My friend told me that he is planning to go on a year long trip all over Europe in order to “find himself”. I told him, what if you find yourself and discover that you don’t like what you find? You will have to spend many more years wandering around aimlessly until you lose yourself again. I didn’t tell him that I was speaking from personal experience.
I remember vividly the first time I walked into UBC’s bookstore, UBC is a university in Vancouver. I was 19 and had just arrived to Canada. So many books, so much variety. I wandered around for hours, picking up books and reading a little from each one. I didn’t buy anything on that day because there was so much I wanted to buy. Later on I discovered the main library. Its not that I haven’t been to a bookstore before, I have been to many, It was the variety of the books that struck me, the fact that I could read about anything I liked, left wing, right wing, any religion, any philosophy, any perspective. I wanted to absorb it all. I spent my first year at UBC in the library, not doing my computer science home work, those I would do in hurry in the computer lab, but reading books about history, philosophy, politics, religion, literature …etc. And then I decided I would read about the middle east, I thought I understood the middle east very well, since we studied our history and Islam at school for 12 years, I was curios how it was described in English by English speakers, lets see what these foreigners say about us.
As a kid growing up in Kuwait, I was taught in school that we the Arabs are the best nation that god has created on planet earth. For we have spread our fair religion all over the world out of the goodness of our hearts. “Futuhaat”, they were called in our text books, liberations. We liberated the Persians, Turks and many other nations, we salvaged them from darkness. And who can revile our strong family values, beautiful language and our plain goodness. I used lay in bed at night feeling sorry for all the people that were born non Arabs. How unlucky for them.
Back at the main library at UBC I found a publication that held an in depth reporting of current events in the middle east. I opened the publication randomly somewhere in the middle, the article was talking about terrorist attacks at Kuwait University that blew up the Cafeteria building in the Kuwait university Campus. The fact that the building was destroyed way no surprise to me, I was on the campus of Kuwait University when the building fell, we all ran over and saw the rubble of the destroyed building. The fact that it was done deliberately was. The respectable news reader that night told us that the building fell as a result of structural flaws and that construction materials were being stored on the roof which led the building to collapse. We all believed the respectable news reader person on TV, I didn’t doubt his words not even for one second that night. I was there in person and had no idea of what was going on around me, whereas people half way around the world were privy to the information about what happened that day. I have been lied to, what else have I been lied to about?
I started to read about the early history of Islam and realized that the Persians and among other nations that we colonized by us, where not very appreciative of our liberation. They didn’t like being enslaved, forced to learn Arabic, converted to Islam by intimidation and being treated like inferior human beings. In Kuwait Persians were called “Ajam”, it turns out that this word originally meant “the dumb animals that can’t speak properly”. You see, the Persians tried to adopt Arabic but would speak it with an accent, so the Arabs called them dumb animals. Later on, Persian was adopted as the official language in Iran, instead of Arabic. O! those Persians are so ungrateful for their liberation. Shame on them.
Ignorance is bliss. How I long for those days when we were the good guys and the bad guys were them. And you could feel good to be part of the we and not the them. That first year in UBC, I would lay awake at night feeling sorry for myself wishing I wasn’t born “us”, I didn’t want to become them, I just didn’t want to be “us” anymore.
“I want to live a life of integrity”, is what I wrote one day on a piece of paper and hanged on a plastic tree. I was on vacation in Edinburgh, Scotland. While walking around the city, I noticed a big sign announcing a Yoko Ono exhibit. Since I had nothing better to do, I decided I would check it out. The exhibit was not very impressive; many pictures of Yoko and John. Several of the exhibits were titled “John and me”. Ok! I get it, she was married to a super famous guy, but show us something about Yoko. There was one piece, that wasn’t about John, the wish tree. In one corner of the gallery, stood a white plastic tree with many braches. On a small corner table, long pieces of paper and pencils where placed. The idea being that each person would write a wish and hang it on a tree branch. The wish notes forming the tree leaves. I stood under the tree surrounded with everybody’s wishes. One woman wants a man to notice her. A young man wants to pass his final exams; another wants to win a million dollars. What did I want? What did I wish for?
