Methinks thou dost protest too much

I don’t normally use this blog for political comment. I rarely get involved in this sort of thing; I’m self aware enough to know I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about most of the time. But I do know a few things:

1. I am a white western woman from a middle class background who received an excellent education and continues to live a privileged life in all ways: housing, personal safety, financial security, health, education, social and political freedom.

2. I try hard not to take it for granted, but basically, it’s difficult not to in any real terms. The best I can do is educate myself better about how other people live and try to be a person who says and does things that will improve other people’s lot in life.

3. I believe the most effective way to do this is not by ‘unprivileging’ myself; instead, I can choose to do what is within my grasp to change what I see around me, even if it’s just a little bit. My creativity, through writing and improvisation, is a way to harness this privilege and turn it into something that might make a small difference in the world.

The reason I write this is because I’ve stumbled across a campaign that is currently running to encourage authors to boycott the literature festival in Dubai. At first, it made me sad, from every conceivable viewpoint, that such a thing existed. Then, as I read further, it seemed to make sense, that some people would choose to join in. Then, I wondered what I would do, and I decided that boycotting isn’t something I would consider but it’s fair enough someone else did. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and if their moral compass directs them that they just can’t bring themselves to visit a certain place because they believe the bad outweighs the good, then that’s up to them, I thought.

Then there was some Facebook bashing, and I got a bit cross, because the comments began to come across as part-judgy, part-ignorant and part-patronising, and I hate that. As a few more people who have actually been to Dubai voiced the suggestion that actually, maybe boycotting a literature festival wasn’t the most effective way to show dissent for a particular country, the arguments began. A barrage of reasons…it’s not the festival, it’s the sponsor; it’s what they represent, it’s a terrible regime; the festival is sponsored by an airline and so it’s environmentally unethical; the airline is run by a government that doesn’t support LGBT issues; censorship… again, I thought, okay. Fair enough. And then, as these things always do, it got a bit personal. To those who had been to the festival – authors and visitors – it was suggested (no matter what was said to the contrary), that our experience enhanced our white privileged lives without addressing the other issues on the table – ‘sweeping them under the carpet’ in order to serve ourselves. The usual number of people trotted out lines like they wouldn’t be seen dead in ‘a place like that’, everyone there is a money-grabbing wanker etc etc etc. And then someone suggested the lack of culture in Dubai was reason enough not to go. Dubai lacks culture, ergo, boycott a literature festival. 

Listen to yourselves.

I’m not going to bang on about what this one festival has done for Dubai culturally because you either know that because you live there or don’t believe me because you inexplicably ‘hate Dubai’. Actually, yes I am. I know from personal experience it is a springboard for many people from very different walks of life to explore their individual voices in an alternative way. It created a hunger for cultural activities in the city that wasn’t there before. And audiences crave more. They literally cannot get enough. I’ve been on stage in a theatre with standing room only – where people who have never been to a theatre before have stood for two hours just to watch a show. I’ve played to hundreds of people in the crowded streets of the old town. I’ve stood in classrooms and helped bring stories to life – stories of the children’s own creation – in schools bursting with different languages and religions and skin colour. The festival was indirectly a part of what enabled me to do all that, and enabled audiences to begin experiencing new things. The fact of the matter, whether you like it or not, is that five years on from when it started, there is a thriving arts community that wasn’t there before. And by definition, that means people are experiencing new things. In terms of myself, it allowed me to find a way to mix with other people who aren’t exactly like me, and to explore their worlds a little bit – but it also allowed the audiences and schoolchildren I met to explore mine. And that is a Good Thing. I’m proud to have been part of that.

