I Love Syria, That’s Why I’m Writing This Post

The old city in Damascus

I am a, for now, retired humanitarian aid worker, who have worked in many countries across the world, mostly in the Middle East. In my former profession I tried not to be too wrapped up in the countries that I lived in, since it’s important to remain calm and neutral as much as possible. Plenty of young Westerners have been travelling to countries in what we used to love to call the third world and start to identify with the countries, the politics and the people. As a humanitarian aid worker you’re not supposed to do that; overly identifying means you loose part of your focus.

But here’s a confession to make from my side: when I see the current news from Syria, and when I hear other aid workers talk about Syria in the most general ways, it breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart, because people who didn’t know Syria before the war don’t know anything about the country. Aid workers and people outside who have never been, seem to see it as just another country where conflict has been going on and will be going on forever. They see it as a country where every person is a potential islamic fundamentalist. They see it as a country where there are few functioning schools, few functional hospitals, where water and electricity is a luxury. A country like any other country they have worked in.

What breaks my heart is, people who only have seen Syria in a state of conflict, have never seen it as it really is. I have been living in many countries in the Middle East and Syria is my absolute favourite. Not by choice, it was just one of the places where I grew really attached to the place, where the good by far outweighed the bad. Syria is my pearl in the ocean. Let me tell you why.

Syria is the country that has a beautiful capital, a capital where night clubs takes place just like late-night cafés and restaurants; beach resorts; mosques and ancient buildings.

Syria is a country that lacks the superficiality that sometimes takes over in Lebanon, a country that has the night life that you won’t find in Jordan (with or without alcohol), a place where men and women; people from different religions; locals and foreigners, easily mix.

Syria is the country where people will keep their promise, they pick you up when they say they will pick you up, call you when they say they will call you.

Syria is a country where liberal people are next door neighbours with conservative.

Syria is a country where you sit in a café playing dawla with your girlfriend until midnight and no one bothers you.

Syria is the country where you go to have ice cream with your colleagues after work at Abu Shaker’s restaurant in Damascus on a weekday, or hit the swimming pool in your bikini in Damarose Hotel on a hot summer’s day, working on your tan and ordering plenty of arabic coffees to have at the pool, or go to Lounge 808 on a Friday night for a drink.

Syria is not a country of extremists, it’s a not a country of terrorists, it’s a country where people used to live and prosper in some of the most dynamic ways in the Middle East, before the civil war started.

Syria was once a place where friendship, love and beautiful things took place – now it’s a country that’s reduced to the international headlines of terror and misery, and humanitarian aid workers whose beer drinking and generalised ideas of a country full of war and terrorists, have taken over a place where beautiful things once was. That is what breaks my heart.

Photo copyrights: Sweden and the Middle East Views

First Iraqi Female Mayor Elected

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Thikra Awash

With all awful news coming to us from everywhere these days, it’s wonderful to get positive news for once: Iraq appointed their first female mayor for Baghdad, Thikra Alwash (in some news spelled Zekra Alwach), and she is set to take up duties in her office as by today, Sunday February 22. In a country where women are fighting a slow battle against inequalities in many fields, a battle that is constantly facing set-backs due to the domestic conflicts, such an appointment is an important gesture to all of the country’s women. Although women traditionally have held many high political positions in Iraq – both during Saddam Hussein’s regime and after the US invasion – Ms Awash is supposedly the first one to hold the position of being a mayor.

According to Daily Star Lebanon, Ms Awash is a civil engineer by background and was previously the Director General of the Ministry of Higher Education – this is also stated in her Linkedin profile. In Ms Awash’s new role as a mayor she will be dealing directly with the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and will therefore be able to push her agenda, the agenda of the city of Baghdad, on a high level.

Some voices today criticised Ms Awash’s lack of political experience, and the fact that her predecessor Naim Aboub was removed by the prime minister in the blink of an eye. But still so, the choice of a female mayor in a time when dangerous, backwards powers are threatening the country of Iraq, is a brave and forward one. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for Ms Awash and what the future holds for her, as well as her fellow Iraqi sisters.