At age 27, I had it all. Good health, loving husband, healthy and beautiful daughter, rising career as a computer programmer, and decent looks. While no millionaire, I lived comfortably. While all my friends’ complained about how hard the dating game was, I came home everyday to a husband that I love and respect. While some women struggle with infertility or early pregnancy, I had my daughter exactly at the time that I had planned. So why is it that just a few weeks earlier, I told my husband that I needed a vacation. I need a vacation from everything I told him: “I need a vacation from my job, vacation from being a mother, vacation from being a wife”. I don’t know why I chose to go to Scotland for this mission, I just felt drawn there. As I read the wishes of other people, I realized that I had lots of what other people wished for. Yet here I was standing under a fake tree feeling broken. “What is wrong with me?”, I thought to myself “Why can’t I enjoy what I have?”. As I wrote my wish, tears welled inside me, I dashed out of the gallery before anybody could see me.
When I arrived in Edinburgh, I took off my watch and never put it on for the whole duration of the my vacation. In the morning I would wake up, have breakfast and dash out, leaving my map of the city in my room on purpose. I would wonder around in the streets of Edinburgh at random, not knowing where I was or where I was going to. When it rained, I would keep walking until I would find a coffee shop, I didn’t want to carry an umbrella, so I would sometimes get wet and then dry out while walking again. This was the first time that I enjoyed getting lost in a foreign city, usually I feel panic when I am lost. Wondering around not knowing where I was, in a city where nobody knew me. Nobody looked at me, nobody talked to me, I spent my days in delicious silence. Nobody wanted anything from me. I had nothing to explain or justify. I was a nobody. I was lost. I didn’t have to rush home to prepare dinner. When I would get tired, I would just get a taxi and give him my address.
There is one advantage to spending a couple of weeks living inside your head, you start noticing all the garbage that is going on in there.
During this aimless wondering in Edinburgh, I came across a proper English tea house. Nothing, like embracing the traditions of your former colonizer. I ordered sandwiches and tea, the sandwiches were rather bland but the tea was delicious. Across from me sat two elderly women in their 80, enjoying their afternoon tea. Both were dressed up, flower print dresses, proper hats, delicate purses, grey hair. They were chatting about something trivial and gossiping about somebody. One of them was wearing tons of make up, hot red lipstick and blue eye shadow. The conversation inside my head went something like this.
Look how silly she looks.
I wish they would stop yapping.
Does she realize how silly she looks with that red lipstick.
Who the hell does she think she is, the Queen?
Listen to how stupid their conversation is?
Look at that silly hat!
What is wrong with me?
Why do I even care about her lipstick?
Why do I notice such stupid things?
Why don’t I just enjoy the meal in front of me and forget the other stuff.
That was the day I realized that I have to lose myself, being lost in a foreign city for few weeks was not enough. I need to get lost completely. I rarely ever wear my watch these days. I keep hoping that one day I will lose track of time.
The best part about having a blog are all the wonderful emails I get from the readers. Here is a particular one from somebody who asked to stay anonymous
Beautiful and inspired!
I am an American, and feel much the same way as you felt (feel?). I am torn. I love my country and my heritage. I do not like being “them”. I just want to be “me”. I was against the war, but am strongly for finishing what we started. I want a free Iraq. I don’t know why it matters so much to me, but it does. I was against the war without even knowing much at all about Iraq or its people. I didn’t know about the mass graves, and had never heard of Saddam’s two sons. I was against the war because we hadn’t finished Afghanistan. I was against the war because it would cost more American lives and would cost more money than my country could currently afford. I had and still have many friends that have lost their jobs, and their homes because of our economical problems. I now believe that I was selfish for not wanting the war. Well, not the war, I would never WANT a war, but for Iraq, I don’t see anything else that would have succeeded. Everything else had been tried. But I did not protest, I didn’t even talk about it. I kept my thoughts to myself. Once the war started, I decided I needed to learn more about Iraq and the situation. At least try to understand and find a real reason to be against it. So I devoted all of my spare time to reading everything I could find about Iraq and its history. I learned. I continue to learn. Now, Iraq occupies my thoughts almost every waking minute of the day. I want us to prove the world wrong, and rebuild Iraq, restore peace, and restore their dignity, and then I want us to quietly leave, taking only the physical things that we brought with us, and nothing more. Why do I want this so badly? I don’t know. All I know is that it is one of the most important things to me, that I have ever wanted. Is it as simple as American pride? I don’t think so, but maybe it is. I don’t know. All I know is that I care about Iraq and her people, and I want her to be a beacon to the world that no matter how bad things get, there is always hope. It drives me crazy that when people ask me why I feel this way, all I can do is look at my feet mumble “I don’t know”. I know it is important, and I know that the entire world will benefit, if nothing else but for the stability and the success of a major and vital Islamic nation to remain Islamic but also be truly free and democratic. Sitting here in my comfortable home, I still don’t know why I should truly care as much as I do though. When the rest of the world is so violently against us. Could we be wrong? How can so many countries be wrong, and only we are right? And still I remain torn.