Creativity. This amazing gift we are given is the essence of what makes us human. It empowers people, educates, entertains, and allows us a window onto a different world where the things we don’t/can’t/won’t experience for ourselves in our everyday lives are brought to life for us from the pages of a book, or the scene of a film, or through a painting, a dance, a moment on the stage, or by looking at a photograph or listening to music. As an audience, we learn and grow from these moments, and as the individual creating them, we express our unique point of view, to share and be counted. So what sort of sense is there in boycotting a literature festival? Surely that is censorship of the worst kind? It’s saying the audiences (and let’s forget, for a moment, about the thousands of adults that attend) – the children and young people from every kind of background who wait for this amazing experience of having authors and poets visit them, talk to them about any number of things and explore new worlds with them – it’s saying all these kids don’t deserve a festival which encourages creativity and conversation, because they live in the wrong place. It’s forgetting that these children will one day be grown ups themselves, and that if doors are opened and new worlds are seen through the eyes of their imagination, maybe when they are the ones in charge, their view might be different; they might be the very people to make things better, the way we all want them to be. Those ‘over-privileged Emirati kids’ you don’t want to meet? They are precisely the ones you should be meeting. One day they will be the rule makers and well, wouldn’t it be nice if they were as well-rounded and thoughtful and ‘right-on’ as, say, you? 

They say one person can’t change the world. It’s never really been my thing, and I will hands up say I’m not very good about taking extreme stances on anything, but I agree that protest en masse is sometimes the only way to be heard. And yes, sometimes it works. But a literature festival? Hurting something that’s so precious and relatively fragile – a place where the conventions of normal Dubai society can be set aside and where there might be a single genuine, allowable moment that might change a mind or plant a seed of knowledge inside a young mind – this can only have an outcome that will be damaging in the long run. We should be using our privilege, our education and our social and political freedom to show what being a good citizen of the world looks like – and how can we do that by denying others of ourselves?

We are creative people. Our imaginations know no bounds. Our responsibility as a creative person is to open minds and hearts and fill them with the voices of the world. Each to their own, indeed; but I fail to see how walking away in disgust will help anyone. We should be saying ‘I believe the world can be a better place’, not by holding a banner up at the people in charge of today, but by sharing knowledge, challenging viewpoints and figuring out a new way, a better way, a more creative way to make it actually happen tomorrow.

 

 

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The ones with no choice

Here’s me banging on about how hard my life is. Woe is me. I’ve just moved from a country that gold plates almost everything and am sobbing because I can’t wear my Manolos out on the streets of my new city without ruining the heels. And the new city – well don’t get me started. The weather, the commute, the endless stupidity I feel about not knowing how to do anything; the loneliness of the whole business; the unsettling feelings of homesickness and the shock of re-entry.

Poor me. Poor expat me.

Now imagine, for a second, that I hadn’t got here by first class Emirates, I didn’t move into a very comfortable 4-bed in South West London, that despite needing new carpets and having dubious smells coming from the sink, is pretty luxurious in terms of size and location. Imagine my son wasn’t enrolled in a Very Good School and we didn’t have two brand new cars sitting outside our house. Imagine I wasn’t heading off to the shops this morning to buy warm clothes and new shoes to furnish us for the cooler weather coming. Instead, imagine I’d spent a few years wearing the same clothes over and over. Imagine my life was in danger in the place I called home. Imagine my child couldn’t go to school, and we were scared, and we didn’t have any choice any more, about where to live or not live. Imagine we’d left our home because we wanted to survive.

Imagine I’d arrived on a boat that wasn’t even a boat, to a place that didn’t want me, didn’t know what to do with me, didn’t speak my language, and struggled to find a place for me to go to the toilet or wash or eat or sleep. Imagine that was where I wanted to be, because the only other option was to stay and live in fear for my life, for my children’s lives. Imagine people taking photos of me, staring at me, balking at the smell. Imagine ‘Cathy from Manchester’ moaning about me to a newspaper about how seeing me, and hundreds like me, ruined her holiday.

