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I’m restarting my blog after six and half years of dormancy and creative waste. It’s hard to say what the impetus is; perhaps it’s only a fleeting urge or perhaps the urge to pen down memories is too strong to ignore. Why I stopped at all is still a mystery to me. Not every action has a reason, not a conscious one at least. Sometimes it’s best to ride waves and see where we land.

Begins another journey.

Another Year

Another year draws to a close, a ripple in the vast ocean of life. We try to swim with the current except it turns against us sometimes like an angry lion, intent on tearing its prey to pieces. Hold on to a rock and hold it tight, if you’re lucky enough to find one in the midst of nowhere. The survivors are haunted for life with nightmares that blur the fine line between illusion and reality. Darkness reigns supreme and hope fades with the dying light as the window of escape slowly closes itself.

Welcome another year with new hopes and dreams of glory, a deja vu that gives goosebumps. Life has managed to come full circle, wrapping its claws and leaving us feeling helpless. But when were we in control at all? Sit back, wait patiently and maybe a boat might finally come to rescue.

Here’s to the new year and the accompanying tidal waves. Where’s my rock……..

Isra Bhatty

British-born South African diamond tycoon Cecil Rhodes left a lasting legacy of learning for brilliant minds aspiring to study at one ofIsra Bhatty the world’s oldest centers of higher learning – Oxford University. Despite his adamant support of colonialism and overt claims of British superiority in all world affairs, the endowment of the Rhodes scholarship in his bequest is considered one the most significant acts of global educational philanthropy. Notable politicians such as Wasim Sajjad in Pakistan or Bill Clinton in the United States have been Rhodes scholars and one can make a good bet every year that winners of the scholarship will end up in notable political positions within a decade or so later.

Among the recipients this year is a young Pakistani-American named Isra Bhatty who is currently a first year law student at Yale University. While South Asian families are well known for being “model minorities” and often produce many overambitious youngsters that end up with prestigious scholarships, Isra stands out as a particularly remarkable recipient. She attended high school in the Chicago suburb of Glenview and came from a devoutly religious family that was deeply committed to bridging Islamic learning with modern education. Even though Isra attended an American public school, she also was intimately involved with a mosque school that her parents helped establish on weekends and is a deeply observant Muslim. She wears the hijab but considers it a personal choice and has no ill feelings towards those who choose not to do so.

Isra has only visited Pakistan three times in her life for brief family visits, but her ethnic identity is strong and she can read and interpret Urdu poetry. Her parents were quite insistent that she always embrace her multiple identities as a Muslim, an American and a Pakistani. When I questioned her about how she might prioritize these identities, she was hesitant to suggest one was more dominant than the other but admitted that “Islam is her compass” and thus most salient in how she defines her life. Given her strong cultural sensitivity, it is not surprising that as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Isra chose to major in Economics and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations – one of the few programs in the United States where you can even get a doctorate in Urdu. She subsequently went on to work for a law firm that was advocating the cases of prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Isra speaks six languages and these rare skills were used by the firm to facilitate communication between the inmates and their families in Pakistan and with the legal teams in the United States.

This assignment was a particularly emotional experience for Isra as it had the potential to bring her identities as an American and as a Muslim and Pakistani in conflict with each other. Yet she handled the matter with tremendous maturity. One of her professors at Yale Law School, Dr. Ian Ayres spoke glowingly of her ability to balance her Faith in Islam with her Faith in science and the democratic process: “Isra is amazing in how many different worlds she can simultaneously inhabit. She is devoutly religious but at the same time can be speaking at the same time about Monte Carlo simulations.” Such an ability is perhaps what many young Muslim students need to embrace with greater vigor as it exemplifies the Islamic concept of meezaan, or the ability to judiciously balance values.

At the age of twenty four, Isra is already married but has managed to continue her career with a supportive Muslim husband who is also a lawyer (and a graduate of Yale Law School). She still has two more years to complete her law degree but will first take a year off to complete her M.Phil in “evidence-based social intervention” at Oxford. She plans to focus her studies on the improvement of the American criminal justice system, particularly its interaction with people of color. “It is my motivation from the scriptures of Islam and also the scriptures of America – the constitution,” she says with confidence.

Defying the stereotype of many Muslim youth who are often branded as killjoys, Isra also knows the importance of enjoying life. She is an avid fan of American football and plays sports regularly (one of the criteria for evaluation in Cecil Rhodes bequest for the scholarship). The ability to connect with youth through sports and peer-mentoring programs is so essential among social activists and Isra has used these skills in her work with the Inner-city Muslim Action Network in Chicago. Such programs bring positive competition to youth that might otherwise be indoctrinated with radical absolutist ideologies and are gaining momentum in Muslim communities.

As we ponder the future of Muslim societies, inspirational stories such as those of Isra Bhatty give us much-needed hope. We must all strive to encourage such young scholars to flourish with multiple identities in an increasingly globalized world.

Originally published in Pakistan’s Daily Times, December 24, 2007

When you were born, the world laughed with joy while you cried. Conduct yourself so when the time comes to leave, you are the jubilant one as the world weeps.

Symbol of Resistance

I woke up to the sound of jackhammers pounding into the earth as if several AK-47s were being fired at the same time. But silence greeted me as I lay there attempting to explain what could have caused such an unearthly racket. Just as I was about to label it a figment of nightmares, a world that often blurs the fine line between illusion and reality, it started again. Always a pleasant feeling to know you’re not hearing voices and one step away from lunacy. As it turned out, construction workers had decided, nay, the city nazim had decided to dig up the neighborhood road with the promise of a spanking new one, conveniently weeks ahead of the municipal elections. Cynical but true.

The street was barely wide enough to accommodate a group of ten and had seen better times as evident by several cracks on the entrance so repair was in order. Multi-storied and towering so a person would be required to completely tilt his head, the buildings were less about beauty and more to do with maximizing the expensive piece of land they occupied. Sun managed to make an appearance around noon, when its vertical alignment ensured supremacy but was otherwise relegated to playing hide and seek like a five year old. A small electronics repair shop was housed at the front of the street, filled with corroded parts that seemed of no use to a novice’s eye but would surely prolong the life of a dying toaster or an ailing washing machine.

I walked out of the house to find the ground in tatters giving the impression a sledge hammer had been indiscriminately used by a blind man. Piles of rubble and stone was heaped in corners, unable to find a rug to hide under. As I made my way to the front where damaged seemed most extensive, something extraordinary caught my eye. A fledgling but determined seedling had sprouted in a small crack where rain water had gathered. It stood barely five inches from the ground and proudly boasted of an oversized leaf that bent the baby stem to its side. I stared at it intently, smiling and bewildered, for it had managed to survive despite all the chaos. It was a symbol resistance for whatever your cause might be.

Riverbend

Riverbend is the pseudonymous author of the blog Baghdad Burning, launched August 17, 2003. Riverbend’s identity is carefully hidden, but the weblog entries suggest that Riverbend is a young Iraqi woman from a mixed Shia and Sunni family, living with her parents and brother in Baghdad.

Before the United States occupation of Iraq she was a computer programmer. She writes in an idiomatic English with, as James Ridgeway notes in the introduction to to the Feminist Press edition of her work, “a slight American inflection.” The blog combines political statements with a large dose of Iraqi cultural information, such as the celebration of Ramadhan and examples of Iraqi cuisine. In March 2006, her website received the Bloggie award for Best Middle East and Africa blog.

Source: Wikipedia 

Baghdad Burning

Baghdad Burning

 

Syria is a beautiful country- at least I think it is. I say “I think” because while I perceive it to be beautiful, I sometimes wonder if I mistake safety, security and normalcy for ‘beauty’. In so many ways, Damascus is like Baghdad before the war- bustling streets, occasional traffic jams, markets seemingly always full of shoppers… And in so many ways it’s different. The buildings are higher, the streets are generally narrower and there’s a mountain, Qasiyoun, that looms in the distance.

The mountain distracts me, as it does many Iraqis- especially those from Baghdad. Northern Iraq is full of mountains, but the rest of Iraq is quite flat. At night, Qasiyoun blends into the black sky and the only indication of its presence is a multitude of little, glimmering spots of light- houses and restaurants built right up there on the mountain. Every time I take a picture, I try to work Qasiyoun into it- I try to position the person so that Qasiyoun is in the background.

The first weeks here were something of a cultural shock. It has taken me these last three months to work away certain habits I’d acquired in Iraq after the war. It’s funny how you learn to act a certain way and don’t even know you’re doing strange things- like avoiding people’s eyes in the street or crazily murmuring prayers to yourself when stuck in traffic. It took me at least three weeks to teach myself to walk properly again- with head lifted, not constantly looking behind me.

 

It is estimated that there are at least 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria today. I believe it. Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere. There are areas like Geramana and Qudsiya that are packed full of Iraqi refugees. Syrians are few and far between in these areas. Even the public schools in the areas are full of Iraqi children. A cousin of mine is now attending a school in Qudsiya and his class is composed of 26 Iraqi children, and 5 Syrian children. It’s beyond belief sometimes. Most of the families have nothing to live on beyond their savings which are quickly being depleted with rent and the costs of living.

Within a month of our being here, we began hearing talk about Syria requiring visas from Iraqis, like most other countries. Apparently, our esteemed puppets in power met with Syrian and Jordanian authorities and decided they wanted to take away the last two safe havens remaining for Iraqis- Damascus and Amman. The talk began in late August and was only talk until recently- early October. Iraqis entering Syria now need a visa from the Syrian consulate or embassy in the country they are currently in. In the case of Iraqis still in Iraq, it is said that an approval from the Ministry of Interior is also required (which kind of makes it difficult for people running away from militias OF the Ministry of Interior…). Today, there’s talk of a possible fifty dollar visa at the border.

Iraqis who entered Syria before the visa was implemented were getting a one month visitation visa at the border. As soon as that month was over, you could take your passport and visit the local immigration bureau. If you were lucky, they would give you an additional month or two. When talk about visas from the Syrian embassy began, they stopped giving an extension on the initial border visa. We, as a family, had a brilliant idea. Before the commotion of visas began, and before we started needing a renewal, we decided to go to one of the border crossings, cross into Iraq, and come back into Syria- everyone was doing it. It would buy us some time- at least 2 months.

We chose a hot day in early September and drove the six hours to Kameshli, a border town in northern Syria. My aunt and her son came with us- they also needed an extension on their visa. There is a border crossing in Kameshli called Yaarubiya. It’s one of the simpler crossings because the Iraqi and Syrian borders are only a matter of several meters. You walk out of Syrian territory and then walk into Iraqi territory- simple and safe.

When we got to the Yaarubiya border patrol, it hit us that thousands of Iraqis had had our brilliant idea simultaneously- the lines to the border patrol office were endless. Hundreds of Iraqis stood in a long line waiting to have their passports stamped with an exit visa. We joined the line of people and waited. And waited. And waited…

It took four hours to leave the Syrian border after which came the lines of the Iraqi border post. Those were even longer. We joined one of the lines of weary, impatient Iraqis. “It’s looking like a gasoline line…” My younger cousin joked. That was the beginning of another four hours of waiting under the sun, taking baby steps, moving forward ever so slowly. The line kept getting longer. At one point, we could see neither the beginning of the line, where passports were being stamped to enter Iraq, nor the end. Running up and down the line were little boys selling glasses of water, chewing gum and cigarettes. My aunt caught one of them by the arm as he zipped past us, “How many people are in front of us?” He whistled and took a few steps back to assess the situation, “A hundred! A thousand!”. He was almost gleeful as he ran off to make business.

I had such mixed feelings standing in that line. I was caught between a feeling of yearning, a certain homesickness that sometimes catches me at the oddest moments, and a heavy feeling of dread. What if they didn’t agree to let us out again? It wasn’t really possible, but what if it happened? What if this was the last time I’d see the Iraqi border? What if we were no longer allowed to enter Iraq for some reason? What if we were never allowed to leave?

We spent the four hours standing, crouching, sitting and leaning in the line. The sun beat down on everyone equally- Sunnis, Shia and Kurds alike. E. tried to convince the aunt to faint so it would speed the process up for the family, but she just gave us a withering look and stood straighter. People just stood there, chatting, cursing or silent. It was yet another gathering of Iraqis – the perfect opportunity to swap sad stories and ask about distant relations or acquaintances.

We met two families we knew while waiting for our turn. We greeted each other like long lost friends and exchanged phone numbers and addresses in Damascus, promising to visit. I noticed the 23-year-old son, K., from one of the families was missing. I beat down my curiosity and refused to ask where he was. The mother was looking older than I remembered and the father looked constantly lost in thought, or maybe it was grief. I didn’t want to know if K. was dead or alive. I’d just have to believe he was alive and thriving somewhere, not worrying about borders or visas. Ignorance really is bliss sometimes…

Back at the Syrian border, we waited in a large group, tired and hungry, having handed over our passports for a stamp. The Syrian immigration man sifting through dozens of passports called out names and looked at faces as he handed over the passports patiently, “Stand back please- stand back”. There was a general cry towards the back of the crowded hall where we were standing as someone collapsed- as they lifted him I recognized an old man who was there with his family being chaperoned by his sons, leaning on a walking stick.

By the time we had reentered the Syrian border and were headed back to the cab ready to take us into Kameshli, I had resigned myself to the fact that we were refugees. I read about refugees on the Internet daily… in the newspapers… hear about them on TV. I hear about the estimated 1.5 million plus Iraqi refugees in Syria and shake my head, never really considering myself or my family as one of them. After all, refugees are people who sleep in tents and have no potable water or plumbing, right? Refugees carry their belongings in bags instead of suitcases and they don’t have cell phones or Internet access, right? Grasping my passport in my hand like my life depended on it, with two extra months in Syria stamped inside, it hit me how wrong I was. We were all refugees. I was suddenly a number. No matter how wealthy or educated or comfortable, a refugee is a refugee. A refugee is someone who isn’t really welcome in any country- including their own… especially their own.

We live in an apartment building where two other Iraqis are renting. The people in the floor above us are a Christian family from northern Iraq who got chased out of their village by Peshmerga and the family on our floor is a Kurdish family who lost their home in Baghdad to militias and were waiting for immigration to Sweden or Switzerland or some such European refugee haven.

The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, “We’re Abu Mohammed’s house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too… Welcome to the building.”

I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003.