Thursday, 3 May 2007

Man United 7 - 1 AS Roma

10th April 2007
I slept on the couch in the sitting room, then moved to my cousin's room and slept till I had had enough. Got out of bed at 1 o'clock and had a cup of tea. I had rice and mlookhiya (spinach and meat). It wasn't too tasty but I had to pretend to be overwhelmed when my uncle's wife asked me about it. After lunch (or breakfast - you decide) I went out with my cousin to the older parts of town. My uncle instructed me to visit a very old market called Soog Al Mbarekiya, where he and my father hung out during their heyday in the 60s and early 70s. The journey to the market was an experience itself.
The taxi went past buildings that were imprinted in my mind. As The Corr's Breathless played on the radio, my cousin was being typically rude to the Indian driver. I chose not to interfere because I had spoken to him many times regarding the way he addresses and deals with labourers - no use. He accuses me of being ignorant to the realities of life and of being idealistic.

"Stick to your sociology.. this is how the world works"

Looking out of the window, I saw grand villas that obviously belonged to affluent families. The irony lay a couple of hundred metres ahead in the form of a set of rotten, slum-like buildings. The apartments inside them were stripped of windows and I could clearly see their dark-skinned residents, wearing yellowish sleeveless vests. One was looking at the cars whizzing by his modest abode, while the other stood in front of the mirror, closely scanning his face. This sight evoked in me a strange sensation; I felt like a criminal, like a witness who refused to testify to save the wrongly-accused. Why was I in a car with someone who made fun of the Indian driver's inaccurate pronounciation of Arabic words? Why wasn't I telling the Kuwaiti emir to improve the lives of these people? Shame on me. Shame on us.

I decided to swallow the big gulp that had been forming in my throat; there was nothing I could do then. I would talk to my uncle about it later at night.

We arrived at the old market and I fell in love with it at first sight. For some reason, it wasn't too pleasing to my cousin's eye. If I want to be good to him, I would say it's because he's used to it. Otherwise, and from the way he was walking and talking to the old date sellers, he was far more interested in the trendier world of designer clothes, fast cars, sleazy girls and crude remarks. I, nonetheless, absolutely loved everything about it. The small, condensed shops; the narrow streets that the market occupied; having to push myself onto the wall to avoid getting run over by the seemingly-blind drivers who choose to bring their cars there - everything about the place had a touch of magic to it.

The market was partly-roofed, a feature that reminded me of Soog Al Hameediya, the famous old market in Damascus where we would go to have a scrumptious ice-cream at Bekdash. This place lacked the variety in goods that its Syrian counterpart boasted. The market's shops were grocers; butchers; antique and clothes. Having missed my family very dearly over the past two days, I decided to buy one of my brothers a present; a head-cloth (shmagh) with an unusual twist -creamy colour- seemed an appropriate gift. The salesman greeted me with a delightfully warm smile and showed me the garment. I looked at it from all angles then asked me cousin whether he thought it was nice or not. He nodded.

"You're nicer" said the salesman, showing boundless warmth towards a complete stranger.

"Thank you. You're too kind!" I replied, with an instant, slighty surprised sort of smile drawn on my face.

I hope none of the readers think the guy was flirting with me; I believe it was a hearty display of true Arabic/Islamic manners. The specific compliment is usually used when someone describes something as being nice. In London, if I told a girl that her shoes were nice, she'd say "yeah, I bought them from TopShop, aren't they just to die for?" What makes this part of the world special, what draws me to glorify these people, despite their pathetic attempts to become 'modern' by having semi-nude singing contests - is their unparalleled courtesy. Of course, no country is free from the obnoxious nationalists, racists, etc. Believe me, there are plenty here!

I bought the shmagh for 1.5 Kuwaiti Dinars. He had originally told us that it was priced at 2 Dinars but after speaking to us and finding out that we were Iraqi, he said "Tistahloon" (You deserve it, i.e: the discount) I thanked him for his kindness and walked away feeling good about myself.

We then went to a working-class sort of restaurant called Al Shahad Restaurant. I couldn't believe how cosy the place felt, despite its smelling of raw, uncooked meat and looking nothing like any of the places I had gone to yesterday. I had some delicious Kebabs and a cold can of Pepsi. The best bit was knowing that the entire meal had only cost us four and a half Dinars, that's nine Sterling Pounds - the most I could buy with that sort of money in London is a couple of chicken burgers from Chicken Cottage - poor man's delicacy. The difference in size and taste of the meal was too hard for my cousin to stomach, so he ordered more Kebabs!

