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

Gulf and the Slavery

I admit it, I have a thing for the Gulf. I like the music; the drums and the monotone singing, the tales of pearlfishing, the culture and the desert. I sincerely appreciated living in the Gulf, being one of few. But the one thing that makes me hesitate to ever go back to live there is the modern day slavery, now spreading over the Middle East, that now is so plain that most people have grown numb to it.

I’ve heard the arguments before, I’ll give them to you before you give them to me: the guestworkers would have made much less in their own countries, now they can put their own children in school. You have to take their passport away from them, otherwise they will run away before the contract is over. They’re poor people that don’t know anything – therefore you have to lock them in overnight, they have to know their place. The horrifying stories I have heard reminds me of tales from American slavery – anonymous people that looses their identity and name.

I’ve heard the other side too, from people who want to be good: we pay her flight ticket to go visit her family, we give her one day off when she’s free, then she can go whereever she likes, our maids can eat as much as they want. As if  giving someone what is supposedly their human right is “being good”.

If you’re Asian or African in the Middle East, you might have nails pushed into your body, you might be abused publicly with noone intervening but filming the abuse instead, you might be killed and the killing will be called an “accident“. Yes, I am giving you some of the worst examples, but you know what? It’s when we start having maids that calls us “sir” and “ma’am”, that the degrading and depersonalisation process starts. And this is the reason it’s so hard for me to see myself go back. I don’t want to grow as numb as many already did.

Women

There are many perceptions about women in the Middle East among us in the Western part of the world, me included. I’ve come across quite a few cool women during my travels that has turned my own ideas upside down. So I thought, why not introduce a few women that I know, that got something to tell us?

Stay tuned for the first post in this category, coming soon…

The Arabic Swedish Network

I originally wrote this blog text for my friend Tashina Alavi’s NGO Youth Innovatum, check it out:

One of Young Innovatum’s pillars is cultural exchange between young people from different cultures, so as to increase respect and tolerance for persons from different backgrounds. Sometimes there’s no need for taking a trip abroad to learn about others, as the world is becoming more international in our own countries – an example of this is The Arabic-Swedish network that has become a melting pot for young people from all around the world in Malmö, Sweden.

Inspired by language exchange meetings that are common in cities all over the world, we started a few persons back in 2010 to meet regularly in cafés and exchange Swedish and Arabic languages over a cup of coffee. And so the group started to expand, mainly by word of mouth.

Since then the group exploded with members that are regularly posting for meetings, cultural events and get-togethers, and unintentionally it has become more than a language exchange group; it’s now an arena for young people from different countries to blend and learn from each other. The group has a variety of people from all over the world: Sweden, Norway, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, Morocco, Tunisia – even Iran.

Among many young Swedes there’s a growing interest in learning more about the Middle East beyond the common stereotypes in the Western world, why the Arabic culture and language is appealing – an expanding cultural scene in Malmö with Arabic music concerts and the annual Malmö Arab Film festival has probably played its part. On the other hand, for some foreign people in Sweden, experienced prejudices and a lack of interaction with Swedes becomes an obstacle in the effort to making Swedish friends and getting to know the Swedish culture. In the network many people have found a place to break the ice, and have quickly made friends over barriers and religions. The positive interest in cultures has most likely been one of the key factors to the expanding network – in our group, the merging of different cultures is what attracts its members, it’s regarded as something interesting, not a problem. A lot of activists from the Middle East have found the group to be an arena for networking with Swedes and also sharing inspiring news from the region – news that might not reach the regular media, such as the increasing demand on women’s rights and the growing arena of underground journalism. With the mutual learning between our participants, prejudices have been erased and friendships between people that might never had met otherwise, have taken place. Where curiosity replaces fear and real people replaces stereotypes, life becomes richer. Hopefully the core of our network can inspire others to start up similar events or networks in other cities or countries. For more information on the network, search for the Arabic-Swedish network on Facebook.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog