Sameera My African Friend in Amman

Amman“You want to go see my friends? They’re African, they speak good English” my neighbor in Amman asked me one Thursday afternoon years back. In the sleepy little area we lived there were not a big variety among the neighbors, so I became curious and tagged along.

Long before that, no one knew when, the father of Sameera and her sisters left his country Nigeria, supposedly to go to Mekka, travelling by land for several months until he came to Jordan. For some reason, if money went out or whatever it could have been, Sameera’s father decided to stay there for a while. Back then Amman was just a village and foreigners a rarity, so rare that the authorities quite soon offered him a passport. There were a few other Africans in Amman though, and someone pointed out the houses to him: “Here lives an African family!” And so he met Sameera’s mother whose father originated from the Ivory Coast, and for a while became a lifetime; he never saw Nigeria again.

Sameera was cool and smart, too broad in her mind for the suburb where she had lived all her life. Her father, illiterate himself, decided that his six daughters were going to be educated, and sent them to college. To his son and other people he said: “No one is going to tell my daughters anything”. Probably he was the one to blame for their independency that stayed present even after he and their mother had passed away. They all worked and made their own money, only one of them getting married, to a Kenyan man that she said respected her freedom. The others saying they didn’t want the burden of being controlled. Sameera and her sisters fully identified as Africans, sticking to African satellite channels and music, even though they had never been. Later on, with the UN moving in big-scale to Amman the city became more international, with foreign women dressing in tank tops and Starbucks popping up in street corners. But the international vibes of a city often has a way of not reaching the original citizens, the ones limited by the conservative ways of condemning those different African girls that lived by themselves, worked for themselves, dressed in modern clothes.

I always had a good time at Sameera’s place and I wanted her to come visit me in Beirut when I went to stay there the upcoming year. She was up for it after some persuading. Collecting her best outfits, she called me a number of times before she left; “Can I have white jeans in Beirut? That’s cool there?”, and took a shared taxi for the eight hours ride.

She cried the first evening on my balcony and I got perplexed: what was wrong? But it was just the free spirit of Lebanon and the mixture of people that she saw. She was no longer the odd one; she was just one among many. “I’m sad because of all the beautiful things I see, I see nothing of this is in Amman”, she said.

That weekend was the best, we had so much fun. It was Beirut in the summer in the mid-2000s: clubs were open until the morning, people could still afford going out, Tiesto and Amr Diab was the DJs choice for the night. Our exotic appearance, the blonde girl and the black, was priceless. We didn’t pay entrance anywhere, the Buddha Bar DJ invited us to party with his crew, not understanding why such an urban girl like Sameera didn’t drink or wanting to date, and Sameera acted like she was born in the cosmopolitan city, showing off her amazing dancing skills that she rarely got to practice, pretending she was American when someone asked (“Hey I ain’t gonna see them again!”). When we grew tired of the company we told them we were going home, then hopped into a cab and went to the next club.

We’re not in touch anymore why I don’t share her real name or photo. But I hope she would agree on me sharing her story, because being a minority is never easy and she was a person that showed someone can grow different from her society and still remain her integrity, becoming the special person that she was. Or as Sameera said once, to a taxi driver in Amman that criticized her for being a Muslim and not covering herself:

Ammo, I am a Muslim and when I read the Qur’an and decide that I will cover, at that time I will cover. Until then I will mind my own business, and you mind yours.”

Photo credit: http://www.primetravels.com

Two White Women Buying a Table from an Iraqi Family

On a rainy November evening a few years ago, me and my flatmate took a bus to the other end of our city to buy a second hand couch table we had seen an ad for online. We were scraping together to buy things to furnish our flat going all over the city to collect second hand furniture from richer people that traded off their old stuff, and we were happy to finally afford a table for our living room. It was a long way to go to this neighborhood, where small houses replaced the rental flats in our area, and we searched for a while before finding the house. A pretty little brick house with an accompanying garden, was supposedly the correct place according to the address we had been provided with.