We had tea at a big restaurant near the market's entrance. The Egyptian waiter brought a whole tea-pot that was being kept hot by the flaming coal underneath it. As we poured tea into the smaller version of an Iraqi istikan (half its size) we drank and talked about the uncomfortable slippers that I had bought. When evening prayers were called for, scores of people headed to the mosque in front of us. After a while, I went there, too. I stood and prayed and saw that almost everyone that passed by me looked at me strangely, as if I were from another planet. It could have been the bright red United jersey that I was wearing; but it could have also been my unorthodox prayers; I had not folded my hands like they all did. I didn't mind their staring eyes, the place made me easy at heart. I hadn't been to a proper mosque for a very long time. I was explaining the significance of entering a 'proper mosque' to my cousin by saying that the Islamic centres in London tend to be built for social purposes rather than religious and spiritual needs; for a long time I hadn't experienced what it was like to stand before God in a place where He likes you to be. I sat there, reading Al Fatiha for my mother and grand-father who raised my father and uncles in Kuwait - while people stared at me. I didn't care. I was elsewhere.

After spending around 20 minutes in the mosque, I left and met up with my cousin at a bookshop nearby. I headed to the poetry/literature section but found it to be too advanced for my liking.

"Mehdi, let's leave. This is their place!"

I clicked on what he was suggesting, so I smiled and said "Wait a little, I want to see these books"

After a few minutes, I realised that I wasn't going to buy anything from the shop anyways so I would rather leave than embarrass myself. Besides, we were going to be late for the game, and we hadn't even decided where we were going to watch it.

It was fast approaching 7 o'clock so I started urging my cousin to make a move so that we guarantee watching the night's highlight.

The happiest footballing night I've ever lived. European Football isn't extremely popular here, so I was nagging my cousin to find a place where we could watch the game; he took me to a spacious open-roof cafe called Salamat.

I arrived there thinking that I was just in time for kick-off, only to realise that the match kicks off at 19:45 BST, 21:45 Kuwait time - it wasn't even half past eight! My cousin ordered a nargeela (shisha) while I ordered a Pepsi.

The enormous TV set was showing Al Jazeera Sports channel; I tried to understand what they were saying but I couldn't; the cafe was packed with teenage and early-twenties Kuwaitis who absolutelty refused to speak to their friends in a civilised manner. All I heard was obscene remarks, sickeningly-foul language and shocking manners with the waiters: an Egyptian and an Indian.

The match started and I became tense. Roma had greater possession of the ball in the opening 10 minutes. Then..

Michael Carrick (whose replica football jersey I was proudly wearing!) curled a glorious ball past the dumb-struck Roma goalie. Usually, when I watch United play, I actvicate my reflex muscles and become prepared to spring them in any direction. If the ball goes wide I smack my thigh with my right hand; if it's saved or hits the post or crossbar I put both hands on my head very quickly and say 'wwwssooooo' in an inaudible voice. However, if it's a goal, I stand up straight and shout 'GET IN!'

I did exactly that when Carrick scored.

Seeing that I was the only one in the crowd who celebrated in English, I sat on my plastic chair feeling rather embarrassed and decided to shut up for the rest of the game, lest I blurt out something like 'PASS IT, YOU PRICK!'

I was staring at the giant screen in amazement. United were passing the ball as if there was no opposition. They were simply sublime.

The ball came to Giggs, the undisputed emperor of Old Trafford, who lobbed it to Alan Smith.. BANG.. 2-0! This time, I jumped so violently that my chair flew backwards! I didn't care much to be honest, I was consumed by what was unfolding in front of me - history was to be made tonight. This goal was the decisive goal because it put United ahead on aggregate (complicated football rules)

The rest, as they say, is history. United dismantled one of Europe's strongest defence lines to complete an unrivalled achievement. After the game, I was imagining what MZ (die-hard United fan in London) was doing.

We walked back home; one feeling tired and bloated, the other overjoyed with the result. When we sat with my uncle for a late night chat, he started telling my eldest cousin about some business developments at work. Listening to them talk about new recruits and telling off bad performers gave me the overall impression that Kuwait is good for those who have authority over others. If someone has an authority over you, you are stripped of your status as an equal in humanity. It's tragic. I asked my uncle about the law and its protection of ethnic minorities and workers and the like. After smiling for a moment, he looked at his eldest son and said "He's got a lot to learn." My uncle was always sarcastic so I wasn't really offended by his reply.

"Workers from ethnic minorites work for no less than 15 hours a day, earning $1oo or so every month. Some even buy their work-permits with money they are yet to earn, so they'll be working for 6 months for no money" He spoke with an air of hopelessness, as if to suggest that he knows what I feel but also knows that nothing can be done about it.
"Are there no governmental agencies, non-governmental organisations or whatever, that lobby for their rights?" I asked with a clearly frustrated tone.

After smiling again, he looked at the television for a second then looked back at me quickly, as if finding the answer to my question.

"There used to be an office for the Palestine Liberation Organisation! Well, that was closed down too, I'm afraid."

What life is this? What humanity is this? What injustice are we subjecting people to?

The tide will turn and only God will have mercy on us.

I will post some pictures soon.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Here or Home?

9th April 2007

The last time I went on holiday was over three years ago. I went to Syria and Iraq and then came back here and have been imprisoned home eversince. The thought of going on holiday seemed far-fetched due to many reasons, financial as well as practical. It's pretty hard to explain. Anyways, I finally managed to escape my dangerously-tedious daily routine; washing dishes, making tea for guests, trying -and failing- to get some revision done.

