Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year Grinch

So, supposedly, I have the look of a Bombay girl gone baaaaaaaaad! I don't know how I feel about that. I am not sure I even know what that means.

It's the 31st of Dec, like any other day. That is my story and I am sticking to it. I hate new year's and all the hype around it which is always anti climactic. Why do we feel the need to celebrate this day? Why the need to celebrate it SOOOOOOOO much? Yuck, thooey.

We never did anything about it when we were kids and I always felt like I was being left out of something. I recall once as a kid, and this is the only new year's I remember as a child, where my sisters and I heard firecrackers outside and we bounded into our parents room all full of vim and vigor and my mom totally deflated us and sent us back to bed. We cracked open a kit kat between the three of us (the fourth extra stick was evenly divided and I think our feeling of bonding was so strong that there was no argument who was getting the bigger piece of the fourth bar and in fact, we were all being sacrificing souls and pushing the minusculy bigger piece onto each other so that the person with the shortest piece could justifiably feel even worse and be the heroine of the night), we wished each other and went to bed.

My first new year's party was in Todt Hill, Staten Island. My older sister had a friend and it is the only time we went to her house and every time I pass the signpost to her house on the highway, I think about it. I must have been 17, I guess and it was this aunty uncle party and I recall thinking, wow, my parents are letting us go to a new year's party. It was a big step for us. This must have been when my sister came back from doing her first fieldwork since something happened and all of a sudden, we were allowed, just the three of us to drive ourselves far distances...distances beyond the mall which had also just opened up to us even though Appie could drive perfectly well for years. You give an inch, they take a younger sister in her last year of high school drove herself to school everyday...unheard of. Never mind that she now lives in her car and comes and goes at all odd hours and my parents don't bat an eyelash if all of a sudden they wake up in the morning and find her sleeping on the couch when she is supposed to be four hours away in DC and probably started her drive at 8 pm with stops all along the way to say hi to her various friends who are scattered over the DC to NJ belt which I think they should rename in Saks honor. Beltway Saks.

So, I hate new year's but at least I tried it first before I started to loathe it. I like learning by doing.

Plan is to make some pasta and sit with a bottle of wine, like any other night, talk to the people I am living with and fall asleep peacefully. Hurrah!

I don't do resolutions either since I make and break them all the time....actually, not true. I make only the ones that I know I can keep for the most know what? I don't make resolutions. I just live my life.

Happy fucking New Year people with lots of love from the New Year Grinch.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Random; Jungles and Bombay Ramblings

I like writing random posts. I have been wanting to write in my blog ever since an anonymous commenter said they liked reading my blog. That makes me happy. But you anonymous people should tell me who you are. I like hearing from you.

So, like I said, I am in India and it is fun. I am bored and worried about work but somehow, I would still call this fun. I was here two years ago and it is interesting to note the changes in myself. I am less....frentic, perhaps? I was told already that I seemed calmer than the last time I was in Sri Lanka and I like that. I don't know if that means I am more boring or something. Doesn't really phase me.

I met a new person yesterday afternoon and then saw him later on at night and I told him I work in the jungle. Ampara is hardly a jungle but more jungle than I am used to and the most rural place I have worked so far. For a self purported city girl it is a jungle. And if you are not on the coast in Sri Lanka then you are in the jungle. Inland is a term only used to denote the inland side of a coastal road.

This guys wife when she met me later in the day said, you are from the jungle then? And he has taken to call me jungle queen. Walking in Bombay he asked if cities seemed overwhelming to me just after he had looked at me and said, yes, you do have a real jungle vibe, you do lok like you have just walked out of one (I don't feel like I look any different than I used to....nothing too jungle about me as far as I can tell).

I like Bombay. I would like to come and be in this city for a while. Only issue is that there is no real disaster or conflict and all offices of iNGOs that I want to work with are in Delhi. And I did decide this time that I didn't want to be in Delhi. I would feel constant Bombay envy. Delhi is sweet and nice and all but I can't do it. Too small.

Maybe someday I will come to Bombay. We will see. I am drinking water in India by the way that way I should in Sri Lanka. And my skin is getting dry. It is strange to be out of the tropical humid weather I am used to. I am supposed to be getting dressed to get out of the house but I am liking sitting in my pajamas with my mac listening to music, downloading podcasts, stealing internet and drinking coffee.

I finished reading A Passage to India. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I am in India. I just had wanted to read the book for a really long time and after finishing it I remembered that I had already read but good thing to re read it since obviously I could not recall a single thing about it. Why do people love it? I think I tend to read for the story first and I forgot to read for the prose and the observations. I don't think I am going to bother to re read it for a while again. Someday I will be mature enough to get into the prose and observations with a lot more patience. I like when while reading I feel the need to stop and re read a sentence because it is so beautiful or an observation that is just offered up as fluid thought. And on that note, I am reading a book of essays by Mukul Kesavan which I am enjoying sooooooo much. Called The Ugly Indian Male....something like that. Hilarious parts of it. Longer pieces and smaller pieces and little vignettes of thought nicely presented. Recommended even though I have only read a handful. Also just started The Omnivore's Dilemma which is another one I have been meaning to read for about two years and found it in a bookstore here and bought it. Intro so far and the question being answered is, What shall we have for dinner tonight?

Bombay is food conscious by the way. Menus and stuff with talk about sandwiches where the bread has no egg yolks in it and brown rice as a healthier substitute etc. Very Atkins the whole thing but not just about carbohydrates. There is a marathon that is coming up soon as well and magazines are all about getting your body marathon fit (at least the cover says that and though my curiosity was great, I still could not bring myself to open up the Indian version of Cosmo or Seventeen or whatever it was. John Abraham, the hottie, is going to be running it. Sachin Tendulkar ran it last year but can't this year but is the third highest in terms of brining in money and sponsorship. I have been gathering bits of information I know and am presenting it as if I know something about this all. It might be just enough for me to get away with pretending like I know something about where I am. I don't. Don't let me fool you, I can be very convincing.

Friday, December 28, 2007

In Bombay post Bhutto

So, I am out of SL for a little bit and came to India for the 'holidays'. Nice to be back after precisely two years and I went to Delhi first and you know what? I need to write about Bhutto first before I go any further. It seems disrespectful that someone whose power you lived under and was the only woman leader to give birth in office and the first woman leader of a modern Muslim state (and no, I am not going to talk about what exactly a modern Muslim state is given what Pakistan is today), but anyhow, I should say something.

I found out two hours after the fact even though I am in a neighboring country which seems to be in a state of shock and people are glued to the TV wherever you go, which is interesting. Just a few hours ago I had sent a text message to a friend of a friend and describe myself as not quite Pakistani, not quite Indian and reluctantly American. I said that last bit to be cute since I am anything but a reluctant American...I very much love being American...however, given the above description, what am I supposed to feel right now? I feel shock but then again, so do tons of people. It is shocking. An assassination is a shocking absolutely horrible thing. I was told by my friend Ishita who I was with in Delhi and I went over to the DNA (daily news and analysis) office where my friend works and people were kind of walking around stunned but working since this was a newsroom and this was news and it had to be printed and a stories and information needed to get out.

The photos are from today's DNA...I was there when they were putting together the two page spread by the way. Not all the photos since I am stealing internet and don't want to chance losing the connection again.