Photo credit: Twitter @SAijaz_

The Country of Kuwait Before the Americans Moved In

There was a Kuwait even before the American troops went in 1991 to kick out the Iraqi occupiers. Kuwait is a source to a rich culture and heritage: it contained different tribes with different traditions, music and tales, beduoins living off the sea where they were fishing for food and pearls that they traded in one of their many travels around the Gulf region. But much of it has gotten lost to the outside world. What many foreigners see in Kuwait is the many fastfood restaurants and the malls that popped up en masse after the Americans came in and stayed on.

A Kuwaiti friend of mine is dedicated to show the Kuwaiti culture and it’s from him that I have received these photos. He doesn’t have the copyright he has himself received them through social websites, so I decided to share them on. The descriptions of the photos are from my friend.

A Kuwaiti trader with dependents to another 1930s

Kuwaiti traider with dependents, 1930s

Bedouin weaving Kuwait

Bedouin weaving, year unknown

kuwait year unknown

Year unknown

Kuwait 2 1961

Kuwait 1961

Kuwait 1961

Kuwait 1961

unknown 5

Year unkown

unknown 7

Year unknown

Photo copyrights: unknown

My Friend in Syria Has Lost All Her Rights as a Woman

I lived in Syria last year, and I made a few amazing friends despite the ongoing war. I still keep in touch with them and am surprised how I could meet so many fine people in so short time.

One of them, we can call her Sarah, had made an incredible journey in life. Coming from a working class conservative family, she had been married off against her will when young. The marriage had been abusive, something she was not unused to: in her world, as she described it, “almost all men hit women”. But the violence Sarah had been subjected to had been of the extraordinary kind.

When she left her husband it was because she knew she wouldn’t survive if going back. Trauma to her head had made her loose parts of her memory and she had suffered three miscarriages as a result of the abuse. When leaving her husband Sarah had to leave her children behind and was not allowed to see them. She had the right to visit her children but was deeply traumatized, had no support from her family and no lawyer to help her access this right.

At her family’s house noone spoke to her, they didn’t approve of her leaving her husband. She stayed most of her time in a dark room, often not remembering the day before or where she was. She knew her family wanted to get her into a mental hospital, and she also knew that if they were able to make her admitted there she would never be able to get out.

“How did you make it?” I asked Sarah the one evening she opened up and told me her story, which I would have had no clue of if she hadn’t told me, despite her sad eyes, this pretty girl in modern clothes and pastel earrings. We had been hanging out for a while and were drinking wine in one of the laid back cafés in the inner city of Damascus.

“I just had to”, she said. “I read every book in the house… And I tried to remember the books I read.”

She became able to make appointments with a psychiatrist at a public hospital. She gradually became better and was able to enroll in a beauty school. One day when she was well enough she left her family’s house. She had been making money by working in beauty saloons in downtown Damascus, saving so she could rent a small flat on her own.

“You’re not allowed to move out!” her brother had told her. “You’re nothing but a whore if you live on your own!”

But the verbal abuse didn’t take hold of her, she was so used to it.

Sarah took off her abaya and hijab (“I believe in God, but I never wanted these”). She started going to the gym, started going out, started dating. After a few years she was strong enough to fight for her kids. In the meantime her ex husband had remarried and had a new child with his second wife. And the war had started.

Sarah got a female lawyer who threatened her ex husband with legal actions if he didn’t allow Sarah visitation rights. The legal system was weakened and they might not have been able to push it further, but her ex husband got scared and gave in. The children slept next to her each time they visited and cried when it was time to go back to their dad, desperate not to go.

War dragged on and effected everyone, even the people living in the regime controlled capital. Sarah wasn’t able to make a living despite working 12 hours a day. Her employer paid her a small sum of her salary and said “It’s war, I have no money to pay you”. In the breakdown of the system there was nowhere to go to claim your salary. Benefits didn’t exist. Sarah had to move back to her family, and they didn’t accept her children coming to visit. Her ex husband was happy and Sarah was back in confinement again. The war had made her loose all her rights. But worse was yet to come.