Providence paved the way from London to Kuwait, where I will be spending the next 9 days. Boarding a British Airways flight was a novelty to me, as I have only travelled with Syrian Airlines (cheapest and lousiest). I starved myself so that I enjoy whatever food they served me. I also abstained from carrying any books on to the aeroplane in case I get distracted from enjoying the 'High Life', the entertainment program they had provided.

It was the first time that I travel by myself; I anticipated risky encounters with shady figures adding to the excitement of it all. I checked in, grabbed a bite and then I wandered around in the Duty Free section, pretending to be vaguely interested in the Lacostes and Guccis they had on offer. At last, passengers were instructed to board. The two seats near me were empty so I was able to lie across all three when I was tired. They were showing The Holiday, a heart-warming tale of uncomplicated affection, so I watched it with an ear-to-ear grin. After that, I tried to sleep but wasn't able to. By this time, the sun had gone up and we were flying over Kirkuk. I didn't know that we were to fly over Iraq on our way to Kuwait. Having realised that this was the case, I braced myself for an unexpected plunge into unstirred waters that lay in my heart. it wasn't exactly a pleasant surprise.

The little screen that was attached to each chair was showing a map of the journey and the cities we were flying over. I would look at the map and then look out of the window for a long time, scanning what I could see, breath out a heavy sigh and then look at the map again. Looking out of the window, my eyes fell on my soil. I was deeply saddened by this harsh reality; I was passing over Iraq, as if over-looking it, not showing much interest in it, choosing to restore my physical and emotional well-being not on the banks of Tigris, but amongst some of the most arrogant of nations. Engulfed by guilt, I stuck my face onto the window to get the fullest possible view, and after a few minutes of staring into the vast lands, roads and scattered buildings, my watery eyes let loose a quick, rebellious tear that ran across my cheek before I could move my face away from the window to rub my eyes.

The captain announced that we were landing in a couple of minutes, much to my relief.

I descended from the aeroplane and made my way to the Visa section. There were eight desks but only three of them were operating. After a long wait, the obnoxious Visa person thought I was funny.

"So your name is Mehdi, born in Bombay and you have a British passport. Are you Indian or Iranian?"

I was slightly surprised at how rude he was. He's supposed to be a taster of what the country and his countrymen were like.

"I'm Iraqi, it just happens that I was born there and I have this passport."

I paid the fee and made my way to the Arrivals lounge. Waiting for me there were my cousins. A few kisses and hugs and we were off.
We made our way to my uncle's house, dropped my bag and decided to head to the beach. This sense of urgency was only natural.. I love the beach and I hadn't been on a beach for over seven years. I hadn't prepared flip-flops for the sandy shores, so I had to wear my trainers. Eventually, I took them off in order to run in the water.

The day went by much slower than it would have in London. By the time it was 11 o'clock, I had gone to the beach, Marina Mall (the trendiest shopping centre in town), Tche Tche cafe and Layali Al Hilmiya Restaurant. Not only that, I even managed to get a few hours of sleep and a short visit to the local super-market.

What I like most about this place is that it feels like home.. it has the tiniest resemblance of Baghdad in terms of the city planning, the width of the roads and the cool, soothing breeze that fills the air at night.

Nothing compares to Iraq.. the deserts, the palm-trees, the dull, monotonous buildings, the crowded markets.. they're unmatched treasures of Mesopotamia.

I'll be holidaying here, in Kuwait, but it's beyond doubt that my heart lies elsewhere.. in London where i'm treated as an equal, or at Home, in Iraq, where I'm the king of the world for simply being Iraqi.

Smiling Still

As the world celebrates Mothers Day*, sons and daughters pay tribute to their mothers, foster-mothers, grandmothers and, in some cases, step-mothers. Our mothers symbolise the essence of what is humane and honest. Whether we know it or not, our mothers are saints. My mother is the cornerstone of who I am today. She taught me to live and let live, she taught me to pardon and forgive, she taught me to be human.

I speak to my mother as if she were in front of me. I type the words and see her in my mind's eye. She is smiling still.
Never have I forgotten how I loved making you tea. You cherished your tea so much that I said I'll have them put a kettle on your grave. On your bed, you would sit on your knees, rocking back and forth, a Rothmans cigarette tightly held between your full fingers - you regularly look up, smiling at us, keeping us attached, no matter how upset they had made you.

Admired by most, oppressed by many, you remained invincible in your children. Everyone of them is testament of your manners. They all ask "How did they manage?" They thought they could get away with hurting you. They thought you weren't "as good." They don't see what you are made of. Every minute with you is a seed for the soul.. it grows as the heart grows.

Decades will pass by, we will pass away, but your legacy will survive. Your name is timeless. In every generation there will be You, and there will be Them.

All our goodness is from you. All our happiness is for you. All our sadness is a grain of sand in the desert that was your suffering. We venerate you.

We miss you dearly.
* This post was originally published on the 20th of March.