Imagine I hadn’t made it at all. Imagine I watched my child drown and then I drowned and then we got washed up on a beach for the world’s media to photograph, and we were an issue for journalists to dissect and politicians to proclaim about, while everyone else talked over coffee in their offices and comfortable homes about what a terrible thing it was, and why weren’t we doing more to help, and then going back to about their day because, well, there really wasn’t much anyone can do.

Imagine how terrified I would be, of everything. Of leaving, of being on the water in a boat that isn’t a boat, of arriving, of being turned away. Of thinking life would be better and finding out it isn’t. Of being homeless, sick, cold, hungry and scared. All the time. Of being vulnerable to rape, robbery, prostitution and abuse. Of dying. Of watching my children die. Imagine that, as your expat experience.

Imagine.

Now click here and find out how you can help them, before your coffee gets cold.

An open letter to Ahlan…don’t get ME started…

Dear Ahlan

What an interesting article you published recently, on the agony of flying on planes that have – gasp – children on them.

I love how the author of the column assumed that every child who ever flew on a plane is by default loud and annoying, that all babies scream, and that they, as a childless passenger, were entitled to make us parents sound like the most inconsiderate, incompetent set of people ever to travel the earth. Talk about alienating half your readership, right there. The suggestion that all families could be given a section at the back of the plane was particularly generous. Personally I would prefer the upper deck, if that’s okay, and you can go and sit at the back and inhale 350 people’s farts and bad breath. I also love the assumption that all parents would want to sit together…”somewhere they can sit with other sympathetic parents who understand what it’s like to have a small child, and who won’t tut or glare when the kid goes into siren mode”. Ah yes, you’ve really got the measure of parents there. We don’t just love our own kids and forgive them anything, we love all children. Especially the small ones that cry all the time, or the little gits that run around during a night flight like they own the joint. This is just a suggestion: you might want to observe parents a little better next time you’re on a flight. You might just see that if someone else’s child is screaming, or kicking, or being loud, we don’t generally do much except look smug and thank our lucky stars it’s not ours. How ridiculous, to think we’re all going to club together at the back of the plane, shrug our shoulders, and mutter ‘kids, eh?’ to each other while they run riot on sugar highs and boredom.

You mention that top airlines have created bar areas, massage rooms, and showers on board, so why not soundproofed zones for kids? Great plan. Maybe we should have sections for the business travellers who lie snoring like juggernauts the whole flight too. And one for the people that don’t seem to be able to walk down an aisle in the middle of the night without hugging the backs of all the seats on the way to and from the bathroom. Maybe all the fat people could go in one section in the middle so that the rest of us still have space for our elbows. Ooo, and maybe there could be another part of the plane for people who smell bad. Really?

Flying is a necessary part of life for many people; everyone is different, none of them are perfect, and it is generally annoying for us all, no matter our personal circumstances. That’s what happens when you stick 350 strangers in a tin can and throw them through the air in order to get from A to B. If you don’t like it, take the car, or hire a private jet. But leave us parents out of it. My son has been commuting with me from Dubai to London and the US since he was four months old. Never once has he screamed, never once has anyone had cause to complain about him. I’m not saying there aren’t some horrors out there, but don’t tar us all with the same brush. How about considering that most parents dread long haul flying beyond anything you can possibly imagine, but that many of us have no choice in the matter – and that most of us do our best to make it as pleasurable as possible for everyone – the kids, us, and you included. If you’re going to attempt to take a stand, maybe publish something that offers your opinion on what civil behaviour and parental responsibility should look like on planes to those that need a kick up the backside. It would certainly offer a more positive message than encouraging persecution and segregation based on lifestyle choices. Making the world a better place and all that, don’t you think?

Yours,

Ruby Slippers.

On the buses

We have a bus route coming to our complex. This may not seem very exciting, and actually for me personally, it isn’t. But for my maid it’s the most exciting thing to happen since, well, since she started working here. Historically she has relied on her boyfriend (man with a truck) to pick her up at weekends and take her to see her sister on the other side of town. He works every other weekend so on the ‘off’ weekend she sits in her room for two days, and goes nowhere. He left for Sri Lanka last month and is gone for eight weeks, so the announcement that a bus route is starting as of tomorrow was met with great excitement, and we duly began the process of procuring a bus pass for her as quickly as possible.