As we rang the doorbell a small boy opened. “My mom is coming” he said, then adding, unasked: “She only speaks little Swedish.”

A woman dressed in a black abaya appeared in the doorway, introducing herself in broken Swedish. We realized it was an Iraqi family that we had come across. It was obviously not one of the Baghdadi families, liberal in the urban kind of way – it was a conservative, religious family we could tell from the woman’s appearance and the religious scripts on the wall. We were surprised, then felt stupid being surprised. Why couldn’t a conservative Iraqi family stay in this upper middle class area? Here we were: two white women still buying second hand furniture because we couldn’t afford the new things, still sharing a flat in what someone could have called a “socially deprived area” where water leaks in the house made our flat smell of mold, and shootings was such a regular happening it hardly made headlines. Your own prejudices can have a way of coming back and slap you in the face sometimes.

The woman introduced us to the tables they were selling off and we chatted a bit. It turned out they were from Diwaniya, a city in Southern Iraq, and had arrived to Sweden a few years before. Selling all they had in Iraq before fleeing the escalating violence, and her husband starting to work as soon as they had arrived, after a while buying a small candy shop, had made them being able to buy themselves the house and put their children in nearby reputable schools.

Her husband and his brother came home, we agreed on a table on a price, then it was time for us to go. The woman started to propose that we had to drink tea first, we must be tired from the long bus ride. Or maybe eat something before leaving? We explained we were in a hurry and that we had to call a taxi to transport the heavy table to our place.

“Taxi?” the man asked. “You don’t have a car?”

“No.”

None of us actually even had a driving license, but we withheld that so as not having to lower ourselves even more in the eyes of the sellers – we had already told them the area we lived in. Without further discussion the man and his brother carried the table to their car, announcing they would bring us home.The woman kissed us both goodbye and, when we declined tea or dinner a second time, welcomed us back anytime. None of the people we had bought our furniture from had been that nice.

We squeezed into the car (damn, it was even a Volvo) with the brother of the husband and the big table, and at our house he helped us to carry the table into our living room. When he had left we looked at each other, baffled. It had been a trip of surprises, not only over who stayed in the house, but over the ride. None of our fellow Swedish countrymen would ever have done us that favour.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

Sweden and Middle East Blog receives Liebster Award!

liebsterThis blog has received it’s first award from fellow blogger Social Justice! Thank you! I’m very grateful and happy to pass on the nomination to other “up and coming” bloggers

Here is what the award is about:

Liebster Awards go to “up and coming” bloggers with less than 200 followers.  The origins of this award are unclear and are simply given by fellow award nominees to blogs that inspire them and that they enjoy reading.  “Liebster” means sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing, and welcome in German.

When you get a Liebster Award nomination, you can choose to accept it by doing these things:

1. Share 11 facts about yourself.

2. Answer 11 questions posed by your nominator

3. Nominate 11 bloggers and pose the same 11 questions to them.

11 facts about me:

1. My favourite hobby is to lie in bed and watch RnBvideos on Youtube

2. Next after that, to read the news

3. Then if I have money, to go shopping

4. Then, to have coffee

5. And I bring Swedish coffee with me wherever I go

6. I have a thing for the comedian Spacejamgardenz (http://www.youtube.com/user/spacejamgardenz)

7. I spend way too much money on my hair

8. I also have a bad habit of playing with my hair when talking, according to my mom

9. I was a high school drop-out

10. But I made it to university in the end anyhow

11. I’m short, hardly making it to 5 feet (But less is more, right?)

11 Questions:
1. What musical artist are you listening to these days?
Drake (I haven’t made it out of my teens, I know)

2. If you could be any animal, what would you be? Why?
A street cat so I could fight with other street cats

3. What do you say when your (or someone else’s) kid asks you why the sky is blue?
I don’t know, ask your teacher

4. Favorite Food?

My own!