We didn't vote for her when we lived there and I have written about elections in Pakistan before and I would have been disappointed had she won the election in Jan. I say this from a completely uninformed POV since my Pakistani politics are only informed by my parents and my father only just stopped voting Republican. It's not even like any great realization has come to me that I know nothing about Pakistani politics....I already knew that about myself and was not sufficiently bothered to amend it. My Pakistani politics are still informed by my visits to NJ here my parents sit and watch GEO and ARY satellite tv and when they talk during a program or at the newscaster or to me as a willing but silent audience, I pick up bits and pieces.

People are going to sk me about this when I go back to SL the same way they asked me about Mohsin Hamid's book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist or when The Namesake came out as a movie and since I am South Asian I should have not only seen it but have some sort of a definitive opinion on it.

I don't. The only opinion I have is that assassinating someone is an awful thing to do and it is a high price to pay for power. But again, I think people in power know that.

Pakistan is still burning and as my mom said last night when I spoke to her, when people are happy, they burn stuff, when people are mad, they burn stuff.

I feel so far removed from the whole thing even though it is LIVE around me all the time.

I am not quite Pakistani, not quite Indian (though in the neighborhood RIGHT NOW where my mom was born) and very much American...

Thursday, December 13, 2007


So one very sweet project we do is a plant distribution for al the households that we work with. Mango, coconut, cashew, orange among the varieties we give out depending on the village, climate and market. I love it. Last week we did this in Thirokovil, a place I love working in. Tamil area and historically underdeveloped and pretty conflict affected as well as tsunami affected. Some photos from that distribution. I as particularily excited that I as able to get the man with the curly hair in blue and the lady in the red sari in one shot since every time I see them, I just think they are two of the most beautiful people I have ever seen. The lady in the sari is one of my favorite people since the first time we went to this village at a huge community meeting (of which there are photos on my as called my first PRA or something, I think), I asked people to sing a song and no one would and all of a sudden, she broke out into song and it as just gorgeous and we have a bond since then. This last time she gave me a big kiss just as we were leaving. Isn't she gorgeous?

I love the photo of the girl in the lap of her...grand dad, I am guessing. And yes, that is one of the plants we give out and I gave my normal speech of, we hope for our livelihood project to take root and blossom throughout the years in much the same manner in which these plants will in your homes....cheesy but what else are you supposed to say? And you know what? I do hope our projects blossom and grow like the plants.

On a time crunch but man, I love work. Must write about the group grants we are doing and how they kick ass.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Hungry Tide

I just finished reading Amitav Ghosh's book, The Hungry Tide. That was painful. It was ok. He basically lost me completely on page 282 when he wrote:

"'Marxism and poetry?' Piya said drily raising her eyebrows. 'It seems like an odd combination.'
'It was, ' Kanai agreed. 'But those contradictions were typical of his generation....'"

How can one DRILY make that comment? Only an idiot would make that comment. Not someone who is a zoologist researching dolphins in the Sundarbans with some suave know it all who is trying to seduce her while she is falling for the local fisherman who she cannot communicate with unless it is through their mutual love of the water and the creatures within except for the one paradox that tears them oceans apart....he sees the creatures as food, she as a heritage to preserve. Spoiler alert. Don't read the above if you don't want to know what happens in the book. Don't read this line either: Her fisherman lover but not consummated love dies in a cyclone where is just him and Piya and we already knew that since his dead mother told him in a dream two nights ago. He died saving her...sort of. They were knotted to a tree in his wife's sari. At least they didn't get eaten by a tiger which with the amount the damn tigers were mentioned, I would have thought that is how they would have met their end, but I think the tiger was a poor metaphor for some forest demon who makes an entry somewhere in the middle in some folk tale and I guess the tigers are supposed to just be the metaphors for bad news lock eyes with them and you have just locked eyes with death!

The whole thing was pretentious. I just suffered through the book. Learned some interesting facts but perhaps Amitav should have stuck to being the anthropologist he is.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Notes on Notes on a Scandal and other movies

I have been wanting to watch this film forever and finally tonight, I got around to doing so. Loved it.

I should just post the blog that way. Loved it, end of story. But no, this is Zehra and she does not know how to be succinct. I get flack about that all the time since I am incapable of writing a short email and everyone wants to bang their heads against a keyboard when an email from me is sitting and watching them in their inboxes.

So, my notes, in brief:

I love Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett but then again, I always have.

Why do people immediately assume that someones problem is linked to them. Mostly, it is not, atleast not in my life. Specifically, I am thinking about the scene where the husband, another great actor whose name I do not know, is yelling at Cate Blanchett and is asking why and keeps saying things about himself and she yells back, I DON'T KNOW WHY I DID IT, which to me is a perfectly reasonable answer and I was getting frustrated that he felt like the whole thing had something to do with him. Sometimes, (most times), it doesn't. Things people do have to do with themselves. Why does another person feel like they MUST insert themselves in anothers pain, thoughts, feelings, life etc? I understand that sharing (it's caring) in a relationship is something that is supposed to happen and I am cool with that, but really, there is a limit and there is no way you can share EVERYTHING with just one person and sometimes, things are just for you. I als get it that actions have consequences etc but still, sometimes you don't have answers and even if you do, they have to do with things going on with you and may not be connected to the person you are with. That whole scene made me feel suffocated and I was glad I was not in a relationship since suffocation like that makes me want to walk out the door (which I do...bad z). So, a good scene.

Judy Dench smoked a lot and that made me nervous about my smoking. I do not want to end up like her. She freaked me out.

Good pacing, smart, funny etc. Watch it if like me you have been living under a rock and have not done so yet.

Since we are talking movies, let me just say, saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang last night, and for the life of me, I do not get what the hype was about. Everyone kept saying to me, watch it watch it, it's fab! And I didn't think it was. At all. It was fine but smarmy like Adaptation which I could appreciate for its slickness but really, I didn't like Adaptation either and preferred the earlier movie the pair did, Being John Malkovitch....which I did totally love.

Saw The Constant Gardener as well and I loved it. Thought it was gorgeous and thought other things too which will make me sound like I am fetishizing Africa which as an aid worker I need to shy away from when I saw The Last King of Scotland or Blood Diamonds and I wanted to get on the first planes to both Uganda and Sierra Leone, but I wanted to do that in school as well when I would read about the poverty reduction strategy papers or the like of either country...

It is movie weekend for me in Ampara. Too many movies I have been wanting to watch and just have not and this is my chance to get it all in.

I had my good cry with Blackie when I came home. Both of us are feeling better. She has lost her Spark and I am guessing she will spring back to her jungle monkey self again soon enough. Me too.


Pakistan was recently having issues which I think I failed to mention or write about since I like to live in lala land when it comes to thinking or writing about Pakistan and on that note, a brilliant comedy sketch video courtesy of youtube and my sister who sent it to me from an amazing show that used to be on tv back when Pakistan was a VERY cool, hip happening place with lots of culture, cutting edge thought and intelligence. The show was called Fifty Fifty and it was basically like Saturday Night Live or Little Britian with little sketches etc with a cast of comedians. This clip is called Disco Chor, meaning Disco Thief and this is probably circa 1975..