Easy, right? Wrong. In order to apply for said bus pass, we needed approximately twice as many forms of ID as it took to buy our house:

– Application form, signed by the applicant and the sponsor

– Passport photo

– Copy of applicant’s visa

– Applicant’s photo ID

– Copy of Sponsor’s passport & visa

– Proof of home ownership

– Letter of authorisation from sponsor (as IF she could get all the rest of this stuff if we DIDN’T authorise it!)

– Administration fee of Dhs 50/ £8 approx.

I particularly love the admin fee. Look how much scanning and photocopying I had to do. They merely took this giant bundle of paperwork, stuck a post-it note on top with our villa number written on it, and told us it would take a week to process. A WEEK.

What I particularly love about this scheme is that it assumes all the users of said bus are leaving our complex to go somewhere, then coming back. On a fail of epic proportions, they have failed to provide anyone with the means to travel in the reverse direction to visit the complex. Which effectively bans my maid and others like her from any kind of social life within the community, which I feel very strongly is their absolute right to have outside of working hours, the same as anyone else. This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this issue. I had to screech at the security office several weeks in a row when she first came to live with us, because despite the fact that I insisted her boyfriend was coming to our house on a private matter, they refused to let him and his truck through, on the grounds that ‘the truck is painted with a logo, madam’.

I understand it is a private community and they don’t want the DVD lady and the carpet man and a thousand landscapers touting for business  each and every day, annoying the residents and clogging up parking bays. But when you have to provide everything but the kitchen sink for a one-way bus pass, I feel things have gone a little far. What a shame, that such a great addition to the community is tarnished by the prejudice that my maid and thousands like her must come up against every day, to feel such a second class citizen that she can’t even ride the bus without our permission.

I hope this bus pass is gold plated.

 

Ode to a Brown Bra

I’m trawling the malls for a new brown bra
Been to seventeen thousand shops so far
I’m not asking for much, just a bra with a tan
But no parachute harness – I’m not a big fan
Upon finding said bra, I will search for my size
And find, yet again, pigs are flying the skies
Is finding a brown bra just not meant to be?
Does EVERYONE in Dubai wear 34D?
There’s the Ultimo, sure, but that isn’t my fate
I don’t want my boobs used for a dinner plate
I just want a bra for all seasons and places
That doesn’t shove bosom in people’s faces
I don’t need strapless, or five-way, or padded
I don’t need patterns or lace to be added
I just want a brown bra, not to fly to the moon
So please, Marks and Spencers, get new stock very soon.

 

*Dedicated to the dancing girls of the BROS 2004 production Singin’ in the Rain

Chicken nuggets or fish fingers?

We’ve just returned from a 3 night break in Ras Al Khaimah, staying at The Banyan Tree in a beach pool villa. Jealous, much? Well in theory, you should be. But how about if I tell you that both me and my husband are sick and kept eachother awake half the night coughing? And that just as we both finally dropped off each night, our darling little boy sleeping at the other end of the room would initiate his much-loved ‘shout out to the masses’ sleep-talkings, and wake us up at least twice more during the night just for sh*ts and giggles? How about the fact that we were summoned daily, exhausted, somewhere between 5.30 and 6.30am, by a little voice announcing he was getting in the bed and then proceeding to jump on us and shout ‘wake up mummy!’ until I gave in and put the light on?

Holidays are certainly not what they used to be. In fact a small part of me that I refuse to acknowledge for fear of never going anywhere ever again says staying at home is significantly easier. In the evenings whist our son slept in the villa we sat in semi-darkness on the somewhat windy and rather cool-for-the-time-of-year beach, eating our room service as fast as possible so we could get back in the warm. Our nightly routine involved silent peeing and tooth-brushing without breathing in the open plan bathroom, followed by dressing in child-proof night gear and reading until we could barely keep our eyes open (approximately 9.30pm). Hardly the stuff of Mills and Boon.

