Party with the Different

Party

Last weekend me and some friends threw a party at my place to celebrate an achievement, it was real fun thanks to my friends bringing foods and hookah (water pipe), even a small baby that everyone could grab and cuddle with, so that I could focus on trying to wear my new heels and look good (hey, I’m being honest). I happen to have ended up with friends and acquintances that ranges from very liberal to very conservative and I invite them all. Someone who believes in the clash of civilizations probably wouldn’t think my parties was a great idea.

But not all of my friends drink alcohol and they show up anyways, the hookah keeping them busy. Not everyone eat pork so we skip that, just so that noone will eat it by mistake. I also have friends from different religions and people sometimes hold biases, but I can’t let that come between an invitation. Very few are free from prejudices (including myself) and I just let people meet and figure out who that other person is for themselves. Ofcourse I don’t put up with everything: if you are too judgemental on a woman wearing the hijab and therefore is surpressed; being a Jew and therefore hate Arabs; being an ignorant Swede who doesn’t like foreigners – I get exhausted. But I’ve also seen persons change and reconsider their stereotypes – it’s sometimes painful to realize what you have been thinking, but it can also be a wonderful feeling to let go of your prejudices (sometimes prejudices contains a lot of anger).

I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s sometimes a mine field and many times I become sad by the force in how much some dislike each other and try to convince others to follow. But so far I haven’t caved in when it comes to the parties at my place. I believe in people.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

Malmö Arab Film Festival 2013

MAFF

Two years ago my city Malmö started an annual film festival with many interesting movies from all around the Arab world. In Sweden it’s mostly Iranian culture that has been representing the Middle East, maybe because of the big Iranian diaspora that established Sweden in the 70s and 80s, with many well-educated Iranians that brought with them movies and music.

But also the Arab world has a rich tradition of arts and culture, why I think it’s wonderful that a film festival of this kind has now reached our industrial-city-turned-college-town. In 2012 Malmö Arab Film Festival offered live talks with directors of several movies, among them the movie Cairo 678 that is discussing the taboo topic about sexual harassment in Egypt. I’m sure 2013’s edition will launch more great opportunities.

The festival is also seeking volunteers that can help out preparing for the fall. Have a look!

Photo credit: Malmö Arab Film Festival

Riham – on Changing the Society

When Riham started the Kuwait Eating Disorder Awareness Campaign in 2012, it was the first of its kind.

“The general idea about eating disorders here is that it’s about girls wanting to be thin”, she says. “But it’s more than weight, it’s an addiction. A Kuwaiti girl saying she’s struggling with an eating disorder is hard.”

It was when Riham was 12 and watched an American movie where a young girl has an eating disorder, when the idea struck her: “I think that’s what I have”. It was in the early 90s and she was in the US where her father was a diplomat. Although Riham seemed to have a word for the rules she put up for herself around eating – she was only allowed to eat a certain number of foods, the food couldn’t touch either on the plate – she kept it to herself.

The family moved back to Kuwait and things got worse. Riham started overeating and quickly gained a lot of weight. She didn’t speak Arabic very well and her self-esteem dropped with her new extra kilos and the struggle with the new surroundings. Eating disorder was recognized internationally but in Kuwait the issue was not recognized, just like other mental health problems was often a taboo, even though many of the country’s inhabitants were suffering from psychological problems after the Gulf War. Still, Riham’s father paid attention to her problems: “On the contrary to what people think about fathers in the Middle East, my father saw exactly what was going on.”

Riham’s father made her see a psychiatrist when she was 21, but the doctor didn’t understand that her binging and vomiting was nothing that she could just stop doing, and although remaining in therapy her eating disorder remained unchanged for several years. To her great sorrow she lost her father at the age of 25, before she had been able to progress: “He never saw me getting better.”

A few years later she found information about Timberline Knolls Treatment Center in US online, and gave the support line a call just to see what they would say. The person on the other side of the line made Riham open up, and she felt trust. She decided that she wanted to have the treatment at the treatment residential center, to finally try and come to terms with her disorder. Riham’s family agreed on paying for the quite expensive treatment in Illinois. Two weeks later she was on a flight to the US.