I have my own personal troubles, that depress me. I am married to a wonderful woman, the same woman I married 20 years ago, I have 3 children, all of whom were born exactly when we chose them to be, I have a good job, and a beautiful home. Troubles that everyone has. Raising good children to be responsible adults. The troules of a hard job. The troubles of sometimes not being able to afford something I want, right then and there. I am always able to afford the things I need. I am not rich, but I am not poor. I am perfectly in the middle, which is the best place to be for me. Money does corrupt, and that would conflict with my wish.
I just wanted to write to you to say that I wish I could get physically lost too. Unfortunately, I can never do what you have done. If I leave to get lost, my family will suffer. I envy you for that. I have the same wish that you placed on that tree, and struggle to live that wish every day. As I grow older, the world has changed for me significantly. It is no longer black and white. It is now a million shades of gray. It has become so very hard to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, charity from greed. And I remain torn, with my watch firmly strapped to my wrist.
I write many times a day with a woman in Iraq. You know her, but I will not name her, out of respect for her privacy. We have much in common, but even more that is not. When I complain about my own troubles, I feel guilty and it depresses me even more. What are my troubles compared to those of the Iraqis? She and I have become very good e-mail friends, and we have even spoke on the phone several times. She has such a lovely, laughing voice, in spite of her troubles. It is oddly comforting when I think about that. Writing to her is my way of becoming lost. It forces me to live in my head, and sort through all of the garbage that has been collected in my attic over the last 41 years of my life.
I wanted to write to thank you for your entry. It gave me a little bit of perspective on things. I read all of the blogs every day, including the many others that are now springing to life. Often I read entries about the negatives of Americans, and while I can’t say that I like it, I can say that I honestly do respect it. And, as I said, I read them all every day, hoping for a new entry. It is another opinion and view of us, written by the blogger, and I cannot argue with that. I can only hope that in the end, we are able to prove to them that they were wrong.
Maybe that is why I care so much about Iraq? To show that we are not the greedy, selfish monsters that much of the world now views us to be. Is that selfish? Is that pride? I don’t know. But I think it is more than that. I think it may even be as simple as wanting Iraqis to have what I have, or at least for them to have that choice. Why should I care about that? I don’t know. It’s complicated, I’m torn and I’m so very very tired. It is exhausting to care so much, but not be able to actually do anything to help, except read blogs, and write e-mail. While I have great hope for the future of Iraq, I am completely depressed by it all. Three short years ago, I was oblivious to it all. The US was still considered to be, for the most part, a nation of good. Now, my entire nation is as torn as I am. Lines have been drawn in the sand. People either care about Iraq or they don’t. They either think we are doing the right thing, or they don’t. They either trust that our president is doing what is just and good, or they don’t. There is no longer a middle ground here. And it worsens every day. Now.. often I feel like I am a leaf caught in a stream, one minute gently being carried along, and the next, violently pulled along, bouncing off of everything in my path. All the while knowing where I want to go, and where I want to be, but having no control over the journey and the final destination remains hidden in the fog ahead. This must be how Iraqis feel, and when I think of that, it bothers me and I care even more deeply than before, if that is even possible.
I still remain torn, but equally hopeful.
Ma` Salaama, and thank you.