Friday, December 07, 2007

An Ode to Spark

So, today Spark died. This is my second dog to die in Ampara. He got hit by a car this morning at some point and when I came outside to go to the office, I was on the phone and Mr Bandara, our guard, all he said to me was that Spark was injured and I thought perhaps he would just be lame or something since that I can deal with, and I was looking from afar and could see Blackie hovering near him and licking him and all of a sudden, I thought, something is really not right and I hung up the phone and ran over and there he was, my sweet Spark, dead. He got hit by a car. It does happen a lot in this country but I thought they had learned by now. I knew I was not freaking out for no reason that every time we come home, and it is almost a game now, but both Blackie and Spark try to get under the wheels and I squeal at whomever is driving to be careful since I was convinced we were going to run them over ourselves. I called up my boss and started bawling. Mick is on vacation and not around and my boss saw them last with me and he lets me bawl on him so I did. And his whole family texted, which is sweet.

I loved Spark and am happy that I got to spend some time with him. I am now worried about Blackie and hope that she will be ok with her brother gone. I think her legs were shaking earlier when she was trying to revive him. I am a little afraid to go back home right now since I think it will make me just too sad. I think I need to be strong for Blackie. What an awful weekend. Some photos from last Saturday, Thanksgiving, of Spark that I took. They aren't great but it is what I have.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Seriously, what the hell does this mean?

Who is a hoodwinked man and how is one brought in front of him?

Arrested Tamils would be brought before 'hoodwinked' man-SUDAROLI
Hundreds of North and East Tamils taken into custody following the search operation during the last few days in Colombo and suburb will be brought before hoodwinked man. They will be released when they are proved to be innocent. This message was conveyed to Tamil politicians, it is reliably understood.

I think Sudaroli is a newspaper....I get a newspaper summary from two different sources and I am guessing this is translated but really, normally I can read these translations or realiably understand.

The press cuts/news summaries I get are depressing by the way. It is getting worse and worse and crackdowns and killings, abductions and speculation is all rife.

On a funnier note, yesterday when in a disaster management workshop with our staff we talked about floods and the resulting soil erection.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Happy belated Thanksgiving everyone

I am a thanksgiving fiend, as most people who know and love me are aware of. This year it was again unlesehed away from home on unsuspecting individuals who for some reason are befriending me. It was fun, even though it was about 10 days late. I messed up the date....I always thought it was the last Thursday in Nov, but no, it is the 3rd Thursday. Rule when abroad is the first Saturday after Thanksgiving is when I will celebrate since I am not going to work hungover on a fun. Doing it on a Saturday makes way more sense. Must remeber to get the date right next time...

Anyhow, big turkey (of which I have no photos..I know, I can't believe it minute it there was and the next, it got all carved up...and we nearly finished the 14 lbs bird too...impressive for 14 people!), stuffing (two kinds, one with dried fruit, which I refused to eat and another normal one), two kinds of mash (one with block olives which was tooooooo good), gravy (which was going to be German style and then was not but very good), fresh bread (no joke, as in fresh, kneaded in front of me by Jo...her dough babies, which we are the next day, all fresh as well), pecan pie (yep, you guessed it, fresh and home made, again by Jo), and brownies (divine Jo brownies), martinis, the proper kind (yep, Jo strike again), tiger prawns in some sort of a yum sauce, nice fresh veggies and....and that might be it. I think. It was filling and stuffing and totally deliscious and I loved it. There are photos but strange random ones. I was the only American this year. That has never happened before. Usually there is atleast one more American with me. But I think I held down the fort pretty ok...Everyone had to go around and say what they were thankful for and it is always interesting to see what people will say (and how many will take it seriously)....I was thankful for what I am thankful for every year: A good group of people with whom I can share a holiday that is important to me, and my loved ones, family and friends are all good well alive thriving and that is really all I can ask for.

I am becoming soppy since I almost got all choked up when I was saying it and I hope no one noticed.

It was pretty amazing that once again this year, I got away with putting together a party while having to do ZERO work. This year I had serious rock stars who literally did everything.

I had an adventure with my oven in the morning. I turned it on and all of a sudden it smelled like cooked dead roasted rat meat. You do NOT want that smell in your kitchen, house, nostrils ever. Fucking nasty. I called in the trusty Anoj to fix it (after I called in trusty Leela since one of the mice was sort of stunned on my kitchen floor with third degree burns) and they eventually found the problem and advised I not use the recent grave of the three dead mice as my cooking equipment. I had to go and borrow an oven. Which ICRC was so wonderful to provide us with. I love how Red Cross that reaction is by the way-whatever you need, you first call it visiting prisoners in detention, tracing family members, transporting dead bodies or needing an oven in a hurry....always to the rescue those guys. In the end, it was ok and the meal (and more) got cooked.

Photos of the day soon with more stories...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Gulabi Gang

I love this story in the beeb. Gulabi means pink and these women in India dress up in pink saris and go and beat up people they think are causing injustice and need to be beat.

What a lovely idea. This is what I should be doing. Learning how to use a lathi and beating the shit out of people who are out of line. Beating is the last option and they do talk first to the parties involved but as eyperience in this area will show, talking is not really helping things along so a good beating, one they are used to getting from men themselves for years, from women dressed in pink saris, goes a long long way.

Is Bollywood making this film soon, or what?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bombs and Bad Spelling

So, I noticed, when I go back and read my blog (which of course, is all the time), that I misspell stuff all the time. I should have a spell checker on here and sometimes it works, sometimes it does not and I should be looking at the screen when I type and sometimes I do and sometimes I do not. Apologies for the bad spelling and words that on occasion do not make sense.

My sister called just a little while ago. My brother in law woke her up since he heard on the news about a bombing at a shopping place in Colombo and since that is all I do when I am there and since I was there last they checked, he got very worried. I am back in Ampara and the first bomb went off as we were leaving Colombo this morning and then we heard about the second one. Go read about it on BBC. There was four of us in the car, the driver, me, Mick and our project engineer. We all got texts about it from different people, we said, where is that place? Oh, right, near Apollo Hospital and then I went back to sleep and everyone else went back to doing whatever it is people in back seats of cars do.... The second text message some 9 hours later prompted the same sort of reaction (prompted is a strange word since I feel like we are more non reaction than reaction right now) and I asked Mick if he got the text, he said yes and then we watched an episode of the West Wing. An episode, I am shocked to report that I had not seen before and even more lovely, a Thanksgiving one! So timely, as thanksgiving is just about to arrive in Ampara (Saturday).

I guess it's not good what is going on. I guess I just expected it. I have YET to read the text of Prabhakaran's speech or hear any commentary on it (our TV is dead and last night when I had TV, it was all about Anapolis and Gaza...which is looking pretty bad), but a synopsis that was given to me by staff was, peace not possible, dear international community help us get our freedom and support our cause. By killing thamilselvan, you killed peace and the 2002 agreement lands that were given to us have now been taken back and you are all giving the GoSL free weapons and we want some too. Thank you.

That sounds like a plausible jist of a fifteen minute speech to me. Is anyone really surprised?