In the center she lived with 35 other women that suffered from the same problems as she did. In short time she learned to overcome and master her disease that she had been battling since the age of 10. Her family took part in the regular therapy sessions by phone, even if that meant them having to get up in the middle of the night to participate. Riham improved quickly: “It was residential treatment that I needed. It completely changed my life.”

Three months later she signed out from the center and returned home, where she was to take another important step in her new life.

Not only were there no groups or therapies for people suffering from eating disorders in Kuwait before Riham’s campaign started – in all of the Middle East there is no residential treatment center for eating disorders, why many young girls and boys are left on their own. It was in such an environment Riham came of age, and this was what she wanted to change.

Upon her return from Illinois she started a training to be an eating disorder specialist. She describes herself as healthy and in recovery, with a lot of support from her “conservative, typical Kuwaiti family” – a family that is very happy to see a grown-up Riham helping other young women overcome what haunted her for years.

“My ultimate goal is to open a residential center in Kuwait or the Middle East. When you talk about it you kill the secrecy around the eating disorder.”

Her first step, the campaign, received a lot of attention when launched. Riham became a member of Middle East Eating Disorder Association, was soon in the board of directors, and chosen to be the Kuwaiti representative. She started a support group that now hold meetings every Sunday and have a number of young women attending. As her new mission started to take up most of her time, Riham quit her previous job to work full time towards changing the society by raising the awareness, not only regarding eating disorders, and maybe not only in her own country, but in all of the Middle East:

“There is a stigma around mental health issues here that I want to change. A person with these problems is not the crazy person walking around in the street; it’s someone like you and me.”

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

My Friendship With a Man From Kurdistan

Nabaz

During a night out in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, I ended up sitting next to a man in the crowded garden of the Deutsche Hof, the kind of pub that pops up wherever American troops make their way into countries: the smoky garden made a healthy person develop asthma and at the other table a group of soldiers pounded their glasses on the table, chanting army songs. I didn’t think the evening would provide the starting point for a friendship, and I might not have thought that I as a European woman could be close friends with a man from Kurdistan – but your own prejudices sometimes prove you wrong.

The man was not as happy in Erbil as I was. I soon realized that a life of sudden escapes and being a refugee didn’t create a positive atmosphere around a place.

“I’m quite a negative person”, Nabaz bravely introduced himself. “I always expect the worst.”

Despite our different perspectives on things we started to talk. His stories from Baghdad where he grew up made me curious – he was obviously not the regular young guy showing off his money in this newly wealthy area. He had finished a degree in security studies, politics and sociology were his passion, and he had received a scholarship to do his master in UK. We talked politics and travels, mocking the quick development of Kurdistan that created a new bar in every corner, but with a lack of printed books that made students develop eye problems from too much staring on their Ipads.

It was fun to hang out with Nabaz and his friends, they mixed easily women and men from different ethnic backgrounds, but it was Nabaz that I came to be close with. He cared about his friends – his girlfriends without car he picked up and drove back home in the evenings, sometimes spending hours touring around the city, not to leave anyone out. We went to the café Tche Tche’s for a sheesha with friends, spent evenings in the garden of the magnificent Lebanese restaurant, or hung out in the car, driving around the city talking.

“I don’t know how we would have survived if civilians didn’t help us”, he once told me about the bombings of Kurdistan in his childhood. “People just poured over the border to Iran and the families on the other side of the Iranian border took us in.”

He remembered seeing women holding up their babies to overcrowded trucks, begging them to take only the babies, but there was no place. Other stories he told me, on love and control in a society that I was just to get to know, amazed me. Few men I know dare to open up so much about their emotions.

