Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Boy is Born

It could have been a day of celebration but it wasn’t.

A boy was born. A new life had joined the legacy of men. The continuation of the blood line was assured.

His father could have danced with joy at the news and dragged his friends, his brothers and his cousins in the merriment. Perhaps his mother would have liked the baby to rest in his grandfather’s arms and to see the old man touch the baby’s tiny fingers to trace any familiar imprint. Or maybe both the parents would have liked to hold the baby close and wait for his face to wrinkle into a smile. Maybe they would have searched for resemblances in the tiny form that was looking at them.

Is the baby’s dimple a little bit like his wife’s cheeks when he kisses her unawares? Or those eyes narrowed into an almost-frown, don’t they remind her of the way her husband devours the newspaper at night?

Maybe.

It could have been a possible narrative but that’s not how the story eventually unravelled.

There must have been some celebration and of that we have no doubt. The mother must have smiled with joy when the mid-wife showed her the living breathing crying form that emerged from her. One of the nurses must have uttered ‘congratulations’ and in an unguarded moment she must have been elated at what took place.

It’s clear the father was not present when it happened. Or if he was, it’s likely that for one whole minute or maybe two or three, he must have felt proud of having fathered a son. He must have looked in the mirror and felt confident that his lineage wouldn’t disappear. Maybe it was only later in the night when she phoned him to discuss the matter, celebration must have turned into panic.

How could they be proud of a bundle of shame? How could they hold this evidence of a love that shouldn’t have crossed a certain line in the first place? Who among their own kinsfolk will ever dote on the little child when he makes a fuss like babies usually do? Won’t he always be a cruel reminder of the parent’s folly and their loss of honour in the town where they lived?

So when they finally took the decision, she knew that this was the last time she would ever hold this baby like the mother she was to him. He bought her the pink blanket even though she asked him to choose a different colour. It would solve the problem, he told her and she was too tired to argue.

She gave him a bath and resisted the urge to feel involved when she saw that he enjoyed playing with water despite crying out loudly. Then she decided to feed him herself, and had to look away when she noticed the baby was feeling comfortable in her arms. She was too vulnerable at this stage and could change her decision at any moment but knew they had made an agreement and it was done for love. Love. Their love for each other. After all, that’s what mattered at this moment for her, and for him, too, she thought.

He didn’t want to upset her any further and decided to drive to the mosque himself. He told her that he’ll do so quietly and ensure that he won’t attract any attention. She asked him not to trouble her with details but just do what they agreed since she felt that any additional information will only crumble her resolve and show him how weak she really was. It was too late for debates and discussion, she told him, it is time for action. She didn’t agree but thought that was what he wanted to hear.

That night she couldn’t sleep and wondered what might have happened. She didn’t have to wait for too long because the very next day, the front page of every newspaper carried the story. It was no longer their dirty secret. It was out in the open now except that no one knew the names of the culprits. She soon found out that the news had hurt an entire nation and many wondered how someone in their midst could do such a thing.

She wasn’t sure whether to be glad at this news or just continue regretting what she should have – naturally – done in the first place

The only thought troubling her was that from now on, for her son, she would be the very definition of his idea of abandonment. And that hurt. Badly.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Expat Kids

It happened again.

I was at a party where a group of expats were talking about the hollowness of expat life, which was fine because it’s an opinion that sounds fascinating only in the telling and not necessarily due to any intrinsic merit. It’s the kind of topic that can be lovingly embellished with all the sarcasm one can find and still gasp for more.

And at a party, what else do you need?

I don’t want to reveal the nationalities of these expats since it would be quite pointless doing so. It’d only reinforce some generalisations and that’s something I don’t want to do. Generalisations are a useful crutch for the intellectually lazy but it can be cruel when it becomes the sole prop for knowing, understanding... and even defining people groups. Now that is a topic for a separate blog-post altogether since it also happens to be one of my pet peeves.

Generalisations never fail to agitate me and, more so, when it is spouted by people who are educated, articulate and well-travelled.

Maybe it was for this reason a certain generalisation that evening got me seriously annoyed. It’s not that I made a scene at the party and knocked some sense into everyone’s head. I simply stayed silent and listened. I wanted to know what kind of embellishments will be given to this particular generalisation and what new nugget of information was I going to learn this time.