5. If $$ were no object, where would you travel on your next vacation?
Somewhere with white, sandy beaches and nothing to do but getting a tan

6. How do you like your eggs?
In any way

7. Favorite Reality TV Show?
I’m a humanitarian aid worker, don’t need one

8. What was your very first job?
Sorting out mail for minimum wage over the winter holidays

9. What book is on your nightstand right now?
Jouaman Haddad – “Superman is an Arab”

10. What’s your guilty pleasure?
Harassing racist groups online

11. At what age is your earliest memory?

2 years and 10 months

Blogs I am nominating (I could only come up with 9 blogs with less than 200 followers, but here’s a few smart blogs with something to say, that I definitely think fits the criteria for the Liebster award):

Yusef Wateef Adventurer

Failure to Listen

Al-Must’arib (the vocational Mossarab)

Kristina Sälgvik Photography

Dreaming of a Colorful Future

The Political Vagina

Kattdagis (in Swedish)

Konsten att strula till ett liv (in Swedish)

The Syrian Children Sleeping in the Park

In the park outside our house in Damascus, Syria, new families regularly come to sleep for a couple nights before being escorted away. The few belongings they keep themselves with; blankets, clothes and plastic cups, are being hauled away at the same time. Where do they go? To the temporary camps in schools or mosques? Will they be one of the families living in unfinished buildings, without electricity or water, with no protection from strangers?

One afternoon when I was meeting up with a friend, a teenage girl saw us walking on the street. She came up, asking for money.

”No, habibti.”

After a couple of weeks here I have improved my skills in saying no. And if I gave to someone living close to me, I might be harassed every day.

“Ahmed!” the girl called out and a little boy, maybe 5 years old, ran between us. He didn’t look like the kids I usually saw sleeping in the parks, he was different: even though being barefoot he easily crossed the pebbly street, and no adults were to be seen around. When being approached by kids in other cities, I sometimes ask: “Why are you on the street like this? Why are you not with your mom?” That usually makes them back off, feeling a bit ashamed of their parents sending them out to beg. But I had a feeling that wouldn’t take effect here.

“Please khala, we’re hungry.”

No.

The girl was dressed like an adult even though she recently must have entered her teens. Her long dress was ripped, her black scarf hung loosely around her head, displaying her hair, as if she didn’t care anymore.

“They have been in our house too, banging the doors, screaming for money,” my friend told me.

The little boy pulled my blouse, aggressively: “Please!”

I freed myself from his grip and turned around. We tried to speed up the pace to get away. After a few steps, stones and other small things started falling down on us.

Khallas!” (Stop it!) I yelled to the one closest to me, it was the girl that had ran up behind us.

“No, I won’t stop!”

More stones came swirling through the air, the boy had catched up with my friend and suddenly struck her in the back.

Hey!” she turned around and raised her hand, appearing a bit stronger than I had.

First then the kids slowed down, but they didn’t stop. It wasn’t until then that I realized they were not afraid of being hit. The girl already had traces of a black eye and scratches in her face. After a while the children seemed to lose the energy to harass us. They stopped, only throwing some small sticks at us as we left the park.

Later that day I saw them again, this time accompanied by two other children. The little group followed people on the street, pulled their clothes, pulled an old woman’s long robe. They received nothing from no one. In a state of conflict, no one is willing to give up whatever little they could spare. One of the boys was now being dragged along the sideway by an older girl, she half carried him. He was beyond tired; exhausted. Another boy, maybe 11 or 12, carried a long stick, violently swinging it back and forth. One man yelled at them, others got scared by the boy and his stick, and crossed the street.

I caught myself thinking, as if I wanted to tell them: “We can’t blame you, you’re just ordinary children. It’s not your fault that you had to become like this.”

The Rise of Kurdistan

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

A few years back, what did you associate Kurdistan with? If you had the same idea like me, an isolated war-torn place in the mountains might be what came to your mind.

