you turned down in a second], and you spend years and years looking at pictures of your aspirational destination but you do minimal effort to get to it – or you refuse to fail on the way to get to it.

I just keep telling my kids, and I’ll tell you – take the god damned train…don’t ask too many questions, take it – give it your best shot – you’ll never know what it may bring you..maybe its not to your ‘happy’ destination, but you might meet great people on board, maybe you have a life-changing conversation, maybe you hop off somewhere nicer than what you had hoped…maybe you hate it – and decide to change paths. Who cares? But I can definitely tell you – keeping moving is so much better than standing stationery talking about your wishes!”

Life advice from one of Mauritius’ leading, self-made billionaries.