The other day she called me and told me her children were back with her. Great news! But how had it happened?

Her ex husband had been taken by the authorities and noone knew where he was. His new wife had refused his extended family to see the children. But the childrens’ uncle had spoken to them on Skype and seen them having bruises and marks on their faces. Something wasn’t right and in the end he called Sarah and told her to try take the children. He didn’t want to take them himself as the war made him having enough financial constraints with his own family.

There was no legal system anymore that would support Sarah’s attempt to get her children back. Instead she called the woman and asked if she could invite her and the children to a nice restaurant. When they met, Sarah was all smiles with the woman. In the middle of the meal she got up with the kids to go to the bathroom, then rushed them through the back door of the restaurant, and jumped in to a taxi.

Sarah’s family in the end accepted the children staying with them when they learned that Sarah’s ex husband was gone. The truth about what had happened to the children unravelled when back in Sarah’s care. Sarah’s ex husband’s new wife had abused them already when her husband was still present, probably as a revenge for the abuse she herself suffered in the hands of her husband. The children had told their father what their stepmother did but he didn’t believe them. When he disappeared the abuse escalated: she had tortured them with electricity and starved them. If Sarah hadn’t intervened I don’t know what had happened.

“They are so angry”, Sarah said. “And hungry. It’s like they hadn’t had food for weeks. You can’t believe how weak they are.”

“So what will you do now?” I asked when we were on the phone.

“I can’t do anything, Jenny. There is nowhere I can go.”

She can’t report the woman to any police authorities. There is hardly nowhere to take the children for psychological counselling. If her ex husband comes back and forces the children to return to their abusive stepmother, there is nowhere for Sarah to turn for legal help. She’s also no longer financially independent and has no control over her own life, she’s back in the hands of her own abusive family. In Syria, once a functioning country with a stable infrastructure, everything is collapsed.

When I speak to Sarah on the phone there is nothing I can say that will help her. That’s why I write about this on my blog. I want everyone to know what it’s like to be a woman or a child in Syria during this war. That’s all I can do.

Old Iraqi Photos

A Facebookpage that I follow is dedicated to show the world the old Iraq and regularly posts photos of a country many didn’t know exists. This is how the Rare Iraqi Pics page describes itself:

“Nostalgia is the only balm when we grow older… We miss our beginning as we approach the end.”

The page is popular, it has almost 40.000 followers, but the updates and descriptions are done in Arabic so many Westerners might not come across the page so easily. Therefore I decided to write about the page and share some of their photos with translations in English, with you.

Eid Mosul

Eid in Mosul, Northern Iraq, one of the cities now under control of ISIS, 1976

Tigris river

Tigris river, Baghdad. Year is unknown but the card is printed in 1955

seta

Seta Hagopian, Armenian-Iraqi singer, the photo is probably from early 1970s. Seta Hagopian was one of the first singers to combine old Iraqi songs with Western instruments. She’s still active and lives in Qatar and Canada since the late 1990s. You can find her MySpace page here.

fashin shoot

Fashion shoot in the marshes, a wetland area in Southern Iraq, 1974

Photo credits: Rare Iraqi Pics Facebook community

Aim Higher – Coexist. The persons behind Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies

jews and arabs front pic

Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies Facebookpage was started after the Israeli attack on Gaza and popped up on Facebook on July 10 – 16 day ago. In these 16 days the page has literally exploded with followers and people posting their own photos and comments, promoting friendship and love in a time of war. The page took many people by surprise, I included. Who were the people behind the page? I just had to find out, and the initiators were happy to share about themselves.

Abraham Gutman from Israel and Dania Darwish from Syria were classmates at Hunter College in New York and took a class in National Model United Nations together. They were both enjoying discussions about Middle Eastern politics even though they not always shared the same views.

“(We) don’t always agree but we never felt that our different opinions changed our friendship or caused any contingency between us”, Abraham says when I get in touch with them by e-mail.