How could it be that a woman that had travelled all over and had all sorts of relationships, lent on a younger man for support? A guess is that his experiences provided a depth of knowledge on how life can treat or mistreat you, and therefore how situations might be solved. I found myself texting at different times for advice. He was always ready to talk (except from when he was in trouble himself and went off to get drunk somewhere. Hopefully the roles could be reversed at such times): A man that didn’t call back? He was just insecure next to an independent woman. A meeting with an old friend that ended in disappointment? “Jenny, people change. Usually to the worse”. I couldn’t have paid a counselor to get the life advice Nabaz provided me with.

In this blog I’m writing about women that have made an impression on me, but when it comes to women’s rights it’s important also to mention the men. To me Nabaz is an example of someone who empowers the women around him. To this day I’m also surprised with the fact that a person is willing to invest so much in a friendship with someone who only touches base in their hometown, a person that it will take time to get to know. I hope I’ll be able to provide the same response to someone else one day, on an evening when I don’t expect to meet someone new. At least I’ll be keeping my guards down; not thinking a friendship cannot be possible.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

Sweden celebrates Newroz

eldar

Yesterday we celebrated Newroz, the Iranian/Kurdish New Year, here in Malmö where I live. The municipality had invited the public to live music by the singer Cameron Cartio and politicians’ speeches. Families lined up in the queue for the child-friendly small fires, Swedish style behind safety bars. My Iranian friend muttered: “This is typically Sweden, people even have to queue for jumping over a small fire”. We all had a great time, singing along to Cameron’s nonsense-songs that made him so famous (the invented words reminds about Farsi but have no meaning).

Swedes are usually great at admiring ourselves for our hospitality towards foreigners and all-inclusive welfare system, and Malmö is one of the most mixed cities with 30% of its inhabitants born abroad. The last years though, the city of Malmö had less reasons to be proud. In 2009-2010 there were horrifying shootings towards immigrants, keeping the whole city under siege before the shooter was arrested, and in Southern Sweden the xenophobic party Sverigedemokraterna (“The Sweden Democrats”) have gained strong support, creating tensions between people and fear among those who are a target.

I love dancing and music and yesterday was no exception, but there is another reason to like the Swedish Newroz celebrations. During times like this when many people seem to fear the other, there is nothing better than getting to know each other. I was happy that Malmö municipality gave us the chance to celebrate Newroz together yesterday, safe and boring Sweden-style, singing silly words with no meaning.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

Women’s Rights Magazine in Iraqi Kurdistan

Warvin magazine

There are several women’s rights NGOs in Iraqi Kurdistan, and one of the most radical ones is Warvin Foundation for Women’s issues, a news agency consisting of both female and male journalists.

There’s a lot of talk about women’s rights worldwide, and in Iraq you will meet few NGOs or government officials that won’t say that they support it. Well who would, when the international funding depends on it? Instead, bring up a ban on domestic violence. Or joint custody for the children after a divorce. To be really provocative, say something about sexual liberty for women. The response will never be as enthusiastic.

Warvin’s feminist approach make them stand out. They bring up all kinds of violations against women in Iraq, that many other organizations and local media shy away from, such as self-immolations and domestic murder. But they also cover the steps forward for women’s rights in the region that you might not hear about in international media. Have a look for example on the news about the first brigade of Kurdish women soldiers or how women’s issues are brought up on agenda even in the most troubled Iraqi regions such as Kirkuk.

It’s easy to say you’re a feminist in Sweden, quite more difficult in a patriarchal society such as Iraq. I genuinely admire the women and men who do. Check Warvin’s website out, or their Facebooksite, I guarantee you’ll learn something new. Maybe you can even share their page to support them?

Photo credit: Warvin Magazine

Parties in the Gulf

club

I like to kill myths and here’s one for you: there is no such thing as dry countries in the Middle East. Upon my arrival to Kuwait a few years back, I had no idea where I was going, and I googled the name and found information on how breaking the ban on alcohol led to harsh punishments such as the death penalty. Other expats that I met during the first days of my stay confirmed this picture: the place was a boring, dull place to be, with no places to meet people, only a variety of international restaurants and the desert.