Days we would have traditionally spent lazing on a sun bed or at the spa were instead a frenzy of activities based mainly around trying to ensure our son didn’t hit his head on anything sharp, fall off anything high, or drown in the pool. I had brought a limited number of toys with me on the basis that we would be spending our time building elaborate sand castles and frolicking in the waves. However, the horrific six foot sandbank that greeted us when we walked down to the sea put paid to my romantic notions of wiggling our toes in the gently lapping water – and the dredged sand that made up the ‘beach’ was full of broken shells sharp enough to cut diamonds, and didn’t really lend itself to the reconstruction of Camelot. So we were left with a bit of a gap in the schedule. Fortunately it didn’t matter over such a short time and we compensated with long walks, shell collecting and swimming in the gorgeous little pool on our deck. Aside from the lack of sleep, we had a lovely few days together as a family and it was well worth it to get out of Dubai for a few days.

Frozen Foster Farms breast nuggets.

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner of Champions, apparently

But the food! HOTEL PEOPLE OF THE WORLD: Children cannot eat chicken nuggets and fishfingers for lunch and dinner every day for 3 days, or 5, or a fortnight. Well, actually I’m sure they can – but seriously, this is not the first 5 star hotel to offer such a limited menu for children, and I don’t understand why we as parents accept it and then worse still, pay a premium for it. Why doesn’t anyone ever say ‘we’ll serve your kid whatever you like off the menu, in a half portion’? Or, just a suggestion, how about offering choices that include vegetables or something that’s grilled instead of fried?  How about offering an actual sandwich, with good things inside it, instead of some sloppy greasy melted cheese thing? And why does EVERYTHING have to come with fries?

Putting together a child’s menu appears to be very simple for most establishments. If you can fry it, put it on the list. Ta Da! A typical kids menu is born! So, because I refuse to let my son think he can eat this crap every mealtime when we are on holiday, along with the clothes, toys, books, potty, emergency blow up bed in case he wouldn’t sleep on the hotel bed, his favourite duvet, beach buckets and spades, music, dvd player and ipad, I also brought with me a tin of sweetcorn, some cut up raw veg, fresh brown bread rolls, peanut butter, marmite, jam, raisins, yoghurt, snack bars, fresh blueberries, raspberries, bananas and a couple of pears to fill in the gaps between the fishfingers and chicken nuggets.

For the record, putting together a menu that pleases parents AND children really isn’t all that hard, and the kitchen doesn’t have to work much harder either, nor does it cost them any more than buying in all that frozen rubbish. Below is my suggestion, the start of a campaign to encourage better holiday food for children. If you call yourself 5 star and child friendly, never mind about the kids clubs and the pool – start with the basics of providing good quality food. It would make such a difference.

Meat and 2 veg:1 choice of meat/fish from the following: Grilled chicken, Sausages (proper ones, not bloody hotdogs), Fishfingers, Salmon, Home made chicken nuggets or Home made burger

2 choices from the following: Fries, sweetcorn, tomatoes, baked beans, peas, mashed potato, sweet potato, broccoli, carrots, pasta, noodles, rice

Soup of the day & a sandwich: Choose fillings from Tuna mayo, PB&J, Cheese, Ham, Soft cheese, Egg, Marmite

Pasta: w/sauce options as per the adult menu

Dessert: Yoghurt, Fresh fruit (a variety, not just melon, which no-one ever eats), Ice cream, Apple crumble & custard

Snacks: Crudites with hummus or yoghurt dip

Also available: Mini-pizzas, Omeletes, scrambled egg or boiled egg with toast

See? Not difficult, not expensive, just better. Which is where a luxury hotel should really be aiming for.