My non reaction to everything is strange since I can feel something in the air but not quite sure what it is yet and I think I am just showing uncharacteristic restraint from leaping to conclusions and barracading my staff and hunkering down with a two week supply of dried goods. I also just got back after being away from five days and things in Ampara town feel a little fake to me, you know? Last Singhalese outpost in the area so it is just fortified and I really just got to the office, worked and then came home and the biggest crisis I was dealing with is staff from my old job freaking out since their contracts are over end of the year and this is going to become a reality in a big way here as NGOs start to leave since tsunami money is over and I don't know what else to say to them other than, I am going to go too and will need a job. We all got to prevail and keep our chins up and I will see what I can do. That has superseded any bombs in the other parts of the country for the moment for me, though I suspect, not for long...I need to actually get out and see what it is feeling like. What does it look like driving down the coast, what is the vibe in the villages in which I am working and what do people look like right now....what are their priorities, what is the food situation in their houses, how jumpy or not are they etc....they of course, always have a better feel about stuff than anyone else, living as it were, in the midst of things. I think I wrote about this sense before....or just having a mental list of things which we look at without realizing it when assessing a situation. I use it for poverty levels among other things when driving through or to a place and you can see for instance, how clean are school uniforms, is the child wearing shoes, how many school accessories (just a backpack, or a lunch box or flask etc), ribbons in hair, how many shops on the side of the road, how well stocked, how well lit, how populated etc etc etc....there are lots of little indicators that you just get through osmosis in a way.

So, I need to go out and get a feel and then either panic or stay non reactionary. Non reactionary but alert, I think is the way to go. I just got back from a security training course...I am so ready. As will everyone around me, like it or not.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bad Zee

I make all these promises to write and then I do not. Bad bad Zee. Anyhow, here I am again, and writing and perhaps even going so far as to post all depends. The adventures in trying to get my mac all good to go are not progressing so well. In Colombo for a few days and trying to get the Microsoft office suite on my machine and they want 350 USD, which they are not going to get. I also finally held the iPhone in my hands. I have been wanting this piece of technology in my hands soooooo badly for sooooooo long and I think that is all I really wanted. To hold it in my hands. It is too big. And they are charging 1000 USD for it here only since it is not really out and only if you are super cool and deprate to prove you are cool will you buy it in Asia. I am not that desparate and I didn't like holding it all that much, truth be told. The coolest thing was that you can make things bigger and smaller with your fingers. I liked that bit. My fingers are too big to type anything on the machine however.

Never buy first generation Apple products. I shall wait.

So, I hae been in Colombo and got to see two awesome friends who I have not in a long time (two years) and that was amazing and we went around everywhere and saw everything (in two days) and had an all around rockiing time. Too many stories in that one but the main point is that I got to hang out with two people I love and it was good to be able to catch up and see them again.

Mew birthday plans are afoot. Stay tuned in this space for more information. I am liking it more and more....

A team photo that we took recently for your viewing pleasure. All our movements have been suspended for two days since today, in just about a few minutes, the LTTE leader, Prabakharan, is going to make his annual Heroes Day Address and it is always interesting to see what he will say. It is supposed to be about the LTTE laying out their plans for the year etc etc and lots has been going on and it is anybodies guess what he will say. They do the element of suprise well. Needless to say, in preparation, intimidation and general sense of fostering fear in the public, Colombo has been checkpoint heaven where you get stopped pretty much every two minutes or so and you had better have your passport or even better, someone white in the car with you. Though even that does not work in every situation anymore....

OK, I think it is time to go home. I have either been bitten to death by sand flies or I have chicken gunya. If i feel flu like tomorrow, I am in big trouble. I think it is a combination of sand flie and then mosquitoes in this Colombo office. Colombo is so seriously nasty that way...everyone gets dengue or chicken gunya...which is a lovely name for an illness, I think.

And no photo this time either...sorry!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The joys of dial up on a mac

I kitted out my mac in a big way....well, it feels like a big way to me and this will be a repetition from my early Ampara days, (round one), where I would try and upload photos on the home line and repeatedly fail but unfailingly try...and so we try again. It is interesting to type on two different keyboards, by the way. I have a swiss keyboard for work and a normal American one for play. Though I want this play one to become a real all the time one, but we will see.

Nice evening. We did the budgets on a projector, which was just too cool. We had to cut money. Old hands at dev work know what that mean, but for me, a child of the tsunami heydays, this a new concept....we don't have buckets of funding? We can't throw money at people? What? Who? Are you joking? I love it. I have always been a little freaked out (ok, very freaked out) by the amount and the ways in which money was being handed out after the tsunami and I like that restraint is now being shown and projects thought out about more carefully.

This blog has been in draft mode for a while, since I thought I lost it (the joys of a mac on dialup), so I shall post now and expand on the topic above, which I like and on which I had written in great length only for it to all get lost....or so I thought. Atleast I got the above two paras...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Nov 22nd, 2007

I like writing the date on the tops of pages. It's fun. Anyhow, just a quick one here on a news item I saw this morning about Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, who has UN refugee status and cannot be turned away from seeking refuge from anywhere and is being asked to leave Calcutta (Kolkatta). You can read about it here.

It is morning time and I am in the office and will head out to two of my villages very soon. Talking to goverment officials (home guards etc), who get paid a better salary than the others in the village but not nearly enough in general and in order to keep some kind of equality among people, we have to figure something out that works for everyone. Then off to the other village where we have not been able to work for one week and talk about wells and drainage. I now talk about wells and drainage. What I do is get someone else to talk about and then write up a proposal so that we can fund the project. Been wanting to get this done for a while and it is not getting done so I am determined to get it done.

I have role I play each morning. With Mr Wimal. He is someone I have known since I got to Ampara and he used to be the security guard type person at the old SLRCS office. He is now employed by the IFRC as head person who takes care of office stuff like tea, cleaning etc. He has a staff of two. He used to work in the forestry dept and knows so much about this country. What I love about him is that he has a beautiul smile and is always welcoming and every morning he makes me my coffee (I am special...he makes my coffee himself instead of delegating it to his staff) and he brings it to me and I taste it while he waits and I come up with some superlative to tell him how much he rocks my world and how my cup of coffee is the one thing that keeps me sane and alive in this mad mad world in which we live.

I don't really drink coffee but when I came back to Ampara, he forgot that I like plain tea with little sugar and I didn't have the heart to tell him. So now I drink Nescafe coffee in the office. Little milk, little sugar, always perfect which I say with a mini swoon, a big smile, my hand on my heart or whatever theatrics come to me naturally that morning (or afternoon).

Off to culverts....I am still not sure what a culvert is but now I have an autocad drawing of it. Looks like a cross section of a tree. I have something to say about Taslima Nasreen and that whole situation but it is brewing in my head and hopefully I will say something about. Reading that article just made me think how much I do want to be in India. Kind of works in opposition to my wanting to be in Africa and in a conflict. Have we as humans figured out yet how to clone and spilt our cells?

Iqbal Kalddun...write me my chicken story.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Home Sweet Home?

It is home sweet home! I am back in Ampara after a while (was in Colombo for a week for security training and then off on my first ever R&R in Hawaii!), and my does it feel good to be back or what? It feels good is the answer to that.

I feel like I have to write a huge long post somehow to explain my absence but I don't think I will. Will post a picture instead of me and the partial team before I left with our cool RC gear.

I bought a new mac and I am not currently using it and I bought a new iPod which I am also not currently using. Having strange separation anxiety with my old gear and I want to set the new one up properly...which I should do soon since I have a ton of photos and my camera will not upload to this computer since the CD Drive is busted.

I joined facebook. I don't really want to talk about it.

I am happy to be back in a place where I have once again made a home. So strange, but I have.