Was it my luck that I made friends with connections, or that I made several Kuwaiti friends? Maybe it mattered that I was blonde since I was welcomed into a circle that many expats never got to know of? Well whatever the reason was, I can tell you that the rumours aren’t true.

“Hey, what you doing tonight?” a friend of a friend asked me that first Thursday evening I went to a party in Kuwait, it was a hot and gloomy afternoon a few weeks after I had arrived. “You wanna go clubbing?”

I assumed “clubbing” in Kuwait ment a few friends hanging out over homemade date rum, a booze I hope you’ll never have to try. But as I met him outside one of the sand colored buildings, he made a phone call then led me through a door in the basement that led to another door, etc, and inside of it all throned a night club, complete with DJ booth, bar counter and maroon sofas. As an extra addition to the luxury the wash basin in the bathroom was transparent glass and a brand perfume was left on the zink for anyone who wanted to refresh.

This was an all Kuwaiti setting, no expats were to be seen, something strange in a country where around 70% of the inhabitants are expats. Some young men managed the party surrounded by dolled-up women in designer shoes, mini skirts and highlighted, teased hair (I came to discover that no matter how much time I put on my looks before these parties, I could never compare myself with these gorgeous Barbie dolls. I simply didn’t have the money). The men opened bottle after bottle of whiskey, gin and vodka and nonchalantly threw the empty boxes over the shoulder: “Fancy another drink, sweetheart?” Everything was for free, everything was ok; in the sofas, couples made out, in a corner someone smoked weed.

“Wanna dance? I will lead you, don’t worry!” my cavalier asked me and brought me with him to the dance floor. Even though the place was modern, the partygoers hadn’t lost touch with their roots – the music was Kuwaiti and Arabic all night. I remember us dancing and making the DJ play our favourite Nancy Ajram songs, and the club owner was friendly and a concerned host, treating everyone to delivery food in the early morning, giving me and my friend a ride home at the end of the party so that we wouldn’t be caught in one of the nightly check points, where Kuwaiti authorities stopped cars and searched for alcohol and drugs.

After this first evening I quickly made my way into the party scene in Kuwait, and I had some of my craziest nights that year in the Gulf, in these getaway places where young men and women met and lived as if they were somewhere outside. Not all Kuwaitis goes to the clubs, I met Kuwaitis in other settings that hadn’t been to these places at all. There are also many that would disagree on alcohol existing in their country, who wouldn’t hesitate on calling the police on their neighbours if they knew what was going on next to their house. Because of this I have very few photos from the parties I went to (and since I’m not putting anyone at risk I’m not adding any of the photos I do have on the blog). But the scene exists, and from what I heard, the clubs in Saudi Arabia are even crazier.

On the Mixture

DSC00089

I was 20 when I took the ferry from southern Spain to the northern coast of Morocco with a friend of mine. We wanted to see something more than Europe, this was the first time I was outside the Western world, and I was amazed with some things that I experienced. You could get treated to a cup of tea by someone you didn’t know. People with very little money invited you to eat with them. Or gave you a ride if you didn’t find your way and was lost, as I usually was.

When I started travelling I was a student, and when inviting friends for dinner in my small dormatory kitchen I used to calculate how much the food costed and make everyone contribute with a few kronor, and they did the same with me. At the same time my travels and field work in the Middle East brought me to very poor houses, of the kind you will never find in Sweden, and I would be treated like one in the familyinvited to stay for dinner and sometimes also to stay overnight, with no expectations on pitching in for anything. The clash made me reconsider my own society.

Sure, the collective culture has it’s disadvantages. My independency has several times covered for others during my stays in the Middle East – in the flats I have rented I have hosted girls that had no freedom or girls that were afraid to go home, couples that had nowhere to meet – as a European the common rules that a woman can’t stay on her own doesn’t apply, and the neighbours don’t ask who I bring to the house (and well if they gossip, I don’t care).

