On ‘Embracing the Infidel’

Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey WestEmbracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West by Behzad Yaghmaian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s rather fitting that I finished this book on 20 June 2018, World Refugee Day. And, it’s rather fitting that I read this book, now as the furor over migrants to my own country reaches a fever pitch.

In Embracing the Infidel, Behzad Yaghmaian allows us to walk in the shoes of those very much unlike ourselves. At least very much unlike myself. I do not have to be an asylum seeker or refugee to understand the desperation involved in fleeing one’s home, legally or clandestinely.

But, this rather heartbreaking book allows us to understand not just the reasons individuals risk their lives and their children’s to cross imaginary lines. It allows us to understand just how difficult it is to do so legally and safely, if not altogether impossible those conditions for migrating are for some.

Most of the individual life histories presented here focus on those fleeing various forms of violence—both mental and physical, state-sponsored and familial in origin. And, even when they attempt to follow laws, both local and international, the migrants described herein face additional forms of abuse and violence in the countries to which they seek peace and freedom.

Himself an immigrant, Yaghmaian compassionately and intimately allows each of those he meets on his two-year journey across Europe to shape their own narratives. From their reasons for leaving their homes to their progress (or inability to progress) across various lines drawn on maps by powerful men to the few who have reached ‘the West and what once promised a quiet life in peace, each of these individuals’ stories are important. They are crucial to understanding the migrant ‘crisis’ that dominates headlines and political discussions. They offer a narrative missed by those declaring their support or outrage at various policies.

Despite being published more than ten years ago, we’re still plagued by many of the same issues and the same inertia when it comes to finding solutions to conflicts or granting legal status to those in seemingly hopeless situations. No answers are provided here; but, that’s not the purpose of this book. If anything, this book provides a lesson in empathy, one we could all use a bit more of to my mind.

It’s worthwhile to understand that so many around the globe are currently living as refugees. 68 500 000 million of them in fact. Each of them deserves a chance to be heard. Each of them is important.

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Take a stand

There was a time, what seems like long ago, when political party affiliation wasn’t quite so starkly divisive. When an individual aligning as a democrat spoke respectfully to an individual aligned as a republican. When discussions of policy could take place and consensus could be reached. When cooperation was rewarded and legislation truly was bipartisan or nonpartisan.

When any interaction did not descend quickly into a mud-slinging insult-trading tirade, ending with both individuals storming off like petulant children who didn’t get their favourite ice cream cone because they behaved badly.

Those were good times.

I’m no longer surprised by any policy decisions from this administration. Angry and sad, yes. Outraged most of the time, yes. Incredulous, yes. But, not surprised.

What keeps me awake at night and leaves me utterly gut-wrenched is the knowledge that people I know support seemingly inhumane measures. More so, these individuals I respect mightily continue to twist themselves in knots to support actions which go against everything they previously believed in to justify this administration’s actions. And, the knowledge that there are far too many others just like them.

It’s left me oh so weary.

This latest battle, separating children from their parents at the border, … I don’t have the words. I cannot understand how anyone can justify this. And, yet, they do.

A quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr has been on repeat in my head for what seems like days. ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’ Attempting to find the context and its origin, I discovered that it isn’t actually a direct quote, but a paraphrase. The original text stems from a sermon King gave in Selma following Bloody Sunday, another dark day in our history:

Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died…

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.

— Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon in Selma, 8 March 1965
Regardless of party leaning or affiliation, regardless of creed, regardless of degrees of separation from your own ancestral immigration to the US, can we not set aside those differences and agree that this, children, are worth taking a stand for?
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Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

On ‘Men Without Women’

Men Without WomenMen Without Women by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Haruki Murakami.

I love the way he is able to transport his readers to the exact place he’s describing. How he can weave tales which seem utterly outlandish and yet entirely plausible. How he can create emotions, particularly those of longing and loss and a sense of wanting, simply through his characters’ thoughts and actions.

For each of these stories describing Men Without Women, I’d like more. I’d like to know what happens next to each of them.

More than anything, I’m reminded once again why Murakami is amongst my most favourite authors. Thank you once again, Maestro. You are a genre unto yourself.