More sooooooooooooon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Man Booker Prize

Check out this article about the Man Booker Prize. You can now read all the entries online. My poor eyes. Does anyone know the winning book? Called The Gathering, Irish family saga, bleak and distrubing and gripping and powerful. One would think we would come up with more hackneyed adjecdtives than that. Written by a woman named Enright. I don't know it. I am going to know it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Uh duh....

So I am an idiot sitting in a conflict country, on the conflict side of the country where my mobile network has not been working for the last five days (it is working north of me in Batti and normally they see more problems than we do) and we were told, oh, there are some ongoing ‘operations’ south of here, something in Anaradhpura, army base etc. I thought, ok, yeah, whatever. Mobile down, that’s life. Reading the news TODAY, I find out that the biggest suicide attack by the LTTE took place two days ago. Oops. This might be why I got some emails from people saying, hey, everything ok? I thought they meant that I was sick some weeks back (news travels, sometimes slowly), or that sweet things that they are, they were just thinking about me.

Seems like the LTTE did some major damage. Hmm. I saw a photo that I found utterly offensive on Alert Net (read the whole article which spells it all out nicely, not just the photos on the bottom, but actually, they spell it all out rather nicely as well). The bodies of the 20 LTTE cadres that went in and wrecked havoc on the base dumped into the back of a wooden trolley like thing, attached to a tractor being pulled, mostly naked, through the streets to the mortuary with gawkers and obviously someone or multiple someones with cameras. I do not condone violence for the most part but honestly, where is the respect? That is too despicable and I hope someone from some advocacy organization says something about it.

The mobiles turning off should have been some indicator. They are kind of working now. Slowly. But certainly not in my house. We seem to be some black spot, which is annoying.

The conflict supposedly has moved to the north but in the villages in which I work there are regular round ups and searches and intimidation in tamil villages. The jungle areas inland are still off limits and it sort of sucks for this one group of people that are hunter/gatherer types and now since they can’t live in the jungle and are displaced they have no livelihoods. They are being called some sort of gypsies and I am heading there tomorrow to see what the deal is. In the northern part of the district in Singhalese villages, there are some people called the adivasi (ancient people who lives in jungles is how they were described to me). They have kept their rituals, customs and language which is different for the most part. Excited to work and learn more about them as well.

It is now officially bed time. 2230 hrs.

It's raining, rain, hallelujah

Actually, if you are in Ampara, it's raining men as well, but that is another post.

So, the last time I was here, and I do believe I wrote about this and posted a photo as well of water logged roads, we were all hyped for the monsoon and as far as i can recall, it didn't really come in the way I had imagined a monsoon. So, this time, I was mentally prepared for the hype and no delivery but lo and behold, no hype (lot sof praying for the rain so that the harvest will be good), and it is raining and raining and raining. I need boots. Big ones.

The rain is making me feel like I want to curl up into bed. It also means I can't wear white clothes not because I go to the field and I can get dirty but, no, because when I come home, BlackieSpark like to jump on one with their dirty nasty little paws and I end up mud streaked from them rather than from work. Bastards.

Rain means mosquitoes. I already had my one sickeness for the year, I would like to think, so dengue can take a hike. It's still itchy though. It also means frogs. I don't know enough about frogs to know the name of the ones that are creating an incredible racket right now. I heard it last night for the first time after a long time and with cigarette in one hand and a GT in the other, I turned to Mick and said, oh, how lovely, I had missed their music. Ten deafening minutes later, I amended that to, mother fuckers shut up! They won't listen. Damn them.

Right now, sitting at the desk where the postcards collect and I have a good view of everything that is our house (including Mr Mick comotose and reading on our new Paradise Road sofa...he is reading The Great Gatsby. That too is another post. I re read the book recently, I love it)...anyhow, so sitting here, I can hear the incessant loud croaking of some frogs, and then, all other sorts of noises of insects. Like, really loud noises. The rain has slowed so they have moved into fill the void of silence with their own din. And it is a din.

There are some insect with huge translucent wings that have been flying around (no, not dragon flies), and every morning when I go to put my shoes on outside, there is a carnage of just wings. Now, they might just have a lifespan (or wingspan) of a night, or, BlackieSpark are chasing them down and killing them. No bodies, but perhaps they eat those, just wings. They do bark at night our doggies, but mostly we assume they are barking because A: they are dogs and that is what dogs do, B: they are choking on the chicken or fish bones we fed them, C: monkeys are running around on our roof or D: their two siblings are in the house next door and they like to bark at each other. It might be time to add option E that they like barking when killing fly like creatures with fly like wings and eating them delicately enough to not have harmed their wings at all.

I can't wait to get a camera to show you all this.

Eid Mubarik

I actually celebrated Eid this year. For the past few years I have been missing it since I have been away from home but this year, we all got invited to the house of Fathi, one of our Field Officers and since it was a Saturday, we all went for lunch. My mom likes that we three sisters have a new outfit to wear and she was despartely trying to send me new clothes for Eid but it didn't happen, but lucky for us all, Hrusi, my co-worker (we have the same title but he is wayyyyyyyyyyyyy more experienced than I am) last time he went to India, with the help of is wife, Dolly, got me an outfit. It was prefect. And so lovely. So some photos from that afternoon.
The night before I was feeling sad for no reason at all and I spoke to my family as they were all gathering at home and I had a wee bit of a melodramatic scene where I was alone at home, (Mick was in Colombo) and I was putting henna on my own hands by myself and tears were running down my cheeks. I let about four fall before I realized how foolish I was being and stopped.

Not sure why I was crying but I was. When did I become so soppy? Maybe that is the change people see in me from before....hmmmmm....

Postcard Newsflash!

We got our first random postcard, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I think that is where it is from. Before I get into the random postcard, I must give props to the non random...well, random in a different way postcards that have been collecting.

Clem wins the prize for most postcards sent. Her last batch took her clean over the edge that she and Saks were fighting for. Smart woman that she is, she sends postcards in bulk. I now have an assortment of fun postcards that I look at and feel happy. And hungry since Clem sends the most weird ones (one of baked beans on toast, one of some palace (I know, Clem, I should know which one), a bunch of bottles, a scottish sheep (is that really a sheep? Now that I think about it, it looks like an old and hairy ox...I need to go back and read the postcards carefully). Saks, you had better catch up. The rest of you lazies had better just send one.

And now, moving onto the postcard from the stranger. I came home and saw it on the desk which is where the postcards when they arrive collect. I first thought it was Saks since the handwriting is kind of similar. Then noticed there was no name. Thought it might be Emma (ahem, Emmaaaa), and for a while went with that and then I noticed the stamp was from the USA. And this was just as Mick was saying that he would get excited when we got a postcard from a stranger. And tada! WE did. And it is sooooooooo lovely. I need to take close photos of it and post it on here but basically, there are two poems (that reminds me, I need to look them up....I think I know who one of the poets is), one on the front and one on the back. And all it says is, everyone needs some poetry.

Thank you stranger. I did need some lovely poetry. We are assuming here in Ampara that you did not write the poetry yourself. Which is why I need to google it. And thank you for making our day in a big way. Will be posting the photo (which I will take soon) of your postcard on the blog.

All you random strangers should take inspiration from that story.

What will suck is that I have a best friend or relative in Cedar Rapids and I am supposed to know who sent me the postcard and I have no idea. Hmmmm.