One of the expats in the group exclaimed that expat kids – or rather, ones who grew up here in Bahrain – have led a rather privileged and 'deprived' life and then went on to say that children in his home country lead more exciting lives. He described his own childhood to be full of rich experiences that expat kids only read about or get to watch only on their TV screens. Suddenly everyone seemed to be in agreement and began adding their comments, insights, what have you.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard anyone make these remarks before and it isn’t the first time that I haven’t heard anything ‘new’ spoken on the subject.

Now I happen to be an ‘expat kid’ myself and so, for me, anything that was said had to be taken personally. The only difference being that since I happen to be in my 40s the others in the group thought I would not only get what they were saying but also agree with them.

Somehow everyone expects that the fortysomethings have already sorted out their existential and identity issues and can be counted upon to give a more experienced argument or a more nuanced tongue lashing against all what ‘expat kids’ stand for. A weird assumption that the confusion expat kids go through lasts only till they are 25 or 27and that when they approach their 30s or get married, somehow by magic, it all goes away and they immediately take on the characteristics, absorb the world view and imbibe the experiences of adults from their home countries. And heaven help an expat-kid in his or her 30s or 40s who dares say this is not so, and speaks candidly of the confusion and identity crisis that’s natural for an expat.

Now I have to say that my life as an expat kid hasn’t been that fantastic and many of my peers would agree with me that being an expat kid is not necessarily very rosy. Our sense of belonging is more conceptual than local since we can’t claim ‘ownership’ over familiar geographical contexts. Our cultural moorings lack any regional or provincial dimension but are a mish-mash of things picked up in our global wanderings. We are always regarded as outsiders no matter where we are because our sense of belonging seems more negotiable than definite. It is for this reason, for example, we can’t apply for any scholarships, fellowships or awards, and in those instances where we do qualify,the fees are on the higher side because it is assumed 'we are floating in oil'.

We have to struggle for everything and work hard to achieve all that we dream about and aspire to reach. We can't claim any concessions or seek some privileges on ethnic grounds. We have to work hard and achieve success or suffer failure on our own steam. We are the default outsider and, hence, the default expendable component in any environment. And since, this has defined our worldview, the pressure to work harder is so much more intense and the need to exceed one's potential and excel is that much more urgent.

Having said this, does it still make us deprived?

Maybe those of us who grew up in Bahrain never had the pleasure of climbing trees, hiking through dense forests on weekends, going to the river for a swim, drinking fresh milk direct from the udder, knowing the names of the different colours one can see in nature or getting wet in the rain... in comparison, our adventures would seem rather mundane: watching TV, listening to 96.5 FM, reading books from the (now closed) British Council Library, cycling through the streets of Manama, hunting for the best shawarma or samboosa, eating hamburger and pizza with friends, playing acrobatics on the bannister, mall cruising and for the present generation... surfing the web in the comforts of one's home.

I suppose , on a purely superficial level, our life does appear rather dull, uninteresting and, yes, 'deprived' in comparison to what children in other countries have to face. Their adventures seem to be far more energetic than the mostly indoors fun that we seem to have grown up with.

But I disagree.

I believe that the wonders of childhood cannot be measured merely by what one has done as a child but by how those experiences end up shaping, informing and influencing the thought patterns and mental make up of one's adult life. And on that score, I think, our life as 'expat-kids' in Bahrain have been a true blessing.

In Bahrain, we have grown up with and have had close interactions with people of various nationalities and cultures, and so, a global world view is not a foreign concept to us. It's what has shaped our social circle since our childhood. Access to entertainment and information from various international sources have enriched our tastes and made us aware of diversity of experiences. It has broadened our cultural contexts and made us aware of a 'different' point of view. Even the so-called negative of not having a place we can call our own is a blessing in disguise because it has protected us from xenophobia, parochialism and narrow loyalties to one's ethnic background.

Now it's not that we've grown up without a sense of our own culture, or some sort of pride in our nation of origin or lacked knowledge of our country's heroes, founding fathers or heart throbs. It's just that we've realised the greatness of our countries does not immediately give them the right to be the centre of the universe. Yes, we do love our countries but we've been made aware that their uniqueness is not an excuse for arrogance but for a humble realisation that this uniquness forms a crucial thread in the vast tapestry of nations that constitute this planet we are part of.

More than anything, a global mindset is one of the biggest blessings any expat-kid can have, and this has been one of the most defining feature of our childhood and adult years.