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On ‘Women & Power: A Manifesto’

Women & Power: A Manifesto

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received this little gem of a book through one of my yearly subscriptions from Strand Books.

Weaving a thread that connects the lack of women in positions of power to women’s roles in ancient Greece provides much fodder for the reasons women today remain the minority in power positions.

From the time of Aristophanes to imagery of a Triumph Trump holding the severed head of a Hillary Medusa, this book-derived-from-a-lecture offers much to consider.

It also challenges us to reconsider why when women speak up, it often takes a man to validate her position and words for us to hear them. Even today.

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On Anthony Bourdain

Finding Anthony Bourdain was a complete accident. Flipping through channels in Moscow on a completely ordinary day, I stumbled across this weird dude on a military boat saying, ‘Not how we expected this show to end, huh?’.

Anthony Bourdain in Beirut, 2006 from Andrew MacGregor Marshall on Vimeo.

That dude was Tony and he was filming an episode of No Reservations in Beirut. The problem was all hell broke lose on his first day of filming and he, his crew and many others were trapped in a hotel until they could get out of the country safely. He, the star, seemed more concerned about his crew, the other hotel guests (particularly the kids) and the hotel staff, as well as all those beyond the hotel living in hell on earth. He cooked for his crew as stress relief, and mostly he showed such a rare degree of honest compassion for everyone else in that episode that he was just … some dude who happened to have this really cool gig, talking about food and eating it on camera. In a war zone.

I was hooked.

I watched him through the last episode of No Reservations. I mourned the closing of El Bulli with Tony.  I have watched almost all of Parts Unknown faithfully, although I am a bit behind.

I love his perspective on food, his commentaries on the cultures in which he finds himself and his interactions with the people he meets as he eats and pontificates across the globe. He makes the different seem not so bad. And, not quite so foreign.

When he traveled to Cuba in 2011, I was equally thrilled and horrified. My biggest fear was ‘which’ Cuba he would see; which Cuba would he show his legions of followers from the couch. But, before that show aired, he wrote the following:

It’s easy, I know, to over-romanticize the unspoiled. Especially when “unspoiled” means “poor”. But look. Look.

Whatever your politics, however you feel about Cuba–look at tonight’s show and admit, at least, that Havana is beautiful. It is the most beautiful city of Latin America or the Caribbean. Look at the Cuban people and admit that they are proud and big hearted and funny and kind–and strong as hell, having put up with every variety of bullshit over the years. On these things, I hope we can agree.

That episode made me weep for the country which has embraced me and which also breaks my heart just a little every time I think of her and her amazing people. He got it. And, better yet, he showed it to everyone else.

He showed so many parts of this crazy world to us all, and showed us the unpolished, unvarnished, unsanitised versions. Because that’s life. For all of us. Regardless of the perfect images we personally choose show to and share with the world.

‘Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.’
Anthony Bourdain (No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

This past year, he’s also been a rather vocal ally to women, supporting #metoo, understanding the inherent irony of a chef from an incredibly chauvinistic and misogynistic profession giving voice to acts of misogyny and sexism. But, you know, having that ultimate dude as an advocate for women calling out powerful men meant something.

All of it did. It does.

Now, in a world in which we won’t have his wit, his curiosity, his insatiable appetite for all of the food, his uncanny skill with words and their descriptive beauty and power … I’m simply heartbroken.

Thank you, Tony. You gave us too much. And, forgive me, but I really, really, really want to punch you right now.

If you feel at all at the end of tether, before you do anything, please call / reach out to me. Reach out to someone. Anyone.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. Take a moment and know that you are loved.

Missing the mark

‘Choose your words carefully and wisely.’

How many times have I uttered those very words to the various participants in my classes, lectures and seminars. As much as I attempt to instill in my students a greater appreciation for selecting the precise word that carries the meaning they intend, I unintentionally (and unfortunately) chose my own words rather carelessly this morning.