Check it out, photos, photos and more photos. I have been gone for a long time and need to update my blog, I know. If for no one else then for Clem who faithfully reads this page. Thanks Clem. You are about to be mentioned in my next post so I will move onto saying what the pictures are about. First up we have mr barney. He is either praying or in an obscene pose for the hell of it. Earlier that week he had been slobbered over by the dogs (BlackieSpark, exhibits 2 and 3 in the photos), and roughed up a little and I think was exhausted (not to mention nasty with dog slobber. He is ok now. He does travel with me. Thank god he did not get lost in my bag which is still lost in the American Airlines Abyss.

BlackieSpark are the next two photos. They are jungle monkies in the body of dogs. They are cute and at times smelly and notty. I inherited them with the house. I love doggies. These have ticks and fleas and bite and take flying leaps into my head when I am laying in bed but they are cute nonethelss. Blackie is more of a junglee.

The last two photos are from the coconut plantation that we have up and running (not from my team but the one headed by Hrusi). I love the photo of my and Hrusi. I am holding out my hands since they have henna on them, one hand which I did by myself the night before Eid as one is supposed to and the other the next day at the house of a Field Officer. His very pregnant sister in law got out of bed and hunched over me and decorated my hand for me. I asked her to get back into bed but to no avail.

OK, new post coming soon. I am taking short break works to do this. It has been far too long.

My update email for you all that I don't email and really, don't even know but you read my blog

Dear all,

It is that time again and a little late actually, but I have legitimate excuses for that, which you will now be regaled with. The update on me (some things don't change….it's all about me). For those of you new to this list, let me know if you want to stay on or not….I can't imagine why you would not….

I am back in Sri Lanka as some of you know. Some of you don't. Some of you know and think I must have lost my marbles. Some of you don't know and may think the same.

Last time many of you heard from me, I was in London at SOAS doing my MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development. I was complaining about economics and how difficult it was to get my head around it and I am happy to report in the end, we got along just fine. I still don't get it but I am more at peace with my ignorance. It may have been one of the coolest classes I have ever taken, that is, in the second term when we got out of numbers and started talking about late industrialization, rent seeking and corruption and debt relief…I just started ignoring the numbers and wiggly lines after a while and that felt much better. The nine months of classes was intense and I am glad I took the year off and did it. I keep saying that I got my MSc out of the way but it was more than just getting it out of the way; I am engaging with my work differently, no one more shocked than I that this is the case. Had some excellent teachers, not just good teachers but good people. Met good people too. I had some issues with London which through the goodwill and stubbornness of the Londonites that I met and have the fortune to be friends with (Clody and Rebecca to name just two people who showed me London the way I should have seen it all the time) faded and any grudge that I hold against London now sounds trivial.

I still think NYC is way better.

Anyhow, so with classes behind me, a MSc thesis in front of me, I packed my bags (or rather my younger sister did…I have discovered I am rubbish at packing and hate it so intensely I would rather leave my stuff behind), and got on a plane to go and spend the summer at home to write my thesis in peace for three months. Yay. Just before leaving, I saw a job with the British Red Cross advertised for Ampara, Sri Lanka. Livelihoods. Like an idiot, my second day home, I sent in my application. First interview, written test, second interview and after six weeks being home, I packed my bags again (ok, fine, my mom did), and came back here. In the short time I was home, I got to do the things I had been wanting to do the whole year when I would get homesick. I spent lots of time with my family and had one amazing weekend which I sorely needed with my two best friends (and the twin babies of one of them). We all managed to be in the same country/city at the same time.

A lot of people have asked why I took another position in Ampara. I have a long winded answer but short answer: I liked their work when I was here. I like the Red Cross and was happy to be back in that fold. Wanted to see what it was like in the middle of a program. They were doing conflict work (with ICRC) which would be a first for me and I needed a testing ground instead of just heading off willy nilly into it (I had an interview for a job in northern Uganda, but I said no. They wanted me to be area coordinator. I do NOT (yet) have the experience for that in northern Uganda…)

They said to me, don't try to write your thesis while you are working, you will go mad. I scoffed. They were right. My first three weeks were amazing since I was learning about the work and really really loving it and then began to realize my thesis was due in three more weeks and the weekends that I was taking to work on it were not going to be sufficient and I needed a plan. I enlarged my liver and got typhus. It bought me two weeks; two weeks in bed, that is. Week one was spent wondering how it was possible that someone like me was unable to function and leave my bed when outwardly there really did not seem to be anything really wrong with me other than a slight cold and week two after figuring out I really was ill and this was not some psychological block to not write my thesis, was about fielding jokes about 'laying off the sauce' while I recovered in Colombo. I still think I did it to myself and if I didn't have test results to prove otherwise, I would not believe myself. I did mange to get the dreaded thesis done in time (for the extension I got) and thank god I did spend time before coming out to research and be clear about what I wanted to say, though who knows if I have actually passed it or not…. Won't find out till December and no, you can't read it. Title: Understanding conflict economies and shadow networks; implications for a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration process. Mouthful. And it is, as it sounds, all about economics. I was sick of my thesis and still am a little but I do so love the topic. I have my school books with me here and the plan is to properly read Francis Fukiyama to know why it is that I do hate him since I know I am supposed to hate him. Ditto on Amartya Sen but love instead of hate. Who knows, I might just discover vice versa on both….I seriously doubt it but at least I will be able to back up why I think that with some prescient point from page 78.

What can I say about a place that I have come back to after an absence of 14 months….

I can't say right now. I think I need till December to come up with anything of interest to say. I am mostly just looking around and seeing what is like to be in the middle of a program instead of having helped set it up. Looking around at tsunami money dried up or on the verge of drying up, looking at conflict work instead of tsunami work (and that is a 'relief'), looking at how best to apply the theories I learned last year since I think there is place for it but not in the jargon in which I learned it but translated….communicated rather. I still love the different modes of communication that exist. More nuances, I suppose.

I have a great team. Learning lots from everyone around me and also from my own mistakes, or perseverance in trying to get something to work…trial and error stuff more on my management skills than anything else at this point, I think. I manage someone who is doing the job that I used to do. It is strange to be that one step removed from actual field work. I used to run the meetings. My Senior Field Officer (SFO) does now with the Field Officer (FO). I still get in there but I see in their eyes what I know used to be in mine when I would have others in the community meetings I would run. The look is losing its gleam, which is good since I am so NOT ready to be ousted from running community meetings. It is where I feel so alive and it is the best part of the work. Being there, working with communities, facilitating as best as I can and seeing everyone get on with it. I know someday I will have to grow up and start being in an office answering a million emails etc but not today.

People who are still here from the last time have told me I have changed. Not good, not bad, just changed. Comments like that require navel gazing, which as some of you know, I do on my blog, , but will not here since this is long already and babbling and it is my bed time. Did want to send a big hug to everyone out there and please let me know how you are. I promise to try and reply to as many emails as I can (there are some in my inbox sitting and waiting to be replied to and you know who you are and promise I am writing soon!) and for those of you who turn your noses up to mass emails, I forgive you.

Lots of love from a sleepy but happy (and healthy),


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Speed Dating, Muslim Stlye

A lovely article which I am pasting below written by a good friend and now a relative through marriage (god help us all). It's in the Financial Times and Farooq is a writer living in Brooklyn, though in Williamsburg which I think is just a shame since it gives him big minus marks on the cool front...

I should write about the whole meeting Muslim men to marry thing but really, I think the article does it so much better. I was told by my sister that it has been heavily edited but Farooq still does manage to shine through.