I must admit that in recent years there has been a negative trend. Many expats have chosen to ghetto themselves in their own ethnic group. A few of them do not mingle with the 'other' and base their opinion on some preconceived notion that they've brought with them from their home country. Generalisations have become the favourite tool in cultural understanding and are robbing the expat population of the dynamism that it is capable of.

But this is just an aberration and cannot be considered a defining feature. At the end of the day, it all depends on individuals and how they see themselves, how they want their children to be, and what is the source of their pride. If they want to enrich themselves with the diversity that's all around, then, they'll be that much more richer and broadened in their mental make up. But if they want to shelter themselves only with people of their colour, race, language and ethnic background, then, they will be the losers.

So are we - expat kids - still leading deprived lives, as the party folks suggested?

Not a chance!!!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Michael Jackson Persona

A week ago Michael Jackson died and the world hasn't been the same.

On one hand tributes are being poured to mourn the loss of one of 20th Century's greatest entertainers and on the other hand there are serious discussions on the phenomenon that Michael was. Nothing surprising about all this since every celebrity death brings out this curious mixture of obituaries and amnesia. It's not that everyone has suddenly forgotten 'wacko jacko' or the oxygen tank or the pet chimp or the possible paedophile or the weird things he did but, somehow, all that is suddenly being explained with a certain degree of nuance. The context is amplified to condone the weirdness as if to say, it was quite normal except for... so and so reasons.

Now I don't expect the media to start lynching the late Michael Jackson so soon after his death but it makes me wonder... why was there so much of silence when he was still alive? If he was truly such a huge phenomenon whose quirks could be explained away, then, why wasn't it done when he was fighting a court case and fighting for his reputation?

I didn't exactly buy the paedophile argument because, somehow, he just came across -- at least, to me -- as a sad and immature and perpetually juvenile case. More weird than criminal. More insane than callous. More of a boy than a man. Thankfully, I haven't had a non-childhood like Michael Jackson and am sure neither did majority of people who disapproved of his lifestyle and the choices he made in life. Hence, we can't even begin to understand what it really means to live in a fish bowl since childhood, being under the glare of the media since the age of ten, being made aware of one's genius throughout one's life and to be constantly surrounded by people who delighted in taking advantage of you.

In some interview, he did comment that he preferred the company of children because they didn't 'see' him as the money making phenomenon that he was and accepted him just the way he was. And just the way he was didn't seem to be quite a pretty sight. The plastic surgeries augmenting some of the flaws he was reminded of. The elaborate wardrobe that seemed to hide the insecure child taught to suppress the boyhood glee. The grown up man unsure of his place in the company of his peers.

Now this is in no way a justification for some of the accusations or even a rationale to what Michael said about it being okay to sleep with little boys. I certainly don't think it's a good thing for any man to do whatever his or mental state may be.

It's just that the more I think of Michael Jackson as a human being, he seems like a truly tragic case. A sad spectacle of a man who was unable to live a full life despite having the resources to do so. Of course, his would be a perfect example of money's inability to buy happiness.

But then, again, if I really think deep into the issue... the obvious fact is, I really don't know Michael Jackson and, for that matter, neither does any of the scribes who have written loud commentaries on his life, his career, his legacy. What I know of him is what the media presented to me and to the rest of the world. We were given an image that we enjoyed and made it part of our lives. And now it is the loss of that image we mourn.

And for that matter, even the criminal Michael Jackson is an image that the media created and presented to us in ways that left many in no doubt about the man's leanings. Two images that were created, nurtured and sustained by a ruthless and insensitive media who saw a goldmine in Michael's rise, success, weaknesses and eventual tragedy.

The entire Michael Jackson phenonmenon -- the good and the bad -- was a media creation that we bought, believed in and made it an integral part of our consciousness. The image was manufactured and so was our response. We played into the hands of a cruel media monster who nurtured this phenomenon and then got bored of him and sought our help in bringing him down.

Unlike other similar casualties of media's cruelty, Michael Jackson had one thing going for him: he was incredibly talented. His music, his dance moves, the concerts and the videos provided a cultural and musical context to much of the 80s and the 90s. He was a one man music industry who was responsible for an album as unique as "Thriller". I'm not sure if any original album has - as yet - been able to surpass the magic of "Thriller" or any performer in recent times who can be such a powerful cultural and musical influence the way Elvis and the Beatles were.

But all that again is just one side of Michael Jackson. The only sad thing is that it is coming under greater scrutiny after his death when it is a little bit too late.

Better late than never, I guess.