In several courses, we work on providing, as well as accepting and responding to feedback on our work. In such classes, 90% of my own responsibility lies in providing constructive criticism and guidance on how to improve as well as building the confidence of my students to keep pushing themselves to do better. Clarify. Refine. Define. Revise and rework. Describe just what they do in their research and its broader relevance to various audiences in a language that is engaging, accessible and informative. I begin these classes by encouraging these brilliant young scholars to invite, welcome and use criticism and feedback to improve upon already well-constructed and exceptionally important projects. As a mentor of mine once said, ‘[they’ve all done fine jobs]; yet, everything we do can be improved upon. Let’s discuss how.’

I well remember receiving less-than-positive feedback as a graduate student. In fact, some of the very first feedback I received helped me to improve and ultimately land my current job. Whilst not exactly lovely to hear, it was constructive, solution-oriented conversation, meant to encourage and help me become a better scholar. Was it easy to hear? Not really. But, was it necessary? Absolutely. And, the rewards were immense. They still are. (Thank you, Kathy!)

I also well remember how utterly gutted I following a particularly harsh assessment of my work from an entirely different professor, delivered in a very different tone and most likely with a very different intent. That conversation, by contrast, left me so completely shaken it took me months to recover, and I seriously questioned continuing my graduate studies. I fled — I literally ran the several blocks home despite carrying about 10 to 15 kg of books — from the meeting in tears and spent several days wondering if I’d made a huge mistake in pursuing an advanced degree.

Whilst I needed a kick up the backside to alter some of my work habits and to focus my attention on things like writing and deadlines, things I still struggle with today, that particular professor’s choice of words and their delivery tore me down and nearly destroyed what little confidence I had as a graduate student. I lost a lot of sleep because of that conversation.

Thankfully, my mentors, those whom I trusted and most admired, adopted entirely different means of guiding me and helping me to develop my skills. And, thankfully, I could steer clear of that rather careless-with-her-words professor for the remainder of my time in that department.

But, today. Today.  Whilst providing feedback, I chose my own words rather foolishly. It wasn’t my intention, but I completely understand how the message missed its mark (meaning, I missed my mark) and how I rattled one of my own students. Worse, I know how she feels, and that makes it even more difficult to stomach.

I’m not sure that I can repair my own carelessness with words. I have apologised. I’ve offered assistance and guidance to the student in question, and I will certainly work with her should she wish to (although I suspect she won’t). More than anything, I will use this as a valuable if not painful learning moment and a cautionary tale in what not to do in future. What I can and will do differently in future.

But, damn, if I don’t feel truly awful at the moment.

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Channeling my inner spring chicken

I’m turning 48 as of midnight tonight. Technically, I have until 13.40 tomorrow local time in Brenham, TX until I officially turn 48. But, time zones don’t really matter, do they?

There was a moment earlier today when I was pondering my ’38th trip around the sun’. If only. After a few minutes of feeling utterly gutted that I seemingly lost 10 years, I rejoiced. This year, this life, my life. It’s not half bad.

I am healthy.

I am happy.

I am sharing my wacky life with a brilliant, kind, silly-sometimes-serious man whom I adore and who makes me laugh even when I want to throw things (sometimes at him).

I am free.

I have a roof over my head, food in my cupboard and plenty of Marimekko to clothe me regardless of weather or occasion.

I am employed. But, more than that, I finally feel like I’ve found my ‘calling’ in terms of vocation. Regardless of how utterly shattered I may be at times by the volume of work—largely because I cannot say ‘no’—I am inspired each and every day by those with whom and for whom I work. I’d do this gig for free if we lived under the Prime Directive.

I feel loved by those in my life in ways I never thought possible.

And, I have without a doubt the cheekiest of cats to entertain and annoy me each and every day.

A few weeks ago, The Cuban asked me what I wanted for my birthday. After thinking for a bit, I said, ‘This. Just this.’

I want for nothing except more time. How fucking lucky am I?

Thank you all for making this year simply incredible.

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The Cuban created this for me for my birthday. There’s being a spring chicken, and then there’s being a Marimekko chicken.

Run happy

Run happy.

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What’s a Caturday musing without a cat?

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Me and my chicken-loving guy during my 48th trip around the sun.