But who do I call when I need help to dye my hair? Not my Swedish girlfriends, cause I would feel I’d be taking their time, or that I would have to give them something in return. I’d call my Arab girlfriends, or the Iranian or Turkish ones. They would come over with their brushes in a blink even if it’s late at night. I’m glad I took that ferry years ago, that I decided I wanted to learn something new. Otherwise I would still be that person asking everyone at the table to bring out their purses after the meal. I’d maybe even ask you to bring your own sleeping bag or blankets if you came to spend the night in my house.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

Blogger in Saudi Arabia

This is a blog that I follow regularly, written by a Saudi man that wants to enlighten the world about Saudi Arabia. I think it’s well-written, even though it’s deliberately provocative and might not touch upon a lot of relevant subjects regarding the Gulf.

It has recently been banned in the Saudi kingdom, which says something about the level of democracy in the country. Check it out before the authorities has been able to take it down completely:

Sex and Beyond: Saudi Arabia

Lava and the Swedish Beauty Salon

Lava Marof at her university graduation

I first heard about Lava when given a ride by a young man in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, after a job meeting.

“My cousin is also from Sweden”, he said. “She moved back here with her Swedish husband a while ago and opened a beauty salon”.

Not knowing many Kurdish girls marrying to Swedish men, I was hesitant to believe it. But Erbil is like a village despite its size, and many people mentioned Lava and her beauty salon. After an incident at a hair salon where my haircut came out awful, I scanned the city for someone to fix it, and found a salon called En-Vy behind shaded doors in the area Ainkawa. In the back of the salon was a girl in hip square glasses, mixing colors and chatting in Kurdish. It happened to be Lava that people were talking about; a Kurdish girl from Sweden who spoke my dialect of Swedish. I became a regular customer at En-Vy’s, their style being so different. En-Vy was a place for many open-minded women to hang out and drink coffee while having hair extensions inserted for the weekend or makeup done before weddings. After a while I also got to know more about Lava.

Deciding to move back to Kurdistan with her family in 2004 after graduating from high school, to a city someone described as “the Wild West” – at that time there were hardly no streets, bars or cafés – Lava Marof was determined to be a part of the process of rebuilding her country.

“I felt like wow, I can be a part of building this country”, she tells me on Skype from Malaysia, where she now lives.

She held down several jobs; one of them at Ministry of Education, revising the English material for schools, and she pursued her university studies at the same time. It wasn’t easy being a girl from Sweden, obviously independent.

“Your daughter is out all the time”, the neighbors would complain to Lava’s mother.

“She’s out all the time because she has three jobs”, the mother would reply.

“Why does she need to have three jobs?” the neighbors would ask, puzzled. “Is she not going to get married?”

Nevertheless Lava stayed put. She was proud of being Kurdish and determined to be a part of the newly independent Kurdistan Autonomous Region. After graduating from Salahaddin University she went back to Sweden where she met her future husband to be, Alex. Quickly she decided to bring him to Kurdistan to visit her family.

“I told Alex he had to ask my father for my hand”, she said. “There are certain things in my culture that are precious and that I want to maintain.”

They married and moved together to Erbil. Alex free-lanced within digital media and Lava fulfilled her dream of opening a beauty salon with European standard, importing all products from Italy, the staff being both men and women. I asked how this was possible with many veiled customers.

“Some accept the male staff cutting their hair, some don’t, and they might go somewhere else”, Lava said, also explaining that the shaded doors protected from view from the outside and that male customers was not welcome – this mix between conservative and Western oriented customer service obviously being enough to keep a large group of women coming to the salon.

As it has not been to walk her own path between two countries and cultures, I ask Lava about the worst thing she has experienced and she retells a story on how she and Alex together with a group of friends checked in to a resort in Rawanduz. The receptionist demanded to see the marriage certificate, and upon seeing it, asked Lava if there had been no Kurdish men left for her so that she was forced to marry to a European. Lava snapped back: ‘Yeah right, since all Kurdish men are thinking like you’.

“Sometimes you just have to show who’s in charge”, she concludes.

Photo credit: Lava Maroof