In the few years after receiving it’s independency, Kurdistan has rised from it’s broken past and is now a developing region with a booming economy. Tourist resorts, 5 star hotels and fancy restaurants has taken the place of the refugee camps that we got so accustomed with on TV. If you’re in Erbil and looking for a night out, you can go to “Salsa Erbil” or any of the other Facebookpages dedicated to entertain young and bored people.

DSCF0277

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

I love to show Iraqi Kurdistan in photos, because it proves that a country or region can build itself up from a broken past and turn into a beautful place.

To Kurdistan now Iraqis from Baghdad and Basra go for vacation, to get away from the violence and unstability in the South. It used to be the other way around.

Photo credit: WOMEN NEWS NETWORK

What Iraqis Think About Sweden

Irakier i sverigeSince the American invasion and the following gradual collapse of Iraq, many Iraqis has applied for asylum in Sweden and in 2007 constituted the largest group of asylumseekers among the many different nationalities that applied.

In my city Malmö, sometimes called “Little Baghdad”, many Iraqis have settled and formed their own communities. In small shops in the middle of our city you can now find things like halal meat, wonderful carrot-marmelade with 80% sugar (that Swedish health freaks would report to the police if they could) and other products that I would find in my local baqala in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Globalization is a great thing when you can find your favourite marmelade from another part of the world in your own hometown.

Host communities usually has opinions about newcomers, but I think the other way around can be more interesting. Iraq I dare to say is quite the antithesis of Sweden: a large country with a weak central state, where religion plays a major role for many, hospitality is highly valued and your family is the main social network to rely on. The clash is quite big for some – Sweden being very secular with a strong legal system where many people can feel controlled by the authorities; from the housing market to the humiliating procedures at the unemployment agency. If I ask though I might not receive the true answer – critizicing someone’s home country being such a taboo for most people. But what does Iraqis really think about Sweden?

A while ago I joined this interesting Facebook page, “Iraqis in Sweden“, to see what was going on. The group is nicely illustrated by a Swedish and an Iraqi flag intertwined, with updates in both languages. On the page news about Sweden and Iraq are posted, often in an informative way about Sweden. One of managers of the page, Mohammad, tells me that the aim of the page was to create a meeting point for Iraqis in Sweden/Europe and that the group aims to serve people who might need help in Sweden, for example legal assistance or to rent a flat. Quite a nice idea, isn’t it, especially if you think about the many hate groups online, dedicated to bring down other people?

Checking the updates, one post caught my attention: “What advantages/disadvantages are there in the Swedish culture/society do you think?” The answers to this post arrived quickly.

“That everyone pretends to be PERFECT while they’re worth nothing!” one man writes, the comment getting three likes.

Someone replies:

“There is no disadvantages everyone goes his own way, and there’s nothing better than the Swedish society!!” Two exclamation marks, 15 likes.

Other people add upp to the bad list: the politicans, the wheather, there is no summer, it’s hard to find a job. Then another one, the profile picture showing the face of a young woman in a hijab, comes up with a long, reflective post:

“There are both advantages and disadvantages in each society and this is the case for the Swedish society. But I think that the advantages in the Swedish society are more than the disadvantages (…) The RESPECT, FREEDOM, EQUALITY (social), HELPFUL etc… The disadvantages are that parents have some problems raising their children here since the parents wants to raise them according to their traditions/religion. This often leads to a big problem that in its turn is a big disadvantage!! Me myself I have all love and respect for SWEDEN”

Who knew that such a subject could bring on such strong feelings? I wouldn’t, if Ihadn’t found this page. Or as a post reads when scrolling up to another heated discussion: “Do you think you can say anything just because now you’re in Sweden?”

Well on this page, obviously yes. And what better is, everyone gets to share their views without censorship or feeling held back. How I love the dynamics of the diversity sometimes. In Iraq or in Sweden.

Photo credit: Irakier i Sverige