I was a member of once (Naseeb meaning destiny, loosely translated, and a dating site but not advertised as such for young Muslims like Friendster and now Facebook...I just said I won't be able to sleep because of the evil vibes). I was banned within two days. from Naseeb. Part of me wants very much to go to one of these speed dating things just to see what it is like. I think it could be fun. Very fun. Enjoy.

You don’t have to meet someone but it’d be nice’
By Farooq Ahmed
Published: September 21 2007 16:38 Last updated: September 21 2007 16:38
Finding a date is hard enough but for many modern Muslims in the west it’s even tougher. Meeting in bars is prohibitively difficult due to Islamic temperance laws. A similar injunction against unmarried Muslim men and women canoodling, or even spending unchaperoned time together, rules out many other forms of dating. And thus, young Muslims find themselves torn between the values of their immigrant parents, who champion semi-arranged or assisted marriages, and the dominant western culture, which prizes “love marriages”, usually preceded by some form of casual dating.
Five years ago, however, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) held its first “Matrimonial Banquet” and as a result a form of Muslim speed dating was born.
The banquet is part of a long-running annual convention organised by ISNA, an umbrella organisation for Muslim groups in the US and Canada, similar to the Muslim Council of Britain. Young Muslims, the organisers realised, were already using the event to meet and mingle. Now all that was needed was a little structure and supervision. The banquet followed a matrimonial referral service that had been provided by ISNA. Under the old system, a Middle Eastern Muslim woman living in the Pacific North-west, for example, could comb through folders, sorted by age and geographical location, to obtain the contact information of a 25-year-old, Egyptian engineering student with dark hair and dark eyes, of moderate religiosity, who lived in Seattle. Whether the two would ever meet was entirely up to them.
Ghazala Yasmeen, the director of this year’s Matrimonial Banquet, who is in her 40s and had an arranged marriage in Karachi 18 years ago, says the switch to the event’s current format was made because “People wanted to see each other, face-to-face, not just as slips of paper.”
I am a first-generation south Asian-American Muslim and grew up near Kansas City, Missouri. As I am constantly reminded by my younger sister, I am, at the age of 32, one of the few from my peer group to remain unwed. Our parents raised us in homes that bridged cultures: tacos were as common as chicken curry for dinner. Though observant of Islamic traditions, my parents are by no means dogmatic or conservative. My mother and sister choose not to observe hijab or wear a headscarf, except to enter mosques, where it’s mandatory.
Fourteen years ago, I left the Midwest for the East Coast, at first to attend college. Like many writers, I eventually found my way to Brooklyn.
But this year, over Labor Day weekend at the end of August, I travelled to Chicago to attend the 44th Annual ISNA convention, “Upholding Faith, Serving Humanity”, to check out the Matrimonial Banquet. The conference took place in a massive convention centre and hotel complex near O’Hare airport, bringing tens of thousands of Muslims to the city. (And, I suspect, a number of federal law enforcement agents.)
The convention attracts mainly Sunnis from India and Pakistan but also draws Shi’as, such as myself, Sufis, African, African-American, Arab, and east-Asian Muslims, who come to attend sessions on topics affecting the ummah – the community – such as “Ending US Sponsored Torture”, “Addressing the Root Causes of Terrorism” and “Re-Inventing the Mosque for our Children”.
I last attended the convention more than a decade ago and don’t have pleasant memories. Some friends and I were lured into a subterranean kitchen with the promise of gainful employment. We were paid meagre wages but assured a hefty bonus at the end. We washed dishes, sliced open gallon drums of tomato sauce, and refilled tray-after-tray of halal kebabs, aromatic biryanis and colourful curries.
When the conference finished, we approached our overlord in chef’s whites for our reward. He led us into a backroom that was filled with trays of baklava, honey oozing like sap between layers of crisp filo dough. “Take as much as you want,” he said. I hadn’t been back to the convention since that experience.
But it was then that I found out about the Matrimonial Banquet. The morning of this year’s banquet found me trimming my beard, spiking my hair, slipping on a striped brown, button-down shirt and dark jeans, and exchanging my Adidas trainers for a pair of maroon fake alligator-skin dress shoes. I was going for the Muslim hipster look.
As I entered the lobby of the O’Hare Hyatt, chic low-slung, mid-century modern furniture everywhere, a session had just concluded for the Muslim Youth of North America, a group that provides a forum for Muslim teenagers. The hotel’s cafés and bars were the place to hang out. Alcohol, in deference to sharia, Islamic law, was safely locked up. Bottles of Grey Goose glistened behind glass cabinets, while flocks of boys with feathery facial hair alighted on bar stools and attempted to flirt with girls on the other side of the lobby.
Outside the ballroom, I joined a swelling crowd of professional-looking men and women. Some exchanged business cards and scrawled phone numbers on scraps of paper, getting a jump on the competition. Others stood along the wall, being coached by their mothers; we were told we could bring one chaperone with us, and many had. Among the advice being dispensed, I heard: “Remember, you don’t have to find someone but it would be nice if you did.” “Tell them about your degrees and your family, that is very important, but don’t mention your father’s glaucoma.”
Nearly all 400 of us, an equal number of men and women, had registered online and paid $65 to spend the next four hours with one another. We are to speed-date for two hours, then with the following two hours left for mingling over a pasta meal.
At the check-in desk where I went to pick up my name-tag, stood a line of aunties. “Auntie” is used throughout south Asia as a term of endearment, referring to an older woman who may or may not be a blood relative. Aunties are often stern, judgmental and have an uncanny ability to unman a potential suitor by placing emphasis on a single word. A typical utterance would be: “Yes, yes, he went to graduate college but, dear, he is a writer.”
An auntie had just handed me my baby-blue name tag – the women’s were pink – when I ran into a friend, whom I will call Usman. He was a psychiatrist from the mid-sized Midwestern town where we grew up. Sharply dressed in a dark suit, he had returned to the banquet for a second consecutive year and was one of a handful of participants who had arrived armed with someone else’s success story – inevitably, a neighbour’s cousin or cousin’s neighbour had found his wife at this event a few years ago. Usman himself was looking for his second wife. The first had fled back to Pakistan under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” he asked in an awkward attempt to be helpful. I joined the queue to enter the ballroom feeling somewhat deflated. As we waited to meet our potential future spouses, Yasmeen’s assistants segregated us by gender, directing the women to one set of doors and the men to another. While this did seem somewhat inauspicious – only moments before we had been socialising as one loud, nervous and confused group – what followed was measurably worse. The assistants began to subdivide each gender by age: 20- to 30-year-olds on one side, 31 and up on another.
I graduated to the latter group a few years ago and reluctantly joined this line of men, most of them significantly older and taller than me.
The women entered the ballroom first and were instructed to sit in groups of five at the neatly arranged circular tables. The men were next, also in groups of five. We filled the empty seats between the women as we joined them.
At the far end of the ballroom, rows of chairs were lined up for the accompanying chaperones. Almost all mothers or sisters, they had been given strict orders not to interfere or further coach their charges until the last hour, when they were free to meet and pass judgment on whomsoever their child or sibling had decided to spend time with. They sat at the back of the room like jurors at a trial.
I chose to go alone to the banquet, although my mother had offered to come. “I’ll just sit in the back. I won’t say a thing,” she promised.
Once we were all seated, we were given simple instructions over the loudspeakers. We would be given five minutes to introduce ourselves, after which the men were to move to the next table and begin the process again. The women were to remain seated. If someone at the table interested us, we could take notes or ask for an e-mail address or phone number, or more decorously, seek them out during dinner.