They tell me that the goal of the page is to diffuse some of the hate and tension on social media platforms:

In addition, this initiative aims to create a space for civil discourse between people who identify with divergent political ideas.

I ask about how the page is a response to the current Israeli attacks on Gaza.

We feel that the escalation between Israel and Gaza caused an escalation in the language that people use on social media. In regards to the conflict, political commentary became more hateful and more violent. Unfortunately, it is easy to hide behind a keyboard and say extreme statements. Although on some things we disagree, we both believe that it is important to support a cease fire and non-violent resistance.

And how has the feedback been so far?

We got a lot of criticism from various sides of the political spectrum but we were lucky that all the criticism was civil and respectful. We did get a lot of positive feedback from Israelis, Palestinians, and many types of people that fit into different ethnic and religious groups.”

Well, not everyone likes the page. After my e-mail exchange with Abraham and Dania, there have been a few hateful messages and photos posted by others on the page. Someone has written:

Don’t tell me love between us… Love don’t exist between Arabs and Terroriste fuck you Isra-bitch”.

The same person ha uploaded a drawing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahi butchering Palestinians, receiving an anti-comment from someone saying:

Aww poor Hamas, everyone is against you… stop crying, stop exploding your silly weak bombs, and Israel will stop defending Israel. It will save you some poor civilians.

But among the overwhelming photos, comments and followers on the page – 31.450 at today’s date, – probably more when you read this – those are an absolute minority. The photos consist of people of different religions and ethnicities, most Jews and Muslims, who in one way or another are doing what the states on an international level are failing to do: coexisting. Photos showing couples kissing each other; mixed families with their children; people with one Jewish and one Muslim parent; best friends hugging each other. Most are holding up sheets with hand-written statements: “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies”; “Jew, Arab, both Semitic. Most importantly, both human”; “Mother Jewish, Father Palestinian, whatever we suffer hate makes it worse”.

With the announcement of today’s ceasefire of Israel’s attack on Gaza, the Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies page uploaded the following statement:

With nearly 900 devastating deaths, a 12 hour humanitarian cease-fire is now in effect. We hope that our leaders can implement a solution in the Middle East that results in a permanent cease-fire in Israel/Palestine and an end to the siege in Gaza. The lives of all innocent civilians are too precious to be compromised by the reprehensible political nature of this conflict.

After the ceasefire, maybe the world leaders could follow the path given of the success of a simple Facebook page, the path of coexistence?

Photo credit: Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies Facebook page

Diving Sisters from Saudi Arabia

saudi gazette

Noor Al-Dubais (left) and Taammul Al-Dubais (right)

Photo credit: saudigazette.com.sa

Two sisters from Sanabis town on Tarout Island on the Eastern coast of Saudi Arabia made headlines this week as some of the few professional women divers in the country.

The local newspaper Saudi Gazette reports that Noor and Taammul Al-Dubais were raised in a seafaring family and that they have been surrounded by water all their lives. Noor was 5 when her father taught her how to breath under water and the sisters held their international diving licenses as 10 year olds. Now they wish to pass on their passion for diving to other girls. They are diving as a professional duo and have been diving on many different occasions.

They started to dive in the city of Jubail on the east coast, around Jana Island. Noor says to the newspaper Alsharq daily, regarding her diving experiences in the Red Sea off the coast of Jeddah:

I swam among the beautiful coral reefs as if I was a bird flying in a garden. I enjoy diving because my soul separates from my body when I am at great depths.

She says she finds guidance in her parents and that her friends from school encouraged her. The sisters’ father has been a great supporter and he himself is also a diver and a fisherman. He is also Noor’s and Taammul’s professional trainer and has designed a special diving suit for women that he said respects Saudi customs and traditions. Sports for Saudi women are not accepted by everyone and professional sports women in the Kingdom are an exception. But the sisters’ father says:

Noor and Taammul are part of a diving family that loves to look for coral reefs and explore the magical waters of the Gulf. All of my sons and daughters are divers.

Hopefully Noor and Taammul will set an example for many other brave young women around the world.