Typically, US speed dating is a one-on-one, five- to seven-minute “get-to-know-you” session. The origins of the ritual, which took off in the late 1990s, are usually credited to Yaacov Deyo, an orthodox Los Angeles rabbi who was looking for a way to help Jewish singles meet and marry.
As a group affair, the Matrimonial Banquet mimics the way that most Muslim boys and girls socialise, in self-selected, often gender-segregated, cliques. These groups prevent intimate interactions with unrelated members of the opposite sex, which is generally taboo among conservative Muslims. Even if the Chicago banquets appeared different, the goal of Muslim speed dating was distinctly in line with Rabbi Deyo’s original system.
The tables we sat at were themselves bare, save for a white tablecloth, a handful of Hershey’s Kisses chocolates and a lime green flyer from the organisers, thanking us for letting them be a part of “the biggest and most important step in [our] life”. No pressure then.
I had entered the ballroom with four other men – an architect, a bank information technology manager, a software engineer and a school assistant principal – and we got to know each other well as we travelled from table to table.
They were dressed as I was: not formal, not quite casual, but all in western clothes. Some were clean-cut with sharp features and deep-set eyes, others with trim beards and bushy black hair.
At the first table, the women gave us their condensed biographies. There was a Nasa engineer, an ophthalmologist, a schoolteacher, a dentist, and someone who had once portrayed Princess Jasmine from Aladdin at Disneyland. Like us, they were mainly Indian and Pakistani, Egyptian and Saudi, but many more were dressed in non-western garments – sequins trailed from prismatic headscarves that occasionally shimmered in the ballroom’s overhead lights.
Over the next two hours, I met nearly 100 women, averaging about a woman a minute. The faces of the first five are among the few that I remember well, not only because the Nasa engineer had some sort of bouffant squirrel’s nest for hair but also because Princess Jasmine, who looked nothing like the character she had played, was one of the more engaging women I met that Saturday, witty and sarcastic with mischievous eyes.
You might have thought that a table of over-30s would have a relatively easy time conversing. That was not the case. If I added up the moments of uncomfortable silence at the 20 or so tables I visited, I could easily have made the time to meet another 50 women. Not that that would have helped conversation.
In our allotted five minutes at each table, four were spent introducing ourselves to the group. Over the course of two hours, these became pared down to a few relevant nouns: “Farooq, writer, Brooklyn, 32.” Many women asked the men about their age but, out of politeness, few men asked the women.
How you used the remaining minute relied on a quick calculation: which of the two women seated next to you seemed most interesting based solely on her appearance and the four words she used to described herself.
I realised that I could increase my chance of success if I scouted ahead, jockeying for position as we switched tables. Often, this technique paid off. I met an assistant professor of pharmacology from New Mexico with whom I shared an interest in experiencing Chicago’s nightlife.
As we switched tables, I found the “résumés” of my competitors lying around, several printed on expensive linen paper, watermarked with complex floral arrangements. Almost all were from foreign-born software professionals. One e-mail username, no doubt customised for the event, read: greatcompanion. For once in my life, I was glad that I’d come relatively unprepared.
The suitors described themselves in categories that included education, profession and religion, but also languages (English and Urdu); sect (Shi’a or Sunni); family values (“moderate”); religiosity (“I do observe prayers regularly and fast during Ramadan”); family background (“We are five brothers and one sister”); and “about you” sections. One specified that a future wife should be able to “laugh at my lame jokes”, which I think should be mandatory for all spouses, regardless of religion, religiosity, sect, family values – or even gender.
When the rotations finally came to an end in the early evening, between the late afternoon (Asr) and evening (Maghrib) prayers, a sense of relief swept through the ballroom. We lined up for our buffet-style dinner of pasta, fruit salad and apple pie. This time, the elders went first.
Somewhat to my surprise, a quarter of the attendees re-segregated into male and female groups during dinner, perhaps exhausted by the constant barrage from members of the opposite sex.
Carrying a plateful of lukewarm pasta, I searched for Princess Jasmine and a writer/filmmaker that I had met towards the end of the rotations. We had discovered that the writer lived in Brooklyn and had attended the West Coast version of my East Coast alma mater. During the earlier table-hopping portion of the evening, we had been about to exchange phone numbers when time was called.
When I finally spotted them, both Princess Jasmine and the writer had men queuing up on either side as if they were minor celebrities signing autographs. The pharmacology professor had already left for the evening – the lights of downtown Chicago beckoned.
I met up again with Usman, the psychiatrist. He was sitting across the ballroom at a table of young men. At 30, he was one of the oldest in his group. Despite his sleek attire, he hadn’t fared any better than he had at last year’s event.
For those with the energy, the Matrimonial Banquet went on for another day and in the same format with, I suspected, a lot of the same faces. Usman had registered and paid for both Saturday and Sunday and would return, he said, to keep trying to find wife number two.
As much as I admired his perseverance, I flew back early the next day. Although the banquet proved that there are many attractive, intelligent Muslim women and men seeking alternative ways to meet and, eventually, marry, I came away thinking that, for me, there were better ways to find a match – that is to say, ways that were less supervised or structured.
But, at the very least, I had returned to Brooklyn with a few promising telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, instead of a handful of warm baklava, like I had the last time.
US Muslims ‘mostly middle-class and mainstream’
After Christianity, Islam is the second largest religion in many European countries and one of the fastest- growing religions in the US. A survey published in May by the Pew Research Center, the influential American polling group, states there are 2.35m Muslims living in the US. Like many issues concerning American Muslims, this figure is a contentious one. Muslim groups have accused non-Muslims of releasing low numbers to marginalise Islam, while Muslims are accused of inflating the number for political gain. The Pew Muslim American study, regarded as the first independent survey on Muslim life in the US, admits “it is possible that the number of Muslim Americans is higher”. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, says there are 7m Muslims in America.
Pew data indicate that American Muslims are mostly “middle class and mostly mainstream”. The south Asian Muslims I grew up with falls into this category. Many of us, like our parents, work in typically white-collar industries as doctors, engineers, information technology specialists and, increasingly in post-September 11 America, as lawyers.
The survey, which conducted more than 55,000 interviews with Muslims living in America, tells us: we are happy with our lives; moderate on issues that typically divide Muslims and westerners throughout the world; have a positive view of the larger society; are generally better off financially than Muslims in Europe; and, although two-thirds of us were born elsewhere, do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.
On the issue of terrorism, the study says American Muslims “reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in western European countries”.
Perhaps more surprisingly, according to the survey, younger Muslims in America “are both much more religiously observant and more accepting of Islamic extremism than are older Muslim Americans”. This statistic corresponds with other Pew research about Muslims in western Europe. Muslims in the Middle East, the Pew survey says, “do not show greater tolerance of suicide bombing among young people”.
My own experience could not be farther from the Pew results regarding younger Muslims in America. As a child in Sunday school, my friends and I competed to see who could get thrown out of class the quickest. The Islamic centre we attended in suburban Kansas City had both a basketball court and a large backyard that made a great football pitch. The challenge was getting enough people out of class to field teams before noon prayers. This practice ended for me when my mother became principal of the Sunday school.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007